‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is Just the Documentary We Need in Divisive Times

Wont You Be My Neighbor poster

I was one of the many who got exposed to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” at a very young age, and I still vividly remember watching its host greeting us with the same song while taking off his coat and changing his shoes. Since then, I have become far more familiar with the show’s parodies, especially the brilliant ones by Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, to where it seems much easier to ridicule someone who encourages us to see the best in humanity instead indulging in its worst qualities. If Fred Rogers were to start his show today, I’m not sure if he would have had the same impact and instead be a subject of endless ridicule and innuendos.

Well, the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows how Fred Rogers’ good intentions never led him in that direction. The doc shows how he came to inspire generations of children to love one another and to see the good in life even when things seem so bleak and scary. While many have since tried to tarnish his legacy and make him look like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Neville reminds us of what a good man he was and of how he never lost sight of the strong values he instilled in others.

We learn Rogers was an ordained minister and about to enter the seminary when he discovered the existence of television. Although he initially hated this invention and described it as being “awful,” he quickly came to see it as something he could use to his advantage. With “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he used television as a way of helping children through what he called “the modulations of life,” and the lessons he imparted were profound as he dealt with topics other children’s programming would never dare touch.

It’s fascinating to watch the beginning of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as it debuted back when everything on TV was in black and white. The production values proved to be very low and, unlike Jim Henson, he was not out to break the bounds of puppetry or technology. Instead, this show was an exercise in simplicity as the use of a simple ordinary neighborhood and a land of make believe was more than enough to draw in a large audience as the show proved to be imaginative enough as he probed the more unsettling issues life has to offer.

Rogers didn’t hesitate to deal with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, nor did he try to ignore the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle when it exploded. The way he approached these events and issues was almost subversive as he dealt with them in a way which wasn’t necessarily direct, but which acknowledged the trauma many around the world felt. As always, he encouraged us to find ways to channel our anger, despair and sadness into something positive, and his words always rang true.

With people like Fred Rogers, I keep waiting for the seams to show in this documentary as no human being can ever be this perfect. We are all flawed in one way or another, and he certainly is no exception. In an interview with Francois Clemmons, the African-American actor and singer who played Officer Clemmons on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Clemmons talks about when Rogers confronted him over his visiting a gay bar and asked him never to go there again. Rogers’ fear was one of the program’s sponsors, Johnson & Johnson, would pull their advertising away if they realized one of the stars was a gay man. I figured this would lead to the exposure of Rogers’ bigotry, but Clemmons says while Rogers advised him to keep his sexuality in the closet, Rogers never judged him over it even if his religion may have, and that he showed his love to him in such a way no one had before.

Looking at the scenes shown here from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reminded me of how the lessons Rogers gave us proved to be as profound as they were subversive. To protest the treatment of African-Americans being thrown out of “white-only” swimming pools, he is shown in one episode with his feet in a tub of water, and he invites Officer Clemmons to put his feet in as well when he drops by. When the show aired in 1968, the Vietnam War was being fought overseas and he dealt with it in his land of make believe where King Friday XIII kept fighting against change and peace. In fact, Neville reminds us how this show dealt with topics like war, divorce and even the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Does any of today’s children’s programming do this? If so, please tell me because I can’t think of any single show which does.

Neville touches on Rogers’ own childhood very lightly to where only so much is said about it. We learn how he grew up in a household where he was never allowed to be angry as a kid, and of how he spent a good portion of his life feeling like he didn’t fit in anywhere. Indeed, these struggles made for intelligent fodder on his show as he talked about different ways to deal with anger, and one of the most heart-rending moments in this documentary comes when Henrietta Pussycat asks if she was a mistake. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t just deal with world and personal issues in an intelligent way, but in a brave one as well.

Few, if any, people can ever lay claim to being too good to be true, and Fred Rogers is shown without a doubt to be good and very true. So, it is painful to see others attempt to rewrite his legacy in an effort to change the narrative of history, and we see this in a FOX News segment in which commentators accuse Rogers of destroying the childhood of many by telling kids they were all special as if it were the equivalent of child abuse. These days, most people will not allow themselves to believe any person could be so well-meaning and thoughtful as they always suspect a do-gooder of being up to something devious.

There is a scene where we see Rogers in a solitary state as if the cruelty of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Were he alive today, I wonder how he would feel about the current political havoc we are suffering under as many of the things he fought against like racism and bigotry have made an unwelcome comeback as they serve as a cruel reminder of how history repeats itself. I would like to think Rogers would have given us ways to overcome this endless stream of negativity, but we see his faith being tested constantly to where he must have been constantly exhausted by all the terrible things he was forced to endure.

While watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I was reminded of what an English teacher in my freshman year of college once said:

“This is a generation which has been robbed of its innocence. We have all been mediatized.”

Keep in mind, she said this back in the mid-1990’s before the internet and cell phones became the things they are today, so the damage was already being done. These days we are led to believe more in the worst of people instead of the best, and we are more fascinated with the skeletons in a closet than in good deeds. One of my childhood heroes, Bill Cosby, a man who made us laugh endlessly and gave us life lessons we never forgot, has since been revealed to be a misogynist, a sociopath and a sexual predator who will soon be sent to prison for his crimes. His legacy is now forever tarnished to where much of what he taught us will be permanently lost to future generations.

This all makes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” an especially important document of a man who left an indelible mark on our lives. While many of our heroes let us down in thoughtless and horrible ways, Fred Rogers never did. He stayed true to himself, and he never lost sight of how children have very deep feelings and needed guidance in a world which can be very complicated to say the least. This is a life worth celebrating, and Neville gives us many reasons to celebrate Rogers’ life as the lessons he taught us, however dated they may seem today, are ones we need to pass on to others.

Another thing I was reminded of was the “Hate Crimes” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” in which Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss investigate the murder of a man they are led to believe was homosexual. By the end of the episode, it is revealed the man was not gay, and they both discuss the effect this case has had on them:

Pembleton: “I broke the first rule of being a detective. I assumed that Zeke Lafeld was homosexual.”

Bayliss: “Well, it’s what people do, Frank. It’s human nature.”

Pembleton: “Yes, it is human nature to kill someone simply because their sexual orientation is different.”

Bayliss: “People get afraid. Threatened.”

Pembleton: “People? That’s you and me, Tim. Grown-ups. Why is it that children don’t care about such things?”

Bayliss: “As adults we get socialized. We learn to behave.”

Pembleton: “No, no, no. We learn to hate.”

Indeed, Pembleton’s last line above speaks to an inescapable truth. However, looking at Rogers’ life through this amazing documentary and of the infinitely positive effect he had on so many makes me believe he never learned to hate, ever. If he did have any negative emotions inside of him, he certainly found creative ways to rid himself of them, and he shared them with his audience in the hopes they would focus more on the positive instead of the negative. Maybe he was different than most people but thank goodness for that. Thank goodness we got to meet Fred Rogers and be his neighbor, and thank goodness we have this documentary which pays loving tribute to his memory.

I think it’s only fair to end this review with one of Rogers’ most famous quotes as it still resonates deeply today:

“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now…”

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Tully’ Finds Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody Creating Unforgettable Cinema Once Again

Tully movie poster

Okay, as I write this review for “Tully,” the latest collaboration between filmmaker Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, I have to confess I am not a parent. I have not experienced restless nights with a crying newborn who constantly needs a bottle of milk or a quick diaper change, and if I ever do become a parent, I am certain I will deal with it as well as my friends with kids have (which is to say, not at all). But after watching “Tully,” I feel confident in saying it is one of the more honest depictions of what a mother goes through before, during and after she gives birth. Whereas most movies conclude with the birth of a child, this one starts with one and goes from there.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of two and with a third on the way. Her belly is so big to where she looks ready to burst at any second, and we also see how overwhelmed she is with everything and anything. Her son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) is an overly-sensitive boy who freaks out loud noises he is exposed to, and she is forced to give him more attention at the expense of her daughter Mia (Lia Frankland). When Marlo visits the principal at Jonah’s school and tells her this third child is “such a blessing,” you can tell she doesn’t fully believe it.

When Marlo does give birth to a girl she names Mia, it is one of the more unique birth scenes in movies. Most filmmakers treat the arrival of a newborn with unfettered joy, but “Tully” treats it dispassionately as Marlo is too wiped out and depressed to be happy about anything. For a moment, I feared this movie would venture into “We Need to Talk about Kevin” territory, but neither Reitman or Cody are out to make this story about a sociopathic child.

From there, Reitman presents us with a furious montage of Marlo constantly getting up in the middle of the night to take care of her crying baby, feed her, change her diapers (always an unappealing task), and pump milk out of her breasts. Sure, Marlo does have a loving husband in Drew (Ron Livingston), but he has yet to fully see the heavy toll motherhood is taking on her. It’s an unnerving montage as we keep waiting for Marlo to explode in frustration, and when she eventually does, you cannot blame her.

Marlo’s brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), comes to her rescue by offering to hire a night nanny. Marlo is at first very hesitant to let Craig do this as the thought of anyone else raising her children is terrifying, but one day after she is unable to stop Mia’s crying, she relents. The night nanny comes in the form of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a youthful woman who quickly proves to be wise beyond her years. Once she comes into Marlo’s life, things begin to change for the better, but as the movie goes on, you wonder more about who Tully is and if she is too good to be true.

Watching “Tully” reminded me of many scenes in movies and television where I witnessed a mother losing her patience. We watched Marge Simpson roar like a lion at anyone who couldn’t possibly understand her frustrations, we were taken aback when Dee Wallace yelled at her son “alright I’ll get your daddy!” while being stalked by a rabid St. Bernard in “Cujo,” and we watched helplessly as Brie Larson tried to explain to her son what is really going with them in “Room.” Mothers will often explode in frustration, and many of the best movies about parenting portray this. As we see Marlo get upset with her kids, it is highly likely we will be reminded of the agony we put our own mothers through to where a long overdue apology may be required from us. “Tully” has several moments like these, and they are fully earned throughout.

Theron has long since proven to us what a phenomenal actress she can be. As Marlo, she gives a fully realized performance as a mother who looks like the joy she has for life has been completely sucked out of her. The Oscar-winning actress makes you feel the pain of Marlo’s situation as the character has long since reached her breaking point to where she seems like she cannot take another challenge thrown in her general direction. As the movie goes on, we see Marlo rise out of her depressed state to where she experiences happiness for what seems like the first time in ages. Theron makes us feel every note of Marlo’s anguishes and triumphs to where we cannot come out of this motion picture saying we were not the least bit moved.

As the night nanny, Mackenzie Davis proves to be such a luminous presence as Tully to where we realize this movie doesn’t just need her, it deserves her. A modern-day Mary Poppins, Tully predicts Marlo’s every move and need and gives her just what she needs to make it to the next stage in her life. Davis is best known for her work on “Halt and Catch Fire” and for appearing in one of my favorite movies of 2017, “Blade Runner 2049.” She gives off such a warm glow in “Tully” to where you just want to hug here and never let her go.

I also have to give credit to Ron Livingston who plays Marlo’s husband, Drew. It could have been a thankless role of a husband and father completely ignorant of his wife’s suffering, but the “Office Space” actor makes him more than the average movie dad. Even as Drew loses himself in video games which have him battling and killing zombies, Livingston makes us see he is a man with a good heart even with all his flaws. In his penultimate scene, Livingston doesn’t make Drew into a total schmuck who berates his wife when things go haywire, but instead into a spouse eager to admit he doesn’t know everything his wife is going through and is desperate to hear her out. I love it when Livingston says “I love us” instead of “I love you” as it shows the perspective and honesty Reitman and Cody are committed to giving this particular parental adventure, and it makes this moment between these two characters all the more special.

If I have any problems with “Tully,” they come in the second half when revelations are made to where we have no choice but to question everything we just saw I would tell you which movies these revelations reminded me of, but this would be giving away way too much. But while these revelations could have wrecked any other motion picture, they do little to take away from this one.

“Tully” marks a big comeback for Reitman and Cody after a few years of cinematic misfires. “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children” put a few dents in Reitman’s resume as a director, and Cody’s directorial debut “Paradise” and screenplay for “Ricki and the Flash” (0ne of Jonathan Demme’s last films before his death) were ill-received to put it mildly. But when these two artists come together, they create something which is never easily forgotten.

Reitman makes the struggles these parents go through all the more vivid without making them seem the least bit glamorous. “Tully” does not have the look of a motion picture to where you feel like you are watching one, but instead of a real life setting with all its messiness and imperfections on display. At times, I felt like I was watching a home movie, and this made everything I saw feel all the more powerful.

As a writer, Cody still comes up with some classic zingers like “abandoned trash barge” or describing someone as a “book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders,” but her screenplay also shows her rising to another level of thoughtfulness and maturity. Being the mother of three children herself, Cody clearly understands the journey such a person ends takes to where the mother/newborn connection is not forged right away. There has been some controversy over “Tully’s” portrayal of mental illness, and it is never made clear if Marlo is suffering from post-partum depression or something similar. Cody, however, is not out to make Marlo a special case study, but instead to share the challenges she was forced to overcome to be the mom she is today.

I think it is more than appropriate that “Tully” has arrived in theaters just in time for Mother’s Day. Lord knows we owe our mothers a great deal of gratitude for all they have done for us, let alone all they have gone through to get us to where we are today. Sure, dads deserve a lot of credit too, but being a mother comes with a lot more challenges and obstacles to overcome. If this Reitman/Cody film cannot make you see this, then what will?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Mike Leigh Transports Us to Another Time in ‘Mr. Turner’

Mike Leigh on set of Mr. Turner

English filmmaker Mike Leigh, the man behind such masterpieces as “Secrets & Lies” and “Naked,” takes a stroll back in time with “Mr. Turner.” It stars Timothy Spall who gives one of the very best performances of 2014 as J. M. W. Turner, the landscape painter who became famous for his work in the 1800’s during the Romantic period. But as brilliant an artist as Turner was, he was also a controversial figure due to his eccentric behavior. He was full of great passion and could be very generous, but he was also quite selfish and anarchic. Leigh’s movie looks at the different aspects of Turner’s personality and how it came to inform the paintings which he became remembered for.

One of the things which really struck me about “Mr. Turner” was how fully Leigh sucked us into the time period of the 1800’s to where it felt like we were really there. From start to finish, it never felt like I was watching a movie but experiencing something very unique. Now there have been many period movies in the past few years but watching “Mr. Turner” made me realize how artificial many of them have been. They take you back in time, but there’s something very modern about their presentation which reminds you that you’re just watching a movie. This made me wonder how Leigh had succeeded in taking us back in time so effectively with this film.

Mr. Turner movie poster

I got the chance to ask Leigh about that while he was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. In describing how he perfectly captured the period “Mr. Turner” takes place in, he pointed out why authenticity is missing in so many other movies these days.

Mike Leigh: Well to be honest with you, apart from anything else, this is a function of strong views I have about period films. You get any number of period films where they say, let’s not have period language. The audience can’t deal with that. Let’s make it contemporary then the audience can access it. Let’s not make the women wear corsets because it’s not sexy, etc., etc., etc. Now the principle here with this film and with “Topsy-Turvy” and with “Vera Drake” which was also period but here not least is we said okay, let’s do everything we can in every aspect from the performance to the language to the frocks, to the props, to the places, to everything and to make it really possible for the audience to feel they have got into a time machine and have gone back and experienced it. Okay, there’ll be things people say that’s strange and you don’t quite get (what they’re saying), but that doesn’t stop people getting what that means. In fact, that smell of antiquity in some way makes it all the more plausible. I can imagine Hollywood executives being pretty twitchy about the pig’s head being eaten, but that’s what they did.

I keep thinking about “L.A. Confidential” which took place 1950’s Los Angeles but of how its director, Curtis Hanson, didn’t let the actors be governed by the period it took place in. Granted, the contemporary feel didn’t take away from that movie, but that’s the exception. With “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh shows us we don’t have to give every period movie a contemporary feel, and this is what makes it such a brilliantly vivid movie to watch. You come out of it feeling like you lived through part of the 19th century, and very few filmmakers can pull off such a feat these days even with the biggest of budgets.

“Mr. Turner” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Theory of Everything’ Gives Us the Stephen Hawking We Never Got to Know Until Now

The Theory of Everything movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2014. I am posting it here out of respect for Stephen Hawking who just passed away in March 2018 at the age of 76. Once diagnosed with ALS, he was expected to live only a few years more, but he succeeded in living on despite what the disease did to his body, and he lived one hell of a life. RIP Stephen.

It is shocking to see Stephen Hawking, as played by Eddie Redmayne, riding around recklessly on his bicycle at the beginning of “The Theory of Everything.” We have long since gotten used to seeing him in his motorized wheelchair as ALS robbed him years ago of the ability to move around on his own, and we all know the sound of his computerized voice which has provided us with an insight to his brilliant mind and allowed him to provide lyrics to Pink Floyd songs. But this movie reminds us he was not always like this, and that there was someone in particular who saved his life in more ways than one.

“The Theory of Everything” is based on the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” which was written by his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, and it focuses on their courtship which took place during their time as students at Cambridge University. Stephen looks like a perfectly dressed nerd who has the appearance of someone destined never to have any luck with women, and yet he still manages to catch the eye of the beautiful Jane (may we all be this lucky). At first it looks like an ill-suited coupling as Stephen is a student of physics while Jane’s main studies are in romantic languages. She believes in God, but Stephen’s love of science appears to imply he does not. We watch as they come to love and understand how the other thinks, and the way it is presented to us is both lovely and very believable.

But of course, we all know what will happen to Stephen eventually, and it is shown here in excruciating detail as he suddenly trips and falls down right on his head (ouch). Upon discovering he has ALS and told he has only a couple of years to live, Stephen finds himself shying away from everyone around him including fellow students, professors and even Jane as he desperately doesn’t want to be a pity case for anyone. But Jane has fallen deeply in love with Stephen, and she is not about to give up on him because there is too much to lose.

It’s hard not to think of movies like “A Beautiful Mind” while watching “The Theory of Everything” as both feature strong female characters determined to save their afflicted husbands from the diseases which appear all but fatal. For a time, it looks like this film will be no different in the way it portrays the strained relationship Stephen and Jane as they sacrifice so much to make things work between them. But as the movie goes on, it defies conventions and shows us a relationship which does suffer, but any impediments thrown into their path do nothing to tear apart the infinite respect they have for one another.

The eyes of the world are on Eddie Redmayne right now who as his performance here is utterly astonishing. I would love to ask about how he went about portraying Stephen’s bodily deterioration because he achieves doing so in a way which feels painfully real, and it’s amazing what he’s able to convey when Stephen is no longer able to communicate vocally (at least, until he gets that computerized voice). We always talk about how certain performances are more about imitation when it comes to playing characters based on real people, but Redmayne inhabits Stephen to such an amazing effect to where I found it impossible to label his performance as being one of mere imitation. Even as ALS continues to ravage his body, Redmayne makes the case for why Stephen remains such a respected individual to this very day as well as one who continues to fight the odds.

And let’s not forget the fantastic performance by Felicity Jones who portrays Jane Hawking as the lovely and strong-willed woman she is. While it may look like she has the easier role to play, Jones has an equally challenging role as she shows the unending struggles and sacrifices Jane went through to keep Stephen alive. It’s painful to watch Jane as she uses an alphabet sign to communicate with Stephen after his tracheotomy, and Jones makes you feel her pain as she wonders if she has suddenly taken too much away from him.

“The Theory of Everything” was directed by James Marsh who previously made “Man on Wire,” the Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two World Trade Center buildings in New York. Marsh does excellent work in keeping all his actors in check to where they never go for scene-hogging moments of an embarrassingly dramatic nature. Truthfully, it is the ordinary moments of these characters lives which are the most fascinating to watch, and Marsh succeeds in taking us back in time to a most romantic period in these couple’s lives.

The other great thing is how Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who spent ten years trying to get this movie made, refused to let the audience look at Stephen Hawking as if he’s a complete invalid. Despite the damage ALS has done to his body, Stephen still managed to live a full life which has included two wives and three children, and it didn’t stop him from doing his work which eventually led to the publication of his novel “A Brief History of Time.” Heck, he even got to guest star opposite Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” What more could someone ask for?

“The Theory of Everything,” is by no means a movie which falls victim to conventions or clichés. It presents us with a marvelous story about two people who come to love one another for their thoughts and minds, and of how their love helped them through various struggles which would have worn anyone else out in less than a year. It also contains some of the best performances of 2014 from Redmayne and Jones who are as brave as they are daring. Portraying real-life people onscreen is always a challenge, but they both took roles based on very well-known individuals and succeeded in making them their own.

Seriously, “The Theory of Everything” is one of the best movies of 2014 that I have seen and it is deserving of many of the accolades it has received.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is Wonderfully Unnerving

The Beguiled 2017 poster

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a movie I would describe as being wonderfully unnerving. Coppola takes her precious time setting up the story to where, when the situation worsens, we are left wondering how the characters can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. In the process, as the situation everyone is involved becomes increasingly chaotic, I couldn’t help but laugh. In a drama, this can be bad as a serious story which becomes laughable means the filmmakers failed in some way, but the laughs here serve as a release because the intensity of the story reaches a fever pitch to where we are unsure of how else to react. Plus, these are the kind of laughs which stick in your throat, and this means you would not laugh at what is going on here were this any other situation.

The word beguiled means being captivated, charmed, delighted, enthralled or entranced, and we see all of this on display right from the start. The movie is based on the novel “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan which in turn was made into a movie in 1971 directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. But while Hollywood has been remake happy for far too long, we know Coppola is going to take this material and make it her own. Plus, unlike other remakes, this one does not serve as a setup for a franchise desperate to match Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

“The Beguiled” takes us back to the year 1864, three years into the Civil War, in Virginia. While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and takes him back to the boarding school she is staying at. It is a Southern girls’ boarding school which still has a few students hanging around even as many others have since gone back home, and they live a secluded lifestyle which keeps them from the front lines. Regardless, we can all hear the gunshots and explosions going off in the distance which remind us that while the danger might be far away, it could always spill over to their location at any given moment.

As John recuperates from his injuries, he gets to know the girls at the school much better. They include the headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the rather quiet Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the teasingly playful Alicia (Elle Fanning). Time goes on, and John begins to slowly insinuate himself into the girls’ lives as he senses their needs and desires, some of which have long since been repressed. Sexual tension is definitely in the air as the ladies look longingly at John, and Edwina in particular is looking for a way to escape the secluded existence she has been trapped in, but we can all sense from the start that things will not culminate in a satisfactory solution for anyone.

What is brilliant about Coppola’s direction is how she hints at the longings of each character just from a look in their eyes. Furthermore, she is not quick to pass judgment on any of the characters to where we are left to make up our own opinions about them and their actions. Of course, how we view them ends up saying more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. Whereas Siegel’s take on “The Beguiled” may have been quick to cast John McBurney as a villain, Coppola’s version leaves you to decide this for yourself as Farrell gives us a man who is thankful for the help he has received and also unable to keep his libido in check (that’s what I think anyway).

“The Beguiled” reunites Coppola with actresses she has worked with previously. Dunst starred in her films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” and Fanning co-starred in “Somewhere” when she was just 11 years old. Here, they both get to act against type in a way which makes us appreciate their talents in a way we should have already. Dunst, who has played extroverts in a beautifully gleeful way, gives us a repressed and longing performance as Edwina, and it makes us question whether the perspiration on her face is the result of humidity or her strong desires she can only hide for so long. As for Fanning, she gets to portray a young woman entering her sexually aware phase in life, and she clearly relishes in playing someone ever so eager to explore her sexuality with a man, any man.

Coppola also gets to work with Kidman who plays someone religiously stern, but even John can see the longing in heart for something different. Kidman has always been a brilliant actress, and she has not lost any of her power as this movie shows. In her scenes with Farrell, she exhibits a desire she never has to spell out for the audience, and the scene where they are face to face is a wonderfully tense scene as you wonder if they will or they won’t. And as the movie reaches its unnerving climax, it is a gas to see her the devilish look on her face as she calculates how to best deal with the school’s unwanted guest.

After all these years, Farrell remains an infinitely charismatic actor, and he seduces not just the ladies in the movie but the audience as well with what seems like relative ease. While the rest of us men struggle to attract the opposite sex, he succeeds in doing so in a way we can’t help but be infinitely resentful of. Farrell insinuates his character of John McBurney into a situation he thinks he can control, but this is a movie told from a female perspective, and it makes his predicament all the more entertaining as he attempts to gain a hold on a living situation which is far beyond his grasp.

Along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the fact she shot this on 35mm film, Coppola gives “The Beguiled” a smoky and beautiful look few other filmmakers could have pulled off. The ladies in their costumes look those women from Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to where the attention to detail meshes perfectly with a dreamlike quality. The soundtrack is mostly insects and birds making noises in the humid wilderness, but it is eventually punctuated by the subtle but powerful hum of the music by Phoenix which more than hints at the tension, sexual or otherwise, which is bubbling just below the surface.

There should be no doubt by now that Sofia Coppola is a born director, and I am not just saying this because her father gave us “The Godfather” trilogy (and yes, I like the third one). She has a signature style all her own, and she pays sharp attention to both the visuals and her cast with equal measure. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise she picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a summer which seems beleaguered by franchise fatigue, “The Beguiled” is a nice and unnerving surprise as the suspense builds to where characters, who at once seemed a peaceful bunch, seize on their animalistic nature for the sake of survival.

* * * * out of * * * *

NOTE: “The Beguiled” has been the subject of controversy recently as Coppola decided to exclude the character of Hallie, a black slave, who was featured in the 1971 movie. As a result, she has been accused of whitewashing the story and of downplaying the role slaves had in the Civil War. Coppola has explained she did not want to present slavery in a lighthearted way and was concerned she would not be able to give the subject the attention it deserved. This seems like a sane response as it shows her sensitivity to the issue of slavery, and it would be hard to see how she could balance that out with the story of the women in a successful way here. I don’t think she is whitewashing this story in the slightest. Besides, with all the unrest in the world of American politics right now, Coppola is the last person we should be accusing of whitewashing anything.

‘Somewhere’ Finds Another Movie Star Lost in Translation

Somewhere movie poster

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

-Robin Williams from “World’s Greatest Dad”

“Somewhere” opens with Stephen Dorff’s character of Johnny Marco driving his Ferrari around in circles in some far-off place. It goes on for a while to the point where some in the audience might say, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” However, the length of the scene defines the state Johnny’s life. He’s a movie star with adoring fans, and getting women to sleep with him is easy as cake. But aside from being a successful actor, he looks completely lost compared to everyone else around him. Johnny has no direction in life, and emotion looks like a luxury he can’t afford. Even those beautiful female twins pole dancing in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont can’t excite or arouse him, and they succeed in making him fall asleep more than anything else. We see him surrounded by so many people who profess to adore him, but all they do is make him feel more isolated from anyone and everybody.

But then one morning Johnny wakes up to find his 11-year old daughter Cleo signing the cast on his arm. From there, we see him come alive as he gets to spend time with the one person who loves him in a way no one else can. With his daughter, he gains some idea of adult responsibility, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants.

Now this may make “Somewhere” sound like a sitcom more than a movie as the story features a father getting closer to his daughter which changes his perspective and all, but it is anything but that. This is Sofia Coppola’s first movie since “Marie Antoinette,” and she makes this one anything but sentimental and manipulative. It’s more like she captures moments between Johnny and Cleo more than she films then, and it makes “Somewhere” feel all the more real.

Many have said “Somewhere” feels like a European film in how slowly it moves, and it is never in a rush to get to the next moment. This is correct, but I like the fact it takes its time. Today’s movies are always rushing from one moment to the next to where we never have enough time to digest everything we witnessed. That Sofia Coppola goes against this trend is very welcome, and it makes for a far more involving movie.

Seeing Cleo accompany her father to Italy for a movie premiere could have been clichéd and corny as hell, but seeing them together makes it feel intimate and far more original than any other filmmaker could have captured. Some will say this is autobiographical, but I believe Sofia when she says that it isn’t. Granted, she definitely has an insider’s view of show business being the daughter of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola, but this story feels removed from her own life. Her parents never divorced, and she appears to come from a very loving family. Cleo, on the other hand, is a child of divorce, and we know she will suffer more from it that her parents will.

As played by Elle Fanning, Cleo comes across as far more adult than her father and it’s a kick to see her prepare breakfast for him, showing she is easily more mature. She also makes what looks like a sumptuous Eggs Benedict, and anyone who knows me best is aware I order it whenever my parents are in town and take me out to breakfast. Of course, I’m on a diet now, but seeing her cook it so successfully makes me want to head out to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast all day.

Fanning has been in the shadow of her older sister Dakota who has given strong performances in movies like Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” and “The Runaways.” I haven’t seen her in anything since “The Door in The Floor” where she acted opposite Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, but she really comes into her own here with this character who is ever so charming. You never catch her acting here. She just inhabits her character with what seems like relative ease, and watching her come to life as Cleo is a joy.

Dorff is an interesting choice to play Johnny Marco. Best known for his roles in “Backbeat,” “Blade,” and “Cecil B. Demented” among other movies, Dorff does seem to have the “bad boy” image, though not necessarily to Charlie Sheen’s level. In “Somewhere,” he manages to find the right balance between being a nice guy and a thoughtless prick to where we empathize with him more than decry his irresponsibly selfish ways. Like Fanning, Dorff becomes his character more than plays him, and he keeps him from becoming a caricature of a movie star. We find ourselves wanting him to do right by his daughter even if he doesn’t always do so.

The other big character in “Somewhere” is the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It has a lot of history involving movie and rock stars, many of whom have lived here for a time. John Belushi famously died of a drug overdose at the hotel, and his death still haunts all those who were the closest to him. The history of the Chateau Marmont hangs over Johnny Marco’s head as we can’t help but wonder if the hotel will suck him up whole.

Granted, this film does share similarities to Sofia’s “Lost in Translation” as it also involves a movie star who seems emotionally dried up and a young girl who is quickly maturing into a woman. But Bill Murray’s character looks lost because he is in a different country. Johnny Marco, however, looks lost in the country he was born in, so imagine how he feels when he travels overseas. His situation feels especially dire because there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore he can truly call home. Directors in general deal with similar themes throughout all their movies, and Sofia is no exception to that. At least with this one, she has a different way of exploring it than before.

If there is anything which bothered me about “Somewhere,” it’s the conclusion is a little too open-ended. I left the theater with questions over what happened from there, and while change is coming for the characters, it’s not entirely clear what direction that change is going to take. Then again, there’s a lot going on we don’t have all the details to. We never learn why Johnny split with Cleo’s mother, and we are only left with an idea of how it happened. Looking into Cleo’s eyes, she may have a better idea than anybody else of what went down.

Regardless, “Somewhere” is a well thought out film which shows Sofia Coppola to be an excellent director confident in her abilities behind the camera. Looking back, I think it will have more of an effect long after you’ve seen it as it’s not the kind of movie which leaves your consciousness all that quickly.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *