Love is at the quirky core of writer/director Mike Mills’ brilliantly heart-on-sleeve “Beginners.” Feeling it, expressing it, avoiding it – they’re themes heartedly woven into a narrative about grief, starting over and how to react should your 75-year-old father come out just before he dies.
In Mills’ delicately handled film, Christopher Plummer’s Hal, based on Mills’ own father, finally reveals his homosexual feelings – after his wife of 50 years passes – to his son Oliver (a sweet, empathetic Ewan McGregor). Hal navigates the gay world with gusto: He goes to gay clubs, subscribes to the Advocate, finds a gay circle of friends, falls in love with Andy (Goran Visnjic). And he doesn’t expect Oliver to understand – why would he? He’s not gay. But, of course, times have changed and, much to Hal’s surprise, Oliver knows what a rainbow flag stands for and who the heck this Harvey Milk guy was.
Their relationship is lovely and ultimately heartbreaking, as Hal lives out his last few months fully with Oliver trying desperately in that time to understand the father he never knew (though his mother, played magnificently in flashbacks by Mary Page Keller, had a better idea). Through him, though, Oliver better understands himself and his place in the world. How to love, and how to live. And why it’s better not to wait for the lion when you can have the giraffe, a touching and honest dialogue in Mills’ script that really gets to the root of Oliver’s love-conflicted character, a hesitant lover to new crush Anna (a charming and interesting Melanie Laurent).
“Beginners” is masterfully written with offbeat style and loving candor, an authentic slice-of-life that never feels phony. So much of that’s also in Plummer and McGregor’s immaculately mined father-son relationship, treated tenderly by both actors (Visnjic, who has a touching interaction with McGregor near the end, is also terrific as the doting boyfriend).
And that dog? Arthur, the cute pup with separation anxiety, is so damn adorable with his subtitled lines and don’t-leave-me whimpering. It’s a sweetness – also in the lounge music and use of photo montages – that the deeply personal “Beginners” knows how to access despite the tragic death-of-my-dad inevitably, making it one of the best, and most rewarding, films of the year by far.
We learn more about the dog in a behind-the-scenes documentary, featuring a bird’s-eye-view into Mills’ writing process and interviews with the cast. Only Mills does the insightful commentary, but he’s so interesting to listen to that he’s all you need.
West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition
Fifty years ago it would’ve been near impossible to foretell the parallels of forbidden love to the marriage equality argument, but “West Side Story” – premiering to stupid controversy during the Civil Rights Era – feels just as relevant today, in the midst of that fight, as it did then.
It was 1961 when the film was released, four years after its Broadway opening, and it would go on to make an enduring mark on the world – and not just because it took home 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. It’d become a perennial favorite of elementary choir teachers to show their classes, pushing gay boys (like myself), who shamelessly hummed the timeless Steven Sondheim songs, one more step out of the closet. Even “Glee,” performing numbers from the classic recently, tipped its hat to the musical phenomenon.
No matter the generation, we all grew up on “West Side Story,” a bold dramatic musical, mostly right-on until its contrived end, that tells the tale of a doomed-from-the-start romance between Maria (Natalie Wood, who many argued shouldn’t have been cast since her singing voice had to be dubbed) and Tony (Richard Beymer), two people bound by love but restricted because of their ties to opposing street gangs – one is Puerto Rican, the other a descendant of European immigrants. Remember the finger-snapping sequence that opens the film? So cool. Or how about the erupting-with-chemistry “Somewhere” scene that ended in a we’re-about-to-do-it-but-you-can’t-watch cutaway? Hot.
Diehards, and music teachers, have a new way to view the classic: on Blu-ray with this ultimate four-disc edition that already has its own built-in theme song: “I Feel Pretty.” Because it is! Fox goes all-out with this special edition, the discs awesomely packaged in a fold-out book and featuring the newly remastered film in hi-def, a dance how-to, a wonderfully comprehensive look back at its legacy with original cast (and the people inspired by it) and Sondheim song commentaries.
And that’s not it: There’s a music go-to feature that allows easy access to favorites like “Tonight,” “Somewhere” and “America”; an eight-track tribute CD featuring Julie Andrews, Gloria Estefan and Charlotte Church; and mini movie posters. “West Side Story” – in this fantastic 50th anniversary set – really is the gift that keeps giving.