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1985 Monday Movies Finds Jesus

In Beginners, Ewan MacGregor (pleasantly relieved of movie-star duty by the debacle of the Star Wars films and the arrival of James McAvoy) plays Oliver, a melancholy cartoonist who has recently lost his mother to cancer. In the two neighboring timeframes of the film, he contends with his father (Christopher Plummer) coming out of the closet and, after his father’s passing, with a whirlwind, nearly wordless, romance.

Throughout, he grapples with grave sadness. In a droll subplot, a band called The Sads hires him to do a graphic portrait. Instead of executing the assignment, he creates an unwieldy accordion-paneled epic cartoon called “The History of Sadness.” The panels fill the screen, including such landmark moments as “the first homosexual told he had a mental illness.” His father approaches death in blithe denial — “Do you know what stage four cancer means? There’s no stage five!” — and refuses to say a word of it to his boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic, transformed from hunk to oaf with a bad haircut and a great character). After his father dies, he begins an affair with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who picks him up despite absolute laryngitic muteness by seeing the sadness in his eyes. Their quick connection allows for short joyous, infatuated binges, but mostly they pass the time in swamps of silence, capable of showing each other their wounds but not, until perhaps the end, capable of giving each other healing.

Director Mike Mills, whose own parents’s story is the model for much of the film, ties the story into post-WWII American history with a light touch, using quick montages and narration that bring in the history of the rainbow flag, the Mattachine society, the poem Howl, the lie of postwar consumer utopia. Oliver tags walls with historical trivia like “1985 Bush Finds Jesus”. The small gestures towards history add up to make the movie feel grounded.

Is Beginners twee? It’s achingly sincere, clever in its prettiness, and right-minded. It shows a character dancing in a turkey costume to no music. I didn’t know that Mills was married to Miranda July, but it didn’t take long for me to wonder if she was thanked in the credits (indeed, first). Referring to the McSweeney’s clique, n+1 invoked a regressive avant-garde whose art wraps itself in the sentimentality of childhood, which for me gets to the nut of the twee charge. That’s an important critique that describes a unifying trend, but many of the individual works of art mine childhood not for sentimentality but for devastating texture. (A later n+1 article about You and Me and Everyone We Know granted July’s savvy in describing actual children, even as it decried the childish “treacle” around her adult characters.) Flashbacks to Oliver’s youth show him grappling with his parents’ genial sham marriage through the eyes of his slowly despairing mother. There’s a brilliant shot, shown twice, in which Oliver’s mother waves her hand as if casting a spell, and Oliver softly feigns keeling over. It’s wonderfully specific; it’s playful; but it is also a poker-faced rehearsal of death. The enchantments of childhood are those from which it takes the longest to wake.

Sentiment is often moving in the dark and turns to treacle in the light, but the more I think about Beginners with the harsh lens of the Monday-movies quarterback, the more I feel how wide it ripped me open.

I heard about The Baxter on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview with The State’s Michael Showalter (son of Elaine, study-nerds), who wrote and directed it. It’s got a great conceit — a “Baxter” is the stooge, often played by Ralph Bellamy, who thinks he’s got the girl locked down while Cary Grant comes along and ruins everything. So this is a romantic comedy from The Baxter’s point of view. Michelle Williams is absolutely wonderful as the girl the Baxter should be with but can’t see. Showalter plays the title role as a stiff dork, finding the character’s emotional core too late and too infrequently. Justin Theroux is great in the same blowhard conscious adventurer role he played on Parks and Recreation, Elizabeth Banks’s brittle runaway bride is very funny, and God bless Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner who should never leave Manhattan. Overall the movie felt suspended between being a viable romantic comedy on its own and being the savage meta-comedy that the concept promised. There is a moment in the middle of the end credits that shows how the whole thing might have paid off at a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead level.

Howl is a jazzy ensemble movie, a worthwhile and inventively non-narrative means of putting a poem in film form. Three elements interact: here, a courtroom drama made of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial, there, a long interview with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, all around, an animation that accompanies Franco’s reading of the poem. The animation was my least favorite element — stylistically, it comes across as a combination of the movie Nine with a hint of Shag, and overall it elevates Ginsberg’s cosmic enthusiasms, e.g. “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” at the expense of his fleshy reportage, e.g. “who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.” The trial scenes feel oddly enervated — prosecutor David Strathairn doesn’t seem to have his case prepared, as if the Powers That Were knew the old order was running out of gas and fobbed off the task on a white-bread clockpuncher. (It was good that it didn’t overmine the courtroom drama — this didn’t need anyone’s truth-handling ability questioned.) I liked seeing James Franco as Ginsberg; overexposed as he is, Franco remains as shamelessly beautiful as he was in Freaks and Geeks, and I like letting Ginsberg be a golden god at this moment in time. There’s plenty of time for David Cross to take over.

Bonus historical tie-in: Allen Ginsberg poses for a picture with the author and his sister, Abbie Hoffman’s Memorial Picnic, 6/10/1989



June 20, 2011 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , ,


  1. 6/14/11 – Poetry – Lee Changdong Korean 2010 9/10
    6/15/11 – Zero Focus – Nomura 1961 6/10
    6/17/11 – Yuriko’s Aroma – Yoshida Kota 2010 6/10
    6/18/11 – Inception – Nolan 7/10

    Comment by bob mcmanus | June 20, 2011

  2. Let’s see, I watched The Mechanic, with Jason Statham, The Town, and Just Like Heaven with Reese Witherspoon. I liked the direction they took with The Mechanic, which was a hitman, student becomes the teacher movie that may have been more interesting than I realized had I not been sleepy when we watched it. The Town struck me as almost impressively unoriginal, like it’s harder to make a movie pieced together from other movies than to make your own. Maybe I’m being a harsh judge because I’m a week removed from having seen it.

    Just Like Heaven was one my wife picked that we were tired of seeing in our DVR queue. That about sums up what I have to say about it. I like Mark Ruffalo, but his participation in a movie like this adds to my belief that actors have good roles brought to them and do well in them. Whether the role is good or not is probably mostly luck. I mean, look what John Travolta did with the capital Pulp Fiction afforded him. He pretty much pissed it away to an extent that Bolt – which I liked – is probably his best movie in ten years. I say that without an IMDB verification, so I apologize if I’m making a large omission of some fine role he’s had.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | June 20, 2011

  3. I left this out of my review, but the truly startling thing to me about Beginners was how much of my own Los Angeles territory it covered. They walk their dog in Elysian Park, where I’ve strolled noon and midnight. They drive their car through Silver Lake, past the little park where I proposed to Mrs. K-sky. They tag a blank billboard overlooking The Brite Spot, where I like to schedule my breakfast meetings. Oliver and Anna first share a bed in the downtown Biltmore, where I woke up after my bachelor party and walked my best man outside to show him the Carey McWilliams quote etched into concrete in the park across the street.

    One or another of those shots has been in many L.A.-set indie films, but then the costume party scene where Oliver meets Anna took place in the Eagle Rock home of my wife’s close friend A., a mid-century museum-piece that serves as a party HQ for our friends. (A. had mentioned that the house appeared on Facebook, but she hadn’t specified how much and for how long, and I’d forgotten until I saw it.) The movie’s sad themes have a personal connection to those hosts, too. And this is all not to mention that the director’s wife is my wife’s third cousin, which I once saw fit to explain to the couple after spotting them at a local restaurant, which has to be on of the odder fan-stalkings on record.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 20, 2011

  4. 2: Travolta, Love Song for Bobby Long

    Comment by bob mcmanus | June 20, 2011

  5. Hated The Mechanic, confess to enjoying The Town.

    Comment by Guido Nius | June 20, 2011

  6. Hopefully we’ll hear more about that tomorrow and Friday, Guido. If you could please watch Food, Inc. we’ll have something for Weds. If you leave it out after only watching half of it we’ll get Thurs as well.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 20, 2011

  7. We couldn’t bear to watch more than a half hour of The Town.

    This week, I watched Babel, which convinced me that this Inarritu guy is a total fraud. I was watching his other movies because I was interested in Biutiful, but now I assume that Biutiful is going to be some ridiculous sprawling manipulative “everything is connected” piece of shit. I guess the message of Babel is don’t give away your gun to people and maybe pay more attention to your sexually-frustrated deaf daughter? Oh, and never get into a car with Gael Garcia Bernal.

    Sometimes I think that I’ve already picked all the low hanging fruit of great movies via my Netflix account and that the majority are going to feel mediocre from here on out — perhaps a symptom of spending a couple years watching almost nothing but universally acclaimed classics.

    And why the fuck do I need to click the “post comment” button twice?!

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 23, 2011

  8. I saw it together with The Kids. I guess there is something different about seeing a movie together with The Kids.

    Comment by Guido Nius | June 23, 2011

  9. Amores Perros is one of my favorite-ever movies, but after 21 Grams and Babel I wonder if I’m a sucker for subtitles. There’s a chance that Biutiful is redeemed by Inarritu splitting from his longtime screenwriter to make it.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 23, 2011

  10. More here. My opinion is ably represented by comment #1, but Old Doug’s write-up is very good, though more sympathetic.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 23, 2011

  11. Amores Perros was really good, yes. I was willing to give 21 Grams the benefit of the doubt because of it, but after Babel — shit!

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 23, 2011

  12. 7:1) “Great” movies need to be watched at least twice.
    2) Between “Great” and “mediocre” is “Good”
    3) Maybe I am too generous or easy, but I felt I had to limit myself pretty randomly to one nation or geographical area because there was just too much out there. And I still feel guilty about skipping Poland (Wajda) and Bresson.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | June 23, 2011

  13. I just watched Kubrick’s first feature, a noir called Killer’s Kiss. It already seems Kubrickian to me. The battle in the room full of naked mannequins is pretty amazing. Meanwhile, I watched a half hour of Herzog’s Heart of Glass and decided I’d go ahead and send it back without finishing it.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 23, 2011

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