Volume 4, Number 29
This Week's Reviews: Harvard Man, Lovely & Amazing, The Believer.
This Week's Omissions: Eight Legged Freaks, K-19: The Widowmaker, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, Stuart Little 2.
for a Dream
BY: DAVID PERRY
For a few decades, critics have been accusing James Toback of seemingly running out of ideas -- for many people, his sex-driven, angst-laden, existential diatribes are beginning to all look alike with no real point amid all their sex, drugs, and breakdowns. In my opinion, Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, his previous two films, were misunderstood: their matter-of-fact statements on issues that Toback probably has no idea about had an odd intimate grandeur to them, voyeuristic exercises that not only titillated but also provoked.
But for Harvard Man, I must throw in the towel. After a few years of defending Toback, it seems that he has finally decided that if critics are going to accuse him of making a certain kind of bad movie, he might as well make them. Harvard Man certainly tries to deal with something tangible, but Toback appears to feel cornered into a flurry of stylistic nightmares that kill the movie's possible chance for enlightenment.
Though the screenplay is reported to be six years old it seems more likely that Toback, a Harvard alum, must have been hard pressed for a new script after watching an episode of The Sopranos (probably the Emmy-winning "College"), spending an evening churning out a script that seems to bring together bits of his life, some mob clichés, and the basketball player plot from Black and White. Probably in a gesture to his own college days, the script was crafted in an evening of caffeine and cigarette haze, a work ethic that can produce results to turn in directly before the deadline but lacking the personal care of an essay constantly drafted over a couple days.
The director has tried to project himself into Alan Jensen (Grenier), an intellectual young basketball star on the Crimson squad who spends his days jumping between rigorous sex with his girlfriend Cindy Bandolini (Gellar) and post coital philosophical discussions with his professor Chesney Cort (Adams). When his parents lose their home in a Kansas tornado, Alan decides that his only choice for $100,000 to build a new house is to turn to Cindy's dad, New England mafia boss Andrew Bandolini (Russo). Soon misunderstandings accumulate around corrupt double-doings -- before long the movie turns into Toback's strained attempt to make Gossip seem like serious cinema.
A cavalcade of additional characters arrive, capped by a pair of threesome loving FBI agents (Stoltz and Gayheart) who have gotten into the good graces of the Bandolini family only to find an unknowing Alan fall right into their tangled web of evidence to bring the mafioso down. Alan might be better equipped to defend himself had he not downed three LSD-laced sugar cubes and now sees everyone with heads made out of Silly Putty (including Al Franken in an awfully contrived cameo).
As Toback tries to convince the audience that he has some pulse on the style of Jean-Luc Godard with languorous shots and jagged editing, the few charms of the movie lose all their appeal. He crafts the movie with enough devotion to the material to make it seem like there's more to the movie than the shallowness that he left bleeding throughout his script.
Grenier, who seems to still be struggling with puberty at 26, feels misplaced as a cocky academic while costar Gellar just struggles to read her lines without resorting to some Valley Girl colloquialisms. Though miscast, Adams nonetheless gives a nice portrayal as the most vulnerable character in the bunch; the way the actresses high-pitched voice seems out of place when waxing over Kierkegaard is equal to the perfect motherly way she tries to speak to Alan outside of the class (the film misses a few errors, having a teacher-student relationship openly engaged in Harvard Yard; though what do you expect from a film where a father character calls his son by the wrong name). These conversations have the same maternal quality that made her Alyssa character from Chasing Amy so perfect in dealing with the juvenile actions of Ben Affleck's Holden. Even as the rest of the ship is sinking through Toback's absurdities, Adams remains a constant joy with her down-to-earth performance.
However, Toback never really comes up with anything for
Adams' Chesney to do other than balance the rest of the film with her wisdom. Regardless
of a fine performance and the occasional moment of inventiveness, nothing within the
screenplay can save Harvard Man from an oblivion of pseudo-New Wave
pretentiousness. It's easy to see that Toback is pushing toward something that could be
interesting, but while hulking over his final, he evidently fell asleep in the library.
|Lovely & Amazing
BY: DAVID PERRY
The characters that inhabit Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing come at a time when strong, realistic female characters are needed in movies. Whether it's the empowered sass of Jennifer Lopez in Enough or the floozy ineptness of the ladies in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, this summer has been wholly unkind to female characters. The common complaints are that women never get strong roles in movies but these movies this summer have proven that even when they get the roles, filmmakers are much more interested in painting them with either abrasive exaggerations and clichés.
Hence the reason that the sisters Holofcener deals with are so incredibly extraordinary: in a Hollywood that has found the dumbed-down action film equivalent for the female viewing market, the idea of having any real emotional power within predominately female films without using the most sentimental schlock seems impossible. But the emotions Holofcener create in her screenplay never comes forcibly, but always seems earned. This isn't the type of movie where the ads might as well have a card saying "Bring some tissues" due to the fact that the entire film has been formatted for excess tear duct usage, but one where every breakthrough comes as an additional product of a strong story and strong characters trying to live their lives. If anyone in the audience cries, its as much out of joy as it is out of vicarious pain.
All the complexities that the sisters of Ya-Ya lacked are instead given to Holofcener's characters, all of whom are rational creations meant to represent more than just a small, inundated part of the female populace, but instead serve as proxies for the levelheaded women that really walk across our paths and occupy our lives everyday. Rarely can I say that the characters I'm writing about are possibly parallels to some of the readers I'm writing to -- this is one of those occasions.
At the heart of the movie is matriarch Jane Marks (Blethyn), a middle-aged widow living a simple life in a simple home filled with the designer pillows that have become her post-retirement obsession. She shares the home with her adopted daughter Annie (Goodwin), an 8-year-old who is struggling with the fact that she is both obese and black, thankful that Annie saved her from a crack-addict mother but wishing she had the same skin color as her adoptive mother and sisters (in a way, I was slightly reminded of Janie in the early moments of Their Eyes Were Watching God as she grew up around white children and only learned of her different color in the form of a picture).
Meanwhile, Jane's thirty-something daughters try to find some living in Los Angeles, a town that proves its exclusivity in its disdain for anyone 'unpretty' trying to advance themselves. The older of the two, Michelle (Keener), has discovered that her beauty queen youth opens no doors, finding herself at 36 with an unloving husband (Gregg), a failing job as an artist, and a series of friendships that are little more than shallow. She does have one good thing in her life, a daughter, but so much has been thrown on her over the years that all she really has to show for it is an acidic disposition.
The other sister, Elizabeth (Mortimer), seems to have it good, but in truth none of her achievements really mean anything (as everyone tries to tell the actress in hopes of exciting her, she's on a movie poster). But Julia Roberts, she's not -- her waif body and thinly intellectual boyfriend (LeGros) are constant reminders that she is not beautiful, a requisite that she sees missing from her résumé. Unlike Michelle, such problems have not turned Elizabeth into a cynic: she has an obsession with picking up rough looking dogs with no chance of adoption and even begins taking care of Annie (who, at one point, is referred to as having had no chance of adoption) when Jane is stuck in the hospital due to complications during surgery.
The surgery that Jane goes under the knife for, in fact, is not what people might expect: this grandmother is getting liposuction. She, seems to have the dispositions of her daughters, seeing the slightest hint of an attraction as the opening for an affair (Michelle does this with her teenage coworker [Gyllenhaal] at a one-hour photo shop) and worrying that her body is not up to terms with what the rest of the world expects (Elizabeth finds herself in a painful, almost masochistic, pose in front of her vain big-shot lover [Mulroney] so that he can point out everything that is wrong with her body). All the while, Annie serves as the marriage between all this, a small child who can only learn life from these three women who are still struggling to understand it themselves.
Holofcener, whose last film Walking and Talking
was similar treat, has assembled a strong cast for a film and lovingly molded a screenplay
that takes a film that could have been simply another Lifetime-style femme drama. But no
one involved seems willing to let the movie fall to such disgraces, and, in the process,
helps to create one of the year's most engaging movies of the year. One-dimensional
characters like Ya-Ya's Vivian Walker would probably hate it (of course, there's
no promising that she'd be sober enough to understand it), but You Can Count on Me's
Sammy Prescott, arguably the most down-to-earth cinematic female in recent years, would
call this movie a grand achievement. Like those in three dimensions instead of one, I'd
have to agree.
BY: DAVID PERRY
"The great masses of the people... will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one."
In the word-of-mouth sensation The Believer, Henry Bean struggles with that idea of small lies and great lies. The film covers so many lies that people tell themselves, but which ones are great and which ones are small? At the center is neo-nazi who is also a Jew, what's his bigger lie: the years of Judaic teachings that the character questioned in yeshiva class or the way he tries to tell himself that he was never in the class in the first place? It's a struggle that defines young Danny Balint (Gosling), a fight inside him that eats away him and turns him into the most human monster film has recently dealt with.
"Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace."
The film deals with the way that Danny tries to find some form of peace through his gestures, both as a Nazi and as a Jew. It is an internal struggle that, ultimately, comes in the form of sacrifice and a tinge of violent prejudice that fuels an extremist right seeing Judaism as an affront to holy Christian values. Danny is walking into a world of gentiles who hate Jews simply because they are Jewish even though he is the enemy, not the whitewashed defender of common values.
The story comes from a 1965 incident in which Daniel Burros, a 25-year-old member of the New York Ku Klux Klan and second in command of the American Nazi Party, told a New York Times reporter in an interview that if the reporter published the fact that he was really Jewish, Burros would kill the reporter and then himself. When the story appeared on the front page of the paper, the outing and all, Burros promptly killed himself.
The Believer never really deals directly with any of the real events of the true story (with the exception of the momentary appearance of a Times reporter), and instead tries to work with the question of the inner turmoil that such a person would face. Director-screenwriter Henry Bean tries to comment on this, looking at the way Daniel/Danny would see his cohorts vandalize Jewish symbols. When he and some fellow supremacists begin to destroy a temple, Danny even becomes distraught when they try to desecrate the Torah: it is inbred into him to treat it with utmost respect.
Throughout the film, Danny only finds people to agree with him through an underground movement looking for just the microphone to elevate their beliefs to a newsworthy platform. The main people interested in this are Curtis Zampf (Zane) and Lina Moebius (Russell), fascists who are sick of a world of veiled American socialism. To get their Louis Hartz-inspired musings out, Frau Moebius decides to take Danny in as a skinhead fundraiser and instructor -- in the day he goes from office-to-office trying to get financing for this new Fascist Party, at night he speaks to crowded rooms about the meaning behind Jew-hate. When people ask him why he knows so much about Jews, he comments that everyone must know their enemies to truly hate them, just look at Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Eichman and Adolf Eichmann.
The hypocrisy in such a person makes for an intriguing film, but Bean struggles to really find a way to work with it for a feature length. There are some truly well done moments in the film, but most of it comes off as redundant or preachy, especially as the film dwindles down into a final third of repeated reminders that Danny hates Jews and that his girlfriend Carla (Phoenix) is becoming obsessed with them. After a horrendous climax, the film goes into a perfect conclusion that should bring many great post-film conversations. Unfortunately, its hard not to notice that the accomplishment found in this finale is unequaled in anything that preceded it for nearly forty-five minutes. Gosling does a good job keeping the audience watching, but otherwise these slow periods would be torture.
Most importantly, I suppose, is that Bean has found
something to say and a medium that pretty well tells it. Even if there are some glaring
narrative problems, his attention towards the duplicity of an individual like Daniel
Burros or Danny Balint. His protagonist's inner struggle is something that's hard to take
your eyes off of -- within his tale is an admittance that there are many ways to read
every sacred text in every political and religious form. He can look at Bible stories and
see proof that God is more destructive to humanity than helpful, a monster that sees the
Jewish people as his worst creation. He is not the only person who sees this reading of
the Bible on par with the beliefs of Adolf Hitler: sensible and true. Anything can be read
as both precise and mistaken, when put into a certain context nothing is truly tangible.
Look at those words of two wise quotes at the beginning of this review -- Hitler used them
rile up the German people in Mein Kampf.