Posted: July 31st, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to”Another Movie Guy?”! This week I wondered whether I’d be able to find a connection between two new releases, Funny Peopleand Burma VJ. One is a documentary about journalists who expose the truth about a military junta, whereas the other is a comedy about ill-behaved comedians. After Funny People, I left the theater in a beleaguered state, and it dawned on me that both movies are about forty minutes too long. Moreover, I wanted to like them more than I did. Unfortunately, the respective directors had too much faith in weak material.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to watch an open mic night. Several comedians performed, including one who embarrassingly bombed. At first the audience gave him the benefit of a doubt. Then he began a tedious bit about plastic surgery, and good will gave way to jeers and sarcastic laughter. The comedian’s only recourse was to discuss his insecurities and to insult the audience. Such a breakdown informed my thoughts on Funny People, Judd Apatow’s ambitious new comedy. It shrewdly examines a man who only knows how to be funny and mean, and what might happen if he’s forced to take stock of his life. The result is honest, yes, but not particularly rewarding. Short on laughs and long on running time, Apatow’s third directorial effort falters.
Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a sellout comedic actor who gains massive wealth with high-concept Hollywood garbage (not unlike Sandler himself). Leaving his mansion for the doctor’s office, George gets bad news: he has a rare blood disease, and the experimental treatment he’s given only has an eight percent success rate. Without friends, Simmons wanders to a comedy club, a place where he can be honest and people might listen. There he meets Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian who is jealous of his successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman). Much to Ira’s surprise, he’s asked by George to write some jokes for an upcoming corporate event. Ira agrees, and quickly becomes George’s confidant/whipping boy. Abusing the younger comedian is not rewarding enough, so George turns to Laura (Leslie Mann), his One Who Got Away. She still has feelings for George, and the two even consider a future together. Too bad Laura’s Australian husband (Eric Bana) is in the way.
Funny People is clearly more ambitious than Apatow’s prior movies, and here he overreaches. The problem is not with the actors. Rogen successfully plays a goofball who has trouble handling a serious situation. Sandler plays a character not unlike his roles from the mid-90s; like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, Simmons can be obnoxious and cruel, with little empathy for others. Unlike Sandler’s goofy characters, George’s bad behavior has real consequences, and he’s a believable jackass. Some moments, particularly as Ira and George get to know one another, Sandler notably juxtaposes humor and buried pain. Still, the problem is that Funny People lacks the warm emotional core found in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Apatow’s characters are realistic and their drama is authentic, yet that does not engender an overwrought climax.
The sequence in question is a long weekend at Laura’s home. Even if it gives Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) a chance to really act, the climax becomes tedious. Character choices are unclear, and too often these scenes announce emotion instead of showing it. The vulgar best friends, usually an Apatow highlight, are unfunny because they’re too selfish in such a dramatic universe (this is especially true during Ira’s romantic subplot, which never gains speed). Oh, and there are numerous cameos, from celebrities and up-and-comers alike, and their clever one-liners cannot save the exacerbating final scenes. Perhaps Apatow loves his movie too much to pare it down. Like the characters of Funny People, comedians are great company when they’re on point. When they’re not funny, their company can be almost unbearable, especially with a two and a half hour running time.
With Burma VJ, director Anders Østergaard tries to accomplish a noble thing with meager material. Late in the summer of 2007, Burma saw the beginnings of an uprising, one that eventually escalated to violence. After the 1988 riots left hundreds dead, the Burmese were too afraid to speak out. Everyone considers the monks a legitimate political force, so when they protest nearly 20 years later, ordinary citizens take to the streets. Østergaard documents the uprising with the help of undercover journalists (like the recent Tehran protests, borders were closed to foreign press). Using the pseudonym Joshua, a journalist serves as narrator, and is never shown on camera. He describes how he and his colleagues would risk their lives for newsworthy images. Secret police scatter throughout the city, and Joshua can never be sure when they will spot him. As the conflict escalates, Joshua flatly notes that more deaths are the only way to stir global conscience.
The principle weakness with Burma VJ is the quality of the smuggled footage. Joshua and others had to contend with military police and omnipresent fear, and it follows they could not always get the best shot. I realize the journalists were brave and did the best they could, yet they give Østergaard little to work with, and so his documentary lacks emotional power. At the height of the protests, for example, a journalist snags a shot of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (recent Gandhi prize winner), who has been living under house arrest. It should be a climactic, stirring moment, one that inspires others to act. Joshua says the image is blurry and the woman is at a distance, yet is moved to tears. Audience members lack Joshua’s immediate investment in the struggle, and will not have a similar reaction. That is not to say, however, that all the footage is uninspiring. Journalists catch moments when ordinary Burmese proclaim their desire for martyrdom, and there is suspense as a journalist hides from gunfire. Some especially stirring shots capture the scope of the protests. Østergaard and Joshua have moving stuff, just not enough for a feature-length documentary.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when romanticcomedy overload continues.
Posted: July 24th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I start with a piece of good news. Now that I have fancy schmancy press passes, you need no longer wait until the following Monday for my reviews! This week I take a look at two indie comedies that differ wildly in ambition. One is a political satire, the other is a sex comedy. One has more than a dozen important characters, the other (barely) has five. What the comedies share (and what makes them funny) is a love of the profane, and sharp performances.
In the Loop is a screwball comedy about low-level bureaucrats, English and American, and how they inadvertently start a diplomatic meltdown. Comparisons to Dr. Strangelove are inevitable, yet this movie distinguishes itself with a unique perspective and with an abundance of profanity. What these frustrated government functionaries share is ambivalence toward war, and an obscene obsession with their careers. The ensemble includes a number of key players, some recognizable and others not, so the plot becomes overwhelming. Thankfully, most scenes are funny even if they stand alone, and the sharply off-kilter dialog gives the actors an opportunity to shine.
Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, an English political appointee who, in an interview with the press, makes the mistake of speaking his mind. Now it appears the Brits are openly discussing the idea of invading the Middle East, much to the dismay of profane Communications Director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). In an effort to correct the problem, Tucker sends Foster to the United States. Of course, hawkish Americans in the State Department, notably Linton Barwick (David Rasche) and Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), see the snafu an opportunity to further their agenda. Hapless subordinates become increasingly frustrated with their schizophrenic bosses. Soon the only recourse is for everyone to indulge in childlike behavior. Our only hope is a dovish general (James Gandolfini) who stumbles upon an anti-war memo written by underling Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky aka Vada Sultenfuss aka MY GIRL).
Director Armando Iannucci and his team of screenwriters essentially riff on the myriad ways a character can say “Go fuck yourself.” These bureaucrats are smart and selfish, and as they worry more about their reputation, their curses become increasingly creative. Capaldi shines as a supremely angry man, one who thinks nothing of berating anyway in his way. There are numerous digs at Washington politicos. One character says our city is run by children, and subsequent meetings prove the assertion accurate. I guess In the Loop says something about the big picture: even the most powerful political machine is prone to human error, and preserving the status quo can have disastrous consequences. Frankly, the movie works better as a tapestry of insult comedy than as a satire. Many plot lines go nowhere, and things get too confusing for any coherent statement. In the Loop will definitely make you laugh, just not necessarily for all the right reasons.
I always wondered what happened to the girl who played Vada Sultenfuss. What random mid-90s actress would you like to see in movies again? I’m thinking Larisa Oleynik (I still have a crush on Alex Mack).
Whereas In the Loop features complex bureaucratic shenanigans, Lynn Shelton’s new mumblecore comedy Humpdayis blissfully simple. It tells the story of two straight men who decide to fuck each other on camera. Don’t think, however, that Shelton goes for cheap laughs and gross-out gags. Friendship and masculinity are at the center of her movie. In the midst of many funny moments, there are two sensitive men who worry about losing their youth and creativity. Even during outlandish scenes, the dialog feels authentic. I can even imagine real people having similar conversations (not that I know any straight dudes who fuck on camera).
Mark Duplass plays Ben, a happily married Seattleite with a nice house and a decent job. His wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) is funny and understanding – the two lead a comfortable existence. Then Ben’s college friend Andrew (Joshua Leonard) arrives, and the marriage immediately strains. Andrew is a free spirit, I guess, and his manner unnerves Anna, who dutifully tries to be a good host. The next day Andrew meets artists who live in a polyamorous group house. Ben shows up at the group house (unironically titled Dionysus), and everyone discusses HUMP!, Seattle’s amateur porn festival. Andrew drunkenly suggests he fuck Ben on camera, and Ben drunkenly agrees. The next morning, they still have a hotel room for the occasion, and the stupid suggestion becomes strangely serious. Of course, Ben still has to tell Anna about his bizarre idea.
For the first third, tensions will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a romantic comedy (You, Me and Dupree springs immediately to mind). Don’t worry – when Ben and Andrew awaken from their night at Dionysus, the movie takes on a life of its own. It goes without saying that any dudes who seriously consider such an idea must have a sense of humor – Ben in particular has a witty running commentary that frequently undercuts tension. We learn these guys were wild men in college, and are highly sensitive to their perception of each other. Ben worries he’s too straight-laced; Andrew sees himself as a hopeless hipster doofus. Shelton subtly changes the audience’s perception of her characters, so their development is uncommonly natural. A scene with Andrew and two bisexual women (including Shelton herself) highlights the anxieties and double standards most straight, porn-loving young men must have. Needless to say, it turns out that on a deeper level, broad caricatures don’t come close to defining Ben and Andrew.
Anna learns of her husband’s plan (shocker), and the revelation does not cause an argument but a discussion, one in which frank confessions are surprisingly funny. Then the Big Scene finally arrives. I won’t reveal what happens, except to say Ben and Andrew learn about their sexuality and friendship, as well as the possibilities of art. It’s rare to see dick jokes juxtaposed with introspective drama. Humpday takes bold risks, and the payoff is deeper than I expected.
Now that you’ve seen Humpday, I’m curious to know where you think the three main characters fall on the Kinsey scale.
Posted: July 20th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
For a movie that wears its influences firmly on its sleeve, I think it appropriate to begin my 500 Days of Summer review with a bold comparison: this movie is our generation’s Annie Hall. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Marc Webb’s directorial debut will upset a crowd-pleasing space opera for Best Picture, nor do I think the titular character’s fashion will influence thousands of style-starved women*. Yet here is a modern movie about a relationship that crumbles. The male lead is neurotic, the female lead is perplexing. The jokes veer from the heartfelt to the surreal to the pretentious. Both movies use style flourishes to illustrate contradicting gender perspectives, and even feature brief animated sequences. 500 Days of Summer may not become a classic, but like Annie Hall, it will please audiences with its humor and insight, and even inspire some bitter debate.
Two choices make Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay somewhat striking. Firstly, they do not tell the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in chronological order. We learn from the get-go that Tom is dumbstruck when Summer dumps him, and title cards note which day of the 500 we’re watching. This choice gives the story depth. Rather than follow Tom chronologically, there is a better sense of his emotional trajectory. When Tom wistfully says something Summer ignores, it soon becomes clear he’s alluding to a private joke, so Summer’s coldness takes on another dimension.
The second important choice is how the story is told entirely from Tom’s perspective. After a brief introduction from a stately narrator, there is little mention of Summer’s private life, or what she’s thinking. I’m sure Tom will remind everyone of someone they know – the honest audience goers will see a little of themselves in the character. He is a would-be architect, now working as a greeting card artist. Unlike Summer who is skeptical of romance, Tom is a true believer in love. This disagreement is at the core of their break-up, and renders Tom a pathetic (but lovable) mess.
Trust me when I say the movie is not a mopey cryfest. Webb and his writers imbue 500 Days of Summer with considerable humor. Tom is lovelorn, yes, but he can also be funny, particularly in the throes of romantic excess. There are familiar romantic comedy archetypes – we have the nerdy best friend (Geoffrey Arend), and the unrealistically precocious little sister (Chloe Moretz). The supporting cast (mostly) avoids cliché, and provides chuckles as well as a sound board for Tom. Fantastical moments, however, are where the movie excels. Not only are they funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, they also deftly exaggerate Tom’s emotion. After the first night with a new partner, many people have probably felt they could burst into song – here Webb lets us into Tom’s mind, and we experience his choreographed fantasy. Later, while reeling from the break-up, Tom envisions himself as a Bergman hero in the depths of a Serious Spiritual Crisis. Such daring choices could have derailed the movie, yet the careful performances prevent things from becoming too twee. Gordon Levitt has real chops, and knows that restraint is more powerful than exaggeration.
Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve barely mentioned Deschanel’s character. It’s no accident – she remains a mystery, and we only see her superficially pleasant qualities. While Summer is consistently forthright, it’s a credit to Deschanel’s performance that we understand why she ends her relationship. The brief glimpses into her private life are unhelpful. Her apartment leaves more questions than answers, and the Belle and Sebastian** lyrics in her yearbook entry are also mysterious. I don’t mean this as a criticism; in fact, the choice is brilliant. Since we know more about Summer than Tom does, it is easy to get frustrated with his foolish idealized projection. At the end of the 500 days, Tom learns something about himself, and perhaps so have the viewers. I know I’ve had Tom moments. Here is a clever, warm-hearted comedy reminding us that romantic thoughts can be fraught with peril, and the one often shows up only when we’re ready.
* I think a few audience members will want to dress like the two leads. I definitely found myself considering whether to purchase more ties and sweater vests.
** Like Junoand High Fidelity, there are numerous pop culture references. The screenwriters wisely keep them more than a generation old. Anything more recent and they run the risk of sounding stale. A perfect example is when Tom sings karaoke version of a Pixies song. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it’s refreshing to see a movie in which young people spend considerable time at the bar.
Posted: July 13th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I normally review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. This is a special week – on Friday three of my most anticipated titles released on the same day. So instead of a normal column, this one is heavy on the new releases, and light on the recommendations.
If you have seen the trailers for Bruno, you know exactly what to expect. Sacha Baron Cohen is a fearless comedian, and his over-the-top characters provide interesting insight into American prejudice. As with Borat, there are moments of hilarity, disgust, shock, outrage, fear, and male nudity. Sure, I laughed and appreciated Cohen’s nervy risks, but Bruno does not feel like necessary viewing. Moreover, the plot (if it can be called that) is more threadbare than Borat’s. Without a story on which an audience can latch, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for the gay Austrian TV star. Another difference is in Cohen’s methodology. Borat is awful, yes, but he’s also strangely innocent. He does not always deliberately provoke, and has a wider breadth of attack. As Bruno, Cohen wants people to hate his character, and his provocations are even a little sinister. His inappropriate behavior elicits an appropriate response, particularly with the more high-profile victims. The funniest scenes are the most visually shocking, specifically because of Cohen’s audacity. Other moments, such as Bruno’s hunting trip, disappointingly go for the most obvious joke. While I applaud Cohen’s bold risks, his latest experiment only sometimes works.
Unlike most sci-fi directors (I’m looking at you Michael Bay), Duncan Jones does not think you are an idiot. He understands a fun movie does not necessarily appeal to your basest sensibility. He expects you probingly ponder his new movie, Moon, which contains sinister ideas, and rewards careful attention. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an engineer who is nearly finished his solitary three-year stint on a lunar space station. He receives regular messages from his wife and boss. His only companion is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a robot who is like a cross between HAL-9000 and a vending machine crane. After seeing Moon, I debated whether to include a minor spoiler, one that other reviews freely disclose. Ultimately, I decided to keep things spoiler free, as I can discuss the movie’s merit without revealing any secrets. Let’s just say that after so much time alone, Sam experiences an identity crisis.
Rockwell is astonishing. As Sam, he goes through nearly every conceivable emotion, often in the same instant. The production design is plausibly austere – Jones owes a lot to Kubrick and Tarkovsky. Other influences are less obvious. Yes, GERTY bears a similarity to HAL, and with his logical fallacies, he is also reminiscent of Asimov’s robots. The special effects never distract from the story, and are sometimes quietly impressive. Clint Mansell’s haunting score is his best work since Requiem for a Dream. All these elements enrich the movie’s substantial ideas on the soul, memory, human nature, and loss. I’ve heard complaints that Moon’s ending is too hasty, even abrupt. I respectfully disagree – Jones wisely restrains himself, forcing your own conclusions. His movie is brainy fun, something you don’t find too much nowadays.
If you more identity crises in science fiction, I heartily recommend Solaris, Timecrimes, and Dark City. Out of curiosity, to those who’ve seen Blade Runner, do you think Deckard is a replicant?
Unlike most action directors (still looking at you, Michael Bay), Kathryn Bigelow does not think you are an idiot. She knows suspense requires patience, and that the explosion is not as exciting as the moments immediately preceding it. She knows you’re more thrilled when the characters are three dimensional. With her latest effort, The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has you by the throat for two astonishing hours. Set in 2004 Baghdad, she sees the city as a crumbling war zone, where danger is omnipresent. Bigelow focuses on two bomb-diffusers with radically different methods. Sargent Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is skilled and by the book. His superior, Staff Sargent James (Jeremy Renner), thrives on danger, and will take extreme risks to get the job done. The movie opens with a simple statement: “War is a drug.” Much to the chagrin of Sanborn, James demonstrates that fact as they undertake mission after mission.
Bigelow eschews a traditional plot. Using an episodic structure, she follows the last days of the soldiers’ tour. The daily missions become deadly, and Bigelow directs these set pieces with uncanny precision. She gives you a sense of space, and where the soldiers are in relation to their enemy; when a deadly third element is introduced, the suspense becomes almost unbearable. One sequence in particular, in which James and Sanborn meet British special forces, is absolutely perfect, and is the best action scene I’ve seen in years. Like the entire movie, it ends on a note that’s abrupt but appropriate, so that you have few answers and many questions. War becomes like a drug for the audience – I found myself craving action in a way similar to James. Mackie and Renner do superlative work. James does not love the bombs he diffuses, but they provide him with a sense of purpose. He approaches the bombs with an odd combination of respect and curiosity. And when James takes off his protective suit, Sanborn sees the reckless behavior and nonetheless reacts like a professional. I read that in filming The Hurt Locker, Bigelow took an unconventional approach. She and her associates financed the movie themselves, and sold the rights after a premier on the festival circuit. I’m grateful she took such a risk. This is an uncompromising action movie, and you should see it ASAP.
If you’re interested in exploring Bieglow’s other work, I recommend Strange Days, Near Dark, and Point Break. Yes, Keanu Reeves is ridiculous, but you’d be surprised to see that his movie still holds up.
Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
My office is not well decorated. There are the typical stacks of pens and mind-numbing spreadsheets, with little else to make it unique. The only real noteworthy decoration is a glossy print-out of the LOLchair. The LOLchair always brings a smile to my face. Now that I’ve seen Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Objectified, which was screened at the Corcoran gallery on Monday night, I think of design differently. Looking at the LOLchair now, I can’t help but think the designer deliberately gave it its anthropomorphic qualities.
Like Hustwit’s previous documentary Helvetica, he provides a visually appealing crash course in design, and even helps audiences consider their world in a new light. He begins with static close-ups of appealingly designed objects, ones that are familiar to everyone. Through interviews from designers and journalists, Hustwit establishes a context for thinking about design, and highlights different approaches designers use. Using vacuum cleaners as an example, a journalist describes how form and purpose intersect: a sleek Dirtdevil might find its home on a coffee table, whereas the shape of a seemingly clunky Dyson symbolizes its considerable sucking power.
The designers themselves use language that’s not too technical, and focus on the creative aspect of their career. They discuss their methods easily, often with ample wit. An interview with an Apple designer is particularly illuminating. He argues that objects should appear as if they weren’t designed, so that people think, “Well, of course that’s how an mp3 player should look.” Other designers touch issues of sustainability, the future of design, and its economic potential. These philosophies soon become dizzying, yet Hustwit ensures viewers will not be lost. More important than any one approach is the kind of careful thinking the designers share. They want their products to improve the world and change the way people consume, even if it’s on an unconscious level.
Hustwit was available for questions after the screening. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and was eager to discuss his film with an audience of (mostly) industrial and graphic designers. I asked whether he knows the structure of his movie before he begins shooting. He said he generally has little idea of the final product’s structure, and that it becomes gradually clear as the interviews continue. For this 75 minute movie, Hustwit filmed an impressive eighty hours of footage – he joked that the DVD* might feature, “the seventy-nine hour director’s cut.” The questions gradually became more technical, and Hustwit deliberately positioned himself in the middle ground between designer and novice. In the end, he hopes Objectified will get non-designers curious about why objects take a particular shape. I can’t speak for others, but after Monday’s screening, I’ll certainly look at my stuff more carefully.
*Hustwit made no mention of the DVD’s release, but did say that Objectified will air on PBS later this year.
Posted: July 7th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
On the surface, the French dramedy The Girl from Monaco has plenty in common with Whatever Works. Both movies revolve around uptight middle-aged men and their affairs with young, uncultured women. Whereas Woody Allen gently observes his subjects, co-writer/director Anne Fontaine is far more scathing. None of her characters are particularly likeable or interesting. Unlikeable characters do not necessarily make a movie unwatchable, but the added tedium of a predictable plot certainly doesn’t help.
Parisian lawyer Bertrand Beauvois (Fabrice Luchini) is in Monaco for a high-profile case. He’s the sort of upright guy who would feel at home in a Eric Rohmer movie; he’d rather discuss the erotic significance of a first kiss than get to second base. Two locals unexpectedly disrupt Bertrand’s life – stoic bodyguard Christophe (Roschdy Zem), and beautiful TV weather girl Audrey (Louise Bourgoin). Much to Bertrand’s surprise, he attracts Audrey’s attention, and the two begin a passionate affair. Her attraction to him is never explained, or particularly believable. The unlikely couple learns more about each other. She’s attracted to his intellect, and he’s turned off by her vulgar behavior. They discuss the future, and Bertrand becomes increasingly desperate. His work suffers, so he turns to Christophe for help.
The plot could have easily been fare for an amusing farce, but Fontaine has other things on her mind. The key difference between her approach and that of a standard comedy is the portrayal of Audrey. Yes, she is without guile and sophistication, but she is not a bad woman. Moreover, her excesses do not justify Bertrand’s behavior towards her. Fontaine tries to portray a comically exaggerated relationship between two plausible characters. She fails to repair the rift between comedic and dramatic elements, so the movie falters. It is easy to believe the characters, but not their story. That is not to say the actors don’t do their best. Luchini strikes an appropriate balance between snobbery and vulnerability, and Bourgoin is utterly fearless as Audrey. Ultimately the quality of the acting cannot save the movie. Even the numerous sub-plots do not distract from the failed premise.
The Girl from Monaco is unsure whether it wants to provide breezy entertainment or criticism of modernity, and ultimately fails at both. The plot resolves itself in a predictable way, with some closure for the characters. An argument could be made that the Fontaine’s conclusion is deeply misogynistic. If it weren’t for the unsuccessful premise, its resolution might inspire fierce debate. I know a movie does not work when I find the background scenery more interesting than the central action. There are two May-December romances in theaters right now. I highly suggest you spend 90 minutes with Boris and Melody instead of Bertrand and Audrey.
Here are other, more entertaining examples of romances with a considerable age gap:
Starting Out in the Evening. Frank Langella stars as an aging novelist in this observant drama. He plays Leonard, the kind old-school writer who wears a suit while he diligently sits at his typewriter. Like many movie novelists, he’s having trouble with his next book, and is concerned with his legacy. Enter Heater (Lauren Ambrose), a bright graduate student with an interest in Leonard. She wants to write her thesis on him, and hopes that her product will renew interest in the writer’s work. The two begin an unlikely relationship, one that somewhat confuses Leonard’s daughter (Lili Taylor). Starting Out in the Evening is a careful, deliberate drama, one that plays out in a realistic way. Langella shines with this role – between this and Frost/Nixon, his career has rejuvinated nicely. Ambrose brings qualities similar to her character from Six Feet Under – Heather’s outgoing manner forces Leonard to be less reserved. The two eventually butt heads, and the plot resolves itself in a way that’s painful but refreshingly true-to-life. For those who still care deeply about books, the movie is quite rewarding.
Venus. Peter O’Toole is probably pretty pissed that he never won an Oscar, and he understandably swings for the fences in this romantic comedy. He plays Maurice, an aging actor whose desires exceed his capabilities. He meets Jessie, the daughter of a friend’s niece, and instantly yearns for her. Like many dirty old men before him, his actions are without remorse or tact, and she tolerates his advances up to a point. Of course, things get slightly more complicated when Jessie’s gets a new boyfriend. It’s funny and a little humiliating to watch Maurice in the midst of unfulfilled lust. O’Toole delivers yet another stellar performance, one bursting with intelligence and wit. In the hands of a lesser actor, Maurice might have been too creepy, but O’Toole turns him into a lovable old creep. In addition to an interesting central relationship, there are number of watchable minor characters, particularly Richard Griffiths as Maurice’s friend and Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife. O’Toole did not win the Oscar for Venus, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever get another opportunity. But don’t feel too bad for the guy – it’s rare for an actor to get such a fun part to play.
Chris & Don. A Love Story. This documentary looks at an unlikely but successful love affair between two men who share a 30 year age difference. Christopher Isherwood, a British novelist most famous for Cabaret, is a man who knows what he wants. When he meets Don Bachardy, a handsome teenage beach bum, he knows he’s found something special. At first Don is intimidated by Chris’ intellectual friends. Over the years, however, Don gets the opportunity develop his career, and becomes a talented painter. Co-directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi ably chronicle this fascinating relationship. The closeness between Chris and Don is a little creepy – Don eventually adopts Chris’ accent, and the two even bear a strong resemblance. Friends explicitly state Chris was looking for someone not unlike himself, and yet their genuine warmth assuages such creepiness. The documentary inevitably looks at the decline of Chris’ health and his eventual death. The final scenes are touching, particularly in the way Don fondly remembers his partner. Documentarians rarely choose soul mates as a subject, and it’s great to see a positive movie about the connection between two remarkable people.