Fall to Grace (2005) | Review
Life is Actually Worth Living
When we fall, it can seem impossible to get up. But many times, it is only when we have fallen, when we have lost everything we held onto to keep standing, that we can see and grab onto what we actually need.
In Mari Marchbanks' first feature length film, Fall to Grace, we see a collage of people who have fallen or are in the process of falling. Like this year's Oscar winning Crash, the film is an ensemble piece about a variety of people, their connections, and the interactions that bring their lives together. And, like many of its Indie contemporaries, it is a look at the ugliness of the everyday. The story takes place in Austin, TX.
The characters are neighbors, friends, relatives, and coworkers. And they are just trying to live. In the Sikorsky household, Edik tries to forge a life for his immigrant family in the land of opportunity. He leaves each morning determined to work hard. But far too often, he ends his day drinking alone and returning home defeated.
Edik's son Kristofer also seeks to claim the opportunity he sees around him. He practices to be the star of his new school's basketball team. He shamelessly flirts with the sexy bad girl across the street. And even if he doesn't have it all yet, his constant smile tells us that he feels like he does.
But the same is not true for the girl across the street. For Anika, life is no more than yelling, fighting, underhandedness, and loss. Opportunity and hope have lost all meaning, and escape is the only way she knows to live.
Enter a few more friends, a few more neighbors, your fair share of drug dealers and low level organized crime, and you can see why some of the characters have trouble convincing themselves that life is actually worth living.
As the movie goes on, these intersecting lives tug on each other. Some pull each other down. Others push each other away. And as the pushing and pulling rise to a climax, its characters must ask themselves whether they will just keep being pushed, just keep pushing others, or instead, realize that they actually have a choice in the matter.
While Fall to Grace is clearly not a product of big studio money and production support, it rivals and in some ways surpasses many of its bigger budget contemporaries. Its despair and hardship rarely go overboard. Most of its characters respond appropriately and with a realistic intensity to the situations around them. And while the connections that some movies try to make very often come off as contrived, all of the connections in Fall to Grace feel natural, as they would happen, not as they might happen if the stars and planets and all the stoplights in the entire world were aligned correctly.
But the problem with Fall to Grace's well developed characters, situations, and connections is that they create far too much for its ending to deal with in the short time it is given. Compared to the large portion of the story invested in depicting "average" hard times, the sudden rocket to desperation and just as quickly to hope makes both extremes a bit hard to swallow. In the short transition between extremes, some of the dramatic character arcs come off as slightly unmotivated. And, overall, the ending leaves you wanting more
I almost always go to a movie with expectations. I might expect it to be generic-eye candy, Oscar winning, mildly entertaining, hilarious, corny, sentimental, depressing, realistic, or weird. Sometimes, I have my finger on the message before I even buy my ticket. I almost felt like I could review The Break-Up without seeing it. "Cute, funny but not hilarious, repetitious with too many stereotypes, and mildly entertaining. Its message: You don't know what you have until you lose it; you don't know how much something means to you until you let it go." But The Break-Up didn't fit the mold I made for it. Though the comedy wasn't top-notch and the love-is-war scenes promised in the trailer were painful to watch, The Break-Up introduced deeper characters and ideas than I expected. As promised, The Break-Up begins with the split between Jennifer Aniston's Brooke and Vince Vaughn's Gary. We catch their initial chemistry, see a montage of their love, then watch its demise. With their partnership just not working, Brooke wants out. Almost everyone has been through a break-up. Sometimes it's mutual. Other times it comes as a surprise. Sometimes you know that it's really for the best. Other times you just don't want to let it go. More often than not, those sometimes and other times mix themselves together. Although the scenes of Brooke and Gary trying to split up while still living together are painful, it realistically reflects the conflict in letting anything go. For Brooke, pushing something away doesn't mean she still doesn't want it. For Gary, just because he won't admit that he misses what he lost doesn't mean he doesn't want it back. Both show how fighting to let go while also fighting to hold on wears a person's soul.
The message of most of the movie is, "You don't know what you've got until you have to let it go." But in the end, the movie also tells us that just because it hurts to let it go (and just because we don't know what to hold onto instead) doesn't mean we have to keep holding onto it. Instead of falling into the formulaic ending of most romantic comedies, Brooke and Gary communicate authentically about holding on and letting go. Neither one is easy. And sometimes the choices we make surprise us. I'm not sure I really liked the ending. I love it for not following the script that everyone, myself included, expected. At the same time, I hate it because it just feels wrong. But when it could have given us stereotype at least it gave us something more realistic. The conflicted emotions and actions of The Break-Up are still there in the end. A decision has been made, life goes on, and freedom is found in forward motion. It made me think of the things we hold onto: people, jobs, locations, ideas, and beliefs. Many times we can't imagine life without them. Even though we all question our firmest handholds at some point. More often than not, those questions dissolve quickly, leaving our holds certain. But sometimes the questions linger and we see what life is like, and what we are like, without them. Some people say letting go is an end. In many ways, it is. But as I watched of the final scenes of The Break-Up, I couldn't help but think that letting go is an opening for whatever is meant to be. In other words, just because we let go of something to find freedom, doesn't mean freedom won't bring it right back to us. There are things worth holding onto in life. Things of so much value that they deserve to be fought for at any cost. But if anything is of true value, it's worth letting go. Anything really worth holding onto will bring us back to it. And as a person who questions, doubts, worries and wonders about every single thing I let go of and hold onto, that thought helps me rest a tiny bit easier.
Friends with Money
As I see it, being “real” has become far too overrated. That’s right. We may bow down to its healing properties. We may see it as the only way to ever truly know and understand ourselves and the world in which we live. But when I think about all of those “get real with me” conversations I’ve ever had, all of those movies I love so much because they are truthful about the “reality” of the world they seek to portray, and all of the things and people we applaud because they dare to be “real” about something, I cannot help but feel that our idea of “being real” is almost always missing a good half of what reality actually is.
Take, for example, Nicole Holofcener’s newest film, Friends with Money. This story of four friends, three with money and one without, is a story that aims to be real. It is story that wants to be truthful about wealth, about middle-age, about marriage, about relationships, and about the hopes and dreams we all have for our lives. Essentially, it is a story that tells its viewers that almost every dream we might have for our lives is no where near the ticket to happiness we imagine it to be.
As the three rich friends show us, money is not equivalent to happiness. How about success in the career of your dreams? Not that either. Marriage? Kids? Not necessarily. Even being able to partner in the success of your dream career with your equally successful and talented spouse? Almost worse.
Pretty much, life does NOT get better down road. Even if we earn money, even if we reach goals, even if we find people to share our lives with, we will all still have issues, we will all still have problems, and, in general, life will always be marginally livable.
As Jane, the oldest of the four friends, says to her husband one night, “I feel like there’s no more wondering what it’s going to be like…my fabulous life.”
She has it all, but all it feels like she is doing is “just waiting to die.”
She talks about how life is like shampooing your hair. She used to see every time she washed her hair and every new shampoo as an opportunity for something better. Then she found out that every shampoo was just the same as the rest. And now, not even the urgings of her best friends and husband can get her to wash her hair at all.
At the end of it all, Friends with Money is a depressing slice of discontented middle-aged life. Holofcener’s script does a good job of portraying what seems like an accurate picture of many people’s lives by staying firmly rooted in the everyday. She lets us see hopelessness in its natural form instead of hitting us over the head with its extremes. And most of her cast gives a range of performances that lend her story credibility.
But, even though it’s not bad, Friends with Money is still not that good. Nothing about it is new; nothing about it is original; and, frankly, the one-sided nature of all but McDormand’s characters and storylines makes for a movie that comes off as sorely lacking.
As anyone who has accompanied me to the movie store knows, I tend to gravitate towards “the dark side of life” movies more often than not. I like the truth. I like when stories and movies look at what is real. But, after watching Friends with Money, I have also come to the conclusion that just because it is depressing, does not necessarily make it realistic, and just because it is happy or funny, does not make it fantasy.
It is true that life is not a field of flowers. Far too often, things don’t turn out as nicely as we had planned. But, at the same time that we must recognize that life is hard, that everyone has pain, issues, and problems, I also think we need to realize that life would never be so painful if we didn’t know that there are good and happy things out there as well.
My problem with Friends with Money is that it barely acknowledges any opposite to its hopelessness. Sure, its Woody Allen like glimpses into the sadness of day-to-day life may be truthful in many ways. But the next time I go looking for a movie that’s going to be “real” about life, I plan to look beyond movies better paired with antidepressants than popcorn.
Yes, life can be depressing. But it is also funny, happy, hilariously crazy, and, at times, even as coincidentally good to us as the latest romantic comedy. Why else would we hurt so bad when life is less than ideal? Why else would we ever keep going?
Art School Confidential
—2. Cast and Crew
—3. Photo Pages
—4. Trailers, Clips, DVDs, Books, Soundtrack
—5. Posters (abstract art)
—6. Production Notes (pdf)
—7. Spiritual Connections
—8. Presentation Downloads
Sometimes our passions don’t correspond with reality. Sure, they may be the only thing we can think about. They may be the only thing we truly know about ourselves and the life we are meant to lead. But when our passions meet the world around us, the truth is that some are just not meant to be, meant to ever be, or at least not meant to be right now. Especially when it comes to the creative side of things…
Open Terry Zwigoff’s newest film, Art School Confidential, a glance into one of the most concentrated groups of “passionate” young people today. Each student is passionate about something, about an idea, a style, a story, a subject, or a medium. Their lives and their beings are wholly devoted to and wrapped around what they believe in. And although its title positions the story as almost exclusive, the story that the film portrays is one that reaches far beyond the walls of art school.
From the first scene to the last, each character in the story is blatantly built up as a stereotype. They are all barely able to vote and probably still a few years away from being able to legally consume the alcohol that already fuels their days and nights, but nonetheless, they know who they are and what they are about; period; they mean business; you’d better take them seriously.
Yeah, right. Stop, smile, and shake your head. Because that is all the movie allows you to do. Stare blankly at the child’s crayon drawing that is supposed to be a masterpiece. Raise your eyebrows the F grade student film that is to be nothing short of next year’s Oscar winner. Rub your forehead at the middle-aged art professor who paints nothing but triangles and can’t understand why no one likes his work. And, even if somewhat reluctantly, shake your head at the young man who wants to be the greatest artist of all time right now, wants the woman of many man’s dreams, as his first girlfriend, right now…and, of course, gets it all when he finds himself uniquely connected to a string of killings.
But don’t get too high and mighty, because, if we are truthful with ourselves, we have all been there.
Overall, Art School Confidential is quite ridiculous. It is not a story that is meant to be taken seriously. You know that none of the seasoned actors playing bit roles as professors are taking it seriously. But as it takes on an almost Scary Movie like attack on the art world and the life dreams that its characters take so seriously, its absurdity slips a more universal reality under its paint spattered story, the truth that this absurdity is far too often the way many of us think and live.
We all have dreams, concrete plans that are unchangeable, and people and ideas that are essential to who we are and how we live. Sometimes those plans, dreams, and partnerships are meant to be. But far too often, even though we can’t let them go, even though we can’t see any other options, they are simply not meant to happen.
Barely a few years older than the art school students, I know these feelings well. That desire to know what I am supposed to do and be who I am supposed to be right now. That sometimes feeling that maybe I know what I am supposed to be doing and better hold onto that even if it means abandoning everything else.
It does feel good to have a passion for something, but as Art School Confidential makes us realize, life has to be bigger than what we think we know and what we think we are supposed to do. It is about options beyond what we are able to see, situations beyond our comprehension, and plans too big for us to even begin to formulate ourselves. And even though we may never have the promise of only-in-the-movies serial-killing PR to make all of our deepest and most passionate dreams come true, I believe that the bigger world in which we live promises that there truly is something better out there for each and every one of us. Our only task—to be open to whatever that life may be.