Hope Springs (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Have you ever visited someone’s house, looked around their kitchen, and noticed a dishpan that seemed to have gone unwashed for weeks? The marriage between Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) is similar to that dishpan, only their relationship has gone unattended for years, so reduced to a mere convenience that they succumbed to living like college roommates who neither like nor dislike each other but somehow they must tolerate what is handed to them. Kay has grown so unhappy that she decides she wants a change, to restore intimacy in their marriage. She books a week-long vacation to Maine so that she and her husband can meet with renowned couples therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Despite his wife’s desperate pleas, Arnold remains resistant to the idea.
Although “Hope Springs,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, features sagging bodies and wrinkled faces on screen, it is a story that can speak to couples of every age, the requirement only having a certain level of maturity, wisdom, and autonomy to look underneath the material’s sclera. And while its messages aren’t particularly groundbreaking, one of which is that being in a rewarding relationship, even one that has endured for decades, requires constant maintenance, but the picture has enough small droplets of honesty to make this story specific to the central couple being examined.
The comedy is embedded in the drama and almost never the other way around. Instead of going for the cheap and easy laughs, like when the counselor assigns the couple to rekindle their sex life, it chooses to highlight the pain and the shame that comes with their situation. We can almost feel the characters’ regrets and asking themselves how they can possibly have allowed their marriage to come to a point where touching each other has become a chore. Kay is a true desperate housewife sans ironing flourishes while Arnold is an automaton that performs its job but doesn’t seem to have any special wants or needs.
Its principal actors allow the script to shine. A lot of performers can sit on a couch and play the part of a miserable half, but not many can make it believable. For example, small moments like Streep choosing Kay to button and unbutton her dress unconsciously while Dr. Feld eases the session from unsaid feelings to the subject of sex makes a scene all the more special. Yes, what she does with her hands communicates that she’s somewhat uncomfortable at the idea. But her eyes suggest otherwise. She wants someone to bring up the sex problem because she herself is unable to without being ignored, laughed at, dismissed as being silly by her husband.
The movie isn’t about blame but about acknowledgement and growth. It reminds us that there is unhappiness in Arnold and Kay’s marriage because they have allowed it to seep through by growing complacent. Who can blame them? It’s easy to just sit back when everything seems to be going well.
I wished the filmmakers had eliminated the soundtrack altogether. When a turning point in the relationship has occurred, it plays like a tired romantic comedy, signaling when it’s time to be sad or happy. Instead of paying attention to the images, the music is so present that it acts as a wall between the characters and the audience. Although it happens only twice, it cheapens what is supposed to be a smart and mature material.
New York, New York (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It was 1945 and the Japanese had surrendered the war. During a party, charismatic Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a saxophonist, tried to get the attention of various women to no avail. The third woman he talked to, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a USO singer, didn’t want to speak to him either but he insisted that he was worth her time. He figured that if they talked long enough, she would end up liking him. And she did. The two eventually got married, but being together for the rest of their lives didn’t seem like it was meant to be. “New York, New York,” based on the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and directed by Martin Scorsese, was a sincere portrayal of marriage that was about to hit the rocks. Instead of using its musical numbers to sugarcoat the realities of Jimmy and Francine’s time together, it used song and dance to reveal the inadequacies that they felt but didn’t have the courage to confront. Francine enjoyed her independence but when she found out that she was pregnant, there was a sudden shift in her priorities. Her love for the child took precedence and her love of music was relegated to second place. But for Jimmy, it wasn’t the case. When they met, he said that he loved three things, respectively: music, money, and women. When he found out he was going to be a father, his priorities didn’t shift and wasn’t willing to compromise. Their fights were ugly and heartbreaking, especially the scene in which Jimmy called the very pregnant Francine “disgusting,” the camera unblinking toward the seething anger and sadness that permeated between the two. De Niro and Minnelli’s performances had range and depth so their characters felt like real people. Since the characters had a complexity to them, it felt like we were a part of their lives and responding to the ups and downs of their relationship felt natural. Scorsese’s direction elevated the picture because it seemed like he allowed certain accidents–a blurb in the dialogue or an item that seemed out of place–to make the final cut. Also, I appreciated the small gestures like Francine playing with the buttons of Jimmy’s shirt as he was telling her something important. It was an image that we could easily see out in the world if we stopped and observed. There are criticisms involving the fifteen-minute musical montage called “Happy Endings.” Personally, though I agree to some extent that it disrupted the tone of the marriage drama, I appreciated the risk it had undertaken. While somewhat out of place, it remained focused on its overarching themes. The songs were not only incredibly catchy, they commented on the hardship of marriage. It wanted to communicate to us that a constant reevaluation of a relationship is not only healthy, it is necessary because it keeps us receptive of our as well as our partner’s wants and needs. “New York, New York” offered another layer by exploring contrasting elements: femininity and masculinity, independence and security, successes and failures, and love and friendship. Though not considered to be a success upon its release, it proved how audacious Scorsese could be as a filmmaker.
An Unmarried Woman (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
Erica (Jill Clayburgh) thought she lived a fruitful marriage. Although there were times when little annoyances pushed Erica and Martin (Michael Murphy), her husband, to the edge, they had ways of detaching themselves from the situation and hung onto what was more important. But when Martin suddenly confessed to Erica that he had been seeing another woman, a twenty-six-year-old teacher he met at Bloomingdale’s, for about year and had fallen in love with her, divorce seemed like the only option. Written and directed by Paul Mazursky, “An Unmarried Woman” was an exhaustive experience seen through the eyes of a woman who lost what she believed was the best thing she had and learned that there was a rewarding life outside of marriage so long as she kept an open mind. The way the film moved into a dark period of our protagonist’s life and eventually out of it could have been executed so tritely but it remained fresh due to the performances, especially by Clayburgh, and the way the filmmakers remained true to life’s unfathomable formula of painful and amusing ironies. The scenes I looked forward to involved Erica talking to her friends (Kelly Bishop, Linda Miller, Patricia Quinn) about seemingly pedestrian bourgeois topics of conversation. The closer I listened and observed, the more I learned about what was important to them through their jokes, snide remarks, down to the way they looked at someone who offered an opinion they didn’t agree with. The camera was placed so perfectly that at times it gave the illusion that we were either a part of their group or complete strangers who happened to be sitting next to them. The chemistry among the women was wonderful and it felt refreshing to be around them. Furthermore, I enjoyed that the writing remained honest in terms of the dynamics of friendship. Certainly in my group of friends, although I feel some sort of camaraderie with all of them, there is always one special person that I feel I can confide in more than the rest. In this case, newly vulnerable Erica trusted the tough-talking Elaine (Bishop). Their contrast and the way their roles changed over time fit very well in the picture’s theme of balance being the key to a life of contentment. I chose not to delve too much in Erica and Martin’s marriage because the film simply utilized it as a device to encourage a change in Erica. However, that isn’t to suggest that the two did not share powerful scenes. The husband’s confession was handled with maturity and elegance, despite the tears, mixed with a pinch of first-rate suspense. As Martin discussed his extramarital affair, the camera focused on Erica’s face so tightly, I expected her to lash out at him mid-sentence. I was impressed with Clayburgh’s face as it turned from concern with a dash of confusion to intense anger and disgust. The masterstroke of that key scene was allowing our protagonist to physically walk away after the revelation. As we watched her create distance between herself and the man she loved for years, we could almost feel their special bond being gnawed by pangs of betrayal. Rarely do we get to see the simple act of walking away carry so much emotional resonance. “An Unmarried Woman” were slow in parts, especially the scenes that took place in the therapist’s office, but maybe it was supposed to be. After all, one can argue that starting over and adopting healthier habits don’t happen overnight.
Barney’s Version (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Mordecai Richler’s novel, “Barney’s Version” tracked the journey of a man from his first marriage with a woman he got pregnant (Rachelle Lefevre) until the end of his highly eventful life. Barney (Paul Giamatti) was in a quest to find love. He thought he found it when he met a woman with a Master’s Degree. She was vulgar but rich, sometimes charming, but insensitive to his needs. She didn’t like being talked down to but she was unaware of the way she talked down to Barney. On the night of his wedding, Barney met Miriam (Rosamund Pike), an intelligent, eloquent, and humble woman. Barney was convinced his second marriage was a mistake so he searched for opportunities to get divorced. Miriam didn’t want to be involved with a married man. “Barney’s Version,” directed by Richard J. Lewis, captured my interest and challenged my opinion of its characters because of the way it paid attention to its many complicated, at times volatile, relationships. Take Barney and his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman). While two shared more than a handful of amusing moments which often involved drinking and discussions of making love with as many women as possible, the screenplay surprised me because it wasn’t afraid to experiment with the atmosphere between them. When Barney needed advice, Izzy was there for insightful fatherly advice. They weren’t just father and son. They were also great friends. I also loved watching Barney and Izzy’s marriage unfold. The picture was fearless in exploring the awkward feeling of one perhaps thinking that he or she was putting more into the relationship that his or her counterpart. We don’t have to be married to relate. Since their relationship was based on friendship first, we can relate that feeling to our own group of friends. The film also succeeded in framing the unsaid: the struggle in the ennui of the every day, the craving for a bit of space because certain charming habits evolved into minor annoyances, and the expected level of respect when something is important to someone. Barney and Miriam were smart people. They didn’t need to yell or scream at each other to express their frustrations and disappointments. After all, empty barrels make the most noise. They knew neither of them was perfect so, when they faced a hardship, they took comfort in their love for one another. I did wish, however, that we learned more about Barney’s relationship with his son and daughter. Parents love their kids as much as their partner in marriage (or even more so) and I thought it was strange that there weren’t many scenes of Barney interacting with his kids. In a way, despite the ups and downs in his life, Barney was very lucky. He was not necessarily gifted in terms of physical appearance but he had everything he needed to lead a wonderful life. We watch him and are reminded that life is worth living with a glass half full.
Another Year (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) were a happy couple surrounded by unhappy friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Tom was a geologist and Gerri was a counselor at a hospital. Both enjoyed tending their garden on their spare time. Mary (Lesley Manville) always felt welcome in Gerri and Tom’s home. She was free to talk about herself as much as she wanted: How her life would be so much better if she had a car, her regret over failed relationships, and her dependence on alcohol when things didn’t go her way. To say the least, she had a lot of issues. But, in a course of a year, things changed. Mary began to show a romantic interest in Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). When, to everyone’s surprise, he brought home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), Mary was less than welcoming. In fact, she was downright cold and dismissive. Suddenly there was a gaping chasm between Gerri and Mary. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” was full of people you and I know. I have friends who are just like Mary: somewhat self-centered but fun because of her firecracker of a personality. But then there were times when I felt like I was Mary. I could identify in the way she hid her sadness by pretending to be excited about everything. But what I loved was the director and the actress were careful in painting Mary’s character. They didn’t necessarily want us to feel sorry for her because she actively didn’t take responsibility for her actions. A crutch always seemed to be at her disposal. However, Leigh and Manville did want us to understand where she was coming from and perhaps even imagine ourselves in her shoes. Sheen also gave an excellent performance. What I loved most about her were her eye bags. I don’t mean to sound glib. To me, her eye bags symbolized wisdom and experience. I was fascinated in the way she was always supportive but at the same time she wasn’t afraid to let someone know when he or she had overstepped certain boundaries. Certain looks she gave were memorable because they were the same looks my mom gave me to express her disappointment when I had done something unpleasant back when I was younger. I relished the relationship between the two women, who happened to be good friends for about twenty years, and the awkwardness during and after the unpleasant dinner. Everyone knows the feeling of being caught in between two good friends having a row. We got to experience that in here and the answers were rarely easy. While watching “Another Year,” its story told in four seasons each embodying a different mood and tone, I caught myself inching toward the screen. I literally felt close to them. I wanted to read their smallest facial expressions and most subtle body movements. I found it compelling that Leigh posed big, elegant questions by focusing on a small regular family.
Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.
Cold Fish (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) was caught shoplifting by a store manager, he called her father, Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and stepmother, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), before calling the police. But when Murata (Denden), the store manager’s friend who happened to be on the same tropical fish business as Syamoto, came barging in the office to brag about his gigantic rare fish, he persuaded that the police needn’t be involved. Syamoto and his family were very grateful, but Murata wasn’t as generous a man he seemed. Behind his fish business, he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), murdered people for money. Written by Shion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, “Tsumetai nettaigyo,” also known as “Cold Fish,” was an exercise on how a family, through a paternal figure, needed to be shaken up by horrific events in hopes of breaking out of their rut. Mitsuko was a wild teen who didn’t have an ounce of respect for her parents. She beat her stepmother without remorse and considered her father as a joke. Hoping that she’d change for the better, it was no wonder her guardians agreed for Mitsuko, equipped with free room and board, to work for Murata. The father was partly to blame. He was too lenient. If I was a teenager and got caught stealing from a store, my parents would throw a fit. When Murata allowed Mitsuko off the hook, there was not one scene where the father attempted to discuss with his daughter why what she did was unacceptable. We should be disturbed by that lack of proper parenting. The filmmakers made sure that the family drama was deeply rooted in reality before diving into the excess of gore, perversity, and dark comedy. The murders and step-by-step ways to make a person “invisible” didn’t leave much for the imagination. Once the victim had been poisoned, he was taken to a remote location, a shack next to a church, to be chopped into manageable pieces. Red liquid flooded the bathroom floor like sickness, organs were everywhere, and body parts that were still whole glistened in morbidity. However, it was mostly done in a comedic way. For instance, a silly, playful music would play in the background as someone desperately gasped for air. Close-up of the Aiko devoid of reaction, almost somnolent, because she’d seen a man struggle for his life more than she could count. As Syamoto was forced to dispose human meat in the size of chicken nuggets by the river, Murata would enthusiastically say things like, “You’re doing a good job!” and “The fish will be happy!” Shion Sono, the director, paired violence with sex. The physical act meant differently for each character. For instance, Taeko considered it a way to escape her miserable marriage while Aiko held it a symbol for being wanted. I admired “Cold Fish” most because I felt like it wasn’t restrained by anything. It was able to make a statement, with clarity, about how we live and the powerful elements that influence, consciously or otherwise, our decisions. It was a lesson in responsibility.