Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amour - The Losing and the Letting Go

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a film comes along that tells a part of your story. When that happens, it means a lot. Sometimes, in one’s own quiet expressions of grief, it’s profoundly moving to know that someone somewhere understands where your journey has led, and that you are not alone in your suffering. Amour is that kind of film.

Michael Haneke has made a living out of cinematic trickery and deceit for so long that it’s shocking to see him actually try to tell the “truth,” or at least his version of it. For a filmmaker who’s spent years imposing his will on audiences by routinely confounding everything they thought they'd learned,  Amour is a surprisingly heartfelt piece.

As a story of the breakdown of a body after a life-altering moment, the film gets the details right. The blank stare, the withering hand, the agonizing attempts to walk, the way that lips are held, the helplessness felt by the loved ones of the sufferer, the way that a person is lifted and manipulated so that they can perform basic functions, the crying out, the repetitive attention to specific details, the way that the caretaker’s body begins to feel the strain of having to repeatedly exert itself in heretofore unusual ways, they’re all here. More importantly, they’re all handled with a delicate touch that shows a great deal of respect to the reality of situations like this.

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance is one of the best that I’ve seen thus far this year. If there is no respect from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . . . it will be a further sign of their irrelevance. Her performance doesn’t rely on histrionics or huge moments of expressed emotion. It’s in the little details that she finds a way to bring Anne to life. Her performance is a triumph by any standard, and one of the finest in recent memory.

Trintignant’s performance is good too, but it’s certainly not the equal of Riva’s. They're blessed with a wonderful chemistry. It's not difficult to believe that they've shared a lifetime's memories. There’s a moment when he’s trying to get her to drink water, and she doesn’t want to have any. He forces it into her mouth, and after she spits it back at him, he slaps her. Part of me wishes that that sequence was not in the film, but another part of me understands the kind of frustration that could lead a person to do something like that. There’s a unique pain/frustration that comes from trying to feed someone who does not want to eat. You know that, if they don’t eat, they’ll die, but, at the end of the day, there’s only so much that you can do. The human will is stronger than you realize. After the slap, she swallows. It might be one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on a screen in a long time. She does it in such a defeated way, and it’s painful to see.

Isabelle Huppert, one of my favorite actors, does fine work as their daughter. She means well and wants to help, but just can’t understand. It’s hard to blame her. When she tells her father that he can’t keep doing this, he’s right to ask her the question he does. It’s so simple. “What should I do different? This is what I do when I wake up. This is what happens next. This is what happens after that. This is the exact structure of my day. This is what I have to face every single minute of every single day. What should I do differently?” It’s a scene that involves two people doing what they have to do, even though their ideas are at odds. She has to tell him what she does, and he has to respond as he does.

I know what she means about her father not continuing to face the day-to-day struggle, but he made a  promise to his wife that she’d not have to face any more hospital visits. He makes this promise even with the realization that more medical care will probably be a very necessary part of their lives. Even though a hospital can provide ten times better care than he can, he gives freely, even to his own hurt.

The love between Georges and Anne is special, born of time and common experience. The promise I mentioned is indicative of that. He gets to a point where caring for her himself is almost unbearably hard, but he promised. Simple as that. There are certain things that we owe to our loved ones that no amount of time or hardship can separate us from.

I also really liked the way that he deals with the incompetent nurse. “I hope that you have the misfortune to be treated exactly the way that you treat your patients when you are helpless.” It’s one of the most satisfying moments in the film. Prior to that, it was easy to see that this nurse wasn’t any good at her job and was causing more harm than good to the one person that she was supposed to be caring for. I just wasn’t sure if this fact was supposed to be self-evident to all. I don’t think that being gentle is difficult, particularly as I get older. There’s a strange way that certain people feel the need to belittle those that are different from their own experience. I don’t really understand it. If what my own life has taught me is to be believed, the people who matter most are rarely the people who get the best press. The quiet person who stands in the corner might be the best friend you have.

Haneke is still not entirely comfortable with the idea of a completely straightforward narrative, which might not be fair to him, as finding something you think you’re good at and sticking with it isn’t necessarily a form of weakness. However, his framing device is a gentler one than usual, and isn’t as reliant on him imposing his will upon the audience. Typically, a Haneke film ends with or is generously sprinkled with instances of his reminding the viewer that there’s someone pulling the strings and that that person doesn’t answer to anyone. Fortunately, here, it’s a bit more effective. I think that the ending most resembles Cache, but where that film was frustrating in its arbitrarily elusive turning of the screw, Amour’s ending holds up. It’s a quiet secret that’s spotted, unsurprisingly, in the details.

To say that I feel a sense of gratitude to Haneke, Riva, Trintignant, and Huppert would be an understatement. I’ve been looking forward to this film for years. I just didn’t know how much my own life would change in that period of time, or how closely my experience would be reflected in the narrative. Given how easily certain filmmakers/actors might have treated material like this in leaning toward melodrama at worst or sentimentality at best, it’s a blessing to see such restraint at work. Ultimately, the lack of sentimentality in Amour does the best service to the emotional integrity of the piece. In trying to avoid the creation of a disingenuously emotional experience, Haneke and his actors have found a way to express the most sacred of emotions with respect, conviction, and sincerity.

One of the very best films of the year.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Amour was the recipient of the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a host of other prizes. I think this is looking like a sure thing for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and would not be surprised to see it pick up additional nominations, including Best Picture. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Podcasting: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Had enough of a Hobbit fix yet??? If the answer's no, then you'll enjoy this one. The good gentlemen of Out Now With Aaron and Abe were kind enough enough to invite me to be a part of their discussion/breakdown of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

You can listen to the entire podcast by clicking HERE to go to the episode's official page or by clicking the big ol' play button below. I've been on a lot of Out Now episodes this last year, but I felt that this turned out to be a particularly interesting discussion. 

Don't forget to share/post/link/tweet or whatever it is you do with things you like. Enjoy!

This episode features: 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - (or Peter Jackson's "Run Bilbo Run")

Now that all of the hullabaloo around the making of the film has finally been (mostly?) resolved, it's refreshing to be able to sit down and actually discuss The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on its own terms.

I'll just tell you up front that I'm no Tolkienhead. Ironically enough, the only book of his that I've read, albeit rather haphazardly, is The Hobbit. There were a few abortive attempts to read The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, but I didn't get far. That always struck me as strange, considering a childhood heavily steeped in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and Brian Jacques' Tales of Redwall. You'd think that Tolkien would have been a natural addition to that, but, for whatever reason, I never got that far past Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party.

That said, I love Peter Jackson's original trilogy of films, which strike me as one of the bravest and most successful of cinematic achievements. The Return of the King, in particular, is a film that I consider one of the finest of our young century. With regard to bravery, it was almost unheard of at the time to shoot an entire trilogy's worth of footage (particularly THAT trilogy) simultaneously, and then schedule back-to-back-to-back December releases. Can you imagine the hell that Peter Jackson might have endured if The Fellowship of the Ring had flopped? It's safe to assume that he might never have directed again, at least not anything not airing on Lifetime.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid adventure story, with swords, sorcery, and a few tiny glimpses at a dragon. In short, it's good, but not great. What you're going to get out of it will depend a great deal on the expectations that you had when you walk into the theater, but even that's a bit murky and not nearly as cut and dry as you'd think. One man I saw the film with absolutely loved it but acknowledged that he loved the material so much that it'd be difficult for him not to like the movie, while another was such a big fan of the novel that he left the theater with a heavy, heavy heart. On the other hand, the rest of us and our varying degrees of fandom liked the movie well enough but had to acknowledge a few flaws.

First, the good. . .

It felt so good to have the chance to visit Middle-Earth again. I think that anyone who fell in love with The Lord of the Rings feels exactly the same way. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think that that trilogy is this generation's Star Wars with the kind of collective thrall they cast over people the world over. The cast of characters is uniformly strong, with Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo Baggins deserving particular note. He plays Bilbo as a very pragmatic kind of person, which I think is a lot easier to identify with than the eternally earnest angst that Elijah Woods brought to Frodo. There's a wonderful bit where another character tells Bilbo that he had doubted him from the start, and Bilbo says, "well, that's quite all right, I would have doubted me too." Another standout new character is Radagast the Brown, an absent-minded wizard that reminded me delightfully of a friend of mine. He's got the most wonderful way of getting around too, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you. I'd anticipated the sheer number of dwarves being a bit difficult to keep track of, but am pleased to report that the script finds a happy balance between giving each character enough to do while refraining from beating the audience over the head with names, names, and more names.

I don't think that you'll be surprised to learn that perhaps the film's real standout is Andy Serkis' Gollum. He manages to seem even creepier this time around, with eyes that glow in a way that they never did in the original trilogy. The game of riddles that he plays with Bilbo is one of the film's finest sequences, and I'll be curious to see if he reappears in any of the other films in the series. I don't think that he's featured anywhere else in the novel, but I feel confident that Peter Jackson will find a way to work him back into the narrative.

Now, the not so good . . .

I think that the issue arises from a somewhat schizophrenic tonal approach. From what I understand, the source material is a lot more whimsical than the somber events of the Lord of the Rings, and while that sense of whimsy comes through at times (albeit somewhat strangely), Jackson seems committed to tying The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to the earlier trilogy of films. That might not be an entirely good thing.

Trying to tell the beginning of the story after the fact isn't entirely unheard of, as George Lucas tried to do something similar with the Star Wars prequels. Although, to be fair, that case was a bit different, as Star Wars is an original work, rather than an adaptation, and the decision to start in the middle wasn't readily apparent. That said, Peter Jackson's conundrum is a bit different here. He's got to try and find the middle ground of appealing to fans of the book as well as fans of the films who might not have any knowledge of this part of the story.

One area in which the two different tonal approaches conflict is apparent right off the bat. The stakes just aren't as high this time around, so when characters solemnly parade around (particularly in the Rivendell sequence) it comes across as self-serious and somewhat exaggerated. The first time around, it was the fate of the whole world at stake, so please, Mr. Gandalf, take all the time you need! Additionally, there are bits that were clearly thrown in for fans of the original series, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, when you look at the way they're handled, it can seem a bit strange. For example, when Galadriel first appears, it's almost as though PJ is going for a near-biblical moment. Now, don't get me wrong, she's one of my favorite characters in Tolkien's universe, but it just seemed a bit silly in the way it was handled this time around, particularly with regard to the way that she's introduced in the earlier trilogy.

PJ's decision to shoot the film in 48 frames-per-second has gotten a lot of buzz, and it was interesting to finally have the chance to see it for myself. I'm notoriously opposed to high-frame rate forms of exhibition with regard to home media, as the "enhanced" experience seems, to these eyes, to remove all semblance of grace from the cinema in its reduction of even the slowest pan to a herky-jerky form of visual stuttering. I had the opportunity to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in "high frame rate 3D," and the experience was interesting, though not as groundbreaking as it might have been intended to be by any stretch. The combination of the style of 3D glasses we used and our excellent seats (square in the center) did a fine job of removing peripheral vision in such a way as to eliminate the blurriness that sometimes pops up elsewhere. The extra frame rate was readily apparent early on, but I found that I soon adapted to it. I hadn't expected that to happen, but after a certain point, I only noticed the extra frame rate when I consciously thought of it.

That said, it doesn't really make that positive of a contribution to the entire experience. During the film's introductory segment, the high frame rate renders the action sequences nearly incomprehensible from a visual standpoint, and I'm told it was that much worse in standard 3D. While the 3D was much more vivid than any other film I've seen in that format, the enhanced image actually seems to make the "extra dimension" that much less noticeable. Once the film got going, I tended to forget that it was even in 3D at all, unless some kind of flying object did the stereotypical "pop out" or my nose started to rebel from having two sets of glasses double-parked on it.

Additionally, the visual effects don't seem as strong this time around. I'm not sure if that's due to the higher frame rate, but there are multiple characters that look rather fake. The film's primary antagonist (who's apparently a completely original character), in particular, has that stereotypical "CG" look to him.

Another point of curiosity stems from the decision to make The Hobbit a trilogy, instead of telling the story in two parts. To me, it seems like a blatant cash grab by a team that knows that their audience will see anything that they do with any kind of Tolkien stamp on it. Personally, I think that the trilogy was born from the realization that the Extended Editions of the previous trilogy were such a success that they could easily release the new films in their extended forms, shoot a little more footage, and voila! Three films! I'm sure that they've rationalized it in their own minds, and there's probably no small nostalgic influence on this decision. After all, what other stories can they set in Middle-Earth once they've finished here? I already feel a bit dubious about the decision to populate the third film with content from The Simarillion, appendices, and Unfinished Tales.  

Ultimately, where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey falls short for me is in not being a true part of The Lord of the Rings, but that's not the fault of the material. After having the bar set so high with the original trilogy, I wish that Peter Jackson had taken a stronger stance in either making a film that was more faithful to Tolkien's source material or making a direct extension to his own past work.

On its own, it's a solid adventure film, but seen as part of a larger whole, things tend to get a bit murky. That said, my reservations don't exactly have teeth. I'll be there opening weekend for each of The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again.

I'm not fooling anybody.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)