Picks: Recommended--with Reservations
Anchorman-the Legend of Ron Burgundy. Dir. Adam McKay. Will Ferrell is a major comedic talent. He made Elf a funny film, and he is the reason I laughed so much when I watched this film. Although the film has funny moments, too often it loses its way with a slow pace and inconsistent writing. This kind of comedy needs to move more quickly, and Will Ferrell needs a funnier cast surrounding him. The three co-workers at the television station have their funny bits, but they falter because they become stereotypes rather than individual loony tunes. Oh, there were some moments. The scene where Ron and his band of three brothers protest the hiring of a female co-anchor, the quartet singing Afternoon Delight, the jazz flute skit in the night club, the sex scene that turns into a cartoon, and his roaming the streets-a lost soul. These scenes worked. But every scene with Vince Vaughan was flat, and the scenes with special guest appearances were boring. The pace needed to be picked up. The climactic scene at the zoo fell flat-and at times I thought the film was average fare at best. But then I remembered the input from Will Ferrell, and I knew it was better.
The Chorus, dir. Christophe Barratier (France). This film was pleasant, diverting, sentimental, but not memorable. It was framed more as a children’s story than a story for adults. It is structured with the old-fashioned frame technique—beginning with a man in late middle age, a great symphony conductor, who receives a phone call about the death of his mother. After the funeral, he meets an old friend after 50 years, who tells him the story of Monsieur Mathieu, their choir director and teacher from their school many years ago. The story of Mathieu’s formation of the choir is like a Disney version of childhood anxieties. There is the evil principal, unredeemable, and opposed to the good works Mathieu is interested in completing. Everything Matheiu tries works perfectly. He is an idealized character, a jovial and rotund man the kids tease as “old baldy”; but at the same time we never fully understand his character. How did come to end up at a school for delinquents? Why had he given up composing music before he took this job? What are the truths of his heart that will help us understand his interactions with the children? Before long we realize that his most difficult pupil is actually the famous symphony conductor we saw at the beginning of the film. But there never was an emotional pay-off in this film, or a rising action that would lead to a specific resolution of conflicts. We watch him fall hard after being smitten with the lovely mother of one of the students. But that loss is downplayed. After all, he has his boys. I knew that with this film I could sit back, relax, enjoy the lovely (if uninspiring) music, and let it all wind down at the end with a poignant scene of sad departure. That scene, by the way, had the greatest emotional punch for me—but again, it was not mined sufficiently to make it tie up loose ends from earlier in the film.
Facing Windows. Dir. Ferzan Oztepek. (Italy, UK). This film handicapped itself by making the drama overblown. Too often the director manipulated the action by pushing the reaction shots beyond the emotional level they could sustain. A third frustration was the overblown music that reminded me over and over how dramatic everything was. Despite these concerns, the film had some important merits. The actor playing the young female lead is a real find. Her eyes are her strong point-and the director knew it. (Note: think of the last shot of the film and you will understand how much the director was devoted to this young woman's eyes!) The old man who plays the mysterious stranger, brought home by her husband, had a strong cinematic presence in his quietness. The story seems simple. The young woman exists in a passionless marriage. Across the street are the windows of a young man's apartment, and these windows face her kitchen window, where she often sits and stares longingly at him-as if he could be the spark that would release her passions. Beneath this story is a subplot based upon the rounding up of the Jews in the Nazi occupation of Paris after 1940. Typical, isn't it, that one person's story is understood only in its relation to the story of another! Who is the old man? And what are his secrets? Step by step, the film reveals, through a combination of his interactions with the principal character and discrete flashbacks of his life in the Jewish ghetto. The gradual revelation of the old man's truths was too easy to follow-and left me wanting more from the character than what I was given. I think his story would have been better served by a film that focused on the story as the main plot rather than as the subplot. I loved the subplot about him being a baker-and it was easy to delight in the scenes showing him tutoring the main character-what beautiful cakes! Late in the film, the young woman goes to the old man's home, and I was disappointed that this old man-who had been established as suffering from dementia, now seemed perfectly lucid. This depiction of dementia seemed dependent upon the plot more than the character. When the old man suffered anxiety, then the dementia surfaced. When he was calm, the dementia disappeared. That did not make sense to me. In a sense the dementia served the main plot-the woman's personal development. Even worse, the climax of the film (and the music made sure we knew that!) led to a negative outcome rather than a positive statement about the main character's development. All of her action reveals her foolhardiness rather than self-understanding. Too many cooks in this film, you ask? That's the impression I had when I thought about it afterwards.
A Home at the End of the World, dir. Michael Mayer. Something was missing in this film. After watching Maria Full of Grace the day after seeing this film, I think I have the answer. The characters in At the End of the World exist outside of the usual contexts of time and space. I never understood who they were based on where they lived—most importantly in the opening scenes. Characters like these reminded me of the two main characters in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—each one is an eccentric filled with individualized, idiosyncratic traits. They exist in their own worlds, and they live according to their own rules. On the other hand, characters in Maria Full of Grace were grounded in and wholly dependent upon a specific set of contexts—geography, culture, family, ethnicity, and oppression. In At the End of the World character does not drive plot. Instead, plot is driven by the author’s need to place these characters in complex relationships where they have to make up their own rules for working out ways of surviving in those relationships. But that approach leaves me grasping for insight into the “whys” of their behaviors. A case in point, I know that Clare, the female lead, mentions having an inheritance in the New York City scenes. Later, the threesome decides to buy a house in the country, not far from Woodstock, New York. Why buy that house? What about their characters and values led them to that house? I have no idea. I suppose there were reasons; but I was unconvinced by this plot twist. Suddenly they have a house. Now the two men need to find work in this small-town environment. So they open a café, and of course it does well. That opening of the café made as much sense as finding out that when Bobby, the main character, grew up, he became a baker—only because his best friend’s mother showed him how to make a pie crust one night in order to provide some solace for his grief.
I write this after remembering how much I was impressed with the opening of the film. In a few scenes we realize that little Bobby and his older brother Carlton are dealing with some parents that are clueless about what it takes to be adults. So Carlton develops a kind of theory of life that he instills in Bobby. You see, life is basically good. It’s better to be an optimist. Take hold of all that life gives you—the dark times and the light times—and you will be stronger for it. I was reminded of the advice Maude gives Harold in that famous film, Harold and Maude. “Give me an L, give me an I, give me a V, give me an E. L-I-V-E! Live! Otherwise you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room!” Now it was also clear to me that Carlton has some deep psychic baggage. He is estranged from his parents, he overemphasizes the life-changing qualities of marijuana smoking, and he is repressing some real pain with all of this bravado and licentiousness. Then comes an amazing scene—one that struck me as original and moving and authentic. Carleton has to be taken away from Bobby, of course, but the way it was done was shocking and painful to watch. Something in Bobby broke that night, and I suppose the task of the viewer is to figure out what broke and how that determined the way he led his life thereafter.
Early on, then, I was involved with the characters in the film and ready to be absorbed by their experiences. But in order to tell the story, the film required seeing Bobby at three stages of his life—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. That middle section was the most unconvincing of the three. Now Bobby the adolescent has taken on Carlton-like qualities. He believes “It’s all goodness,” becomes Johnny’s best friend, and begins to explore an intimate relationship with Johnny. But Johnny’s needs and Bobby’s needs are dissimilar. Johnny is looking for a first love. He is a gay teenager, and he loves Johnny in a straightforward romantic way. But Bobby needs a family. He needs people to stop leaving him. First Carlton leaves him, then his mother dies, and then his father dies. Bobby can’t be alone; but more to the point, Bobby’s identity is bound up in the bonds of family life. He does everything in his power to maintain that sense of community—and individuality—he experienced in the first scene of the film. In that scene he spies on Carlton having sexual intercourse with his girl friend. After the young woman jumps out the window and runs away, Carlton tells Bobby not to be afraid. What happened was perfectly normal. Then he invites Bobby to hop into bed with him. That scene is meant to convey that in those few minutes Bobby learned a special meaning of the term family. Family is a threesome; family is one person sharing two other people on an equal basis. The dark side of that truth, however, is that a threesome can turn into a ménage à trois, an unstable relationship where individuals often experience the feeling of being the “third wheel,” the expendable one of the trio.
What all of this boils down to is that the film requires the formation of a strange ménage à trois. Bobby must hook up with his best friend Johnny, a shy gay youth, and then he must be reunited with that friend and the friend’s weird roommate, Clare in New York City. In doing so, Bobby must fall in love with Clare, and then be compelled to manage his family by trying, in turn, to provide solace and intimacy for each of his two equal partners. As the pages of this plot unfolded, I was impressed with the acting of Robin Wright Penn and Colin Farrell, but not impressed with the work of Dallas Roberts, who plays Bobby. The film placed these characters in situations, embroiled them in conflicts, but never engaged me in a heartfelt way. Clare is the wild and crazy hippie character. Everything she does is over the top. Fine. But how did she get to be that way? What are the sources of her pain? Gradually she reveals the “big problem” of her life—but I was not convinced because I did not see it shown in the scenes in New York City. Early on it becomes evident that since the three are in New York City in the 1980s and Johnny is the stereotypical lonely gay man, moving from one one-night stand to the next, he will have to get AIDS and eventually will die, because he will have contracted AIDS before the development of multi-drug therapies. The film moves from one argument between two of the threesome to another argument between another two of the threesome. A climactic scene shows the three in a close embrace, the woman between the two men. Then there are idyllic scenes. Why does life have to be either insoluble or idyllic? Why not something in between? “I just want everybody to be happy,” becomes Bobby’s middle name. I can’t say enough about Farrell’s quality of acting. He conveys the instability and longing of his character, but I was lost in terms of trying to grasp the meaning of these interactions. Home is where Bobby is, of course. And sooner or later the threesome will have to break up and form a twosome, and then that twosome will be doomed (by AIDS). Just when I feared the film would take us farther into the gay-man-as-victim syndrome, I was delivered by the blessing of an ending at the right moment. The last shot is a point of view shot (from Bobby’s POV) as he stands looking toward Johnny, who has returned to the house at dusk after resolving some pain in his own family life. Despite the cinematic brilliance of this ending, I was left feeling unmoved by the film as a whole. Parts of it were spectacular; but the overall effect left me feeling flat.Kops. Dir. Josef Fares. (Sweden, 2003). This film is a lighthearted look at a small-town police station in Sweden that is on the verge of being closed down. What are the ingredients of comedy? Spaghetti Western music on the sound track; a bizarre plot twist—when the hapless cops decide to fake a crime spree to keep their office open; a sensitive and handsome (but slightly goofy) cop looking for love; that main character’s repeated fantasy scenes—where he imagines himself as the hero in a dangerous encounter with bad guys; a hard-boiled (but attractive) policewoman sent to close down the office (guess who her love interest will be?); a Keystone Kops supporting cast, and a predictable (but enjoyable) ending. A film like this starts fast, generates comic scenes as the plot unfolds, and then at some point begins to lose energy as we realize that the film is not going to break new ground—it is going to settle into a pleasant routine of light comedy. The characters are types, and after a while the Spaghetti Western twangy music becomes a one-trick pony. The ending scene—which occurs three months after the primary action begins—is pleasant enough—with a cute ending shot that amounts to one last fantasy scene for the audience. In other words, the film was a pleasant diversion, and yet not memorable.