Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

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Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *

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Eye In The Sky

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When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.

This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.

While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.

Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”

You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.

Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.

Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”

Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.

It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.

The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.

“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.

By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *