Picks: Average Fare
The Family Stone. Dir. Thomas Bezucha. I came away from this film with an enhanced appreciation of the comedic talent of Jessica Parker. And that’s about it. What an uninteresting and uninspiring cast of characters. We have wealth, an essential ingredient for what passes as American suburban comedies. We have the deaf gay son and his African American partner, and they are required to be absolutely perfect (and thus perfectly boring) characters. We have the mean-spirited and vindictive daughter with no explanation for her behavior other than the soap-opera default that “mean is funny.” We have the obvious and artless premise that son will bring home his fiancée who will fall in love with his brother while he falls in love with her sister who shows up on cue. We have the indefensible premise that if one of the main characters is dying from cancer, then she has every right to act like a monster anytime she feels like it. I’m sure this all could have worked somehow, but for me the pulleys and levers all were showing. Nothing was transparent or seamless. What stuck in my craw was the meanness of this family toward the outsider, the intended fiancée. I suppose the idea is that because they were right to suspect the integrity of this match-up, it was okay to be as mean to her as possible. The end justifies the means. If that is what I am to think, then the execution of that premise failed. The worst scene of all was the one at the dinner table, when poor Jessica Parker is browbeaten because she apparently makes a politically incorrect statement about deaf children not being wanted by parents. When the mother attacks Jessica’s obviously messy thinking process, and then screams, “God damn you!” at her from across the table, I checked out of this film. What right does she have to condemn the young woman for daring to talk about the subtleties of life’s many outcomes? It is great that in this family being gay is not a problem; but what about all the other families in the world where gay children are not as welcomed, not as accepted, not as affirmed, and face lives of great difficulty and pain because society has not accepted or affirmed them? Oh, I only wish that Jessica’s character had not given up the fight at that table. The real villain of this piece, I fear, is the screenwriter, who really believes that people talk this way and act this way and are in all respects clueless. The rest of the film is the double-story of the confused lovers, each exchanging the other for a preferred lover (brothers and sisters and brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws). The coda of the film, another Christmas reunion of the family, is a lovely ending to the film, but by then I still was not over my own excoriation of the mother, so wickedly played by Diane Keaton. The last shot is a good one—of a great family picture on the wall of the living room—showing Diane Keaton’s character with one of her children in happier days.
Forty Shades of Blue. Dir. Ira Sachs. The film’s ending betrayed this viewer—because up until that point it was possible, as far as I was concerned, to see the film as having some enduring value. It’s an old story: a young woman, a Russian immigrant with fragile beauty, lives with an older man, a famed record producer (giving her security and the good life—better than anything she could have had back in Moscow, she admits). She is the fish out of water: living amidst famed record producers whose lives extend back to the 60s and 70s in Memphis. But she has a son—and that means she has a legacy worth sacrificing for. Into that world comes the record producer’s son, a hunk, and although he is married the marriage is on the rocks. It’s an old story. So we have the record producer’s son eyeing the beautiful and fragile young Russian immigrant, and you know what happens eventually. I lived with the film through the ups and downs of the woman’s story—suffering through her relationship with her philandering husband—and her torturous sexual relationship with the son—and then I began to hanker for a completion of some arc of the storyline. After all, these characters have to figure out what they are doing. They have to come to terms with their commitments and their values. In effect, they do—but I have to report that the last 15-20 minutes of the film was torturous for me as a viewer. I got tired of the characters; I got tired of the story. When that happens to a viewer, the filmmaker doesn’t stand much of a chance of resuscitating the patient (his film). I did appreciate the last shot of the film, which showed the young woman walking away from the older man in her live—just far enough away to get some air, to be able to breathe on her own—because he was a stifling presence in her life. Yes, he was a limited character—played magnificently by Rip Torn. But he was not a monstrous character, and in some respects the film portrayed him monstrously. In one scene, for instance, his having sex with the young woman (who agrees finally to marry him—his way of holding on to her), and that sex scene comes across like a bondage scene with overtones of oppression. But by that time in the film I thought, “Yes, I get your point. She is trapped. But do you get my complaint? What is she going to do about it?” What I thought was missing was a dramatic arc to the story that would have led inexorably to some kind of resolution that would have been less mushy than what we were handed at the end of this film.
Heights, dir. Chris Terrio (2004). There are a lot of educated and articulate people in this film. For a short time I recalled the effect of such education on the characters in Woody Allen films (in the good old days). But then he would never have given the film this title, and he would have known what to do with these interlocking stories, as he did in Hannah and Her Sisters. What's missing from this film is the sweetness of the old Woody Allen films, as well as his ability to make people look stupid when they really deserve to be labeled that way because of their actions. I think one of the words that stuck in my craw as I watched the film was the word pretense. Everyone is so smart and articulate, and yet all of their linguistic virtuosity and knowledge of the ways of the world fell flat to me. I never bought the interlocking stories, and the drama of the stories was undermined by the conventionality of the plotting. In the first few minutes it is apparent that the beautiful and intelligent and articulate young woman Isabel (Elizabeth Banks) is not going to marry her fiancée-even though the wedding is less than a month away. Knowing that in my gut, I was baffled that nothing that came after seemed to give me any insights into that woman's character or, for the most part, the other characters in the film. Let me count the ways this did work. First, our heroine is a photographer, but I never believed she had any photographic skill or passion for the art based on her behaviors. In a climactic moment, and feeling depressed (about the extent of her range of emotions) she gets on the subway, sits across from an African American woman and her daughter, and begins to take pictures of these people. Now as a photographer (and I am one) I have surreptitiously taken photographs of person-on-the-street subjects. Stealing a good photograph is not a crime. But sitting across from the subject and snapping away is stupidity and the heights of arrogance. Later, at a party, she confides in someone that her subject, the mother, called her out based on her invasion of her privacy. But she talks about it as if it were another step in her intellectual and artistic development. For these characters, and particularly for this young woman, everything is about me. How am I doing? How can I deal with this any longer? If you had a mother like mine, wouldn't you consider emigration to Canada? To get to the point: I think this character of Isabel is the linchpin character of the film; and even more to the point, you have to accept her as a character in order to accept this film. And I did not accept her character. I was bored by her, I was tired of her in 15 minutes, and I was sick of her egotistical soul-searching. Now there were some bright spots, as there always are in a film like this. The director often used a split-screen technique to show the actions of two characters at the same time. This came in handy particularly at the climax of the film when we needed to see both the reaction shot and the point of view shot of the primary character. Yes, this was a nice touch, and I appreciated it. As for characters in the film, Isabel's mother, played by Glenn Close, had the energy and passion for character that made her believable. Glenn Close's character, a vain theatrical director, was a kind of Lady McBeth emotionally. She liked to eat people. Close constructed that character flawlessly, and in one great scene the character breaks down emotionally-but lets no one else see it. I could have watched a film about this character and learned something about the human condition. But as for Isabel-well, she was beautiful, so beautiful, and young, so young.
Illusive Tracks. Dir. Peter Dalle. (Sweden, 2003). I saw this at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, and it was a packed house. I enjoyed the film, but at the end I felt disappointed that all of the set-up, carefully worked out early in the film, did not pay off. Instead, the film ends with a series of plot twists that trivializes character development. The film combined a black and white film noir look with a slapstick style. This combination worked for me early in the film. All of the characters get on the same train from Stockholm, at the end of WW II, headed for Berlin. The main character, a Jeff Daniels look-alike, is a first-rate klutz. Several times he bumps into one character after another, particularly a poor wounded soldier. At first this slapstick is funny, but eventually it goes over-the-top and becomes predictable. That’s when my interest began to wane. Of course, there are two lovers on the train, and they plan to kill a man’s wife so that they can live together. They are from film-noir-central-casting, but they really are not interesting characters. As I watched the film, I kept thinking that the klutz, who at one point does meet the wife (intended murder victim), would somehow connect with that woman by the end of the film. Well, forget that idea. The film dissolves into one crazy situation after another, especially those relating to the intended murder plan—which goes awry like a Roman candle gone haywire. But oh, there were some funny moments. In one scene the klutz enters a car filled with starving refugees. All of them are sick. We learn from one of the attendant nuns that some jackass gave the refugees chocolate. Of course, because they had been starved, the chocolate caused them all to get violently ill. We realize, as we watch our hero walking through the car, that he is that jackass! This interaction leads to more humor and finally one of the nuns realizes she has lost her faith in humankind and has a great humorous monologue. Just imagine: a fallen nun! Yes, there was humor in this film. But all of the characters, including our klutz, are one-dimensional, flat characters. And that’s why the ending of the film is so disappointing. Take a lesson from Kung Fu Hustle. Sometimes a character that looks flat, is really round. Get that character to become round, and you have a satisfying climax.
In Her Shoes. Dir. Curtis Hanson. This film was entertainment enough to be watchable, but it was by no means a noteworthy achievement. I found the first few scenes, focusing on the relationship between two estranged sisters, played by Toni Colette and Cameron Diaz, as remarkably dark in tone. But that shadowy tone soon was replaced as the plot kicked in, and soon the self-destructive sister was headed off to a romanticized version of an assisted-living community in Florida—where she meets her long-lost grandmother (Shirley MacLaine), and everything thereafter is sweetness and light for her. The grandmother knows how to deal with her sneaky ways, she meets the perfect resident of an assisted-living facility (and her disability is suddenly cured), and apparently there are no men between the ages of 20-40 anywhere to be seen! (And her attraction to men has been the source of her undoing, of course). At least the old people are not caricatures or stereotypes of silly old people. At the same time, there is no attempt to make them anything more than one-dimensional as characters. Meanwhile, Toni Colette does her usual yeoman’s work of creating a believable, three-dimensional character. The secret is easy. The more I looked at Toni Colette, the more attractive she became to me—because the more real she became to me. And the opposite holds for Cameron Diaz—whose unbelievable—and apparently perfect—body shape (more like an idealized mannequin than a woman’s actual body shape) is distracting and decidedly uninteresting. I have decided that Toni Colette simply has what it takes to realize a character. She is, to use an old-fashioned word, an actor. She inhabits the character. She can do with her eyes and facial expression what Diaz just cannot draw upon in her repertoire of acting tricks. This film had its heart in the right place. We wanted to believe that these two young women could renew their close-knit bond they once possessed in childhood. But too much was left out in the film to make that regeneration credible.
King of the
Corner. Dir. Peter Riegert (2004).
At least with independent films you don’t have to worry about
Lord of War. Dir. Andrew Niccol. I had some problems with the back story of this film—that is, the context for how our main character, Uri, became an arms dealer. There are scenes of him growing up in Little Odessa, a New York City neighborhood, and yet they were unconvincing to me. At one point the main character, who narrates the film, says, “It’s in our nature.” That did not help me understand his motivation. He just was an arms dealer, and that’s all there is to it. The opening segment of the film shows the life history of a bullet, from manufacture to the killing of an African boy—as seen from the bullet’s point of view (as we hear the famous song “Something’s Happening Here”). And then we learn he has a brother—and a loser brother at that! How many times have we had the story where the character has to pay for the sins of his loser brother! That did not bode well for this film. Here’s another issue. Throughout the film Nicolas Cage, as Uri, narrates his story—but he does it in a deadpan style of vocalization, as if nothing he does really matters. He simply is what he is. Are we to see him as an unreliable narrator? Or are we to trust him implicitly. He tells his autobiography, beginning in the 1980s. Soon he is running drugs as well as guns—partly because his brother is hooked on cocaine and he has this need to stick with his brother and be a good older brother in that traditional immigrant family value system. But here’s the trouble with this film: I was not moved by the story. I was not moved by his problems with his brother. All of it seemed too formulaic and too forced to be believable. And I was frustrated as well by the sound track—one song ticked off after another song, one montage after another montage, another track on the CD of the movie to be consumed. So then he gets married by fooling a beautiful model into thinking that he is some kind of international businessman. But I didn’t care about him or his model wife or his brother—and that made it difficult for me to get involved in the story. One thing we did not get enough of in the film were scenes of Uri alone, perhaps doubting himself, perhaps dealing with dark nights of his soul. Instead, as he become a better and better arms dealer, suddenly the attention turns to a personal competition with another famous arms dealer. And you know Uri will have to win that competition. I kept thinking to myself, “Who is this guy? Why should I care about him in any way?” He never gets it—he never figures out that he is one of the bad guys. He is the King of rationalizers. He always has the answer. He becomes an amoral monster because he accuses the world of being amoral. It’s never his fault. Then again, I wonder if I was supposed to think that or if I was supposed to sympathize with his plight in some way. I could not tell from the way the story was told. And then the film begins to move slowly—and I mean slowly. One conversation after another. And the loser brother returns to drugs, and I did not care one way or the other. Then there is a conflict set up between an FBI agent and our arms dealer, but clever Uri eludes his grasp, and soon he is facing another moral dilemma—his favorite African tyrant hands him over the rival arms dealer and expects Uri to murder him. All of this leads to a hard-driving and monotonous set of dark nights of the soul for our Uri. But nothing changes him.
As I watched this film, I often thought of Goodfellas (1990), a classic film because there we understood our character, the low-level Mafia guy whose life eventually unraveled before he ratted on his bosses and accepted survival through the witness protection program. We saw that man broken in a beautiful set of scenes near the end of the film. But in this film, after Uri’s dark night of the soul, he sums up his reason for continuing with the arms trade with a simple response: “I’m good at it.” This guy was clueless. By this time I was not clueless—and I was bored by the repetition of the storyline. But don’t forget the loser brother. He has to come back with Uri to make a big sale (here we are—brother working together: what a great bonding experience). Let me see if I get this straight. His brother is his conscience—the core of goodness in his being. That’s why he has to bring the brother with him. And guess what happens to his conscience. Right—nothing is going to stop him from continuing the trade. At the end of the film he pulls out his ace of spades from under the table: the American government supports his gun-running because it is politically expedient to do so. You see: it was never his fault. As he concludes, he is a “necessary evil.” But the real evil, the real bad guys, are the gun-running and weapons-dealing governments around the globe. Now if that’s the way I’m supposed to look at it, then why make a film about a bum who never figures out he is the one that embraced evil—nobody forced him into that life of crime. So at the end of the film, again I was troubled about the tone of the film (the director’s attitude toward the subject matter). Was Uri merely a victim of larger forces in the world? Was I supposed to forgive him for his complicity in evil because he is not the only evil one? No—I checked out on this one a long time ago.
Must Love Dogs.
Dir. Gary David Goldberg.