Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Misery Mile

Three 2010 releases I caught up with over the past week were a marathon of miserable, although in only one case did that apply to my state of mind rather than the characters themselves. The other two films, in fact, were the kind of soul-draining cinema that I gravitate toward like a child to downed power lines. After all, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, or in the case of film number three, makes you contemplate killing something else. With that in mind, let's run through my week in movies, chronologically as luck would have it.

Blue Valentine
The pairing of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, two of the best actors of their up-and-coming generation, felt significant even before the first trailer came around. Through love and through loathing, their chemistry is palpable, and the only excuse you need to check out this film. The movie itself is amazingly bi-polar, cutting between the glorious romantic highs of first love to the ruins of a marriage run into the ground. There's such true passion and joy emanating from the flashback sequences, especially the heartfelt scene that frames the trailer, but this is ultimately a film for the cynics. It's excruciating to watch romantic bliss die a cruel death without any causation of the middle years, and the cards here are stacked against the former lovers. A few moments, including an embarrassingly melodramatic hospital confrontation, stretch the drama too far, but I mostly found the film's pessimistic duality enormously effective, if hardly pleasurable. The flashes between past and present weren't handled idly, and so the gradual reveal of the plot served, as it should, to deepen the characters with each passing cut. That's just good film-making.

Another Year There's a fascinating compare and contrast piece waiting to be written on Blue Valentine vs. Another Year. The former finds misery within a marriage still a far cry from maturity by any standards while the later uses a long-standing unshakable marital bond as the locus around which a handful of personal lives crumble. Both films cut between emotional trainwrecks and the sunny side of life at will before ultimately allowing the futility of such struggled to take over. But Another Year marginally less cynical, because worn down as they Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen's happy couple appear by the end, their love for each other never appear shaken.

So what's the cause of such anguish? That would be Lesley Manville's Mary, a single woman of maybe 50 years, and a basket case of emotions stemming from her failures past, present and future. She's clings to Tom and Gerri (the affectionately lighthearted duo of Broadbent and Sheen) while there's no doubt that they only keep her around out of pity. Mary's smitten with their unmarried son who regards her more as a crazy aunt than an option in love, and yet remains staunchly repulsed by bloated bachelor friend Ken and his many advances. Yet her options run increasingly thin, and her time spent in the shadow of Tom and Gerri's model couple only drives her further into depression. She strikes out with desperate justifications and ploys, and in the film's bleak final act, shatters her carefully constructed mask of happiness and turns a noteworthy performance into a truly great one.

As usual though for a Mike Leigh film, the entire ensemble comes through. Broadbent and Sheen are as much leads as Manville, even if she runs away with all of the many scenes she's in, and the dependable supporting players include David Bradley (Argus Filch!), Peter Wight (who is perhaps still suffering the aftermath of David Thewlis tearing down the walls of his world in Naked), and a limited engagement by Imelda Staunton. It's a typically terrific film from Leigh and if you're not adverse to emotionally draining experiences, one of the better films of the year.

So what happened here? My hopes, I will not lie, were up quite a bit. Blame Tarantino leading the Venice jury to the coveted Golden Lion, or blame Sofia Coppola's pedigree, which is bound to set expectations unrealistically as it is. Somewhere hops around between hotel rooms and lobbies, but the script features only the vaguest sketch of character development. Steven Dorff and Elle Fanning are a reunited father and daughter, daddy's a movie star and she's a little spoiled, but they get along and spend some time together and that's, well, about all. Because the problem with Somewhere is that no one progresses, they just stay in idle and they're not even interesting to watch while they're stagnating. There's the sense at the beginning that Cleo doesn't spend much time with her father, but you'd never know it based on Dorff and Fanning, who's relationship has all the warmth in the beginning that it does when he finally sends her off to camp. The film hangs in a pleasant but dull sort of stasis for the entire duration, and slowly I began to find this infuriating, more so than I would have had Coppola attempted even the slightest bit of character arc. Or it honestly could be the fault of the actors, neither who I have much confidence in to find nuance in thinly written roles.

I will say that I appreciated some of the brief moments of insight behind the scenes of the movie business, from the press junket to the elevator ride with Benicio del Toro, but they hardly made up for a mostly trying movie experience. Disappointingly inert, but I remain on team Coppola. Even here her insights prove valuable, if not put to the best use.

Tomorrow, barring unforeseen disasters, I should have an exciting review posted. And I've got an ongoing project planned to launch later in the week, which should be a welcome variation from the typical reviews/listing.

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