The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.
They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.
“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.
In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.
We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.
Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.
Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.
★★★ / ★★★★
A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.
When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.
But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.
What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.
I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.
The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.
The Souvenir (2019)
★ / ★★★★
More vanilla than vanilla, “The Souvenir” tracks a film student’s struggles in maintaining a romantic relationship with a man who is addicted to heroin. We are supposed to care about the couple eventually but the screenplay by Joanna Hogg, who also directed the picture, provides no compelling reason why the participants are worth following—together or apart. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is too passive a protagonist, too sheltered and naive, barely reacting to events unfolding around her. She’s not a fast learner. Anthony (Tom Burke), on the other hand, is an unlikable drug user, a leech, an abusive partner with no redeeming quality. It is only natural that the latter continues to prey upon the former because she fails to learn from her past mistakes. Eventually, we grow to expect the numerous punishments Julie chooses to endure. Lacking both tension and common sense, there is something terribly wrong when we find various artworks hung on walls to be far more intriguing and beautiful than the personalities supposedly clashing in the middle of the screen. This is an example of a story that demands nothing from the audience, not even to stay awake.
On Chesil Beach (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes love is not enough. I admired the ferocity of this picture because it begins like a generic romantic drama where newlyweds spend their honeymoon on a hotel by the beach. Their backgrounds, when together and apart, are told in flashbacks, carefully calibrated by director Dominic Cooke. A comic moment here and a touching moment there—yet every time we look into the past, he provides just enough detail to keep us wanting to know more. All the while there is a growing suspicion that he isn’t telling us everything, especially when close-ups become more dominant as the couple start to consummate their marriage.
The couple is played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle who share an awkward but interesting chemistry—which makes for a fascinating watch. Florence and Edward’s moments of warmth are certain to make the audience feel good, but perhaps more powerful, and more intriguing, are instances when they fall into intense arguments, one culminating at the beach which involves a devastating confession and a life-changing decision. In particular, Ronan is at her element here as she is able to change the shape of her face depending on the emotion the scene is about to lay out before us, further proof she is one of the greatest performers of her generation.
But the centerpiece of this slow-moving but most surprising picture is the screenplay by Ian McEwan. He is not interested in creating a boring, picture-perfect couple only to be regarded or envied from afar (or through the screen). Instead, he allows the subjects to be human, flawed, by daring to open up the dialogue toward extremely hurtful situations. They are allowed to be petty, to deliver blows so low that at times we feel ashamed for them. This couple, like real-life couples, is able to use words like daggers and actions like explosives. Because of their sheer chemistry, we wish for them to be together, to work through their problems somehow, to push blame and anger to the side, to start anew. Because the material ultimately makes us feel this way, that is what makes it a romance, not necessary through the lens of the story—or type of story—presented.
Perhaps its weakest portion is the jump in time to 2007. (The story begins in 1962.) Instead of casting age-appropriate actors, it becomes another example of a drama that suffers from ridiculous cosmetics. It is so bizarre when we see heavy makeup on a face (which is unconvincing in the first place) and yet we look down on the actors’ hands only to recognize youth. When I noticed this common mistake, I felt angry because I taken out of a film that I found myself to be emotionally invested for the most part. Overlooking details like the hands being flawless, not having a single age-related spot, is such an amateur mistake. Do not get me started on how the ace performers are so buried in cosmetics that they find themselves unable to control their facial expressions. Even the eyes do not look old or experienced.
“On Chesil Beach” is based on the novella by Ian McEwan. It helps that the creator of the original work is also the screenwriter because it feels as though not a thing is filtered upon its translation from text to screen. Especially interesting is the theme regarding ignorance, how at times such ignorance is actually motivated by societal norms of a specific time period, what is expected of a certain sex, of how a married couple ought to live together. There is beauty and searing honesty that I fear might easily be overlooked because the story begins one way. But I trust the more discerning viewers will find something worth pondering over.
The Trouble with the Truth (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Jenny (Danielle Harris) reveals to her father that she is engaged, Robert (John Shea) is less than ecstatic. He expresses his disappointment by claiming that the man she wants to marry is a doorknob, a pencil sharpener—painfully ordinary through and through. Although the news is about Jenny, the scene quickly becomes about Robert. His current attitude toward marriage is defined by his divorce with Emily (Lea Thompson), a successful writer who had since gotten married to a prosecutor. Shaken by his daughter’s news, Robert calls Emily. She happens to have a trip to Los Angeles the next day and so the former husband and wife decide to have dinner.
Written and directed by Jim Hemphill, “The Trouble with the Truth” is intelligently written and executed with a seemingly real understanding of what it means to be married, divorced, and to reconnect in a different way. The key word is “seemingly” because although I can admit to the picture’s technical proficiencies, I found myself unable to connect to it emotionally and psychologically in a deep way. Perhaps I do not have yet the maturity and experience that are necessary to appreciate all of its subtleties.
Shea and Thompson create believable adults who are once married but are entertaining the possibility of getting together again. I was surprised by the screenplay because instead of making Robert and Emily as likable as possible in order for us to root for them to get together, it seems more interested in revealing their flaws slowly then suddenly, the unanswered questions they have for one another, and the lingering insecurities that have latched onto them despite a period of time of not seeing or talking to one another.
The picture is designed for those who are regaled by observing one event unfolding in real time. Here, the couple discuss a range of topics over dinner at a relatively classy restaurant, from the impersonal to wounds that are only beginning to scab. It is quite beautiful and enthralling how Thompson and Shea are able to create characters with distinct, if not polar, personalities and yet the more they speak, the more we come to understand why they decided to get married in the first place: Despite their many differences, they are willing to meet each other halfway. Conversely, we come to understand why they separated.
And yet maybe the point is not in seeing the trouble to rekindle the romance they once shared. One can argue that it is about a couple getting some sort of closure from one another. Though they are able to speak with other openly, the material really gets interesting when a character moves a little closer and fishes for certain details that he or she has been unsure about for years. The question of how many affairs each had been involved with while they were married is an obvious example.
Shot in warm colors and relaxed pacing, “The Trouble with the Truth” features characters with a lot contradictions and that is exactly what makes them so interesting. They may preach one thing but the real challenge is in figuring out which part of it they really believe. We are placed right there at the dinner table, constantly evaluating the situation, what they are thinking, what they are really saying.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
An accident at work leads Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to the hospital. After going through his blood work, the doctor tells Ron that he has AIDS and it is estimated that he has only about a month to live. Ron responds with outrage and insists the diagnosis is a mistake. He is, after all, not a homosexual and has never had homosexual encounters. Though he later decides to take treatments in the form of experimental and high dosages of AZT, he becomes convinced that AZT is not a good solution. It made him feel very sick. When Ron hears about alternative drugs in Mexico—drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration—he goes there to obtain the medications.
Based on the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” captures the confusion and desperation of people in the ‘80s who lived with AIDS. Forget a typical character arc in which the main character embraces valuable lessons along the way. Ron learns a thing or two but that is far from the point. We just so happen to see the story through his eyes. It could have been told from the perspective of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and Ron’s eventual business partner, and the story would still be interesting.
The picture falls a bit short on providing sufficient specifics regarding Ron’s drug deals abroad. We see large paintbrushes of what he must do—contacting the necessary individuals, putting on a disguise, taking the plane, bribing—but there are not enough conversations that detail the business deals. Sometimes the material leans too much on images to convey an idea. While a good framework, it is not always the best way to amp up the drama in a subtler way.
McConaughey and Leto provide solid performances. The relationship of their characters snuck up on me because I thought I saw them only as partners in running the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that offers a person a variety of drugs, proteins, and vitamins—less deadly than AZT that hospitals use—for four hundred dollar per month membership. But then the second half comes around and we realize how they have learned to help each other not just from the financial side but also in sharing an experience of carrying a disease that will kill them eventually. We know they will die because there is no cure, only treatment that prolongs.
I wished it had shown more images of how AIDS wreck havoc on the body. We see a bit of McConaughey’s near emaciated frame and some blood being coughed out, but I got the impression that the film is not willing to go all the way and show the true ugliness and tragedy of the disease as in Friedman and Joslin’s “Silverlake Life: The View from Here.”
Regardless, “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is worth seeing mainly for the strong performances by McConaughey and Leto as well as successfully showing a time in which information that we know now about AIDS is not yet known.
★ / ★★★★
Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) met in 1907 in Trent, as the former attempted to escape from a group of men. They reunite in 1914 in Milan and get involved in a romantic relationship. For a while, Ida chooses to support Mussolini because he is without a job. However, when his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, takes off and he becomes an influential political figure, he no longer wants anything to do with Ida and their son. To hide his marriage, Mussolini pulls some strings to put Ida in a mental institution while their son is attended by the Church.
For those who do not know much about the former Italian leader’s personal and political history, like myself, “Vincere,” based on the screenplay by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli, is likely to be a very confusing movie. The first hour moves quickly without apology as it jumps forward in time and back. We are forced to make too many assumptions about the relationship and not enough specific details we can hang onto. It only becomes somewhat bearable when Ida is placed in the mental asylum—the pacing has slowed and we get a chance to understand Ida’s motivations.
The historical backdrop prior and during Mussolini’s dictatorship is rather tedious. The picture is rife with repetition involving citizens yelling out whether the country should or should not go to war. I wanted to know about the two differing stances, but the screenplay fails to introduce characters from either side that serve as conduits for us to understand. In addition, using black-and-white footages are heavy-handed and self-important. To hide the fact that the politics on paper is not very well thought out or executed, the filmmakers use real images from the past as band-aid.
Though the relationship is supposed to go sour, not once did I feel that Ida and Mussolini are into each other. We watch one scene of them having great sex, but there is a lack of context with regards to how much Mussolini cares for Ida. Instead, there are plenty of shots of him looking stern and angry. While this is mainly Ida’s story, it is necessary that we get at least a small glimpse of Mussolini’s psychology given that what he ends up doing to his family is so extreme. In order words, here, there is not much to Ida’s husband other than he is obsessed with politics and hates his family. There is no intrigue.
There is one scene that hints at the power of the subject had the material been well-written. During Ida’s institutionalization, a psychiatrist, who is likely aware that there is no reason to keep her in the facility, tells her that if she hopes to be released someday, she must learn to be a good actor—for her and her son’s sake. The camera is placed very closely on the characters’ faces so there is a lot to absorb. Their conversation touches upon complex issues like sacrifice, betrayal, determination, and why it is smart to delay presenting the truth until time is right. It is the most empowering scene in the film.
Directed by Marco Bellocchio, “Vincere” is not accessible even though its cinematography is stylish and the costumes look wonderful. It should have been considerably more involving given that what has been done to Ida is morally wrong. Maybe it might have been a better biopic if the story had been told without pretension.