Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beautiful White People Fighting for Their Lives in Paradise? That's "The Impossible"

I promised myself I wouldn't spend Boxing Day 2012 watching a movie about a deadly real-life disaster that happened on Boxing Day eight years ago, set in Thailand, the country I've called home for much of 2011 and 2012. But it was either The Impossible or The Hobbit, and as anyone who knows me also knows, I don't do Renaissance faire/Dungeons & Dragons adventure fantasies, or whatever you want to call The Lord of the Rings and all of its current and future offshoots (none of which I've ever seen or plan to ever see).

So The Impossible it was. I'd heard great things about it, and the few gripes -- mostly about the fact that it's a movie about a tragedy in Southeast Asia that focuses on the Western perspective -- didn't turn me of. How quickly and unexpectedly a dream vacation can turn into a holiday from hell is a theme that most everyone can relate to, even if we haven't had a hellish holiday that involved a killer tsunami. And there's also that common denominator among all humans: fear, whether it be of turbulence, losing our families, or simply being a stranger in a strange land where almost everyone speaks a different language -- all of which are touched upon in The Impossible.

There's certainly a great movie story waiting to be told about the scores of locals who battle cranky Mother Nature in Southeast Asia each year. Take, for example, the 2011 floods that devastated parts of Thailand and neighboring countries. I lived through it at a safe distance of 14 stories above, overlooking a dry central Bangkok, but I've never forgotten those who lost their lives in waterlogged parts of the country seldom frequented by tourists. If a visionary film director decides to tell their story, I will have some loud objections if he or she does it through the eyes of an Australian family headed by Hugh Jackman. But if People magazine and Oprah Winfrey can tell Petra Němcová's and Nate Berkus's stories about surviving the Boxing Day tsunami, why can't director Juan Antonio Bayona tell the Bennetts'?

As for the happy ending, I love a depressing denouement as much as the next art-house-film freak, but there's nothing wrong with wearing a smiley face after The End. Take Hotel Rwanda, one of my favorite movies of 2004. Despite the millions who were killed in the real-life mass genocide, I felt like the Rusesabagina family simply had to survive. I spent most of the film fearing the worst for Paul's wife (Sophie Okonedo, rightfully Oscar-nominated), who seemed destined not to make it to the final credits alive. (Before seeing it, I didn't read up on the real-life family on whom the movie was based.)

I don't know if my high estimation for Hotel Rwanda would have been the same had she not emerged from it physically unscathed. I probably still would have thought Don Cheadle, not Ray's Jamie Foxx, should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar that year, but I'm not sure if my overall impression of the movie would have been as positive. Sometimes after two hours of near-unrelenting bleak, a pot of gold -- or, at the very least, a rainbow -- is a must.

Focusing on a single family -- Spanish in reality, but turned white and British so that recognizable and English-speaking stars Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor could be cast as mom and dad -- especially one with such an incredible screen-worthy story is really no worse than making a movie about the Iran hostage crisis and barely including anything about the actual hostages. And Argo is still a Best Picture frontrunner.

I mention Argo also because it's one of two movies that I'm thinking about after watching The Impossible. The other is Life of Pi, which might have been on my mind anyway because I just saw it two days ago. In both Life of Pi and The Impossible (oh, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, another film with an underage lead), Mother Nature and water kick off the primary conflict, forcing the main characters (in Pi, a boy and a tiger, in The Impossible, a party of five), to survive against all odds. The scene in the tree where Maria Bennett (Watts) makes a physical connection with Daniel, the little boy who has been saved by her and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland, unbelievably good -- and in his film debut!), recalls a similar bonding moment between Pi and the Bengal tiger on that boat, and when Lucas later spots Daniel at the hospital, the tyke's reaction -- cheerful recognition and not much more -- reminded me of the scene where the tiger disappears into the jungle without so much as a backwards glance at Pi.

The shades of Argo perhaps are colored by the fact that I watched Argo a month ago on a flight to Bali, a Southeast Asian island hit hard by the tsunami, but there are more tangible parallels. First, planes figure significantly in several scenes of both films, and both are set mainly in Asian countries. Like Argo, The Impossible is based on a true story, which leaves no question as to whether the main characters survive, but the mystery is how, and there's a lot of dramatic potential there.

And great acting, too. I wouldn't dream of thinking that Naomi Watts for 21 Grams, and not Charlize Theron for Monster, should have won the 2003 Best Actress Oscar, but I distinctly remember not minding the idea of Watts or Diane Keaton for Something's Gotta Give pulling an upset. This year the frontrunners of the moment are Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain (the category's only likely nominees I still haven't seen - but will soon since both movies open in Bangkok on 27 December), with Watts bringing up the rear.

This is not really the kind of movie that generally nets actors and actresses Oscar nominations, much less the grand prize, so the fact that Watts is even in the running -- she's been nominated by all the major precursors -- says a lot about her chances and how due people seem to think she is. If she takes the gold -- and Reese Witherspoon and I might be the only ones predicting she will -- I'll be the first one on my feet. She's that good. Always one of our actresses most capable of inspiring great empathy, she makes us feel every bit of Maria Bennett's physical and emotional pain. When she winced, I did, too.

(Fun fact: If Watts gets nominated, both she and BFF Nicole Kidman will have scored Best Actress nods for starring opposite McGregor, and they might even end up facing each other next time around for playing beautiful women who married into royalty, became icons and died too young -- Kidman in Grace of Monaco, Watts in Diana.)

It's almost a foregone conclusion that never-nominated McGregor (Henry Bennett), overlooked last year for Beginners, which won costar Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, will get snubbed yet again. I don't know what he'll have to do to get Oscar's attention. He has a lot of great scenes that would make excellent Oscar clips, but my favorite one was his resigned reaction when the patriarch of the impatient, unscathed tourists -- Americans, of course -- refused to let him use his cell phone to call his family back home in England.

If I have any complaints about the film, it's a minor quibble. The missed opportunities bit before the members of the family are finally reunited at the hospital, is a little Three's Company. But I was so relieved that the aftermath, and not the visually stunning but hard-to-sit-through tsunami, is the primary focus, that I didn't mind too much. And for anyone who's ever been lost and then found -- in a shopping mall, in a city, in the middle of a natural-disaster area -- the ultimate payoff, that pot of gold, is more than worth it.
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