Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beginners (2011) – Review

Review: Beginners is sad and honest, with a wonderful naturalistic/minimalist aesthetic. Writer-director Mike Mills structured the film to jump around in time to tell the story – both narratively (this is what happened then and is happening now) and emotionally (how Oliver got to be the way he is). While the film has a certain indie quirkiness to it (which is sort of standard for this type of film), Mills seems to put a premium on exploring the emotions of his characters in a very authentic fashion (though, there is somewhat of a typical Hollywood narrative formula at work as well). The audience can connect with Oliver, because he feels real and his emotions genuine. Mills is not afraid to explore Oliver’s loneliness and deep sadness (the fear being making a depressing film that isolates the audience), and it works both due to the emotions feeling substantial and tangible and to the humor and quirky charm that is sprinkled in throughout (plus a very cute Jack Russell terrier that gives his perspective, almost God-like, when things are not as they should be). The characters of Oliver’s dad Hal and his friend Anna also have a lot of life and kinetic energy that they bring to the film, which helps balance out the stunted Oliver. However, despite the loneliness and deep sadness of Oliver, the film has a refreshing and un-abating optimism to it – it is never too late to make a change or start over (as can be seen both in Hal, Oliver and Anna). It is the kind of optimism that is naïve, but necessary and brings a smile to our faces (we need and crave this type of optimism in our own lives). In addition to the narrative, the film has a very important and socially relevant (and political) message in relation the treatment of gay men and women (or just being different in someone’s eyes). The film compares what it was like to be Gay or Jewish in the 30s/40s/50s in connection to today. (Not to go off on a tangent but) it is ridiculous that even today all Americans (and humans) do not have the same rights under the law. The film has a very accepting and loving affinity to its characters (be them gay or straight), which makes it endearing and promotes such a positive vibe (even outside the narrative). Beginners is an excellent film with great characters and emotional resonance.

Technical & acting achievements: Mike Mills has had a successful career making music videos (a style that lent itself very well to a number of the sequences in this film) and also made the narrative film Thumbsucker (which was received with mixed criticism, and is not a film I liked much). Beginners is his best work to date as it shows his skill in writing very true characters and handling an interesting narrative structure. I, for one, am looking forward to what he does next. The composing trio of Roger Neill, Dave Palmer and Brian Reitzell produce a great score that works well with the emotional journey that Oliver embarks on. Kasper Tuxen’s cinematography is also very good, exhibiting a very natural look. Mills and Tuxen’s shot composition is also excellent – which it needed to be as Oliver’s job is in art and Hal’s is as a museum director, thus giving the film by way of its characters an artistic imperative. Shane Valentino’s production design is wonderful, playing off the indie charm and artistic minimalism to create fantastic sets (much like his work on Somewhere). The cast (comprised mainly of four actors) is fabulous. Goran Visnjic emotes so much empathy and love (though, tapered a bit with mistrust due to a life of being viewed as an outsider, which is a bit of a theme for all the characters – a mistrust of the good things in their lives, except Hal). Christopher Plummer has such grace and love for his character. He is brilliant as Hal. Melanie Laurent (in her second ‘American’ film) once again steals our hearts. She is able to play her character as being everything we would want in a partner (loyal, loving, cute, interesting) while still feeling authentic (no easy task; she is definitely a star to watch). Ewan McGregor is very good as well (probably his best performance in a long time). His character Oliver is so toned down that all his happiness feels a bit jaded as we can see the destructive sadness within. He uses his eyes so well.

Summary & score: Beginners is a special film in which optimism preservers in spite of it being engulfed in loneliness and sadness. 9/10

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