Letting go of the past can be a difficult process. Ten years after the death of her late husband Sean, Anna (a pixie-haired Nicole Kidman) is engaged to a respectable businessman and seems ready to finally move on from the tragedy in her past. But then the past comes back to her in the form of a ten-year-old boy, who claims to be her dead husband. Anna and her fiancé brush off his behavior at first, but the boy is persistent, and knows certain private information that he should have no way of knowing. As his claims and actions continue to carry more and more weight, Anna is forced to make a decision: reject the boy’s affections and move on with her life, or risk abandoning everything to stay with the reincarnation of her true love. Along the way, this 2004 film from director Jonathan Glazer keeps raising tantalizing questions. Is Sean truly Anna’s dead husband reincarnate, or is it all just an elaborate trick? If he is telling the truth, was he always conscious of that truth, or was there a sudden moment of revelation (when his mother starts up an elaborate bedtime ritual, he dismisses her by saying “I’m not your stupid boy anymore.”)? How could this boy really be Sean, when Sean openly rejected such possibilities when he was alive? And how come he doesn’t remember his secret affair with another woman (Anne Heche)?
They are interesting questions to consider, but Glazer, in his second feature film after the considerably more dialogue-heavy Sexy Beast, doesn’t seem all that concerned with providing answers. That refusal to include any explanations is what separates Birth from more conventional fare, and I can just picture how easily this film could have been transformed into something less special. It would have been a horror story, with a creepy kid insidiously worming his way into the lives of respectable people, and the whole thing would have ended in violence. It certainly wouldn’t have had the strange appeal of Glazer’s film, which plays out instead almost like a dark fairytale, with the boy becoming something of a literal manifestation of one woman’s hesitancy to let go. And it wouldn’t have kept those lingering questions open for the viewer to consider. But they are questions that really can’t be answered in any definitive way, and I’m happy the film decided to keep them mysterious. 9/10.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something off about my sense of humor. I know I have one, but it’s one that doesn’t seem to align very well with many of the so-called “comedies” released in recent years. Case in point: this apocalyptic outing from the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, here also making their directing debut. It opens innocuously enough, with the arrival of Jay Baruchel into Los Angeles to spend some time with his buddy Seth Rogen (everyone in the film plays themselves). Baruchel isn’t a fan of the L.A. lifestyle, an attitude Rogen hopes to change by dragging him to a big party at James Franco’s new house. After about 15 minutes of celebrity cameos, all hell breaks loose, quite literally. The blessed are beamed up into the sky, and the sinners (including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, along with Baruchel, Rogen, and Franco) are left on Earth to scramble to survive and do battle with the forces of Hell.
Despite never much caring for everyone involved in this production, I went into it optimistic, hoping the premise would inspire something a little more adventurous than normal. There are certainly laughs to be had here, particularly in the celebrity satire that makes up the first 30 minutes (even though it’s nowhere near as sharp or fun as 2008’s Tropic Thunder). But it doesn’t take long for everyone to reach back into their bottomless grab bag of dick and weed jokes. Very little is done with the “actors playing themselves” conceit; essentially, everyone gets one defining trait to run into the ground. Franco has an obvious crush on Rogen, Hill is overly eager to please, McBride is loud and obnoxious (big stretch there), and so on. For every pointed one-liner, there are ten more that fall completely flat, and at a certain point the comedy just devolves into people shouting at each other. The entire thing feels like a bunch of buddies spending a weekend riffing with each other, consistency and coherency be damned. While that kind of thing can be amusing up to a point, all this overly-chummy, lightly self-deprecating backslapping between people who think they’re much more clever than they actually are gets tiring quickly. I know plenty of people find these guys incredibly funny, but I’m just left pondering how many times they can make the same movie before everyone realizes they really don’t have much else to offer. 4/10.
Out of all the many lasting images that have come from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, none is perhaps quite as mysterious or provocative as the star child that closes out the film, the not-fully-formed being floating in embryonic space above the blue Earth. That idea of space as an almost- amniotic world is evoked again in the new film from Alfonso Cuarón, his first since the 2006 dystopian parable Children Of Men. Of course, now that I’ve raised the specter of that 1968 behemoth of science fiction, I find myself feeling the need to backpedal a little bit. At least at first glance, Gravity is more akin to something like Apollo 13, only stripped down to the bare essentials, a story of human survival set against the backdrop of an endless black expanse, with one woman fighting nearly insurmountable odds to stay alive. But there is a metaphorical quality to the journey Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone takes through the film. A past tragedy in her life has broken her spirit, and her ordeal results in a kind of a spiritual rebirth. It’s a subtext suggested in the fetal position Bullock takes in a brief respite from danger. And in the umbilical cord that connects Bullock and George Clooney through the early sections (cords seem to be a constant motif). And in the cries of a baby over a communications link. And finally in the closing moments, when Bullock emerges from darkness into light, crawls to solid ground, and eventually rises to stand up on two legs and walk forward. The lasting impression most will have from Gravity will likely be more visceral than cerebral, but in my mind this subtext dispels the notion that the film only functions on the level of technical spectacle.
Having said all that though, as far as technical spectacles go, this is certainly one of the best to come around in awhile. As someone who usually has a large aversion toward anything too reliant on CGI effects work, I was surprised how easy it was for me to relax into the digital setting that Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created. A reason for that might be the 13-minute opening shot, one of the very few sequences in film this year to give me chills down my spine, not really because of anything related to plot or character, but simply because of the graceful elegance of its orchestration. It’s a terrific way to acclimate the viewer into the film’s world. The rest of the drama might never quite reach the same heights as that opening sequence, but the disconnect that can often come with films of this sort was never a problem. I’ve seen the film in theaters twice now, the second time mainly because I couldn’t shake the feeling I hadn’t actually seen the 3d experience everyone was going crazy over the first time (the theater sold me a ticket to a 3d screening, but didn’t tack on the extra surcharge , and so I was paranoid the theater had pulled a fast one on me). Turns out they did, because when I went to a different theater on the second viewing, the 3d had a much more noticeable effect. Nevertheless, I feel like the idea that 3d is an essential part of this film’s success is complete nonsense. Gravity will still work without the extra dimension and when it leaves cinema screens to play in smaller settings, because gimmicky promotions and a larger screen size are not as important here as the remarkable craftsmanship and passionate, human storytelling on display. 8/10.
An invitation from a daughter to her estranged mother sets in motion the events that make up this 1978 film from Ingmar Bergman. Eva, who lives in the country with her husband Viktor and her severely-disabled sister Helena, has not seen her mother Charlotte for seven years. Charlotte leads a busy life as a concert pianist, but there is the sense that there are other reasons why she has remained separate from her family for so long. Upon her arrival to the country home, Charlotte is greeted by Eva in a friendly manner. But it doesn’t take long for all their pent-up hostilities to come flooding out, culminating in one emotional evening, at the end of which the relationship between the two women might be forever scarred. In its confrontation between two women, the film brought to mind Bergman’s Persona (a piano piece played individually by both mother and daughter recalls that earlier film’s famous monologue repetition). But Autumn Sonata is less opaque, its main intention to explore the nature of rifts that can form between family members over the course of decades.
For both its director and lead star, the making of Autumn Sonata was a very personal ordeal. For Ingmar Bergman, the film was an opportunity to explore some of the conflicting emotions he felt towards his parents and his upbringing. Even though the main confrontation in the film is between two women, there are definite parallels to be drawn between Eva’s misgivings and Bergman’s. For Ingrid Bergman, it was to be her last feature film appearance. Terminally ill with cancer during the film’s production, she saw echoes in the role of the frequently-absent mother of her absences from her own children. As a director, Ingmar Bergman was a master at these kind of intimate chamber pieces, and in Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, he had two of the best actors to voice his material. Strangely though, I find myself most drawn to the character of Eva’s husband, Viktor, played by Halvar Björk. Although a minor character, he is the one who introduces the situation at the beginning, breaking the fourth wall to bring the viewer into the film’s world. Much like the viewer, he senses the inevitable clash that will occur between the two women, but he is only able to observe from a distance. He understands like the viewer that, even though the results might be painful, there needs to be an airing out of grievances. One gets the sense that Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman had a similar goal in mind when making the film. 8/10.