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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Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *