' ' Cinema Romantico: Trifecta

Monday, November 14, 2005


This past weekend I went on a journey – a film-watching journey. It began in the hinterlands of “Derailed”, continued on to the vast cityscape of “The Squid and the Whale”, and ended in the bustling metropolis of “Hannah and Her Sisters”. Here then are my thoughts regarding this cinematic expedition.

My sojourn began on Friday night with the new thriller “Derailed”. I don’t know what to say except to say it’s a thriller. Have you seen a thriller? You have? Oh, then you know what’s coming. You don’t know what’s coming-know what’s coming, per se, because there is a twist – as is mandatory with all thrillers. But it doesn’t really break out of the box of convention in which so many thrillers rest.

What will I say is this – Vincent Cassel should be the next Bond movie villain. He is the French actor who portrays the bad guy in “Derailed”. He almost seems to exist outside the universe in which “Derailed” is set. I got the sense Cassel thought he was in Prague for an old-fashioned European heist film while Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston kept trying to remind him he was in Chicago. He would not merely be a villain – he would be a charming rogue of a villain, readily able to trade ludicrous quips with Bond while fingering the trigger of an automatic weapon. I have often lobbied passionately for Claire Forlani to be a Bond girl. I will now do the same for Vincent Cassel. If you agree Mr. Cassel should be the next Bond villain, I urge you to go to www.iagreevincentcasselshouldbethenextbondvillain.com. (Note: that site does not actually exist.)

What does that have to do with “Derailed” itself? Absolutely nothing. But it was my prevailing thought through the entire viewing.

On Sunday afternoon I attended a viewing of “The Squid and the Whale”. It was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, most recently the co-writer of “The Life Aquatic”. But he was also writer/director of the cult classic (a cult of which I’m part) “Kicking and Screaming”. His gift for extraordinary dialogue was evident with that feature and is still on display with his new one – but with the new one his ability to write deep, complex characters has strengthened notably.

The film is an autobiographical story detailing the divorce of 2 writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) and how it affects them and their two young sons. I've always favored rich characters over plot, and so this movie was a little slice of wonderful to me. The divorce sets things in motion but then it’s a series of vignettes without an over-abundance of arc. I mean, when is there ever a swooping character arc in real life? I only wish I had some kind of arc to my life.

The parents are sketched as two people who wanted to have kids but didn’t know what to do with the kids once they had them. The father particularly is a vivid characterization of someone who fancies himself a literary genius, providing advice to his son he probably thinks is very helpful. For instance, when his son notes his high school class is reading “A Tale of Two Cities”, the father makes the comment it’s merely “minor Dickens”. I did enjoy when the son invites his father to see “Short Circuit”, the father insists they see the new family friendly David Lynch movie “Blue Velvet”. Frightening as it is, I can totally see myself as a father nixing my son’s desire to see the latest Disney animated feature in order to drag him to the new Spike Lee drama.

The father keeps re-iterating to his son that he did not cheat during the course of his marriage, though she did. Not because he didn’t want to necessarily, but more because he knew he could use the not-cheating as ammunition for post-divorce proceedings. The son is written quite consciously as a chip off the father’s block. This is rare anymore in films as usually the script dictates how the son should act and doesn’t take into account how the father may have affected the son’s behavior. When the son is making out with his girlfriend he pauses, observes her face and says, “I wish you didn’t have so many freckles”. You can just picture the father saying that to a girl at his son’s age. The younger son has a very odd reaction to the divorce, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Although the simple fact that I’m still thinking about the movie a day later speaks of its quality.

The mother meanwhile takes up with the tennis pro (though he’s not on the level of McEnroe or Connors, remember) who coaches the youngest son. The tennis pro is an underwritten role, though William Baldwin gets a surprising amount of mileage out of a single line – “my brother”. Anna Paquin also turns up an underwritten role as a student of the father which allows her to reinforce the fact that perhaps no actress working today can flesh out an underwritten role better (see: “Finding Forrester”, “Almost Famous”, “Buffalo Soldiers”, etc).

The end scene is a callback to an earlier moment in which the oldest son visits a therapist. The “therapist sequence” is common to film but this is one of the “therapist sequences” I’ve seen. It starts with the son questioning the validity of his therapist (“so you don’t have a PHD?”), then turns to the son – who has been on his father’s side the whole time – realizing his father wasn’t really around that much when he was younger, and then to fondly remembering he and his mom going to the Natural History Museum to see the squid and the whale exhibit.

Can you guess where the movie ends? All I can say is I had a big smile on my face when I left the theater. This is one of the best films of the year.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” was a DVD viewing – another one crossed off the list in my attempt to see every Woody Allen movie made. And this is among his better efforts. It concerns the story of, uh, Hannah and her sisters. One of the sisters is married – though her husband has an affair with the third sister – while the second sister is unlucky in life and in love. Since this is a Woody Allen movie, everyone’s neurotic, everyone loves jazz music, and there is much conversation. If you like Woody, you’ll love it. If not, maybe you won’t. But I love Woody. And I had an epiphany during “Hannah and Her Sisters” that I’d never had during any of his other films.

In it, Woody portrays a paranoid neurotic who has no luck with women and can’t stand people with a bad taste in music – in short, I identified with him. But at one point he comes to believe there may be no God. And he, a Jew, attempts conversion to Catholicism and at one point even considers becoming a Hare Krishna. But instead he ends up with a rifle to his head, intent on killing himself. But he doesn’t. He winds up wandering the streets in a daze for hours and then finds himself in a movie theater watching an old Marx brother movie. And he starts enjoying the movie – really enjoying it. And it’s there in the darkness of the theater that he feels an epiphany of his own. Sure, you never really know if God exists, and sure a lot of life isn’t necessarily agreeable, but there are some good things that you may as well enjoy as long as you’re here. There are things like the Marx brother movie and these are the things that make it all worthwhile. Now, this is a character I get. He understands a film can change one’s life.

What, you don’t believe me? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you hadn’t seen “Million Dollar Baby” yet.


Wretched Genius said...

Cassel should not be a Bond villain. He already has the love of Monica Bellucci. One man should only have so much.

Rory Larry said...

Rufus Sewell for Bond Villain for much the same reasons you think Cassel should be one.