Monday, December 31, 2012

Oslo, August 31st (2012)


Oslo, August 31st is Joachim Trier's second feature film and a huge step forward both in story and filmmaking.  Trier's first film, Reprise (2006), was also set in Oslo and while charming at parts, is absent the depth and stark reality of our new protagonist's life.  

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is muddling through a long tenure in rehab.  He is not a picky addict; cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol, and above all, heroin, frequently found their way into his system.  Early in the morning, after 10 long rehab months, Anders purposefully walks down to a lake, fills his pockets with rocks (reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's suicide choice), and shuffles boldly under the water only to resurface a few seconds later sans rocks.  Today is the day of Anders's long wait to briefly re-enter society.  He earns a day pass from the facility and ventures back into Oslo for the sole purpose of a job interview but has wider plans including reunions with old friends and more worrisome, old tempters.  

At 34, Anders is far past the age where recreational drug use was experimental.  There are subtle hints and reminders that Anders was also a low-level dealer and funneled a significant amount of money away from his parents to fund his habit.  Anders first picks his way to the home of his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner).  Thomas now represents everything Anders is not and Anders makes no mistake in noticing it.  Thomas has a home, a wife, two children, and a cushy job in obscure academia.  Anders has absolutely nothing except a crushing mountain of debt, an estranged girlfriend, and wary acquaintances who at one time were probably his friends.

In one stark scene, Thomas points out how empty his life is.  While outsiders may be jealous of him on the outside looking in, his life is actually hollow and draining.  He and his wife no longer have sex, they do not go out anymore choosing instead to play video games, and he is woefully behind in his academic duties.  This is a sly reference to Trier's previous film, Reprise, where a character in a juicy monologue opines how females will eventually sap a man's soul of all invigorating motivation.  There will be no new reading, no new music, and no new ideas because the female by his side will stifle all creativity.  Yes, this is a ridiculously obtuse argument, and the character spouting it ends up contradicting himself in the most blatant of ways, a lavish wedding.  Anders is living proof that even with women in his life at all, he is certainly not reading, writing, or engaging in any culturally-minded activities.  The drugs have seen to that.  

Other than heroin, which is ever-present at the forefront of Anders's mind, suicidal thoughts are right behind it.  It is only through his life choices and actions that Anders ends up where he is now.  Nobody else is at fault and Anders is well aware of this as he meanders around Oslo observing all of the people and their stations in life.  They have friends, family, relationships, jobs, and purposes; Anders has absolutely nothing.  Anders Danielsen Lie played Philip, a main character in Reprise, who lapsed into psychosis over his OCD obsession with his girlfriend.  Anders could easily be Philip five years later after a severe downward spiral into drugs and mayhem.  

It is a guessing games as to whether or not Anders is revisiting his old life to say goodbye one last time or is just testing himself to see if he could tentatively reintroduce himself to his past as his new present and sober self.  Choices are made, friends are re-visited, and a sense of inevitability surrounds Anders.  Danielsen Lie is very good as Anders, quite stoic, matter-of-fact, and lugging around so much baggage about what might have been had he not succumbed to his demons he is nailed to the floor.  Anders used to be a decent writer before it all unravelled but cannot imagine sitting down to compose an original thought now, too much has happened.

The film is aptly named because it takes place in 24 hours, from sunrise to sunrise.  Effective camera work shows off Oslo's notable sights and worse, Anders's memories.  Joachim Trier is Danish, but he is setting himself up to be one of Oslo's greatest cheerleaders since he has spent two films now firmly rooted to its location.  Anders meets a girl at a party and they engage in what could be a promising beginning, a fresh start.  However, Anders has had one too many fresh starts and he knows it.  He is the only author of his life and only he knows its ending.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)


Quentin Tarantino loves revenge as a central theme in his films.  It took two Kill Bill movies to complete Uma Thurman's revenge on her traitorous gang and Inglourious Basterds delightfully reveled in historical fiction as a Jewish woman exacts her revenge on the entire Third Reich leadership in where else, a movie theater.  How could Tarantino possibly top that finish?  How about a freed slave exacting his revenge on white men in the antebellum south?  That is a pretty juicy idea to play around with.

As in most Tarantino films, Django Unchained contains no believable characters, just caricatures who latch on to a few characteristics and sprint towards the extremes with them.  The man who 'unchains' Django is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  A former dentist turned bounty hunter, he is the most polite, progressive, and German killer on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line.  The wanted dead or alive portion on his bounties never actually result in the bounty being roped up and delivered breathing to the local marshal's office.  Instead, they are creatively duped and then riddled with bullet holes before being lashed on to a waiting horse acting as hearse.  Unlike most shoot-em-up westerns though, the victims do not just get shot and fall to the ground.  First, their blood spurts and splashes with noticeable velocity escaping through new holes in their flesh.  The Nazi scalps which Lt. Aldo Raine was collecting in Inglourious Basterds was just a preamble to Dr. Schultz's carnage.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a semi-literate slave with a whole bunch of other skills which would be quite odd for an 1850s field slave to have.  He rides a horse with ease, is an expert sharpshooter, and can latch on to a con man's role with the practiced agility of a pro.  Dr. Shultz and Django do not just dive into situations with guns blazing to kill their quarry, they employ the art of the short con.  To infiltrate Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation to kill the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz poses as a businessman, his usual character, and Django is his valet dressed up looking like a pimp from Black Dynamite.  Remember, these are caricatures, not characters which is what makes Tarantino's film so much fun to watch.  

There is no broader purpose which Django is following though.  He is on a mission to meet his own needs, not to free slaves or further the abolitionist cause as a black John Brown.  Django and his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), were sold at a slave auction to different bidders so now Django must find and rescue her.  Yes, her name is Broomhilda von Shaft.  Unfortunately for the both of them, a sadistic, cruel, and in-depth phrenology aficionado, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), bought Broomhilda and spirited her away to his vast plantation, Candieland.  Yes, Candieland.  Candieland is also home to the most eccentric, odd, and downright laughable character in all of Tarantino's films (including Rose McGowan with her machine-gun leg in Planet Terror), the head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).  

Tarantino wrote Stephen and Jackson plays Stephen as a complete cartoon character.  He is so over the top that Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, and Christoph Waltz all disappear from view when he enters the room even through they are all standing right there.  He is the type of character best situated as the sidekick.  If he had his own movie to carry, the audience would vomit from sheer exhaustion watching him scam, scream, and scurry around the screen.  Jackson's portrayal of Stephen could easily be cited as best or worst supporting actor of the year; this reviewer could be persuaded either way.  Regardless, once you have seen Stephen in Django Unchained, you will never forget him.

Dr. Schultz and Django now plan and perform a long con to get inside Calvin Candie's circle to try and free Broomhilda.  This is where Tarantino takes his time to shock the audience with slavery's barbarity and outright horror.  Up to now, the scenes of slaves were dubious, but almost comic.  Dr. Schultz hands a shotgun to a slave and lets him decide whether or not to kill his owner, Django takes a whip to one of his former whippers, and there is a funny aside about how the Klan's choice of white headgear is extremely hard to see out of of when they go on the attack.  Calvin Candie is being set up as a truly evil plantation owner though.  His hobby is mandingo fighting where he uses his stronger male slaves as gladiators who fight each other to the death in hand-to-hand combat.  One of these fights is filmed to its conclusion for the audience to struggle through.  Later, Calvin orders vicious attack dogs to tear apart a runaway slave which has more stomach-churning screen time than you would think.  A mom and dad brought their toddler to the screening I was in and I hope the little guy was asleep for that part.  I do not envy the nightmares he would take away from the multiple scenes of carnage and gore which serve to remind the audience just how much these human beings were considered to be property.

Also, there is wanton use of the n-word all over the place.  Every single character must utter it at least 20 times, black and white.  The natural tendency would be to tune it out after awhile and for it to be relegated to white noise because it is used so much, but its usage is quite noticeable throughout as I suppose it was back in the 1850s.  The overuse of the n-word has been a criticism levied at Tarantino before, remember his surprising use of it in Pulp Fiction.  He is most likely the only white director who incorporates it so readily in his films, but it has its place in Django Unchained, if at times too much of a place.  

Tarantino films garner certain expectations from the audience.  There will be blood, gore, foul language, witty dialogue, and an homage to earlier films in the genre.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 was in some ways a thank you letter to early martial arts movies, Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a western, both films in the Grindhouse double-feature drew on well, grindhouse films.  Django Unchained is mostly a 1960s spaghetti western.  Franco Nero, the original Django, has a cameo and and Tarantino incorporates a couple Ennio Morricone scores.  If you are a Tarantino fan, you will love Django, if you are not, perhaps you will enjoy another fine Christoph Waltz performance or enjoy an unchained slave take it to the white man. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a more late-teenaged, adult tone compared to The Hobbit which leans towards the children's story end of the spectrum.  When the chief antagonist is a fire-breathing dragon who covets gold and fine gemstones, you are more than likely treading Harry Potter or Narnia waters than swimming in an ocean of truly depraved villains.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its expected sequels will naturally and quite rightly be compared to their decade-old predecessors in terms of filmmaking but also in story.

If Peter Jackson had only adapted the novel into one feature film, then he would probably escape the majority of the criticism about the story; he would be limited to the central plot points concerning Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the 13 dwarves, and their fight to reclaim their mountain home from an invading flying reptile.  However, Jackson carries the trilogy bug in his blood.  He chopped up The Hobbit into three films and rather than adapt the original source material, he created original sequences and included characters only read about in other Tolkien stories, but not in The Hobbit.

As in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit begins in The Shire and in the exact same house.  Jackson's Bilbo creation is much more of a homebody than Frodo.  He enjoys his routine, his quiet solitude, and venturing out to fight a dragon with a clique of dwarves is not on his well-structured and comfortable agenda.  Gandalf (Ian McKellen), one of Middle Earth's meddling wizards, shows up on Bilbo's doorstep with 13 dwarves in tow.  They want Bilbo to sign a contract to join their gang as a burglar, not for his lock picking and thievery skills, but because he is tiny and overlooked by towering trolls and orcs who are slow, plodding, and quite unobservant of wee folk.  Hobbits are perceptibly shorter and frailer than dwarves.

A challenge which must have taken Jackson and his multiple screenwriters considerable time to figure out is telling all 13 dwarves apart.  If the audience continues to play catch up trying to remember who is who it will taken them right out of the movie and be a source of some frustration.  Each dwarf has his one characteristic to distinguish him from his brethren.  There is Dwarf King Thorin (Richard Armitage) who is taller than the rest, has long, black hair and walks around with a regal air about him.  Balin (Ken Stott) is the oldest with a long, white beard, and there is the fat one, the archer, the one with a tattoo on his head, etc…  I could recognize most of the dwarves by the end, but certainly could not match names to all of them.  It is not integral to the story to achieve name and facial recognition for each dwarf; Jackson at least recognized the conundrum and attempts to address the issue throughout the film.   

As Bilbo is compared and contrasted with Frodo, the dwarf committee can and should be sized up with the Lord of the Rings fellowship which, to its credit, was not limited to just dwarves; the fellowship included humans and elves too.  With only one hobbit this time, there is less humor concerning food and break times and without humans and elves there are certain battle capabilities and side issues which are omitted.  One character who does show up again, not part of the fellowship but quite familiar, is Gollum (Andy Serkis).  Gollum is an extremely irritating and grating character.  Listening to him talk, add on the letters -ses to every other word, and peering at his enormous blue eyes bulging out of a sinewy frame was unpleasant for the first trilogy and it feels even more unpleasant now.  Gollum has his role to play with the ring and his more than unhealthy obsession, but that alone does not make him a fan favorite; he is more an entity to endure than enjoy. 

Gollum is not the only familiar character to pop his head up either.  Saruman (Christopher Lee) the wizard returns to play the contrarian, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) the elf is the same wooden figure, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) remains a character who seems to have the potential to solve everyone's problems with an eyelash flutter but is once again shoved in the background, and a new wizard turns up, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).  Radagast lives in the woods and prefers the company of animals to humans.  His sole purpose is to set up the next film installment by calling Gandalf's attention to weird things happening in the woods.  Saruman turns up his nose at Radagast because of his animal preference which is strange; Saruman does not appear to take much pleasure in the company of others either.

There is an option to watch The Hobbit in HFR - high frame rate.  Instead of the regular 24 frames per second (fps) which audiences are accustomed to, Jackson released a version in 48fps which looks much more fluid and smooth to the eye.  While it is much better to watch the 3D version in 48fps, your eyes are not used to watching movies this way.  It is definitely smooth, but it looks cheap.  Nothing about The Hobbit was made on the cheap, but the 48fps makes the New Zealand setting look and feel like a sound stage - or a daytime soap opera.  The 3D effects are much more effective this way; however, in the entire two hour and fifty minute run time, I never got used to the 48fps.  I noticed it the whole time and it took me right out of the movie experience.  I was mindful I was sitting in a theater watching a movie instead of enjoying the feeling of losing myself in the movie.  Those movie-goers who see a lot of movies in the theater should see it in HFR because it is so rare.  Those of you who venture to the cineplex just every now and then, steer clear and make your way to the 24fps showing.  

It is not because The Hobbit was filmed years after the first Rings trilogy which makes it feel like its little brother; it is because of the story.  The characters and themes are less mature; the dwarves in fact are one-dimensional.  Also, it is not its fault, but the wonder and unfamiliarity of Middle Earth is gone for the audience.  We know what the mountains and the fields look like, what bloodthirsty orcs look like, and what the music sounds like.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an example of the law of diminishing returns; it is good to see Middle Earth again and watch a gang of dwarves trek through inhospitable territory, but we've seen it before. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hitchcock (2012)


Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned most of the 20th century.  A biopic covering his beginning, middle, and end would be far too expansive; too much breadth, no depth.  Focusing on the creation, making of, and reception of his most famous film, Psycho, is a logical focal point to study the man; however, Hitchcock has the feeling of a stepping stone towards what will eventually be the definitive work concerning one of the most famous and influential directors of all time.  This particular movie does not achieve that status.

By 1960, Hollywood and its major motion picture studies considered Alfred (Anthony Hopkins) old.  Sure, he was still worth considerable box office gold, but new auteurs were on the horizon ready to claim his mantle as the master of suspense and intrigue.  Fresh off another success with North by Northwest, the studio wants another picture just like it.  They even offer him a shot at the first James Bond film.  Hitchcock was not one to repeat and plagiarize his past work though; he was on the hunt for fresh, new, and most importantly, interesting material.  Most movie studios had already passed on a screen adaptation for the book Psycho which was based on a real Wisconsin man, the mass murderer Ed Gein.  

Paramount Pictures was understandably unenthused about the idea.  Why would Alfred Hitchcock stoop so low as to film a low brow, cheap horror story?  Alfred achieved enough clout by this time though to not necessarily dictate terms to the studio, but to at least force their hands when he wanted to.  Financing the picture himself, he mortgaged his wealth and bet it all on the hunch that he could for once and for all, scare the living hell out of American audiences.  Hitchcock is only 50% about the making of Psycho though.  Alfred's relationship with his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), and their idiosyncratic peccadilloes absorb the other half of the film.

Alma was with Alfred since the beginning of his career.  She was an accomplished writer in her own right, was Alfred's sounding board for his ideas, and was the first person he looked to for approval and opinions concerning his work.  She also had to put up with an extremely stubborn husband who did not physically take care of himself very well, drank too much, ate horribly, and had a wandering eye for his leading ladies.  According to this film, Alfred was in no shape to fully engage in adulterous liaisons, but that did not stop his frequent fantasies about Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and while not addressed in this movie, Tippi Hedren later on.  Alma tolerated these daydreams in stride but now in 1960, she notices she is also advancing in age.  Alfred has stopped looking at her.  One person who does look at her though is her friend and fellow writer, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

Hitchcock sets up parallel instances where both Alfred and Alma tests themselves in the realm of faithfulness and fidelity, in thoughts and in actions.  While these relationship dynamics lend weight and extra dimensions to Alfred and the movie, they are certainly not as interesting to the audience as the trials and tribulations of getting Psycho to mass audiences.  The iron-fisted and backward censors were not about to let Psycho be the first film to feature a toilet on screen, let alone a flushing toilet.  Why on Earth should an American audience be exposed to a ghastly toilet?  Also, even Hitchcock's clever camera angles and tricky editing jump cuts were too close to letting the audience imagine Janet Leigh's breasts in the shower scene.  The screenplay would have been better served if the fight between Alfred and the censors was fleshed out a bit more.

A warning to those who see Hitchcock without having seen Psycho before.  It will serve your understanding and enjoyment much more if you take the time to watch Psycho first.  In fact, if you have not seen the majority of Hitchcock's most famous films (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), do not even bother going to this film.  I cannot imagine you will get very much out of it at all.  For those of us who have seen most of Hitchcock's work, watching Psycho become a movie is quite enjoyable.  Watching Anthony Hopkins parody Alfred is another matter.

The make-up is effective, it is hard to see Anthony Hopkins under all of those layers, but you can certainly hear him.  Alfred Hitchcock had a very distinct accent and way of pronouncing his words.  Hopkins just sounds like Anthony Hopkins trying to sound like Alfred Hitchcock.  This role is so large and momentous that it should automatically garner numerous award nominations, but notice Anthony Hopkins has received none of them.  This is not the fault of the movie, it's just that playing Alfred Hitchcock is immensely challenging and Hopkins does not pull it off very well.  He looks the part but is nowhere close to sounding the part.  

The best thing about Hitchcock coming along now is that it will hopefully remind audiences just how controversial, progressive, and down right shocking Psycho was.  The screeching violins hurting your ears as a you watch a very long, sharp knife plunge over and over again into the heroine's naked flesh in what is supposed to be a safe place, the shower, is an iconic image that all film-goers should be aware of.  This biopic, though, is only for those fans who want to learn a bit more about the genius behind the camera, not for those with only passing interest. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bernie (2012)


A man is on trial for first degree murder in small town Texas.  The prosecutor in the case actually petitions to have the case moved to another jurisdiction because the local townspeople are too sympathetic to the guy who pulled the trigger.  A situation like this does not come along too often; in fact, this may be the one and only time.  Texas is famous for dispensing justice and folk who don't take too kindly to lawbreakers, especially men who shoot an old lady in the back four times at close range.  

This is the crime Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) commits.  In Marjorie Nugent's (Shirley MacLaine) garage in Carthage, Texas, Bernie in a fit of rage picks up a handy rifle and pulls the trigger four times murdering Ms. Nugent.  So why on Earth are the townspeople sympathetic to Bernie and in many cases, on his side.  Well, it appears Bernie is the nicest and most genuine person in the entire town.  As an assistant funeral director, Bernie consoles the grieving, is an expert at funeral preparation and sales, and a master at readying the recently deceased for display.  He leads hymns with his excellent singing voice, brings small gifts to crying widows, and is by far the town's best liked guy.

In his spare time, Bernie directs and stars in town plays, gives pep talks to the little league team, and always has a kind word to say to absolutely everybody.  Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand, is completely despised by the entire town.  After her husband passed away, she took over running the town bank and actually took pleasure in denying loans to customers.  She hurled racial slurs at her gardner, hit the mailman with a broom, and was sued by her own extended family for access to a trust fund.  Only Bernie was able to penetrate her evil shell.  Bernie and Marjorie travelled to exotic places together, always in first class, went out to eat together, and over time, Marjorie became very jealous and controlling of Bernie's person.

There is only conjecture on just how far their relationship ever went.  This film provides us with no definitive clues on any hint of sexuality between the two, but after awhile, Bernie (the nicest guy in the world) finally ran out of nice.  Murders are extremely rare in Carthage, Texas.  The local district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), eagerly steps in front of the news cameras to paint Bernie as a conniving, thieving, back-shooting scoundrel who preyed on older women.  The problem, though, is that the townspeople know better and this is exactly why Bernie is such a surprisingly effective and enjoyable film.  

The townspeople are interviewed as if in a documentary and each of them is a colorful character with fascinating information to explain to the camera about Bernie, Marjorie, and East Texas lifestyle.  They each have specific examples of how Bernie helped them out during tough times and about their calamitous run-ins with Marjorie.  Pointing the camera directly at the actual Carthage townspeople was a stroke of genius by writer/director Richard Linklater.  He has written brilliant scripts before (Before Sunrise) and Bernie continues this streak.  The script is based on a 1998 magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth who luckily stumbled upon a mesmerizing case study.  

Also, casting Jack Black as Bernie is probably the best casting idea of any film this year.  Linklater worked with Black before in The School of Rock (2003) and Black here has all the room in the world to play around with and display his musical chops.  His song and dance routine of 76 Trombones right after he kills Marjorie is a particular highlight.  Rarely will an audience have as much fun watching a film about a middle of nowhere town and a somewhat regular crime.  Even though Bernie was released earlier this year, it is picking up well-deserved nominations for Jack Black's definitive and memorable performance.  Bernie is a small film and didn't last very long in the few theaters it was shown in; however, you should really take the time and effort to watch it; you'll be glad you did. 

Anna Karenina (2012)


Joe Wright should win the award for most courageous director of the year.  The majority of Anna Karenina is filmed in a theater with all of the sets built on and around a main stage including a skating rink, a grassy field, a snowy train station, and even a horse race.  It is not claustrophobic, but it can get a bit dizzy.  The camera frequently spins around in a circle to clear off the previous set and introduce a new locale.

Considering that the source material is a very long and deep work of 19th century Russian literature, the film's pace is throttled full speed ahead.  It is not quite frenetic, but it is noticeably fast in order to condense a considerable amount of story into a little over two hours.  Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001) immediately jumps to mind.  It does not sprint as fast as Moulin Rouge! did in its first half hour, but it is not lapped by it either.  Also, the atmosphere (in the first half of the film) is deliberately light and comic.  The choreographed movement approaches farce at times which is most unexpected considering the main themes of Anna Karenina are adultery, hypocrisy, lust, and love.

Anna (Keira Knightley) and her senior statesman husband Aleksei Karenin (Jude Law) live extremely comfortable lives in the upper crust of St. Petersburg society.  In overt foreshadowing of events to come, Anna takes off for Moscow to repair her brother, Count Oblonsky's, (Matthew Macfadyen) marriage to Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) due to his frequent infidelities.  She urges Dolly to forgive and forget; why rock the boat?  If she does not forgive Oblonsky, then there will surely be a divorce, scandal, the loss of position, and what could truly be worse than that?  Well, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is about to show Anna just how low she is willing to travel all in the name of true, romantic love.

Karenin is 20 years Anna's senior but he has an impeccable character, deep honor, is a good father and husband, and is regarded as saintly by his peers.  He is about to become the patron saint of cuckolds quite soon.  Vronsky embodies most of the characteristics which Karenin lacks.  He is a womanizer, has loose morals, and emerges as a fop, a dandy, a mere boy compared to Anna.  He is a gnat buzzing around her perfectly coiffed hair yet for reasons neither we nor Anna understands, she cannot take her eyes off of him.  Vronsky is expected to propose to Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) but all of those emotions vaporize in an instant when Vronsky lays eyes on Anna.

It is the chemistry and emotion between Anna and Vronsky where Anna Karenina falls flat and makes you yearn for Moulin Rouge!'s much more powerful love triangle.  The audience feels the passion between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, the penniless writer and the courtesan who are repeatedly torn apart by the evil duke.  Never once will the audience here understand the decisions Anna makes regarding Vronsky.  He is a blatant cad and nuisance threatening the very essence of Anna's social status and ultimately health as he successfully tears her away from her husband who views the whole affair a slight against the almighty himself.

Joe Wright also chose to cast British and Scottish actors and have them use their native accents.  None of the leads are Russian and there are no Russian accents.  I wonder if native Russians will feel that one of their sacred texts has been transformed into British soap opera.  The light and festive atmosphere in the first half of the film works quite well.  The pace keeps the audience interested and on their toes to try and keep up with the incessant scene changes and time jumps.  The second half naturally slows down as the drama and tension mount and then the final half hour takes a direct nose dive off a cliff.  Anna discovers the hypocrisy of Russian society which excludes her yet she does not function very well outside of it.  She becomes paranoid and loses all of the grace and charisma her character displayed early on which garnered our sympathy for her.  Yes, the film dutifully follows the novel's story line, but that does not automatically maker Anna's character arc a joy to sit through.

The most important part of all of the pieces which must come together to successfully transform one of the most popular and beloved novels of all time to the big screen is the screenplay and the choices the writer makes.  Tom Stoppard obviously could not include everything, but he surely gave it his best effort.  He almost forces Joe Wright's hand to move the film along so fast because he chose to keep so much of the original story into this one.  Yes, Anna Karenina is one of the most courageous films of the year if not the bravest over all, but it is not one of the best.

The idea to stage most of the action on a stage itself is intriguing and works.  Joe Wright most likely has Lars von Trier to thank for that; there are more than enough similarities to Dogville (2003) to make that connection.  The Baz Luhrmann influence is also evident.  Russian literature can easily become dry and monotonous but Stoppard and Wright have done their best to blow the dust off an old story and drag it forward into 2012.  Unfortunately, the casting of Vronsky and the way his character comes across does not work and dramatically drives a stake into what could have been an exceptional adaptation.  A worthy effort, but it falls behind at the finish line.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Sessions (2012)

Ben Lewin’s screenplay is based on a 1990 magazine article by Mark O’Brien titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  Mark contracted polio as a six year old and while he still has feelings and bodily sensations, his muscles do not move and he spends the vast majority of his life in an iron lung.  Attentive caregivers wheeling him from place to place on a gurney and a very active mind help Mark graduate from college and even make a living as a poet and journalist.  However, there is nothing deeper than that, no romantic relationships, no deep emotions, and obviously no sex.

Even though he is immobile, Mark (John Hawkes) still has the body, urges, and curiosity of a man.  In 1988, Mark is now 38 years old and a virgin.  While interviewing folks for an article about the disabled and sexuality, Mark discovers that all sorts of people with disabilities still have sex lives; maybe he can try it out for himself.  Enter Cheryl (Helen Hunt) the sex surrogate.  The what?  The sex surrogate, not the prostitute.   Cheryl will only see her clients a maximum of six times and lays down a couple of other rules during session one which technically put her on another plane than a prostitute, but not necessarily that far off from one either.  Luckily, Mark lives in Berkeley where one could probably locate a sex surrogate more easily than in say, North Dakota. 
A further twist is Mark is a devout Catholic.  Before he engages in these six sessions with Cheryl where the goal is actual sexual penetration, he wants the blessing of the church.  Father Brendan (William H. Macy) is probably the most liberal priest is the history of priests.  He has long, wavy hair, sports a bandana when he is out and about, brings a six pack to the party, and is probably the only priest who ever truly fit in with the Berkeley atmosphere.  Mark becomes a sort of vessel for Father Brendan as well because both men are technically celibate.  Mark desires to explore the uncharted waters of sexual contact and Father Brendan is more than willing to pay his undivided attention while Mark describes the delicate details of copulation. 
John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien is as far removed from his characters in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene as he could get.  He is not physically and emotionally menacing as he was in those films and has his work cut out for him since he can only use his face muscles and witty words to communicate with those around him.  At 49, Helen Hunt is probably the bravest actress in Hollywood to accept the role of Cheryl.  She spends a considerable amount of time undressing and in the altogether.  There is nothing particularly erotic about it though.  There is no accompanying musical score to set the mood or darker lighting to clue the audience in that they should find these scenes sexy.  In fact, this is some of the unsexiest nudity you will ever see.  It is certainly not because Helen Hunt is unattractive, far from it, the woman obviously spends a considerable amount of time in the gym.  It is because the sessions between Mark and Cheryl are not specifically about the physical act.  They are more about trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin – even if that skin is attached to limbs which cannot move.
There are some unintentional similarities with Hunt’s character here and with her character, Carol, from As Good as It Gets (1997).  Both women become attached to men who have a very specific disability which obstructs their relationship with her.  Here, Mark is immobile and requires constant attention from a caregiver but he is emotionally connects with Cheryl and maintains a much needed sense of humor about the whole thing.  Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, has a severe case of OCD and a demeanor which automatically repels those of the opposite sex but through a series of moments which establish trust, emotions, and being comfortable in your own skin, end up breaking through certain barriers.
The Sessions was a hit with audiences on the festival circuit and is garnering multiple award nominations for both Hawkes and Hunt.  While there is enough dramatic impact to connect the audience with the characters, the film feels a bit too light to truly make an impact.  The scenes between Father Brendan and Mark are amusing as the priest tries to navigate some very frank sexual discussions but the meat of the film is the one-on-one time between Mark and Cheryl.  Those are the takeaways the audience will remember long after awards season has come and gone.