Movie Journal – 3/5/2012

Beginners (2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Mike Mills (Focus Features)

Writer/director Mike Mills’ real-life experiences with his own father drive this genuinely touching, romantic comedy-drama, displaying a mature outlook on love and relationships that is undoubtedly rare. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a middle-aged graphic designer who reflects back on the final days of his terminally ill father (recent Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer), a man who came out of the closet at 75 years old, living the joyous, openly gay life that he had never been permitted to enjoy before. Oliver, whose closest friend is his late father’s dog, Arthur (who communicates with Oliver through uproariously insightful subtitles), soon finds himself in a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who prompts McGregor to reconsider these memories of both his father and childhood, pushing him to the realization that maybe he is the key to his own happiness.

The film is as true to its message as it is to its own nature, making it an indie-romance that contains widespread wisdom for any age or gender. Plummer was well-deserving of his award for the role, playing a man whose happiness arrived better late than never. But McGregor successfully carries his weight as the film’s protagonist, grieving and lonely, yet becoming aware of how his own attitudes can make the best of what life has to offer; in particular, people who are actually willing to love you. Beginners has structural and narrative quirks, witty dialogue, historical insight, and ultimately, real knowledge about relationships, sexual orientation, and the reasons people behave in contradictory ways; the reasons they fall in love. Although what makes it unique sometimes makes the film seem repetitive, it also jumps seamlessly from moment to moment, connecting us with these human beings through both memories and present occurrences. Emotional investment doesn’t seem like a chore. In fact, Beginners just may be one of the smartest romantic-comedies ever made.

 

Margin Call (2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by J.C. Chandor (Roadside Attractions)

Too soon? No. Just in time. First-time writer/director J.C. Chandor sums up the 2008 financial crisis without any of that glossy, Oliver Stone morality stuff. Yes, ethics do play a role on Wall Street, but here, they thankfully remain a thematic element, rather than the blueprints for a “message movie.” There is fairly little about Margin Call that smells like Hollywood at all, stretching a $3.5 million budget to cover the 36-hour period of a large, fictional investment firm, marking the beginning of the end for all things green. Chandor certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for his rapid-fire screenplay, thrilling for even non-Economics majors. Backed by Zachary Quinto’s production company, Before the Door Pictures, Quinto himself plays Peter Sullivan, a young risk analyst who discovers a quite horrifying, predictive figure, courtesy of his recently laid-off boss, played by Stanley Tucci.

Chandor directs this loaded cast quite craftily, Kevin Spacey playing floor head Sam Rogers, and sharing the screen with the likes of Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore. Each performer is superb in a role which requires a unique perspective (which may or may not be completely selfish). Referring back to Jean Renoir’s great Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons.” The general consensus soon becomes that the firm should sell it all, aptly permitting some hope of the firm’s survival, yet commencing the destruction of our country’s financial market. Obviously, not everyone agrees, and Chandor sure deserves credit for navigating these choppy waters, crafting a compelling, human story without making it heavy-handed. He also shoots the damn thing brilliantly, using reflections, interestingly composed shots, and time-lapse for both visual flair and a method of successfully utilizing a small budget. In doing so, he gives us a tiny film with big ideas about the world we now live in.

 

Take Shelter (2011)     4/5

Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols (Sony Pictures Classics)

Michael Shannon is an emotional powerhouse in Jeff Nichols’ thriller, Take Shelter, a movie with an abundance of thematic depth and ingenuity, portraying its ideas through two hours of eerie, successfully drawn tension. If only the payoff were a bit more impressive. Shannon plays Curtis, a poor, Ohio workingman with a gorgeous wife, played flawlessly by Jessica Chastain, and a deaf daughter (Tova Stewart), who the couple hopes they can soon aid properly via Curtis’ job benefits. The guy has the makings of a pretty good life, that is, until he starts to dream of an apocalyptic storm, the recurring nightmares often involving harm by those close to him. Not only that, but Curtis’ mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at nearly the same age. Curtis transforms his confusion into the building of a storm shelter in his backyard, leading to devastating social and personal consequences.

Shannon’s performance is superb, and it is truly a shame that it wasn’t further recognized throughout awards season. He plays Curtis with complete sensitivity, a man who will truly stop at nothing to feel safe and protect his family, but lets fear control him, not only in regard to the storm that may or may not come, but also in respect to the disease that he may or may not have. No matter what happens, he simply doesn’t want those around him to stop loving him, whether he is “crazy” or not. This all provides a brilliant metaphor for mental illness, personified most effectively in a scene where the family actually does end up in a storm shelter. They have trusted Curtis enough to follow him in, but in turn, will he trust that their love is undying by walking back out? Take Shelter is most literate and touching when it explores such family dynamics, the give-and-take required for such relationships to thrive, especially under strenuous circumstances. However, the film doesn’t work when it simplifies itself. The final scene shows us all too much, forsaking ambiguity and making the theme of whether Curtis actually has schizophrenia the prominent one. Thus said, we can’t actually trust what happens at the end of Take Shelter to be reality. But I do believe that if less were shown, the film could’ve had quite a greater impact once it cut to black.

What we are left with is still an intriguing, suspenseful piece of work, a near-brilliant influence of The Rapture, Field of Dreams, Signs, and Donnie Darko that never ceases to hold our attention, or remain within our heads quite awhile after. A major concept within the film is trust, especially the idea that when we face insurmountable obstacles, we tend to not have faith in others’ understanding and empathy (or even fear losing them, altogether), most likely because we are supremely driven to do what we feel must be done. I cannot read Jeff Nichols’ mind, but I’m sure he trusted a quite talented crew to piece together his surprisingly unique vision. If only he had faith in the more subtle themes within his spectacle of modern, American apocalypse. Yet there sure is an audience out there for Take Shelter, and if Nichols continues to build it right for his next film, I’m certain they will come once again.

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