Monday, December 1, 2008

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Rachel Getting Married (2008): Emotionally tense, Rachel Getting Married is a beautiful film on two intertwining levels. On one level, this is a film about family; specifically, a dysfunctional family wrestling with present joys and past tragedies. When Kym Buckman (Anne Hathaway) returns from rehab for her sister Rachel's (Rosamarie DeWitt) wedding, the unspoken bitterness, guilt, grief, and pain from a 10-year-old family tragedy resurfaces. Each family member has been dealing with the grief in their own ways, and the tension has finally reached a boiling point. With director Jonathan Demme's unsteady cinematography and documentary-styled directing, I almost felt like I was intruding upon a family moment for much of the film. Demme forces the audience to have patience, with uncomfortably long scenes that generally lead up to emotional outbursts. This family feels so real that it's genuinely awkward at times; you feel the tension in the conversations, empathizing with the pain and emotion in every outburst. 

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is its ability to foster emotional empathy. There are films that you cry at because they're sad or laugh at because they're funny, but this film manages to draw you into the Buckman family, as if you were a guest at the wedding holding the shaky video camera yourself, silently watching because you've not sure whether to speak up or to run. Hathaway's performance is definitely Oscar-worthy as she jumps from sharp witticisms to subdued whimpers along her emotional journey towards healing. DeWitt deserves props too; for whatever reason, I saw a bit of myself in Rachel, as someone who tries to form her own identity as she also brings the fractured family together. These are complex characters in the most complex of situations, but drawn together in familial love.

On a second level, this is a film about culture; specifically, postmodern hipster culture. Rachel's wedding is an eclectic mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and music, gathered all together into one multifaceted family affair. Rachel's wedding is a kaleidoscope, a mosaic of sorts. Brett McCracken writes about this much more eloquently than I, though I must say this: I love the matter-of-fact way the film portrays this mosaic, as every family can and should be a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-anything, united in their love for one another. As a family member says during a wedding toast, "this is what heaven will be like; let's practice it now." 

Maybe the dichotomy I've created between the themes of family and culture is incomplete. Maybe this is a film about the culture of a family (and it's a beautiful-yet-volatile culture to behold).

Overall, this is one of the deepest and rawest films about family I've seen this year...and perhaps ever. Katie and I both agreed that we felt emotionally tense and drained by the end of the film. You'll either end up crying or squirming uncomfortably in your seat. Or both. And while that's not the greatest feeling in the world, it's authentic and personal and beautiful in its own way.

Rocket Science (2007): Fifteen-year-old Hal Hefner stutters. He's awkward. He's insecure. And he's supposedly the next debate team prodigy. At least that's what high school debate aficionado Ginny (Twilight's Anna Kendrick in a great performance) believes he is. Ginny is articulate, intelligent, and driven to win. Hal can't even ask for pizza in the school cafeteria, his stutter is so bad. And to make matters worse, he has a kleptomaniac bully for a brother and a mom who's dating the Korean next-door-neighbor. Things aren't going so well for Hal when Ginny comes along. Then his entire world is turned on its head as he plummets into the deep end of high school debating.

This is a coming-of-age film in the same vein as Juno. I love these kinds of stories, the stories of young people searching for identity and meaning in their messy lives. Unlike Juno, who seems farther along the path of individuation, this is the story of an awkward boy finding his voice, literally and figuratively. A narrator--which reminded me strongly of the narrator in Magnolia--periodically chimes in and explains some of the meaning behind Hal's tale. Overall, it's a witty and touching film about the awkwardness of adolescence. (Did I mention that it's awkward yet?)

Eagle vs. Shark (2007): Inviting numerous comparisons to Napolean Dynamite for its awkward humor and indie style, this New Zealand comedy is much darker and more adult than Napoleon. Lily (Loren Horsley) is a quirky insecure girl who develops a crush on Jarrod (Flight of Conchord's Jermaine Clement), a mullet-sporting misfit who has plans for revenge on a high-school bully. The film's title comes from a costume party Jarrod hosts where guests come as their favorite animal. When Jarrod invites Lily to his hometown to meet his family and watch him fight the bully, more awkwardness ensues, including 80s athletic clothing and camping in the backyard.

While there were bright moments in the film that make it a unique romantic comedy, I found that it was almost too dark to keep it funny. Jarrod and Lily both have some serious issues to deal with, including guilt and regret over past tragedies. The film invites the audience to feel pity for the characters while also inviting us to laugh at them. It's hard to do both; you feel terrible laughing at someone who is hurting, even if they're just characters on a screen. Overall, it's an amusing film with some touching moments, but if I had to recommend just one awkward indie comedy rental this week, go get Rocket Science.

Philadelphia (1993): Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for his portrayal of a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. The second Jonathan Demme film I watched this week, Philadelphia effectively and powerfully brought the HIV/AIDS issue to the forefront of American cinematic culture. The film also has a great performance from Denzel Washington as the passionate (and homophobic) attorney defending Hanks. The film brings up a controversial issue without being overly preachy, instead focusing on the humanity of each character, allowing the audience to discern for themselves. Katie and I had fantastic and emotional conversation about unconditional love after watching the film. It was powerful to see the family come around Hanks' character, choosing to love him instead of ostracize him (which would have seemed culturally appropriate at the time). I love watching good movies with my wife that result in engaging dialogue; Katie has incredible insights that I'd never come up with myself, and I love seeing her wisdom and passion come out. This is one reason why I love movies so much: they are stories that can share beautiful truths about humanity, allowing us to dialogue and learn more about each other as we enter the story together.

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