Saturday, October 01, 2005

Notes from Underground, Pt. III

Junebug A
Grizzly Man's only rival as the year's best movie is this pitch-perfect dramedy from first-time director Phil Morrison, helming a cast full of accomplished professionals who each deserve better name-recognition. Driving another nail into the idea that movies are about plot, Junebug unfolds from a basically hoary premise—randy, urbane newlyweds Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola pay a very awkward visit to his family in small-town North Carolina—but what Morrison and the actors elicit from the generous, well-written script is a sustained, humble, spirited, and exquisitely quotidian meditation on the idea that all of us might shut up every now and then and stop pretending that we've got anyone or anything fully figured out. Scenes that boil with the potential for big punchlines simmer into piquant observations. Stereotypes melt before our eyes, but in a way that allows the film to further and deepen the characters, rather than just congratulate itself for defying our expectations. Strongly affective shots of landscapes, interiors, and spaces of domestic refuge round out the story just as fully as the big story climaxes and the expertly played dialogues. Embeth Davidtz's watchful, headstrong, but copiously compassionate art dealer steals top acting honors in a film that simply lacks a false note or a compromised ethic. Theatrical bookings might be hard to come by at this point, but when the DVD drops this winter, look alive, people.

Just Like Heaven C
In which Reese Witherspoon's perky but lonely doctor has the good sense or else the blind luck to be wearing the most flattering outfit of Reese's screen career just at the moment that she gets stuck in spiritual limbo. Obvious and over-conceived, Just Like Heaven drops the ball on the kind of gossamer wish-fulfillment fantasy that 13 Going on 30 so nicely supplied last year, also with Mark Ruffalo as the appealingly woolly love interest. Major mistakes, everywhere from plotting to sound cues to glaringly botched edits, impress themselves all over a movie that should feel lighter than air, not fingerprinted by producers. Still, Witherspoon is leagues and miles more appealing than she was in the shrill Sweet Home Alabama, and the movie has its moments. It's at least much better than its candy-assed poster, and the leads commendably try their best. Needless, but inoffensive.

Keane C
Damian Lewis was featured in a recent New York Times article for giving one of five performances that audiences should be sure to catch. I must say, I wasn't nearly so taken with his work, mostly because Keane seems entirely and tautologically to exist as a vessel for delivering this rather fussy characterization. Worse, Lewis' role, as a probably demented man looking for a long-lost or else imaginary daughter, isn't equipped with any kind of psychological or metaphorical resonance that compels us to stick around with his bristly, unstable persona. The second hour is stronger than the first, either because Amy Ryan contributes such a flinty and unselfish supporting turn as a neighbor with her own problems, or else because it's simply a relief to have someone besides Keane to look at, and someone for Damian Lewis to connect with and respond to. Still, Keane is, in some senses, like a failed version of Mike Leigh's Naked: a committed portrait of an unsympathetic and improbable person that needs a stellar actor or a genius director to give it a life, or a reason. Keane lacks a reason.

March of the Penguins C+
Waddle waddle waddle waddle waddle. There's nothing for the viewer to do in March of the Penguins but sit back, enjoy the Antarctic photography, marvel at the plush cuteness of baby penguins and the outlandish oddness of the adult Emperors, and take every single thing that Morgan Freeman tells us about this species as God's truth. Focus even a second too long on the fact that the film is pathologically unwilling to say words like "die" ("This penguin will simply fade away..."), or that the underwater sequences in particular flaunt the telltale signs of digital intervention, and the movie's single selling-point as an objective photolog starts to fight for its own life. Plus, it's a little dismal to watch a movie about animals where the whole point is that they all behave in exactly the same way; I'm more of a Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill guy, where the birds demonstrate individuality and unique histories, rather than this not-so-subtle paean to the sublime majesty of sticking in the herd. A few sequences really do score—the inchoate grief of two penguin parents who watch their egg freeze and roll away—but it's all, quite literally, pedestrian. Informative without being all that enlightening.

Me and You and Everyone We Know B+
Composed as a sort of mosaic and designed for maximum contact between the whimsical and the deadpan, Miranda July's debut feature is admirably fearless in selling an aesthetic and a worldview that many will dismiss as arrested adolescence, especially as the film leaves the warm waters of its festival successes and tries to court a paying audience. Happily, I was thoroughly charmed by the gaggle of unlikely characters. In fact, the more unlikely the better—those disaffected teenage girls, passable but a bit overfamiliar, would get my first vote for expulsion, if anyone were to ask. Otherwise, the film swings along with fanciful flourishes, erotic awkwardness, adults who fight for the respect of children, and a redoubtable ability to animate even the oldest stereotypes with fresh, witty spirit. ("E-mail wouldn't exist if it weren't for AIDS!" growls a self-serious art curator to her startled assistant.) The film's best quality is the fully level playing field implied by its title, for despite how well John Hawkes and July herself hold the screen as the central protagonists, punchlines and epiphanies and moments of brave self-disclosure are meted out equally to almost everyone in the film. The governing aesthetic metaphors are collage and found-object transformations, and Me and You... itself is a strange, colorful object simply waiting to be found by people for whom it will unlock something: a titter, a curiosity, a glimmering reflection of the weirder sides of ourselves.

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