Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ordinary People

 A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle. -- Dr. Tyrone Berger

In honor of the fact that today would have been my Mom's 60th birthday, I'm reviewing Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People, which was one of her favorite films. This striking family drama, winner of 4 Oscars in 1980, centers around the Jarretts, an affluent suburban family living in Northern Illinois. Still reeling from the loss of their oldest son Buck (who drowned after a sailboat carrying him and his brother capsized in a storm on Lake Michigan), the remaining survivors must come to terms with how his death, and the youngest son Conrad's subsequent suicide attempt, has deeply affected and changed them all. The film, and the novel it's based on, deals with the vast gulfs created amidst each family member by recent events and how they succeed, or fail, to bridge the new separations that exist between them. 

Ordinary People's main focus is the youngest son, Conrad (odd that Timothy Hutton won a supporting Oscar for what could well be considered the sole lead role in the film). A month after being released from the mental hospital he was committed to after his suicide attempt, Conrad is still traumatized by the storm and boating accident which took his older brother's life. Memories of that day haunt his every waking moment and when he sleeps, these visions are fodder for his nightmares. Like his older brother, he's on the swim team, but every time Conrad nears the water or hangs out with mutual friends he and his brother shared, he's transported back to that fateful night on the water when he watched his brother let go and sink out of view for the last time. 

Beth Jarrett, the mother, has become a bitter, controlling woman, all while hiding it under a veneer of blissful, suburban perfection. An ideal housewife and socialite, "Everyone loves Beth". What's less clear is if Beth herself can love anyone. Her capacity to love seems to have drowned along with Buck. Conrad, the son who lived, becomes a particular target of her ire. Though she would never admit it to anyone, not even herself, it's clear to the viewer and to Conrad that she wishes it was he who died in that storm. 

The father, Calvin Jarrett, is a well-meaning tax attorney who senses the gulf in his family but not the reason. Desperate to bring everyone back together again, his wife's newfound coldness forces him to examine how the loss has changed him and whether the man he has become can love the woman his wife now is (or perhaps always was). He spend much of the movie caught helplessly between two storms--the frigid winds of his perfectly presented wife who harangues Conrad whenever he puts the simplest step out of place and the furious flurries of anger from Conrad who, when not directing his loathing inward, lashes out at those who try to help him, seeing only his guilt reflected in their well-meaning entreaties. 

Eventually, through sessions with the kind-hearted psychiatrist Dr. Tryone Berger, who provides the movie with its few moments of humor as well as its catharsis, Conrad begins to come to terms with his responsibility, or lack thereof, for his brother's passing. In order to wrestle with such deep-seated depression, one must recognize it for what it is. And as Conrad begins a romantic relationship with a young girl in his school choir, he begins to see the fruits of these sessions, and of his father's tireless support. When describing how he felt on the eve of his suicide attempt to his new girlfriend, he compares it to "falling into a hole and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and you can't get out... all of a sudden, it's inside, and you're the hole and you're trapped." A succinct, accurate depiction of the depression many face, what a terror it must be to feel trapped inside your own head. 

Despite the fact that this is Redford's first stab at directing, it's rare to see a film this accomplished and polished. Considering that the script is laden with the potential for over-wrought drama, only a confident director could pull this off with such ease. His style is staid and conservative, almost to the point of non-existence as he wisely allows this powerful story to unfold with little stylistic interruption.  The only music in this film are a series of variations on Pachelbel's Canon, wisely Redford avoids adding an unnecessarily dramatic score. This film has enough of it's own fire that it needs little embellishment. As it is, it only barely avoids the often unavoidable plague of melodrama that many films of this ilk unadvisedly embrace. 

Redford must also be credited for how well he handled his actors. He proves his intimate knowledge of the story, by restraining the actors from indulging from too many florid, over-the-top "Oscar" moments. This allows the moments of truly overflowing emotions to retain their impact. In these, each of the main cast performs flawlessly. 

The star of the show is newcomer Timothy Hutton, who justly won an Oscar for his performance--even if it was in the wrong category. Conrad Jarrett is the one most profoundly damaged by his brother's death, as he was the only one there to witness it. Much like his mother, who Calvin wisely observes is the parent he is most similar to, he tries to mask his grief, anger and self-loathing. Unlike his mother, he is far less successful doing so. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forces him to face his feelings in a manner she isn't capable of. In the film's greatest moment of catharsis, Dr. Berger (played with an almost unbelievable saintliness by Judd Hirsch) Hutton weaves his conflicting emotions together with such engrossing and seamless conviction (the relevant section begins at around 2:25, if anyone knows who to embed these things with a specific time stamp I'd be much obliged):

Conrad Jarrett: [Berger is pretending to be Buck, Con's older brother] Bucky, I didn't mean it! Bucky, I didn't meant it! 
Dr. Berger: What? 
Conrad Jarrett: I said put the sail down, but you said keep it starboard, and then we go over! And you say "Hang on, Hang on!", but then you let go! Why'd you let go? 
Dr. Berger: Because I was tired! 
Conrad Jarrett: Oh yeah? Well screw you, you jerk! 
Dr. Berger: [Back in reality] It hurts to be mad at him, doesn't it? 
Conrad Jarrett: God, I loved him. It's not fair. You just do one wrong thing. 
Dr. Berger: And what was the one wrong thing you did? 
Conrad Jarrett: I hung on. I stayed with the boat.  
As this passage shows, often the most difficult part of grief is the confusing anger you feel towards the departed. How can you blame your brother for drowning, or your wife for suffering a coma in a boating accident, or your mother for dying of cancer? It's hardly their faults, yet the anger exists, and until it's dealt with, it simmers in you only further contributing to your senseless guilt. Hutton, though he was just 20 at the time of the movie's release, nails the complex mores of grief with the poise of a far more experienced thespian.

Mary Tyler Moore, as the cool aloof mother, uses the easy charm she perfected on television with The Mary Tyler Moore Show to hide the fathomless depths of her sadness. The gulf between her and her family is the widest of anyone's as she desperately, ruthlessly pursues the normalcy of her life before Buck's accident and Conrad's suicide attempt. She complains often in the film that she just wants things to go back to normal and believes that pretending like nothing has changed is the best way to achieve that. Therefore, when anyone else in the family suggests that she confront the reality of their altered situation, she reacts by clamming up or lashing out against them or accusing them of being weak and manipulated by their own guilt. 

In spite of her own obvious weaknesses, Redford wisely does not villify her... how many mothers are equipped to handle the loss of their favorite son? With an easy smile that rarely touches her cold, frightened eyes, Moore indelibly illustrates a woman helplessly drowning in her own grief who, with her stubbornness, threatens to bring the rest of the family down with her. In a series of scenes that will break your heart, she repeatedly ignores Conrad's attempts to reach out to her, and rejects his silent pleas of forgiveness with blithe criticism. In one moment when it's clear he's about to open up to her, she deflects it by pointing our how messy his closet is and then flees to answer the phone. Also, the brief glimpse we're given of her mother strongly hints where her personal failings may have come from. She is not to be blamed, or hated, but merely pitied. 

Donald Sutherland, one of the most criminally underrated actors of his era, leavens the film's acidity with his compassion. He struggles to understand the rest of his family, which seems to be spiraling out of control around him. Reluctant to believe either Beth's or Conrad's constant accusations against one another, Calvin Jarrett fruitlessly hopes to bring them back together. Like Beth, he is undone at times by the grief he feels for his lost son, often losing himself in his memories of happier times (the only glimpses we get of Buck are through these brief flashbacks, which wisely highlight the profound loss his absence creates). Unlike Beth, and Conrad for that matter, he does not blame his living son, instead choosing to clutch tightly to the family he has left. Sutherland's patient bewilderment fits this unassuming character like a glove.

In the end, though any movie that deals with the effect the loss of a loved one has on a family will inevitably be bleak, this film offers up a measure of hope for some of its characters. Much like The Descendants, which I reviewed yesterday, the characters in Ordinary People must cling together while stuck in their cool, stolid suburban world. They must find within themselves, and within one another, the capacity for forgiveness, because, as Redford deftly reveals, only after one forgives oneself or one's family for their wrongs--be they real or imagined--can one really begin to heal. The only other option, as this movie also cleverly explains, is to flee into the depths of your ignorance, which will allow grief to consume you completely. That, it must be said, sounds like no life worth living. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Descendants

***1/2 out of *****
What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves? -- Matt King 
Alexander Payne, director and co-author of The Descendants, has made a name for himself in the past couple decades by crafting acerbic send-ups of various iterations of Americana. In Election, Payne turned his satirical eye towards the unforgiving high-school social scene, using a class president election to lampoon the American political system at large. With Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne explored the unintentional hilarity inherent in the pathetic and tragic lives of his every-man protagonists. However, The Descendants, though it's set in a lush Hawaiian paradise, is Payne's most somber film yet. As George Clooney's morose Matt King states emphatically at the film's outset, "Paradise? Paradise can go f**k itself."

Before his wife's coma forced him to the foreground, Matt King was the "back-up parent", happily deferring to his wife in matters of child-rearing. This is hardly a unique parenting arrangement it seems, but it's only after the coma that King begins to realize the ramifications of his absence--he no longer knows his own daughters. Scotty, his youngest, is acting out in school by showing her class-mates photos of her comatose mother, while his oldest daughter, Alexandra, regularly sneaks out of her boarding school to drink and do drugs with her friends. Alex's latest boyfriend Sid, a disarmingly nonchalant stoner, seems to have been chosen solely because of how thoroughly he annoys everyone. Further complicating matters is Alexandra's revelation that Elizabeth had been involved romantically with a married real estate agent named Brian Speer. King learns later from close friends of his wife that she may well have been in love with him.

As with Payne's two films prior to The Descendants, the action centers around a middle-aged male (or near elderly, in the case of Jack Nicholson from About Schmidt) protagonist who has come to a cross-roads. Matt King is faced with two pivotal dilemmas. Foremost on his mind is his wife Elizabeth's health crisis. After it becomes clear that she will never wake from her coma, King must confront the realities of her living will, which mandates that she must be taken off life-support. Also of great concern to King, and his family at large, is an impending, multi-million dollar land deal. King must choose between selling off the inheritance of his ancestors (he can trace his family line back to the granddaughter of King Kamehameha, who famously united the Hawaiian Islands) or keeping the untouched land in the family, preserving it for future generations of Kings. King's myriad assortment of cousins circle the approaching sale like buzzards surround carrion in the desert.

This film's primary concern is Matt King's evolving relationship with his two daughters. Traveling to tell friends and family the bad news about Elizabeth and an island-hopping search for the philandering Brian Speer serve as a backdrop for examining how this diminished family deals with its grief. King wanders aimlessly through the verdant paradise, where the beauty around him only highlights the depths of his pain and bewilderment. His life is complicated even further when he discovers that his wife's past indiscretions and his upcoming land deal might be connected in quite surprising ways.

As is usual of Alexander Payne, The Descendants' greatest strength is its surprisingly complex and unconventional tableau of characters. At the center of course is George Clooney--who in the past few years has somehow managed the transition from mere movie star to multi-faceted Oscar winner with ease. With The Descendants he adds another fine entry to his increasingly impressive oeuvre. Muting his near irrepressible charm (or smarm, depending on who you ask), Clooney is entirely believable as a man set upon by an unimaginably complex set of pressures and problems which threaten to swallow him whole. With this complicated situation comes a difficult blend of emotions: uncertainty, anger, betrayal, sadness and fear. One can easily see these emotions flit subtly across Clooney's face. As his Matt King tries, quite poorly, to suppress them, they are buried there painfully in his eyes.

Alex and Scotty, Matt King's wayward daughters, also manage deftly to avoid classic stereotypes. Alexandra though playing the part angry, rebellious daughter is never combustible. Indeed, it's easy to see how her contempt for her mother and father might be entirely justified. Elizabeth, established throughout the film as sociable and danger-seeking, carried on an affair without a second thought to how it might affect her children. Matt King, on the other hand, was so consumed by his work as a lawyer that he may well have pushed her away, and alienated the children, in the first place. Alex is not spiteful, but is disappointed in her parents, having discovered them to be guilty of the worst crime any parent can commit: being human like the rest of us. Woodley never hits a false note, playing Alex with a surprising intelligence and biting wit. Amara Miller's Scotty manages to be a surprisingly perceptive 10 year old without any Dakota Fanning-esque adult-like pretentiousness.

The supporting characters are just as concrete and believable as the leads. Robert Forster's cantankerous, grief-stricken father provides both the film's funniest--when he punches the indelicate Sid in the face--and saddest--when saying a silent goodbye to his daughter--moments. Judy Greer, fresh off countless thankless roles in a nearly endless series of rom-coms, is perhaps the most surprising character of all. She manages her character's contradictory series of emotions with a shocking aplomb. Even Nick Krause's easy-going serenely stupid Sid is endowed with surprising depths. Rounding out the supporting cast is the affable Beau Bridges (who looks eerily like a more hastily assembled version of his younger brother Jeff), as Matt King's conniving Cousin Hugh... desperate for the sale of their pristine land to be completed as soon as possible.

The Descendants, based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a story that caters perfectly to Alexander Payne's strengths. Few directors working today can balance light comedy with heavier subjects as deftly as Payne can. However, in doing so, the story also exposes Payne's limits. In Matt King, Payne's previous creations of Warren Schmidt (About Schmidt) and Miles (Sideways) echo a little too loudly. And while The Descendants' most powerful moments are its quietest ones (Matt King and his daughters sadly and silently surveying their gorgeous tract of land, the aforementioned moment between a father and his comatose daughter), yet Payne insists on peppering the film with a lot of narration and monologue from Clooney. Considering how much Clooney manages to convey with a glance or a shrug or a sigh, much of it seems needless at best, distracting at worst.  However, that this is Payne's most accomplished film yet hints that he is still maturing as a filmmaker and suggests that the best is just yet to come.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Five Most Anticipated Movies of 2012

As we quickly leave 2011 in our dust, now seems like an ideal time to discuss the most intriguing releases which are coming to theaters this year. Here are five of the movies I'm most looking forward to in 2012:

5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

After the enormous critical and financial success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early aughts, The Hobbit's adaptation to film was only a matter of time. Luckily Peter Jackson, mastermind behind the original trilogy, has returned to helm the two part continuation of Tolkien's work. Though the first half of the trailer had a lighter tone than one might expect after watching the initial weighty fantasy epics, the return of Peter Jackson, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis as Gollum has me eagerly awaiting this December's return to Middle Earth.

4. Skyfall (Bond 23)
Unfortunately there's no trailer to show for this one, but despite the letdown that was Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig has quickly established himself as the best Bond since Sean Connery. With Sam Mendes (director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition)  directing this next installment and Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem signed on to the project as the next Bond villains, this sounds like the perfect formula for injecting some life back into this inconsistent franchise.

3. Moonrise Kingdom
Bruce Willis. Bill Murray. Tilda Swinton. Edward Norton. Frances McDormand. Harvey Keitel. Jason Schwartzman. The cast of Wes Anderson's next film Moonrise Kingdom can be described without exaggeration as the stuff dreams are made of. Sparsely described on IMDb, the plot may seem deceptively simple, but as any devotee of Wes Anderson's filmography knows, he specializes in wresting deft characterizations from deceptively simple moments.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

My top two are hardly surprising choices, as both are perfect examples of how to make a trailer the right way. Tantalizing the audience with select thrills, but still leaving much of the plot to the imagination, The Dark Knight Rises promises to deliver a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman series. I was skeptical about Anne Hathaway's being cast as Catwoman, and I still have my doubts, but the final installment in the latest Batman trilogy is certainly a movie I'll be watching in theaters this summer.

1. Prometheus

I don't think there's another director working today who is as inconsistent as Ridley Scott. On the one hand there are his sci-fi masterpieces (Alien and Blade Runner) and his enjoyable sword and sandal epics (Gladiator and the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven) and on the other hand there's... everything else (A Good Year, Robin Hood, Hannibal, G.I Jane... yuck). With Prometheus, Ridley Scott seems to have returned to form. Exploring once again the dark, dank Alien universe--though details on the plot are still scarce, the trailer certainly suggests Prometheus is at least tangentially related to the Alien quadrilogy--and working with an appealing cast (Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba, just to name a few), this film looks to be Ridley Scott's best effort in over a decade.

Also, this has nothing to do with anything, but just because it amused me, here's the audio of The Dark Knight Rises trailer synced up with The Lion King. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Saw the Devil

The two monsters of I Saw the Devil meet face to face.
So called "torture porn" is a dime a dozen these days. From the unflinching The Hills Have Eyes to Eli Roth's insipid Hostel to the endless iterations of the Saw franchise, anyone craving a variety of scenes of gory dismemberment can easily get their fix. However, none of these so-called horror movies (which are generally more horrible than horrifying) can touch the cringe-worthy scares of I Saw the Devil. This film manages to equal the wanton bloodlust of the aforementioned pictures while also possessing a surprising cerebral aspect in its revenge plot.

How far can one go in pursuit of revenge? At what cost? These are the questions at hazard in Kim Jee-woon's grisly picture, which explores the possibilities of the classic revenge tale in ways heretofore unseen. Korean secret agent Kim Soo-Hyeon (played by South Korean tv/film superstar Lee Byung-hun) is mourning the loss of his beautiful fiancé, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by the unapologetic serial-killer Kyung-chul (Korean actor Choi Min-sik, most famous for his previous work in Oldboy another Korean revenge classic). Unable to confront the enormity of his loss, Kim focuses his efforts into a pitiless search for the killer, beating each suspect into helpless submission before finally discovering his target, Kyung-chul, who is in the process of raping and murdering another victim.

Thus begins a merciless cat and mouse game between them; Kim Soo-hyeon, made increasingly angry by the loss of his beloved, begins to exact his protracted, barbarous revenge. He assaults Kyung-chul again and again, releasing him and treating his wounds each time. The bewildered Kyung-chul must slowly figure out who it is who is after him and why. Not to be underestimated, the killer plots some revenge of his own.

Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) contemplates the motives of his unknown assailant.
So what separates this movie from other lesser, similarly sanguinary tales like The Human Centipede? One factor is the outstanding turns by the lead actors. Choi-min sik's Kyung-chul is a force of nature, undoubtedly the best portrayal of a serial killer this side of Hannibal Lecter. Everything about this character feels steeped in evil, from the slight hitch in his gait, to his dead-eyed contemptible stare, to his random mutterings and unpredictable violent outbursts. What makes his character even more frightening is that we're never given much of his back story. Following Kim as he investigates Kyung-chul's past, we learn he has parents and a son of his own, but we never learn what has led him to kill... though by his father's apathetic reactions when asked about his son's well-being, we could assume that perhaps he has always been this way. Either way, Kyung-chul's clever and boastful ghoul makes for one of the most compelling and despicable villains in recent memory.

Which brings us to the so-called "hero", Kim Soo-hyeon. Lee Byung-hun's grief-stricken secret agent is a blank slate, aside from the tears he sheds at his bride-to-be's funeral, and the deep well of sadness which never quite leaves his eyes. He initially carries out his search and revenge with a brutish efficiency. As the film progresses, and he slowly discovers that no amount of revenge can assuage his grief, or lessen his loss, the futility of his actions--combined with the unabashed savagery of Kyung-chul's own revenge--drives him to a barely suppressed rage. In this anger, he commits the most sickening act of the film... one that will make the Joker's "let's put a smile on that face" scene from The Dark Knight seem tame by comparison.

Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) fecklessly enters the  lair of the beast.
Kim Soo-hyeon is a man barely under control; his desperate thirst for vengeance quickly becomes his only consideration. In exploring the extremes of the possibilities for revenge that his combination of skills (apparently being a secret agent in Korea means one must know martial arts), and the profundity of his grief (he remains unmoved even when begged by the family of his fiancé to hand Kyung-chul over to the police) affords him, he finds himself slowly morphing into a mirror image of Kyung-chul. In spite of the fact that Kyung-chul remains free to terrorize women, and in fact does so immediately after first being freed, Kim remains unsatisfied with the pain he evinces from Kyung and leaves him free to kill again and again. The line between good and evil is effortlessly blended and we, the audience, must wonder if there is any character worth sympathizing with who isn't a victim of Kim and Kyung-chul's dangerous game. Considering the many atrocities Kyung-chul commits over the course of the film, making him sympathetic is quite the challenge, but the sharply downward moral arc of Soo-hyeon's character is key... as it wrestles the moral high-ground from his bloodied hands.

Kim Jee-woon, the director of this epic ode to carnage, must be applauded for keeping the movie consistently engaging, despite its somewhat bloated 140 minute runtime. Kim Jee-woon's Korea is a fantastical, nightmarish hellscape, which is dotted with monsters everywhere one turns. In the course of his travels through this world, Kyung-chul encounters a murderous duo manning a taxi (in one of the most impressively constructed scenes in the movie) and calls upon an old "friend"--or as close as he gets to a friend--who is happily ensconced in a farm in the countryside casually indulging his cannibalism habit. One hopes this isn't a realistic glimpse of life in South Korea, but the heightened, implausible tone of the film underscores the moral of the picture: it's all too easy to become a monster once you abandon what's right in the name of self-satisfaction... in this case, the pursuit of revenge.

Jee-woon cunningly uses light and color to highlight the internal journey of his protagonist. Soo-hyeon mourns the death of his wife in an unbelievably white funereal setting, representing the initial purity of his character even in the face of his loss. But as he begins to hunt down Kyung-chul, the movie, like his inner world, grows inexorably darker. When first entering Kyung-chul's ramshackle hut, he is immediately immersed in an array of sickly greens, bloodied reds, the occasional frigid blue and foreboding blacks... colors that reappear with a noticeable regularity. Much of this movie is awash in red, whether it be from blood or Kim Jee-woon's lighting; the color often precedes, or follows, scenes of intense violence.

This movie is definitely not for everyone... children, for example, should certainly stay far away. People with a weak stomach for scenes of great violence (though often the terrors that aren't shown feel more wrenching)  may also want to give this a miss. However, for people that can manage to navigate the bleak, unforgiving waters of I Saw the Devil, it's ultimately a rewarding experience... rare for its genre in that the violence serves the movie's thematic purposes ( how easy comes the corruption of the human soul) rather than being merely exploitative. There are some far-fetched moments, one in particular concerning the tracking device Soo-hyeon implants in Kyung-chul, which strains credulity even in the implausible world Kim Jee-woon created, but as far as horror films and revenge flicks go, it's easily ranks among the best of its kind.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****1/2/*****

PS: It's my birthday today and, no pressure, but the greatest gift of all is feedback, so I encourage y'all to make free use of the comments section at the end of every post.