Everyone was watching Harry Potter's final foray on the silver screen last weekend (and most likely this weekend, too). I'll see it whenever the herd of fandom-possessed Harriacs thins. None of them really cares about anyone's review anyway, unless it's a bad one.
Wanting to avoid some of the bigger films of the last couple of weeks in general, I've been looking into the "counter-programming". Those movies that literally count on the audience for whom Transformers or Harry Potter (that's not an equivalence, by the way -- one is a fine film series) hold no special appeal; the audience that excitedly takes in documentaries or for whom independent films, foreign, subtitled dramas and comedies aren't a reason to demand a refund.
While those categories don't have the widest appeal (generally speaking people like brands only slightly more than they hate originality) once in a while there's a little, quasi-indie that could -- in an alternate universe where audiences almost exclusively flock to good movies. Beginners, a window into real lives painted personally, poignantly and wonderfully, with an artist's eye would have a great shot at mass appeal if it were marketed with more ambition to audiences who can stop mainlining big-budget Sweet'N Low.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a freelance artist whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces his homosexuality to him at age 75, after the death of Oliver's mother and not long before learning that he himself has a terminal illness. Opening after Hal's death five years later, Beginners employs non-linearity to weave its tale as Oliver, eternally between girlfriends, wryly seeks romantic solace while his father, unshackled from the chains of a loving yet distant marriage, embraces his gayness with the giddy discovery of an astronaut setting foot on a new planet. Hal procures a much younger boyfriend, Andy (Goran Visnjic) and generally lives life to the fullest.
Things take a turn for Oliver when he goes to a scholarly costume party and meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a stunningly gorgeous actress visiting Los Angeles from New York. Taken by Oliver's veiled malaise (and that he looks like Ewan McGregor) the two quickly become enamored of each other. But when things get serious the history of Oliver's inability to commit rears its uncertain head. What he learns from his father, who regally refuses to let the news of his impending demise blunt his outlook on life, love and people, gives Oliver the perspective to make peace with his own past and court a different future.
Based on the real life experiences of writer/director Mike Mills, Beginners shows remarkable growth from his mildly enjoyable, but too-emo-cute for its own good, Thumbsucker. Here the only signs of that were Oliver's ongoing dialogues with his father's dog whose pithy thoughts are subtitled ("While dogs understand up to 125 words, we don't speak English") for an inconsequential layer of whimsy that the affirming sweetness of Beginners' unlikely story already had handled -- well, that and the presence of The Sads in a cameo.
Mills ties together his touching and mirthful narrative while adeptly hopping back and forth to craft it into a near dream-like whole, connecting the emotional dots and rendering his characters with warmth and tangibility that is furthered by the sublime cinematography of Kasper Tuxen and the great performances from Mill's cast.
Ewan McGregor gives a subtle and charismatic turn as Oliver, whose soul searching through art allows McGregor to mine the subtle undertones of a man-child slowly letting go of the child part of that equation. He's funny and affable and damaged and McGregor reminds you that he can do fantastic work under the shadow of his Star Wars fame.
Christopher Plummer is great as Hal, a character whose arc (such as it is, Hal a lesser sketched personality that Plummer fills out wonderfully, as usual) dovetails nicely with Oliver's as he lets go of his sense of responsibility to convention in the autumn of his life, which its spring would never have allowed.
Mélanie Laurent is dark and lovely as the free-spirited Anna, whose inner sense of disconnected loneliness is a perfect match for Oliver's. Two people looking for permanence and hoping to find it in each other, perhaps for the first time. Again, it's a considered and detailed performance in a film rich with them.
Beginners is yet another unexpected surprise in a season noted for being almost proud of avoiding these kinds of genuine satisfactions.
Page One: Inside the New York Times
A couple of weeks ago David Carr, the New York Times reporter and media writer appeared on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and in response to Maher's ire about Republican appeals to charter school jingoism (Maher was upset at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's push to privatize its public schools, feeling that's the kind of thinking that goes over better in places like Kansas because that's where people are ultra-conservative and hate government-run anything -- unless they need government money) Carr said, "If it's Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that's the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right?"
Really the ratio of stupid to smart people is pretty consistent everywhere. There are just less people here. Still, even to these highly sympathetic, New York-born and very liberal ears, Carr's dismissive attitude of the fly-over states came off as that of a self-satisfied, elitist dickhead; arms folded across his chest and a smug look on his leathern visage as if he were surveying his kingdom in the faces of the studio audience.
Of course the conservative media nexus jumped all over it. An excuse to vilify the old Fourth Estate as liberal, elitist, sushi-eating douche nozzles that not only don't care about the common people but are actively contemptuous of them; or anyone outside of their social sphere. It's a demographic the political pundits of the world actively adore while society loses all sense of what real journalism is amongst the cacophony of cable and network infotainment, or worse, the willing subservience of that Fourth Estate to government and corporate stenography.
So when David Carr reveals himself to be a real journalist in writer/director Andrew Rossi's succinct, well-made and mostly honest expose, Page One: Inside the New York Times, it was something of a letdown. It would have been easier to think of him as a self-serious dick with a narrow view of America. Now he's a somewhat pretentious and pushy dick that commands respect, because being a dick is a skill the job sometimes requires, and because of his self-effacing admiration of real journalists and the institutions they serve. It can't be helped. Page One makes you get David Carr. Even like him.
But aside from following the former coke-addict and single father as a guide, liking David Carr is not Page One's intent. The crux of Carr's bailiwick is the evolution of media and how it affects culture, the way people get information and that is where the scope of Page One proves to be enlightening, if a little frustratingly self-congratulatory.
It's hard to argue the "New York Times Effect" (it's a lyric in the Bee Gee's song, "Stayin' Alive", after all). As an icon, The Gray Lady still takes precedence as one of the few American newspapers that is canon internationally and enjoys a sense of permanence that has all but abandoned traditional, mainstream "dead tree" media.
Page One compellingly lays out the new media environment, where entrepreneurial web mavens undercut the money spent by traditional media outlets by aggregating their articles without compensation while ideologues eat up the blogosphere (and AM radio) and even buy entire empires to destroy them -- in an unlooked for bit of foreshadowing Rupert Murdoch appears here, fearful of the death of traditional news outlets because of technology. Indeed, the billionaire real estate magnate Sam Zell's purchase of Tribune Company leads to the direct demise of newspapers under its banner, including the Chicago Tribune and the ultimate bankruptcy of Tribune Company in what seems a business move based on sleazy hubris and ideological spite for the medium itself.
It's just another frontline in the battle for control the information status quo that is in an unprecedented state of flux in the 21st century as old guards like The Times, who maintain foreign bureaus all over the world, do the actual leg work only to be scooped by uncounted web outlets and news aggregators (of which Matt Drudge was, ironically, among the first) before their print editions ever left the warehouse.
At the same time, it's hard to feel bad for an institution that has abdicated its own standards -- either by letting Judith Miller trumpet Bush-era propaganda that led to Iraq (which the film addresses) or withholding the story of said President's warrantless, illegal wire-tapping program for over a year and past the point of the 2004 elections when it might have made a difference (which Page One ignores). Maybe President Kerry would have been terrible but that story might have changed history had it been reported with all the "muscle" David Carr finds so appealing about his employer.
It's with the rise of WikiLeaks that you get the sense that the Times hierarchy becomes nostalgic for the kind of pure journalism that used to be the basis of its reporting, despite its wariness of the source. That Carl Bernstein makes an appearance is no accident when contrasting what the Times, The Washington Post and many others used to do. Fearlessly go to bat for the public interest.
Page One gets to the heart of all that. It's a great documentary about the end of an era in news and a wonderful reminder of true journalism's load-bearing importance to informed public thought -- one that is sadly buckling under the weight of economics, corporate saturation and near total apathy. If that doesn't change, we're fucked.
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