PICKS OF THE WEEK
Another Year (A)
U.K.: Mike Leigh, 2010, Sony Pictures Classics
Another Year, from Mike Leigh, is another look at the Britain he's chronicled so powerfully and memorably since his first feature, Bleak Moments, in 1971. It's a rich, humane work about people and classes, friendship and anguish, marriage and loneliness: a movie that catches you up, transfixes, moves you.
Like all the best Leigh movies, this one, focusing on a small group of people in a simple setting that suggests the familiarity and complexity of the everyday, gives you a piercing illusion of human reality: real-looking, real-acting, real-reacting people in an unforgettable series of midlife crises. It's another classic-to-be.
Why is such a good bet for classic status? Leigh (Naked, Secrets & Lies) directed it, and wrote it (with his cast, in his famous creative rehearsal process). So, as you'd expect, it's a movie for all those among us who like drama and movies that mirror the world around us, and who want more reality and reflection from our movies.
Leigh once again crafts us a sometimes funny, often sad drama full of sympathetic, tough, compassionate truth -- a film full of sensitivity and humanity, comic like Life Is Sweet, comic-sad like Secrets & Lies, and sad-sad like Vera Drake.
Leigh and his marvelous actors create a little world of working-class-born people sliding from middle toward old age -- some of them happily, some miserably -- but all of them chained by the eternal British class system. These people, more obviously in some ways than a similar bunch in America, are ruled by money, social class or educational opportunity: all those systems that relentlessly and unfairly divide people into haves and have-nots.
In Another Year, Leigh takes us through four seasons, from spring to winter, in four increasingly bleak acts. The ensemble revolves around some familiar Leigh faces: Jim Broadbent (Life Is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy) and Ruth Sheen (High Hopes) as the blissfully content, supremely well-ordered suburban couple geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, two happy people with an upwardly mobile son (Oliver Maltman).
The couple, center of their little universe, remain loyal to two old friends now fallen on booze and hard emotional times: chubby and romantically luckless bachelor Ken (Peter Wight) and fading party girl and reveler Mary (Lesley Manville, of Topsy-Turvy). Also in the group: David Bradley as Tom's quiet and melancholy old brother Ronnie, bereaved and still trapped in the class Tom left behind.
They're all excellent, but Manville is extraordinary. The last shot of her in this movie, the way her face seems to have finally dropped into permanent sadness, the last blighted bit-end of her dreams, is devastating. So is the movie's first scene, which undermines the seeming later contentment of Tom and Gerri, by starting us off with a shocking view of one of Gerri's hapless clients. The great Imelda Staunton (who was unforgettable as Leigh's Vera Drake) gives us an unsmiling, bottomlessly sad woman trapped in such a merciless vise of circumstance that she cannot imagine any improvement on her life -- except a different life. Or maybe a death.
Staunton's first scene sets us up for the grief that lies underneath this film's initial comedy and amiable drama -- and Manville builds on it. What she creates for Another Year, as Mary, is a woman who's a victim of ageism, of alcohol, and also of her own continuing blasted optimism and unreal expectations. Once a local bombshell of sorts, certainly someone who had her suitors for a while, Mary still seems to believe she can be, saved by her looks, and that sexual attraction and flirtiness can be the hot-wire that moves her out of her life doldrums.
Tom and Gerri, whom she pesters and leans on, and who treat her with kindness but also with condescension, probably represent an ideal for her, a second family. If chubby Tom and slightly bovine-looking Gerri can be so content, why can't she?
That's one of the major questions in Leigh's films: Why can't these people be happy? The answer isn't always social or political, though Leigh is, here as ever, a classic British progressive/leftist. And it doesn't come from fixed, immutable human nature. Leigh, a great admirer of the supreme Japanese family-drama filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), simply points his camera (cinematographer Dick Pope's camera) at these people -- at all these wonderful actors who have delved so deeply into the outlines he's made for them and, with him, created something of such solid truth, such burning compassion.
He looks at them and makes us commiserate and wonder. Why can't they be happy? Why can't we?
U.S.: Oliver Stone, 1986, MGM/20th Century Fox, Blu-ray
Oliver Stone, as most of us know, fought in the Vietnam War as a young man, and this is the story of what he went through there, translated into the fictional experiences of a young rifleman named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, in younger, less crazy days). Taylor is an upper-middle-class kid who, like Stone, leaves college in 1967-'68 to fight with the lower-class guys, white and black, who had no choice. One also suspects that Stone, a budding young filmmaker whose later NYU film teacher was Martin Scorsese, went to war because -- like the World War II novelists Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) and James Jones (The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity) -- he wanted to have a good story to tell. He got one, even if he exaggerates a bit, turning it into a sort of political allegory.
Platoon takes you there, makes you see it and feel the fight. When we arrive with Chris in Bravo Company, First Battalion, landing near the green jungles by the Cambodian border, we know right away we're in a different kind of Vietnam movie, post-Deer Hunter, post-Apocalypse Now, and a thousand miles from The Green Berets. Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" sets up a mournful threnody. We are in the sky (symbolically) with the hawks and the doves, and the vultures. Soon we will be at Ground Zero.
Chris/Stone tells us his story in two ways: in letters home to his grandmother, earnestly, sensitively phrased missives, full of compassion, and in the foul-mouthed everyday reality of life in Bravo Company, where almost every sentence begins with "shit" and ends with "fuck" (or visa versa).
Stone knows what went down with his fellow soldiers -- how they talked, how they lived, how they ate and drank and crapped, how they aimed and fired and killed, how they peeled leeches from their cheeks, how they tried to keep awake watching for a ambush (and failed), the patrols, the firefights, the sudden death, the whuppa-whuppa of the helicopters in the sky, the crackle of the guns, the medics, the screams, somebody's guts unraveling in front of you, the crackups and meltdowns and bursts of courage and self-sacrifice. And he shows Chris, the storyteller-to-be, in a war story that's both real in its details and intensely, searingly dramatic (even melodramatic) in its effects.
He shows us this real/psychic battleground, where Chris finds himself pulled between two groups of soldiers: the right-wing poker players and the left-wing "heads," and between two father figures, the scarred, unsmiling, brutal Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the grinning, empathetic, oddly tender Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).
The heads -- a democratic group that embraces both blacks and whites -- includes Elias, the loud-talking, warmhearted King (Keith David), bearlike sloppy-smiling Big Harold (Forest Whitaker), and maybe the bilingual intellectual Werner (Johnny Depp). They like to smoke dope, have fun and dance to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears."
The poker players are a hard-ass bunch that like to swagger, play cards, swig beer and talk about what assholes the heads are. They include Barnes, the macho phony Sgt. O'Neill (John McGinley) and the sadistic Bunny (Kevin Dillon). They like "Okie from Muskogee."
The two groups tolerate each other, barely, and they all hate the candy-ass Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses), who lets Barnes and Elias run things, until an episode in a Vietnamese village fractures everything.
From then on, Stone shows two wars, the outer one between the Americans and the Vietcong, and the inner one between Barnes' group and Elias', between those guys who almost like the war (or at least dig its mythos), and those who question or come to hate it -- like Chris.
After you watch Platoon you may agree or disagree with Stone -- hail him as a movie-making hero or dismiss him as an asshole and a head -- but you'll be able to see Vietnam in a way that makes sense. (Extras: a terrific commentary by Stone; an excellent commentary by Dale Dye; deleted or extended scenes with optional Stone remarks; featurettes; documentary; trailer.
OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT RELEASES
The Company Men (B-)
U.S.: John Wells, 2010, Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay
Three executives at a vast Boston-based conglomerate called GTX, caught in the opening crash of the GOP's Great Recession, see their careers derailed or destroyed when their company's callous, greedy, phlegmatic CEO, James Salinger (played viciously and perceptively by Craig T. Nelson), starts closing divisions, cutting jobs and downsizing with a vengeance. Those company men are 37-year-old yuppie Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Chris Cooper as 50-something longtime original employee Phil Woodward (about to get caught in the crucible of ageism), and tough but compassionate 60ish Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who started the company (as independent shipbuilders) with Salinger, but is about to find out he's no safer from the current economic mess than anyone else -- especially when he proves too tough, and too compassionate, for the tastes of his oldest friend, that same Salinger.
The Company Men is the first theatrical feature written, directed and produced by longtime TV writer-producer John Wells (a multiple Emmy winner for shows like E.R. and The West Wing). It's an unabashed message drama, but it has some flaws. There are people who are suffering much, much more from the bilked, ravaged economy than the desperate execs we see here.
Wells does a good job of needling the guys at the top, of sketching in the milieu, laying down the table stakes, and giving us a large gallery of mostly well-cast and well-played characters -- including all above, plus Bobby's wife Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her blue-collar carpenter brother(Kevin Costner). Special kudos to Jones (as usual), to Nelson, to DeWitt, to Cooper (who plays Woodward like a walking raw wound) and to Costner.
U.S./Australia: Alister Grierson, 2011, Universal
In Sanctum, a terrible movie shot in an amazing natural wonder, six hapless characters/explorers, mostly Australian, are trapped in the Esa-Ala caves of Papua, New Guinea. Those Esa-Ala caves are really something. One of the world's largest underground cave systems, they're captured here both by state-of-the-art 3D cameras that keep prowling past the stony walls, diving into the rivers, and by microphones that pick up every natural sound, every splash, every dying scream, and, unfortunately, every line of dialogue.
But, for all the good that director Alister Grierson and producer Andrew Wright and their unfortunate choices for co-writer and story writer (themselves) get out of the deep splendors of Esa-Ala, they might as well have shot everything in front of a papier-mché cave wall, beneath plastic stalactites, and in a studio tank.