Which movie is more depressing, 'Amour' or 'Die Hard 5'?

Can a movie be unsettling, cynical and beautiful all at the same time?

I certainly wouldn't use that last word to describe the typical Michael Haneke film, but there is nothing typical about the revered director's new masterpiece "Amour," which has been nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars. Much has been written about Haneke’s proclivity to torture his audience. The term “provocateur” gets thrown around a lot. Certainly, "Amour" is provocative as well.

It’s an unsettling movie about fragility and mortality that features an elderly French couple nearing the end of their lives, and it mostly takes place in their apartment. But don’t let the single setting and depressing premise fool you: "Amour" is not a merely clinical exercise. There’s enough honest and wrenching observations about love and death in "Amour" to fill a Tolstoy novel.

Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's "Amour"

Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's "Amour" by Eric Melin

The credit for the warm undertones beneath the anguish should go to Haneke’s extraordinary actors, whose own life experience is on display here. It is key to the movie’s success that the upper-class Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva) have a rich past together, especially since only glimpses of it are actually referred to in Haneke’s efficient, clear-eyed (and also Oscar-nominated) screenplay. Old age and the specter of death are ripe themes for sentimentalization, but Haneke resists it at every turn, opting instead for unflinching honesty and a subtle richness of character.

Haneke’s choice to shoot "Amour" with a static camera and lots of long takes illustrates the loneliness of the apartment, even as it foreshadows the complete stillness soon to come. (Not to mention a jarring opening scene that lets us know right away what kind of tone will be taken.) There is no score to guide the audience’s emotions either, only the diegetic sounds of classical music as played or listened to onscreen.

The apartment is most certainly empty by film’s end, and when it arrives, it is an absence deeply felt. But it’s not before several startling moments of revelation — and many quiet ones as well. These moments are organically sewn into Haneke’s script and brought to stunning life by Trintignant and Riva’s performances. On one hand, it’s a beautiful notion that a couple happily married for a lifetime can still learn something new about each other in their 80s. On the other, death is a cruel hand to be dealt, and it comes for the wealthy and proud just as it does for the rest of the world’s residents.

Even if this all sounds too grim for a night out at the movies, serious film fans should check out "Amour," the best movie of 2012, opening today at Liberty Hall.

"Amour" is as much about love as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," but if there are two stranger romances with "love" in their title, it's news to me. Adam Sandler and Emily Watson play an odd-duck couple who meet and fall in love while Sandler's world crumbles around him. Besieged by a gaggle of smothering sisters, the pressure of selling designer toilet plungers, a phone-sex-peddling scam artist and mattress salesman (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the tenuous hope that a contest loophole might send him on a Hawaiian vacation, Sandler's rage has never been more internalized or convincing.

Liberty Hall is showing this overlooked dark comedy (as perhaps an antidote to the saccharine mush of most rom-coms) during its Film Church series, Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m. Brunch is optional, and bloody marys are encouraged. Also: pudding!

As post-production continues on "Jayhawkers," KU film professor Kevin Willmott is showing a test screening of his latest completed film "Destination: Planet Negro" on Saturday at 8 p.m. This screening is officially for members of his cast and crew, but the public is invited to attend. If its description is any indication, "Destination: Planet Negro" looks to be a satire with some of the same dark humor of his previous faux-documentary "CSA: The Confederate States of America," although it also looks to have a campy, sci-fi B-movie vibe as well.

George Forbes as George Washington Carver in "Destination: Planet Negro"

George Forbes as George Washington Carver in "Destination: Planet Negro" by Eric Melin

Way back in 1988 there was a movie called "Die Hard," a great underdog story about a cop trying to save his broken marriage and get his groove back by stopping a bunch of terrorists who held his wife hostage and took over a skyscraper. He had nothing but his character and a dry wit. The script was clever, the casting was perfect (it made "Moonlighting" actor Bruce Willis and unlikely action star), and the action was believable.

Twenty-five years later, "A Good Day to Die Hard" contains none of those elements, instead relying on bigger-than-life, unrealistic action and a lame plot about John McClane helping his estranged son (Jai Courtney) out of a particularly messy situation in Russia. The only elements of the original "Die Hard" left visible are a couple of not-so-subtle references to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman's iconic villain from 1988), and some retread catchphrases, which seem really desperate.

There are two major action set pieces and, aside from the fact that they are totally ridiculous, if you forget you're watching anything other than a life-size playset with real cars and helicopters, it's easy to have fun with them. These scenes are well choreographed and shot. It's just a shame that none of the scrappy charm that made John McClane a household name remains in this fifth (and hopefully last) film in the "Die Hard" franchise.


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