Is Anybody There? (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Edward (Bill Milner) lives in a hospice run by his parents (Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey) and he’s just about had it because his room is given to a dying old man. When the gentleman died of natural causes, Edward has reason to be excited because it means he gets to have his room back, but Clarence (Michael Caine), a retired magician whose wife has recently passed away, arrives with his decrepit vehicle as he is assigned to live in their home by social services. Their situation isn’t helped by the fact that Edward and Clarence get off on the wrong foot.
The concept of a lonely young person meeting an elderly who unexpectedly changes his life isn’t particularly new, but the film, written by Peter Harness, has enough small oddities and deviations to allow a standard premise to shine in surprising ways.
Being able to hold one’s own against Caine is no easy feat and Milner does exactly that. While he is given an interesting character on paper, having a fascination with paranormal happenings and trying to communicate with the spirits of the deceased residents, he doesn’t rely on the his character’s idiosyncrasies to appear interesting. Instead, his characterization exudes a certain level of intelligence and maturity, coupled with a youthful zeal to want to be taken seriously, and so the inevitable changes that he goes through feel genuine.
The look of the picture reflects the many emotions that the characters force to mute. They almost seem cold to one another because they’re reluctant to say what scurries in their minds. The skies are always smudged with cumulonimbus clouds, the ground soaked by heavy night rain, and the close-up of faces, shot outdoors, have a blurry, dull-yellowish tint that it almost feels like we’re looking inside a memory. It gives the impression that although we see a person in front of us, a lot about them remains a mystery. Further, because of the picture’s purposefully gloomy ambiance, the small glimmers of hope and happiness that sprout coruscate that much more luminously.
What the script requires a bit of revision is the decaying relationship between Edward’s parents. Because both are very busy, some might say overworked, with the goings-on around the home, the husband and wife barely have the time and energy for one another. A much younger employee has gotten the attention of Edward’s father. The moment they share a flirtatious look, there’s nothing especially surprising about the way it turns out. Naturally, his wife has to find out eventually. I did like, however, how the fallout is handled. The filmmakers use the passage of time in a way that it lessens the bitterness and sweetness of what is broken which complements the material’s tone.
Written by Peter Harness and directed by John Crowley, “Is Anybody There?” may be small in scope but it takes advantage of its limitations by turning inwards and being selective of what it chooses to present as truth from the world of the elderly. With its intimate setting, we are given a chance to appreciate the nuances of the narrative.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Brooklyn,” based on the screenplay by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, is able to capture a specific immigrant experience so successfully, just about every moment is honest, yearning, and earned. The story will connect strongest with those who, like myself, have gone through the need to adapt to another place, another land, another way of life.
It could have been just another story of a young, naive girl who moved to America from Ireland and encountered individuals who looked down on her because she seemed provincial. Instead, the material is full of life, dimension, colors, feelings, and thoughts exactly because the writing takes on a humanist approach. It treats the characters like the complex humans that they are. The picture inspires the viewer to read Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name because the details are so rich, we want to know more about everybody on screen.
Notice the screenplay’s fresh choices in terms of drawing the characters. The two girls we meet at a boarding house is an excellent example. The moment we meet them, we are meant to judge them rather harshly. Their clothes are flashy. They giggle a lot. They put on a lot of makeup and the every strand of hair is perfectly groomed. Their chosen topics of conversations point to the idea that maybe they are not particularly intelligent. We make the assumption that these girls are vapid, shallow, and mean—we are certain they will give Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), our protagonist, a difficult time during her already challenging transition.
Sometimes first impressions are most misleading. I loved that the two girls look and act like they do yet they are capable of kindness and are able to laugh at themselves. Over time, even though these are two tertiary characters, we realize something potentially important about them: perhaps they remember not being completely comfortable in a new world—which does not have to be a new country necessarily—where at times you are only as good as how others choose to perceive you, which is usually through the way you look.
The film excels in showing the details of a most heartfelt romantic connection. Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, the latter playing an Italian who likes Irish girls, share chemistry that is so potent, so magnetic, I was reminded of the very first time I met Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” Each moment that Eilis and Tony share is one to be relished. Together, they have a way of communicating a sensual feeling by simply conversing, whether it be during an intimate dinner or walking down the street where life, noise, and hustle and bustle create a dance.
It is rare when a film shows human characters simply being human. We are complex creatures and yet today’s mainstream pictures have a way of reducing us to caricatures. Not here. It understands what makes people interesting and so we can see ourselves, if we look closely enough, in just about every single character, not just one. And that is one of the goals of moviemaking: To allow audiences across the globe to try on different shoes, to become more aware of different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences, to open our eyes and realize that sometimes we are more connected than we and others have allowed ourselves to believe.
Boy A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Originally a novel written by Jonathan Trigell, this feature film directed by John Crowley is ultimately about about rehabilitation and redemption. Even though it’s more focused on the rehabilitation outside of a facility, I think it’s more interesting because it also manages to tackle the philosophical question of others’ knowledge (and lack thereof) of a particular event in one’s life–how that knowledge can change the way they think and act around the person of controversy. Andrew Garfield does an amazing job as Jack Burridge who was sentenced to jail as a child because of a murder he committed. With the help of Peter Mullan’s character who is like a father figure to Jack, Jack is given the chance to reintegrate into a society that he left (or of which that left him?). Garfield, within the first five minutes, proved to me that he truly regrets the past and wants to lead a normal life again. He has that childlike quality that is extremely charming, but at the same time there are moments in the film that shows the audience that the evil inside him–which most likely resides within us as well–is not fully expunged despite his best efforts. Garfield gives us a really complex character study; how a person that is continually challenged and reminded of his past reaches some sort of breaking point even though many things are seemingly going in the right direction. Another stand-out performance is from Katie Lyons as Garfield’s girlfriend. She’s strong and spunky, determined and a bit over-the-top–which is a perfect fit for Garfield because he tries to dim his light since he doesn’t want to get much (positive and negative) attention from people. Some of the highlights in the film include Garfield’s dance when he was under the influence of ecstasy (I thought that was kind sexy), Garfield and Lyons’ intimate conversations, and the final scene. The last scene blew me away because it was so powerful when it comes to engaging the audience. The film’s strength and downfall were the flashback scenes. Even though those scenes are necessary to explain what happened in the past and they were placed in the right moments in the film, the flashbacks brought up new questions that weren’t really answered in the end. Perhaps if one read the novel, the answers would be clearer but those that did not might be a bit confused. Still, this is a very good movie that gathers momentum as it goes on and doesn’t break its spell until after the exemplary last scene. This is a thinking person’s movie because it essentially comments on (and even questions) human psychology. It is also the kind of film that ignites discussion.