Monday, 21 January 2013

Project Tyneside: Les Miserables, Safety Not Guaranteed, Amour, The Sessions

It's part two of Project Tyneside, so what have I seen since since Monday 7th? Scroll down to find out!

Sunday 13th January, 20:00 Amour
Okay, so I know Amour came out last year, but I didn't catch it so since it returned for one day to the Tyneside I thought I might as well give my thoughts on it here. Michael Haneke's film tells the story of an woman who suffers a series of debilitating strokes, and her husband who must care for her as she gradually but interminably declines. Coming from the director of Benny's Video and Funny Games, it's no surprise that Amour is an unvarnished, intense and uncompromising portrayal of illness and mortality. Set almost exclusively in the couple's apartment in France, we witness a lively and intelligent retired musician as she is reduced to a crying, speechless infant. With no score, aside from the music that is often played within the film, Haneke refuses to guide the audience when and how to feel. Moreover, by the film's close, it becomes apparent that Amour isn't simply a portrayal of a couple in old age; it's about the lengths and the depths that we take ourselves for those with whom we choose to spend our lives.

Monday 14th January, 12:05 Les Miserables
Coming from the success of 2010's (a little overrated, I thought) The King's Speech director Tom Hooper mounts an ambitious, original and finely crafted adaptation of the long-running stage musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. Not having seen the stage production before, nor ever having read the novel, I came to Les Mis a complete newcomer, so unfamiliar with its story I was that I thought it was set during the 1789 French Revolution, rather than the thirty years after the revolution that it is. Going in cold like that allowed me to enjoy the film on its own terms, rather than as a stage adaptation, and enjoy it I did, a great deal. The most interesting element of Hooper's Les Mis is his choice to shoot  character scenes characters almost exclusively in close up, visually distancing those scenes from the stage production, and encouraging more personal, subtle performances from his actors, and recording them as they sing live brings a vital immediacy to proceedings. This works best with Anne Hathaway, who in her brief fifteen or so minutes of screen time, completely and undeniably walks away with the film as Fantine in a performance that both deserves the Golden Globe win, and surely demands the Supporting Actress Oscar for which Hathaway has been nominated. Elsewhere, Hugh Jackman is very good as the heroic Jean Valjean, but Russel Crowe struggles with his singing, generally looking uncomfortable as lawman Jauver. Amanda Seyfreid sure can carry a tune, but is stuck with a character that is merely a pretty, innocent object for the other players to act around. An imperfect, but impressive and often interesting production, deserving to be seen on the big screen.

Monday 14th January, 16:00 Safety Not Guaranteed
Another year, another quirky indie comedy. Washed out photography: check. Lo-fi ukulele-inflected soundtrack: check Pretty, middle-class girl in a hoodie, inexplicably sulky, who cultivates an unlikely romance with another outsider: check, check check. All of these cliches are very much present and correct, and with the first act of Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, a film about a journalist doing a story on a wacko who claims he can time travel, playing out like just another (500) Days of Youth in Revolt, my hopes weren't high for the rest of the film. But right around the time Mark Duplass turns up as the above-mentioned wacko, Kenneth, things take a dramatic turn for the better. Kenneth makes for a preposterous, paranoid and likeable male lead in equal measure, and Aubrey Plaza is great as above-mentioned sulky girl Darius, refreshingly centre stage in a genre that so often casts females as foils for neurotic male protagonists. Darius and Kenneth's romance, while predictable, plays out with believability and a sweetness that is sadly lacking in the supporting cast, who, save for a few nice moments, feel superfluous against the compelling central plot. Meanwhile, Kenneth, while clearly a few gigawatts short of a flux capacitor, is compelling and likeable enough that both Darius and the audience begin to believe he might actually be able to construct his time machine. By the film's close, the answer to that question really doesn't matter (I'll not reveal it here; after all, no one should know too much about their own future), and so Safety Not Guaranteed rises above its quirky cliches to become something warm, sweet and genuine.

Friday 18th January, 15:30 The Sessions
Ben Lewin's The Sessions, with its story of triumph over adversity, theme disability, and explicit but very tasteful nudity, would seem a shoe-in for an Oscar nod, so it is perhaps surprising that it's not been nominated in any of this year's categories. Perhaps it's the dealing with religion (Catholicism, at that) and sexuality, or the tricky subject of a non-disabled actor playing a disabled part. The part is that of real-life Mark O'Brien, a man who was effectively paralysed from the neck down by childhood polio, spent most of his time in an iron-lung, and who at 38, dreamt of knowing a woman in the biblical sense. The actor is John Hawkes, who gives a tremendous, understated and affecting performance as O'Brien. There are undeniably problems with casting an able-bodied actor in such a role, but equally undeniable is the brilliance of Hawkes' portrayal of O'Brien. It's difficult, and I am still not sure what I think about it. Also difficult is the script's depiction of Hawkes, a naive and at times child-like protagonist, but one who is almost impossibly good, demonstrating no real human flaws or vices. He never seems to get angry, or jealous, or frustrated in any meaningful way, in a way that makes the character feel more of a cipher than a full human being, warts and all. Despite this, the film never patronises O'Brien, or makes light of his most fundamental of human desires: to share sexual, romantic and emotional gratification with someone. Helping in this regard is sex therapist Cheryl, played by a perfectly-cast Helen Hunt with conviction, and emotional honesty. The film's title refers to the six sessions they share together, culminating in them sleeping together, and in some rather predictable emotional consequences. It's true that elements of the story feel contrived for dramatic effect, and in otherhands, could have tipped the film into mawkish, Robin Williams-esque territory, but Lewin's direction ensures The Sessions is a tender, nuanced and dignified tribute to a man seeking his own self-fulfilment and realisation.

Next time for Project Tyneside: West of Memphis, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, and McCullin. See you then!

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