From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

From the Archive — The Savages

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I’m always pleased when I discover something in one of these old reviews that carbon dates it to the era in which is was written. I think the reference to Blockbuster in the lengthy opening paragraph accomplishes that feat nicely. For today, I though about dredging up my old review of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the first cinematic appearance of the character Venom, but it turns out I didn’t type word one about the character or the performance by Topher Grace (who, amusingly, is so different from new Venom portrayer Tom Hardy that the two could be photo negatives of one another). So instead, I’ll commemorate Netflix once again providing a distribution outlet for a tremendous filmmaker whose material doesn’t fit comfortably into the current grasping-at-tentpoles strategy of most studios. You know, like I did three weeks ago. It has been too long between films for Tamara Jenkins. I hope that was her choice. I fear it wasn’t.

Categorizing films, placing them into broad, encompassing genres, is a tricky — arguably futile — endeavor. The new film The Savages has been casually referred to as a comedy, a dark comedy to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. The official movie poster is sure to including laudatory critics’ quotes the words “funny” and “humor” and features art by comic artist Chris Ware, which is sure to signal something safer to most moviegoers — for whom the phrase The Acme Novelty Library is about as meaningful as any four randomly selected poetry magnets — than it actually should. The Golden Globes were even more decisive, slotting Savages into the “Comedy/Musical” categories in their film awards (and, as an aside that will tip my hand as to what I thought of The Savages, you may not a stronger example of the ineptitude of the Hollywood Foreign Press as arbiters of excellence than their omission of Laura Linney from the relevant Best Actress category in favor of, well, at least four of the five honored performers, but especially the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm of Hairspray‘s Nikki Blonsky). It’s a strange situation for this smart, fairly grim film. I laughed appreciatively many times during The Savages, but I can say the same about No Country for Old Men and I don’t see anyone laying groundwork for it to be filed somewhere between Meet the Fockers and Old School in the local Blockbuster’s comedy section a few months from now. I imagine more than a few people will go to The Savages expecting a film much lighter and thoroughly comic than it really is and wind up blindsided. Hopefully, that harsh surprise won’t distract those people from noticing that’s it’s also terrific.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who are called upon to retrieve their elderly father from Arizona, in part because he’s suffering from dementia that has made it impossible for him to care for himself. It’s a simple beginning for a film that’s anything but simple. For one thing, this is neither a warm-hearted story of family coming together or a pummeling exercise in opening old wounds. It’s far more complicated. Hoffman and Linney’s characters are basically estranged from their father, but don’t carry the resulting personal emotions from that distance like heavy, burdensome overcoats. It is part of who they are, it has shaped them, but it doesn’t inform every scene in highly dramatic ways. They go about the business of getting him into a nursing home and interact with him during his descent in ways that are revealing largely because their gestures are more about giving themselves comfort than building additional happiness into his waning days. It is a hard truth that, like everything else in the film, is largely presented as just another facet of life.

The whole film can be described as a big slab of life. Hoffman’s character is a college professor specializing in Bertolt Brecht, and he helpfully writes a lesson on a blackboard about “plot” versus “narrative.” He never gets around to explaining that difference to questioning student, but The Savages serves nicely as its own lesson plan for the classroom of the movie audience. Don’t look for the scheme of the storytelling to following a familiar framework, necessarily. Instead, watch these characters live out a piece of their time, their frailties heightened by their situations, their patience tested and torn. Hoffman’s professor defends himself with his pragmatism, alert to criticism but largely too weary to dispense his own judgment. Linney’s struggling playwright is a mountain of vulnerabilities with occasionally reserves of potential fortitude exposed. These pro actors dig into the roles with disciplined gusto.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins creates with her own disciplined gusto. A long-gestating follow-up to her feature debut, the sloppy but somewhat endearing The Slums of Beverly Hills, the film is focused and unsparing, a gut punch of lingering dysfunction. As opposed to another recent film that could be described that wayThe Savages never pushes the problems or personality flaws to such extremes that it strains credibility. There’s an understated truth to the storytelling that makes its moments of heartbreak and tentative redemption all the more potent.

From the Archive — Primeval and Bats

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Sometimes I wish I’d had a silly online outlet for tapping out my impressions of visual entertainment back in the days when my household regularly hosted small, snarky crowds for double features of cinematic misfortune. Sadly, I have no old review of Shadow Conspiracy to share. Technically, Bats was included in one of those original evenings, but I didn’t remember that when we put this combo together several years later. An attendee of the first go-round reminded me, noting it was paired with Lake Placid. Anyway, this very loose reflection was written for and posted at my former online home.

Last night’s Bad Movie Night was more of an impromptu affair than our previous exercise in movie masochism. Our first feature has been on our DVR for a couple weeks now because any movie attached to a poster with that many discarded human skeleton bits on it is a movie that my partner-in-all-things is going to need to watch at some point. After deciding we didn’t have the mental wherewithal for our patiently waiting Netflix DVD and indulging in several minutes of a familiar good movie, we decided it was time for some cinematic ugliness.

We pressed play on Primeval (Michael Katleman, 2007). It begins efficiently enough. The filmmakers have only cursory interest in pesky things like character development and backstory. Instead, they introduce the characters and give them a reason to jet off to Burundi to track down a gigantic killer crocodile. That no-nonsense approach stops when the trio of bickering unlikely adventurers touch down in Africa. More characters get introduced and the filmmakers keep taking stabs at media, social, or geopolitical commentary like a disaffected teen trying on so many interchangeably bland tops at the local ShopKo. When the discernible I.Q. of your film is in the Pauly Shore range, you’re probably better off spending time considering your freakishly large reptile than the smothering danger of man’s inhumanity to man played out across the savanna. That array of jokes that revolve around the way that “croc” rhymes with “cock”? That’s your strong suit.

Avoiding the crocodile is a little more understanding as it moves into the spotlight for its star turn in the second half and the low-budget CGI emerges in all it’s snowy shimmer. The actors do their best, but since the cast is assembled from the sort of aspiring-to-the-B-List, happy-to-be-working variety folks who usually populate these films, best is a very relative term. For all I know, Dominic Purcell is a broody sensation on Fox’s “Prison Break,” but he’ll always be John Doe to me, which means that any of his numerable moments of exposition earns some extra giggles in our household. You can also pass time by considering how recently it was that Orlando Jones was considered someone on the way up in Hollywood.

For the second film (double features are a necessity on Bad Movie Night) we could have gone to one of the sorry standbys. Before pulling that ripcord, we checked the various cable channels to see if there may have been a fortuitous showing of something that would pair nicely with Primeval, which leads us to Bats (Louis Morneau, 1999).

Bats stars Lou Diamond Phillips (perhaps thinking about the days when Oscar votes weren’t an unlikely result of his efforts) as a Texas sheriff working with a foxy chiroptologist to combat an invasion of super-intelligent bats created by every moviegoer’s favorite evil warden. These adversaries with glowing red eyes and glistening fangs seem about as formidable as that rubbery photo above indicates. At one point, Phillip’s character snarls about being up to his chest in bat shot. He could have been speaking for anyone watching the film.

From the Archive — In the Valley of Elah

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For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.

The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.

The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.

Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.

That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.

From the Archive — The Orphanage

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It appears director J.A. Bayona is on his way to a second straight week at the top of the box office. To a large degree, that’s attributable to being handed the keys to the right ongoing cinematic venture. I can’t speak to the quality of the latest edition of Dinosaur Land, but when I reviews Bayona’s feature debut, it sure looked to me like he has some impressive skills. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Picturehouse Entertainment has made sure that producer Guillermo del Toro’s name figures prominently in promotional efforts for the new film The Orphanage, undoubtedly hoping that some of the moviegoers that made 2006’s dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth into a modest hit will exchange dollars for tickets to see this Spanish-language film. Fans of Pan aren’t necessarily going to have an automatic affinity for this film, but those who recall del Toro’s exquisitely bleak dalliance with the dark with The Devil’s Backbone may be another matter.

Like Backbone, The Orphanage is a moody, elegant ghost story which makes great use of simple, unsettling imagery. This film follows a woman who brings her husband and adopted son back to the orphanage where she grew up, fulling intending to revive the imposing structure to make it into a sort of group home for special needs children. The fates (and filmmakers) have different plans. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona use long hallways, creaking doors and enveloping shadows to great effect. There’s a clear understanding that the sort of cheap jolts are commonplace in U.S. horror films isn’t nearly as potent as long, agonizing considerations of deep-set, unidentifiable noises or probing eyes staring out of a rudimentary mask. The suddenness of an unexpected figure jumping from the dark may get the adrenaline rushing. The smothering anticipation of something horrific emerging will haunt dreams. (That’s not to say they’re completely immune from the temptation to shock as at least one moment relies on mere surprise to make it work, and it winds up as one the film’s weaker points.)

A film like this also benefits immeasurably from good acting, usually not a priority for those who craft films likely to be labeled “Horror.” In the lead, Belen Rueda is completely committed to finding the honesty in the supernatural goings-on. She plays the grief, desperation, personal fortitude and fear of her character with a grueling exactitude. Even when the film shows some narrative strain–the unconvincing skepticism of other characters or plain familiarity of the storyline–Rueda wrenches it back into effectiveness with the conviction of her acting.

Bayona is very strong and creating mood and ever better at developing tension. The film may occasionally falter in ways typical of the genre, but Bayona’s elegant shot construction (the beautiful cinematography is by Oscar Fauna) and assured visual storytelling help smooth over those rough patches, including the unnecessary coda which washes away the mild ambiguity of the scene that immediately precedes it and should have been the film’s closing note. Thanks to the honorable efforts of Bayona and his collaborators, The Orphanage is sharp and deep and, yes, scary.

From the Archive — Eastern Promises

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This italicized portion usually contains some modern pontificating on the earlier writing presented in this weekly feature. In this instance, though, I have no annotations. This review was written for my former online home.

David Cronenberg’s last film was called A History of Violence, which would be an apt title for his latest since that is as good of a description as any for what is tattooed on the skin of the Russian gangsters at the center of the story. The inked markings are intended to be a map of their villainous accomplishments and stature within the organizational pecking order, and, through the lens of Cronenberg, it makes for an immediately imposing image, a sharp signal of the brutality that can emerge at any moment.

Of course, The History of Violence could be comfortably assigned to any number of Cronenberg films or maybe his career as a whole, so Eastern Promises is just fine as this new film’s title.

“Just fine” is also a decent summary for the film as a whole. A medical emergency brings a midwife played by Naomi Watts into contact with the Russian Mafia in London. Secrets emerge, family strife is laid bare, an infant’s future lies in the balance, and it’s largely sedate, predictable and–most shocking given the director–a little pedestrian. It’s not bad, by any means, but nor does it get under your skin. It improves in its last third with a few genuinely surprising twists that go a long way towards making the earlier portions more intellectually satisfying even if it doesn’t inspire a sudden emotional investment.

One thing that’s fully rewarding is to see a fresh entry in the collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Just as Violence represented unprecedented accomplishment in Mortensen’s lead performance, so too is Promises another new pinnacle. He plays a criminal foot soldier who is both a stolid observer and a careful contributor. Mortensen takes this seemingly passive role and infuses it with a flinty inner life. Even before Promises sparks to life in its final third, Mortenson’s creativity is a cue that the film holds more potential than is apparent.

From the Archive — Superbad

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Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have been nominated for the same number of Academy Awards. Stone’s win obviously gives her the edge in any tallying up of awards acclaim, but it remains an odd alignment given that any reasonable assessment of the two pegs Stone as the stronger actor. I wish I could boast that I celebrated Stone’s acting when I wrote about Superbad ages ago. The evidence is clear, though. Much as I found her winning, I didn’t feel compelled to cite her work. As always when it comes to features with Judd Apatow’s name on the credit, I devoted an overabundance of words to my mixed emotions around his clear influence in the finished product.

It’s amazing how quickly this Judd Apatow brand has developed. Just a few years ago he was best known, if he was known at all, for serving as producer on a batch of television series that were woefully underappreciated, even though they just got better and better and better. Now he’s the anointed savior of big screen comedy, the guy who single-handedly is rescuing moviegoers from the entrenched safety of tepid, PG-13, mirthless constructions in favor of wildly profane expressions of the id, wringing high comedy from the minefields of modern masculinity. This perception is now so entrenched that the new film Superbad arrives with nary a mention that creators other than Apatow were deeply involved, even though Apatow is only credited as the producer of the film.

In a way that’s understandable as Superbad feels more directly related to Apatow’s own directing efforts The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked up than other films he’s signed his name to as producer in recent years. The tone is recognizably in line with Apatow’s own, his primary theme of the tug of war between maturity and ribald boyishness is vividly in place, and it has the suddenly familiar parade of old Freaks and Geeks friends, including the scary old drunk guy from “Beers and Weirs.” And it’s hard to believe that Apatow didn’t have a hand in helping Freaks and Knocked Up cast member Seth Rogen shape the screenplay he wrote with a high school friend into something that could entice a major studio. Maybe the really remarkable thing is that Apatow has developed such a clear signature with so few film outings.

Superbad is a familiar comedy about high school buddies looking for sexual conquests as graduation and a world of nothing but changes looms. It is delivered with a bit more intelligence, far more daring, and aspirations to something more lasting than the films that haunted the late hours of HBO in the mid-1980’s. While very funny, it’s also somewhat scattershot. There are stretches that spin with improvisational glee, but could also have used a little pruning. Director Greg Mottola employs a technique that’s clean and open. He draws it all in and orchestrates certain sequences very well (a nightmare vision of what happens when you’re still throwing high school parties fifteen years after graduation is especially notable). A little added panache in the editing room might have bolstered the whole film. There are plainly portions of the film where Mottola doesn’t seem to know that he’s already delivered his joke and it’s time to move on.

In the leading roles, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera both play on established personae to great effect. Hill is the same sort of aggressive, exasperated character he played in Knocked Up, and Cera’s incredibly sincere Evan lets him use the awkward stammers and other verbal card shuffles he honed to perfection on Arrested Development. The contrast between the styles is sharp and strong enough to enhance their comic teamwork even if it makes it a little hard to see the hearty friendship that is central to the movie’s emotional pull.

Since I’ve already (like everyone else) extensively considered this film’s placement in the Apatow oeuvre, here’s one more thought. Both Virgin and Knocked up seem to argue that the warm comfort of romantic relationships in better than the the dispiriting cycle of male friendship atrophied into redundancy. Superbad is the counterargument. As the boys connect with charming, highly understanding and forgiving girls, their friendship is symbolically and sadly sacrificed. Visually it is literally depicted as a descent. Maybe the film’s viewpoint is unique, after all.