This, of course is the post prestige Oscars season - a downtime in which theaters are so cluttered with crap that the occasional worthwhile film can get easily overlooked.
This is such a film:
STARTING OUT IN THE THE EVENING (Dir. Andrew Wagner, 2007)
Wagner's directorial debut is impressive for its purposely minimal staging methods as well as its crafty casting. The masterful Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller - a reclusive writer whose time is seemingly past.
His acclaimed 4 novels are long out of print and he has struggled for over a decade to complete a new work and create one final lasting impression in the world of literature despite being told that the market is dominated by "celebrity confessions and self-help books."
Langella's relationship with his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) doesn't help matters as she is fiercely protective of him and intensely defensive about the loud ticking of her biological clock. Coming into the picture is the young glowing Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) who fashions herself as Schiller's protégé and wants to help republish his work and re-establish his place in the pantheons of New York literary society.
Trouble is she is a bit too interested in the touchy possibly painful autobiographical sources of his earlier work which cause the agitated author to cut short their first sit-down interview.
Schiller does however offer: "I'll concede this, I have occasionally drawn from my own life but I have I only done so in the spirit of objectivity."
As to whether anything develops between them I'll plead my no Spoilers defense. In the best sense of a 'filmed play' STARTING OUT... is a meticulous machine of a movie; every scene is exactly as long as it should be and every beat whether a solid point of action or a floating notion feels natural as can be in the construct. Langella, in what has to be called a "career best performance", has an enhanced elegance to his every gesture even when on the verge of emotional collapse.
Ambrose (pictured to the left) and Taylor, who appeared on Six Feet Under as remarkably different but just as strained characters, both deflect different shards of the dying light from their powerful patriarch, each hitting their stage marks with aplomb.
As Taylor's hesitant to be a Baby-Daddy boyfriend, Adrian Lester also has a well chosen charismatic demeanor and is refreshingly likable especially when considering that the stock disagreeing partner character usually is an asshole set up for audience disapproval. That's one of many well nuanced thoughtful touches in this moving film.
When Heather questions Leonard accusing him of abandoning his characters, the crux of the ginormous "does art imitate life or vice versa" question hits hard. As one noted New York poet once observed "between thought and expression, lies a lifetime."
Now I thought I'd do some pre-Spring cleaning out of my notebook and Word files and post some reviews of recent flicks I've seen over the last few weeks - both new and old:
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2007)
Another film about exasperated literary minded folk uncertain of what their choices are, let alone if they are the right or wrong ones. Nicole Kidman, as the title character, is a recently separated successful writer who travels with her son Claude (Zane Pais) to her family's old home in Long Island for her sister's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. It is immediately obvious that she doesn't approve of her sibling's groom to be - Jack Black, shaggy as ever with a mustache that he claims he's wearing 'ironically'.
As Black is an unemployed rock musician and aspiring artist we can see why. There are other concerns for Margot - the clichéd backwoods looking neighbors who menacingly demand that a tree on the property's line be cut down, her nearby lover (Ciaran Hinds) who she may have really come to see with the wedding as a cover, and her ex-husband's (John Turturro) constant phoning all drained her and me as I waded through.
It's a movie in which every character exasperates every other character - Black even says: "I have the emotional version of whatever bad Feng Shui would be!"
Every actor is capable and has engaging moments but the malaise that inhabits their lives fills the screen and I was left wondering why I should care for these people. When sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks Margot: "What was it about Dad that had us fucking so many guys? "
I really wanted to leave the room rather than hear the answer. Like Leonard Schiller in STARTING OUT... (or more aptly Harry Block in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY) both Margot and her creator - director/writer Noah Baumbach have mined their lives for their art (Baumbach in real life much more successfully before in KICKING AND SCREAMING, MR. JEALOUSY, and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), but even with that illustrative insight this proceeding suffers from a severe lack of wit.
And to truly ad insult to injury MARGOT AT THE WEDDING doesn't even have a wedding in it! And I don't care if that's a Spoiler!
MARTIAN CHILD (Dir. Menno Meyjes, 2007)
Remember K-PAX? That lame ass movie with Kevin Spacey claiming to be from another planet? Jeff Bridges spends the whole film trying to figure out if he's crazy or actually telling the truth? No you don't remember it? Lucky you.
Well anyway this is the kids version. John Cusack plays a successful science fiction novelist and a widower who is going ahead with his and his deceased spouse's plans to adopt. He is told by the adoption agency that they have a match, a reclusive six year old (Bobby Coleman) who thinks that he hails from the red planet.
Coleman wears what he calls a "hold me down" weight belt made out of batteries and duct tape because he feels the Earth's gravity is weak and he could float away without it. Cusack, who was an oddball outsider himself as a child, takes to the kid but worries about the mental celestial angle.
Cusack is encouraged by his dead wife's sister (Amanda Peet in an extremely undeveloped role) and his own sister (once again real life sibling Joan Cusack) who is justifiably cynical about the situation. Don't worry I won't tell if the kid really turns out to be a Martian or not.
I read on the internets that Cusack was not happy with how this picture turned out and I can see why. The editing creates an awkward mood with many stilted scenes.
The DVD has 27 minutes of deleted scenes that expose dropped plot-points and reveal how much trouble the filmmakers had shaping this material. Still it's hard to be completely hating on this movie it looks like there's a good script with plenty of spunk in there somewhere with many good lines like Joan Cusack's about her own kids - "I've got to take Omen I and Omen II to soccer practice!"
The crisp chemistry of the supporting cast helps too - Oliver Platt as Cusack's smarmy agent, the reliable stern Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) as a case worker, the underused Howard Hesseman as a child psychologist, and Cusack's THE GRIFTERS co-star Anjelica Huston as a literary publishing giant in a short but sweet part. As the kid in question, Coleman is cute and affective like in the scene where he reacts to a museum Mars landscape: "This is not how I remembered it."
As I wrote before about Cusack, he gets a film geek free pass for his work in the seminal SAY ANYTHING and HIGH FIDELITY among others so he can do rom com crap for the rest of his life if he wants and I'll look the other way but it's just that a film like this could've been so much more.
It is such a lightweight movie that it needs its own "hold me down" weight belt to keep it from floating away. With its lack of real emotional impact it's just future Lifetime Channel afternoon fodder. You could do a lot worse than to rent MARTIAN CHILD but just like Cusack you could do a whole lot better.
SORCERER (Dir. William Friedkin, 1977)
When actor Roy Scheider died a month ago I posted a top 5 Essential Sharkless Roy Scheider Roles list. I got a few comments and a slew of email calling me on not having seen SORCERER. I put it in my NetFlix queue and just watched it so I'm happy to finally chime in on this underrated '70s spectacle.
Well, first I'll say I hated that the only DVD version available is full screen and that it takes almost an hour to establish the premise that was as Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" book puts it "SORCERER revolves around the attempt of a small group of desperate men to drive a couple of trucks loaded with nitroglycerine across treacherous mountain terrain."
To get to that we have to see each of the group, along with Scheider - Bruno Cremer, Amidou, and Fransico Rabal's violent and sometimes nonsensical background to gather somewhat why they are in exile in South America. Once we get going though it's quite a ride - that is, if you can get past the cryptic trappings. SORCERER is horribly titled; of course when you first hear it you think of wizards 'n goblins 'n such.
Well, there's nothing like that here - in fact it is so named because well, I'm not sure why it's named SORCERER. I think I read it was because that name is on the side of a truck but I watched it with that in mind and didn't see such. Tangerine Dream's score as noted by Jim DeRogatis as his favorite progressive rock movie music on a recent Sound Opinions (the NPR rock radio talk show) episode about great soundtracks is definitely a synthesized symphonic wonder.
Anyway as the tale goes this film opened a week after STAR WARS at the famous Chinese Theater in Los Angeles in 1977 then was again replaced by STAR WARS the week afterwards with Friedkin lamenting "I dunno, little sweet robots and stuff, maybe we're on the wrong horse."
Maybe it was the wrong horse but Friedkin's crazy literally off the rails (the truck on the wildly frailing wood bridge in the storm sequence is monumental in the annals of Hollywood 'how the Hell did they do they do that?'") movie is not one to be forgotten. I hope it gets a deluxe treatment on DVD or Blue Ray or whatever. At least let's get a wide screen version out there. Just sayin'.