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I was able to see the world premiere of Beginners at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, and it completely took me by surprise. It was a bit of a last minute pick, and it has been my favourite film so far, and probably one of my favourite films in general. To be simple, I will just say that this film is about life and the emotions and experiences that we all go through within it. Christopher Plummer plays a 75 year old man who after the death of his wife is finally able to explore his homosexuality, and we see him come to life through this experience. It is not only about him, but mainly about his son played by Ewan McGregor, whose relationships with both his mother and father shape him as a person. These relationships and his own romantic relationships make up the core of his character, and it is through love, loss and discovery that the three main characters display an authentic view of humanity. It is an original film, and requires a certain audience, but I recommend that everyone should see this true gem.
Greetings again from the darkness. This is a terrific little art-house
character study with comedic elements, fine acting and superb writing.
Mike Mills is responsible and he was also the writer and director on
another excellent little movie from about 5 years ago called
Thumbsucker. When I say little movie, I mean intimate and poignant with
a nominal budget.
Three time periods are presented in overlapping form to an effective end. One period shows us Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as a young kid interacting with his mother (Mary Page Keller). Another period shows Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer) confessing to him that he is gay (this is a few months after the mother/wife dies). The third period has Oliver trying to forge a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he met at a costume party.
While that may sound like a simple set-up, I assure you that the complications created by these characters is both realistic and head-spinning. It turns out Hal knew he was gay prior to marrying Oliver's mother, but claims she promised to "fix" him. Once he proclaims his gayness, Hal jumps in with both feet to all causes gay. He thoroughly enjoys himself and even meets a new, younger lover. And just when he admits to joy, inoperable cancer is discovered in Hal's lungs. This begins the second major secret of his life.
The scenes from Oliver's childhood provide crucial evidence on why he is so solemn and afraid of relationships. He suffers just as his mother did. Things begin to shift for him when, dressed as Freud, his party sofa becomes occupied by Anna - a beautiful, alluring French actress who, it turns out, is just as messed up emotionally as is Oliver. They make the perfect threesome ... including Arthur, Hal's Jack Terrier, who speaking through subtitles, lets us know when things are OK or not. Arthur takes a great deal of the heaviness away.
There are many elements of this film that I really like. The houses of both Hal and Oliver are full of as much personality as either of the characters. The look and pace of the film is meticulous and steady given the material. It seems to be naturally lighted from windows and interior sconces. Nothing even comes close to looking like a Hollywood set.
Ewan McGregor plays his part very close to the vest and conveys the pain and uncertainty that Oliver has learned over the years. His defenses are up! Melanie Laurent was my favorite part of Inglourious Basterds (she was the cinema owner on a mission) and here she offers both hopefulness and melancholy. To me, the heart of the film is Christopher Plummer's performance. He portrays an elderly gay man with grace and then takes it to another level in his "sick" scenes. He is a wise man who may or may not understand how selfish he was, but is intent on showing Oliver that it's never to late to be a "beginner" in love.
Beginners is a great film that will not satisfy a few viewers, as evidenced by other comments here. First, here's what it will not do: it will not feed you a linear story with a single, simple plot. The beauty of this film is in its complexity, which faithfully reflects the dynamics of real life. There are flashbacks. There is highly cinematic use of material that is intended to suggest mood, rather than deliver it with dead dialog. Yes, the dog gets a few subtitles, highly credible for anyone who has ever owned a dog. There is even a brief moment in which solid colors flash on the screen, and we occasionally visit the protagonist's revealing sketches. There is a message in all of this that some will not appreciate. Several stories are magically woven together: the son's difficulty in maintaining a relationship, the girlfriend's own hesitation to commit to one place and one person, the mother's endurance of a marriage that worked on only one level, the father's adjustment to his new gay life, and his boyfriend's worries that he is not accepted because he is gay. Whew! That's a lot to cram into one story, but it works remarkably well and we see in the end that all the characters were what the title said, Beginners.
Mike Mills' 2005 debut Thumbsucker is a film whose quirky charm was
completely lost on me, but where that film was drenched in
artificiality, he somehow turned that charm into something grounded and
serene with his sophomore feature Beginners. This is a movie that
honestly transcends words, for me. The kind of impact it had on me will
never be able to be described, but it's one that touched me at my soul
and deeply moved me in a profound way. The film is built around this
message from Mills' personal life that you have the capacity to assess
your situation at any point in life and make a change for the better.
However, in the most un-Hollywood sense, Mills never beats you over the
head with the message or panders to it's audience; it just exists in
it's own world and you can embrace it or not, but the film doesn't
exist solely for that reason. It may not particularly exist for any
reason, it just exists and for me, that was all it needed to do to hit
me right in the heart.
In taking on a subject matter as emotionally strong as this (a father coming out of the closet at a late age and then being diagnosed with terminal cancer), Mills was open to a plethora of moments for overbearing melodrama to bring the audience to tears, but he never embraces this in a traditional way at all. He treats the subject with this delicate, grounded approach that feels fully original and honestly quite daring in it's subtlety, leading to an experience much more effective than if he had gone the traditional route. His background in graphic design leads to some wonderfully charming editing techniques and Woody Allen circa Annie Hall uniqueness in the story structure, but it never overpowers the center that is ultimately a charming, emotional and entirely natural character study. The study of a young man finally seeing who his father is, contrasted with his first experience in true love. All three of the central characters charmed me off my feet, but Mills creates genuine, flawed and sometimes annoying human beings out of all of them.
Once again, as with everything else in the film, he transcends the general approach and just creates these full, real human beings. Oliver and Anna instantly became one of my favorite couples in the history of cinema, with the incomparable chemistry between Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent, and Hal reminded me so much of my grandfather it really brought me to tears several times. Mills plays everything in an understated way, but by doing this he allows the film to really get under your skin and sink in, a much more effective technique than just hitting you on the surface over and over again. The performances by all three are truly out of this world.
I find McGregor to be a great talent who rarely gets the opportunity to demonstrate that, but this character allows him to give his finest performance to date. He is so grounded and honest in his portrayal, bringing comedy both light and dark along with genuine emotion that sunk into me deeply over and over again. I related to his faults and his gifts and McGregor really made me feel like I understood this guy through and through. Laurent is a delight and makes you fall in love with her almost instantly; again I have to mention the overwhelming chemistry that the two of these had. Before we even got a chance to fully comprehend their relationship, I was in tears by the simple act of them holding hands with one another. Mills and Laurent take a character that could have been conventional and tossed aside for the father-son dynamic and make a fully-fleshed person out of her, complete with her own demons and turmoil and I fell in love with her all the way.
Then comes Christopher Plummer as Oliver's father, who is everything you could want from this guy; charming, chaotic, filled with life and regret. He's absolutely enchanting and devastating simultaneously, a guy that makes you want to live your life to fullest potential. In fact, enchanting is a word that is perfect for the film as a whole. Beyond the authenticity and the emotional impact that it had on me (which is not small by any notion), the film truly seems to dance at times and it's in those moments that I felt something...beautiful and serene beyond anything that words could hope to encapsulate. This movie transcended everything for me.
For a film with such a haunting and depressing scenario, 'Beginners' is a surprisingly powerful and perceptive piece of cinema. When I first read the synopsis, I was a bit doubtful about the concept and was uncertain as to whether it was worth a watch, however after learning that the film was partially autobiographical and based on the life of writer-director Mike Mills, I decided to give it a try, convinced by the inspiration of Mills' first-person experiences. 'Beginners' blends comedy and romance against a dramatic backdrop in order to create a charming and character-driven story. In my opinion, it is Christopher Plummer's Oscar-winning performance that really sells the picture accompanied by some assuring performances from Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent. 'Beginners' is a powerfully understated piece of independent filmmaking that maintains it's emotional resonance from start to finish.
I got the chance to attend a sneak peek of director, Mike Mills',
latest film last night at one of the Reel Affirmations film festival's
monthly screenings. I like Mills' films. They've got a moody, tortured
aesthetic, and this one is no different. The story is primarily about
the relationship between a man, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), and his father,
Hal (Christopher Plummer). When Hal dies, Oliver is left to contemplate
his life, their relationship, and all the poor choices each of them had
made up until this point. We see the world through Oliver's eyes, and
so the whole film is suffused with an overall tone of deep sadness. He
can't seem to make any of his romantic relationships work, but then
he's never really had any good role models. You see, after the death of
his mother four years prior, Hal finally came out to his son as gayat
the ripe age of seventy-five. It's a very touching, and lightly sweet
moment. Oliver is happy that his father hasn't given up on life, and is
finally pursuing true love, but he just can't forget the years of
isolation and loneliness his mother went through. Commence the sad
Of course, all this changes when Oliver meets an alluring, winsome French girl (Melanie Laurent). Anna is an actress, and she's just about as bad at relationships as Oliver. They don't know much about each other, but they're both beautiful, damaged souls, so they get on like a house on fire. And somehow, Oliver is thinking less and less about his parents. Those ladies can be mighty distracting! But, not distracting enough to totally conceal either of these attractive kids' inherent personality flaws. But they're pretty fetching while they're working out their demons!
This is a wonderful film. It really captures the deep emotions people feel for each other, and even lets the audience feel some of them for themselves. There were definitely moments during the screening that had people surreptitiously wiping tears from the corners of their eyes. But, it's also sexy and funny too. We get to enjoy Oliver and Anna's uncertain flirtation. And, we also get to savor Hal's belated (but not too late!) blossoming. He's as giddy and nervous as a school-girl at her first dance, but he ultimately takes to his new life like a fish to water, even as late to the game as he is. This movie is a real crowd pleaser, and it's one that just about everyone will enjoy. The pacing is deliberate and solemn, but the story sucks you in enough that you barely notice. You can even bring a date to this one. It's not one to miss.
That's what I took with me and stayed with me. The humanity in Ewan MacGregor's eyes. Sadness and joy unmistakable in its deepness and its pungent recognition. Christopher Plummer is superb as the 75 year old who confesses to his son, he's been gay all his life and after the death of his wife, a sublime Mary Page Keller, he allows that side of his nature to take off and experiment, for the first time in his life, in an honest loving relationship with another man, the odd and lovely Goran Visnjic. As if this wasn't enough, a dog. An extraordinary creature who carries as much humanity as its human counterparts. Melanie Laurent adds an extra pinch of sexual sympathy. "Beginners" will play beautifully on the small screen so I predict a long life for this unexpected treat.
¨Well, let's say that since you were little, you always dreamed of
getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait
but the lion doesn't come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone,
or you can be with the giraffe.¨
Beginners is one of those movies that stands out due to the strong performance from the cast. The actors tell the story, and sometimes a look can say more than actual words. Ewan McGregor has this look in his eyes that constantly reminds us in this film that his character is a very sad and lonesome guy. There is no need for him to tell us, we just know it by the way he acts. From the opening scene you will also notice this isn't your typical Hollywood romantic movie; it's different and actually rings true to life. Beginners is a romantic drama with a strong and special chemistry between the two lead roles played by McGregor and Melanie Laurent (from Inglorious Basterds fame). In order for a romantic movie to work it's a must for the two lead characters to have a strong chemistry between them, and these two have it from the start, from the very first moment they meet. Ironically when they first meet she can't talk, but they say so much to each other with their eyes. That is true in life sometimes. From that moment I knew this film was going to be good, and it was. Their relationship is the center of the story although the movie is non-linear as we get to see McGregor's relationship with his now dead mother and father. Those interactions with them shaped him and made him the man he is today. He witnessed how his parents respected one another, but lacked real love for each other. He doesn't want to make the same mistake.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is the narrator of the movie in which he is telling the story of his life. It's 2003 and his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) has recently passed away. We get several flashbacks dealing with their relationship together. His mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), who he was closer with had died five years ago. After this, Oliver grew closer to his father who opened up to him and let him know he has been gay all his life. Hal really begins living after he comes out of the closet and has a relationship with a much younger man named Andy (Goran Visnjic). Oliver begins to see a version of his father that he never knew. At the same time he realizes his father has terminal cancer and therefore has to take care of him, but in a way they form a stronger bond with each other. Oliver is now on his own, working as a graphic artist who keeps to himself most of the time and spends time with his father's dog, Arthur, but one day his co-workers invite him to a party and insist on him joining them. There Oliver meets a young French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) and despite the fact that she can't speak at first due to laryngitis they spend the night together and the relationship grows from there. The two seem perfect for each other, neither of them is in a relationship, but Oliver is afraid they won't last. The movie jumps back and forth from Oliver's relationship with his father and his present relationship with Anna. We get to see how some things of the past have affected him and shaped him in the present.
Beginners is not a movie for everyone; some might find it slow-paced, but it is a very smart film with a good script written by Mike Mills himself (this is his first film since the 2005 movie Thumbsucker) and it has some great performances. I already mentioned how strong McGregor and Laurent were together, but who really has been getting all the praise is Christopher Plummer for his supporting role. He plays an openly gay seventy five year old man who is enjoying life after trying to repress his feelings for so many years. Just when his life begins to look good he is diagnosed with cancer and has to deal with this as well without telling his young lover that he's dying. He gives a terrific performance and will probably get nominated for the Oscars. I however found Laurent's performance to be the true heart of the film. She is just so natural on screen and was so believable; she was just amazing. McGregor is a terrific actor as well and we've grown used to seeing him give strong performances. Beginners is a movie for film lovers, they won't be disappointed. I recently saw New Year's Eve and that movie had so many romantic stories going on that none of them really rang true, but this one is really authentic and worth seeing. The characters are really complex and you can tell it just by looking into their eyes. Great film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I really do not think it was beginners' luck that made Director Mike Mills' indie film "Beginners" a critical success. This quirky little film about an aging widower who announces to his son that he is gay and has terminal cancer is not your typical "terms of endearment-esque" formulaic weepy. Mills direction includes experimental artistic elements into the narrative which many times are very engaging but a few times are a bit baffling; nevertheless, kudos to Mills for thinking outside the "beginners" box. "Beginners" stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields, an artist who shies away from romantic relationships until he begins to romance the free-spirit French actress Anna. Oliver's dad is Hal, the aforementioned geriatric homosexual who finds a new flamboyant lease on life in his twilight days even with the terminal situation he has been handed with. Christopher Plummer's performance as Hal has been lauded by many critics and it's the frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And why not? It is about time the legendary Mr. Plummer gets a little of that Oscar liquid. Whatever that means! Sorry, something is wrong with my cerebral pipes! Anyways, Plummer's multi-faceted performance was sure a delight to watch. Mills' idiosyncratic screenplay was of people speaking in eccentric tongues, which one could say was not too authentic on how people really talk to each other, but it was still a strong script mainly because it is based on his real life experience with his father. I was not too fond of the overwhelming non-linear aspects of the narrative, but it did not take away too much of the emotional strength of the picture. McGregor continues to be one the most "under the radar" actors working today, because he continues to deliver with every character he portrays as he did with his fine work as Oliver. French actress Melanie Laurent, who was so good in "Inglourious Basterds", proves that performance was no beginners luck by delivering another charismatic thespian effort with her portrayal of the lovely Anna. I will end my review of "Beginners" by stating that this movie is mostly a celebration of the unforgettable moments of life, no matter how old or new, and that it's not such a bad thing to begin again. **** Good
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Self-indulgent piece of neo-modernist crap, people.
Buoyed by the relatively positive ratings and reviews for this film starring the amiable Ewan McGregor and the ever dashing Christopher Plummer, I was led to believe that I was going to watch a quirky, life-affirming tale about the notion of carpe diem in the lives of two proverbially lost people, Oliver and Anna. I was so WRONG. Do not set foot in the theater unless you relish feeling as though you've been completed bamboozled by the trailers for this film.
The premise seems interesting enough: three months after the death of his gay and ailing father, Oliver struggles to retain a hopeful and positive outlook on the potential for real human connection in Los Angeles. In flashbacks, we are supposed to see the tender and open relationship that Oliver and his father, Hal, strive to cultivate during the last few years of his life, interspersed with brief flashbacks of Oliver's parents attempting to make the best of their marriage of convenience. Shortly after the death of his father, Oliver attempts to start a meaningful relationship with Anna, a beautiful yet commitment-phobic French actress (is there any other kind?). The movie is mostly a kaleidescope of early-Eisenhower era Pop imagery pertaining to sexual identity and gender roles that set the premise behind the disenchanted marriage of Oliver's parents, who stayed together for decades out of social obligation and acceptance rather than attraction.
So, the old man is dying, the son is trying, and the gays are crying... but what is this movie really about, I ask you? This is just another disappointing attempt to create a socially conscious indie-flick set in Los Angeles, but without the dreary and discomforting presence of any part of town east of the Hollywood Hills. It was basically '500 Days of Summer' sans the effortless charm of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt or the killer soundtrack. Oliver and Anna's passivity and unblinking acquiescence to everything from Hal's protracted death from cancer to cathartic jaunts around the city to their near-undetectable breakup halfway through the film leaves the viewer completely cold -- we're not even really sure what happened. Did they have a fight? If so, what was it about? Was I eating popcorn when it happened? Sufficed to say, this movie is really light on the plot, heavy on the symbolic imagery. And I resent paying twelve bucks to experience what basically feels like a Rorschach test. I left the theater feeling completely cheated out of two hours and not a little frustrated with the lack of flow in the film. Read-throughs of the script must have been a breeze, since there were so many breathy protracted pauses and stilted narrative readings by McGregor to make up for the lack of actual plot. The French actress-girlfriend, played by Melanie Laurent, is so simultaneously chic and weird that you have a hard time taking your eyes off her, except to note how unbelievably contrived their first meeting and pursuant relationship is. They meet at a costume party, with him dressed like Freud and she looking like a sexually-confused schoolboy. Riiiiiight... could have been cute, I guess, if the actors had even a spark of chemistry between them. The French actress comes off as slightly bipolar; not sure if that was part of the script. Nothing about this movie seemed very deep or genuine, not the tears nor the laughter, what little of it there was.
Beware this film and all the hype portraying it as a feel-good drama. Let's call it what it was -- a derivative and highly uncomfortable attempt at expressing love between beautiful people on the big-screen. And - this is just a peeve of mine - next time, let's not be so eager to cast an Englishman, a Scot, and a Frenchwoman in a movie set in a city populated by Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans. I got the distinct feeling that Ewan McGregor was terrified to speak for fear that his Scottish accent would take over the scene.
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