WIN WIN: The Film Babble Blog Review

WIN WIN (Dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2011)

I was a little worried during the first 5 minutes of this comedy drama. Mainly since it starts with a certain four-lettered word (the one that begins with “s”) being spoken by a little girl (Clare Folley).

For a few minutes the word becomes a bit of a running gag, and I feared I was in for a JUNO-type time with cutesy quirky humor, and over-simplified characters.

I needn’t have worried because director McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR) gradually shapes a realistic slice of small town life centering on Paul Giamatti as a worn down, yet still determined, New Jersey attorney who works nights as a high school wrestling coach.

But don’t expect THE BAD NEWS BEARS here. The film is more about the situations around those moves on the gymnasium floor, with Giamatti trying to figure out how to deal with one of his star wrestlers – Alex Shaffer (a former wrestling champ in real life).

Giamatti gets involved in the troubled teenager’s life when he becomes the guardian of a rich old man (Burt Young) just so he could collect a caretaker fee as his law business has been suffering.

Shaffer, as Young’s grandson, shows up trying to get away from his junkie mother (Melanie Lynskey), so Giamatti, and his wife (Amy Ryan) find themselves having to take care of the bleached blond boy.

In one of the film’s only comical contrivances, Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti’s best friend is constantly fretting over his ex-wife. However Giamatti and Cannavale’s exchanges are fluid and funny enough to make up for that.

Much better are Giamatti’s convincing relationships with Ryan and Shaffer. There’s also Jeffrey Tambor playing just the right note as Giamatti’s shrugging assistant coach.

Giamatti, which I believe is Latin for “good flick,” never disappoints in his sharp depictions of schlubby men on the edge of total defeat. His performance here is another winner (sorry), as his desperate (at times devious) dealings are utterly believable, sympathetic, and ultimately endearing.

When that initial fear of cringe-inducing quirkiness faded after the first few minutes, I was quite pleased at how McCarthy’s movie played out.

I predict audiences will be too, for WIN WIN is a fine underdog indie that doesn’t try too hard to get you on its side.

More later…

BARNEY’S VERSION: A Tragicom Schlub Story

BARNEY’S VERSION (Dir. Richard J. Lewis, 2010)BARNEY’S VERSION (Dir. Richard J. Lewis, 2010)

In this tragicomic indie (for lack of a better genre classification), based on the 1997 Mordecai Richler novel, we first meet the crabby Barney Panofsky, played by Paul Giamatti, drunkenly cold calling his ex-wife at 3 AM.

It’s a suitable introduction for such a lovably pathetic character, one that has shades of Giamatti’s likewise hung-up-on-his-ex-wife work in SIDEWAYS.

Though here Giamatti swigs hard liquor not wine, and he’s got a devious confidence, but he still tumbles down a hill in the middle of a tussle with his best friend as he did in that 2004 sleeper hit.

In a modern day Montreal bar, Mark Addy as a crusty old ex-cop slides across the bar to Giamatti a copy of his just published sensationalistic book (“With Friends Like These”) which speculates on the dark past of our aging protagonist. Addy addles closer, getting up in Giamatti’s face, and says:

“You screwed over everyone you ever knew or cared about. Now the whole world’s gonna know what a murderer you really are.”

Giamatti responds: “You could use a mint.”

As he pages through the hardback, Giamatti flashbacks to Rome in the mid ’70s where he is living it up bohemian style. He marries his pregnant girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre), but it’s a short lived honeymoon when he finds out the baby isn’t his.

The film goes back and forth through the last few decades giving us ample opportunity to piece together the scrappy narrative that mainly concerns Giamatti’s 3 marriages.

Lefevre commits suicide shortly after the couples’ estrangement, Giamatti relocates to Canada taking a television producer gig, and in the process meets a wealthy Jewish princess played to perfection by Minnie Driver.

Driver, of course, becomes wife #2. The comic predicament that Giamatti finds himself in is that he falls head over heels in love with another woman (Rosamund Pike) right after getting married to Driver – at their wedding reception mind you.

A further wrinkle is provided when a junkie boozer writer wannabe friend (Scott Speedman) from Giamatti’s days in Italy shows up wasted at his lakeside cottage. I won’t spill the beans on what transpires there, but I will tell you that this is where Addy’s future murder accusations come into play.

The always welcome Dustin Hoffman has a short, but sweet role as Giamatti’s retired policeman father Izzy who amusingly doles out questionable advice while constantly embarrassing his son.

Those looking for a rom com (as the trailers are packaging it as such) are likely to be a bit overwhelmed by the sad intensity of much of “Barney’s Version”, but those looking for a drama with depth are going to find a lot to wallow in.

That said, there are a lot of genuinely funny moments in this film. There’s a lot of sharp wit, but the tone is set mainly by humor of the cringe inducing variety.

The chemistry between Giamatti and 3rd wife Pike is strongly affecting although we know it’s a doomed union. When the suave Bruce Greenwood appears and hits it off with Pike (much to Giamatti’s chagrin) we know for sure that their marriage is in trouble.

But we knew that from the start as we have seen the elder broken down Giamatti – a very convincing makeup job that scored an Oscar nomination for Adrien Morot – and know that’s he will most likely die alone.

So Giamatti sits and stews in his memories, repeatedly requesting Leonard Cohen songs on the radio, and ignoring the attempts to care for him that his daughter (Anna Hopkins) makes.

Cohen croons “Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in,” – a fitting epitaph for a man whose romanticized yet jagged memories are all he has left.

More later…

Revisiting AMERICAN SPLENDOR – R.I.P. Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

“Am I a guy who writes about himself in a comic book? Or am I just a character in that book? If I die, will that character keep going? Or will he just fade away?”
– Harvey Pekar as played by Paul Giamatti.

Shortly after hearing the news that cult comic book writer Harvey Pekar passed away yesterday there was a flurry of R.I.P. tweets praising the man, his work, and the 2003 biopic AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Since it’s one of my favorite movies of the last decade and I’ve never written about it on this blog (Film Babble Blog started in 2004) I decided to take the DVD off the shelf and give it a tribute re-whirl.

Taking its name from Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series which dates back to 1976, AMERICAN SPLENDOR was a unique biopic in that while the subject is depicted by ace actor Paul Giamatti, Pekar himself appears in documentary style breaks in the storyline.

Husband and wife film making duo Robert Pulcini and Sheri Springer Bergman constructed with care a comic book aesthetic in which both Pekar and his dramatic doppelganger shuffle through animations, recreations of cartoon panels, and old videotape clips mostly from Pekar’s infamous appearances on Late Night With David Letterman.

In the comic Pekar would often break the 4th wall and talk directly to us. The film runs with this concept as Pekar’s narration enhances the film by adding meta commentary on the movie we’re watching like when he says of Giamatti: “Here’s me, or the guying playing me anyway, though he don’t look nothing like me. But whatever.”

Pekar was a longtime file clerk and record collector who by chance befriended revolutionary cartoonist Robert Crumb at a yard sale in 1962. Crumb, meticulously portrayed by James Urbaniak, inspires Pekar to write his own comics. A rarity in a world filled with super heroes, Pekar’s “American Splendor” comics centered on Pekar’s mundane yet amusingly relatable life and gained a cult following over the years. Crumb and other notable artists illustrated Pekar’s writing which made for a pleasing mix up of styles – something the movie adaptation excels at. Though Pekar says Giamatti doesn’t look like him – he’s as valid an embodiment as any of the comic book depictions.

In one of the most striking scenes Pekar (Giamatti) is taunted by his cartoon alter ego in line behind an old chatty Jewish lady at the grocery store. “You gonna suffer in silence for the rest of your life, or are you gonna make a mark?”

Pekar becomes a folk hero in the ’80s largely because of his appearances on Letterman. Over the course of a few years Pekar made 7 appearances on the popular program each time clashing more with the cranky sarcastic host. Pekar finally got kicked off the show because he bad mouthed GE (NBC’s parent company) and said Letterman looked like a shill for them. Pekar was allowed back years later in the mid ’90s but damage definitely had been done. Although the film shows real bits of Pekar’s appearances, the most controversial one is dramatized with an actor (Todd Cummings) stepping in for Letterman. You can see the original clip here.

The film is packed with jazz, soul, and rock which keeps it bopping from frame to frame. Its musical sensibility contributes to the feeling that its simply a riff on the world according to Harvey Pekar. That can be a risky approach but it’s not a loose riff; there’s not a wasted scene and the well written weight in the non meta portions makes it all fly.

The scenes with Davis as Harvey’s 3rd wife Joyce Brabner offset the trickier Pekar monologue material nicely. It’s also a treat to see 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander do a pitch perfect impression of Pekar’s friend Toby Radloff. Radloff also appears as himself along with the real Brabner – see what I mean about all the meta-ness?

I’ve seen the movie several times so this latest re-watching wasn’t necessarily revelatory, but it was very comforting like spending time with a good old friend again. Pekar was a hero to anyone who ever tried to make art on the side of a dreary existence in a soul deadening job. The movie touchingly captures the begrudging spirit of a man who definitely did make a mark.

In the booklet that comes with the DVD (“My Movie Year”) Pekar says of the movie after seeing an early screening: “Wow, that was really innovative…the way they mixed acted portions and documentary footage and animation and cartoons. And double casting some roles. Great! They took a lot of chances and they all worked.”

Completely agree with you there Harvey.

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar.

Post note: I also highly recommend Pekar’s comics. They are available in sweet anthologies that you can find at Amazon or wherever. “American Splendor: The Life And Times Of Harvey Pekar” and “Our Cancer Year” are essential reads in the world of autobiographical comic books.

More later…

THE LAST STATION: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)

Considering his fine lengthy career, it’s amazing that the distinguished actor Christopher Plummer has never before been nominated for an Oscar. Well, here as Leo Tolstoy in this mostly strong historical drama about the famed Russian author’s final days, Plummer simply could not be ignored by the Academy.

He and his much celebrated co-star, Helen Mirren as Tolstoy’s acidic wife Sofya, both scored nominations which I believe many audiences will find are well deserved. The imprint made by their volatile chemistry will last long after Awards season hype was died down.

Opening titles tell us that Tolstoy is the most acclaimed writer in history and other things we could easily Google, and the ending features ancient footage of the real man – an inescapable cliché of seemingly every biopic – but in between is an emotionally complex examination of a stubborn man’s ideals.

These are no ordinary ideals you understand – this is a man who is thought by multitudes to be a genius or even a holy figure. “You think he’s Christ!” Mirren exclaims in exasperation at one of many points. “I don’t think he’s Christ,’’ responds Tolstoy’s doctor (John Sessions). “Christ is Christ. I do believe he’s a prophet, though.’’

Mirren believes that a society of sycophants is forming around her dying husband with the moustache twirling Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) heading the pack. Wandering innocently into the middle of Mirren and Giamatti’s fight for Tolstoy’s fortunes (she believes the family should get the copyrights, he thinks the property should go to the masses) is a wide eyed James McAvoy (maybe a bit too much like his role in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) hired to be the ailing author’s private secretary.

McAvoy relishes his position enough to let his celibacy slide when another Tolstoy disciple (Kerry Condon) slips into his chambers, but the real titillation comes from Plummer and Mirren playful bedroom banter.

In the company of others, Mirren is an angry defensive verbally abusive animal; alone with her venerated husband she is infested with an infectious silliness. She is truly a woman in love – in all its irrational selfish glory.

This all makes the last third of the film all the more painful. Plummer and his loving entourage travel by train across country ostensibly so the great man can get some final peace away from his wife. His final destination – that of the title – is soon surrounded by concerned citizens and guarded by his followers. Mirren tries in vain to get through them but as the saying goes, that train has long left the station.

Like last year’s brilliant BRIGHT STAR, which dealt with a dying John Keats, THE LAST STATION is concerned with the limits of love and literature. It has a sort of reserved passion boiling under its Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory-ish surface that sizzles when Plummer and Mirren share the screen. The movie suffers sorely when they are absent as Giamatti has a one note villain role and McAvoy’s romantic subplot is tiresomely typical.

That those and other shortcomings can be overlooked is testament to the purity of Mirren and Plummer’s performances. In Plummer’s case it’s nice that the Academy finally took notice.

More later…

COLD SOULS: The Film Babble Blog Review

COLD SOULS (Dir. Sophie Barnes, 2009)

The set-up is straight from Charlie Kaufman 101 (or for you old schoolers – consult your Twilight Zone text books): Man walks into a Doctor’s office, not just any Doctor’s office mind you, for a fantastical existential service that he only just heard about. Skeptical but desperate, the man undergoes some sort of surgery on his psyche. In the aftermath, in episode after episode the man’s life goes more and more askew and he returns to the Doctor to get that extracted piece of him back.

I know, you’re saying “I’ve heard this one before…”, but what makes this particular mundane exercise in surrealism is that the man in question is Paul Giamatti playing himself. Well, a version of himself in which he is a tormented stage actor who relates too intensely with Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” character as he prepares for the role in an off Broadway play. Oh, and his wife (named Claire – Giamatti’s real life wife is named Elizabeth), is played by Emily Watson so there’s that too. When Giamatti’s agent points out an article in the New Yorker about soul storage, he can’t resist checking out the institute in the profile. A contrite Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) makes the process very appealing to our protagonist Paul who proclaims: “I don’t want to be happy; I just need to not suffer.”

I was surprised how little of this was played for laughs. For any of a number of film makers such material would be a launching pad for a bevy of comedic premises but Barnes’ film wants to keep a straight face and let the amusement come from a number of well played understated moments. Our hapless hero’s reaction to his bottled soul looking like a chick pea, his strained soul-less acting in rehearsals that trouble his director along with fellow cast members, and his exasperated eye bulging at the prospect of his soul being stolen (or “borrowed”) are all Giamatti gold.

However, there’s much more to COLD SOULS than just a Charlie Kaufman-mode Giamatti work-out. Nina Korzun as a “mule” for trafficking souls has a piercing presence that hints at a bigger back story. The eerie implications of left over residue built up from the many souls Korzun has transported aren’t underlined but felt nonetheless. Giamatti’s obsession with a soul he “rents” – that of a Russian poet is equally subtle and emotionally effective.

The second half of the film concerns Giamatti travelling to track down his soul to a scenic yet dreary St. Petersburg, Russia. Icy isolation torments Giamatti as he shuffles down the streets and in a pivotal scene, set inside his soul, reminiscent (in a good way) of his schlepping through a white soundstage backdrop in AMERICAN SPLENDOR. This cranky curmudgeon has to finally acknowledge that a tiny piece of suffering is worth weathering the elements in a foreign land. Even if it is just the size of a chick pea.

More later…


“So many social engagements, so little time.”
– Gale (John Goodman) RAISING ARIZONA (Dir. Joel Coen 1987)

Yeah – lots going on. Recent theatrical releases, new releases on video, and some notable music DVDs need to be blogged ’bout but this time out I’ll just deal with the last few movies I saw at the theater :

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (Dir. Michael Gondry) Many many movies have been about earnest yet clumsily romantic young artists who live fuller in their dreams than in reality. Gael Garcia Bernal fills the part with wide eyed likeability though unfortunately the flimsy sitcom premise doesn’t sustain the big picture. The wonderfully fluid dream sequences will no doubt make this a cult favorite in years to come but it feels like a rough draft. The relationship between Stephane (Bernal) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsburg) doesn’t sparkle and the uneven narrative doesn’t help – I feel like a good 20-30 minutes could be edited out and the flow would improve greatly. Still, with the amount of unadventurous crap out there, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed by film babblers like me – visually it is a beautiful film, so I’ll conclude : flawed but worthwhile.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Dir. Neil Burger) Based on the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist. However, I heard Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton) through the accents sound like ‘Asinine’ as if thats what the characters name would be in a crude Mad magazine satire. Not that this flick is asinine – no its a fairly entertaining period piece mildly marred from unecessary and purposely unexplained special effects and a twist ending right out of THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Norton puts in a stoic and strangely unenergetic performance and Paul Giamatti chews scenery as a Chief Inspector intent on figuring out Eisenheim’s tricks while Jessica Biel provides the elusive love interest. Maybe the real illusion the movie pulls off is that it is better than mediocre – it’s not but at times you’ll think it is.

HOLLYWOODLAND (Dir. Allen Coulter) If I were still in quick quotable blurb mode like in my last post I might be tempted to just write “Hollywoodbland!” but that, like the Asinine the Illusionist in the review above is just silly non-criticism and definitively inaccurate. While I agree with the Onion AV Club that this feels like an HBO original movie and concur with the New York Times that it “tells several stories, one of them reasonably well”, I enjoyed the performances and bought into the boulevard of broken dreams pathos. Having watched the reruns of ’50’s TV Superman starring George Reeves as a kid I appreciated that they nailed the look and style in the recreations. Adrian Brody does solid work as the gumshoe hired to solve the mystery of Reeves headline making suicide and we switch back and forth in time from him to Ben Affleck’s surprisingly note-perfect portrayal of Reeves in the events leading up to his death. If not remarkable HOLLYWOODLAND is a decent pointed period piece, I’m not sure if I’m on board with the film’s implications in it’s conclusion – involving mistress Diane Lane and her jealous studio boss husband Bob Hoskins but that doesn’t make it ring hollow.

Hmmm, I’m sensing a trend here – I mean I just babbled ’bout 3 movies that were neither great nor awful just decent. I hope we’re just in summer to fall transition and the movies will get much better or at least more interesting. We’ve got some possibilities coming with THE DEPARTED, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, STRANGER THAN FICTION, and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, but no breath holding here.

Some more babble ’bout some concert films and a notable documentary when film babble returns…

More later…