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Sept 30, 2011

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Guard (Movie); Higher Ground (Movie); Our Idiot Brother (Movie); Starlight (Short Fiction)

The Guard (Movie) written and directed by John Michael McDonagh; starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, Rory Keenan, Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, Dominique McElligott, Sarah Greene, Katarina Cas, Patt Shortt, Laurence Kinlan, Gary Lyden

You’ve probably heard about the Brendan Gleeson’s amazing performance in this movie. It’s well worth the fuss. We’ve had some idiosyncratic cops since the days of Columbo, and Starsky and Hutch, but this Gerry Boyle’s further out on the edge than any of them. Matter of fact, this is probably one of the most fascinating portrayals of a complicated character that you can find on any screen these days. It looks like the role must have been written expressly for Mr. Gleeson. How could anybody else bring such an oddball to life?

A slob of a cop in a remote spot somewhere in the west of Ireland, near Galway, Gerry constantly keeps you guessing as to what’s going on with him. Are his politically incorrect gaffes as ignorant as they seem or is it just that it amuses him to goad people? Sometimes it looks one way, sometimes another. When he struggles to remember a term from American cop shows – an "All Points Bulletin" – is he being ironic or not? Is that dumb-ox expression of his actually hiding a very canny intelligence? When he’s being threatened by a crime boss in a restaurant scene, Gerry responds with loud slurping of his milkshake. Strength of character or indifference? In another scene, some criminals, in a confab among themselves, note that the trouble with Gerry is that he’s so unpredictable. Not just in terms of his policing, it turns out: this fatso was a near-champion Olympic swimmer...or... maybe not. He plunges into his adult vices with Falstaffian gusto and yet his face beams with pure bliss when he recalls having his picture taken with "Goofy" at Disneyworld. He’s capable of a bit of larceny but there are indications that his greatness of spirit may go far beyond anything the rest of us can lay claim to.

While the man’s character is the main point of the movie, something like a murder-mystery-thriller-actioner develops around him. It’s all about rounding up some drug lords who are supposed to be receiving a shipment of cocaine here on the west coast of Ireland. It wasn’t always possible for me to identify everybody – some scenes are dimly lit – nor to follow every twist of the plot. But that hardly matters.  What I did truly get, and appreciate very much, was that the ending strikes a note that's quite different from the usual conclusion to these capers.

Before the drug-dealer aspect of the plot gets rolling, Gerry is partnered with a fresh-faced, boyish cop (Rory Keenan) who has just arrived from Dublin with a tight-assed tendency to go by the book. As you can imagine, this leads to some conflict. One nice comic touch in an interview with a murder suspect shows the innocent-looking cop trying to adopt the posture of a tough guy. But Gerry’s main partner is an FBI agent sent over to bust the cocaine shippers. The incarnation of this agent in the person of actor Don Cheadle gives lots of opportunity for Gerry to unleash his racist bent. In that the FBI character functions pretty much as a foil for Gerry, I found the role just a touch beneath Mr. Cheadle’s dignity. In one episode, he’s getting no response from locals when he shows them photos of suspects, so he ends up showing the photos to a horse in a field. If there was a way of making that work, Mr. Cheadle didn’t find it.

Among the movie’s many beguiling characters we get Gerry’s feisty mother (Fionnula Flanagan). She's dying of cancer but she knows a thing or two about kicking against the goad. And those drug shippers aren’t exactly slouches either. They tend to fall into arguments about Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. One of them berates the other for using an Americanism like "We’re good to go." When their hitman is referred to as a "psychopath," he insists that he has been diagnosed, rather, as a "sociopath." A little boy who has one of those pale Irish faces like a talking mushroom proves himself to be possessed of some quite startling street smarts – except that there isn’t much in the way of streets thereabouts. Bog smarts, maybe?

Just a couple of things interfered with my complete enjoyment of this original and inventive little movie. The music throughout struck me as unnecessarily raucous and harsh. Maybe the point is to emphasize that we're not holidaying in the idyllic, picture-book Ireland. But the constant bombardment was so irritating that the sound of John Denver’s singing I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane during the credits came as balm to my soul. Close-ups of the actors came up one at a time, along with their names, and the gentle music made me fall in love with all of them.

Even though I hadn't been able to understand much of what some of them said. And that's the other big problem with the movie: the accents! These rural west of Ireland folk had me struggling constantly to understand them. When you’re always one line behind in your comprehension, it can make it hard to appreciate the proceedings fully. (Subtitles would have been helpful for more than the Gaelic lines.)

Capsule Comment (instead of a rating): Lots of inventive fun, although hard to follow at times.

 

Higher Ground (Movie) Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based on the book by Carolyn S. Briggs; directed by Vera Farmiga; starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Chernus, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin

Vera Farmiga plays Carolyn Briggs who, as a sensitive, poetic teenager, got pregnant by a sweet-talking guitar player. (By the look of things, this was the 1970s and the script is based on Ms. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World.) They got married, then joined an evangelistic church and had three kids. Carolyn buys into the religious lifestyle, she's trying to be the happy, contented wife the bible extols, but she can’t always pull it off. Things like the male dominance cause some uneasiness, especially if you’re dealing with a male who’s sexually not very adventuresome. And then there are little annoyances like being criticized for wearing a dress that attracts the attention of the men in the church.

The movie has a pale, washed out look, like those old photos of 1970s hippie days where the colour tended to fade. Which makes for not very appealing watching, at first. You feel kind of restive. Besides, you think you know where this movie’s going. And it does go there, sort of, but not in quite the melodramatic way you’re expecting. And that’s how the movie slowly pulls you in. There’s a low-key, authentic quality to it that’s very convincing. (It could be taken as the ultimate tribute to the acting that it doesn’t occur to me to mention anyone’s performance: they’re all just fine.) A few dramatic things happen but they’re not over-played.

What’s more important is the attention to detail, to the truth of people’s lives in the mundane ways. A flirtation that looks promising fizzles out in disillusionment, as those things usually do. At a birthday party for a seven-year-old, the camera lingers on the face of the grandmother as she watches the child’s separated parents pose for a photo. That grandmother’s face speaks volumes about an older person’s hopes and anxieties regarding the younger generations.

Although we might assume that a Hollywood film wouldn’t be on the side of the Evangelicals, no one is ever made to look hypocritical or ridiculous (apart from a prune-faced librarian and a smarmy pastor [Bill Irwin] in Carolyn’s childhood.) The pastor of the church Carolyn and her hubby attend is a pleasant, attractive guy (Norbert Leo Butz). He firmly believes that the bible has all the answers but he’s never obnoxious about it, even if his conviction of male superiority in religious matters does sometimes surface. Carolyn’s hubby (Joshua Leonard), another guy who takes the scriptures in a fundamental way, has the decency to try to show a little restraint and politeness when he’s struggling with his uppity wife. Even a supposed marriage counsellor, who’s really a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, is allowed to exhibit a certain integrity, in spite of the objectionable advice he dishes out.

Best of all, Carolyn’s problems are handled in a realistic, non-sensational way. She has a girlfriend in the church group (Dagmara Dominczyk), with whom she can joke around in slightly unorthodox ways (although the business of their making drawings of their husbands’ penises didn’t work very well for me). The place Carolyn comes to on her difficult journey is one that’s seems entirely believable and reasonable, given her circumstances. One slightly surrealistic scene, near the end of the movie, shows her outside a church surrounded by dogs that happen to have gathered. There’s a haunting quality to the scene, even though I couldn’t at first figure out what it meant. When it occurred to me later that the scene connected literally with something that came earlier, it lost a bit of its appeal for me. But it still has lots of resonance in my mental replay.

That’s thanks, in no small measure to the background music. I don’t buy evangelical religion, but I sure love the singing. As in most movies, though, you usually don’t get much more than snippets of the songs. The final scene of the movie has a choir launching into How Great Thou Art. I’m praying: "Please, give us the whole thing!" Sure enough, the song rang out gloriously all through the first half of the credits. It was followed by a full-length performance of the title song, Higher Ground. Here’s hoping the soundtrack will be available soon.

Capsule Comment (instead of a rating): The movie draws you in gradually with its authentic feel.

 

Starlight (Short Fiction) by Ann Beattie, The New Yorker, September 19,2011

The illustration with this piece of short fiction is a photo of Richard and Pat Nixon when they were a good-looking young couple. But it takes a while to figure out what’s going on in the text. What eventually comes clear is that it’s the Nixons’ last morning in the White House and Dick has called in a photographer to capture the family’s final moments there. We’re experiencing it all from Pat’s point of view.

Up comes one of the old questions: is it ok to make fiction of the lives of real people, even well-known ones, who have died relatively recently? I guess it depends on the quality of the fiction. On those grounds, the answer in this case is an emphatic yes! One can only hope that this short piece, as is often the case with New Yorker fiction, is an excerpt from a novel that we’ll soon be able to read in full.

The best word that I can think of to describe Ms. Beattie’s creation here would be ‘luminous’. Through a series of stunning aperus, we get glimpses into the inner life of a noble woman at a difficult time. It’s as though she’s standing in a shaft of light that enables the writer to read her thoughts and convey them to us. (The only other piece of fiction that does this so well, as far as I can recall, is Virginia Woolf’s superb Mrs. Dalloway.) As the piece moves on from that sad day to other scenarios, it’s not Pat’s thoughts about the great things that are so touching as the almost irrelevant asides:

When I worked at the department store, I’d try to show the clothes to their best advantage, daintily turning up a cuff, twirling a wide skirt. I’d put on a necklace so that a blouse would get more attention. When a gentleman was buying a lady a blouse, he’d ask if it should match her eyes and be so surprised when I said that it should match her skin.

Her husband, too, comes through with a surprisingly mundane humanity. In this passage, they’re living in New Jersey, after their departure from the White House, and he’s finding a bowl to put water in for a dog that has followed him home:

Here’s the bowl. Looks like a pretty good one. Of course, we wouldn’t have bad ones. What would be the point? Some might say, ‘Well, we never clear out our old bowls, chipped or dented or whatnot,’ but here in the Nixon household Mrs. Nixon keeps watch over the bowls and replaces them when there’s reason to. Of course, Mrs. Nixon is thrifty, which is a virtue not valued enough these days.

You get a picture of a couple who are ageing and failing in health, who may be in disgrace with much of the nation, but they’re doing their best to remain a loyal couple and to cling to the belief that they’re decent people. Not that Ms. Beattie would spell out any such thing so blatantly. But that’s the message that I take from this compassionate, under-stated writing.

 

Our Idiot Brother (Movie) written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, T.J. Miller, Matthew Mindler, Sterling K. Brown, Janet Montgomery, Shirely Knight, Bob Stephenson, Rashida Jones

A doofus arrives in the midst of conventional folk and creates havoc for them – it’s not exactly an original theme. But let’s not complain about that. Sometimes it works well. In this case, it’s a guy who has been let out of prison and he proceeds to ruin the lives of his three sisters. He’s an ingenuous, sweet-natured guy (his crime was very minor) but he has a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease. In fact, he has such a knack for saying the wrong thing that somebody asks if he has Tourette Syndrome. But no, our guy is just one of those rare, uninhibited souls who trusts that he can’t offend anybody because everybody likes him.

If only the movie could be a little more trusting. It’s trying so hard to please that it’s like a baby smiling and gurgling and drooling all over you. Except that a baby’s doing what comes naturally. There’s nothing natural going on here. It’s all terribly contrived and complicated. It looks like the writers are vying with each other to see who can get the most ideas crammed into the movie. You have issues of: adultery, unwanted pregnancy for a lesbian, a high-stakes journalism assignment and criminal recidivism. Underlying all this, there’s one plot element that’s bound to win points with certain viewers: our guy’s trying to steal his beloved dog back from his ex. Along the way, we get a dopey, cult-like support group, a mis-managed sexual threesome, an unctuous family therapist, trendy parents and a tight-assed parole officer. Looks like social satire is intended but the targets are so easy that scoring on them isn’t much fun.

Maybe it would be, if most of the characters didn’t come across like scriptwriters’ ideas of people. Especially the three glitzy sisters. You can’t turn Emily Mortimer into a frump just by means of tangled hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Even the supposedly down-home, earth-mother matriarch of the clan (Shirely Knight) is just another stereotype. A woman who’s meant to be a titled lady from Britain (Janet Montgomery) sponsors some kind of rehab program for prostitutes, but if this twerp is a member of the British aristocracy, then I’m a star of the UFC. As for the various male hangers-on, it’s hard to tell what they have to do with anything. You eventually surmise that one of them (Adam Scott) is a neighbour of one of the sisters (Elizabeth Banks) and that another guy’s a painter for whom one of the sisters (Zooey Deschanel) models. It’s a bit easier to see the point of the third sister’s husband, but Steve Coogan projects a somewhat repellent on-screen persona, particularly when naked. A young hippie couple over-act so badly, especially the woman, that human decency cautions against mentioning the actors’ names. Oddly, the one person in this supporting cast who has a strange authenticity is a lawyer (Rashida Jones), the lesbian partner of one of the sisters. Maybe it’s just the fact that the lawyer doesn’t look or act like a typical movie person.

And what about our guy at the centre of it all? No problem with Paul Rudd’s acting. He’s laid-back and exudes oodles of charm. A bit too much of the latter. Same for intelligence. This guy just doesn’t seem stupid enough for some of the screw-ups the script attributes to him: for starters, selling dope to a cop in uniform (Bob Stephenson). It’s hard to see how any actor could make this dork believable. Granted, the long hair and Jesus-cum-hippie beard do make our guy look a bit deficient in fashion sense, but they don’t exactly spell stupidity.

You know, of course, that his bumbling and goofing will solve his sisters’ problems. (This is one of the rare cases where I can tell you pretty much everything about a movie because you’re never going to see it. I was the only audience member at an afternoon showing.) But, just before the end, comes a twist that you weren’t expecting. It’s a family gathering where bickering breaks out among the sisters, and he erupts. Suddenly, there’s silence. Everybody turns to look at him. For the first time, we see him as a real person with needs and wishes of his own, not just a jerk who’s the bane of everybody’s existence.

It’s a thrilling moment. Does it make the movie worthwhile? To say so would be going too far. But I am glad I saw that scene. And yet, it wouldn’t have been so touching if I hadn’t endured the drek that went before. Go figure.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Too cluttered and cutesy.

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