' Cinema Romantico: Giving Cinematic Thanks

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Giving Cinematic Thanks

I thank the Sundance channel. I stumbled upon "The Myth of Fingerprints" there one night and was mesmerized. I rented it a few days later and watched it twice. Soon after that I bought it and never looked back. At first I must have watched it 10 times a year. Slowly, I scaled that back and then began a tradition of watching it only once every 365 days - the tuesday before Thanksgiving. It makes that one evening incredibly special.

Noah Wyle (who also executive produced, so "mad props" for that) heads up the hefty ensemble as Warren, returning home for Thanksgiving after a three year absence. As he explains in an early scene, "It's been long enough that I can't quite remember that I shouldn't go". That speaks to the heart of each character in the film.

Soon the whole family - along with the mandatory outsiders, in this case a boyfriend and a girlfriend -have gathered at their childhood home. Presiding over this is the mother and, most importantly, their distant father (Roy Scheider). One of the best scenes illustrating this distance details the father taking his rifle and leaving to hunt for the thanksgiving turkey. He authoritatively nixes anyone joining him on this excursion. Later we see the father carrying a store-bought turkey through the countryside (a gorgeous shot) - his sole purpose to avoid time with the family. This scene is typical of the film - it is funny and poignant at once.

Each character has his or her own problems but the primary story concerns the father, Warren, and Warren's ex-girlfriend Daphne. I'll leave the stories for you to discover. That being said, this is no Shakespearean tragedy. There won't be grand, flourishing character arcs and epic resolutions. This is real. In this movie character comes first - and from character comes the plot.

But as an "aspiring" screenwriter myself, the dialogue - oh, the heavenly dialogue - is truly what leaves me dazed. Every line perfectly encapsulates and deepens the character. Take, for instance, the scene in which the youngest daughter returns to the breakfast table to find her plate gone. "I put in the oven so it wouldn't get cold," explains her mother. That's EXACTLY what that character would say and do in that situation. Moments after that, Julianne Moore's therapist boyfriend inquires, "So what's the plan for today?" There's that type of person we all know who is always wanting to know what the "plan" is in any given situation. This single line of dialogue brings us completely up to speed with the character.

On top of that, a handful of characters are given monologues that spill over the border of great and into the territory of brilliant. In particular, Daphne's soliloquy to Warren on the frozen pond is killer writing. It starts with a revelation - an unpleasant one - and then morphs into a happy memory that drowns out the revelation. It breaks my heart every single time I see it.

The cast is strong from top to bottom, but special mention must be made of Julianne Moore (as usual) and Noah Wyle. He brings so many nuances to this role I never would have thought possible from glimpsing him here and there on ER. When he takes the phone call from Daphne watch how he stops to check himself out in the mirror and quickly brush his hair. Also wonderful is Blythe Danner as the mom who keeps it together when the rest of the family can't. She's all understated grace. At one point she comes upon her husband reading and shifts a lamp on a dresser above him to provide just a little bit better reading light.

The-dysfunctional-family-at-Thanksgiving is a staple of the movies, to be sure, but the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert has often said, "It's not what a film is about but how it's about it." The film is about it like no other dysfunctional-family-at-Thanksgiving movie ever has been. It transcends the genre. And I don't hesitate to call it one of the greatest films made during my lifetime - a true masterpiece.

The final shot is a close-up of Roy Scheider's face. Ironically, the expression he possesses is almost identical to the one I have during this same scene. I know the movie's over but, for the love of everything sacred and holy, I don't want it to end. I love it too much. I want it to go on forever.

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