Friday, September 16, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Dying Happy

With summer's more frivolous films behind us, it's time for "serious" movies to dominate the box office and try to garner awards attention. Two of the fall's first major releases deal with the most serious subject of all: death and dying.

In the current #1 movie, Contagion, a big-name international cast including Oscar winners Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard confront death on a catastrophic scale when a previously unknown virus begins to decimate the world's population. As doctors around the globe work to identify the pathogen and discover its origin and -- hopefully -- a vaccine, banks fold, riots break out and cities burn. Meanwhile, Jude Law (a memorable standout) fuels the panic with his blog's conspiracy theories that may well be more than mere theories. Despite Elliot Gould's medical researcher denouncing Law's character with the declaration "Blogging is graffiti with punctuation"(!), the online journalist hits the nail on the head more than once as he identifies mutually-beneficial links between the government and pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, nearly a billion people die within a few months time.

Contagion is a well-made, effective chiller directed by an authenticity-obsessed Steven Soderbergh (Traffic). I would have admired and respected it better, though, if (SPOILER ALERT) it wasn't so subtly judgmental toward Paltrow's "patient zero" character. It isn't enough that she's cheating on her husband (Damon), but she has to work for the corporation responsible for the deforestation that leads to the viral outbreak too??? Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns could use a reminder that viruses don't have moral standards.


Meanwhile, gay director Gus Van Sant's Restless (opening today) takes a smaller-scale, more romantic approach to the Grim Reaper. The opening night "Un Certain Regard" selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the film focuses on the plight of a recently orphaned teenage boy, Enoch (a debut performance by Henry Hopper, son of the late actor Dennis Hopper). He attends strangers' funerals in his ongoing grief over his parents' accidental death, and leans on the ethereal shoulder of his best friend, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), who happens to be the ghost of a WWII Kamikaze fighter pilot.

While at one memorial service, Enoch meets the charming Annabel (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska). They embark on a friendship that soon turns to love, only to have Enoch learn that Annabel is herself dying of cancer. Accepting of her prognosis, Annabel makes it her mission to help Enoch learn to live before she passes on.

Restless turns out to be very good and it could have easily been very bad; memories of 1991's Dying Young, in which Julia Roberts fell cloyingly in love with a terminally-ill Campbell Scott, spring immediately to mind. But Jason Lew's script, workshopped for several years with actress/producer Bryce Dallas Howard, succeeds at depicting the tension between young love and premature death with warmth and humor. Van Sant also handles the risky material expertly, cutting away or throwing in a tension-reducing image whenever things threaten to get too morose. Wasikowska's Annabel is a bit one-note in her optimistic attitude and Hopper's lack of acting experience is apparent at some points, but they form an affecting duo.


Happy, Happy doesn't take on end-of-life issues but instead explores the life cycle of relationships. Norway's entry in this year's Academy Awards competition for Best Foreign Language Film, it opens today in southern California and New York. Anne Sewitsky's feature directorial debut also took home the World Cinema Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival.

Kaia (a very good Agnes Kittelsen) is a young wife and mother who puts on a positive demeanor despite the fact that she and her husband haven't had sex in over a year. When an attractive, seemingly liberal couple move in next door with their adopted, African son, Kaia reaches out as a good neighbor. It isn't long before she and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), the new man on the block, are frolicking nude in the snow and getting it on behind their spouses' backs. Kaia's husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), in the meantime, is secretly struggling with his sexuality and trying to decide who he's more attracted to: Sigve or Sigve's previously-adulterous wife, Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens).

While essentially a comedy of manners, Happy, Happy isn't of the laugh-out-loud variety, and a subplot involving Kaia and Eirik's son trying to make Sigve and Elisabeth's son his slave is extremely discomforting. Still, the film is touched with truthful, graceful moments, none less so than when the increasingly liberated Kaia overcomes her longtime fear of singing in public to lead the church choir in "Amazing Grace" during Christmas Eve service. If movies about death and dying don't sound particularly appealing this weekend (or ever), Happy, Happy will serve as a good alternative.

Reverend's Ratings:
Contagion: B
Restless: B+
Happy, Happy: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...