August 20, 2007

Death at a Funeral

Last Friday, I saw Death at a Funeral. First thing on Saturday morning, I went to a funeral. Happily, the funeral was not as funny at the movie. It wasn’t funny at all. Everything happened according to plan. There was none of the alarming, sidesplittingly funny mayhem that fills Frank Oz’s instant classic.

Death at a Funeral.

August 04, 2007

Broken English

I'm a fan of Parker Posey, but I went to see Broken English primarily to see Melvil Poupaud. I seen him in only two other movies. In one, Le Divorce, he plays a finky husband who walks out on his family, much to the chagrin of his aristocratic family. Then, in Le temps qui reste, he plays a snotty fashion photographer who is humanized by the process of dying from cancer. He is tall, but so lean that he seems not quite filled out, and accordingly vulnerable. When he composes his mouth just so and opens his big brown eyes, he erases the difference between thinking and feeling. The stillness of his motion suggests that everything needing to be worked out has been worked out. He is a very interesting actor, and he is suited down to the ground for a film by anyone with the name "Cassavetes." 

You think that the fumes of a movie set in downtown Manhattan and the center of Paris would follow me to my favorite NoLIta bistro on Prince Street (the film was showing at the Sunshine), but I was so engrossed by Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons at lunch that I was transported to Somerset - a county that I have yet to visit in person. 

Broken English.

July 28, 2007


Reading A O Scott's robustly unfavorable review of Laurent Tirard's Molière yesterday morning, I reconsidered seeing the picture, but in the end I stuck to my plans. My response was so different from Mr Scott's that I can only conclude that his French isn't very good. I will say that Molière is a movie for people who are already familiar with the great French writer's oeuvre. It is witty in a way that the English rarely are and we Americans never. This is not to say that it's empty or stylized; if anything, it fills Molière's classical vessels with strong contemporary sentiment. Perhaps that is what Mr Scott meant by saying that the movie seems "designed for immediate obsolescence." But I loved it.


July 21, 2007

Mon Meilleur Ami

What I love most about IMDb is its power to relieve those headaches that come on when I'm sure that I've seen an actor before, but can't for the life of me place him or, more usually, her. It's more usually her because women can transform themselves utterly simply by radically rethinking their hair. I don't know how long it would have taken me to figure out that Julie Gayet, who appears in Patrice Leconte's Mon Meilleur Ami, is also in Un Monde Presque Paisible, Michel Deville's intensely lovely 2002 feature.

Daniel Auteuil is certainly keeping busy. He was in four movies last year, of which two, La Doublure and Mon Meilleur Ami, have been released here. Why does it take so long? Are subtitles that difficult to whip up?

I already know what I'm going to see next week. Barring unforeseen obstacles, my Friday movie will be Molière, starring Romain Duris.

Mon Meilleur Ami.

July 14, 2007


Okay, here's what happened. I had a long and, in his word, "bibulous" lunch with Éduoard on Thursday. Among other things, we talked about Transformers, which I couldn't believe he'd been to see. But his copain had wanted to go. "I've seen much worse," he confided, and then he went on to tell me about a very funny scene involving the actress Julie White. Well, how bad could the movie be?

Getting home shortly past six, I was in a dangerously effervescent state of mind. Kathleen was going to work late, but the idea of spending the evening alone was bleakness itself. Unable to rustle up a dinner companion, I decided to go to the movies. The only thing showing up here that I hadn't seen was - Transformers. So I went, and I had a great time. It was definitely a movie to see after a long and bibulous lunch in a not-overcrowded theatre.

I fully planned to see something less CGI-assisted on Friday morning, but after a late dinner with Kathleen at which we got to know a neighbor who happened to be sitting outside the restaurant where we met ("May I join you?" "Sure!"), I didn't get to bed until late, and when I woke up I was suffering, if not the hangover I deserved, a complete lack of endorphins. Leaving the apartment was inconceivable. At the same time, I had no idea what there was to write about Transformers. It was too difficult to think about. I pulled up the covers and read R K Narayan's delightful 1958 novel, The Guide.


July 07, 2007


At the 10 AM showing of Ratatouille at the Orpheum yesterday, there were lots of kids, and they seemed to have a grand time, but I frequently made up a laughing party of one. As someone familiar with French cooking and nearly capable of speaking French myself, I was impressed by the film's gentle and understated Francophilia. As befits an action comedy, Ratatouille is unencumbered by explanatory sermons, but instead of wallowing in cliché it simply presents the French ambiance in an attractive, almost enviable light.

Ratatouille was preceded by a droll Pixar short, Lifted. Call it an amuse-gueule. Oh, and the movie was screened without a hitch for a change.


June 30, 2007


No matter what the reviews said, I was bound to see Evening. I don't miss Meryl Streep's movies, ever (a statement that is not inconsistent with the fact that I have not seen all of them). And I was hugely curious about her daughter, Mamie Gummer. What would Meryl Streep's daughter be like? A lot like her mother, is the answer. A lot. Glenn Close as a forbidding matron was too delicious to pass up. I've become a fan of Claire Danes lately, too. Toni Colette, Natasha Richardson, and Eileen Atkins were all icing on the cake. A Newport wedding in the Fifties. How bad could it be?

It took longer than I thought it would for me to like the movie. That's probably because it wastes no time on exposition: you have to figure out relationships as best you can. Once you do - for me, the moment came in the scene where Lila dances with Harris on the night before her wedding - the movie becomes tender and poignant. Whether or not it really makes sense is a question for afterward, when the film is over. That, I find, is when too many people make up their minds about movies. They sit in a café and try to make sense of what they've just seen. If they can do this easily, they're happy about the film. If they can't - if questions about character, motivation, or sheer plausibility begin to sprout, they will feel confused, and probably decide that the film wasn't all that good. That's why I believe that you can't really make up your mind about a movie until you've seen it a second time. Until then, I try to hold on to what I felt in the theatre. What I felt in the theatre was my handkerchief, with which I was constantly wiping away tears.

(Of course, I cry during previews if they're done right.)


June 23, 2007

You Kill Me

When you look at the list of movies that Téa Leoni has made since Flirting With Disaster (1996), you have to decide between the following propositions: (a) Ms Leoni has a terrible agent, (b) she exhibits unguessed-at tics that make her hard to work with or (my favorite, c) they don't know what they're doing in Hollywood. Even Lucy at her sassiest couldn't deliver lines with such deadly, you're-probably-too-dumb-to-diagram-this-sentence aplomb.

Finally, she's got a part that she deserves, falling for a hit man played by Ben Kingsley. In an early scene, she smiles beatifically, but as a rule she doesn't look amused when she's cracking jokes. As romantic comedies go, You Kill Me is, if not dark, then very grave. These are real people we're talking about - or so it seems. So it really seems. I myself don't go to the movies in search of real people. I live on 86th Street, and there are plenty of real people right outside my front door. I have been known to find the "real people" effect mightily tedious in the theatre. So there's a extent to which I like You Kill Me despite itself. Always a funny feeling.

Just thinking out loud, but I wonder if I ought to have a rating system. Oh, not to measure what I thought of the movie. But rather to suggest how enthusiastically I'd recommend it, and to whom. Knocked Up, for example, is a slam-dunk example of a movie that everybody in this country ought to see (and elsewhere, too). Le Valet is the perfect movie for anyone who likes Gallic farce - and that's a lot of New Yorkers. You Kill Me is the sort of picture that garners every shade of appreciation and dislike.

There's no getting around the really strong performances, though. Ben Kingsley has effectively acted his way into a stratosphere beyond criticism. I hope that someone will give Téa Leoni the chance to do the same.

June 09, 2007

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

It has been interesting to watch the face of Pascal Greggory, a major supporting actor in French film who often has leading roles in ensemble pieces, change with age. He used to have good looks of a very distinctive nature; in certain shots, he looked vaguely monstrous. Nowadays, he looks a lot like a finer-featured Bruce Willis. He exudes the same wary weariness. He is one of the many top-notch stars who make Olivier Dahan's La Môme a solid achievement as well as "a major motion picture."

The genius of this film is that it presents a true diva, in a scenery-eating role, that nonetheless never slights the other actors. Mr Dahan makes sure that you know that Édith Piaf did not live in a vacuum of egotism. Marion Cotillard, in the title role, may be at the center of every scene, but it's only the center that she occupies. There's plenty of room for the others.

The narrative line of La Môme is rather complex, and if I were truly diligent I would see it again before writing about it. When I acquire it on DVD, I promise to revisit it.

In the men's room of the Angelika, after the movie, some geezer in a stall was actually singing "Je ne regrette rien." His command of the lyrics was not commendable.

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

PS: I think that A O Scott's review in the Times is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I hope that what I've had to say about the movie will counter his hastiness.

June 02, 2007

Knocked Up

Perhaps the clearest way of announcing my substantial recovery from Thursday's crisis is my essay on Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's new hit. It could not have been written by a depressed person or a psychotic person or even a drunk person. It did take too long to write; I'm far from the top of my game. While I feel well enough, Kathleen tells me that my face looks drawn, and I'm sure that she's right.

But for Paul Rudd (who was also in Mr Apatow's first movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin), the actors were unknown to me before I saw the film. That's very unusual for me, and I'll sometimes avoid movies whose stars are unknown, not because I demand name brands but because unknowns are so often the best that an indifferent project could attract. 

Knocked Up.

May 26, 2007


I hadn't expected to see Waitress. The trailer was a bit hyperglycemic for me. All that pie! All those Southern accents! Waitresses working in a diner-like restaurant. And Keri Russell is really just too pretty.

But there I was, casting around for something to see last night. Ordinarily, of course, I see movies on Friday morning, as early as possible, but yesterday I had a very important engagement elsewhere. I thought I'd look for something in the later afternoon, but by the time that came around I was a bit tired and wanted only to go home and read.

Kathleen, however, instead of working until ten o'clock, scheduled a facial for seven. She was out at a little past eight. But even though she went back to the office to tidy up some things, she wanted to go to the movies. I was in no mood to leave the neighborhood by that time, but I was confronted with unusually limited choices. Across the street, they're showing Shrek III in all four auditoriums. At the Orpheum, a further four theatres have been dedicated to showing off Johnny Depp. So, in the end, Kathleen and I met at Burger Heaven at nine and strolled over to UA East at ten.

(I rarely complain about movie theatres because I rarely have any reason to. But conditions were poor at the UA East. The women's bathroom had overflowed shortly before our arrival, and the auditorium felt airless and almost-too-warm all the way through the film. Boo!)


May 19, 2007


As a rule, I stay away from horror/slasher flicks. Who needs to have all that gore sloshing around in one's imagination? I'm familiar with the argument that these films provide young men with a ritual opportunity to display their unflinching bravery while girlfriends burrow into their shoulders with awestruck admiration. I'd have flunked. I well remember going to the men's room seven times (at least) when I saw Alien, in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1979.

But Severance attracted me for two reasons. One, Toby Stephens. Mr Stephens is the son of Maggie Smith, but I didn't know he existed until I rented a video about the late Princess Margaret, The Queen's Sister. Mr Stephens plays Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon. I've since read that he prefers the stage to the screen. If that's actually the case, then his participation in Severance is hard to explain.

Or perhaps it isn't. Severance is a first-class satire that is long on menace and short on actual horror. If it were a porn movie, you wouldn't see anybody's privates. A great deal is left to the imagination, which, in my case, certainly rose to the occasion. I was glued to my seat, however, because the movie is also very funny.

The second draw was basic: an eleven-o'clock screening at the Angelika. Once I leave Yorkville, the Angelika is the easiest theatre to get to in all of New York. (The 86th Street East, across the street from my apartment, is showing Shrek III on all four screens. What's one to do?)

I still can't believe that I went to see Severance.

May 12, 2007

Georgia Rule

Leaving the theatre after watching a movie for the first time is a highly variable experience. Having seen Avenue Montaigne, for example, at the Angelika, in Soho, and then walking out on to Mercer Street toward a favorite bistro for a croque monsieur, I felt that the only difference between the film's world and mine was the local language. Walking out of the Orpheum, right into the heart of Yorkville, after George Rule - now, that was as traumatic a shift as anything short of a plane crash can be. Let me just say that George Rule is very much set in the mountains of Idaho. There are few spots on the globe that seem as distant from my little neighborhood.

Had I been out of my mind to pay to see something starring Lindsay Lohan? In the struggle for sanity, I began writing the film up right there on the sidewalk, and I had worked out a lot of what you'll find at the other end of the following link by the time I'd walked the long block home. To answer my question, no, I had not been out of my mind.

Georgia Rule.


May 05, 2007


Sometimes location determines which movie I see on Friday, but I'm very glad that it did today, or I'd have missed Fracture. I had no idea how gripping it would turn out to be - and how interesting. Ordinarily I give lawyer-movies a wide berth. Aside from Anatomy of a Murder, there's nothing duller than courtroom scenes, and although the law is presented more realistically now than it used to be, it still necessarily omits the COLOSSAL TEDIUM that the practice of law entails. Fracture avoids each and every pitfall of the genre. And yet it has a comfortable familiarity about it that both promises and delivers certain satisfactions. And, I have to say, Ryan Gosling's performance is every bit as impressive as Anthony Hopkins's.

Ignorant of all this wonderment, I chose the movie because it was showing on 86th Street. I wanted to go to the Met afterward, for lunch and another look at the new Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries. For that reason alone, I almost went to see Lucky You, because it began at eleven. Fracture didn't start until an hour and a half later, and I actually took a taxi to the museum to be sure that I'd get there before the cafeteria stopped serving cheeseburgers. I actually considered such offerings as Disturbia and The Invisible. Every now and then, it's important to see something that's off your charts - in the wrong direction.

I looked at a lot of Greek pots, some of them rather lewd. Satyrs often sprout erections - you can tell that they're satyrs because of their pony tails and their squished, unheroic profiles - but there's a late pot in which a tumescent gent is actually approaching a couched female.

I also took another look at Gentile Bellini's portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul. The portrait belongs to the National Gallery, London, so I'm trying to drink it in. The sultan's nose is so aquiline that you might miss the irregularities of his mouth, partly concealed as it is by his beard. His eyes manage to be both "humanistic" and sinister.

This season's Roof Garden installation, which opened the other day, is a show of large sculptures by Frank Stella. One wonders how they got these mammoth bits of welding up there. Then one looks out of the spring-green carpet of Central Park's treetops, soaking up the brilliant sunshine. Then one walks home.


April 28, 2007

La Doublure

After the movie on Friday, I went to Jacques Dowtown for lunch. It's on Prince Street, and very charming. I didn't get there until the bartender had gone on lunch break, so I had to be content with Sancerre. Memo to self: if movie starts late - the first showing of La Doublure (The Valet) at the Angelika was at noon - come back uptown for a croque.

La Doublure (The Valet)

April 14, 2007

Year of the Dog

Yesterday, I went down to the Angelika to see Year of the Dog, Mike Smith's eccentric but very funny movie about a woman whose life is undone by the loss of a dog. I don't think that I've ever really noticed Molly Shannon before, doubtless because I haven't watched Saturday Night Live since the late 1970s.

But it was Peter Sarsgaard who stuck in my mind. What a protean actor he is! In Jarhead, I thought he must be Kiefer Sutherland's younger brother. His interesting drawl, I suppose, is the legacy of a childhood in southern Illinois. When I got home, I had to see something else with him in it, and I hit upon The Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas's extremely powerful romantic triangle, with Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott. I think that it's Mr Sarsgaard's finest performance. He makes grimness unusually interesting.

As long as I was in the neighborhood, I went to McNally Robinson on Prince Street and bought Hermione Lee's new biography of Edith Wharton. I had intended not to, at first. I read R W B Lewis's biography when it came out in 1975, so I know the story. But the rave reviews reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Ms Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, another book that I thought somewhat unnecessary when it appeared. And I realized that over thirty years have passed since the Lewis book was new.

I also yielded to an impulse and bought Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts. I don't know that I'm going to like it, but I've bit into it. The book in my pile that I really want to read is Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, but I'm saving it as a treat.

April 07, 2007

Black Book

It seems that I go to nothing but foreign movies.

It's a good thing that I went to see what's advertised here as Black Book on Wednesday evening, because there wasn't time on Friday for going to the movies. I had the house to clean. Later today, we're heading across to Hudson for a gathering of Kathleen's cousins, three of whom (sisters to boot) will be in the same place for the first time in a while. Tomorrow, I'll be cooking and then serving.


Update: Owing to illness in New Jersey and extreme fatigue here, we won't be going anywhere today, but one of Kathleen's cousins has come into the city and will stop by for a visit, with her daughter and her niece, both of whom were children when I saw them last. One of them I haven't seen since she was a very little girl indeed. Now she's taking a college tour with her mother.

March 31, 2007

After the Wedding

This week's movie was Susanne Bier's Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding), starring Mads Mikkelsen, with Rolf Lassgård, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Stine Fischer Christensen. After the Wedding is a deeply affecting film about family and regret, and about the natural limits of benevolence.

It's also impossible to say more than that without giving away the plot, so stop here if you want to be surprised by the movie.

After the Wedding.

March 24, 2007

Reign Over Me

On the strength of Anthony Lane's rather strong review, a 10:15 showtime, and sheer proximity, I went to see Mike Blinder's Reign Over Me yesterday. I expect that it's going to be a very big hit. It's not often that I like a picture that would also entertain the staff at a trading desk, and I can't wait to talk about it with people who have seen it.

Reign Over Me.

March 17, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

It's nearly two, and I've just come back from breakfast across the street, where we watched stragglers from the St Patrick's Day parade drift down 86th Street. The parade terminates at Lexington Avenue these days, not Second, so we're spared most of the drunks and detritus, not to mention the motor coaches and traffic barriers. Kathleen will give me an eyewitness account of the moraine when she gets to the office. When we parted after breakfast, she headed for the bank and the subway, right in the thick of things.

Ordinarily, I'd be dusting and vacuuming and listening to one of Bach's Passions, but I'm feeling sheepish about not having seen the Eric Rohmer film, L'amour l'après-midi, known here as Chloe in the Afternoon. The movie that I saw yesterday, Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, is said to be a remake. I don't know why I've seen none of Mr Rohmer's films aside from L'anglaise et le duc, but I've not always been as enthusiastic about French movies as I am now. In any case, that's what I'm about to do - see L'amour l'après-midi.


Watching L'amour l'après-midi, a grave, talky, but extremely interior film, I wondered how it had ever held the interest of a brash American comedian, much less inspired him to remake it as a comedy. And what a fascinating remake I Love My Wife is! If you set aside the interpolations that make it funny, the newer picture is remarkably faithful to the original in terms of scenes, sequence, visual details, and, not least of all, dénouement. But the result of this fidelity is to emphasize the vast difference between the respective protagonists' romantic adventures, as well as the gulf between French cinematic sensibility thirty-five years ago and its American counterpart today.

Another puzzle: what would I have thought of L'amour l'après-midi if I hadn't seen I Think I Love My Wife?

March 10, 2007

Avenue Montaigne

It was back to the Angelika again yesterday, this time for Avenue Montaigne. This time, though, I'd done a little homework. I'd recently learned that one of my favorite neighborhood bistros, Jacques, has a branch on Prince Street in NoLIta, so that's where I went afterward. While I enjoyed my croque monsieur, I read Diane Johnson on a new Turgenev biography in The New York Review of Books. I decided that it was time to read Turgenev, so on my way back to the train I stopped at McNally Robinson, where I bought two novels by the Russian author. I also bought something I've meant to get for a long time, the Penguin Montaigne. It seemed especially apt today.

March 03, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen, Idiocracy

Two movies. I saw two movies yesterday. I saw one in the middle of the other. I was up early and all that, and I'd narrowed the Friday Movies thing down to two movies showing in the hood, but I didn't want to see either of them. They were just convenient. That was Thursday night. In the morning, I felt a little stronger, a little more Angelika-prone. I reupped the Google. The Important Movie was showing at a good time. I reupped the Google during a bathroom break that I took in the first third of Idiocracy. Time to turn off the tape and boogie là-bas. Went to see The Lives of Others. I did my pathetic little Angelika block stroll: Being a visitor from the Upper East Side, get off the first car at Bleecker Street and walk underground to Broadway and Houston. Climb the stairs, cross the street, walk a block. When the movie's over, exit onto Mercer Street and turn right. At Bleecker - you're on the street now - turn right again, and keep walkin' 'til you find yourself with the strangest choice ever presented by the MTA: which entrance to the Uptown 6 is the right one? They are most suspiciously equidistant. Back at the manoir, I scoped the rest of Idiocracy.

Happily, our new doorman is an idiot, so when the Video Room people came for the one-night pickup, the DVD couldn't be found. Will Howard charge me? He didn't last time. The DVD was right there where it was supposed to be when we asked after it, and I brought it home. Then I thought: interesting scenes of the future for Kathleen to see!

And I was so right. She has been keeping herself going on coffee for really rather too long, and it seemed unlikely that she'd fall asleep comme d'habitude. Selected scenes from Idiocracy weakened her nicely. Afterward, reading Joan Acocella on Marguertie Yourcenar put her out.

Controlled demolition, man.

Das Leben der Anderen, Idiocracy

Two movies. I saw two movies yesterday. I saw one in the middle of the other. I was up early and all that, and I'd narrowed the Friday Movies thing down to two movies showing in the hood, but I didn't want to see either of them. They were just convenient. That was Thursday night. In the morning, I felt a little stronger, a little more Angelika-prone. I reupped the Google. The Important Movie was showing at a good time. I reupped the Google during a bathroom break that I took in the first third of Idiocracy. Time to turn off the tape and boogie là-bas. Went to see The Lives of Others. I did my pathetic little Angelika block stroll: Being a visitor from the Upper East Side, get off the first car at Bleecker Street and walk underground to Broadway and Houston. Climb the stairs, cross the street, walk a block. When the movie's over, exit onto Mercer Street and turn right. At Bleecker - you're on the street now - turn right again, and keep walkin' 'til you find yourself with the strangest choice ever presented by the MTA: which entrance to the Uptown 6 is the right one? They are most suspiciously equidistant. Back at the manoir, I scoped the rest of Idiocracy.

Happily, our new doorman is an idiot, so when the Video Room people came for the one-night pickup, the DVD couldn't be found. Will Howard charge me? He didn't last time. The DVD was right there where it was supposed to be when we asked after it, and I brought it home. Then I thought: interesting scenes of the future for Kathleen to see!

And I was so right. She has been keeping herself going on coffee for really rather too long, and it seemed unlikely that she'd fall asleep comme d'habitude. Selected scenes from Idiocracy weakened her nicely. Afterward, reading Joan Acocella on Marguertie Yourcenar put her out.

Controlled demolition, man.

February 24, 2007

Music and Lyrics

I'm all for formulaic movies, so long as they've been sanded down here and there and stamped with loving cleverness. Music and Lyrics is such a movie. Mass audiences will enjoy the romance, and savor the comedy of then-and-now pop styles. Sharp viewers will treasure the profusion of coherent details. Everybody's happy.

Take One.

February 10, 2007

Epic Movie


"Whoa, it's Stifler's Mom."

I'll see Jennifer Coolidge in anything. No one is funnier just standing still. The clip above does not come from Epic Movie, but can you tell me what she's saying?

Find out here.

February 03, 2007

Because I Said So

What a situation! There were only three movies out there that I was thinking of seeing, and my first choice, Because I Said So, got an awful review in yesterday's Times. So did Factory Girl, my second choice. I even considered Epic Movie, at least until I discovered its MetaCritic rating, a perilously low 17. Although Factory Girl, the movie about Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and - oops! - a Bob Dylan-like figure, scored a 37 to Because I Said So's 30 (how abysmal is that?), the latter movie won my admission, partly because it was showing at eleven, right across the street, and partly because I'm crazy about Diane Keaton these days. (She has really shed Georgia Mozell, the creepily self-absorbed sister in Hanging Up.) I wound up liking Because I Said So very much. It occurred to me that today's critics are unlikely to be the parents of grown children, and therefore unable to sympathize with Ms Keaton's overprotective mom. I knew exactly what she felt, even though I knew she was going to have to change her ways. (In the end, love of another kind changes them for her.)

Call it a "chick-flick" if you must, but Because I Said So very well may feature the breakout performance of Gabriel Macht, a boy from the Bronx who seems at times to be channeling George Peppard, who shone at a time when "boyish" meant anything but "immature."

Read more about Because I Said So at Portico.

January 27, 2007

El Laberinto del Fauno

Yesterday, I saw the movie that I wanted to see last week, but didn't because of the 12:30 starting time. (I wanted to go to the Museum afterward for lunch and a look.) In other words, Guillermo del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth). It was an instance, not common for me, of seeing a film against my "better judgment" and being very grateful that I've done so. As a rule, I've found Spanish films something of a stretch, and Laberinto's fantasy elements looked to be somewhat off-putting. I didn't read the reviews when they appeared, but slowly caught the very favorable buzz: this is a movie that everybody wants to see. It will keep us all chattering for years to come.

El Laberinto del Fauno tucks a strange and dark fairy tale into a brutally realistic episode from the Spanish Civil War. (It is presumably fictional but not far from the awful truth.) A girl who is absorbed by fairy tales accompanies her pregnant mother up into the Pyrenees so that the expected child can be born at the camp of its father, Capitán Vidal. The captain, whose vicious ruthlessness feeds on fascist narcissism, is in charge of a major assault on a band of recalcitrant holdouts. The movie forces you to confront the brutality of the Civil War by killing off most of the characters in which you've invested some care: don't expect anyone in particular to survive. Suffice it to say that the captain's campaign is something of a losing battle.

Ofelía, the girl, soon finds herself attended by pixies (they morph from long, scary-looking beetles) and led into an ancient labyrinth near the captain's HQ. Here she meets the Faun (I don't think I'd have called him "Pan"), a friendly figure who tells her that she must undergo three ordeals in order to find out whether she embodies the spirit of the underworld princess from her favorite story. Many viewers, I'm sure, will conclude that Ofelía is deeply deluded, her mind broken by severe environmental stress (for starters, she certainly doesn't care for the captain). That's one way of resolving the tension between fantasy and realism. I'm happy to let that tension vibrate: perhaps the fantasy is as real as anything. What makes Laberinto so powerful is the degree to which the captain's dreadfulness is matched by the terror of Ofelía's ordeals. The tone of the film is, for the most parts, uniformly grueling, but many moments of intermittent charm keep it fresh and engaging.

The four principal actors are superb. Ivana Baquero is a wonderful Ofelía, with an open, tenderly pretty face that recalls Kate Beckinsale's in Cold Comfort Farm. Sergi López, whom I could swear I've seen in something, is magnificent as Capitán Vidal, a man of demented pride who can set his face at an almost wrinkle-free repose. Maribel Verdú plays Mercedes, the captain's principal servant, as a woman onto whose face the dolorousness of the Civil War has been etched. Doug James, who hails from Indianapolis and who apparently is no stranger to prosthetic costumes, acts the part of the Faun, which I assume to have been dubbed in Spanish. Adriana Gil and Alex Angulo are also very good as Ofelía's mother and the local doctor, respectively.

Coming out of the theatre, I could only think of what would happen had this film been set during World War I, in Turkey - the time of the Armenian genocide that official Turkey finds it impossible to acknowledge. El Laberinto del Fauno is unflinching about the atrocities that brought Francisco Franco to power and kept him there until his death. In the space of a generation, Spain has joined the rest of modern Europe, but Laberinto reminds us that nothing turns the coal of fear into the diamond of beautiful insight more predictably than ardent oppression.

January 20, 2007

Night at the Museum

You wouldn't think that Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum would be a difficult film to appraise, but in fact I'm going to have to see it a few more times before I can tell just how worthy it is of being bracketed with Galaxy Quest (1999). Galaxy Quest appears to be a satire of Star Trek, but its real target is American entertainment in general, and all of its brainy details show up, in one way or another, the brainlessness of mass showbiz. Night at the Museum is not a satire, and its details are not exactly brainy. But it builds on its jokes quite cleverly, and its goofiness is disingenuous. You can tell that (the uncredited) Owen Wilson was involved. Bullshit is hauled offscreen before it can pile up.

The story is simple enough. Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is an failed entrepreneur whose son, Nick (Jake Cherry), can't bear the disappointment that his Dad has become. Finally without options, Larry swallows his pride and looks for a job. He lands the night watchman slot at the Natural History Museum, a failing institution on Central Park West (only on the outside to be confused with the American Museum of Natural History). During his first night on duty, he discovers that the creatures on display come alive at night. Keeping the mayhem from getting completely out of control is so exhausting that Larry almost quits. On the second night, Larry shows up prepared, but it turns out to be a mistake to give the Neanderthals a cigarette lighter, and in the morning he is almost sacked by the museum's director, Dr McPhee (Ricky Gervais). Given one more chance, Larry decides to share the wonder with Nick, whom he smuggles in at closing time. At the appointed hour, nothing happens, because the three daytime security guards (Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs) have stolen an Egyptian plaque bearing the curse that keeps things lively. I can't for the life of me remember what happens next, but all hell breaks loose. The next morning, the director is appalled by television reports of a T Rex footprint in the snow in Central Park and of the Neanderthals waving torches from the museum's cornice, but changes his mind about firing Larry when he discovers that attendance is way up.

Night at the Museum abounds in stellar cameo performances. Anne Meara (Mr Stiller's mother) is kindling-dry as a skeptical employment agent; Paul Rudd is maddeningly unctuous as Nick's stepfather. Mr Gervais is a sort of British Nathan Lane, with Brylcreem for blood, and he splutters through his part with unsmiling glee. The girls - Carla Gugino as Rebecca, Larry's girlfriend-to-come; and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea - aren't given very much to work with, but Ms Gugino is savvy and Ms Peck knows how to make her character's grave composure funny. My favorites were Mr Wilson as Jedediah and Steve Coogan as Octavius. This duo is a pair of warring diorama figurines who spend every night trying to break into one another's window. Jedediah belongs to a display about the transcontinental railroad, which is just what you'd expect to see next to the Roman Forum, and his raving macho is beautifully matched by Mr Coogan's visible agony - oh, how he hates his Roman drag, especially the plumed helmet. I have a feeling that some of the ersatz Hunnish lines spoken by Michael Gallagher as Attila are going to creep into those crevices of society  already receptive to Animal House. The character played by Robin Williams almost throws a monkeywrench into the machinery when he confesses that he is really a wax dummy from Poughkeepsie and not Teddy Roosevelt, but by the time Rebecca is getting help on her dissertation from its subject, Sacajawea, most viewers will have forgotten the slip.

There should be no need to state that Ben Stiller has a ball. 

January 06, 2007

At the Movies: Venus

Venus, the new film directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, is not the soft and sweet movie promised by the trailer. I don't believe that a fully honest trailer would have done anything but unnecessary damage to this honest and beautiful film. After all, it's one thing to be lured by a spry Peter O'Toole to a movie about ageing and facing death, and quite another to be lured by ageing and facing death to see any movie whatsoever. In the second case, there isn't going to be much of a lure at all, and trailers are designed as lures. Sometimes the only alternative to a misleading trailer is no trailer at all - unthinkable. In the case of Venus, no harm was done.

Peter O'Toole, born in 1932, is not really an old man yet, so unless he has suffered a premature decline, his performance in Venus is a great piece of acting. At the beginning, Mr O'Toole's character, Maurice, is in somewhat better shape than his pal, Ian, also a elderly actor (Leslie Phillips, b. 1924), but in the middle of the story Maurice undergoes prostate surgery, and then insists on leaving the hospital before he has quite mended. Equally befuddling is his intoxication with Jessie (Jodi Whittaker), the daughter of Ian's niece, a girl who has ostensibly come down to London to take care of him. Ian, who doesn't seem to like women, can't bear Jessie once she arrives - and no wonder. She eats snacks and drinks beer (and stronger) more or less without interruption, a regime at odds with her objective of becoming a model - a conflict that the film declines to explore. Indeed, Venus does not take its title character (Jessie) very seriously. She is more flawed goddess - but then what goddess wasn't? - than real girl. Curiously, this approach works better than the alternative would have. Mr Michell and Mr Kureishi, by putting us in the place of an ageing man who knows that he's submitting to Eros for the last time, give Jessie an integrity that she mightn't have had otherwise. Maurice knows, and we know, that his interest in Jessie is essentially carnal, and when Jessie bats off his advances, demure as they are, we share Maurice's guilty knowledge that he is something of a vampire, feeding on Jessie's youth. Being a goddess, moreover, means that Jessie is not averse to well-behaved, strictly regulated adoration. A more ordinary young lady might be helplessly revolted by Maurice's attentions.

The early scenes of Venus are droll; there is almost nothing from the second half of the movie (as I recall) in the trailer. Ian is a fusspot, and given to elaborate exchanges of insults with Maurice, who, one gathers, always had the bigger career (he's still working). One suspects that it would kill Ian to laugh. The other two people in Maurice's life are sunnier but still very bracing. There's Donald (Richard Griffiths), who's very good at ego-deflation, and Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), Maurice's ex-wife. Maurice and Valerie have arrived at being on good terms, but she never lets him forget what a shit he was to leave her, decades ago, with three children under six. He cannot deny that he always put his own pleasure first. At their last meeting, Valerie divines that Maurice is aflame again.

It's in the post-surgical scenes that Maurice falls apart. His decay is presented with the lightest of hands. All we need is a glimpse of his catheter bag to know how dreadfully his freedom and dignity have been compromised. There are a few crashes and breakages, but Maurice's condition is expressed primarily is slow, stiff movements, and facial expressions clouded by pain. Sometimes the scene is simply hard to read. Mr Michell favors underlighted sets in this picture, and he makes them work for him. There are gorgeous moments when Jessie's face appears to loom out from Vermeerian shadows. Maurice may be impotent and incontinent, but his longing for Jessie only burns more brightly. 

The crisis occurs when Jessie tries to introduce her own proper boyfriend (Bronson Webb) into the picture. Actually, the boyfriend is anything but proper. He's a scowling man of few words who smokes a lot and affects disdain. In fact, he can't even provide Jessie with a place where they can be alone. So he has the bright idea of getting Jessie to ask Maurice for the loan of his flat - would he mind going for a long walk? Besieged by a chaotic chorus of voices from shows that he has done, Maurice returns to the flat perhaps a tad too soon, and one thing leads to another. This time, the crash is not funny at all, but a sickening, humiliating racket.

The last ten minutes of the film teeter between the predictable and the new, finally coming down on the side of the latter with a marvelously evocative scene that shows us just how much - and it's a lot - Jessie has learned from Maurice. It is the kind of learning that only a love affair, consummated or not, can confer. It is more than learning how to pose like the Rokeby Venus. It is learning to feel the erotic tides that surge through Velásquez's great painting, a masterpiece that, in its quirky, shambling, candid way, Venus lives up to.

December 30, 2006

The Holiday

The Holiday may be a feel-good movie, but as a Nancy Meyers feel-good movie it's sufficiently dry and verbal to render the fantasy settings and outcomes interesting. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslett are so unalike that they give us two movies, and their stories are told in different tonalities as well. Amanda (Ms Diaz) is a neurotic producer of movie trailers who starves her boyfriends of attention and then throws them out when they're unfaithful. It takes her about ten nanoseconds after her arrival in an English cottage to meet cute with Graham (Jude Law), the brother of the woman, Iris (Ms Winslett), with whom she has swapped homes for the holiday. Amanda and Graham fall immediately into each other's arms and then spend the rest of their half of the movie trying to have a good time without getting too serious, because Amanda will be returning to Los Angeles in a week or so. When Amanda cries for the first time since her parents' divorce (she was fifteen), she knows that she has met Mr Right, and she asks the driver to turn the car round.

I pointed out Amanda's profession because Ms Meyers plays with it amusingly, interrupting Amanda's reveries with imagined trailers about her own romantic ineptitude. I might add that the one "actual" trailer that we see - Amanda's latest production - "stars" Lindsay Lohan and James Franco. Mr Franco fires big guns with both hands without looking totally ridiculous - and that's the laugh. You realize that the action is ridiculous. This is how Ms Meyers works. She makes us register our derisive reactions to cinematic clichés without actually prompting them.

Iris, meanwhile, experiences a more layered holiday, and love sneaks up on her. Her meeting cute is with her neighbor,  Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach). Arthur is a retired screenwriter on a walker, and once he befriends Iris, he prescribes a list of movies for her to watch that all feature women with "gumption." Iris's problem, you see, is that she is the "best friend" in her romances, never the "leading lady." This has enabled her to suffer the on-again, off-again attentions of Jasper, a bedroom-eyed Lothario that it can't have been a stretch for Rufus Sewell to play. Arthur, in turn, benefits from Iris's warmth and enthusiasm; it's not an overstatement to say that she brings him back to life. This is where the film could have been unendurably bathetic, but Mr Wallach's wary good humor acidulates the water. Meanwhile, Miles (Jack Black - he cleans up fairly well here), a composer of movie scores, circles in gently but intently. Like Iris, he puts up with too much abuse in his love-life. When Iris and Miles discuss this similarity, they seem to make a pact; and when, not much later, they manage, simultaneously but in different locations, to break the cycle, it's because each of them has drawn strength from the other. Their union at the end might be rather too much the legion of the decent (we are spared any of this couple's lovemaking, although we see the other one in bed), but that's what feel-good movies do: they make unlikely matchings seem plausible, if only until the credits roll.

The difference between the two love stories is well exemplified by each woman's experience of the other's home. Amanda's sprawling Beverly Hills mansion, loaded with comfort, allows Iris to open up and delight in her life. Iris's exiguous Surrey cottage, with its stingy mod cons, forces Amanda to face her devils - although she would have left after her first night if Graham hadn't shown up. Iris's story is a comedy of healing; Amanda's is a screwball comedy.

Repeated viewings of Nancy Meyers's Something's Gotta Give have given me some idea of what it must have been like to sit in Depression-era movie palaces and float away on Hollywood dreams. It isn't just the opulent housing and the great wardrobes. Ms Meyers is fantastically creative with the passage of time and the covering of distances. If she introduced a genii-loaded lamp into the action, her stories would not be any less improbable. But she knows that we're on to her, and she keeps us distracted us with treats. No filmmaker is as dead serious about light entertainment, and none makes it so seriously satisfying.

December 23, 2006

The Painted Veil

John Curran's The Painted Veil is a great big conventional movie about romance and reconciliation set against a dramatic background, and as such it will be dismissed by filmgoers who prefer edgier fare. Its story, from a novella by W S Maugham, is sheer opera: having discovered his wife's infidelity, a British MD serving as a laboratory scientist in Shanghai blackmails his wife into accompanying him into the heart of a rural cholera epidemic (the year is 1925). On her remote hillside, the wife grows up, volunteers at the orphanage, and eventually wins back her husband's love, but of course it is Too Late. The movie is shot with the cinematic equivalent of big Verdi arias, and anyone who likes grand old Hollywood dramas will fall in love with it. The sugarloaf mountains of the Guilin region of Guangxi Province provide China's most picturesque scenery. Diana Rigg, as a French nun, is almost as craggy and every bit as beautiful. Edward Norton is very fine as the cuckolded doctor; there are things in this film that the actor has not done before. Liev Schreiber is droll as a suave cad, and Toby Jones demonstrates that he can be terrific even when he's not impersonating Truman Capote. The movie belongs, ultimately, to Naomi Watts, and for the same reason that Up at the Villa belongs to Kristen Scott Thomas and Being Julia belongs to Annette Bening: Maugham wrote great women's stories. They're period pieces now, but they still work. They were notorious for their sexiness when they were new; now they're simply and easily adult. Ms Watts is, perhaps for the first time, wholly adult. She's young and foolish but she is not a girl. This is a movie for grownups.

Speaking of adult, I saw The Painted Veil at the Angelika. As I was walking back to the subway along Bleecker Street, I saw a grotesque advertisement on the side of a building. Between the cellphone and my palsied hand, I couldn't hope for a clear picture, but this is clear enough. The legend reads "Happy Holidays from Adult Swim." Those huge mouths, full of too many teeth, are fascinating and monstrous.


December 16, 2006

For Your Consideration

Not in the best of moods, I set out yesterday for the movies without being absolutely sure where I was going. It was ten o'clock. If I could find a cab, I'd cross town to see For Your Consideration, a film that Kathleen forbade me to see without her but which I wasn't willing to wait for DVD to see, at 10:30. It was playing across the street from here on Thursday, but then it disappeared (Friday marks the changing of the guard). If I couldn't find a taxi, then I'd see Borat, which I really don't want to see at all, at 10:10. If, thanks to looking for a taxi, I was too late for Borat, I'd go to Casino Royale at 10:15. I don't want to see Casino Royale in the theatre, either. Although I'm a big fan of Daniel Craig, I have no use whatever for James Bond.

These options simmered right up until ten past ten, when, at the corner of 86th and Third - right across the street from the AMC complex where Borat and Casino Royale were showing, I spotted a free cab. So I got to see For Your Consideration after all, at the AMC complex at Broadway and 84th.

Boy, did the critics screw up on this one! Lavishing mostly tepid reviews, they failed to see what I was in fact expecting, an even stronger distillation of the essence of parody that Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy have been producing in a remarkable string of films, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Every moment of For Your Consideration is electrically amusing. Filmmakers have been making fun of Hollywood for years, but never before, I think, has a movie focused, as this one does, on the eagerness with which Hollywood's victims surrender to its ministrations. Nobody fights back. Nobody goes home, worldly-wiser, in the way that Lynn Bracken returns to Arizona at the end of LA Confidential. All one can say of Marilyn Hack, the character at the center of For Your Consideration, is that it's a pity that she's still alive at the end.

Catherine O'Hara is beyond brilliant as Hack, so painfully good that she appears to have crucified her face for the sake of the story. It's the kind of story that Americans hate: crazed by the promise of fame, a more or less well-adjusted person goes off the rails. Hack is an instant-coffee version of Norma Desmond, and although Ms O'Hara is much funnier than Gloria Swanson, she is no less serious. In another totally remarkable performance, Parker Posey allows her face to be more conventionally lovely than it has ever been before - this is to say, more blandly beautiful. And then she lets us drink this face in as it drinks in the awareness that, in Hollywood, pretty faces are a dime a dozen. And, finally - because I can't praise everyone in the show; we'd be here all day - I want you to know that, if you think that you have seen Jennifer Coolidge do airhead to perfection before, you are mistaken. While I hope that Hollywood will eventually make it up to Ms Coolidge by letting her play the Nobel Prize-winning operator of a particle accelerator or, in the alternative, the editor of The New Yorker, I think that the bimbos that she has impersonated for Guest & Co are as delicious as a box of treats from the chocolatier, Belgique. And while we're talking about nailing roles for life, nobody, but nobody is a bigger asshole than the assholes that Fred Willard plays. His hairstyle, in For Your Consideration, deserves its own billing.

Do not miss this movie!

December 09, 2006

History Boys


As announced, I went to see History Boys yesterday. I saw a slightly later showing, though. Arriving at the M66 bus stop near Lexington Avenue, I saw that the block between Lex and Third was blocked off by construction. It was far too cold to hang around for the (unlikely) possibility of a bus, so I sped to Park, where I took the first cab I saw, even though it was going uptown - the wrong direction.

In the taxi, I called my friend Nom de Plume. She had a hard day in front of her, stuck at home waiting for gas and cable to be installed in her new-to-her Brooklyn apartment. When she answered the phone, though, it was with a joyous note that told me that the gas and cable people had come and gone. I offered to wait for the next showing of The History Boys, if she was still interested in seeing it. I would simply hang out at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble. It sounded like a plan.

I didn't even have to buy a book, because I was carrying Andrew Tobias's Grief. Up and up the escalators I went to the café. I'd have taken a snapshot of the interesting view, looking over the tops of Juilliard and Avery Fisher and up into a cold blue sky through which small white clouds were scudding in a southeasterly direction, but a photograph, even if I'd been able to take a decent one with my phone, would simply have shown the dirt on the windows. Isn't that interesting - the things that we overlook in real life but can't get beyond in a picture? It suggests that different areas of the brain are involved in the two kinds of viewing. Grief, by the way, is short but serious.

Eventually I was viewing The History Boys, which, as announced, I'm not going to write about until the DVD comes out. By then I hope to have a copy of the play as well. The two shows are amazingly different - amazingly, when you consider that the actors are the same. Richard Griffiths (Hector) and Jamie Parker (Scripps) are two of the actors whose presence I felt to be more vibrant onstage, whereas Dominic Cooper (Dakin) was incomparably more intense onscreen. Frances de la Tour (Mrs Lintott) and Clive Merrison (Headmaster) were interesting to see in close-up. I can't speak for Stephen Campbell Moore, because he was off the night that we saw the show, and Jeffrey Withers ably took the part of Irwin. I can, however, see that Mr Campbell Moore was born for the part, at least on film.

When it was over (when, oh when, will we able to listen to Rufus Wainwright singing "Bewitched" at home? - he made the Rodgers & Hart staple sound like something he'd written himself), Ms Nom and I headed to Fiorello's, where we talked the hours away and I limited myself, historically, to one martini and two glasses of pinot grigio.

Ordinarily, I would have come home via public transport. But the wine, if it didn't make me sleepy, inclined me to seek comfort, so I hopped into another taxi. The driver, sensing my impatience with traffic jams, suggested taking the Drive through Central Park, and that made for a pleasant ride, even if we did get stuck behind a parade of horse-drawn carriages at one point. Talking to my ostentatious bond trader friend as Fifth Avenue whizzed by through the bare trees made me feel very plush.

December 02, 2006

Flannel Pajamas

Jeff Lipsky's Flannel Pajamas is a study of the narrow but chaotic margin between self-realization and selfishness. The difference between the two can be just about impossible to discern, but in fact the first is ultra-conscious the second is, in good-hearted people at least, pretty dim. It's the pain that's carelessly, unconsciously inflicted that mortally wounds marriages.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is yet another fly-on-the-wall movie in which self-absorbed characters like Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) chatter away about nothing much. The details may be banal, but they're also crucial, just as they so often are in real life. In the relatively crowded opening scene, we meet Nicole's friend, Tess (Chelsea Altman), who waltzes into a diner with a man who is neither her husband nor her fiancé (!). Stuart (Justin Kirk), who is the other half of Nicole's blind date, disapproves instantly of Tess's laxity. He makes this clear when the two are finally alone. It ought to be a dispositive signal that the two strangers face an uphill battle if they continue the relationship. But Stuart and Nicole are really taken with each other, and naively imagine that that's good enough.

Flannel Pajamasfeatures a lot of nudity in the first half, which makes the point that Stuart and Nicole are sexually compatible. That's important, because it's ultimately not enough, and when the nudity stops we know that the relationship is in trouble. And the trouble starts almost the moment that Nicole and Stuart get married. Driving back to New York from their honeymoon, Stuart overrules Nicole's request that they stop at a farm stand, on the grounds that he faces an early morning. The exit passed, he turns to her inquisitively and asks if she really wanted to stop. When you get to be my age, you know where this sort of heedlessness is leading. To reduce the couple's problems to a nutshell, Stuart says that he wants to protect Nicole, but she's not in any particular danger and it soon emerges that he wants to be the only person in her life. As he tries to cut her off from Tess and from her family, he gets rigid about an agreement, made before the wedding, that they wait two years before trying to have a child. Nor will he let Nicole get a Jack Russell terrier - he hates dogs. Nicole, for her part, deals with Stuart's domination in increasingly passive-aggressive ways. She does not speak up for her needs, but she's eager to express her resentment.

Things are complicated by differing backgrounds. Stuart is Jewish, and Nicole's Catholic family is overtly anti-Semitic. (Her mother (Rebecca Schull) tells him in one shocking scene that she believes every negative stereotype about "the Jews.") Not particularly religious at the outset, Nicole takes up elaborate bedtime prayers as her comfort with Stuart frays.

If it were up to me, every young couple would have to see Flannel Pajamas, because it presents a comprehensive range of the problems that most marriages must resolve in order to succeed. Stuart and Nicole are good-hearted people with no unsavory habits. Stuart is upright without being prim, and Nicole is generous and supportive, at least at the start. They can be forgiven for thinking that great sex and good intentions are all it takes to make a relationship work, but their failure is an object lesson for real lovers to learn from. Any man who comes away from the film thinking that it's not particularly worth talking about ought to be written off the list of any independent woman, and any woman who defends Nicole one hundred percent is certain to cause the average sensual man a great deal of grief. Mr Lipsky pulls off the neat trick of providing his principal characters with highly-developed individuation while endowing each with the more characteristic weaknesses or his or her gender. Stuart and Nicole aren't like anybody else, but they're not unusual, either.

If Flannel Pajamas has a fault, I'd say that it's the story line that concerns Stuart's brilliant but troubled brother, Jordan (Jamie Harrold) . Jordan is very unusual, and he threatens to cloud the otherwise limpid narrative. His departure from the scene belongs in a tonally different movie. (I expect that Jordan embodies some undigested life experience of Mr Lipsky's.) If nothing else, though, Jordan's antics show how legato the rest of the film is.

I walked out of the Angelika into a day that, thanks to a freakish warm front, might have been a rainy afternoon in the early fall. It was extremely melancholy, and I felt uncomfortably vulnerable, as if my marriage, too, were in trouble. That's how powerful Flannel Pajamas is. It is so not "just a movie."

November 18, 2006

Little Children

Little Children, Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel (with help from the novelist), steeps its tale of suburbia in a dream-like calm. What might at first appear to be straightforward, naturalistic moviemaking is actually extremely artful. The vernacular settings conceal this somewhat, but the exquisite timing gives it away. Everything about this movie has been worked on until it is just right, and its faintly self-conscious assurance makes it almost frightening.

Like Alexander Payne's Election (another Perrotta title), Little Children is about a nice-looking town where things are not so nice - because they're human. Mr Perrotta is an artist of the small moral weakness, and he is seismically attuned to the stress of ennui that's unavoidable in any environment primarily designed to accommodate children. The little children of the title are not the central characters but the forces of gravity that bind the adults in place. Sexuality is scrubbed until it's almost something to which a child might be exposed, however fleetingly. Sexual deviance is the number-one horror.

There are two deviants in Little Children. One is a convicted felon, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), whose presence in the town alarms parents. In one electrically tense scene, Ronnie shows up at the town pool, and paddles about underwater with flippers and a scuba mask, checking out the kiddies' bottoms until the mother's recognize him and the police are summoned. Mr Field communicates first the man's prurience and then his disorientation, as if he has been unjustly accused of something. The film (which treats Ronnie somewhat more sympathetically than the novel) suggests that, indeed, this might be so, as we come to sympathize with him and his "mommie" (Phyllis Somerville) when their house is besieged by Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a troubled former cop. In his obsessive hounding of Ronnie, Larry is a bit of a deviant, too, although not in a sexual way.

The other sexual deviant is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet). A former graduate student who can't quite believe that she has sunk to suburban life as the wife of a successful branding executive (Gregg Edelmann) and mother of three year-old Lucy (Sadie Goldstein). Sarah lives in a distracted haze until her senses focus on Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home Dad - he's supposed to be studying for his third bar exam - whom the other moms in the playground call "The Prom King." One of them puts Sarah up to trying to extract a phone number from Brad, but once she and Brad are talking, Sarah has a better idea: she invites him to kiss her. This he very graciously does, sending the moms scurrying off with the children and marking Sarah as a pariah.

You might argue that, as it takes two to tango, Brad is just as deviant, but of course society does not regard men as deviants simply because they tumble into bed with attractive, willing women. (Sarah is not supposed to be very attractive, but Ms Winslet does what she can to comply.) Brad's infidelity to his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is dwarfed by his infidelity to the career that she has marked out for him. His nickname is all too apt: a former football star, he has somehow passed the stage of life when the joys of youth are claimable. His affair with Sarah is not a mature liaison but an attempt to reconnect with carefree adolescence, where all the consequences are distant. In the course of the story, Brad takes up football again, and, more recklessly, tries a few skateboard moves.

Sarah's passion for Brad, however, is very mature. Hers is a very fully awakened sensuality. This comes out in every sort of scene. At one point she accompanies a friend to a reading discussion group. The book of the week is Madame Bovary. Mary Ann (Mary B McCann), the leader of the playground moms and the only other young woman in the group, dismisses Flaubert's novel as the tale of a stupid slut. The other women try to introduce more nuanced views, but Mary Ann's morality of control works only in black and white. Finally, Sarah's sponsor turns to her. As Sarah defends the novel, her face begins to glow, and you know that talking about Emma's adulterous relationship with Rodolphe is making her feel the heat of her own with Brad. By the end, she is serenity itself - just as stupidly sure of a future with her lover as Emma - and Mary Ann's philistine comments no longer reach her. It is a love scene manqué.

(The book club scene would be a great place to begin the study of Mr Field's thoughtful filmmaking. He is very generous to the elderly ladies, and sensitive to the gradations of their empowerment as women. They coo appreciatively at Sarah, and you sense that she, and not the strident Mary Ann, would be welcome in the future. Behind all of this is a sharper, subtler point: these women are no longer charged with rearing little children. They get to be fully adult.)

Ronnie's story, such as it is, does really not intersect with Sarah's story until the end of the movie, but it suffices to charge hers with dread and isolation. There is an earlier, indirect contact, when the Pierces and the Adamsons get together for dinner, Sarah is deeply surprised to discover that Brad has met Ronnie - and not told her. As she exclaims, "You never told me!', Kathy's face, although quite out of focus in the background, visibly darks - and then the focus shifts, and you know that Kathy knows.

My advice, therefore, is to save Little Children for a time when you are both quiet and alert. It's too intelligent to be dozed through.

November 16, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Mark Forster's Stranger Than Fiction is an oddly delightful movie. What I mean by that is that I'm not going to recommend the movie to anybody who doesn't already intend to see it. Zack Helm's screenplay leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and any attempt at a synopsis is bound to make it seem inane. Stranger Than Fiction has to be seen to be felt. Its parts are much greater than its sum; for some viewers, this will make for disappointment. For anyone who can go along for the ride, willing to take whatever Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and, especially, Emma Thompson are giving out - that would be me - Stranger Than Fiction is going to be "oddly delightful."

The spirit of play is realized from the start in a stream of digital screens and figures that unfold and pivot with the live action. One, for example, enumerates the toothbrush strokes that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is obsessively counting. As we follow Harold through his ordinary day as an IRS auditor, these mercurial screens, totting up the number of steps Harold takes to cross the street and the average number of files that he gets through in a day, mock the regimentation of a life that could equally well seem soul-crushed. Harold's soul, however, is not crushed. It's just sleeping, and the movie is going to wake it up with a belt of Hollywood Existentialism: the meaning of life explored in preposterous situations. 

The fun is advanced a step further when we see that Harold can hear the voice-over that Emma Thompson has been delivering since the start, in a film so far largely without dialogue. I am almost certain that this joke is not entirely new, but it is taken very far here, and worked so deftly that we're willing to sidestep certain operational questions. If author Kay Eiffel (Ms Thompson) is, in effect, capturing the lives of living people and then, through the power of her fictions, sending them to untimely death in novels, then why is Harold the first to overhear her? At what point in her writing creative process does transcription become command? Geeks in the audience will zero in on her Selectric typewriter, because nothing is official, nothing "happens" until it has been typed onto the page by that machine. We could get very lost here in speculation, and forget that it's only a movie. In any case, when the voice-over starts talking about Harold's imminent demise, his irritation explodes into frantic self-preservation.

I did find myself wondering how on earth Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature, was going to help Harold track down the author of his impending doom. Hilbert tackles Harold's predicament as an engaging literary puzzle, blithely unconcerned by its life-and-death consequences. In the end, all of his detached fussing turns out to be unnecessary, because a clip of Kay Eiffel appears on the television in his office when Harold is there; he immediately identifies her voice, and tracking her down becomes a matter of unauthorized IRS file-searching. Presently Harold is in possession of the sketched-out manuscript.

The only unsatisfying aspect of Stranger Than Fiction - and this is going to sound more important than it is - is its love story, which neither Mr Ferrell nor Maggie Gyllenhaal can rescue from a somewhat stale predictability. Ms Gyllenhaall plays Ana Pascal, a bohemian baker who has deliberately withhold a portion of her taxes in protest. Ana is simply too sane and constructive to believe that such a ploy would accomplish anything, thereby exposing it as a plot device to bring Harold into her bakery for an audit. Kay Eiffel appears to have taken control of the story at this point, because Harold somewhat uncharacteristically - or not? - falls in love with Ana, in the teeth of her abusive contempt. (So much for screwball options.) It is all very unlikely, and not in the way that the voice-overs are unlikely. It was difficult to believe that the gorgeous Ana would be free to fall in love, much less that she would fall in love with the unprepossessing Harold. (The director misses no chance to show off the less-than-ideal arrangement of Mr Ferrell's features.) The actors throw themselves into romance with a gusto that, sadly, attests more to their professionalism than to anything else.

Actually, there was one thing about Stranger Than Fiction that's less satisfying than the love story, and that is Queen Latifah's evident boredom. I've only recently discovered Queen Latifah, and I think that she's a warm and lovely actor. But she's given nothing to work with here beyond a few straight lines. She plays Penny Escher, an "assistant" sent out by Eiffel's publisher to help her finish her blocked book (the one about Harold). She ends up being no more instrumental in solving Eiffel's problem than Hilbert is in solving Harold's, but Mr Hoffman has a lot to play with, and that keeps him lively. Poor Queen Latifah has nothing to do but look serious in a vaguely pained way. It's a waste.

These are afterthoughts. While the film was rolling, I was entertained and, from time to time, elated. Miss Thompson is fantastic as a writer whose block is crazing her. She's a beehive of irritable but not irritating tics, and she inhabits her very odd writing space with stunning authority. In two brilliantly contrasted scenes, Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce play very different mental health workers. Tony Hale is wonderfully nerdy as Dave, Harold's IRS colleague and eventual roommate. Will Ferrell plays his role straight, for the most part, and one of the best things about his performance is Harold's initial expression of mild outrage when he hears Kay Eiffel's voice. It's an Everyman look that signals a major violation of the Mind Your Own Business rule. Only later does this give way to frantic bewilderment. 

November 11, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Well, I did go to the movies yesterday. I saw fifteen minutes' worth of ads and trailers. Then, just as Stranger Than Fiction was about to start, the projector jammed, and the film melted in that horrible way, and nasty sounds filled the auditorium. After another fifteen minutes, we were all given passes. We could come back some other time.

Had the projector done its job without incident, I'd have booked the most active day of my New York life. At half-past twelve, or just before, I presented myself at Crawford Doyle books, where I had no trouble meeting up with Mr Waterhot, a fellow-blogger from Geneva, in town to see some operas. After a nice lunch at Demarchelier, we spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking in the special exhibitions ("Ambroise Vollard," "Americans in Paris," "New Orleans After the Flood") before sipping Chardonnay in the American Court. Shortly before six, I bundled us into a taxi, ran to the apartment for a pit stop, found another taxi, and got my delightful friend to his hotel in time - just, I should think; I am in some anxiety about possibly having held him up - to dress for an evening at the other Metropolitan, where he was to see Il barbiere di Siviglia. I myself raced over to Le Rivage, the French restaurant in Restaurant Row, to swallow a sole meunière and have some pork pâté wrapped up for Kathleen to gobble after Losing Louie, the comedy at MTC's Biltmore Theatre. This she did at the Starbucks next door to the theatre after the show. We had plenty of time to mosey down to 44th Street, where we turned right and found ourselves at Birdland, for the Nth Annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival's 11 PM set.

It was a great day. I had that "I'm alive!" feeling every minute.

November 04, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is a difficult movie to write about, because its effects are spoiled by memory. Although it is a treat to watch, it is not satisfying to think back upon. That, at least, is my first impression. I'll give the film another chance when it comes out on DVD.

The more I know about the last notable queen of France - and there weren't very any, overall - the more convinced I am that her story is tragic, or would be if I could be sure that it ever dawned on her that she might have done things a little differently. No one could have expected a playful teenager to inhabit the burdensome role that her marriage obliged her to wear, and Marie Antoinette had the added burden of being Austrian. In the days of Louis XIV, that would not have done her any harm. But French alliances had shifted since then, and the populace was accustomed to reviling Austrians as a matter of course by 1770, the year of the young Hapsburg's arrival. If the people understood anything about the revival of cordial relations with the Empire, they chalked it up to the machinations of Mme de Pompadour (now dead). That association didn't help Marie Antoinette, either.

If Marie Antoinette had taken after the last queen, her husband's grandmother, Maria Leszczyńska - a pious but not stupid woman who held on to her dignity throughout the the infidelities of Louis XV - French history might have taken a very different turn. But Marie Antoinette's character was just the opposite. She wasn't stupid, but she was prone to boredom, and not inclined to take pains (except with games). She found the liturgical character of life at Versailles oppressive, instead of empowering, as a religious woman might have done. If she settled down a bit once her children arrived, she did not rise to the demands of being Queen of France until it was too late.

All of this is hinted at in Marie Antoinette, and I would expect viewers who are already familiar with the history of France at that time to indulge the movie's wild anachronisms. When Kirsten Dunst repeatedly says "wow" about a swatch of fabric, the film is sassing you, the informed member of the audience, in a way that nicely parallels the historic queen's sassing of her courtiers. Jason Schwartzman's impersonation of Louis XVI is an extremely quiet, because enormously compressed, joke; Mr Schwartzman hangs at the point of winking at the audience throughout every line, but never yields to the impulse, and this, of all things, gives his Louis an unlikely majesty - the majesty of resisted hilarity. In any case, stickling at the film because of its screenplay's many liberties with fact and manner will probably brand you as a killjoy.

And yet the film's complete unwillingness to convey a sense of the manners of the times even as it orgiastically revels in the period's decorative luxuriousness is problematic, at least for me. Michael Smith has argued, with great force, that Marie Antoinette is not really about Marie Antoinette. What gets in the way of my finding solution in this line of thinking is the fact that the film is so totally about Marie Antoinette's stuff. It is also not unaware that, for this particular woman, a preoccupation with stuff turned out to be life-threatening - even if she did go with the small trees. What's missing is not so much the historical reality of Marie Antoinette's life as the very physical ballet of courtly life that would animate the clothes as they were meant to be worn. The queen was notorious for her pursuit of carefree ways, but her starting point was considerably more restrained than Ms Dunst's somewhat abandoned American artlessness.

In the end, then, after the screen went dark and the opulence, both that of the château and that of Ms Coppola's filmmaking, vanished without a trace, it became hard for me to resist the impression that Marie Antoinette had been enacted by gloriously costumed but randomly chosen crash dummies. It is, as I say, a treat to watch, and sometimes very funny. Quite frequently, it exhibits the exuberance of high school on an unlimited budget. Its disregard for verisimilitude is archly transgressive. I agree with Michael Smith that Marie Antoinette wants us to think about things. In the end, I can praise it as a fantasia on historical themes. But I think that I'll always be somewhat impatient with its lack of life-giving self-discipline.

October 28, 2006

Running With Scissors

Yesterday, I had a choice to make - at the last minute. Both movies were starting at the same theatre (the Kips Bay 15) and at the same time (eleven in the morning). Across Second Avenue from the theatre, I called my old friend for advice. Marie Antoinette or Running With Scissors? He confirmed my predilection. Running With Scissors. Let's face it: one of the two films starred Annette Bening. What's to decide? I'm a huge fan of Kirsten Dunst in The Cat's Meow, but, in the end, Ms Bening trumps Versailles.

I'll cut to the chase: I liked Running With Scissors so much that I went straight to Barnes & Noble to buy the book. I noted all of the shortcomings that the critics have pointed out, but I still loved the movie. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, it is obviously a film that will many viewers will loathe. When you play with (a) narrative conventions and (b) familial psychopathology at the same time, you are inevitably going to trample a few toes. And Ryan Murphy, with only one prior feature under his belt, still has a few things to learn. But the power of Augusten Burroughs's story guarantees a funny movie. When you have a sweet gay kid who yearns for a totally normal life but who is thrust into a situation in which being gay is probably the most normal thing going on at the moment, it's going to be funny no matter how much heartbreak there is. At the end of an early chapter in the book, Mr Burroughs expresses the hopes that he had when his parents got through their awful divorce and his mother took an apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts: "Life would be fabric-softener, tuna-salad-on-white, PTA-meeting normal."


The movie gets away with murder because it partakes of the story's chaos. Little Augusten (James Cross) is always being told that he must go to school more often, but there is never any disciplinary follow-up. This is because there are no genuine adults in his life. His father (Alec Baldwin) is a high-functioning alcoholic, his mother (Ms Bening) is a demented narcissist, and his therapist, Dr Finch (Brian Cox), is an opportunistic con man. When Finch adopts Augusten (for the child support, really), it is not long before the boy loses his virginity to/is raped by a thirty-something "half-brother" (Joseph Fiennes) who is not only gay but schizophrenic as well. Other inmates of the Finch household include Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, in one of the most wonderful performances that she has given), the sort-of mom, and her daughters, prim Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and lubricious Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). The house itself is something of a character: I've never seen a more intractable mess that the one in the Finch's kitchen. Even so, Augusten would rather hang out at the Finches' pink junkyard than go to school. At the end, about to leave for New York, with no money and no education and not even a cosmetology license, he says, "It could be worse. I could be going to a prom."

The miracle of Annette Bening's extraordinarily generous performance is that she makes you come to share Augusten Burroughs's horror of his mother's astronomical self-absorption. You not identify with this woman. One other note: if nine year-old Jack Kaeding, who plays the young Augusten, keeps those huge blue eyes of his through puberty, he's going to be a big star himself in about ten years.

October 21, 2006

The Departed

The Departed is not a film about which one can say very much in advance without risking spoilers. You might say that it lacks an expository opening; the wheels of inexorable clash are grinding from the very beginning. In no time at all, a gang leader has a mole working for him in the State Police, while the State Police have planted a mole in his operation. Both moles are very smart young men, and one of them is also ruthlessly determined to survive.

There is a lot of blood and gunfire, with double-crossing picking up whenever guns are holstered. There are some anxiously beautiful scenes with a character played by Vera Farmiga, whose career ought to get a nice boost - although she's not called upon for anything like the extremity of Running Scared. Jack Nicholson is blatantly unattractive and convincingly deadly. As he did in Syriana, Matt Damon packs his physical intensity into a series of sharp suits; when he's dressed for the weekend, his coiled menace vanishes. Leonardo di Caprio has certainly grown up! He delivers his lines with total authority. Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Ray Winstone enrich the proceedings. Martin Scorsese knows exactly what he is doing and how to do it. His is the cinema of knowing what to shoot - where the personal drama that will pre-empt your nervous system lies - and it wastes no time on incidentals. As a result, The Departed feels taut even though it last for nearly two and a half hours.

Prepare to stagger out of the theatre. Remember what it was like, after Goodfellas?

October 18, 2006

The Queen

The other day, I went to see The Queen. This is a movie that everyone expected me to rush to see, but, perhaps for that very reason, I was dragging my feet. I'd concocted a perfectly good excuse - prophetic, really. "I'm going to like it so much that I'll want to watch it again and again, right away." True. I can't wait for the "window" - the gap between the release of films in theatres and their release on DVD - to close. But really, if I didn't rush to see The Queen the minute it came out, that was only because there were good movies opening in my neighborhood, where The Queen isn't showing.

I went the other day because an old friend wanted to see it a second time, and I owed him big-time for having brought a copy of Les Bienveillantes back from Paris, sparing me oodles of shipping charges and's somewhat elevated price. We went to the first showing, at 11:20, and had lunch afterward. That was my treat, too.

Reviews of The Queen seem to me to have taken a strongly anti-monarchical edge, seeing the film as an argument in favor of abolition. Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II, never much of a fan of Diana Spencer to begin with, wants to regard the princess's death as a private matter. In her view - correctly, but only in the worst sense - Diana was no longer a member of the royal family at the time of her death; ergo, no fuss. Elizabeth is convinced that seclusion at Balmoral is best for her grandsons, and in this she is backed up by her dimwitted husband and her reactionary mother. It takes all of newly-elected Tony Blair's tact (Michael Sheen) to order her to come to London and make contact with Diana's mourners. For the first half of the film, Blair rolls his eyes and asks, rhetorically, how he can save "these people" from themselves.

He winds up a staunch admirer and a defender of the Queen. He talks to his entourage about her stoicism, and about the diligence with which she has done her job for nearly fifty years. What he does not express is any regret that the Queen's model - respectable dependability - has been junked in favor of Diana's - charming hedonism. I do not suppose that the princess was a tireless visitor of hospitals only because she knew that grim settings would transform her into a radiant, healing angel. Whatever one's motivation, it is always good to visit the sick. As a woman, however, Diana appears to have been little more than a classier Paris Hilton, living her life on remote beaches and private jets when she wasn't at Kensington Palace. Whatever gave anyone the idea that she was a "people's princess"? She was a celebrity who proved that she was not up to the job of princess, which, in England at least, is a matter of grinning and bearing.

What the outpouring of "grief" that flooded London during that week in 1997 speaks to me about is resentment. People whom Diana wouldn't have looked at in private, much less spoken to, could seize her extinguished life as an icon for the ordinary, and then project their own self-pity as a simulacrum of sorrow. Looking at the televised throngs that are clipped into The Queen, I was seized by a horror of the mob, stupid as a cow and dangerous as a bull. But I was not surprised when Her Majesty shows up at last and turns the tears into smiles.

The Queen is a smart, sophisticated movie that is stuffed with great performances and food for thought alike. It is greatly enlivened by Alexandre Desplat's formidable sound track.

October 07, 2006

The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep poses a conundrum before the reels begin turning. Is La Science des Rêves the correct title? The French more accurately describes a film that is swallowed up by the surrealism of dreams. The entire story takes place in Paris (Paris, France). The bulk of the dialogue, however, is conducted in English, with lots of French on the side and a bit of Spanish. Writing in The Onion, Tasha Robinson calls it an "indie version of Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, albeit with none of the star power, a quarter of the budget, half the angst, and twice the charm."

What it's called, this is not a picture for people who want a strong story, or who are uncomfortable with the failure or the refusal to resolve problems. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) loves his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but Stéphanie, although she likes Stéphane, doesn't love him. Period. Stéphane copes with rejection by dreaming richly. Some of his dreams are dream-like, set forth with gross implausibility (My favorite just might be the little car, fashioned of corrugated cardboard, with which Stéphane tries to flee the police). Others are entirely naturalistic, belied only by the presence of Stéphane's father, whose death before the beginning of the story seems to have triggered some sort of upset in the young man's mind. By the movie's end, Stéphane has passed into a narcoleptic state that makes it impossible to mark the crossing from wakeful reality into dreamland. This will irritate viewers who need to know what's "really" going on, as well as people who don't believe that dreams are real.

Surrealism is essentially a comic mode: you can be horrified that things are not what they appear to be, but it's much easier just to laugh. Mr Gondry is a genius when it comes to laughter-inducing imagery. His good-natured manner encouraged me to sit back and let him do whatever he was going to do, without complaining. In this way, the film itself became a dream. Not somebody else's dream but my dream. When water poured from a faucet in tiny sheets of cellophane, I had the strangest feeling of needing to wake up, and when an upright piano lurched down several flights of a spiral staircase with an aplomb that signaled Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box, I bolted upright in my seat as though I'd dozed off.

The Science of Sleep is a very melancholy movie, but I was never three minutes away from a good laugh. Mr García Bernal commands an immense dramatic ranger, and throws his character into reckless situations with what looks like but surely can't be total abandon. He is boyish here in a way that he was not in La mala educacíon. (In the earlier movie, there is something fraudulent about his ingenuousness, and for a very good reason.) He also seems destined to play the roles of troubled men - men who want to curl up beneath a comforter in a fetal position. I hope that he'll be given lots of room in which to stretch. Ms Gainsbourg's real-life Stéphanie - if we can used that term at all - is calm and gentle, but when Stéphanie appears in one of Stéphane's dreams, she's ready to do anything. It would be possible to see her part here as that of a sorceress. I had read that she sounds just like her mother (Jane Birkin) when she speaks English, but I was surprised to discover that this is true. Alain Chabat, Aurélia Petit, Sacha Bourdo and Emma de Caunes do fine work in the supporting cast, but, perhaps because Mr Gondry is so successful at creating a dream world, their characters never build up any heft. Miou-Miou is great, too, but, born in 1950, she has definitely outgrown her stage name.

While aware that there are many things in The Science of Sleep that might set viewers against it - particularly if they're being forced to sit through it by the fan-cy of a near and dear person - I believe that this movie is a reliable test of a moviegoer's ability to surrender to the dreamlike in any film.

September 30, 2006

The Guardian

Let's have no groaning: I went to see Andrew Davis's latest picture, The Guardian, yesterday, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. The beginning and the end are terrifying, with frantic scenes of mayday ("m'aidez!") that involve ships foundering in gigantic swells while helicopters hover overhead. Quite stomach-turning. In between the turbulent moments lies a very fine mentoring story, in which a bruised old champion tames and befriends a cocky young winner.

The Guardian is about a Coast Guard "swimmer" - someone who gets dropped from a helicopter to play lifeguard in rough seas. In this case, the Bering Sea. Stationed on Kodiak Island, Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) hits a very rough patch, and is transferred, temporarily, to a sunnier venue where he is assigned to train an incoming class of swimmers. of which the star is Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher - who still doesn't look old enough to have been married to Demi Moore for longer than a minute, maybe). Because Jake is full of himself and not a team player, it takes no time at all for him and Randall to get some really irritated alpha-male static buzzing. The strange thing is that this is not irritating. And the reason for that, I think, is that this is, after all, the Coast Guard, where the idea is to save lives, not to extinguish them. (The Guardian demonstrates that the Coast Guard ought to be a haven for jocky pacifists - but I guess that they're never in great supply.) The opening scenes of the movie have made it clear that Jake has really got to learn what Randall has to teach him in order to be an effective swimmer, and the much of the interest lies in Kevin Costner's nuanced portrayal of a teacher struggling to find a way to make contact with the boy.

Although long, The Guardian didn't strike me as having any longueurs. Sela Ward, Melissa Sagemiller, Bonnie Bramlet, Clancy Brown, Neal McDonough, and John Heard provide an intelligent and engaged supporting cast. Kevin Geraghty is particularly fine as a member of the class who has to overcome his tendency to panic when attacked by a panicking victim.

Thanks to Mr Davis's eloquent framing scenes, the sparkling swimming pools used in the training course never overwrite our recollection of the vast and violent opacity of the sea. 

September 23, 2006

Friday Ramble: Keeping Mum and the Met

Arriving at the Beekman with time to spare, I discovered that I didn't have my wallet. I was fairly certain that I'd left it at home. I'd been very upset about something on my way out, and I'd evaded the usual protocols that assure that I go out into the big city well equipped. If I didn't carry my Metrocard separately, I lamented, then this wouldn't have happened. As usual, I had no small change or money of any kind in my pockets. So I walked across 67th Street to First Avenue, caught a bus, got off at 86th Street, returned to the apartment, found my wallet right where it ought to be (when I'm at home, that is), went back downstairs and caught a taxi at the bottom of the driveway. There were a few bottlenecks on Second Avenue, but I got into the Beekman thirty-five minutes after I'd made my unpleasant discovery. I did not disabuse the guy in the booth who sold me a seniors ticket.

So it will be a little while before I find out how much of Niall Johnson's Keeping Mum I missed.

Continue reading about my Friday ramble at Portico.

September 16, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Lots of critics don't like The Black Dahlia, but I was hooked. I liked the movie for many of the reasons that the critics didn't. I knew that it was going to be somewhat hieratic: The Untouchables, a De Palma film that I've come to treasure (even if I do save it for special occasions), taught me that there would always be something, I don't know, South American about these movies. Hilary Swank's magnificent performance is characteristic: she's not only acting her part, but acting in it. The same is true of Scarlett Johansson, who channels Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place and makes something new out of it. Aaron Eckhart is perfect - how can anybody think otherwise - and as for Josh Hartnett, I see what the complaints are about; I just don't happen to share them. He's sweet and seems always about to weep, which is just what this study in disillusionment needs. But he's not very, I don't know, South American.

I can't wait to own the DVD of The Black Dahlia. I am going to watch it over and over until ieither it makes sense (Chinatown, LA Confidential) or making sense doesn't matter (The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet). One way or the other, I am going to get to know and love it. That I had a hard time following the dialogue at the beginning, that the loose ends tied up at the end seemed to make more knots than there was room for - I don't go to pictures like The Black Dahlia expecting to figure them out at the first go. I don't want to figure them out the first time! I want to be scared.

And Dahlia provided plenty of scares. The Hollywoodland scene (no relation to Hollywoodland) had me at the edge of my seat, hands at the ready to cover my eyes. And lets not overlook Fiona Shaw, who is very, I don't know, South American. Wow, does she ever chew up the scenery! Mark Isham's score is also creepily effective, an a nice tribute to Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the scores of both of the "makes sense" movies that I bracketed.

Complaining about The Black Dahlia, New Yorker critic David Denby writes,

A documentary on this subject, from 2004, was called "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Yes, and plays itself with decreasing vitality. Imitation and pastiche come easily to a photographic medium, and films set in Los Angeles are often garlanded with stylistic flourishes from earlier LA movies. Brian De Palma's period re-creation, The Black Dahlia, suffers from the rampant allusiveness. The picture is a kind of fattened goose that's been stuffed with goose-live pâté. It's overrich and fundamentally unsatisfying.

I couldn't agree with this paragraph less - it will be a touchstone of Mr Denby's somewhat dyspeptic criticism for me from now on. I begin to wonder if the critic knows what the movies' power is all about. I, for one, would celebrate the "rampant allusiveness," not regret it. And as for the culinary metaphor (a true boo-boo), the minute we have to start counting our cholesterol at the movies is the minute I give up.

September 09, 2006


Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland is a beautiful movie. You may not think that George Reeves, the television Superman, is worth all the attention, but that's really neither here nor there. Since when was personal worthiness or importance a criterion for film subjects? It's best just to put Reeves out of your mind, to the extent that that's possible, because Ben Affleck's portrayal suggests a richer, more complex man than the one that I remember from the TV show. (Given his recent history, Mr Affleck's performance might be seen, touchingly, as somewhat autobiographical.) It is certainly the best work that this actor has ever done. He reminds us that the world is full of of strong, intelligent people who nonetheless don't have what it takes to be a star. And he goes about it with the star power of a dazzling smile. 

The ambiguity of Reeves's character - mirrored by questions about his death - is what makes Hollywoodland interesting. Diane Lane plays her first over-forty role with immense panache (and a marvelous old Hollywood accent that will have moviegoers remembering Sunset Boulevard), but hers is not only a supporting role but also that of an ultimately unsympathetic character. Adrian Brody's nervy, anti-bourgeois detective is nothing new for him. And Bob Hoskins has long since taken up residence in the zone of Can Do No Wrong. These star turns amplify the impact of a film about stardom. It's as if Diane Lane were playing the part of that immortal screen goddess (which she is), Diane Lane. But Hollywoodland would be nothing but star turns if it were not for the magic that Ben Affleck brings to his role. The last shot of him - a sidelong glance - would be right at home in the scariest Stephen King movie.

Diane Lane does look great. For an actor who started out as a beautiful child, in A Little Romance - she was thirteen or so - Ms Lane is ageing very well. I hope that she'll get lots of smart parts from now on; she's so much more than a pretty face.

Chinatown, Mommie Dearest, LA Confidential, and now Hollywoodland all make me glad that I don't live in Southern California. It is a landscape that seems to rot souls.

August 19, 2006

Half Nelson

Of Half Nelson, I can't think of much to say. The film was frightening to watch because its central figure, Dan Dunn, a bright and engaging middle school teacher who also happens to be a drug addict, looked like a big mess about to go into terminal mode. It was surprising that Ryan Gosling made his character more appealing as the film went on, not less. Instead of just looking at him, reprovingly, I began to see the waste land that confronted him. The film left Dan's dependency problems unresolved, although the next step would appear to be a return to rehab.

Dan seemed, at the end, to be accepting the help of one of his students, Drey, played magnetically by Shareeka Epps. But what this help might amount to was anything but clear. Drey has a gritty resolve that one expects will keep her out of trouble, and yet she serves Frank (Anthony Mackie), a drug dealer for whom her brother took a rap, as a mule. Dan vehemently opposes Drey's "association" with Frank, but calling-the-kettle-black problems cloud his message.

(Where was this film shot? That bothered me a lot. Parts of it looked as urban as Brooklyn, but many locations were far more exurban. Maybe it's just that I don't know Queens very well.)

Director Ryan Fleck wrote the screenplay with Anna Boden. Andrij Parekh's jittery cinematography suits the film well, but hardly makes it pleasurable to watch.

August 09, 2006

Talladega Nights, Scoop

There were times when I wondered just what I was doing, watching Adam McKay's Will Ferrell picture Talladega Nights. Cars would be whizzing by on the track, and banks of spectators would rise from their seats as one. Not my sort of thing at all. It is not possible to watch this film with an entirely ironic detachment; it's far too well-made. So if you, like me, look down your long nose at NASCAR - and, oh, boy, do I ever - then prepare for a few discomfiting moments of involuntary involvement in all the excitement.

Talladega Nights lampoons the suburban American life cycle, one in which hollow ostentation supplies a chronic hum that's interrupted from time to time by the excitement of Big Games. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine a nation more decadent, more empty-headed and aimless, than the American South portrayed here. Mediocrity is the highest level of intellectual acuity on offer, and it is a long reach from most of the principal characters. The two principals, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) and Cal Naughton, Jr (John C Reilly) don't look bright enough to operate a can opener, and both seem destined to demonstrate that a little knowledge can be very dangerous indeed. Playing clueless guys comes easily to both actors, and neither winks once. Into their adversary-less Eden slithers a French snake, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). A gay French snake, who reads L'Étranger while racing. Mr Baron Cohen's French accent is wonderfully off, something worthy of the Indianapolis Academy of the French Accent.* Jane Lynch and Leslie Bibb, as Ricky Bobby's mother and (first) wife respectively, do a fine job of making the men look even dumber than they are.

But at a certain point - for me, it was when the tumbling, burning car crashes near the end were interrupted for an Applebee's commercial - one must throw up one's hands and declare that a people that spends its free time watching auto races ought not to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

With Scoop, Woody Allen continues the intriguing trend that he began in his last picture, Match Point. Match Point is a distillation of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The story is radically streamlined and sexed-up. But you're convinced that, like Judah Rosenthal in the earlier picture, Chris Wilton is going to get away with murder, and indeed he does. In Scoop, the antecedent is Manhattan Murder Mystery, and this time you know that the improbable suspect will turn out to be the bad guy. It's all rather reminiscent of the way in which Ariosto's tales were continually tweaked to provide opera libretti in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Only in this case the remakes are the work of the originator. I don't think that there's ever been anything like it, with the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. The result is a delight, and quite a bit funnier than Manhattan Murder Mystery. Mr Allen has given himself some marvelous business to do as a vaudevillian magician who has to hobnob with the English country-house set. Scarlett Johansson makes herself look slightly silly every so often, with girl-sleuth frowns that show a comic potential that I should like to see tapped more widely. Hugh Jackman is suave and gorgeous as the English patrician who shrugs off his privileges with winning charm - but who, all the same, never lets you forget that he's got them. And Ian McShane plays a somewhat Peter Falk-like deceased journalist with great panache. (Mr McShane's character's plotlines are right out of Oedipus Wrecks.) Showing great wisdom and restraint, Mr Allen presents his character as Miss Johansson's father, not her boyfriend. At the film's end, all Sondra Pransky has is the likelihood of a journalism award.

* It's a little disheartening to find that, at least as of this writing, the Daily Blague is the first IAFA link at Google. Doesn't anybody care anymore about the National Lampoon Radio Hour? It was ten times funnier than SNL ever was - well, most of the time.

July 29, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is the second film that I've seen this year in which middle class struggles and aspirations are satirized - but satirized almost lovingly. "Look what jerks we are," these films say - the other, of course, is American Dreamz - "and it's very funny, but do you think we could do a little better?" Little Miss Sunshine, furthermore, rather stubbornly refuses to solve most of the problems that come up in the course of the movie, suggesting an alternative to the American dream that life is a mess that can be cleaned up. For these reasons, I don't expect it to be the big hit that critics would like it to be.

The amazing thing about the movie is how quickly and surely it establishes the mood of tract-house dinge. When Dwayne (Paul Dano) hands a note to his uncle (Steve Carrell), "Welcome to hell" (Dwayne has given up speaking for the time being), the audience is on the welcoming committee. The preceding family dinner - a homemade salad with takeout fried chicken and corn, Sprite, and frozen pops - has been so exquisitely choreographed that you know what this particular hell is all about: stressed disorder. The Hoover family gets by on sheer inertia.

The immediate cause of the family's dysfunction is Richard (Greg Kinnear), a would-be motivational speaker with hopes for a book deal that you know are doomed from the despair with which he addresses his cell phone. Richard believes in nine steps to winning, and is almost monstrously upbeat. He talks to his wife, Sheryl (Toni Colette), and children, Dwayne and Olive (Abigail Breslin), as if they were clients, but he speaks his cant in the tones of a discouraging scold. Sheryl seems a good sort, overworked at whatever she does (I was never clear on this) and squeezed by her housewifely duties. Richard's father (Alan Arkin) lives with the Hoovers - because he's been thrown out of his retirement home, for snorting heroin among other things. (It's a habit that he hasn't kicked.) When the story begins, Sheryl is saddled with responsibility for her brother, a gay professor, once the leading American Proust scholar, whose life self-destructed when a grad student with whom he fell in love fell in love with the second-best Proust scholar. All the performances are top-notch, but I have to single out Mr Carrell for a truly extraordinary job. He smolders with repressed fury - actually, "smoldering" suggests some sort of movement, but Mr Carrell is as still as a statue - but never leaves comedy territory. He is the tacit conscience of Little Miss Sunshine. As the minor disasters pile up around him, you can feel his incredulity. How on earth did we make this mess?

The story-line is simplicity itself. When they learn that Olive has become, by default, a contestant in a juvenile beauty pageant, the Hoovers decide to take a family drive, from their home in Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in California, in a Volkswagen bus. The bus looks fairly recent, but it's yet another determining signal to the audience: there will be a need for repairs. Most of the movie is devoted to the drive up Calvary. But the last twenty minutes or so, set at the beauty pageant - you can't believe that the Hoovers made it - are thoroughly redemptive. The other contestants are ghastly little jezebels who flaunt a veiled but wholly inappropriate sexuality. Olive's act, which perhaps her parents were unwise to let her learn from and work on with her grandfather, speaks truth to decadence. It is very exhilarating for a minute or two, and then it is mortifying, absolutely mortifying. (I was embarrassed for the actors, whom I imagined asking themselves how they'd ever been witless enough to sign on for the project.) The directors have a perfect little ending in store, however, and the movie definitely ends "too soon." You want a little more, if only of Steve Carrell.

Three other performances must be hailed: Beth Grant as the harridan pageant director (the sort of role that she's all too good in), Robert O'Connor as the scary pageant MC (he made me feel that I was in one of those fiercely grinning horror movies), and Paula Newsome as a bereavement counselor (don't ask). Now that I look more closely, I can say that Mary Lynn Rajskub, who was so good in Firewall, is very good in a tiny part.

Little Miss Sunshine is an elegant movie about extremes of inelegance. I hope you won't miss it.

July 22, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Yesterday, I saw My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I had a ball, but, for once, I more or less agree with Times film critic Manohla Dargis.

How hard and often you laugh will probably hinge on a host of other variables, like your appreciation for a cast that includes Eddie Izzard as the villainous Professor Bedlam, as well as your tolerance for junky-looking cinematography and Mr. Reitman’s cheerfully slapdash direction.

I didn't think that the cinematography was all that bad; I thought it was absolutely standard. Uma Thurman certainly looked great. She looked a lot of things, actually; much of the interest of the film lies in her Protean visage, which can pass from "serene goddess" to "Elaine May neurotic" in the blink of an eye. It's this unpredictability, in fact, that prompts your back brain to believe that her Jenny Johnson really is endowed with G Girl powers.

Actually, all of the interest of this picture lies in its cast. Without them, its many funny bits would be annoying. As in The Lake House, we're served material that would be inedibly stale if gifted, intelligent actors weren't fully inhabiting their parts. Just as Sandra Bullock' ability to sigh with an earnestness that makes questioning the physics of a time-traveling correspondence seem hugely beside the point is absolutely essential to keep that very point out of the film's way, so it is with Uma Thurman's busy face. My Super Ex-Girlfriend may not be Ms Thurman's most important film, but even Shakespeare wouldn't give her a more comprehensive chance to show off her chops. She is helped (as Ms Bullock is helped by her leading man) by Luke Wilson's firm inhabitation of his stock persona, the slightly-above-average nice-guy-but-still-a-guy. Add a group of committed supporting actors - Anna Faris, Rainn Wilson, and Eddie Izzard (and let's not forget Wanda Sykes!) - and you've got an ensemble that only a truly botched screenplay could smother. Even Teddy Castelucci's deliriously bombastic score, which seems to have been written for some other kind of movie, can't spoil the fun.

Trust me when I say that questions raised by the trailer are all quite neatly, even ingeniously solved. I don't think you'll see the solution coming, but if you do, you'll just be more relaxed about enjoying the show. After all, what we have here is a heroine, or perhaps a "heroine," who confesses that it was because she "knew" that her boyfriend would come back to her that she didn't kill him. Sounds like something a spider might say - at least until you remember the things that she did do to him. Are men right to fear strong and capable women? Are superpowers unsuited to volatile female nature? (Ask that question in the wrong bar, and you'll get your clock cleaned.) Let's just say that My Super Ex-Girlfriend gives a delightful new twist to the meaning of "left holding the bag."

Visually, My Super Ex-Girlfriend behaves like a stretch limo of prom-goers in from Merrick, Long Island, for the night. It cannot get enough of Manhattan. This is where Mr Castelucci's music is particularly fatuous: the producers seem to be glorying in the city not as it exists but as something that they thought up all by themselves. New York! New York! The movie could have taken place anywhere, but recent evidence suggests that Chicago is reserved for utterly realistic romances, while, in LA, nobody ever really connects. San Francisco's film commission requires car chases, and if you haven't got an ethnic-conflict angle you won't be welcome in Boston. And, as The Wedding Crashers showed once and for all, Washington is a party town. I'm convinced that most Americans don't believe that New York City really exists, even when they're crossing Times Square after dark or sagging on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That unbelievable city has never been more adoringly captured on film. All it needs is Tinkerbelle. Come to think of it, Ms Thurman does a pretty good job of updating the Tinkerbelle concept.

July 15, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

It was a difficult choice. A Scanner Darkly and You, Me and Dupree were showing in the neighborhood. So is Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, but I can't imagine sitting through that in a theatre. Sitting through Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly was pretty trying as it was, at least during the second fifteen minutes. The film, which was shot as live action and then run through a rotoscope to give it an animated look, does a very good job of simulating the pleasures of a moderately-bad hangover. Angst and remorse pour off the screen. We're in the land of Philip K Dick, one of Southern California's most chronic malfunctioners. The 1977 novel on which the film is based must be a joy to read. Not.

It's the rotoscoping that makes A Scanner Darkly so powerfully uncomfortable. It's obvious that there's a live-action film, with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson and (I think) Winona Ryder really going through the moves, somewhere beneath the impasto. The sketchiness of animation - the huge reduction in visual detail - very effectively turns the original footage into something impossibly dreamlike. Technically, A Scanner Darkly is the most brilliant movie about Californian anomie ever made. Which is why you may want to think twice before running out to see it.

For an excellent discussion of A Scanner Darkly, visit CultureSpace.

July 08, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

Kathleen asked me to wait to see The Devil Wears Prada until she could see it, too, but given my busy days lately - Thursday was the only day in the week that went at all normally - there was no sacrifice in the postponement. We saw Devil on Friday at the unearthly hour of ten o'clock. That there was even a nine o'clock showing is a testament to New Yorkers' passionate devotion either to celebrity tell-alls with a fashionista accent or to Meryl Streep, or to both. Aline Brosh McKenna's screenplay and Peter Frankel's direction have transformed what I understand is a one-dimensional piece of pulpy chick lit into a glamorous dream of New York - and what are the movies for, if not glamorous dreams of New York? So effective was The Devil Wears Prada that I was embarrassed to walk out of the theatre in my madras shirt and shorts. I wouldn't have been welcome in any of the movie's more exalted precincts.

Everybody says that Meryl Streep walks away with the movie, but that's not true. It would be better to say that she presides, in the manner of a Delphic oracle, over the growth and development of Anne Hathaway's character, Andy Sachs. Ms Hathaway makes hay out of Andy's half-hearted experiment in being a player while retaining core values. She's very good at showing how falling to a minor temptation can break the fall to a greater one, and her redemption is plausible precisely because it's a return to good old habits of mind. The tragedy, such as it is, is Miranda Priestly's (Ms Streep): worse than her future of ruptured intimacies, she'll never be able to keep an assistant as gifted as Andy on hand for long, because anyone that bright and capable will find a more integral route to success. Well, maybe if Andy had really cared about fashion...

If anybody threatens to run away with The Devil Wears Prada, it's Stanley Tucci, who plays Nigel, the magazine's art director. Fans of Mr Tucci who are amused to see him play a gay man for a change ought not to miss how he plays a gay man: at least in public, brains come first for Nigel. His outrages against mainstream masculinity are understated but assured, and he's as tough as any other character that Mr Tucci has ever played. This does not prevent Nigel from being a funny man when he's playing guardian angel to Andy - a role for which you fear he might bill at any exceedingly high hourly rate, the better to make her a quick study.

The three supporting principals are Adrian Grenier, as Andy's dreamy sous-chef boyfriend, Nate; Emily Blunt, as Miranda's insufferable British First Assistant, also named Emily, and Simon Baker, as a writer who incarnates the lesser temptation that I mentioned. Mr Baker is a winning, quietly commanding actor who's very good at the appraising glances and considered gentleness for which Robert Redford is famous. May Mr Baker enjoy half Mr Redford's success, if not more! Mr Grenier's combination of baby-sized eyes (that is, they're huge in his face) and persistent five o'clock shadow would probably win him a career even if his bones were mediocre, but they are not, and the man is in danger of being paid just to show up and grin.

Why should it be so difficult, I'd like to know, to combine boffo New York careers with rich, family-centered lives? You'd think that all the top people would agree (a) to do what they've promised to do and (b) to stop interrupting everyone else's life with last-minute emergencies. Wouldn't you think? [Purse lips]

That's all.

July 01, 2006

Strangers With Candy

So much for moving the "Friday Movie" feature to Monday. On Monday, I took a bus down Second Avenue to see The Great New Wonderful, but I was told that the air-conditioning wasn't working, so that was out. I walked a few blocks over to the theatre next to our storage unit, but none of its seven theatres was showing anything that I either hadn't seen or had no intention of seeing. A complete bust.

Because Kathleen really really wants to me to see The Devil Wears Prada for the first time with her, and because there was an eleven o'clock showing at the Sunshine Theatre, on Houston Street, I popped left the house at ten yesterday morning and went downtown to see Strangers With Candy. I had a bag to drop off at a thrift shop nearby, and I wanted to give myself plenty of time. But the trains were brilliant and I turned onto Houston Street from Lafayette at 10:30. The weather was sunny but gusty - an unusual combination that always heralds a storm. (It's amazing how long Ms NOLA, with whom I met up after the movie, and I would be able to stay dry.) There was no sign of rain, however, when I walked into the Sunshine and tried to buy a ticket. The place was just opening up, and I was asked to take a seat on a bench. In the end, I got into the theatre after the previews had started.

Strangers With Candy - ! That's about the best I can do. The only film with which it can be remotely compared is National Lampoon's Animal House, but Amy Sedaris is in far more of Strangers than Belushi was in the earlier gross-out. And she is every bit as gross. Gross, gross, gross! Did I mention her toenails? Did I mention what happens when, chided for talking with food in her mouth, she replies that there is no food in her mouth? Did I mention her Balinese dancing? No, of course I didn't!

Strangers With Candy is loaded with parts - great parts - but it refuses to add up to a sum. It does this so deliberately, so competently, that you forgive it. You just roll with the gags, which are constant. The casting alone is a riot: Ian Holm, Deborah Rush, Dan Hedaya, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Janney, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all have terrific bit parts in this high school romp. Matthew Broderick, no less, is the "bad guy," and he finds startling new things to do. Greg Hollimon, a new face to me but someone who I gather has been busy on Comedy Central, was in every way the more established stars' equal. Maria Thayer managed to put enough intelligence into her part to suggest that she's capable of doing quite well in less fluffy surroundings, but she stuck out for me principally because she reminded me so forcibly of the pale girl standing behind the young fop in George de la Tour's La Sorcière. I could go on and on, so I won't. Strangers With Candy isn't for everybody, but anybody with a taste for parody will enjoy this quick-witted send-up that knows no shame.

June 17, 2006

The Lake House

Wow. I've just read A O Scott's review of The Lake House, and, - wow! - it's quite positive! I expected The New York Times to figure out some way of trashing the movie, which indeed would  be "deeply silly" and "completely preposterous" if it weren't for the stars, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, reunited for the first time since Speed - another improbable movie that they made irresistible.

"Hijacking a bus? Are they crazy?" As it happened, I saw Speed in a large, boisterous theatre the day after OJ's wild ride. The audience could not possibly have been more into the movie.

Ms Bullock and Mr Reeves made hijacking a bus work, and, in The Lake House, they make epistolary time travel work as well. I trust that no one will waste any effort on Primer-style "timelines": this is simply not a movie to be figured out. Or, at the risk of being a little brutal, let me say that it's a movie that only somebody on the autistic side would feel the need to analyze. The Lake House reminds us of what it means to be a real film star. Real film stars can move mountains - and they can also communicate across timelines. And they can make you forget your objections to the "thesis." Completely. They can make you want to bury them, in a Viking funeral!

The "thesis" of The Lake House is that Dr Kate Forster, who has just moved out of the eponymous villa at the beginning of the film - and it is a villa - engages in a correspondence with Alex Wyler, whom she believes to be her successor tenant but who in fact arranged for her to rent the place two years earlier. Kate lives in 2006; Alex in 2004, but they can fall in love anyway, through the power of well-written letters - a hat is duly tipped to Miss Austen - and in the end the film is wonderfully clever, if not very convincing, about resolving the tension between impossibility and romance. Alex is the son of the architect who built the house, "with his own hands" (unlikely, knowing Christopher Plummer). He is also, as the half of the romance who lives in the past, capable of learning about Kate from her letters. The scene in which he contrives to meet her, knowing that she is the love of his life but unwilling to shock her with the incredible manner in which he has gotten to know her - and his decency, here, is really aimed at us - is one of the loveliest romantic moments that I know of. Kate and Alex are dancing, and you can see at the same time that, while she's falling for him because he's so manifestly in love with her, he's also holding back big time. It's an astonishing scene, and, despite the fact that every trope of Love Affair-type romance has been utilized, if not exploited, by The Lake House, the scene is also absolutely new. I can't believe I'm saying this, but, in his beautifully registered restraint, Keanu Reeves is at least momentarily the equal of Cary Grant.

Perhaps the success of The Lake House owes to the fact that, even in today's Hollywood, its principals are very unusual actors. Mr Reeves has obviously worked hard and not without success to develop his interpretive breadth. In two recent films, The Gift and Thumbsucker, he explored his dark side, and also his capacity to look malignant and unattractive, without losing his strength as an opener. (I know; I'm speaking prematurely.) His Alex Wyler is a rougher-edged lover than any he has played in the past; Mr Reeves displays a lot of ambiguous good-old-boy toothy smiles in The Lake House, and as the son of a brilliant architect who has himself pursued upscale contracting simply in order to build things he is utterly convincing. As for Ms Bullock, she has a peculiar knack, one that I'm not sure that any actress has displayed in the past. Again and again, in movie after movie - don't we ever learn? - she convinces us that her characters have absolutely no idea how beautiful they are, that it's entirely reasonable that they don't try to trade on their good looks; and, at the same time, she carries herself with the dignity of a woman who knows that she deserves the best, or at any rate is someone who won't settle for less. There is a beguilingly honorable modesty in her performances that will excite anyone who has ever thrilled to the story of Cinderella (in any of its versions). Sometimes, what these actors have to bring to a given movie is wasted. But I'm with Mr Scott: The Lake House is a success.

June 10, 2006

Prairie Home Companion

When the movie was over, I went straight Tower Records, across Lincoln Square. My hunch that the sound track would be on sale approached certainty, and it was not mistaken. The minute the CD began to play, when I got home, I was put back in touch with the power of Prairie Home Companion, a film that is almost impossible to understand in retrospect.

The Boy Friend meets Stop Making Sense, but not until both are too old to raise too much hell?

Meryl Streep seems to be the key to the movie. Playing a not over-bright country singer, Yolanda Johnson, she is dismayed not so much that the radio show she's appearing in - I'm not sure that the words "Prairie Home Companion" are ever spoken - is airing its final broadcast but that the show's host, GK (Garrison Keillor) refuses to mention this fact to the audience. Because she can't share her adieux with her fans, Yolanda is beset by an agitation that is always troubling her face. Surely it's wrong to go away without saying goodbye! It's wrong for a death - even the death of a radio show - not to be noticed. Ms Streep manages to mark the entire movie with a sense of the utter fragility of things. I can't think of an absolutely non-violent film more burdened with intimations of mortality.

But the show must go on, and Prairie Home Companion is primarily a show. A very, very meta show, to be sure. It is not really like its long-running namesake. (What will I hear if I tune at six tonight? A rerun? A totally fresh live show would be quite a kick to hear, the day after its filmed termination opened nationally.) There is no monologue, no Lake Wobegon. There are no skits. It is really just a concert, which you'll get to hear only if you buy the CD. The film is too busy running off to attend to a lighter-than-air backstager that involves, among the more usual elements, an angel of death. How meta is this: the angel (Virginia Madsen) has a little chat with GK (who is not the object of her visit) and in this chat she tells him that her mortal life came to an end because she was laughing so hard at one of his jokes while listening to the show on the radio and navigating an icy road. GK re-tells the joke, but the angel doesn't find it very funny anymore - it's one of those wry jokes that hit you at a particular moment and convulse you with laughter, or otherwise barely raise a smile.

Everyone in this ensemble cast is very good. Rather than wear you out, I'm going to mention only Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly. Who would have thought that Mr Reilly is an all-around bigger guy? He makes Mr Harrelson look rather wraith-like, which shocked me, because the last time I saw Mr Harrelson he was playing the demon-afflicted and very frightening husband of Julianne Moore (who is, I gather, tiny), in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. These gents made a fine duo as Lefty and Dusty, the singing cowboys. They have two numbers onstage, and one of them, "Bad Jokes" is an example of hilarious bad taste that will either convulse you with laughter or...

Will Robert Altman make another movie? I suppose that everyone has heard by now that, when Lindsay Lohan showed up for a shooting four hours late, Meryl Streep took her aside and read her the riot act, asserting that "Robert Altman is only staying alive so that he can make this film." Well, it's a good story, and, on the evidence, Ms Lohan got the message. I'm not a fan of Mr Altman's films, but I'm crazy about Gosford Park. Prairie Home Companion is a close second.

Almost forgot: Meryl Streep can really, really sing! Any time she wants to cut an album, I'll be happy to buy it!

May 27, 2006


Dominik Moll's Lemming feels like a complete throwback to the Nouvelle Vague. With the rich imagery of a Godard and the austere camera work of an Antonioni, Mr Doll presents a cogent thriller with supernatural overtones with a minimalist's avoidance of fuss. The film could be in black and white; its colors are muted and indistinct. The houses seem futuristic in a Sixties sense. The performances are understated. Only the score, by David Whitaker, is pointed to set a mood, and it consists of very unsettling music.

I was drawn, of course, by the presence in the cast of Charlotte Rampling, whose behavior in The Swimming Pool has lodged permanently in my spirit. Here, she plays Alice, the deeply hostile wife of the Richard Pollock (André Dussollier - where had I seen him before? Ah, of course - in Un coeur en hiver), the head of a high-tech firm. Alice reluctantly accompanies her husband to dinner at the home of the firm's star engineer, Alain (Laurent Lucas), and his wife of three years, Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and is incredibly rude. Rude the way that only Charlotte Rampling could be: with quiet, controlled malice. The young couple have no idea of how to respond, even when Alice tells them what they must be thinking. Their tension and uncertainty, which they try to shrug off, mark the beginning of a nightmare that will end only after Alain takes some spectacular risks. Risks made even more terrifying by well-founded doubt that Alain is in full control of his conscious mind.

Ms Gainsbourg plays Bénédicte as an uncertain, almost unformed woman, which opens up the possibilities tested by the story (which is attributed both to Mr Moll and to Gilles Marchand. As for Mr Lucas, I'm already looking forward to seeing him in something else. His long neck and expressive throat are key components of his facial ensemble. Alain has, so far, enjoyed a life of somewhat playful intellectual success. As the movie unwinds, Mr Lucas intensifies his character's shocked recognition that the world can be a very mysterious place. At one point, Alain is forced to walk home from a mountain cabin. This ordeal is represented in two or three scenes, all of them speechless and all of them underscoring the awful isolation that, by mischance, can befall anyone.

PS: Lemming is the title of the movie in French. The eponymous Scandinavian rodents don't seem to have inspired a word of their own.

May 20, 2006

Les poupées russes

No, I did not fight my way into an early show of The Da Vinci Code, although I hear that it's not bad. Next Friday, maybe.

The movie that I saw yesterday was Les poupées russes (Russian Dolls), which might be billed as the sequel to L'auberge espagnole, Cédric Klapisch's comedy of 2002, but which is in fact the second half of a two-part work of art. Five years later, Xavier has still got a bit of the Peter Pan bug, but the events of Poupées russes make him get over it. I will write about the movie when it is released on DVD. For the moment, three things: 1. See it! 2. Don't see it unless and until you've seen the earlier film. 3. The huge difference between the two episodes is either natural or supernatural, I can't tell which: Kelly Reilly's Wendy has morphed from the gawky, whiny, somewhat clueless girl of L'auberge into an extraordinarily glamorous woman of great emotional resonance. Even if you've seen her platinum performance in Mrs Henderson Presents, you may not be ready for the alteration, which is the opposite of a shock: the uncanniness intensifies as the movie reaches its climax on the Neva. We can expect a lot of great work from this actress.

Oh, and 4. Visually, Poupées is even more fun to watch than L'auberge.

Les poupées russes was just part of a very nice midday. I took the train down to Hunter College, at 68th Street, and fetched the copy of The Leopard that Shakespeare & Co was holding for me. Then I caught the crosstown bus at 67th Street, boarding just as the first drops of rain were falling. The Park looked dreamy, deep green against soft grey, but we crossed it all too quickly and presently I was out in the wet. I had only a block of Central Park West to walk in the rain, thanks to a scaffolding at the Ethical Culture Society, but that was enough. I presented The Leopard to my friend, told him that I'd be back at around two for lunch, and went to the Lincoln Square Theatre. What a labyrinth that place is! It seems to be two floors below street level, carved out of nooks and crannies not needed by the building's plumbing and ventilation. The path to the men's room alone!

It had been my thought to walk over to Burberry's, on East 57th Street, after lunch, to buy some socks, but the weather inspired a change of plan - as did my friend's having an errand to run on my side of the Park. It was after our very nice lunch that the real downpour began. The trees in Lincoln Square were tossing in the wind while the waiters hurriedly stripped the sidewalk tables of their linen. We went back up to my friend's place to wait out the worst - and, lucky for him too, as he'd left two windows open. Even after the rain let up, we had a monstrous wait for a taxi. Each of us stood at one end of the drive-through driveway at my friend's building; we eventually snagged one that was ferrying two old ladies home from somewhere. We talked our way to 89th and Madison, where my friend got out. For a few blocks, I continued to enjoy the ride, but I found the crosstown travel tiresome, and was just about to get out and walk when the rain started up again.

The afternoon, as always on Friday, was given over to housecleaning, and this took a long time, because I was watching Luchino Visconti's 1963 adaptation of The Leopard while I dusted and vacuumed. I didn't get through the entire picture until after dinner with Kathleen. (We had another movie to watch, but Kathleen was tired and didn't think she'd stay awake.) There are many beauties in Il gattopardo, and the performances of Bert Lancaster and Alain Delon are exactly as good as I thought they'd be; it's as if Lampedusa wrote the book with them in mind - which, though I'm sure that he didn't, is just possible, given that M Delon's first film came out in 1957, the year of Lampedusa's death. But perhaps it's time for a remake. Visconti's textures are bright and superficial, while Nino Rota's score is almost intolerably trivial. Made at a time when voice-overs were taboo, the adaptation forces the Prince - a proud man of few words if ever there was one - to make observations that he would never utter in public. For all its sumptuousness, Il gattopardo shortchanges us of the lush beauties, so vivid in the novel, of the Prince's palace at Donnafugata. What we get instead are a lot of period rooms. And the movie suffers from inadequate production values. Even on the Criterion Collection repackaging, the dialogue is out of synch, and every sound appears to have been dubbed in a bright studio.

I wish I'd dreamt of Kelly Reilly while I was asleep, and got her out of my system. Instead, I'm dreaming about her now, which makes writing very difficult!

May 13, 2006

Keeping Up With the Steins

Keeping Up With the Steins is the only movie that I can think of that presents being Jewish in a plainly attractive light. Sentimentality, self-loathing, and victimhood play no part the proceedings. What's more, the movie illuminates the implications of the statement, "Today, I am a man."

Directed by Scott Marshall, Keeping Up adopts the strategy of burning away the ridiculous with satire and then replacing it with the meaningful. The difficulty is that some viewers - such as Stephen Holden at the Times - are going to expect the satire to last all the way through the movie, when in the event it is replaced by a quieter kind of fun. The movie opens with the bar mitzvah party of Zachary Stein, a Titantic-themed extravaganza aboard a cruise ship. The decadence of this affair is best exemplified by the horde of kiddies stuffing themselves with ice cream at a DIY soda fountain: talk about pig-out!

Our hero is Benjamin Fiedler (Darryl Sabara), a boy a few months younger than Zachary and the son of Zachary's father's former partner, Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven). Mr Piven has a role that recreates his Entourage agent with greatly increased humanity: when Adam tells Benjamin how proud he is of his son, it's clear that Adam is a good dad and not full of shit. Adam's life looks sunny enough; he's a success, and he's married to the very nice Joanne (Jamie Gertz). Joanne, as is only suitable, is the film's safety valve: she keeps it funny for the right reasons. She even gets along with her mother-in-law (Doris Roberts), who lives in the same house. Adam has only two problems: how to compete with Arnie on the bar mitzvah front, and how to deal with his estranged father, Irwin (Garry Marshall, the director's father), after Benjamin surreptitiously sends Irwin an invitation to the bar mitzvah, doctoring it by stipulating a date two weeks in advance of the event. When Irwin drives his beaten-up camper to Adam's lovely Brentwood home, with his new-age companion, Sacred Feather (Darryl Hannah), the deeper humor of the movie begins.

There are many reasons to see Keeping Up With the Steins, but perhaps the biggest is Garry Marshall's performance. This is shtick delivered by a pro, a verbal ballet of Jewish wisdom. That this wisdom is delivered by a guy who walked out on his family decades ago - something that Adam has never been able to forgive - only intensifies the humanity. The message may not be rabbinical, but it seems right: it's more important to forgive and forget than it is to worry about atonement. 

May 06, 2006

Art School Confidential

The only movie showing reasonably close to home that I (a) haven't seen or (b) could conceive of seeing was Art School Confidential, so that's what I went to, and - you're not going to be surprised, because when am I going to slam a film? I am such a lousy reviewer of movies that I don't even consider these Friday Movie entries "reviews." I'm old enough to know which films to avoid, and generous enough - having enjoyed so many movies for almost sixty years, it's the least I can be - to find things to enjoy in all the others. My inner movie critic works very preliminarily: before I go. And, what's more, my friends and relations are so well tuned to the things that I like about movies that they're an infallible phalanx - i promise not to use that word within the next six months - upon whom I can rely with complete assurance. I know this because, every time that I've been tempted to second-guess them, I've had a bad time.

I know something about Daniel Clowes. He writes graphic novels. He wrote David Boring, which was, indeed, so boring that I couldn't read it. It seems to me that graphic novels ought to be full-color, incendiary explosives, flaming arrows aimed at social injustice. Instead, they're about nice-guy anomie. Oddly enough, I thought that, while Art School Confidential is an almost pitch-perfect transcription of the Clowes style into film - I say "almost" because it isn't shot in blue and white - it was super just the same. And I know why I liked it. Max Minghella is irresistible. He plays Jerome, an art student whose longing for Audrey, a fellow student but also a shapely "life" model and the daughter of a famous artist, equals Tristan's for Isolde. Happily, he doesn't have as much trouble being up-front about this. Even more happily, he still has a lot of trouble letting Audrey know that - you know, I sort of, could we maybe, you probably wouldn't be interested. Whether Mr Minghella is a Big Star or a Flash in the Pan we shall have to wait to see, but I strongly suspect that he's going to do great things. He's memorable in a tiny part in Syriana, a huge-cast movie in which his one scene is played opposite George Clooney. I was so into his passion for Audrey that I thought his breakdown into tears was way overdue when it finally came.

That Audrey should like Jerome back is one of countless graphic-novel outcomes that will doubtless confuse established critics who have not read any. If I enumerated the "graphic novel" aspect of Art School Confidential - its very light hold on real-world contingency; its indifference to scrupulous plot-pointing; its reliance on types, not so much as cartoons as as suggestions of completely different story lines that might be taken up by other equally interesting movies - and here I am thinking of the character of Candace, memorably played by Katherine Moenning; and its just-so explanations - you would begin to think that the movie is terrible. But it is not terrible. It's really pretty good. It is certainly interesting, and it helped me to understand the burgeoning form of the graphic novel, of which, in its innocent way, it's a critique.

But just go see it because Max is somebody you're going to love. He is at least the new Bud Cort.

I forgot to say that the movie's best laughs were not in the trailers. The scene that keeps coming back to me takes place at Thanksgiving, at Jerome's home, when Jerome's parents... but I can't say any more than that, except that when the wonderful scene is over, Jerome has to listen to a confused aunt who can't even remember his name advise him to paint animals on sneakers for pubescent girls.

I've got it! Max Minghella is the movie version of Malcolm Gladwell!

April 08, 2006

Take the Lead

Liz Friedlander's Take the Lead is a very well-acted inspirational movie. There are dozens of points where, in less capable hands, the movie would fall flat on its puss, and if the film does have a defect, it's that you recognize these points as they occur. The trajectory is entirely predictable. A nice guy gives the kids of hard knocks a chance, and the kids succeed. He teaches them ballroom dancing, and they learn trust and respect. Hollywood loves a makeover, and Take the Lead is full of them, all more than skin-deep. It's a movie to love.

Antonio Banderas, at forty-six just beginning to look like a serious grown-up, plays the part of Pierre Dulaine, a real-life ballroom dance teacher who decided to do some good for underprivileged children. Because Mr Dulaine is very much alive, the film focuses not on his personal life but on his success with a bunch of high-school students. We learn that he was married and that his wife is dead, and that is that. Mr Banderas is so authoritative that we don't ask questions until the movie is over, when it really doesn't matter.

Like all good inspirational movies, Take the Lead is about behavior, not motivation. The behavior that Pierre wants to see begins with a courtly politeness that, even though it is not available in all sizes, looks very good on Mr Banderas, and you really believe that good manners can cut the grease of gritty New York life. Alfre Woodard is perfect as an initially skeptical, eventually supportive principal, while Rob Brown, Yaya DaCosta and Lauren Collins are affectingly troubled adolescents.

IMDb to the contrary notwithstanding, Ray Liotta is not, to the best of my knowledge, in the movie.

I mean it. You'll have to work hard not to love this picture.

April 01, 2006

Thank You For Smoking


In Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking, Aaron Eckhart takes a role that he was born to play and makes a film that I suspect will have to be seen twice for plain delight. That's because it takes a very long time to decide whether Nick Naylor, the crack tobacco lobbyist whose adventures in spin and media mismanagement bring him to the brink of catastrophe not once but twice, is a hero or a devil. Mr Eckhart is an extremely entertaining devil, but there can't be many people who, having just watched In The Company of Men, are seized by the desire to watch it again right away. When his character is scalped and killed in Nurse Betty, horror is trumped by relief: one less scumbag on earth. In Smoking, he is far too conscious of being appealing to be trusted. Will he turn out to be someone we love to hate? If so, the film's comic potential is greatly reduced. If, on the other hand, Nick is the roguish hero of a satire, then we can laugh more easily.

Nick Naylor is the roghish hero of a satire, and Mr Eckhart deserves an Academy Award not least for keeping us on edge about Nick until the film is nearly over. I could easily talk about nothing but one very sensational performance. There is not an iota of comic potential that does register in one way or another on Nick's face. And what a face! With its long, straight nose, its wide mouth, its cleft chin, its good-boy hair and its slightly out-of-synch eyes, Mr Eckhart's face at rest looks like a bland corporate, but the instant it moves it become plausible. It is a hall of mirrors, sometimes a funhouse, in which you're not sure that the wallet you're shielding is in your back pocket or somebody else's. Nick Naylor is radioactively suspect.

In all but one scene. After his second catastrophe, Nick falls, understandably, into a deep slump. From this he is rescued by a kitchen conversation with his son, Joey. Now, only in a satire could one go along with the notion that Mr Eckhart could produce a son resembling moon-faced Cameron Bright, but this mock-tender scene actually witnesses the actors' switching roles. Mr Bright is the wise daddy, Mr Eckhart, his pupils invisible, the open-mouthed kid. This is the moment when, agreeing with Joey, we decide that, even if he's a vulture, Nick Naylor is a very good vulture, in a world that for some reason requires vultures. We're moved not least because Mr Eckhart looks like the sort of fiend who would use Mr Cameron to play dwarf bowling.

Based on a novel by satirist Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking begins with a devastating leer at the nation's lack of critical-thinking skills. On the Joan Lunden Show, Nick is the bad guy on a panel of anti-smoking campaigners, including "Cancer Boy," a rather robust-looking teenager with a shaved head. Within moments, Nick has the audience reconsidering the urge to boo him off the stage. We see the formerly skeptical faces begin to nod in agreement with his spin. Mr Reitman never lets the movie lose its satirical thrust, which perhaps explains why critics have found it "slight." Satire operates on the principle that laughter is the best first step toward reform. It is, quite literally, not meant to be taken "seriously." Satire often flops on the screen because, as Messrs Eckhart and Bright demonstrate by showing us what's required, it requires the ability to keep a straight face where winking might seem irresistible. Never have pans been deader to the urge.

Who but Mr Buckley would name a senator from Vermont "Ortolan Finistirre?" Who but William H Macy could have played such a tetchy prig? Who but Robert Duvall could have given us such a smooth but monstrous caricature of a tobacco baron? Katie Holmes, currently under a cloud because of suspicions about the nature of her marriage, is adorable right up to the moment when she's not - and beyond. Rob Lowe (an even more plausible actor than Mr Eckhart) impersonates an interplanetary Hollywood agent - or is he?  Maria Bello and David Koechner are perfect as Nick's "Merchants of Death" buddies.

Thank You For Not Smoking is pitch-perfect and, I expect, huge fun. I'll have to wait until I've seen it a second time.

March 25, 2006

V for Vendetta

Yesterday's entry about Rachel Corrie rang in my ears all through V for Vendetta, James McTeigue's shooting of the Wachowski Brothers' latest output. The story is taken from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and I understand that Mr Moore is not happy with the adaptation. That's how it goes in movieland. Twenty years from now, someone will make a period, pitch-perfect film of the original.

Interestingly, V for Vendetta is true to the airless and remote atmosphere of most graphic novels and their comic book predecessors. There is a stunning want of windows with a view. One ascends from the Underground to a rooftop in a matter of moments. Hugo Weaving, the actor playing V, never shows his face, but everything is done to vary the effects of light and shadow on his mask. The important shots seem taken from drawn frames. Except for a heartbreaking episode in the middle of the film - meant to show England's slow but sure slide into dystopia - V for Vendetta recycles the same compositions, with the same characters (the people watching television, for example). There is a strict economy to the feel of the picture; only certain emotions and responses are interesting. That's both characteristic of graphic novels and the marker of a sick society.

The film tells its (confected) backstory very well, so I won't. It's about how a democracy became - well, a dictatorship, certainly, but not a totalitarian state. People seem to be leading recognizable lives. Despite the future setting, the clothes are pretty much what you'll see on the street today. The filmmakers have been careful, in other words, to show these complicit citizens as folks like us. Out of fear, they - we - let the fascists take over. (In the movie, the United States has sunk into a ruinous civil war and has run out of almost everything.) I jumped aboard the Impeach Bush bandwagon about fifteen minutes into the show; we'll see how that lasts before I say more, and if I don't, it didn't. Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) rules England from a bunker, and until the very end, all we see of him is his craggy, badly-barbered face, and, behind it, his lower teeth. He's about as pleasant as a scorpion. In all but one of his scenes, he addresses his principal lieutenants from a giant TV screen.

One of these is Dascomb (Ben Miles), the director of broadcasting. Another is Finch (Stephen Rea), the chief of police. The KGB cognate appears to be Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith, and I hope he gets counseling for playing despicable characters again and again.)

Who is V? Well, he is a comic book hero. Although mortal, he has a supernatural way with knives, and he can really take a beating. He likes to weave Shakespeare into his punctilious conversation. He rescues Evey (Natalie Portman) when she is intercepted by a couple of Creedy's toughs after curfew, on her way to dinner with Dietrich (Stephen Fry), a TV comedian. V takes the pretty young woman to his lair, and keeps her there for a few days. Little by little, troubled pasts emerge. Evey's parents were executed as dissidents. V was subjected to malignant biological tests that eventually went awry, rendering him a superhero. (Who wants to know?) 

The most interesting performance is Stephen Rea's, as his Finch shifts his allegiance. Mr Rea's perennially sad face registers the stale defeat of life in a broken society. Rupert Graves, as Finch's aide, Dominic, looks sharp and still somehow boyish.

Mr McTeigue, who has directed many second units, knows what he's doing, and V for Vendetta barrels along to the final uplifting fireworks. I don't know how often I'll want to watch this movie again, but it gets its important message across with great power.

March 18, 2006

The Libertine

Of all the movies that I've seen since I began seeing them every Friday, Laurence Dunmore's The Libertine is the only one that I've wanted to walk out on. It's not that Libertine is a bad picture. It's rather that I don't enjoy horror films. And that's pretty much what Libertine is. You don't have to posit extraordinary powers to account for the aura of decay that surrounds Johnny Depp's 2nd Earl of Rochester. Rochester was too cynical to realize his talents, so all that we have left of him is a string of ditties and an unholy reputation. He died at thirty-three, a wreck disfigured by venereal disease and alcoholism.

So far as plot goes, Stephen Jeffries's screenplay disposes of Rochester's later career in the usual way. Factual details are sexed up a bit, unlikely stories are leaned on, and the sentiments expressed are, with the exception of a reverence for wit, totally 2004. The women in Rochester's life are made to love him in the manner of modern women saddled with addicted boyfriends. Rochester's relationship with Charles II (John Malkovich) is incredibly presumptuous.

And was there ever so brown a movie shot in color? The problem with trying to recreate the unhygienic "realities" of Restoration England is that they turn the past into an exhibit, not the setting of a story. Londoners slog through muck-ridding streets without sharing our revulsion - what's wrong with them? The groaty side of life is played up to exceedingly in-your-face levels.

Johnny Depp has no trouble playing a bad boy, but here he's often sulking, and that's not attractive. Rochester's good times are behind him in this picture. Mr Depp's Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean, is so charming that he gets an adult viewer through an otherwise silly movie; there's nothing charming in The Libertine except for the actor's good looks, which weirdly persist even as his skin breaks out in lesions. I wonder if the double assault of "History!" and "Literature!" simply deflated Mr Depp's interest in his character. Curiously, as an actor he seems to be behaving himself - not letting go.

The cast is really very good, with great turns by Samantha Morton, Rosamund Pike, and Kerry Reilly among the ladies. Tom Hollander is almost unrecognizable as George Etherege, and not notably shorter than everybody else. Richard Coyle is very good as Alcock, Rochester's servant. I couldn't take my eyes off of the fake nose that was stuck on John Malkovich's face; even he was unrecognizable half the time, betrayed only by his voice.

In the end, I'm not a good judge of The Libertine. I suspect that it is a distracted adaptation of a powerful play - distracted into horror.

March 11, 2006

Failure to Launch

It's hard to say why Tom Dey's Failure to Launch is so much fun, but I suspect that future viewings will reveal a clutch of subtle but fantastic one-liners, offering ironic comment on the proceedings. I laughed a lot, and so did everybody else in the theatre. Not always at the same time, but mostly. The film seemed to take us all by surprise. When it was over, however, only the improbable, almost slipshod story remained. I loved having seen it, but I can't say much more than "trust me on this one" - the very worst sort of review.

I can say that the casting is great. Matthew McConaughey repeats the winning performance that he gave in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days - a remarkably similar film, in many ways. Sarah Jessica Parker turns in her most impressively intelligent performance yet, with a dazzling smile to light things up. (She also wears better clothes than she had in The Family Stone, whose costumer must have hated her.) There's Kathy Bates - what is Kathy Bates doing in this movie? Nothing straightforward, that's for sure. She plays Matthew's mom. Whether or not she would like her grown-up son to move out of the house is a matter of mixed messages; Failure to Launch is not very good at warm understanding. It's much better at presenting Zooey Deschanel as an attractive, even appealing zombie who is determined to kill a mockingbird. (Yes!) Her character shares, on an entirely unexamined footing, a house with Ms Parker's, and she does not appear to have a job. Jobs are, in fact, pretty notional in Failure to Launch. Mr McConaughey's Trip sells yachts. Ms Parker's Paula is an "interventionist,"  hired by parents for her skill in motivating young men to get a place of their own. In Failure to Launch, football star Terry Bradshaw plays Dad.

I know, I'm making it sound awful. But the actors have a fine time pretending that all of this makes sense, and they're given great lines. Trip's two buddies, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper) are more robust - more robustly wacky - than the gays who ordinarily tag along in Mr McConaughey's movies. Although a committed slacker himself, Demo is wonderfully fond of motivational language. Ace, who demonstrates actual maturity when he tells his friends that he owns the house that he shares with his mother, can do truly amazing things with computers.

If I were a bit less fastidious, I might call Failure to Launch a screwball comedy. According to my creed, however, all the screwball comedies that the world will ever know where made in the decade following It Happened One Night. Two screwball elements are clearly present in Failure to Launch. The supporting cast is impeccably funny, and the two principals do everything to resist the conclusion that they're, in fact, made for each other.

My guess is that you will read a lot of conflicting reviews of this movie. You'll have to see it for yourself. Just remember that everybody laughed.

March 04, 2006

16 Blocks

We're here to talk about 16 Blocks, the new Bruce Willis vehicle that also stars - maybe it's his vehicle - Mos Def and (not his vehicle) David Morse. We're here to say that this movie is deeply satisfying and also violent. We thought we'd put the "deeply satisfying" part first, because doncha wish you could avoid the violence?

Bruce Willis plays a bad cop whose drinking is meant to distract you from what's really going on. You think: He drinks too much because he's incompetent. Then you find out otherwise. While Mos Def never shuts up! Mos Def has a platinum future in chatterbox standup. The folks in the audience were laughing during this one, and there wasn't much to laugh at.

The only thing wrong with 16 Blocks is that, despite a wealth of "corroborative detail" that nails the lower-Manhattan setting, the movie doesn't really say anything about New York City. Rather it feeds on the clichés. A small point. Perhaps pictures of this kind really have to be set in Actionland, USA.

Anyone still want to be a cop?


February 25, 2006

Running Scared

Regular readers of this site will be forgiven for gasping when they find out that I went to see Running Scared of my own free will. It is totally not my kind of movie. But I've seen everything else in the neighborhood (except for Something New, which is showing only in the evening, alternating with Curious George - which I have plans to see). And I wanted to calibrate my differences from Times reviewer Manohla Dargis. She writes good reviews, but I find that I disagree with her. I have, for example, enormous respect for the traditional American narrative. I thought I'd see if Paul Walker's acting were as bad as Ms Dargis suggested.

Running Scared is an exercise of blood and bluster executed with cheeky expertise. The editing is as tight as coherence permits. The story, which centers on a gun that a boy uses to shoot his abusive stepfather, unfolds in more ways than one as the body count soars. Mr Walker, playing Joey Gazelle, a nice-guy gangster, is on the move more or less throughout the picture. His embodiment of jittery American masculinity makes an interesting contrast to Romain Duris's French counterpart in De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté: where M Duris seems about to explode with barely contained tension, Mr Walker is in a state of perpetual outburst. This makes his Joey more irritating than interesting, at least to me, but I have to say that he was utterly convincing. Whether another actor might have made more of the role I really can't say. It is true, as Ms Dargis points out, that Vera Farmiga (Teresa Gazelle) and Cameron Bright (Oleg Yugorsky) make more personable impressions.

As it happens, Teresa and Oleg are principals in the horrifying episode that makes Running Scared, in the end, a remarkable, must-see movie. A pool of deadly tranquility in the film's onrush, this momentary diversion from the main narrative involves a jolly children's playroom with heavy-duty camera equipment and a floor that's covered in plastic sheeting. Nothing much actually happens during this terrifying sequence, but by leaving everything to the viewer's imagination, writer-director Wayne Kramer makes an utterly riveting bit of film. Nothing that I've seen in Quentin Tarrantino comes close to the spleen in Running Scared.

October 22, 2005

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

The other day, Ms NOLA offered the temptation of seeing The Squid and the Whale with her yesterday afternoon, but I was a good boy and decided on something showing at the Storage Unit Theatre - Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. An unlikely choice, I know, but something about AO Scott's very favorable writeup in today's Times convinced me that I wouldn't hate it. And I didn't. I loved it. Kurt Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Shue, David Morse, and Luis Guzmán were every bit as good as I thought they be - Mr Russell a bit better than that, even - while the two stars whom I'd not seen before, Dakota Fanning and Freddy Rodrìguez were very pleasant surprises. Writer-director John Gatins clearly knows what he's doing, and, not incidentally, he uses the bluegrass landscape astutely.

Dreamer is being marketed as a family movie, and there were plenty of kids at the theatre, but, frankly, there was a great deal of grown-up tension between the characters, and the world of thoroughbred racing was not romanticized. The nuts and bolts were given much more articulate treatment than they were in Seabiscuit. Which is not to criticize the great Seabiscuit, but just to wonder how much of Dreamer will fly over kids' heads. Kurt Russell has always been good at playing wounded men, but here he's something more, a wounded man who decides to get over his way of getting over his wound. He takes off the bandages and resumes trying to live a full life. The pain of disappointment is always visible on his face until, eventually, it's replaced by hope and then contentment.

At the beginning of Dreamer, the Crane family lives on a horse farm with no horses. Dad is distant from his daughter Cale, and Dad's father, Pop, lives in his own house to one side, incommunicado. Dad's jockey no longer races, and he has a pronounced pot. You know that all these things will change, and at the end you are grateful that you've been spared most of the financial aspects of this transformation. The Cranes are living hand-to-mouth, but they manage, and financial hardship never occludes the horse story at the forefront.

As for the horse story, it's enough to say that a fine-looking animal that is almost put down at the beginning of the film goes on to more glorious achievement. The role is played by an animal named Sacrifice. Speaking of roles, the actress who plays the small role of Cale Crane's school teacher, Karen (I thought I saw "Kayren" on the screen) Butler really caught my eye. This is apparently her first film. I don't think that it will be her last.