PICKS OF THE WEEK
Snow Angels (B+)
U.S.; David Gordon Green, 2007, Crossroads Films
Small towns are often romanticized and sentimentalized in the movies, turned into fantasies of good will and overly fond memories that sometimes make the consummately homey visions of painter Norman Rockwell look like the works of a cynical satirist. David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, however, takes the opposite course. It's nastier and more realistic, though, in the end, almost as poetic. There's a weird blend of melancholy and madness in this movie; Green plunges us into a doom-haunted, nerve-jangling family drama that suggests a soap opera veering into tabloid pathology and horror.
But, even as the violence and trauma begin to mount up here -- even as central character Glenn Marchand (Sam Rockwell), a gun nut and Jesus freak with a bent toward sadomasochism begins to go crazier and crazier over beauteous, wary wife Annie (Kate Beckinsale) -- the movie keeps a core of gentleness. Glenn may be one of the two or three worst humans Green has portrayed in his small-town epics, and this may be one of the director's saddest stories, but still, compassion is never fully absent from his canvas.
The source here is a novel by Stewart O'Nan, and the story is told in flashback after an introverted teenager, Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) hears two gunshots while the bandleader rants at his outdoor school band practice. Who? Why?
The strands of the past gather. Thirtyish knockout Annie is a longtime crush of Arthur's, and what happens to her, Glenn and daughter Tara (Grace Hudson) in the flashback runs parallel with Arthur's own sweet flirtation-romance with fellow high school outsider Lila (Olivia Thirlby).
Meanwhile, Green shows us again, some truly dysfunctional families. Arthur's folks fall apart -- thanks to dad Don's (Griffin Dunne) roving eye, and mom Louise's (Jeanetta Arnette) fed-up exasperation. The mis-union of Glenn and Annie, however, goes far more awry. Obsessed with power and redemption, but even more, with Annie, Glenn grows more and more deranged, as he spies on and rashly interrupts his ex-mate's adulterous affair with local ladies' man Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), the offhand seducer-husband of Annie's salty coworker friend Barb (Amy Sedaris).
That's the setup. Green (George Washington) gives it to us with his usual mix of toughness, lyricism and sensitivity. He's a director attracted to melodramatic subjects with a kink of violence, but he's also a rhapsodic observer of small-town life and alienated youth. In a way, Glenn -- who survived a suicide attempt and now misperceives himself as somehow blessed by God -- is a childish, murderous fallen angel, thrust out of paradise and his emotional immaturity into adult passions that consume him.
As Glenn keeps trying pathetically to reconcile with Annie, driving her further and further away in the process, you watch him with a horror not completely untinged by weird sympathy. He's a small-town monster, one easy to spot, and bringing Jesus and God in on his madness heightens the terror.
Beckinsale and Rockwell are both magnetic actors and great, strong screen presences, who, in this case, act to irresistibly compel (Beckinsale) and poisonously repel (Rockwell) us in every scene. She's an independent beauty; he's a crazy bully, cloaking his tyrannies in a clichéd perversion of Christianity. Beckinsale, as usual, garners almost instant empathy. But how you react to the film depends on how Rockwell hits you.
I thought he nailed the character. Rockwell gives us a variant on the boyish insanity Anthony Perkins incarnated in Norman Bates in Psycho, though he isn't as likable. Glenn has that soft, crooked smile, those wounded eyes, that bent sense of a man-child about to erupt. He chills you.
Mangarano's Arthur, meanwhile, in the less successful part of the movie, gives us a more typical teenage audience-surrogate, like Tobey Maguire in The Ice Storm, but not as deep. His story, while sometimes touching, pales before the demented romance of Glenn and Annie.
The novel Snow Angels is set in Pennsylvania in the '70s, but the movie, laid in the present, has no specific locale. (It was shot in Nova Scotia.) The film's wintry backgrounds, somber forests and deceptively peaceful waters are almost as lyrically rendered as the Southern climes of Green's and cinematographer Tim Orr's other films, but you don't quite feel the same intense connection. There is a strong link to these people, however. Watching this harsh, but very human tale of mad love, you get a sense of the real underlife of some small towns, of community peace hovering on the lip of chaos.
La Ronde (A)
France; Max Ophuls, 1950, Criterion Collection
Le Plaisir (A)
France; Max Ophuls, 1951, Criterion Collection
The Earrings of Madame de... (A)
France; Max Ophuls, 1953, Criterion Collection
Three indisputably great films, directed by a sometimes neglected giant of the cinema, the continental master of bittersweet romance Max Ophuls -- all in separate, splendid Criterion editions.
James Mason once famously wrote "A shot that does not call for tracks/ is agony for poor, dear Max/ who, separated from his dolly/ is plunged in deepest melancholy." And indeed, for Ophuls (born Max Oppenheimer, a German Jew in Saarbrucken on the French-German border), movement in a movie was life itself, an expression of both its excitement and its evanescence, the way life thrills us and then vanishes before our eyes, all caught in the same reckless moment.
No one, not long-shot masters like Kenji Mizoguchi, F.W. Murnau, Miklos Jansco, Theo Angelopoulos, Alexander Sokurov (in the phenomenal Russian Ark), nor Welles himself -- who filmed the great Magnificent Ambersons ballroom scene in a single shot -- ever wrung more beauty out of the moving camera as Ophuls. (If Welles is the Beethoven of the long take, Murnau its Bach and Sokurov its Stravinsky, then Ophuls is its Mozart.) No one more than Ophuls followed and preceded his actors with a camera so wondrously, or so fully conveyed life as a dance of love -- and death.
Ophuls' best films include Lola Montes (once described by Andrew Sarris as the greatest film of all time), his Hollywood classic Letter from an Unknown Woman (adapted from Stefan Zweig's novel, with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan), and the French masterpieces in this marvellous issue: La Ronde (adapted from Arthur Schnitzler), Le Plaisir (adapted from Guy de Maupassant) and The Earrings of Madame de... (adapted from Louise de Vilmorin's short novel). If you've never seen them, a sublime, track-filled treat awaits you. (Extras: Numerous documentaries and interviews, and booklets with essays by Terrence Rafferty, Robin Wood and Molly Haskell, plus de Vilmorin's short novel, The Earrings of Madame de...).
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Aki Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy (A)
Finland; Aki Kaurismaki, 1986-90, Criterion Collection
Finland's fierce minimalist Kaurismaki applies the austere, rigorously precise style of a Robert Bresson or a Jean-Pierre Melville to his own harsh, despairing yet oddly funny portrayals of the hopeless lives of the Scandinavian underclass. These are among his most characteristic films, starring favorite actors like dour Matti Pellonpaa, stringy-haired Kati Outinen and hulking Esko Nikkari. People stare. People suffer. Life, and Kaurismaki, are bleak. All the films are in Finnish, with English subtitles in this three-disc set. Includes: Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), The Little Match Girl (1990).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Speed Racer (C+)
U.S.; The Wachowski Brothers, 2008, Warner Bros.
A confession: Watching the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer often felt like getting my head jammed down the gullet of a huge, monstrous video game/pinball machine for two hours. Sheeeesh!
The Wachowski brothers have taken the story line and characters of the original series -- called Mach a Go Go in Japanese -- and turned it into an explosive mix of lightly satirical family comedy and full-throttle action spectacle, jam-packed with races, crashes, eye-smacking computerized settings and deliberately one-note TV sitcom or Saturday afternoon kiddie show acting, all done in a jazzy, snazzy, sometimes brilliantly high-tech style that often suggests a live-action cartoon on LSD, and never lets up for a minute.
The Wachowskis, reportedly eager to make a move their niece and nephew could watch, have given us a teen-dream hero: sturdy Speed Racer (played by Emile Hirsch), a gutsy but surprisingly dirty-racing young speed demon. And then there's bearish Pops (John Goodman), who looks like a futuristic Rosanne refugee and designs and builds the Racer family cars; Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), who comes on like a blend of Hillary Clinton and June Cleaver; and smarty-pants kid Spritle (Paulie Litt), a rowdy little John Goodmanesque scamp whose best buddy is a chimpanzee named Chim-Chim.
Christina Ricci, in a bouncy mood, plays Trixie, Speed's staunch girlfriend. And there's a nasty, snobbish corporate villain named Royalton (Roger Allam), who tries to seduce Speed with a big fat contract, is spurned and then screams that the racing world is a fixed fake and sneers that he'll destroy the holdout Speed. (Can't this corporate genius keep a secret?) Allam is a Christopher Hitchens look-and- sound-alike with a touch of bloated Tim Curry thrown in -- and for a while I almost convinced myself I really was watching the Vanity Fair leftie-turned neocon TV news pundit, and that Hitchens had tired of sneering at liberals and found a new career as a live-action cartoon. It's the job he may have been born for, but Allam is a more persuasive corporate bully.
The Love Guru (D+)
U.S.; Marco Schnabel, 2008, Michael De Luca Productions
Star-writer Mike Myers kicked up a dubious religious-political storm with this feeble comedy about a Hindu love guru and his media misadventures, but the activists who boycotted it may have been wasting their time, and ours. This movie was never funny enough to take seriously.
Young @ Heart (B+)
U.S.; Stephen Walker, 2008, Fox Searchlight
This is a nice, entertaining, sometimes very moving piece about rock music and aging. It follows the sometimes heartening, sometimes crisis-ridden rehearsals and performances of a very congenial New England chorus of elderly singers whose members sing rock at its rawest and new waviest, from James Brown to Sonic Youth. It's amusing and, at times, moving, especially because -- be forewarned -- not all the members make it to the end. (Extras: Featurette, deleted scenes.)
U.S.; Henry Bean, 2008, Anchor Bay
Tim Robbins manages to be convincing as an unlikely Manhattan anti-noise terrorist, who calls himself the Rectifier and dedicates himself to assaults on cars with loud burglar alarms. But though the Big Apple atmosphere is tangy, the dialogue topical and clever and the cast good (William Hurt is New York's noxious mayor), the premise and the humor don't really kick in. With Bridget Moynahan. (Extras: Commentary by Bean, cast and crew interviews.)
The Forsaken Land (B+)
France/Sri Lanka; Vimukthi Jayasundara, 2005, New Yorker
A beautiful and very effective anti-war film, this is set in Sri Lanka during the post-civil war ceasefire, and revolves around a guardsman, his little girl and his fellow guardsman, a man whose sad past opens up during a crisis. Extraordinary and lyrical, writer-director Jayasundara's Cannes Festival Camera d'Or-winning first film opens up the country for us as well. In Sinhalese, with English subtitles. (Extras: Short film, "The Land of Silence" and booklet.)