Archive for October 2003

In the Cut

October 22, 2003

I refuse to give up on Jane Campion. In terms of setting a visual mood, she remains one of the top-notch directors out there, even if her choices in material have been funky for about a decade now. Exhibit A would be In the Cut, roundly described as terrible — an erotic thriller without eroticism or thrills — a charge I find difficult to dispute, except that I don’t really think an erotic thriller is what Campion had in mind.

Working from the dry-ice 1995 novel by Susanna Moore (who co-scripted with the director), Campion approaches the basic narrative thread — woman gets in touch with her nasty side by carrying on a torrid affair with a man who might be a murderer — as a jittery, stylistically dodgy meditation on desire and self-destruction. Woe to anyone who rents In the Cut hoping for something suspenseful or arousing.

A look at Moore’s novel — which can probably be read in about the time it takes to watch the film — reveals a not very different game plan. The unnamed narrator, a professor of English, obsesses about words and slang, and couches her experiences in spare, standoffish prose that, after a while, clues you in on how much she’s feeling but not expressing. Campion nails the tone of the book exactly once, when the movie’s protagonist, here named Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), discovers a body part in a sink; the sense of floating detachment rolling slowly into horror is what separates an artist from a garden-variety purveyor of cheap shocks.

Meg Ryan isn’t really in this movie — at least not the Meg Ryan we’ve come to be familiar (and bored) with, the cuddly Meg of romantic comedies, although she has been bedraggled and not-nice in such films as When a Man Loves a Woman and Hurlyburly. Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe shoot Ryan unflatteringly whenever possible, bringing out the hollows under her eyes and emphasizing that weird glazed look she gets when she’s trying to convey deep thought. Like all the Campion actresses before her — Holly Hunter, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman — Ryan gives an almost entirely physical performance; Campion likes her actresses consciously inexpressive, so that she can work with their bodies and the way shadows play across their faces.

Similarly, Mark Ruffalo fills the Harvey Keitel role of the powerful and possibly dangerous man who leads the heroine further into herself than she would otherwise have gone. As the crude detective Malloy, who prides himself on “being whatever you want me to be” in bed, Ruffalo strikes an effective balance of machismo and tenderness. Like other sexual knights in Campion’s work, Malloy knows exactly what Frannie needs, and Frannie gratefully plays right along with him. The fact that he might be the killer who’s been going around “disarticulating” local women only adds to Frannie’s playing-with-fire pleasure. Campion works hard to steam up their encounters, but the scenes have a queasy, doom-laden undercurrent that cuts off arousal; we are distanced and watching two people in the throes of their own private bad obsessions.

The actual plot motor is sort of goofy on the face of it, as it was in Moore’s novel; but, of course, neither Moore nor Campion is interested in the “story” so much as the tangled emotions that arise from it. Frannie has seen (explicitly, in the unrated version of the film) a man in shadows getting orally pleasured by a woman who later turns up “disarticulated”; the man has a tattoo on his wrist, and so does Malloy. We’re given other red herrings, including Frannie’s student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), a large black guy obsessed with John Wayne Gacy, and Frannie’s neurotic ex-lover John (an uncredited Kevin Bacon), who putters around with his ugly little dog and stalks her (and when he gets her attention, all he does is whine about how he’s thinking about going on antidepressants). We also get, for no apparent reason, some flashbacks/nightmares about how Frannie’s dad proposed to her mom while ice-skating (complete with the Freudian visual of Dad’s ice-skates cleaving off Mom’s feet); and Frannie has been given a half-sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who serves little function other than bemoaning the lack of decent men while still sleeping with bastards. Meg and Jennifer: the masochism twins.

In the Cut was never going to be a mainstream hit (and decidedly wasn’t), so I have to wonder why Campion and/or Moore altered the ending of the book, which panned out pretty much the same as the movie does, only without the redemptive gunshot and final reunion. (The book ends with the narrator hoping she bleeds to death before her killer returns to disarticulate her.) The movie’s finale makes it seem like just another conventional Skinemax thriller (though Campion, true to her calling as a stubborn artist, mutes the redemptive act of violence). I came away from In the Cut feeling the same way I did after all of Campion’s other films: not quite sure what I had seen or whether I “liked” it, but certain that I’d seen something quite out of the ordinary. Should a movie be penalized for failing to be something it never tried or aspired to be? Perhaps the marketing is to blame, or the hype surrounding Meg Ryan’s nudity. Once again, Campion has given us a work that is its own willful beast, unshackled by genre (except for the sell-out ending). I can’t really argue with those who didn’t like it. I can’t say I “liked” it either. But I’m still not giving up on Campion.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

October 17, 2003

It begins well enough, with John Larroquette delivering a somber preliminary narration, just as he did thirty years ago. Unfortunately, that’s about as much respect for the source as you’ll find in the pointless new remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film is, for me, the great American horror movie — even its title puts people off and carries the sweaty whiff of the drive-in. But Hooper transformed exploitation into art, especially in the celebrated dinner scene, wherein shell-shocked victim Marilyn Burns was treated to a high-stress meal with chainsaw-wielding psycho Leatherface and his guffawing family. The remake has no dinner scene, which is kind of like a remake of Psycho without the shower scene (at least Gus Van Sant attempted it).

Director Marcus Nispel, whose previous claim to fame was getting fired from End of Days, here seems to want to outdo Waterworld: This is the wettest movie I believe I’ve ever seen. And not just gore; Nispel never met a brackish liquid he didn’t like, and characters are continually covered with sweat, muck, rain, water drizzling from basement pipes. The movie has a damp, icky feel, compounded by the drained-out cinematography of Daniel Pearl, who found evil in rays of sunshine when he shot the original Chainsaw. Pearl certainly doesn’t try to duplicate what he did before: This movie is as gray and soggy as a day in London. And it dilutes what should be the film’s specificity — with all the rain and gloom, outdoors and inside, it might as well have been shot in Seattle.

We’re to understand this is not so much a remake as a “rethinking,” so although we get five doomed young people in a van, they’re not the same characters as in the original film (no whiny, wheelchair-bound Franklin, for instance). Jessica Biel is first-billed as the clean-living Erin; owing to her starring status and the fact that she refuses the offer of a joint, Biel is certain to survive. The others, including Eric Balfour of Six Feet Under and Erica Leerhsen of Blair Witch 2, won’t be so lucky. The merry youngsters, on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (hey, the movie is set in 1973), pick up a dazed, traumatized hitcher, a teenage girl who couldn’t be more unlike the cackling hitchhiker in Hooper’s film. She has her own shock value, though; she produces a pistol from somewhere between her legs and blows her brains out right there in the van.

This wastes a lot of time because the characters are then faced with the ethical and legal issues of what to do with a fresh suicide victim’s corpse. They call the local sheriff, who turns out to be R. Lee Ermey in full wingnut mode, Saran-Wrapping the corpse and later forcing one of the kids to engage in a little Russian roulette. Ermey at least looks to be having fun; nobody else is, though I guess there’s a ceiling on how much joy can be had from playing a scene in which one dangles from a meat hook with the stump of a sawed-off leg.

Soon enough we meet Leatherface (hulking Andrew Bryniarski, who, like the others who played the role in the three sequels to Hooper’s film, misses the skittish humanity Gunnar Hansen brought to the killer), who has been given a new reason for wearing the faces of his victims as masks: he has no nose. Yes, Leatherface (foolishly given a real name, too: Thomas Hewitt) was born with a skin disorder that made him the object of ridicule and, subsequently, the chainsaw-happy psycho he is today. Feh. In the original, he was a lunatic in a family of lunatics; the family he gets here is decidedly pallid, and there’s no moment as hilariously fine as Jim Siedow’s beloved line, “Look what your brother did to the door!”

Is the new Chainsaw scary? Not to these eyes; it struck me as just needlessly ugly and unpleasant, not to mention Hollywoodized down to its muddy shoes: There’s a kindhearted inbred-looking kid who helps save the day, and a baby who’s there solely to be rescued by the star. I hoped to see a loyal dog at Leatherface’s side to make the schmaltz complete, but no such luck. Chainsaw ’03 is too dull to be a true desecration; like the Psycho remake, it’s a little hard to get too angry at it when there’ve already been three bad sequels tainting the memory of the original masterpiece. It isn’t stealing Hooper’s movie off of my shelf and replacing it with itself, so the rehash doesn’t even deserve the energy of my scorn, or the word count I’ve already expended on it. It’s just further proof that those who can, make; those who can’t, remake.

Veronica Guerin

October 17, 2003

The goal of Veronica Guerin is transparent: not to point out the drug problems in Dublin — which are distant to all but those who live there — but to make a tragic Irish version of Erin Brockovich, with a matching Oscar for Cate Blanchett. Guerin, a sort of folk hero in Ireland (or a martyr — same difference), reported on crime for the popular Dublin paper the Sunday Independent and, according to the legend, got a little too close to the drug lords for comfort; she was shot to death in 1996, at age 38, while sitting in her car at a traffic light. The movie begins with the murder, then backtracks two years to re-enact Guerin’s reportorial crusade against drug dealers.

The way the movie, energetically if impersonally directed by Joel Schumacher, tells it, Veronica was moved to action by the sight of little children playing with the syringes left in the street by heroin addicts. As some critics have noted, though, the focus of the real Guerin’s journalistic wrath was not heroin dealers, but marijuana dealers. That might explain why the movie’s Veronica is barely shown talking to (let alone writing about) drug addicts, except to grill them on where they get the stuff. Her emphasis is entirely on the Bad Guys pushing drugs to children. Fair enough, but it doesn’t make for a terribly provocative movie. Why did Veronica tilt at the drug-traffic windmill to the extent of endangering herself and her husband and young son? According to the film, because she Just Wasn’t Going to Back Down.

Working with a worshipful (and Guerin-family-approved) script by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue, Schumacher can’t even get his usual tacky excitement going. The movie is simply a series of escalating threats on Veronica’s life, until finally she’s done in — on orders from the drug kingpin (Gerard McSorley in a cartoon-vicious performance) she’s been tailing, the film strongly implies. (Some have theorized that Guerin’s murder wasn’t as simple as that, and speak of cover-ups and shady characters under the protection of the Garda, Ireland’s police force.) In a few scenes, mostly dealing with Ciarán Hinds as a sad-sack crime underling who serves as Veronica’s secret source, we get a sense of the uniquely Irish flavor of the underworld. But then it’s back to another not especially involving domestic scene with Veronica goofing around with her kid or scoffing at the concerns of various family members. After a while, every scene becomes a testament to Veronica’s courage, Veronica’s strength, Veronica’s indomitable spirit.

It should be said that Cate Blanchett does a lot to clip the angel wings off herself. She makes muckraking look sexy — to her, unmasking the criminal element is wicked, dirty fun, and she enjoys their discomfort when she strides among them with an air of serene implacability. Blanchett seems to be acting in a better, more complex movie, wherein Veronica rubs elbows with underworld swine because she likes it. Lest we miss the point that Veronica is just like the rest of us, the script points up her addiction to football (or soccer, as we call it) — she decompresses by kicking a ball around in the backyard — though this doesn’t do much for the movie except provide an excuse for a two-time Schumacher star to pop in for an uncredited cameo as a rough, tattooed football fan with whom Veronica chats on the street. He comes on to her cheerfully, as if he’d been watching the movie; certainly no one else notices the sensual vibe of bravado Blanchett sends off.

Schumacher really tries our patience at the end, though; Veronica gets her wings after all, and Blanchett, dead in the front seat of a car, can’t do anything about it. Word of her murder spreads, which seems to devastate everyone in Ireland. Sinead O’Connor sings mournfully on the soundtrack as the streets are clogged with mourners. A narrator reassures us that there was a massive crackdown on drug crime directly after Guerin’s death, and that the crime rate went down 15 percent.

Actually, things didn’t stay that way for long; according to a story in Guerin’s paper the Sunday Independent the summer Veronica Guerin was released, “Three killings within the two days surrounding the premiere of the Veronica Guerin movie and a total of almost 50 unsolved gangland murders in Dublin since her death in 1996, together with an unprecedented rise in drug-trafficking and armed criminal activity nationwide, demonstrate that the anti-crime packages that were to have been her legacy have not worked. The prediction of senior gardai is that gangland violence, at its highest levels due mainly to the large amount of modern weapons coming into the country with drug consignments, will continue to worsen in the immediate future.” Of course, we hear nothing of this from the movie, which sends us out ready to canonize Veronica — though the film itself has already, falsely, done it.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

October 10, 2003

Forget what you’ve heard, the good and the bad: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – Vol. 1, the geek master’s first movie in six years, neither reinvents the cinematic wheel nor reveals its author at a low point. It’s not a great movie — not the great movie Pulp Fiction was — but it’s great fun. Tarantino has assembled an adoring remix of everything he’s ever loved in movies on the theme of revenge: some spaghetti Westerns here (ever seen 1967’s God Forgives, I Don’t? You can bet QT has), some Asian standards there, mixed in with Truffaut (whose The Bride Wore Black informs Kill Bill more than a little, though Tarantino has denied seeing it; I doubt this) and nasty X-rated Swedish exploitation (They Call Her One-Eye, an influence on the heroine and one of her betrayers). I would’ve loved to have seen it all in one mammoth, glorious, three-hour-plus gulp (Miramax, imitating the heroine at the House of Blue Leaves, cleaved the film into two parts); as it is, Vol. 2 can’t get here fast enough.

Trembling and bloodied, Uma Thurman’s Bride (known by no other name in this volume; her real name is bleeped three times) chokes out four last words before Bill (David Carradine), the eponymous focus of her vengeance, blows her brains out. Well, almost. That’s the first shot of the movie, and we learn that the bullet knocked her into a four-year coma. She escapes an aborted bedside murder attempt by Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, cold and mean as a knife here), one of Bill’s minions. “Don’t you ever wake up,” Elle snarls, but eventually the Bride does snap out of it; you know this is an exploitation picture because she has to kill two loutish rapists within five minutes of her resurrection. Willing her coma-stiffened legs to function, the Bride takes off, Death List in hand, and sets about her course of action: slashing through each of her former cohorts on Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — including Elle, the domesticized Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), and the fearsome O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) — before tracking down Bill.

Thurman spends most of her screen time seething with scarcely repressed homicidal rage, though she’s got a cheerier moment here when she poses as a bubbly American tourist who just happens to have stumbled into the sushi bar of retired-and-in-hiding master swordsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, whose name Tarantino can now cross off his list of Movie Gods I Want to Put in My Movies). Hanzo fashions the Bride a sword sharp enough, one imagines, to slice the thoughts of air molecules. It slices, all right; in the designed-to-be-legendary Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, it drenches the floor, ceiling, and walls in hissing, gushing arterial spray as the Bride carves her way through O-Ren’s cadre of assassins (the Crazy 88s) as though they were soft ice cream.

Kill Bill is a temple of worship — a devout hymn of praise to crap cinema (which isn’t always crappy). Tarantino, a generous filmmaker if ever there was one, pelts us with stylistic jabs as well as flying body parts. O-Ren’s origin story, for instance, is told as a spectacularly gory anime cartoon, and that’s pretty much what you’re watching all along. The movie, though, retains Tarantino’s preference for long breezes of rhetoric (though shortened somewhat and honed to a point here — most of the wordiness here is on the part of those hoping to avoid the Bride’s wrath) as well as quiet, still moments. Tarantino, who’s seen everything and knows how it works, isn’t trying to subvert anything this time out. His goal, it’s clear, is to make the ultimate revenge movie with the ultimate sword battle scene.

The latter might well occur in Vol. 1, but never fear, more impressive stuff is on tap for Vol. 2 (from what I remember of the script, which, like many, I’ve read online). Tarantino ends this first part with a line from Bill obviously intended to get people to come back for the second part (effectively giving away a surprise that had originally been saved for the saga’s last act), but it’s hardly necessary. You want to see what happens next with the Bride — not whether she gets her revenge, but how, and what toll it may take on enemies and innocents alike. I’ll miss Lucy Liu as O-Ren, smugly cocooned in her stature and acumen, and Chiaki Kuriyama as O-Ren’s psychotic bodyguard Go-Go Yubari; but we have more Daryl Hannah coming up, and more Michael Madsen (barely glimpsed here) as Budd, the team’s only male Viper; and we’ll get to meet Bill and see for ourselves whether we — and the Bride — still want him dead.

Intolerable Cruelty

October 10, 2003

intolerable-cruelty-review2Intolerable Cruelty is about two sharks falling for each other, but not after shedding some blood first. This is fine screwball material for Joel and Ethan Coen, who dusted off a script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone and ran with it. The result isn’t as organic a Coen film as their others, but it earns its place in their portfolio as a comic essay on the follies of love, trust, and the illusion of control.

Don’t make too much of the fact that the material didn’t originate with the Coens (it never stopped anyone from liking any of their other movies that owed their structures to Hammett, Chandler, Homer, etc.), or that Brian Grazer produced it (Joel Silver bankrolled The Hudsucker Proxy — what’s your point?). This isn’t a whole lot like any previous Coen film, but none of their previous films are much like each other, either. When approaching a new Coen effort, it’s wise to leave your expectations at the door. This is the Coens dabbling in the mainstream, and bending it to their will.

Teaming for the second time with the Coens, George Clooney enters the picture teeth-first — literally. As Miles Massey, an egotistical divorce lawyer who prides himself on winning big settlements for irredeemable clients, Clooney gives full rein to the old-school suavity that links him to the movie stars of an earlier age. Yet Miles is essentially a fool, with a nagging fear that there must be more to life than obscene wealth. Perhaps love is what’s missing — but Miles sees the wreckage of love every day; not only that, he profits handsomely from it. He can’t see himself with a trophy wife, or with a sweet, trusting woman with a fraction of his smarts. So when he meets professional divorcée Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he’s undone. Marylin is in the process of extricating herself from an idiotic real-estate tycoon (Edward Herrmann, having fun being randy); she looks forward to the “independence and freedom” that her ex’s wealth will bring her. We sense that it’s not just about freedom for her, though; it’s more about the thrill of the hunt. Zeta-Jones, as usual, slinks into each scene with the confidence of a woman who knows she can make men sit up and beg.

The Coens don’t sully Marylin’s glamour — they need it to keep the machine rolling. Miles is infatuated with her as a package — beauty plus a diabolical sense of male weakness. He’s been looking for a challenge, and she’s it. They both know all the tricks, and the Coens’ unequalled skill with dialogue comes out in the verbal sparring between the two. At heart, this is a classic Coen film, obsessed with crime — the glee of getting away with something. By the time attempted murder enters the plot, we recognize that it’s the logical extension of the characters’ ruthlessness. These are not nice people, though they’re softened by a sort of wistful awareness that kindness might exist out there, somewhere.

With the possible exception of Paul Adelstein as Wrigley, Miles’ mushy-hearted assistant (who bawls at weddings), everyone in the movie is circling the drain of ambition. We meet Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), whose specialty is catching wandering spouses in flagrante delicto on his camcorder; and Geoffrey Rush in a farcical turn as a TV producer with brass taste; and Julia Duffy as Marylin’s mummified divorcée friend, with a 46-room mansion and a bleeding ulcer; and especially Billy Bob Thornton enjoying himself to the hilt as a naïve oil billionaire who becomes the next patsy on Marylin’s list. These actors perform in shorthand, functioning as satellites on the margins of the divorce universe, where Miles and Marylin are god and goddess. Eventually, the Coens break away from the swank atmosphere and give us such oddities as a quickie Scottish wedding performed in kilts and a hit man named Wheezy Joe. I wonder if what bothers some Coen fans about Intolerable Cruelty is that, unlike most of their films (which either stay lowlife or mix lowlife and the elite), it stays pretty much elite for most of the movie, and the main characters are comfortable there.

Miles, for one, is getting uncomfortable there, and he has a change of heart, though the Coens have the wit to satirize it as the smitten grandstanding it is. Soon enough, Miles is back in the moral grime, and the plot twists and double-crosses come fast and heavy. Much of Intolerable Cruelty will reward multiple viewings; lately, the Coens haven’t been making movies that even their longtime fans will instantly embrace — not everyone dug O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for instance, or The Man Who Wasn’t There. Never let it be said that the Coens are content to rest on their laurels, or averse to risk. At its core, Intolerable Cruelty is an anti-romantic comedy, in which, even if the leads wind up together, we’re not sure they’re meant for each other, even if they do deserve each other.

Mystic River

October 8, 2003

In the bleak and despairing Mystic River, men sit in rumpled Boston apartments and bars and package stores, pursued in their minds by the furies of the past. Directing his twenty-fourth feature, Clint Eastwood delivers a true rarity — a work of high seriousness with a laid-back, unemphatic touch. The movie, like most Eastwood films, takes its time; the camera settles in and meditates on the characters, giving them space to reveal or conceal. The style offers realism as a kind of grim poetry. The plot, taken from a Dennis Lehane novel, verges on gimmicky at times — or seems to, because you expect it to make good on some of its less plausible red herrings (to its credit, it doesn’t) — but the story is firmly grounded in emotion, the ghosts of loss and shame.

On one level, Mystic River is almost Sleepers for those who hated Sleepers: Here’s another drama starring Kevin Bacon in which boys linked together by abuse grow into men haunted by demons of vengeance. But this is the movie Sleepers could only dream of being. Three boys, typical city kids who watch one of their number taken away by two mysterious men who give the impression they’re cops, bring the experience into adulthood. We see how each man has adjusted. Jimmy (Sean Penn), who runs a corner shop, has done some time for robbery and still has shady acquaintances from his lawless days. Sean (Kevin Bacon) went the opposite way, becoming a Boston homicide detective whose cold-eyed devotion to his work may have driven away his pregnant wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) is indistinct, unfinished, as if the abuse he suffered at the hands of those two men as a boy had stunted not only his emotions but his soul.

Jimmy’s cheerful 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered, and the event brings the three childhood friends together, uneasily. Almost gagging on his own grief — at one point, sitting and talking to Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne), Jimmy looks as though he’s about to have a heart attack — the bereaved father demands rough justice. He cooperates with Sean, but we know his agenda doesn’t include jail time for his child’s killer. Sean chases a few leads, most of which go nowhere, though one leads to Dave’s door. We know what Sean doesn’t: on the night of the murder, Dave came home to his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) with blood on his hands and a gash on his stomach. He tells her he had a run-in with a mugger. He tells a different story to Jimmy, and yet another one to Sean.

The performances are uniformly superb — Penn compellingly explosive/implosive, Bacon intelligent and holding emotion at arm’s length — but it’s Tim Robbins’ movie. Two built-in devices draw our attention to Dave — he was abused as a boy and looks like the likeliest suspect in the girl’s murder — and Robbins underplays, giving us a morose palooka who sounds dense one minute and then weaves unexpected (if muddled) webs of metaphor, struggling to articulate his feelings. (In one dark scene he speaks of vampires and werewolves, baffling his wife and us.) Dave has a son of his own, and when he walks with the boy down the street where Dave was abducted, Robbins stands stock still, a dark sad exclamation point, and fills his eyes with the boy as if the intensity of his gaze could keep his son safe. Robbins has a heartbreaking scene near the end, too, a speech that could be driven by any number of emotions: confusion, guilt, resignation.

You realize that Eastwood, who left his vigilante pulp behind him over a decade ago, has crafted a work that persuades us to sympathize with a man who could be a brutal murderer. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who also wrote Eastwood’s previous film, Blood Work) grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and worked as a fisherman for a while; he knows how working-class New Englanders talk, leaving volumes unspoken between debates on the Red Sox. The characters are usually talking about two or three subtextual things (some of which we don’t learn till later), and when the men in the movie look at each other, they’re really seeing a black car driving away with their childhood. With Eastwood’s help, we see it too.

The Station Agent

October 3, 2003

Loneliness is the subject of The Station Agent, a good independent film that’s been just a tad overpraised. I enjoyed it; there’s nothing much the matter with it, except that it’s about as much an indie film at heart as My Big Fat Greek Wedding was. The movie stars Peter Dinklage, a deadpan comic actor who stands four feet, five inches, and who managed to steal 1995’s filmmaking-is-hell comedy Living in Oblivion in one brief scene in which his character, a disdainful actor playing the standard freaky-dream dwarf in an indie drama, took frazzled director Steve Buscemi to task: “Who dreams of dwarves?” he said, mocking wannabe-Lynchian directors’ overuse of little people as weird harbingers of sleep logic. “Even I don’t dream of dwarves.”

Dinklage, much the best reason to see the movie, brings what must be a lifetime of weathering insults and morbid curiosity to his role as Fin McBride, a stoic hermit with a fascination for trains. His elderly friend and co-worker at a model-train shop keels over, bequeathing Fin a run-down, inoperative train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey. The description of the area (“There’s nothing out there, I mean nothing“) seems to intrigue Fin more than the promise of poking around in sidelined traincars. He takes up residence in the depot office and looks forward to peace and quiet. Surely no one will point and snicker at him here. Solitude at last.

Enter a pair of noisily needy neighbors: Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a neurotic wreck who nearly runs Fin over twice, and Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a too-friendly guy taking over his old man’s coffee-vendor van. Olivia is recovering from some deep losses, and finds in Fin a comforting, if unwilling, ear for her troubles. Joe, going crazy with boredom and loneliness out here in the sticks, keeps pestering Fin to hang out, knock back a cold one, go for walks. Fin himself has nothing to do with either person’s fixation on him — he could just as easily be anyone else in the world. They need his company, just at a time when he’s not looking for any. The joke is that Olivia and Joe are both too self-absorbed to notice Fin’s height. And of course the more standoffish he is, the more enticing he becomes as a hard-to-get friend.

The movie is about how these three form a sort of bond, with the good-hearted Joe holding things together. Points to writer-director Tom McCarthy for understanding that one subtle wince from the been-there-in-real-life Dinklage speaks louder than any tearjerking backstory McCarthy might’ve invented for Fin. Kudos also for denying simplistic closure to any of the subplots, like Olivia’s conflicts with her stick-figure estranged husband, or Joe’s ailing dad. I did wonder, though, how Fin makes his money; he’s shown puttering around the model-train shop at the beginning, but after that he seems to have a bottomless wallet for groceries and bills, with no visible income. “I’m retired,” he says at one point, and maybe he is independently wealthy, but the movie never clarifies.

McCarthy also lets a flirtation between Fin and nice librarian Michelle Williams (in an appealing performance) fade away unresolved. The emotional throughline of The Station Agent is the shaky alliance between Fin, Joe, and Olivia, which survives not one but two suicide attempts. The performances are first-rate (Bobby Cannavale’s garrulous regular-guy Joe made me laugh a lot), the direction and writing clean and unobtrusive, yet all it ends up saying is that friendship is nice. I also didn’t need the Acting Moments, like the drunken dark-night-of-the-soul scene in which Fin climbs up atop a bar and demands “Take a look!” — it’s the indie-film version of grandstanding. The Station Agent is a good film that can easily be mistaken for a great film in a time of bad films.

School of Rock

October 3, 2003

I know a guy who was probably in his teens when KISS were at their peak of popularity in the ’70s, and who now has a son who’s happy to go to the more recent KISS concerts with his dad. School of Rock is for that guy and his son: Two generations lock hands over bone-crushing guitar solos and the “stick it to the Man” ethos of rock. And when I say “rock,” I don’t mean the bland growling noise that passes for rock today; I mean rawwwk, dude, the soundtrack of the ’70s — not only heavy-metal titans like AC/DC and Led Zep, but also more contemplative outfits like Steely Dan and Pink Floyd. Doesn’t have to break windows, man, it just has to blow your mind and melt your face.

School of Rock is a loving valentine to true rock, disguised as a kiddie movie incongruously starring Jack Black and even more incongruously directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) and written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl). What are all these people doing messing around with a kids’ movie? Well, they’re not, even if it has kids in it.

White has devised a rather shrewd premise: Black plays Dewey Finn, an egomaniacal singer/guitarist — wait, that’s sort of a redundancy — who gets booted from his band for being, well, a singer/guitarist. He pulls killer solos, capers around onstage, and leaps into the audience to surf the crowd. He’s not the lead singer, but he doesn’t know that. Meanwhile, he’s living with his substitute-teacher buddy (screenwriter White), who used to be in a crazy rock band before settling down, and his buddy’s bitchy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), the kind of girlfriend who lives to domesticate her man and strangle his dreams. Dewey needs money to pay the rent or Ms. Bitchy will kick him to the curb, so he snags one of his buddy’s substitute jobs at an elite private school.

Weaving from a hangover, Dewey stands before the class — full of a bunch of already-neurotic overachievers, driven to succeed by their yuppie parents — and declares that there will be no grades, no learning, and lots of recess. But he happens to glimpse a few of them in a music class, and sees that they have talent. Wheels turn in Dewey’s head, and his “secret class project” gets underway. The classical guitarist in the class becomes “Zack Attack,” learning Black Sabbath riffs. A shy, chubby girl unfurls a voice to rival Aretha. The cymbal player gets set loose on a full set of drums. The bashful piano player is pointed towards a keyboard and given Rick Wakeman as homework. Dewey knows his classic rock, and the movie does, too. Linklater, whose nostalgic masterpiece Dazed and Confused was loaded with the stuff, feels the down-and-dirty transportive power of “The Immigrant Song” or “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Make no mistake: School of Rock breathes mainstream air. It’s another case of independent film artists beating Hollywood at its own game (it’s being distributed by Paramount, but its many symbols of anti-authority rock don’t feel misplaced). The script is something of a first for Mike White, who here seems to be engaging in Hollywood formula to study its habits. There is, for instance, an uptight school principal (Joan Cusack) who must eventually loosen up and appreciate the band Dewey forms with the kids; but Joan Cusack plays her as an update of her harried mom in Say Anything, of whom Lloyd Dobler said “You used to be warped and twisted and hilarious.” I believed that then, and I believe it now.

Would there be a movie without Jack Black? Maybe, but not as fun. Black’s performance, while toned down for PG-13 consumption, loses none of its hellraising glee, and he makes us buy Dewey’s skewed altruism in teaching the kids about Iron Maiden and Led Zep; these kids don’t even know what rock is, for God’s sake, they need help. The movie threatens to veer into Dead Poets Society territory when we learn that some of the parents don’t approve of Dewey’s methods. After all, rock will not help their children compete in the real world. Maybe not — and the script acknowledges that with the outcome of the Battle of the Bands the kids enter — but the purpose of rock is not to win or lose; the purpose of rock is to rock. Dewey plausibly teaches a bunch of post-rock kids the power of old-school rock, and maybe a lot of viewers young and old will learn it from this movie, too. Well, except that guy and his son. They already know.