19 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Brilliant character AND performance
23 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
If based more weightedly on Sandra Bullock's performance in this film, I'd probably give it a 7. When I finally saw this come around on cable, and realized it was the role for which Bullock had won a Raspberry Award for Worst Actress, 2009, I knew there was a not-uncommon failure to appreciate something of unusual genius. With all the attention these days to autism and its high-functioning variants such as Asperger's Syndrome and autistic savants, I am therefore surprised that reviewers didn't recognize this character as written in that vein. At least as much to the point, ACTED in that vein. Acted with a degree of controlled, comic consistency as to merit an Oscar nomination for best actress--that is, if "the Academy" were wont to give much consideration to an often vulgar (and over-long) comedy in the first place. I put this film in the universe occupied by Farrelly brothers films, e.g. "Stuck On You" and Judd Apatow romps (and their multiplying successors)--including its touching sentiments and final moral: let Mary be Mary. (and let Glenn Gould be Glenn Gould. and Temple Grandin ... etc.) For more worthy fictional treatment of high-functioning autistics, I highly recommend Mark Haddon's novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," which is written from the perspective of an adolescent boy who has Asperger's, who is preparing for his college entrance exams in math and who comes in for some shocks concerning the adult world that surrounds and faces him.
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A Serious Man (2009)
'Serious' film-osophical folly & a fillip of physics
22 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Kathleen Falsani has written The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. In an interview with her on National Public Radio on Dec. 20, Falsani explained the "moral order" she finds explored in the dozen and a half films of these sibling auteurs. Well, I've been exploring that theme in their films for years. In fact, who can watch "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lebowski" or "The Man Who Wasn't There" and not recognize that the Coens are preoccupied by the way in which people bumblingly travel—or fall off (or off and on)—a righteous path. (The very title "Raising Arizona" invokes the phrase "raising hell"—not in the sense of partying, but in the sense of committing mayhem—and by so doing, calling up the forces of the underworld—with which H.I. and Edwina and others have to contend as they try to protect the newborn they've kidnapped.) The Coens' current film "A Serious Man" is as illustrative of their explorations of this theme as any, and that, as well as its fine acting, period verisimilitude and amusement factor leave it ranking with their best. The film opens with a scene that seems unrelated to the rest of the film, where a man's wife in Jewish Eastern Europe decades ago kills her husband's benefactor, thinking he's a "dybbuk"—a demon. But the astute viewer may realize the scene tips us off to the idea that our encounters with our fellow human beings are often fraught with moral dilemmas of serious import. Whether it's college math professor's Larry Gopnick's deciding what to do about his Korean student who leaves a bribe in his quest for a better grade (so he won't lose his student visa), or paralyzed in what to do about his free-loading, layabout brother (Richard Kind)—the question arises: What's best to do, and should one worry about the consequences—both in the here-and-now, and also possibly a hereafter—or try to do what's just right, per abstract principle? Into this question the Coens again throw the possible red herring of modern quantum physics, as they did more perfunctorily in "The Man Who Wasn't There." Here though, a blackboard full of the mathematical proof of what can't be known—Heisenberg "uncertainty"—is paralleled by Gopnick's brother's psychotic-seeming notebook containing his occult "Mentaculum"—a Kabbalistic-looking bunch of scrawlings offering a certainty that apparently guides him in his successful gambling ventures. The film plays a few visual tricks on viewers, but even they invoke some of the arcane notions of contemporary physics. Just when you think one driver is about to be harmed in a car accident, it's actually his counterpart (the unctuous friend who's having an affair with Larry's wife) who dies in a similar, simultaneous crash. (Thereby invoking current theories about certain paired subatomic particles separated by time and space, where what happens to one mysteriously affects the other.) As if the "Perplexed" of Maimonides' title, Gopnick seeks advice from his synagogue's senior rabbi as personal, professional and financial travails increasingly weigh on him. Unfortunately the rabbi doesn't do much pastoral work any more, so Gopnick (played with a perfect, barely suppressed, passive desperation by Michael Stuhlbarg) is first counseled by two associate rabbis—whose "help" is of questionable value. (The second rabbi is played unerringly by George Wyner, the former assistant D.A. "Irwin Bernstein" of "Hill Street Blues" fame.) Speaking of rabbis, Kabbala, Maimonides—this film is, as "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart would say, undeniably "Jewy." But that's inessential; with a few tweaks you could pose all the same questions and themes in any other cultural milieu. Jewish suburban life in the Midwest in the '60s does lend itself well to the themes, however, and the setting is apparently closely autobiographical for the Coens—so, it's what they know. The film ends in a way similar to the Coens' recent Oscar-winner, "No Country for Old Men"—abruptly, unsettlingly and without resolution. Which, given the ultimately unknowable answers to the questions it poses, is thoroughly appropriate.
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Julie & Julia (2009)
somewhat missed opportunity - on film and in life
15 August 2009
With the advent of this film, everyone is acknowledging the role of Julia Child in "democratizing" real (and gourmet, French) cooking: bringing it to "servantless" American homes. However, what is worrisome if not outright tragic and disastrous, is the live possibility that her influence on homemakers and others of the '60s was at most a brief detour away from the otherwise nearly unimpeded march from the over-processed, over-industrialized, "convenience" food system that began to take shape in the '40s and '50s and has really gained steam since the '70s. Michael Pollan's recent piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine laments how we're ever more avid to watch cooking on TV and increasingly loath to do it at home ourselves, to the detriment of energy policy, environment, public health, humaneness to animals, local economies and small-scale food producers, and our general happiness quotient. "Julie and Julia" shows the genesis of Julia Child's culinary career as rooted in her truly loving to eat. Where has that love gone? Where's the love? I share it--perhaps my own resolve to teach myself to cook came when, at an early age, I was served tuna fish salad made with Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise. I resolved, as many say: If I wanted it done right, I'd have to do it myself. And so I have ever since. And I linger over not only the preparation, but the enjoyment, reading sections of the newspaper or whatever else is at hand as I eat. As I always have. (Not that I disdain the family meal as the forum for proper enjoyment of food; I just don't have family around.) But what's everybody else's problem? My own mother, who I once thought of as a decent home cook, picks up the menus and coupons of new area restaurants and waves them in my direction as if I will be interested in their crap. And increasingly buys overpackaged "food" such as a submarine sandwich, with each of its layers encased separately in cellophane and with its own included metal-coated cardboard microwave browning tray for some of its "components." What's so damn hard about using a damn toaster oven? And at least buying sub bread and fresh cold cuts? Oh, right, then you might have leftovers you have to use timely, and you might have to clean up after preparation (unless you line the oven tray with aluminum foil, greased with a little olive oil--but that--that--would be work). Well as to the film, Meryl Streep is a convincing delight as always; the tootling quality of her impression of Child almost never gets tiresome, till it's echoed by Jane Lynch. When Child and husband (underplayed nicely by Stanley Tucci) meet Dort Child (Lynch) at the train, listening to the sisters is like having a phalanx of Canada geese migrating low overhead. Or, there may be something from the Chronicles of Narnia it reminds me of, like the Dufflepuds? More to the point, that interlude, and Dort's wedding, ought to have been cut in favor of showing more of Child's TV-chef career, which is barely depicted. So much more color, character and comic mileage (and food focus) could have been gotten out of that--but the filmmakers chose instead to consider the publication of the seminal and historic Mastering the Art of of French Cooking as the culminating event in Child's life, in order that it parallel the completion of Julie Powell's (Amy Adams) blog documenting her preparing every recipe in it in the space of a year. Speaking of Adams, while she's a wonderful actress ("Enchanted"), other critics are right that here she is rather a cipher. Her alleged meltdowns? Her self-admitted bitchiness toward her oh-so-supportive husband? We wish! She's played as more nebbishy than naughty. Nora Ephron, if you ever again need to write and direct "bitchy," I'm available to consult. (No, I'm no bitch, idiots; I've just known my share.) Or, Nora, collaborate with Judd Apatow, he's got it down. Child and her husband are rightly depicted as having had what, for a reserved diplomat and a frumpy, matronly companion, was a rather torrid marriage. Fortunately, unlike in "Never Again" and "Something's Gotta Give," actual, graphic middle-aged nudity and sex was panned away from. But it was a welcome suggestion that for some people who come to love, marriage and sex later in life, there is a lustiness to the relationship born of maturity and self-knowledge. In the end, Child shares some responsibility for a failure to integrate good cooking of real food with other concerns. She insisted that flavor was the sole touchstone and that nutrition, sustainability and humaneness were rather irrelevant. Perhaps that's because she learned about food at a time and in a culture where some of those items were culturally not the issues they have become since, and here. But she stubbornly dismissed such concerns and values long past when she should and could have become a voice for them. (That said, I was gratified that Julie stabbed and boiled live lobsters with relatively little moral compunction, not withstanding a WSJ article a couple years ago that spotlighted increasing squeamishness at these tasks. "Cruelty" to a stray crustacean here and there pales before the massive institutional horror of our factory farms.)
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Funny People (2009)
"Does this meat taste funny to you?"
15 August 2009
Gosh, I sure hope Judd Apatow isn't dying. Ya gotta wonder, because he seems as if maybe he overidentifies with--or envies--his old roommate Adam Sandler (who is shown at the opening of "Funny People" being filmed making the inane prank calls in the goofing on people he was addicted to doing at that point in his life and career). The gaggle of young actors Apatow's cultivated have come from being freaks and geeks, as in his old TV show, to stars, and are now presumably tasting the perks of stardom--babes, money, the high life in the fast lane ... who knows? But Apatow, one assumes, can only enjoy those trappings of success vicariously. He's got other rewards--critical acclaim and money, yes, but also a beautiful wife and family (who he keeps putting in his films, too). So, you see, he can't live the same kind of celebrity lifestyle to which he might otherwise be entitled--perhaps yearns for, a little bit. If you heard Apatow recently on NPR's news quiz "Wait, Wait!--Don't Tell Me" and the estimable "Fresh Air," you heard him talk on both about his own nasty, brutish and short stand-up career--where he couldn't tell the sex jokes that were de rigueur "Because that would mean he'd had to have had sex." (So, THAT'S why I'm not a breakthrough hit--sex came for me too easy and at too early an age! I don't feel guilty and inhibited and repressed about it, unlike Apatow's other, truer-to-life alter-ego here, Seth Rogen's character Ira Weiner. Note the last name--about which the character does have a complex. As in "The Wrestler," it appears working in a supermarket deli is the down-and-outer's fallback of choice. Gotta give it a try.) So, Adam Sandler's character lives a star's life. Everyone at his beck and call, easy money, luxurious lifestyle--all the upsides of stardom (as well as the down, of course). Plus, he's a profligate asshole. And, we've seen Apatow verging on a little irritable, if not almost surly in an appearance on The Daily Show. The flippant, glib, asshole-y, obnoxious stuff he puts in many of his characters' mouths may also be what he's often thinking, but is too well-socialized and mature (now?) to say? All the dick jokes, the fart jokes, the politically incorrect and gender-tin-eared ones ... yeah, the ones we like, but which led the husband of a prominent journalistic source of ours to call "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" "awful." (When it and Apatow's other films such as "Knocked Up," are, for all their patent vulgarity and offensiveness, actually quite sweet.) Like the "bromances." And the romances: As in, "Funny People" is also, among other things, Apatow's love letter (no, a love "stand-up act") to his family. The promos show the gist: renowned comic and comedic film star George Simmons (Sandler) discovers he's dying, and he hires a somewhat mediocre, struggling up-and-comer (Rogen) as his assistant. Hires him, actually, to be the one person he confides in about his impending death. But they don't show the twist, and atypically we won't include spoilers here. Rather, only the usual filmosophical observations: Consider the film as if one of Woody Allen's (or Helen Hunt's), which opens with a joke or other exchange that is a key to the theme or moral. "Two cannibals are chowing down on a comedian (some versions have it: a clown), and one says to the other, 'Does this meat taste funny to you?'" Of course, the best comics' work often comes out of a deep pain long-lived-with; as Simmons says in the film, the younger comics' being kids of divorce can't compete with the torture that comes from growing up in f'd-up intact families. So, nor can their comedy. This is a film about "funny" people who are as if they are composed of "off" flesh--"tastes funny." Not so ha-ha. So, as usual, I find undertones of the human condition in this perhaps unexpectedly serious and smart film, which in the Marin County scenes almost starts to bog down. But then Eric Bana's character shows up. And he's more likable than as hyped in comments elsewhere. (At least to other obnoxious people with big personalities, I suppose.) Sandler here tops even his fine work in Mike Binder's deeply affecting "Reign Over Me," showing himself to be quite compelling in roles that are superficially comic and deadly serious. Physically these days, he's as if a hybrid of Dustin Hoffman and Ben Affleck, channeling a blend of Garry Shandling and Lenny Bruce. Leslie Mann has never looked more beautiful; must be the eye shadow and whitening strips. (And Katherine Heigl's absence.) But, while her Laurie's mixed up, at least here she sheds the insecure, controlling-bitch persona she played so convincingly in "Knocked Up." Good for her. And, if this is closer to the real her, good for Apatow. (Though we wonder whether he's a bit of a hangdog in his marriage, poor sucker.)
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Away We Go (2009)
What do "family," "home," commitment and caring, mean to you?
4 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It's hard to tell whether Sam Mendes ("American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road") is just trying to emulate the rough-edged feel and flaws of a low-budget indie, where you get a few decent "name" actors to more or less donate their work — or whether he couldn't drum up much budget (not that I know how close to scale the actors in "Away We Go" appeared for) for this script. Or whether this is just the kind of film he wanted to make, on its own merits, consciously and intentionally in this style. Hand-held camera not always keeping the principals in the shot. "Basement band" soundtrack, the mood and lyrics always a little too earnestly spot-on. The arc of the film reminds one of Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," where the encounters occurring in the context of life-changing events serve to sharpen the image we have, our understanding of the main character or characters, the protagonist(s). In this film about a couple of young parents-to-be searching for the perfect place and community in which to raise their daughter, Bert (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) certainly encounter their share of wackos — but also people in genuine pain, as opposed to the deserved social isolation experienced by their first interlocutors, played by Alison Janney and Jim Gaffigan (she shriekingly over the top, he rather low-key until he waxes didactic about the apocalyptic extinctions to come, culminating in our own). Bert and Verona veer from the encounter with that couple in Phoenix, who constantly verbally abuse their two children on the theory that they're pre-wired anyway to become who they will become, to visit the family of a childhood friend of Bert's in Madison, Wis. (Maggie Gyllenhaal, with Josh Hamilton), for whom it's the opposite: everything you do matters, and much of it is potentially deeply damaging (including pushing a kid around — hurtfully "away from you") — in a stroller. (This item provides one of the funnier vignettes in the film.) The deep sadness of a wonderfully "well-adjusted" family they then visit in Montreal — with a spectrum of adopted children of a truly sane but grievously unfortunate pair who just can't have their "own" kids, despite valiantly trying — is especially tragic to witness. As is the fear on the part of an abandoned husband (Paul Schneider) living in Miami — fear of the inevitable damage to be experienced by his now-motherless, prepubescent daughter, for lack of a female role model and nurturer. Even with some bizarre, grossly dysfunctional permutations depicted, this is a film that explores the form and meaning family and home take for different people —the different ways in which we seek and express commitment, seek security, take care of one another. In the end, the film suggests, in our particular fragmented, f'ed-up society, it may often be fruitless to look to a larger community, a social network of friends and family ("it takes a village"), to support us and our offspring. As Rick says in "Casablanca," "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The most we probably do is to create the strongest partnership and sanest home we can, on a desert island in the stormy sea. If we're lucky, it will be in the eye of the hurricane. For more reviews like this one, as well as Fake news and other content and comment, visit
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Duplicity (2009)
Elegant, clever film too clever even for itself, in the end
22 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
If Tony Gilroy didn't get the corporate universe "Duplicity" dwells in from John Jakes' 1963 novella "The Sellers of the Dream," I'll eat my hat. (I just ordered the anthology it was published in, since, because the tattered copy given me when I was 13 or 14, along with a pile of others, had pages torn out, I never knew how it ended. Or even middled. That tale (compared also to "Network," for example), was a less dark, more playful satire of a world in which two huge consumer products companies have supplanted the U.S. and U.S.S.R. as the world's pre-eminent rivals, and they each operate, as if in a permanent Cold War of commerce, their own highly antagonistic espionage services—to a degree never before seen on film, till now!) The movie is engaging from the get-go, at least for those who like to get lost in a maze, or who, like me, are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the plots twists and turns and guess what's going to happen, figure out what's really going on, and predict how it will all come out. (In doing so, I often get to praise myself: "I could write these things!") Here, I almost got some of it ... e.g., I thought they were never actually going to name the game-changing new product, since it seemed to me that was never really what the film was finally going to be about—wasn't going to be part of the narrative payoff. I wasn't quite right. Close, but no cigar. The chemistry between spies Clive Owen and Julia Roberts works, akin to their bleak but intense romance in "Closer," though in tone it's really much more like the constant footsie, potential insinuation of backstabbing and pervasive mistrust as displayed best previously by Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney in the Coen brothers' divorce satire, "Intolerable Cruelty." Ironic, since both movies were released as we here at Film-osophy Central were and are again going through that kind of high-stakes, anxiety-producing split-up. Be that as it may, the film increasingly trips over its own Byzantine cleverness. E.g., what, in the end, was Tully's motive? How indeed, did Ray (Owen) smuggle the product formula out—an especially compelling question because it seemed it was precisely Claire's (Roberts) seemingly gratuitous accusations that set him up for the search that would seem to have prevented it. So, if he outmaneuvered, we are owed the explanation of how (not to mention, why even have thrown her complicating behavior in there at all?) What, too, given the ending, were Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Garsik (Paul Giamatti), the two CEOs, fighting about on the tarmac—why, and when? There's films that set up, then, in the end, frustrate your expectations and in doing so avoid clichés and the cheap, formula feel-good resolution ("The Wrestler"). There's films that end suddenly, abruptly cutting to black, so that you are forced to then wrestle with what just preceded—it hanging there, now confronting you with the need to digest it, it having been metaphorically rammed down your throat ("No Country for Old Men"). Those endings have legitimacy and do not retrospectively undermine the enjoyability of the preceding two hours. The ending of films like "Duplicity," by contrast—making little sense and leaving too many loose ends, AND seeming and unsalutary inconsistencies—makes you feel you've been duped into thitherto enjoying, and becoming intellectually engaged in, something that didn't ultimately deserve it.
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Defiance (I) (2008)
Don't mess with us Jews. Really. Don't.
11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
As I've said before, notwithstanding the unique straits of those who were rounded up in the Holocaust, we Jews have no particular innate streak of meek subservience, as this film amply proves. Even in the scene where the weakened crowd subsisting in the forest to hide from the Nazis and their henchmen kick and beat the stray German soldier to death, I realized it was right and proper, even though your first impulse is to think Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), their leader, is going to step in and stop it. But he doesn't, recognizing that their murderous rage is a just revenge for the ruthless brutalization of their loved ones at the Germans' hands. I must say, I disagreed with Roger Ebert's view that Craig's character is flat while his brother's, played by Liev Schreiber, is nuanced and evolutionary--he has it exactly backwards. It is Craig who gets to play the role where the requirements of leadership impose the toughest choices--choices he often wrestles with and resists, growing more resolute and decisive only when forced to; sometimes not soon enough. Directed by Ed Zwick of "The Last Samurai," "30something" and "My So-Called Life."
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'Stepford Wives'—The Prequel
11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"Revolutionary Road" is the other Kate Winslet vehicle of the season, based on an acclaimed novel by Richard Yates—whom I heard interviewed, drunkenly aggrandizing himself in an unearthed tape played on an NPR show. This one is clearly about something more focused than in all the broad hype: the hopeless, stultifying life that being a suburban housewife was in the '50s and '60s. Whether Winslet's "April" had little talent as an actress or it was just wasted where it was exercised, pearls before and among swine, isn't clear. (Though hubbie Frank, played by ol' Leonardo DiCaprio, sure did go on about it in an annoying case of verbal diarrhea.) But, damn, I'd sure love the little woman to clasp me around the knees, and urge me to forsake gainful employment to "find myself" in Paris, where she'd support me—because I am just that wonderful thing: a man! But Frank only reluctantly buys in, and especially after he takes a mistress and is offered a promotion at the office, it's clearer than ever that Paris is for April—it's her only hope for an alternative to decades of Stepfordian drudgery. Michael Shannon provides great, dark comic relief, as the son of a neighbor on furlough from electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments) at a mental hospital. Nominated for a best supporting actor award, clearly he's intended as one of the few voices of sanity in conformo-land.
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Life is like a box of buttons, and this film is too like "Gump"
11 February 2009
The odd premise is well-realized, technically, and the film's acting and production values are fairly flawless. But in its loosely episodic narrative with its patina of well-polished, folky wisdom, it reminded both of us independently of "Forrest Gump"—and that was before we found out it was written by the same guy. Tell you what: You want to watch Brad Pitt age backwards? Go rent "Thelma and Louise" and "Kalifornia." Otherwise, watching Kate Winslet in "The Reader" aging in the forward direction—though largely without accumulating much wisdom in the process—is much more satisfying. The casting, actually, was also good, putting Pitt and Blanchett together again as in "Crash." Enjoyed seeing Jared Harris in a more manly role than the sympathetic supporting one in "Igby Goes Down." It may be from the Fitzgerald story, but why does the main black female character have to be named "Queenie"? How about "Mildred," if you have to be period-accurate? Finally, the initial support for the premise, the human losses of the Great War--World War I--ought perhaps to have had its tragedy better woven into the subsequent narrative of a life lived backward, paralleling the idea of the clock that ran backward in honor of those tragic losses.
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It's a mad mad mad mad mad mad dating world
11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I realized, watching this film, the formula of its title isn't quite right, requires some refinement. With so many new avenues for meeting potential romantic partners—and so many ways of juggling multiple prospects, for cheating, evading, dissing, blowing people off, putting them off, holding them off, keeping them in suspense, yet keeping them available—thinking they're in the running, or are The One—it's clearly more complicated than "Does he like me or not? Is he going to call or not? Is she into me or not?." So, the real formula isn't "He's just not that into you"—it's "He's just not that into just you."! I should know. I've got a book in the works on my life dating, preying, dumping, loving and losing using the personals; in fact I tried to interest Greg Behrendt's literary agency in it, it being in somewhat the same vein as his original book the film is loosely derived from. That said, and as much as I've seen a fleeting write-off of the film as superficial, it's not that bad. Ginnifer Goodwin, the ingenuous third wife in HBO's polygamist "Big Love," brings a similar energetic optimism to "Not Into You," though it veers over into obsessive, self-deluded microscrutiny of every "signal" sent by potential partners, suitors, dates. A lot of the film is somewhat lightweight genre stuff, but it also offers characters who are in genuine non-farcical pain, such as Jennifers Connolly and Aniston. The film is admittedly full of false notes, with the monologue by Drew Barrymore about the number of tech channels through which you can hook up or be blown off being exactly as "exhausting" to hear in the film as it was when incessantly repeated in commercials and trailers. Justin Long as Alex is only believable in his jaded, insensitive, cynical-realist mode, as the vehicle for the disappointing clarity of insight Behrendt's book purports to offer, and not in his transformation into the romantic lead. He wasn't too likable in either mode, as much as I identified with him in the first one. (And Marci identified with Goodwin's Gigi; and Long and Goodwin made improbable partners, just as—at least in others' eyes, M and I do.) The set of dalliances in which Scarlett Johansson is the link displays some reprehensible activities, but worst of all ... what was up with Kevin Connolly's hair? In one scene in particular, it looked like he had just been dipped upside-down in Grecian Formula and blow-dried on high. I kept expecting him to realize he was gay. You know, I guess this film was pretty bad, after all; it's certainly not more than the sum of its often flimsy parts. Especially in that, at the end, it upholds the contra-premise: that it's better in the end to be able to yearn, ga-ga- (Gigi-)like, eternally, hopefully, desperately wishing there is something there that may not be—and probably isn't.
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The Reader (2008)
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a good book & thou. It's not what you may think
11 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"The Reader" isn't about the Holocaust, about Auschwitz, about German collective guilt or the guilt of complicit or evil individuals, even though it features a World War II war crimes trial. It is not about a love story, though there is a beautiful, sexy love story depicted in it. It is about the transformative power of art, in particular, in this case, literature. And literature, a teacher at one point in the film says, is centrally about the control of information—the protecting, the withholding, the selective disclosing of information (whether by characters in the story or by its narrator). If we accept this thesis, literature is crucially about secrets, and "The Reader" is largely, primarily about the harm keeping secrets can do. When Michael (Ralph Fiennes) decides, after all, not to visit Hannah (Kate Winslet) during the trial he is observing as part of his training as a young law student, to press her to disclose to the court the information that would partially exculpate her from the worst, false accusation against her—which could lessen her sentence—it is hard to figure. But it makes sense if we understand, as above, what the film is about, and see that he has decided to let her harm herself with her pridefully protected secret just as she so deeply hurt him by her refusal to admit the same secret to him. That's why he later doesn't write to her along with sending the tapes. Why, when he asks whether she thinks about the past, he doesn't mean their past, but her own guilty history. Why he is not more tender in that visit. In sending her the tapes, he thus clearly is not re-enacting a lover's tender mercies. He is offering her an avenue to her own richer partaking in the kind of exploration of human moral experience, questioning of choices and, ultimately, self-examination that literature presents opportunity for. And, one surmises, it works—additionally prompted by the emotional distance evinced and moral query posed during his final visit to her—with the sad but perhaps just twist represented by her subsequent, final choice. He later unburdens himself to his daughter, as, earlier, the lifelong emotional distance he has held himself in in the protection of his own deep secret has earlier been revealed to have harmed her (among others, we must assume), and his relationships with her and them.
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Wry masterwork of the human condition echoes Beckett, Buddhism, other
30 December 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Roger Ebert felt this strange, darkly humorous, philosophical film justified his departing from conventional review format; i.e., not bothering with synopsizing the plot, naming the characters and who played them, etc.—in other words, writing a review like the ones we've been doing here for years. "Synecdoche" is Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, and the film he's written and directed here is a masterpiece. The odd title incorporates a Greek literary term that means one thing standing, in a turn of phrase, for many; and, as well, a group of like things representing, generically, one. But it's also meant to evoke Schenectady, N.Y., where the action begins with theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) staging a somewhat chancy, innovative production of Arthur Miller's great "Death of a Salesman." (In which, tellingly, Willie Loman as a tragic figure represents a mopey "everyman," while in classical Greek tragedy and its Aristotelian theory, tragic embroilment was supposed to be a monopoly of royalty and the gods. Thus even here, synecdoche is invoked.) Plot: Loosely, a freak plumbing accident leads to medical visits that gradually reveal Caden to be dying ... perhaps ... and of what? "Can't tell." He also happens to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant, so, in the wake of his abandonment by his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) with their daughter, Olive, he sets off to do something great, large, monumental with the money. He leases cavernous warehouse space in New York City and sets out to stage his life. Here's where the film really takes off and its thematic vessels start to fruitfully overflow. It seems Caden's fatal disease(s) allow him to live to ripe old age after all, as he outlives his parents and, eventually surveys a life in life and art. Actors are chosen (or successfully nominate themselves) to play himself and his associates—loves, lost loves, their other loves, etc. The one who confidently puts himself forward to play Caden was, if you were paying attention, hovering around at the margins of the scenes earlier in the film. Was he supposed to represent Death? Or, rather, the constantly monitoring consciousness—uniquely human self-consciousness, the inner "double," that is—that raises the question of how authentic we are ("playing ourselves," second-guessing, correcting, affecting, posturing, even as we live ourselves)—just as Caden keeps chastising one actor to find the medium between how he naturally wants to do something and an overreaction to Caden's direction of how he wants him to do something. The film gets a little preachy, and is certainly didactic, toward the end, when, among other things, Caden points out that one moral is, everyone is the lead in their own "play," the center of their own subjective world, and so no one should be slighted. There is also kind of a counter-existentialist statement of the unknowability of the connections, "strings," our choices have to millions of other events ("events" rather than "outcomes," because we often can't even trace the causation, if any, and certainly can't predict it). But, in thwarting an attempted suicide in the course of the action, Kaufman veers away from a despondent nihilism with the notion that this life, infinitesimal and tragically sad as it often is, is all we have. Caution: In case you haven't already realized, be careful not to take anything in the film too literally, as Caden's diseases appear to turn out to be a metaphor for universal mortality (not mention the plagues and minor annoyances of organic, physical existence): we're all dying, of course, even as we can never truly, actionably comprehend and believe it. As I watched the film, I wondered how other, younger members of the audience could truly identify with it, with its depiction of the accumulations of losses and disappointments throughout life—ones that I have experienced, such as an adult daughter blaming me for an estrangement engineered by others; the regrets and recriminations that arise from love, possibly true love, tried, trifled with and lost. (Samantha Morton, here at her most beautiful since playing the Earl of Rochester's protegé in the Johnny Depp vehicle "The Libertine" reminds us of one of our such wistful, unrequited loves, with her big boobs and disarmingly teasy flirting.) Adele's ridiculously miniaturist paintings offer another symbol of the tininess of our lives and, often, the smallness of our ambitions, cruel pettiness of our actions. Yet from within one of her images comes another synecdoche, of the common humanness of the genders, in spite of their nearly completely alienating, hostility-breeding differences, so that, Tao-like, each contains the seed of the Other, as Caden and Ellen Bascomb/Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest) metamorphose into one another at the end. —One who lost a daughter; one who never had the one once dreamed of. (Robin Weigert, "Deadwood's" Calamity Jane, is almost unrecognizable here as Caden's daughter Olive, as an adult and a German, dying of blood poisoning from her full-body tattoo ... serving as a nice stand-in for a hostile fantasy in which my adult daughter could die as a result of her grotesquely large gauge ear hoops—perhaps a friend casting a line on a charter fishing expedition might accidentally hook one and fling her out to sea. Or, wearing her old, weightier, lead-imbued, Chinese-made Goth ear studs, her sense of balance might be altered and she could teeter off the curb into the path of a Greyhound bus.) Anyway, this is a film almost religious in its a-religiousness, its ultimate humanism. It is as if the best of Bergman and Woody Allen (and a soupçon of Alain Resnais, "Mon Oncle D'Amerique") rolled into one, chopped up, and arranged through the profound, kaleidoscopic expository genius unique to Kaufman, akin to the involuted forms of his "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Adaptation." See it.
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Best "Batman"? Yeah. Best thing in it? Both role and portrayal of the Joker.
21 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
One of the things that makes young actor Heath Ledger's death from an overdose last winter most grievous--apart from the gratuitous loss of any young human life--is that he, and his role as the Joker--are the best things about "The Dark Knight"--the latest in the Batman film franchise.

Both the role and its realization by Ledger represent the most credible portrayal of a movie villain in films that are based on comics, or that, like in the James Bond franchise, are usually cartoonish. (Consider that the typical Bond villains are what Mike Myers, most notably, parodies in his Austin Powers films, in the portrayal of "Dr. Evil." These quintessential miscreants who, often, seem to be motivated by world domination and or great riches, nonetheless seem to be inexplicably single-minded, blindered, and one-dimensional in their badness.) By contrast, the role of the Joker as written in "The Dark Knight" offers one of the most credible, well articulated visions, rationales for this antagonist's motives and actions. And, as has been more or less universally noted, Ledger's realization of the character is incredibly masterful, even nuanced, despite its obvious grotesque and larger-than-life qualities.

The soliloquies in which the Joker articulates his dedication to cultivating chaos, vs. the well-laid plans and, he avers, "schemes" of society are among the most successful articulations of a point of view and impulse to dedicated psychopathic evil-doing. What's more, in a testament to the vision of those who came up with the story, this version of the character, and his lines, his apparent "backstory" is carefully crafted as a red herring. In one tete-a-tete, the Joker explains one origin of his disfiguring scars, which suggest a mocking grin. But wait--while threatening co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal with a similar disfigurement, the story is entirely different. While some films legitimately seek to humanize real or fictional figures as, while perpetrators of horrific crimes (think of "Monster's" characterization of murderous prostitute Aileen Wuornos, for one), the device in the case of Ledger's Joker rightly deprives him of an unwarranted overhumanization. At the same time, the writing and portrayal keep this Joker in the realm of something potentially real--still ineluctably human--as opposed to Jack Nicholson's and Cesar Romero's past, overly stylized and cartoonish creations. Obviously, the awesome makeup and costume design for the character support these effects, but they would hardly do the job on their own.

Other than on those merits, the film is good, maybe very good; not great--typically, not worthy of the hype and anticipation these kinds of presumed blockbusters generate. And I say that with no lack of regard for Chris Nolan (I love "Memento") and the film's other creators. It's just that I, perhaps more than more typical moviegoers, just can't work up much genuine buy-in to these comics-based extravaganzas. In this case, the film is long, and, at least for me, has too many interim climaxes. Of course, the first capture of the Joker is just too easy to be final ... but the number of reversals and resurgences and climactic twists that require heroic resolution and which propel the plot ambulations, were, to me, eventually emotionally deadening. At least the film discards some classic story and film-making conventions in order to further the story--like the kind of breakthrough risks "Seinfeld" took in its willingness to have really bad things happen to people, as the setup for the conceptual humor of the initially revolutionary sitcom. (E.g., an attractive and sympathetic character's experiencing significantly disfiguring, botched cosmetic surgery, as a foil for George's and Kramer's neurotic propensities. Numerous other examples could be adduced.)

Ultimately, while the film seems less hokey and far-fetched than most in the genre--less so even than the plot line of, and caricatures populating, Nolan's initial venture in the franchise--it finally descends thereto with the fate of Aaron Eckhart's crusading do-gooder prosecutor character, Harvey Dent. ("Dent" as in his chin cleft?)

Further, while the overall arc of the movie offers to explain how Batman came to devolve from a mere outlaw vigilante theoretically wanted by the law but really covertly valued by Gotham as a whole, into a true outcast--a reviled figure who is perceived as having made too many moral compromises in order to give the apocalyptic city not "what it deserves, but what it needs"--it churns through a lot of bodies, special effects and somewhat wearisome exposition and development getting to that moral. Christian Bale's somewhat flat characterization seems hardly to carry that theme--his flippancy as Bruce Wayne and menacingly gravelly voice when he's Batman just don't flesh his character's demons out in a meaningful way.

While the film is mildly satisfying in view of that theme (like the last-produced "Star Wars" movie was in its depiction of Anikin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader), the true enjoyment comes from watching Ledger. Fortunately he's on screen a great deal.

I stayed through the credits to make sure there was a gesture made to his loss and memory. There was. It is, in the universe of filmed entertainment--with the thought-provoking lessons it can, at its best, offer--quite a loss indeed.
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Josh Brolin overlooked; also the sly echo of the ending of "Raising Arizona"
23 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"No time for sheriffs" in world done gone to hell. Chalk up another one for the Coen brothers, in the vein of their great crime dramas "Miller's Crossing" and "Fargo." Taking nothing away from the latter, "No Country for Old Men" is also a masterpiece, but of a different sort. Based not on real events, like "Fargo," but—closely—on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, "No Country" lacks the other film's undercurrent of grim, black humor. Like last year's allegorical Western "Seraphim Falls," this film is structured as an almost breathless chase, a cat-and-mouse in which men of seemingly supernatural resourcefulness track and evade each other over the spoils of a drug deal gone bad.

Esquire magazine among others cites Javier Bardem's performance as creepily implacable killer Anton Chigurh as Oscar-worthy, but it seems to us it is the character that is so prepossessing, not that its portrayal is so stupendous. More demanding, it seems to us, is the role of his quarry, Llewelyn Moss, played by a perhaps under-appreciated Josh Brolin. Woody Harrelson provides a sliver of quasi comic relief, with his overconfident swagger. Kelly MacDonald surprises in her skilled, convincing "Texas trailer trash" (Carla Jean Moss) after notable stints as Peter Pan in "Finding Neverland" and as Evangeline in "Nanny McPhee." But it is Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who provides the moral and narrative axis or at least center of the film. The weariness in his old lined face and the woeful humor in his voice offer a near-complete character study, and the dreams he relates before the sudden soundtrack-less appearance of the closing credits are perhaps less meaningful in their content than as the film's final framing—a bookend paired with his opening soliloquy about the seeming incomprehensibility of modern brutal criminality, the worst in human nature having taken some kind of quantum leap to much worse still.

Cinematically, Jones' visage seems organically part of the bleak, parched Texas landscape—but so do the mortality, blood, maimings that we see on the screen. There's nothing here like "Fargo's" garishly unreal, burgundy-colored blood spattering the pristine snow as Steve Buscemi is disposed of via wood-chipper. Bardem's character seems to represent, not a sinister force of nature, or the cosmos, in his bizarre sense of the fatalistic source of his actions, so much as a force of evil—where a corrupting, dominating malevolence has contorted the very landscape into grotesque barrenness (like in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy). In this world, he's a pestilence quite other than the chthonic (and thus still inherently Gaian, or Manichaean) evil represented by the motorcycle dude and the Snoats brothers in the Coen brothers' "cult" classic, "Raising Arizona." (Likewise, Jones' recounting of his dreams in "No Country" echoes the Nick Cage's final speech as the hapless H.I. McDunnough in "Arizona"—though kind of inversely: i.e., instead of "Maybe it was Utah ..." ... "Maybe it was Shëol ...") (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
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Juno (2007)
From out of the mouths of babes having babies ... improbable wit
23 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
David Edelstein, film critic for New York magazine and NPR's "Fresh Air," had issues with "Juno," but then, he called Jason Reitman's earlier directorial debut an "ugly" adaptation of the book about the lobbying game, Thank You For Smoking. (My problem with that film was that, as a comedy, it didn't quite uglify its subject enough—Aaron Eckhart was too likable, and he never truly distances himself from hypocrisy and venal service to greedy interests, even as he professes to be trying to give his son some moral compass.)

We agree that the dialogue in this latest effort, especially the titular lead Juno's (Ellen Page), grates—but for different reasons. Edelstein likens it to "bad Neil Simon," with bad throwaway jokes littering—culminating—each scene. There is some similarity to Simon's staginess, in that the dialogue here is speechy and unerringly witty. The real problem is that, as clever and amusing as it all is (especially Juno's lines), no actual 16-year-old talks like that. (Except my own teen-age daughter, and, probably, a 20-year-old too-smart-for-her own-good young woman I recently met, who's probably been a wise-ass impervious to any views but her own for at least four years ...) And, if one does, I think she qualifies to be a legitimate romantic interest of an older man (or at least, an "inappropriate" buddy), as turns out here with Jason Bateman's character Mark, the henpecked half of the couple who are adopting Juno's budding offspring.

This film is hard not to like, as Page is both sassy and endearing, with a genuineness the false-sounding lines can't fully obscure. But it's hard to cheer for the ending, where over-controlling Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is set to raise the baby but without a husband by her side representing sanity, humor and offbeat balance. And, in a phenomenon remarked on in this space before, Juno, like many women, is her own worst enemy—assuming, out of whatever insecurities, that the boy she used for first-time sex didn't want an ongoing relationship. Edelstein worries that, especially with the likely popularity of this film with the 'tween girl demographic, we're about to get a society based on a whole generation of Junos. I don't blame him in his concern, but he's a little late: It's already in the works. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
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Take (2007)
Pacing bogs down at points; otherwise, top-notch
14 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Another must-see at the 2008 Phoenix Film Festival, we realized, since it got made by the producers snagging Minnie Driver in a lead role. Great film; shot with lighting and/or film stock that conferred a washed-out, bluish graininess to reflect the drear, grim thrust of the story. Reminded me of the filmic feel of last year's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," reviewed in this space a few months ago; then we had to defend our dwelling on Marisa Tomei's extended frontal nude scene in it in a later issue.

"Take's" gist was, crime victim (Driver) is on a road trip, on her way to witness the execution of the guy who caused her loss. That guy--what a loser. Much of the film follows his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Which gets worse and worse that way as a consequence of his bad choices, granted. Like in "Devil." But. The narrative arc of convergence of convict on victim or victim on convict is paralleled by the story-within-the-story of the convergence of the two on the infamous day of the crime.

We didn't stay for the Q&A, but I wanted to ask the producer or director, did you see this as an anti-death penalty film? Because it seemed to me to say, "If the victim can forgive the transgressor, what business does society have insisting on its vengeance?" (As a hyper-rational guy, I recognize that's an emotion-based argument, not a logical one. I have other, unassailable reasons for opposing the death penalty.)

Anyway, an excellent film; maybe, along with "The Visitor," the best of the fest. And, an awesome acting job by Jeremy Renner, as the down-and-out, reprehensible, hapless Saul. I'm just damn glad they didn't name him that because he was going to have a "Paul on the road to Damascus come-to-Jesus conversion" as his execution drew closer. In fact, he put up a pretty good fight, argument, against the chaplain sent in to give him final rites, solace, what-have-you. A fine film--almost caustic to watch, but full of integrity, intensity. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
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Genre: Women's film. Audience: Everybody.
11 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The closing night film at the just-concluded 2008 Phoenix Film Festival was as wonderful as its opener, "The Visitor." "The Life Before Her Eyes" was directed by Vadim Perelman, from an adapted screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. (Perelman directed the moving, tragic "House of Sand and Fog," released in 2003, which we raved about at the time.) "Before Her Eyes," like last year's Sandra Bullock vehicle "Premonition," is what I call a women's film--which is decidedly not the same thing as a chick flick. It's a serious look at issues women face, through a woman's eyes, from women's perspectives. That's not to say men won't like and be thoughtfully stimulated by it too. The film is visually poetic right from the credits, with images--close-ups of flowers melting away through lenswork or computer tricks or both--that herald the sensuous feel of the whole film.

The film's axis is a massacre at a high school by a disturbed young man--hardly an untopical event these days. It follows a couple of female, teen-age best friends up to and well beyond the bloody events of that day. Rachel Evan Wood plays "Diana," one of the two girls--a restless, sexually active, alienated, self-willed and somewhat confused young woman, whose friend Maureen (Eva Amurri) presents a counterweight to those qualities.

Uma Thurman plays Wood's character as a grown-up--an art history teacher with a husband, a child, and traumatic memories of the day that changed everything. We'll avoid spoilers, since right up to the end of this film, the viewer has been led to look at the film one way, and it may not be the right way. That said, there's a "Sophie's Choice" element at its crux, though one less gratuitous in its framing and in its consequences than I've always considered that hinge of Styron's book (and of the film made from it) to be. However, against the decisive turning point represented by the massacre, the film examines what seem to be a number of uniquely female preoccupations and dilemmas: For instance, there's the question of sex. Men are generally all impulse, expressing the conatus of Leibnizian philosophy; women are the gatekeepers. Women, adolescent girls deal with the good girl-bad girl issue: They can say no, and are expected by parents, society to do so; but how long can they and keep a man they may want? So they deal with guilt. They deal with the pressure, and then, often the rejection, even by the same source of the pressure--young boys who then taunt their conquests as "sluts." The blood of their period is akin to, can lead to, the blood of an abortion: this is the blood of Christian-viewed sin, not of "the redemptive blood of the lamb." Another item: Men, for the most part, hold power of life and death over other living, "born" people--they send others to war, to their executions. Women hold that power over the unborn. Maybe it's a fair division. But maybe no one would like to have either power, if they could avoid it.

Women are taught, socialized to make a relationship, a marriage, a home. If those things fall apart they are told, in myriad ways, to look first to themselves to blame. Even with a philandering husband. Even with a child who's simply programmed to behave, act out, resist, rebel; among other reasons, as part of the eternal cycle of mother-daughter conflict. As Thurman's Diana says, "I thought if I cared for my child, helped my students, loved my husband, everything would be all right." But doing those things, the right thing, doesn't necessarily control outcomes, bring ultimate happiness.

As an art teacher, the lessons Diana is teaching focus on Gauguin--like the art references in Philip Roth's early, seminal novel Goodbye Columbus. I'll leave the point of that reference, that inclusion, for the viewer to explore for themselves, as with the Blake poem Diana reads to her daughter to soothe her to sleep. Likewise the ubiquitous imagery of water in the film: in one scene, young Diana, getting wet in the spray from a fountain, wonders where the boundary is between its mist and the air it is dissipating into. Where is the boundary between consciousness and not-being? Between life in its vibrancy and the ebbing away of life? (Echoes of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life.") There are a few false notes, as in the somewhat hokey dialogue about "the heart being the strongest muscle in the body." Some other witty exchanges reminded me of the improbably smart, ready-for-the Dorothy-Parker-book-of-quips utterances by Ellen Page's precocious teen in last year's phenomenon "Juno." But they're infrequent, and dissolve quickly in the potent, larger mix. The title and final plot twist are in fact a hoary cliché--and a clue ... though one most people, I feel, are unlikely to crack. (Another clue is to be found in the soundtrack, in an old Zombies song heard repeatedly, sometimes in different forms, in the film.) At least, I didn't--the whole weight, momentum of the film are so forceful on behalf of a different supposition. A gorgeous, thoughtful, disturbing film, one that--like "Being There," last year's "Perfume," "2001: A Space Odyssey"--you can hardly imagine being anywhere near as effective in a non-visual medium. Which is why we have film these days, and why, in The Midtown Messenger at least, you'll find it analyzed as the serious "literature" it is. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
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The Visitor (I) (2007)
A beautiful film. A flawless creation.
10 April 2008
One pleasant surprise at the recent Phoenix Film Festival was the opening night film, by--who else?--another alum of HBO's excellent, just concluded, urban Baltimore series, "The Wire." (Readers of recent issues of The Midtown Messenger will know we rubbed elbows with a number of other players from that show, who were in town--downtown--for the screening at the Almost Famous Short Film Festival (A3F) of an excellent movie they created, kind of ensemble: "Sympathetic Details," by writer-director Benjamin Busch (Colicchio on "The Wire." To read republished articles on this film's screening at the A3F in Phoenix, as well as other reviews, news and comment, google the name of our print publication, The Midtown Messenger, and click on the link for its blog.)

The opening PFF work was "The Visitor," starring Richard Jenkins, late of HBO's "Six Feet Under" (though we think of him fondly from his role in "The Witches of Eastwick," in which he beats his wife to death with a fireplace poker, and from various installments in the Farrelly brothers' oeuvre). Tom McCarthy, writer-director of the phenom "The Station Agent" a couple years ago (set in Newfoundland, NJ, where yours truly hails from), played a disgruntled, ambitious reporter at the Baltimore Sun in the final season of "The Wire." In that role, he not only gets caught up in cop Jimmy McNulty's fabricated murders of homeless men (staged to get funding to resume investigations into other murders, put on ice due to city budget cuts), but, egged on by an out-of-touch mentor, goes on to completely make up spin-off "Dickensian" articles about the life and travails of the homeless.

Needless to say, the guy's likely got a lot more integrity than the characters he plays, as his films display a humanity and sensitivity to the subtleties of character and situation that commends them highly, among other factors. We spoke briefly to McCarthy after his film's screening, and told him it struck us as almost "Missing" meets "Year of the Dog." "I was in 'Year of the Dog,'" he replied. "Oh, yeah, you were the (Laura Dern's) husband"--part of an overprotective, politically correct parental duo, and not the one who wears the pants--we acknowledged. We elaborated on our comparison, saying we found his and Mike White's film to have had a similar affectionate, slight distance, yet a closely observant feel in regard to their characters, as well as a running, lightly humorous tone, even in the face of sobering realities. McCarthy acknowledged the point, while adding he still found the comparison strange. (That's all right--we find his characters despicable ... though again, it's probably a testament to his talent that they are so viscerally dislikable, as he's probably nothing like them.)

More apt, perhaps, is the comparison to "Missing," by Costa-Gavras. A political drama like his iconic "Z," "Missing" is about events surrounding the 1973 coup that toppled popularly elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende, replacing him with the CIA-backed villain Augusto Pinochet. In the film, Jack Lemmon plays an American businessman called to Chile by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek), when his son gets caught up in the political turmoil. Lemmon plays one of his classic "dawning awareness" roles, as in "The China Syndrome," where he goes from a complacent faith in the system to a grudging realization that the institutions he believes in are not always so benign. Likewise, that evolution loosely describes Jenkins' character's progress in "The Visitor," as he deals with problems related to the immigration status of some new friends. But, like Peggy the bereft secretary (Molly Shannon) in "Year of the Dog," Jenkins' character, Walter Vale, is also experiencing a loss of connectedness to places, people, work that have barely been his mooring for years--and so he finds new sources of life, passion and belonging.

From its soundtrack to the cinematography; pacing, casting, acting and story, "The Visitor" is virtually flawless. Speaking of casting, Danai Gurira as Zainab, reminds us, perhaps oddly, of Samantha Morton. Maybe it's the shape of her closely cropped head, like Morton's as the lead empath in "Minority Report'; then again maybe it's something in her eyes. But Morton in Jim Sheridan's fine "In America" plays a role more similar to Gurira's here, as an illegal in New York City. Too, Haaz Sleiman as Tarek is perfect as one of those eager-to-please, happy-go-lucky, live-for-the moment kind of people, who endears himself to the viewer every bit as much as he does to Walter. But we were fondest of Jenkins as Walter, who is a little formal, doesn't smile much, is sometimes tough on others yet self-excusing, and so has to endure others' (especially the female characters') guardedness, even hostility well after he has really shown himself to be kind, gentle, caring, generous--in his low-key yet self-respecting way.
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A gem looking for a setting
7 April 2008
First-time writer-director Benjamin Busch has created a fine film, with an excellent cast and acting, great production values, and the same judicious eye he brings to his other métier as a fine-art photographer. Rarely has so ambitious an effort succeeded so well and with such highly limited resources and a suffocatingly tight production schedule. Featuring a cast and crew almost completely drawn from the HBO original series "The Wire," "Sympathetic Details" is full of talent and made with care both in front of and behind the camera. From its seemingly banal yet arresting opening monologue to its devastating ending, the film catches you up in its thought-provoking twists on the hit-man genre.

This is a film into every aspect of which great thought and all deliberate care was injected. In his notes on the film, provided along with its entry in February in the Almost Famous Film Festival (A3F) in downtown Phoenix, Busch discusses the levels of meaning contributed by his choices of settings, props and the composition of the shots. Apart from the narrative level in which a hit-man with a conscience is enveloped in ever-shifting mazes of intrigue, there are larger philosophical themes at play, contrasting the ways in which we care for one another (or don't) with the cold indifference of Nature, the universe--with its lack of intrinsic meaning or purpose. This film stood head and shoulders above other A3F entries, many of which held their own as typical fare of a lower-tier short film festival. (We say that in all fondness for it, as a past judge for, sponsor of, and writer about the event.)

Regrettably, Busch had the time and resources to shoot only an hour-long movie, though his original script would have resulted in about a 95-minute feature. Regarding the abridged length, how can anyone, as a viewer, know or even guess how keeping the originally conceived elements of a unitary, coherent work of art would affect it? Possible lulls in the middle of this film are as easily a result of things not hanging together and propelling forward as well as they might, due to the missing elements.

In our opinion, this film cries out to be realized at its full intended length. Watching it, we seemed conscious that there were additional plot twists and nuances of character development and the characters' relationships that were missing from the screen and that we, and the film, would have benefited from incorporating.

However, we have found the somewhat opaque title less than apt, not very conducive to piquing initial interest in the film. Granted, it references a meaningful moment and catch-phrase in the film, but it's a bit esoteric and also doesn't trip too easily off the tongue.

Back to the performances: Yes, there may be a few stiff moments, but it's correct to dwell more on the predominant, noteworthy turns on the part of Busch's comrades from "The Wire" (and the one or two outside cast, such as Marisol Chacin), who clearly aren't chary with their talents. They evidently believed in both Busch and the material, and brought to bear their full acting skills in realizing characters the viewer buys into without reservation.

This is a film we'd have been glad to pay to see, and if there's a benefactor out there with the resources to help see it brought to full feature length, we'll be glad to sing its further praises to them. In the meantime, attendees at other film fests in which it's entered are in for a treat. And we WILL pay to see it when it graduates to merited commercial status. Republication of preview and folo articles on A3F and "Sympathetic Details" can be found by googling the name of our print publication, The Midtown Messenger, and clicking on the link for its blog.
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