POSTED ON AUGUST 4, 2010:
The Ties That Bind
Family relations are tested, and war brethren gets new in-depth look in two new films
We Are Family. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is pulled into his fatherly duties unexpectedly as his two children search and discover him years after their mothers were artificially inseminated by him in The Kids Are All Right.
Near the end of The Kids Are All Right, there's a terrific line delivered by Jules (Julianne Moore) where she wistfully laments the fact she didn't read more Russian literature. This clever reference is pointed toward Leo Tolstoy's opening line of Anna Karenina regarding every unhappy family's own particular blend of being screwed up.
It's a perfect summation of what exists in the movie -- a family, completely unique in its construction yet familiar in its levels of being dysfunction, grappling with a variety of destructive issues that creep into the bonds of their unconventional family.
Don't be frightened by nods to Tolstoy in the story. The Kids Are All Right is less time consuming and a lot more fun than any of the Russian master's books. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon), The Kids Are All Right is a smart, lively, complicated look at just how the foundation of relationships can be shaken when someone unexpected comes into a tightly-knitted circle aka the family unit.
Joni and Laser have never known their father. Their moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules, were artificially inseminated from the same man with a three year gap in conception. Joni just turned 18 and is legally able to contact her never-known father Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and set up clandestine get-togethers between a newly baffled father and his two progeny. When the moms find out about Paul, and he enters their lives for the first time (not counting the medical prodecures), it turns everyone's idea of normalcy upside down. Nothing will be the same.
Anchoring The Kids Are All Right are two remarkable performances from the female leads Bening and Moore. There are multiple reasons the movie is a joy but without them as the moms, the film would have been missing its key element.
Both are absolutely wonderful, bringing multifaceted emotions and range out of the characters with choices that are spot-on perfect. Bening and Moore, always solid and who have had a career of interesting roles, have delivered once again. The pair refreshingly look their ages and for their relationship to work on the screen, they needed to look age appropriate. Thank goodness there seem to be actors resisting the madness that is the youth obsessed delusion of being wrinkle-free via chemical injection and surgeries.
The script by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg is another strong element of the movie. Filled with nuance, the entire cast gets to have their own moments with one-liners, retorts and plenty of give and take. Characters communicate while also appearing to listen to one another. Joint talking and listening is always difficult to pull off and look natural in a film, but it works here.
If not for an unfortunate dive into the conventional with a plot twist halfway into the movie, The Kids Are All Right would have been in the running for one of 2010's best. Despite that error, it's still an intelligent comedy about the similarities of bonds that link every family, no matter how different it might look to outsiders. The lesson: In all the ways we think we are unique, we are all really just the same.
A Different War Story
There have been so many movies released about the first Gulf War and the seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that we might be approaching saturation point on the topic. From last year's Oscar winner The Hurt Locker to previous documentaries like 2005's Gunner Palace, there comes a time to ponder the question -- do we really need another film that depicts what has happened to soldiers in either of these military conflicts? If the films are as raw, honest and stripped clean of agenda as Restrepo is, then the answer is a resounding yes.
Restrepo follows Second Platoon as they are deployed into one of the most dangerous regions in Afghanistan for a 15-month hitch. The Korengal Valley is a strategically important location for U.S. soldiers. The terrain is rocky, mountainous, inhospitable and just as important to the Taliban as it is to the Second Platoon to control. To live and fight there is an extreme experience for the soldiers, and they take fire from the enemy almost every single day.
Think about that for a second. Every single day people were trying to kill them. That's actually kind of a warfare anomaly where there are usually bursts of violent danger followed by periods of extreme boredom. Not for these guys.
They had to psychologically deal with the threat of being killed every day. It's something I can only imagine after watching actual soldiers in combat through documentaries like Restrepo. I admit, I don't want any part of that.
Juan "Dock" Restrepo was a popular member of the platoon who was killed early in the platoon's deployment. When the men establish an outpost deep in the valley, they christen it "Restrepo" as a "middle finger" to the enemy and tribute to Dock. The platoon literally digs into the rough patch of land and when they aren't digging, they are engaged in returning heavy fire with the people who want them gone.
Restrepo tells its story by using the actual footage from the soldiers and with interviews with a select few after their tour. The interviews are direct, somber and heartfelt. These men have thought a great deal of what they went through up on that Afghanistan mountain. The camcorder footage has a lot of high adrenaline scenes of gunfire exchanges, but there are also intimate moments of the platoon talking, joking, singing songs and full of the camaraderie that comes with being a soldier.
Restrepo tells us very little about the war as a whole. It's more concerned with the nature of being a modern soldier in such a severe region, fighting an unknown enemy and dealing with silent locals for more than a year of their lives. It's not a pleasant endeavor, but they accept it with honor and duty. On screen, the men never complain, they never become bitter in the fact they are risking death every day in some remote place the vast majority of Americans couldn't find on a map. That's impressive.
You are wrong if you think you've seen enough about the current conflict in the Middle East from television, newspapers or other movies. There's more to glean from the subject.
Restrepo is a riveting, straightforward documentary, pulling no punches and told by the soldiers themselves. Refreshingly, it doesn't try to sway your opinion about the politics of the war -- it just tells the harrowing story of how the soldiers lived and what they went through during their year on this rough-hewn patch of rock in Afghanistan.
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