Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beautiful Boy - The Process of grief and questions

What could possibly be worse than the death of a child? Maybe the fact that the child killed a roomful of innocent people before taking his own life. That is the premise of Shawn Ku's 'Beautiful Boy', an earnest yet visceral look at parents left reeling under the weight of unimaginable tragedy, trying to make sense of it. In the suburbs of LA, resides the family of Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello), empty nesters whose only son Sammy (Kyle Gallner) is a freshman at a university. The couple lead separate lives, never sharing meals, sleeping in separate bedrooms, almost at the verge of divorce. Kate wants a try at a happy family by planning a vacation for them, a feeling not too enthusiastically shared by her husband, who scouts apartment listings in private.

Their son Sammy, only shown momentarily, makes a phone call to them. It is obvious he is troubled and possibly feeling alienated at school. Kate picks up something to be amiss in Sammy's tone, but as parents usually get too absorbed in their own lives, she lets it drop. The next morning as they watch panic stricken on TV about a deadly shooting in their son's university, police officers arrive at their door to inform not only of their son's death but of the reality that it was he who had opened fire that killed seventeen people before turning the gun on himself. From hereon, begins a journey of no return for parents who must live with not just the weight of this entire tragedy, but the question of having gone wrong in their parenting.

Grieving a dead child is terrible in itself without the burden of guilt and the outrage of the public, it's many questions. The looks of people who wonder how terrible as parents could they have been to have nurtured a monster. It is an extremely hard subject to pull off. It hits home especially in the aftermath of the many campus massacres in recent times. This is entirely from the parents perspective. Escaping from the media onslaught, they take refuge with Kate's brother (Alan Tudyk) and his family. While Kate tries to escape the questions her mind surely forms, Bill faces them headlong. In the film's crucial scene, they have escaped society for a little while hiding in a motel, trying to forget momentarily a pain that will inevitably be carried around a lifetime. They get drunk, make love and find a long lost connection, only to have reality shatter it. Accusations are hurled, on parenting, its absence, a failed marriage.

'Beautiful Boy' worked for me on so many levels. It takes an almost forbidden topic and treats it with utmost sensitivity, yet does not shirk the questions. The realistic screenplay and the director's brave vision is aided by the pitch perfect acts of Michael sheen and Maria Bello. Sheen, as the father wondering too late, understanding the unforgivable nature of his son's crime and noticing painfully how the world is suddenly turning hostile, is brilliant in a largely internalized performance. Maria Bello is equally so as the  disciplinarian mother who meant well, tried to push her shy, withdrawn kid out of his shell and now grappling with thoughts of whether she shouldn't have. In this duel between a mother defensive of her parenting and dead child and a father who questions, fireworks occur. And yet they are the only two people who can understand each other and be supportive in a world sure to go hostile.

Shawn Ku, for whom this was the first directorial feature, happens to have taken both from the Virginia Tech massacre and a friend's death leaving behind grieving parents, to come out with a tale palpable in its grief and doubts. The beauty is that he resists the temptation to focus on the event itself and it's ensuing drama and instead taps into the lifetime of pain that the parents now face.

Originally Released in 2010
Available on DVD
My Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Iron Lady - A Shorthand portrayal of a political giant

Politics never has and never will be my strong point. I acknowledge this at the very onset of this review since the focus here will be a formidable and controversial leader in British politics. My interest lies solely in the ability of the motion picture to effectively paint a portrayal of the iron lady aka Margaret Thatcher, to understand her, witness her rise in the corridors of politics, study her eleven years of reign and then the fall. And I have to admit, the biopic barely delivers in this category. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, 'The Iron Lady' however gets one major detail correct in its casting of the incredibly talented Meryl Streep. And in that lies its deliverance.

Starting with Thatcher as an octogenarian(Streep in heavy prosthetics), we witness a woman in the throes of dementia, carrying on a conversation about the price of milk with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hallucinates him and maybe only the disposal of his items still kept around the house, will pull him out the recesses of her mind. As the present slips between reality and the imaginary, Thatcher's mind takes her into the past chapters of an important life. The humble beginnings of a grocer's daughter in Grantham shows a girl with steely ambition when she is the only pair of heels in a roomful of men's shoes at her father's town meetings. That indeed forms her surroundings through her career, the lone pair of heels in rooms full of men's shoes.

Her entry to Oxford and then the times of her emerging voice in politics are glossed over. An elderly lady of unsound mind peers unsurely into her past, skimming over her entry to 10 Downing street in 1979 and the important events that framed her 11 years of prime ministership. Her imagination of her deceased husband seems clearer to her than those years of power and battle. Unfortunately, such seems the case for the audience as well. Instead of a woman sticking to her convictions in the face of severe opposition, turning the economy of a flailing country, bringing about the privatization of various sectors, winning back the Falkland Islands from Argentina's invasion, Lloyd seems more content to portray an old ill woman wondering through the rooms of her house trying to chase away the illusion of her dead husband. Matters of consequence are skimmed over and it is almost as if her dementia takes center stage.

Lloyd's saving grace is the inimitable actor that is Meryl Streep who can, in face of little argument, be called the greatest living actor of our times. We are aware of her chameleon like quality to disappear into any character, real or fictional and adapt to any physicality and voice modulation. Every one of those skills are honed to perfection for us to witness here. Margaret Thatcher was one of the premier public personalities of the not too distant eighties and she was splashed all over the television and radio.To effectively impersonate her would have been a herculean task for anyone but Streep. The sadness is when that great a performance is not matched by the content. A nod to the ever dependable Jim Broadbent in his wonderfully reliable portrayal of Denis.

Phyllida Lloyd whose previous outing as screen director was the subpar money spinner 'Mamma Mia', had claimed in an interview that this movie was not so much about a leader, as it was of somebody once important who had since faded into oblivion. The tragedy of old age was what she had intended to capture. A good thought that and a wonderful concept if that was the story we had come to witness. When you show us a life as important as Margaret Thatcher, you owe it to the world to portray the strength. Hate her some did, love her some did. But even divided in feelings, her life had mattered and a lot of what we saw of her life on that screen did not.

Surely for a woman who was labelled 'The Iron Lady' and in her times 'the most important person of Europe', it is not the tragic reality of old age that would do justice but the memory of a woman who thought ahead and put those thoughts into fearless action. At the end, I couldnt dismiss the movie for the central performance is too important to shrug off. It is the route the movie takes which finally fails.

Released in 2012
Running in Theatres
My Rating: 3/5