A dad and his daughters, loving life in New York City

Saturday, December 15

Holiday Season Movies: Part 2

I'm pretty amazed that the pretty great Juno was only my fourth favorite movie in the last week or so, but that just shows what an excellent week it was. Herewith, a quick look...

Julian Schnabel's luscious, riveting The Diving Bell and the Butterfly should be held up as a model of how a director can create a visually stunning, creative and unique film—loved the camera work, the jump cuts, the dreams and metaphors—all without sacrificing a bit of storytelling. And what a great (true) story it is, the simple, moving, incredibly human portrait of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who, after a massive stroke, emerges from a coma with locked-in syndrome: his brain is fine; his body completely paralyzed except for his left eye. How he learns to communicate—he wrote the memoir on which the film is based—through the heroic efforts of by far the most patient and oh-by-the-way gorgeous triumvirate of therapists and "translators" in existence, forms the core of the film. How he learns to live with those he loves—his children, their mother, his father, his mistress, his friends—will break your heart. Schnabel is generous with his vision, welcoming his audience into Jean-Do's world. The film gets a bit slack about two-thirds of the way through, but the most powerful scenes are just around corner. Don't miss this movie.

You haven't seen your father in years—he basically abandoned you—and you're just trying to live your life as best you can, dealing with your own issues, your own messes. Then the call comes: Dad's sick, he's losing his mind, he's lost his home, he needs you. It's an ultimately insoluble problem, but one that demands some sort of action. Do you do the right thing? Out of duty? Out of love? Is there even a right thing, or is it just a case of finding the lesser of multiple indignities? The Savages takes this compelling situation and delivers a smart, unsentimental, occasionally amusing (though this is definitely NOT the comedy the trailer wants you to believe it is), resonant and altogether real movie about responsibility and family and facing yourself and growing up and growing old. The performances are superb, led by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the brother and sister forced to deal with Dad (Philip Bosco, and also very good); the script and direction assured; the whole thing vital, honest and alive.

The casting must have been an arduous process for Jessica Yu's gripping documentary Protagonist, but the result was well worth the effort. Or maybe she just got lucky? Anyway, this refreshing, original film introduces us to four men, all wonderful storytellers, whose lives couldn't be more different in the details (there's a "formerly gay" evangelist, a European terrorist, a Mexican bank robber, a geeky suburban kung-fu fanatic), but whose tales all follow the same narrative arc: terrible childhood pain, fierce attempts at self-control to change who they are, momentary success and freedom with their reinvented selves, profound depression when they see what a sham it is, ultimate redemption and peace when they find the courage to be, to their ownselves, true. Yu interweaves the four stories—told entirely by the men themselves, both as talking heads and using home movies and other archival material—and structures the whole thing as (apparently) a Euripidean drama, complete with titles and simple wooden puppets, which sounds boring and contrived, but most definitely is not.

My eager-to-giggle daughters and I agree: although we all liked Juno quite a bit, and although we did laugh out loud more than a couple of times, this is not a straight-up comedy, despite what the trailer would have you believe... and, really, it's not even a Little Miss Sunshine kind of comedy. That said, it certainly is a pretty great, nice and sweet (but not cloying) little movie, with a good script and a near-perfect performance by Ellen Page as a 16-year-old who gets pregnant (by the always welcome Michael Cera) and, in lieu of an abortion, decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption to a yuppie-ish couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, both also solid). Our advice? No question, you should see it... but just don't expect to be doing a lot of giggling.

Although it was better than either Debbie or I expected (young Dakota Blue Richards holds things together pretty well), and we were both seriously impressed by the CGI, The Golden Compass is still, when you get right down to it, an overblown melodrama featuring gaggles of talking animals, skies-full of witches, an ill-defined mythology, and, most roaringingly, a pack of monstrous, warring ice bears. If that sounds appealing, then by all means you should go.

I don't know... I felt more than a little uncomfortable during too-long stretches of Billy the Kid, a real-life portrait of a hyper, geeky high-school sophmore in small-town Maine. Because although it definitely had some of the trappings of a serious documentary, it just felt a little too close to reality TV for my tastes... a tad too voyeuristic of Billy and his emotional "issues"; a bit too eager to exploit the kid's extraordinary willingness to open himself up.



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