Sunday, January 23, 2011

That's the Smallest Movie Theatre Screen I've Ever Seen! What's the Deal With That?

Notwithstanding the argument that an "art house" what plays Speed Racer might not, in fact, actually be an "art house," the main problem with playing mainstream movies is that people who like mainstream movies come to see them.

And to drink beer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blue Valentine

One of the other managers at the theatre, who happened to screen this film one night before I did, said that it seemed to have been designed in such a way as to not make obvious the time period in which it is set; and that comment wound up being one of those things I could not get out of my head while I watched the movie, to the point that I was actively looking for signs that would give away the time period. There were enough of them to seat the film firmly in the very recent past (the family SUV and a reference to Bush 43), but what I noticed while I was looking for those signs was that there was a rather considerable dearth of externalities in the film. It is so focused on its core idea—observing Dean and Cindy throughout their life together—that almost nothing else gets on screen unless it is directly related to that idea.

There are no subplots; or at least, there are no subplots that are not directly related to Dean and Cindy—not only to Dean or only to Cindy, but to Dean-and-Cindy, perhaps as some kind of nuclear organism; and the film’s tracjectory is inevitably drawn back to Dean and Cindy, as the present day is intercut with flashbacks that present the total picture of Dean-and-Cindy, from beginning to end. The reason this formula works is because the central character in the movie is their relationship, from its unlikely beginnings to its inevitable conclusion.

“Inevitable conclusion” is, of course, just a nice way of saying “fiery breakup” or “they never should have gotten together in the first place.” Is that giving too much away? I can’t imagine that it is. Nothing you could read about this film will give you the slightest idea that there is anything uplifting to be seen; and if this is a film you actively want to see, then you’ve probably read up on it enough to know what’s coming, so that the actual detail is neither a surprise nor a spoiler. It is how what happens is presented that makes the film compelling.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance picks up the story of Dean and Cindy toward the end, but he paces the flashbacks in such a way that we get the whole story by the time we get to the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about this film when I started writing, and I’m still not sure what I want to say. It’s one of the more straightforward films I’ve seen in awhile: despite one last attempt to right a sinking ship, a young couple is ultimately unable to save their failing marriage. Ryan Gosling is Dean, Michelle Williams is Cindy, and they both play their parts admirably and courageously—particularly Gosling, who has to spend much of his time being ignorant, selfish, and downright bellicose. Dean doesn’t exactly have a lot going on in his life, but even having said that, Cindy, laden with some considerable baggage of her own, is also not his one-way ticket to a better world.

It seems reasonable that Dean would be attracted to Cindy, even if you factor out how hot Michelle Williams is. While Dean did not graduate from high school and moves from job to job like a Joad, Cindy is in college and pursuing the medical school track. There is also the matter of how they meet. The company Dean works for is moving an elderly gentleman into a nursing home for the first time, and the gentleman just happens to get the room across the hall from Cindy’s grandmother, on whom Cindy dotes. There is, of course, the obligatory moment when Dean and Cindy see each other through doorways—but the moment is not electric. It’s more like an oasis—and it might be the most clever part of Cianfrance’s screenplay. Their eyes find each other in that space because they share nothing but being young in a place that is filled with old people.

It’s possible that how old so many of these old people are is something of an affectation on Cianfrance’s part; but then again, without some sort of impetus, this thing was never going to get off the ground. People meet in lots of different ways, and they are attracted to each other for lots of different reasons; and, as this film makes clear, they stay together for many different reasons, too—even when some of the reasons are not very good ones.

Dean is interested because Cindy is a pretty girl, but it takes some time before Cindy reciprocates his interest. Indeed, a major plot point, which occurs between when they meet and when they get together, would almost lead you to believe that Cindy winds up with Dean more because he is not someone else than because he is who he is—perhaps one of those nebulous reasons that people get together when maybe they shouldn’t have done. In between is another major plot point that reveals perhaps the best of Dean, and possibly the most compelling reason for Dean and Cindy to try to stay together, despite what seem to be considerable odds.

The film is difficult to watch at times, and it does not end well; but it is very well crafted and is in many ways a gem of a little picture. It’s much less polished than a picture like Rabbit Hole, but is no less effective and no less worthy of the “art film” moniker. It is, however, more challenging. (And yes, I understand that I am making the somewhat absurd assertion that something other than a Darren Aronofsky film could be more challenging than a John Cameron Mitchell film.) It is also, unfortunately, the sort of film that Oscar can easily ignore. The acting is very good, but not quite revelatory; and the considerable excellence of the screenplay and editing will be overlooked as surely as pick-a-Pixar-film will be praised far more than is warranted. Nevertheless, if you feel up to the challenge, you could do much worse than taking in this very fine film.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zest! Exciting Food Creations

We once again roped Grandma into watching Jackson, and we ventured north to try Zest! Exciting Food Creations, on 54th Street between Keystone and College, in a little strip of shops that might actually be called, if I remember correctly, the 54th Street Shops. Space is not an abundant commodity at Zest!, either outside with respect to parking, nor inside with respect to a space where people can wait to be seated, should they arrive when the restaurant is busy. And you should expect the restaurant to be busy, since it’s situated in that part of town that has apparently been christened SoBro—and everything in SoBro is terribly, terribly hip at the moment.

Zest! is one of those places where they serve both breakfast and lunch from when they open until they switch over to the dinner menu in the late afternoon, a kind of fusion between the fine dining dinner places that have popped up in SoBro in the last couple of years (Recess, Taste) and über-brunch places like Patachou and Three Sisters. I haven’t eaten at any of the fancy new dinner places, but we’ve been to Patachou and Three Sisters several times each. Zest! doesn’t have the charm of the big old house that became Three Sisters, or the vaguely retro diner feel of the Patachou places, but it does have excellent art and photographs on the walls and a welcoming staff that sort of helps to offset the cramped feel of a place that doesn’t quite have enough space to serve the number of people that it hopes to attract.

That said, the menu is ambitious, with breakfast standards like omelettes and biscuits and gravy and sandwiches and salads for lunch. The mushroom sandwich, with marinated wild mushrooms, goat cheese, organic greens, tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette called out to me, as did the stuffed tortilla, which is basically a big breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, cheese, and the slightly more unusual black bean and corn salsa and lime sour cream. But it was the omelettes that got me, as is almost always the case when I wind up at a place where they serve omelettes. It’s even better when you can get the omelette made with egg whites, which Zest! offers (as one of the three ingredients in a make-your-own omelette for $9.95).

I took the egg whites option and added wild mushrooms and white cheddar cheese for my other two ingredients, with whole grain toast and what they call “beautiful fruit” for the side. The menu says it’s the most beautiful fruit they can find, but in reality it’s just a cup of mostly pineapple, with a couple of grapes and one lonely, thin slice of strawberry. The omelette also did not quite live up to its name, coming out as a dish of scrambled eggs with mushrooms and cheese worked in—not the rolled up or even folded over presentation one usually associates with the word omelette. It tasted awfully good, though. The mushrooms, in particular, gave it added texture and an earthy flavor that you don’t get with plain old button mushrooms. Curiously, Swiss cheese, which works beautifully with mushrooms in just about any setting, is absent from the list of omelette ingredients.

Amy had the meatloaf and “world famous” macaroni and cheese ($8.95) from the lunch menu. Also modestly portioned, the macaroni looked like ziti (a nice touch) and was baked under crunchy bread crumbs and served piping hot—a good thing on a cold, windy day. Along with a slice of somewhat dry, but undeniably delicious meatloaf, it was a solid comfort food dish that would satisfy most, but perhaps not the heartiest, appetites.

There are some intriguing options on the dinner menu, including Asiago ‘fried’ chicken (their quotes, not mine) served with wild mushroom ragoût, rosemary-gorgonzola polenta, and roasted green beans, and the so-called 3-napkin burger loaded with barbecue sauce, grilled red onion, white cheddar, smoked gouda, bleu cheese, and cherry-wood smoked bacon; but I can only imagine what the parking situation and wait times must be for dinner, even on a weeknight. A return trip could be in the offing one of these days, to have a go at that dinner menu; but I can’t imagine coming back for an omelette—not as long as Patachou and Three Sisters are still going strong.

1134 East 54th Street
466-1852
www.zestexcitingfood.com

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rabbit Hole

This is not a perfect film. The only reason I say that right up front, right out of the gate like that, is because if I don’t, I’m going to wind up writing a long-winded rambling explanation of why this is, in fact, a perfect film. It’s a very, very good film, but it’s not quite perfect. It does many of the things that I admire most about film as an art form, and it avoids most of the things that I don’t really appreciate about film—but not quite all of those things.

It’s the story of Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman), a couple who have recently lost their four-year-old in a tragic accident. The accident is only eight months in the past, and Howie and Becca are struggling to come to terms with living through such a thing. They live in a suburb of New York, in a huge house, and are clearly people of intellect and means. At some level, they understand that they must eventually go on with life; but there is nothing that they have in their lives that seems to help them along that path. Howie still goes to work, but Becca has left her job, and they are so far unable (or perhaps unwilling) to reconnect with friends and neighbors.

They go through the motions, but what is missing from their lives is not just the physical form of a little boy, but some part of each of their souls. Eckhart and Kidman are both equal to the task of playing characters who are in many ways empty, robbed of something that was so integral a part of them, both individually and as a couple. The film’s tagline is “The only way out is through.” There is no way for them to get through their grief without facing it, but they go about this in different ways.

There is, of course, a powerful sense of guilt that radiates from both Howie and Becca, a feeling that by going on with their own lives they are in some way dishonoring their son or his memory. Becca is unable to reestablish physical intimacy with Howie when, early in the film, she rejects Howie’s attempt to massage her shoulders and then accuses him of trying to seduce her. Kidman does an excellent job here of showing on her face, in one moment, her body’s physical response to the pleasure she feels from her husband’s hands on her shoulders, and in the next moment, her rejection of his touch with a guilty shiver.

The inability to return to physical intimacy is an outward sign of their inability to communicate effectively with each other in any meaningful way. They try a group therapy session, even though Howie knows that it is not the kind of thing that Becca will respond to. He continues to attend the sessions even after she has given up, and she begins to take down their son’s paintings from the refrigerator and bag up his clothes for donation to the Goodwill. He can’t get right with the paintings being gone, but she can’t get right with their still hanging on the refrigerator, and neither of them can properly talk about it.

Becca is the more frustrating of the two, because she is the one who seems to think that the world should be waiting on her to process her grief in her own way before it begins turning again. She is the very embodiment of the overprivileged, exurban sense of entitlement that makes Americans look ridiculous to people in most of the rest of the world. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Becca goes back to Sotheby’s, the New York auction house where she used to work, and asks at the reception desk after several of her former co-workers, only to find out that they no longer work there. On her way out, she runs into one of the kids who used to run coffee for the people who did the real work, only now he’s one of the people who do the real work, and he has been promoted to the job of one the guys Becca had come to see (or whose name she had tried to drop—take your pick). Kidman has always done severe facial expression well, and the way she shows shock and then coldness here tells us plainly that it had never even occurred to Becca that anything might still be going on in the real world while she was mourning her son. Though the scene amply demonstrates her affluent smugness, it also shows, I think for the first time, the human being that is buried somewhere under all of that smugness and all of her defense mechanisms.

There are many awkward encounters like this throughout the film, and the path toward healing inevitably winds up leading Howie and Becca further apart than they already are. At bottom, it seems as though they understand that they will eventually be able to go on with their lives, given enough time to process what has happened; but neither of them knows how to get there, and the efforts they make to do things together wind up failing. They retreat into themselves, and they seem to understand what is happening to their marriage as well as they understand that eventually things are going to get better.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own stage play, is wise enough to give Howie and Becca room to expand and contract; and Eckhart and Kidman are skilled enough to fill that space with the urgency of their characters without resorting to histrionics or unnecessary action. Director John Cameron Mitchell, best known for far more outré work, including Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, here takes a cue from Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and allows his characters to fill up his (ahem) interiors and then expand outward as they begin to get through their pain and guilt. Becca and Howie pursue different paths toward getting their lives back together, and sometimes they stray far from where they began; but just as they understand so many other things, though perhaps without being able to express those things, they also understand that their love is the only thing that will get them all the way through the rabbit hole.

Though firmly on course through the first two acts, the film starts to veer toward melodrama in the third act, culminating with the final couple of scenes: a hackneyed, cloying montage, with voice-over, that presents the film’s rather effective conclusion at the same time that it softens all of the hard edges that had made the film so compelling. In a way, it’s sort of impressive that such an ending can be drawn from material that was, at times, fairly harrowing; but it would have been so much more satisfying without the slow-motion and the quiet voice-over and all of those smiles.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The King's Speech

This film has everything that is supposed to make it quite likable and make it the target of much attention when awards season rolls around. It’s an historical drama about British royalty, with the spectre of World War II looming in the background; the main character must overcome something difficult that stands in the way of his achieving his destiny; and all the while, a who’s who of well-respected thespians from across the pond deliver delightful supporting and incidental performances. It has all of these things and more—terrific cinematography, exqusite locations, and a fairly unobtrusive score. It even keeps the melodrama to a minimum.

And yet I kept hoping that it would just end, that it could somehow speed up and get to the end more quickly. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the film. I just didn’t feel the kind of emotional connection to the main character, King George VI (Colin Firth), that would have been necessary for me to really lose myself in the film. Firth and Geoffrey Rush (playing Lionel Logue, the speech therapist hired by George VI’s wife) are both excellent, as they usually are. Firth does a very fine job of pretending not to be able to talk properly, and Rush is terrifically restrained as the commoner tasked with helping turn a man into a king.

I suppose it’s natural that someone with a speech impediment (here, a fairly paralyzing stammer) would in some ways shut others out and develop early into a curmudgeon; and it’s even possible for curmudgeons to be fairly likable as characters (see much of the later work of Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall); but Firth holds something back here, or is simply missing the grizzled charm that helps to transform a grumpy person into a character that resonates with the audience. It’s certainly not a fatal flaw for me, and probably won’t even be a flaw for most people who see the film; but for me, it is the difference between a very good film and a great one.

Pretty much everything else is solid. The story proceeds organically, with the failing health of George V and the ascension of his less-than-kingly eldest son David (Guy Pearce, getting the seemingly rare chance to use his native accent), which takes place during the years leading up to World War II; but the dramatic tension of the fact-based story is already in place, giving the writers a little bit of a free pass, where they might otherwise have had to overdramatize certain elements. To their credit, they don’t stumble with the free pass, getting out of the way so that Firth and Rush can work. Everyone else gets out of the way, too, including the commanding Helena Bonham Carter in the role of the future Queen Mother. Without ever stealing a scene from either Firth or Rush, she manages to do just enough to advance the story in a couple of key places.

Director Tom Hooper in some ways improves upon his previous outing, The Damned United, in that the ending here is not an awful one that very nearly ruins what had been a fine picture; he stays the course and the film ends as well as it began and as well as it was going along in the middle. But it never quite soars, even though it does seem to know that soaring is expected of it. The Damned United does soar in places, but is ultimately derailed by a terrible ending. The King’s Speech is exactly what it is supposed to be, which is charming period Oscar bait; but it is not at all challenging. One of these days, Tom Hooper is going to get all of the pieces put together in just the right way and come up with a truly excellent film. As good as it might be, though, this is not that film.