Thursday, October 4, 2018

Two Very Different Movies Full of Poignant, Painful Hope

Title: Awakenings (1990)
Director: Penny Marshall
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Based on a memoir by Oliver Sacks (which is on my to-read list), Awakenings tells the story of a treatment administered in the late 1960s to a group of patients who had been stricken decades earlier by encephalitis lethargica. The disease left them in a catatonic state. They stopped moving and talking. They seemed to stare into space all day. They were written off by hospital staff as incurable.

And perhaps there is no permanent cure, but when Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) gets appointed to the psychiatric ward where these patients have been shelved, he notices that they exhibit some responses. For example, catching a pair of glasses that have almost fallen to the floor. They may not be 'dead inside,' which is the received wisdom. It's horrifying to consider that they live with awareness while trapped in their unresponsive bodies.

Sayer experiments with administering L-dopa to these patients. (L-dopa started being used as a treatment for Parkinson's disease, and a possible similarity between Parkinson's and what these patients were suffering was the impetus for trying the treatment.) To people's astonishment, L-dopa has a positive effect, at first. The patients wake up.

A central theme explored in this movie (and captured in the title) is what it means to be awake, alive. One of the patients, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), was struck down by encephalitis lethargica as a boy. His doting mother (played by Ruth Nelson) has stayed by his side throughout his catatonia. He awakens to find himself decades older. As with other patients, his reactions are a mix of wonder, joy, trepidation, sorrow, and frustration. Leonard has a deep thirst for life. There's a beautiful scene, set to "Time of the Season" sung by The Zombies, where he and Sayer leave the hospital and explore the outside world for a bit. Leonard is thrilled. Being alive and awake feels so fantastic, and at one point he says of other people:
"They've forgotten what it is to be alive! The joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!"
He also becomes increasingly impatient at not being able to leave the hospital permanently to live on his own. He wants to be a man, an adult, after being long deprived of the opportunity. But he and the other patients need to remain under supervision until it's clear that the drug works. As it turns out, its effects are short-lived.

Sayer, meantime, is discovering a deeper meaning to life. He's a shy, reclusive man. Prior to working in the ward, he conducted experiments on earthworms. Humans seem to bewilder him. At first, he doesn't understand Leonard's thoughts on the joy of life, those beautiful words tossed through a window that's been briefly opened. A window that's sliding shut again in the final part of the film. Sayer's most meaningful human contact, possibly in all of his adult life, is with these people who are grasping at life before the window closes. Leonard becomes his friend, in a relationship that sometimes turns antagonistic. A nurse working on the ward, Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner), might also become a friend or girlfriend, if given a chance. It's a chance Sayer decides to take, at the end.

This is my favorite Robin Williams role, of the movies of his that I've watched so far. Except for one moment where he comes across as Williams the Entertainer, he fully slips into Sayer's gentle, withdrawn character. De Niro also gives a whole-hearted performance, throwing himself into it physically and emotionally.

What I especially like about Awakenings is the refusal to give in to despair. I'm speaking not just of the characters but of the tone of the movie as a whole. What happened to these patients' lives is horrifying. The movie shows the consequences of missing decades and trying to discover who you now are, even as the treatment keeping you awakened may fail. But there are also scenes of dancing, including a lingering slow dance for Leonard and Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), a woman visiting her father at the hospital. There's delight in music and insight in poetry, as in the scene where a poem by Rilke, "The Panther," strikes Sayer as a window into the minds of his catatonic patients. And there's love and a need for companionship, long denied by Sayer, though by the end he realizes that he needs other people to truly live.

Title: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

I'm glad I gave this Star Wars film a chance. I watched the original trilogy (Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) when I was a teenager, and I remember enjoying them. But I never finished the prequels that told the story of how Anakin became Vader. And I had mixed feelings about The Force Awakens, finding it disappointing overall, even if it had some good scenes.

So Rogue One surprised me for the better. It can be a little stiff, especially in the first half, as various pieces get slotted into place with a by-the-numbers feel. But gradually the pieces come together and flow better, with some beautiful moments, and the second half feels more like it's taking off and soaring.

The movie begins before the events of A New Hope and ends right as that one begins, with a group of rebels managing to give Princess Leia the plans to the Death Star. This is the story of those rebels. They scrounge around for some hope in the jaws of death. They know they probably won't live to see any of the fruits of their courage and desperation. They can only do what they can while maybe finding it in themselves to trust that it will make a difference.

The little rebel group is made up of a decent cast. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is the most compelling character, starting out as a weary spy accustomed to following orders and entering the final stage of his life following Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) on an unsanctioned mission that will wind up offering a bit of hope to the Rebellion. I enjoyed Luna's acting, which gave Cassian as much depth as possible within the limits of a movie that doesn't devote much effort to character exploration. (He also knows how to make Cassian look at Jyn expressively.)

Part of the tension in the movie comes from the question of what effect your choices have and how much is in your control. The odds are against these characters. A bit of timing that's off, here and there, can ruin everything. There are larger forces at work (e.g. the Force), and the characters' actions are interconnected in delicate ways. Help also comes from unexpected quarters, including Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), Jyn's father, the engineer who has been forced to design the Death Star.

Joining the rebels, who include Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), is a droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), because a good Star Wars movie needs a droid with some personality. K-2SO, who isn't known for his tact, gives the movie some of its lightest moments. And there really are some light moments in this one. Even Darth Vader engages in a bit of wordplay. ("Be careful not to choke on your aspirations," he says, while choking someone.) Speaking of Vader, a good Star Wars movie needs a bit of him, and in this one his most memorable scene takes place in a dark corridor, where the wails of a siren, combined with his ominous breathing, alert a small group of rebel troops to the fact that they're about to die horribly. But even in that scene, there's that slender, desperate hope, and some critical information gets passed to an escaping ship.