Tag Archives: B

BEGINNERS

Mike Mills follows up his first feature, the interesting but precious coming-of-age comedy-drama “Thumbsucker,” with a more mature, but still quirky, take on parent and child. “Beginners” doesn’t entirely avoid affectation, but overall it’s a touching story of two generations, father and son, each striking out on a new path.

Christopher Plummer plays Hal, a museum curator who comes out only at age 74 after his wife’s death and finds a significant other in a much younger man, sweet but somewhat flaky Andy (Goran Visnjic). His son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a lonely, depressed cartoonist whose work concentrates, in minimalist style, on subjects like “The History of Sadness.”

Their stories aren’t played out chronologically, but by skipping back and forth among several plot strands. One offers scenes of young Oliver (Keegan Boos) being raised largely by his eccentric mother (Mary Page Keller), one of whose peculiar habits involves having the boy theatrically fall “dead” at every wave of her hand. Another follows Oliver caring for Hal, now 78, as he goes through the stages of terminal cancer that ends with his death. And the third, after Hal’s demise, portrays Oliver’s on-again, off-again romance with freewheeling actress Anne (Melanie Laurent).

Mills juggles these strands artfully, and his touch is for the most part attractively gentle, choosing episodes that shine light on the emotional fragility of the characters but generally not overplaying them. There are instances, though, when he strives somewhat too hard for an off-kilter effect. The broad, somewhat shrill depiction of Oliver’s mother, for example, almost seems to come from a different movie altogether, although the tone can be justified by recalling that it represents the cartoonist’s exaggerated recollections of his boyhood rather than simple reality.

More problematic is the amount of screen time Mills devotes to Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell terrier that Oliver adopts after his dad’s death. True, Cosmo—the pup that assumes the role—is incredibly cute and photogenic, and the actors appear to be enjoying him immensely. The audience will, too. But it’s always a sign of weakness when a director employs a darling canine so much. It can easily upstage the humans.

Happily in this case the others hold their own. Plummer gives an especially rich performance as a man who finally decides to be true to himself—he has an especially fine scene where he explains his choices in life to his son, which he invests with an almost startling range of feelings in a very short compass. But McGregor matches him beat for beat in their screen time together. McGregor also scores in his sequences with the lovely Laurent, though both of them have to share more of their scenes with Cosmo. And while this is essentially a three-character piece, both Visnjic and Keller have their moments, the former making you completely forget his leading-man image.

Technically “Beginners” has a pleasantly homely feel, with cinematography by Kaspar Tuxen that avoids coming across as too slick. But special praise is due editor Olivier Bugge Coutte, whose keeps the various narrative strands clear while maintaining a trim running-time.

This is a definite advance on Mills’s first feature, and it makes one look forward to his third.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

Richard Press’s documentary is an affectionate portrait of the photographer whose snapshots of designer fashion, high society events and peculiarly-dressed people on the street have graced the pages of the New York Times for years. Bill Cunningham’s importance to the world of haute couture situates Press’s picture within the run of recent documentaries on that subject.

What makes the film more than just that is the contradictory nature of Cunningham himself. The octogenarian shutterbug is fanatic about dress that’s unusual or innovative, but his own wardrobe is as plain as can be. He’s at home in the most rarefied social circles, but spends his days on the city streets, camera in hand, scampering to shoot passersby whose clothes pique his interest. He’s ruthless in revealing what amounts to designer plagiarism, but is concerned that the people he photographs be treated with respect. He admits to never having had a serious romantic relationship but has a bevy of friends and, in a speech before a business crowd in Paris, waxes eloquently about his love of—and devotion to—the ideal of fashion. Though he travels among celebrities, he has contempt for mere celebrity, and while they’re in their chauffeured limousines he travels around on his twenty-eighth bike (the previous twenty-seven, he reveals, have been stolen). And he lives a positively spartan existence, subsisting on the simplest of foods and living in a tiny rent-controlled Carnegie Hall office without kitchen or private bath, almost bereft of furniture aside from the mass of file cabinets where he stores the negatives of all the pictures he’s ever shot—until he’s evicted and moved by the city into a larger place. That’s partially explained by his indifference to money; he’s frequently turned down payments in order to maintain his prized independence.

Press’s approach is laid-back, easygoing almost to a fault; but it benefits from the grace notes contained in the interviews with the voluble photographer, his work colleagues and his myriad friends and associates. One of the most endearing episodes, for instance, comes when Press and Cunningham spend some time with his Carnegie Hall neighbor Editta Sherman, in her nineties even older than he, who somewhat acidly shows off her collection of the notables she’s photographed over the years.

“Bill Cunningham New York” isn’t directly revelatory about the man—when Cunningham speaks about his private life, his reticence speaks more loudly than his words. But it holds your attention over its rather untidily assembled eighty-minutes of on-the-fly footage by reason of what it reveals about his almost monastic devotion to his work. Ultimately it’s a film about single-mindedness—of a cheerful, contented sort, to be sure, but still a little frightening. Beneath its genial surface—and the man’s—one might just glimpse a bit of something rather more poignant.