3x3x3: “A Royal Affair,” Where “Hope Springs,” but More “ParaNorman” Would Break the Norm

Today, 3 reviews of 3 films I have seen in the past 3 days. It makes for an interesting random jumble, and is in line with my attempts to see as many films released this year as possible. None of the films blew me away, so the reviews will be relatively brief. Here goes …

A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel,2012)

This film is Denmark’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar™. It is a well crafted costume drama, set in the late 18th Century, about a seminal figure in Danish history, Dr. Johann Struensee, who was counselor to King Christian VII, councilor of his court, and lover of his wife. For the first hour, it is quite gripping, as it sets up a unique historical political intrigue, unknown to Americans, where a man of no particular noble lineage managed to rise to a position of supreme power in a European nation, passed laws based on the principles of the Enlightenment, then fell from power and was executed. Struensee lives on in the Danish imagination today as a figure ahead of his time, whose ideas eventually came to fruition. In the second half of this 137-minute film, however, in spite of the tragedies that befall the main characters, the pacing drags, probably because we can see how it will all end (in a Chronicle of a Death Foretold kind of way), and because the filmmaker does nothing fresh with the material, other than to shoot it beautifully.

Indeed, the cinematography is one of the two main reasons to see this. Rasmus Videbæk, the Director of Photography, whose name I did not know before this, does an amazing job capturing the locations – both interior and exterior – as well as the actors, showing how the glory days of films shot on film are not yet over. The other reason to watch this movie is the actors. Alicia Vikander, whom we can all see right now as Kitty in Anna Karenina, brings real passion and depth to the part of the Queen. I did not particularly care for Anna Karenina, though I admired its ambitions, and as I thought more about that film, I revised my initially positive view of Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role. In A Royal Affair, Vikander delivers the performance that I wish Knightley had given in Anna Karenina. I believed her in the part: she fit the time period, and her ill-fated feelings came out of a fully realized characterization. I also fully believed Mads Mikkelsen (Casino RoyaleFlame and Citron) as Dr. Struensee. The interactions between the two of them (without the unnecessary quasi-softcore porn scenes of Anna Karenina) brought me completely into the story, even as I began to lose interest in the plot. Mikkelsen has a face that reminds me a bit of the Japanese actor  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano – almost stroke-like in its lack of excessively physical expressions – which is perfect for the metaphorical “mask” that Struensee must wear.

If you like historical period films, chances are you will like this one, and you might even disagree with me that it drags at the end.

Hope Springs

Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012)

Phew! This is not a good movie. Whether it’s the background music (by Theodore Shapiro, a very nice man whom I once met as a grad student at NYU, but whose work here is cloying), the nauseatingly loud foregrounded pop songs that are also on the soundtrack, or the eunuch-like performance by Steve Carrell, there’s a lot to not recommend here, including the fact that it has the same generic (and uninspiring) title of a film released just nine years earlier.

And yet, by the time it was over, I had actually been moved. It’s kind of like when you eat lots of food that you know is bad for you – and hate it while you’re eating it – yet somehow achieve a certain satisfaction after eating it. Or like when you listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe over and over again, or watch all of the riffs on her original music video: you know you could spend your time doing something more meaningful, yet you watch the videos, anyway, transfixed.

This is what I call a “soft” comedy (i.e., the jokes aren’t that funny). The story is about a long-married couple, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, who when the movie begins have just celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary. They have grown kids (two or three – hard to tell since they’re not really developed), and are stuck in a routine that includes separate bedrooms, no sex, and absolutely zero intimacy. Finally, one day, Streep’s character decides she has had enough, and she buys tickets to a week-long couples therapy session with a psychiatrist played by Steve Carrell. Things start out badly, but by the end of the film … well, you can guess. It is called “Hope Springs,” after all.

I don’t have much to say beyond that. Steve Carrell’s delivery is too Michael Scott-like. I don’t buy him as any kind of “Dr.” here. And why does his hair look like he’s wearing a toupee? Meryl Streep is funny, though, and Tommy Lee Jones is funny enough. I love the moment when Streep looks at an “Open Marriage” book in a bookstore. Great expression on her face!

In addition, as shown in the film, the therapy sessions with Carrell are too short to be meaningful. We’re there for all of two or three minutes, he spouts platitudes, and then gives them an “assignment.” To top it all off, his smile is maddening. I would react as Tommy Lee Jones does, or even punch him! It’s like he’s been neutered. Plus, the role, as written, could have been played by anyone. Why not use someone with less baggage than Carrell?

Surprisingly, however, the film did succeed in making me nostalgic for what I have never had, which is a long marriage. The final handheld camcorder footage on the beach, at the end of the film when Streep and Jones renew their vows (spoiler alert … not!), was the best part of the movie. It actually made me wish I had had a long relationship to look back on, 30 years later … sniff. Of course, I would have had to have gotten married at 13, but still …

So if you are part of a long-together couple, you may actually love this movie, in spite of its many flaws.

Paranorman

Paranorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell, 2012)

For the first hour, this was a terrifically original coming-of-age story about a misfit kid (who talks to dead people) who must learn to accept himself so that others may accept him. This is familiar territory, yet the details are wildly inventive. The animation – a combination of traditional stop-motion techniques and computer graphics – was gorgeous, and wholly immersed me in the story. I loved the opening ghoulish film-on-TV that Norman is watching, its use of the classic Vertigo shot and the subsequent repetition of that shot later in the film. What I didn’t like about the film, however, was the preachy we-must-all-love-one-another last half hour, which drastically reduced my enjoyment of the story. I felt as if the filmmakers could have reached their conclusion in a manner that was truer to the off-beat tone of the beginning. I wanted less typical Hollywood “norm,” and more “para” – or beyond – the norm.

And that’s it, folks. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “3x3x3: “A Royal Affair,” Where “Hope Springs,” but More “ParaNorman” Would Break the Norm

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