Beginners

 

Beginners

Photography by Kapser Tuxen

Edited by Olivier Bugge Coutte

Production Designed by Shane Valentino

Music by Roger Neill, David Palmer & Brian Reitzell

Produced by Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Jay Van Hoy & Lars Knudsen

Written & Directed by Mike Mills

Theatrical Release Date: June 2011


Cast:

Ewan McGregor

Christopher Plummer

Mélanie Laurent

Goran Visnjic

Kai Lennox

Mary Page Keller

Keegan Boos

Cosmo


Production Studio:

Theatrical: Olympus Pictures, Parts & Labor & Focus Features

Video: Universal Studios Home Entertainment


Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: VC-1

Disc Size: BD25

Feature Size: ca. 24 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate-High (30-35 Mbps)

Runtime: 104 minutes

Chapters: 19


Audio:

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Spanish DTS 5.1


Subtitles:

English SDH, French & Spanish


Extras:

• Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Mike Mills

• A Short Film About Making Beginners - (4:20)

• Beginners Promo - in HD (2:12)

• pocket BLU App


Presentation:

Amaray Blu-ray Case: BRD x 1

Street Date: November 15, 2011



Critical Reaction:

San Francisco Chronicle:

Writer-director Mike Mills gives us the timeline from the opening minutes and thereby injects a note of urgency. The mother dies in 1998, the father in 2003, so he has only five years to make a new life. In a similar way, when we see the mother (Mary Page Keller), as a youngish woman in flashback, we feel the limits of her life and that she will never know the love of her husband. It's through the prism of our godlike knowledge that we watch their scenes and understand their pain.


Against this background, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), and he likes her even before he finds out she's French. . . He has intense desires for intimacy but a history of fleeing women when they get close. She is an actress who travels a lot and has had trouble maintaining connections. If he were more clingy, she would be afraid of him. If she were less elusive, he'd be looking for the exit. Instead, because they're both beginners, they're able to take some steps forward, together. But how far can they go? - Mick LaSalle


     


Los Angeles Times:

"Beginners," starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, is a buoyant and disarming drama about sons and fathers, death and dying, living and loving and all the ways we find ourselves starting over, hoping to finally get it right. . . The filmmakers create a little magic along the way, so when the dog starts letting us know what's on his mind (the subtitles help) it somehow makes perfect sense. That sensibility fits just as perfectly with the delightful performances by McGregor, Plummer and Laurent that grace this film. Though the underlying issues are deeply philosophical ones — identity, sexual orientation, all manner of relationships and all types of love — the actors drift along like clouds, lighter than air. Plummer, in particular, seems to be having the time of his life as an old man in the throes of young love, handling it with elegant aplomb. In other hands, the empathy you feel for the characters and their crises could turn syrupy or maudlin. Instead, they become an amusing and introspective pleasure. - Betsy Sharkey


     


Rolling Stone:

Oliver doesn't judge his father. He simply looks back at Hal's late-blooming openness, especially at the passion and compassion that blend in Hal's love affair with the much younger Andy (Goran Visnjic), and wonders why he's never been able to find that in himself. Mills turns Beginners into something more than a movie. It's a collage of collected memories of his father coupled with an art project he's developing on "The History of Sadness" and a tentative reaching out to Anna (the excellent Mélanie Laurent), a French actress perhaps looking for more than Oliver can deliver. - Peter Travers


     


LensViews

The Movie: 8

Where to begin?  Hmmm.  I would have enjoyed saying that “Beginners” is Mike Mills’ first feature film, but it isn’t.  It’s his second.  Or that some of his actors are novices?  Nope.  These are all seasoned players, even if some might be new to audiences.  Or that Mills’ style is groundbreaking?  Clever and well-suited, yes.  But, no, the title simply refers to the three main characters, who are all trying on new life roles.  In the case of Plummer and McGregor, more than one.

 

By extension, Mills may be suggesting that the human social condition is, or should be, always evolving, and therefore always at the beginning - or, perhaps no further along than at the beginning of the middle.  As if to make sure we get the point, even if not entirely explicitly, Mills tells his story from the middle (the death of the father), outward, in both directions, flashing back to various points in old relationships and moving forward with a new one.


     


The story is more easily summarized.  Shortly after his wife’s death, Hal (Plummer) announces to his son Oliver (McGregor) that he is gay and has always been so.  Faithful to his wife for 45 years of marriage, Hal feels it is high time that he explores his birthright.  While this turn of events comes as quite a shock to Oliver it is nothing compared Hal’s taking on a much younger lover and his subsequent diagnosis of lung cancer. It’s not just the questionable propriety of an affair with a man forty years his junior, but what it does to Oliver’s relationship with his father, one that, as Hal so poignantly puts it, because his true but secret nature made him uneasy to take Oliver’s hand as a child.  (Mills writes this line beautifully, and Plummer speaks it so artlessly that I won’t spoil it by quoting it exactly here.)


     


Hal’s acknowledgment comes about halfway into the film, by which time his relationship with Andy and Oliver’s tentative new relationship with Anna are well under way.  It is also the fulcrum about which Oliver’s life story teeters: his father’s distance, his mother’s dotage, his need to care for his father during his long convalescence and his skittishness about committing to a new relationship.

 

Along the way, Mills offers four likable characters and the actors who inhabit them:  We’ve already mentioned Christopher Plummer who, at 82 may take home the Oscar that has always eluded him (pace Hunter McCracken – next time, perhaps.) There’s Ewan McGregor, who has this odd, yet disarming way of smiling with his teeth visibly clenched.  He doesn’t smile a great deal in this movie - his Oliver is far too lonely and confused - but he does get to narrate it.  My readers know how critical I am of today’s actors in this capacity, but no fear, the promise of Renton is alive and well, completely revitalized as a man treading water.


     


And then there is Mélanie Laurent, the French actress who got to kill Hitler and half the Nazi leadership in Inglourious Basterds, who has her own way with a smile.  She does more with less than just about any living actor I can think of.  (Perhaps I am not thinking clearly at the moment, but that would only be because I am completely bowled over by her.)  Finally there is Cosmo, who plays Arthur, the Jack Russell terrier that Oliver takes everywhere because he can’t stand to hear him whimper.  Arthur has some of the film’s best lines, which are subtitled for us since he can’t talk.

 

There is a good deal of clever filmmaking afoot in this movie. To take one example: Arthur is not the only one who can’t or won’t speak.  When we first meet Anna (Laurent) she writes on a notepad because she has laryngitis.  Olivier is an artist, and draws his thoughts as much as speaks them.  At other times he has lopsided philosophical conversations with Arthur - one of them on a park bench that reveals one of the film’s central themes. Hal’s young lover, Andy (Goran Visnjic) speaks in gay-laced clichés.  Oliver’s mother (Mary Page Keller) cannot speak the truth about her husband to anyone nor admit that she failed to “fix” him.  I’ll stop now.


     


Image: 8/9

One of the liabilities of high-definition video is that we get to see clearly and inescapably the filmmakers’ intentions.  As, for example, these days every director seems to feel the need to put their unique stamp on the look of their movie - not only in terms of production design (which makes obvious sense) but in color filtration (which I tend to feel is increasingly overused).  Perhaps it’s just a fashion, like the 1970s love affair with the zoom lens, but I confess I am easily put out by it.

 

“Beginners” is a case in point: Here Mills elects for a somewhat underexposed, desaturated, green filtered effect – like a compressed Chungking Express’ Christopher Doyle on Quaaludes, no doubt to reinforce Oliver’s sadness.  The whole affair strikes me as precious – the compressed contrast has the effect of putting me to sleep and I have to work harder than I’d like to stay focused.  As for Universal’s transfer, I don’t find anything to complain about on technical grounds.  Blacks are subdued, resolution is on the soft side, but not wanting - doubtless as Mills wants his film to look, largely a consequence of his Red One Digital camera.


     


Audio & Music: 7/8

With little exception the audio mix is front directed stereo. The costume party scene is a rare exception that makes excellent use of the surrounds with music that changes aural quality as the camera moves about the rooms filled with chattering groups of people. This idea of the changing character of music occurs a couple of other times where the camera follows Oliver from one room to another.  In other respects, the audio is clear and crisp from the tiniest fall of a pill onto a table surface, to dialogue (regardless of context) to the luscious piano that drops in from time to time.

 

There are two music scores that work in a curious state of dynamic tension.  One of these – the one connected with Oliver’s parents, and where the ghost of Woody Allen is evoked - consists of 1940s jazz, black and pop tunes from Hoagy Carmichael and Jelly RollMorton.  The other seems to represent Oliver; it’s played on the piano in a lazy improvisatory style that evokes a lazy improvisatory style.


I might also mention that this video disc comes with a Spanish language dub in DTS 5.1.


     


Extras: 6

I’m not sure that “Beginners” cries out for much more than what is offered here, so my score may be only reflective of what we usually get on Blu-ray rather than what is needed.  First is the audio commentary by writer/director Mike Mills in which we learn all sorts of background to the making of the film, including its autobiographical roots (you’d be surprised how much), his thinking about how he shoots his film, the locations used and why he felt the need to be as realistic as possible, casting and what the actors bring to their characters, lots about his own life, his choices for the music - new and old - and a little bit about the look of his film.  Mills is a director that takes his work seriously, but not himself.  He starts his commentary with the admission that he usually enjoys such video commentaries, feeling that he has learned much from them.  He is evidently a nice guy, like the characters that he has created for his film.


     


The “Beginners Promo” is a curious piece where, for a little over two minutes, the same flashes of scenes are shown, as in a theatrical trailer, but repeated twice with no voiceover or credits of any kind.


“A Short Film About Making Beginners” is just that.  It is, somewhat oddly but endearingly presented in standard definition B&W and squarish format.  Played via my VLC computer software, the image is horizontally compressed to 1.10:1 from what looks like it should be about 1.30:1, yet it comes out perfectly ratioed when projected. In this four-minute bonus feature we hear from Mills speaking to his script’s autobiographical beginnings, the actors’ on their various characters and working with each other, and from Mathilde De Cagney, Cosmo’s trainer.


     


Recommendation: 8

As proscribed by the director, the image may be dull, but as written Beginners is a surprisingly upbeat story about death, life and transformation and the things we place in our way to get there.  It’s also a film about memory, about how we filter our own voyage through life to keep us afloat and, sometimes, to drill holes in our own boat.  One final comment about the "R" Rating:  Beginners is a movie without a single sex scene and hardly a four letter word.  Evidently kisses between adults of the opposite sex gets a "G" Rating.  Kisses between men gets an "R".  What will become of us!  Warmly recommended.


     



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

November 5, 2011



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