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Column Fri Jan 07 2011

Blue Valentine, Country Strong, Season of the Witch & My Uncle

Blue Valentine

The first feature film in a very long time from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) is an emotion typhoon that manifests the bulk of its power from juxtaposing two very distinct timelines in the lives of Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), a young married couple whose disintegrating marriage is made all the more tragic with constant reminders of how happy and carefree they were in their initial courtship. Blue Valentine crushes our hearts effortlessly that to the two incredible performances at its core.

The film is filled with secrets, passion, rage, tension, and a collection of moments that reveal how far the couple has drifted apart in only six years. In the present day, Dean and Cindy decide to take a night away from their daughter and got to a hotel with "theme" rooms, in a pathetic attempt to rekindle the romance. An attempt to seduce his wife in the shower is shut down fast by Cindy, and in the next scene (set six years prior) we see Dean put on the same moves with Cindy with more favorable results (you may have heard about the scene in question, which almost earned the film an NC-17 rating). Cianfrance subtly repeats this idea of having scenes mirror each other, proving how much the couple are in love in the earlier moments, and showing how fractured they've become today. It's the equivalent of having a thread of molten metal strung directly through your heart.

Williams' Cindy is incredibly naive when she first meets Dean. She's in college, hoping to get a medical degree. In the present, she's a nurse, probably the result of a long series of life's disappointments for her. The couple also have a daughter, whose presence in their lives has something of an unexpected story behind it as well. Sure there are other characters in Blue Valentine (most memorably, Cindy's awful father, played by the great John Doman), but the film would have been just as strong without them. My only issue with the film is that it turns Dean into a bad person by the end, when I think the film would have been even stronger and more believable if both characters had remained good people to the bitter end. There's absolutely no faulting Gosling's flawless performance, but, as written, Dean gets almost stereotypically white trashy.

Still, there's no getting around that the words they use--both when they fall in love and when they argue--are dead on. The way they question what each word and tone and look mean; it's an awful reminder how terrible people in love can treat each other, and Williams and Gosling embody that powerful contradiction. Although technically a 2010 film, Blue Valentine is opening in most cities this year, and it should not be missed. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Country Strong

You may not believe me, but I actually wanted to like this movie. But in scene after scene, Country Strong delivers one tired music-movie cliche after another with the resulting film coming off as half baked at best and never ringing true even for a second. If we believe the subtext of writer-director Shana Feste (who also made the far better 2009 film The Greatest), it was fame that drove country singer Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow, so unbelievably out her element it's embarrassing) into rehab for the umpteenth time. Her fans wanted too much of her, her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw) was too demanding, and young, pretty upstarts like a former beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) are nipping at her heels. Yes, the film blames everyone except Kelly for her being a drunk, unfaithful, selfish shell of a person who has a nervous breakdown every time the wind changes direction.

In case you couldn't tell, I kind of loathed Kelly, a country music queen who is given more second chances than an real-life celebrity would under these circumstances. Speaking of which, the amount of news coverage this woman generates in the movie is laughable. The Pope coming to Dallas would have paled in comparison to Kelly. Audiences are a little too savvy (for better or worse) about how entertainment reporting goes these days to fall for this bogus portrayal of the practice.

When we first meet Kelly, she is being let out of a rehab facility early--too early according to Beau (TRON: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund), an orderly working there who just happens to be a gifted singer-songwriter who Kelly has befriended with benefits. When James insists that they go on the road immediately after a disastrous performance that led to Kelly going into a rehab in the first place, she demands Beau open for her. James is smart enough to see that Beau stabilizes his wife, so he agrees, with the caveat that they also bring along Chiles, who also happens to know Beau. This cozy little crew hit the road for a short tour through Texas, and at every one Kelly melts down for one reason or another, none of which are worth getting into here.

There is an interesting story tucked away in Country Strong, but it isn't the one about Kelly. Instead, I found myself far more interested in the songs, careers and trajectories of Beau and Chiles, who represent the polar opposites of the current stable of country artists. Chiles has Taylor Swiftian vibes running through her, while Beau focuses on strong writing rather than image. But they find ways to improve each other personally and professionally, and while that isn't exactly an original take on this material, it's a whole lot more interesting than Kelly's psycho-drama. Hedlund comes across a bit warmer and more likable than he did as Sam Flynn, while Meester is just the right amount of naïve and sweet.

I'm actually a fan of Tim McGraw as an actor. Check out the film Friday Night Lights or The Blind Side and I think you'll agree. He's convincing as the buttoned-up suit who sees his wife as more of a commodity than a friend or lover, but he's not a terrible guy either. The real trouble with Country Strong is Paltrow, who is an absolute acting robot here. I don't mean that she comes across as cold and inhuman. No, her problem is that you can almost see her pushing the buttons of her talent. Here's the button to cry, here's the one to sing, here's the one to be sexy, here's the one to be sloppy drunk. They don't seem like elements of the same character; they seem like tools that Paltrow is using to punch up her underwritten character. It's not Acting; it's distrActing. And I've always believed Paltrow is better than this, but this movie in no way supports my beliefs.

I didn't hate the music; most of it is pretty listenable. No, what I hated was the context we have to hear it in, which is this terrible movie. I can't outright dismiss Country Strong, because certain sections do actually work. But when things go wrong, they go terribly and unforgivably wrong. If memory serves, I left this film very angry. If that sounds fun to you, knock yourself out. Or better yet, let me do it for you.

Season of the Witch

A small part of me was really hoping that the joint venture of crazy--Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman playing 14th-century Crusader knights escorting a witch to stand trial at a monastery--would succeed in pulling out all the stops that both actors clearly possess and just let the bodies fall where they may. Instead, Cage and Perlman perform with so much restraint most of the time that it seems they are just popped elephant tranquilizers. My hopes were raised even further when I saw that Cage was re-teaming with his Gone in Sixty Seconds director Dominic Sena (Kalifornia, Swordfish, Whiteout), but their most recent collaboration, Season of the Witch, is a sad little movie with a few sword fights, some special effects witchcraft, and a plot that unfolds exactly the way it says it will at the beginning of the movie--no surprises, no twists, and certainly no energy.

Cage and Perlman play seasoned knights Behmen and Felson, who quit the Crusades when they start realizing that serving the bloody arm of the church (complete with killing women and children) is much different than serving God. They travel as deserters for a time before stumbling across a village seized with the Black Plague, which has been sweeping across the land, supposedly spread by a suspected witch held in this particular village. Recruited by the local cardinal (played by Christopher Lee in some nasty makeup), the knights agree to take the girl (Claire Foy, from the BBC's most recent version of "Little Dorrit") to a monastery for trial. The knights drag along a few companions for the trip, including Ulrich Thomsen's Eckhart, Stephen Graham (best known for playing Al Capone in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") as the guide Hagamar, Stephen Campbell Moore as the church representative Debelzaq, and Robert Sheehan as the stowaway alter boy Kay.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out which team members are going to bite it first. Hell, I pretty much figured out the order in which they were going to die. Still, we have to endure the plodding "adventure" that takes them through a laundry list of obvious perils and being toyed with by this witch (she's actually more of a possessed girl, at best, but the filmmakers don't really make that distinction). Cage and Perlman have the occasional attempts at witty banter, but the jokes are stale and fall short of actual wit. Honestly, I'm glad that someone of Cage's stature is still willing to take chances and do films of this nature, I just wish they didn't fail to deliver on such a regular basis. I will say that what he does with his next film, Drive Angry 3D, is far more impressive than Season of the Witch. Cage fans should save their money for that one, which comes out at the end of February. As for his latest, I hate to knock anything starring Ron Perlman, but Season of the Witch is boring, derivative junk.

My Uncle

This is a fascinating footnote to one of France's greatest comedy filmmakers, Jacques Tati, whose Monsieur Hulot character was the basis of a small number of brilliant and irreverent films, including Mr. Hulot's Holiday, Play Time, and Traffic. Although not silent films, Tati's works were largely dialogue free, with elaborate visual gags and soundscapes, and enough hatred of the upper crust to keep the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges happy. The reason Tati's 1958 Oscar-winning film Mon Oncle is being reissued now is a curious but fascinating one. Thinking that it might garner more attention to Tati's first color movie among English-speaking audiences, certain scenes in the movie were shot with English signage (including a clever opening title sequence), while the film's minimal dialogue was dubbed in English, perhaps calling too much attention to what is being said, which was never the intent of any Tati work. The result is that many scenes are different takes than the ones used in the more famous French-language version, and in some cases, scenes exist that were never in the original film.

Thankfully, these sometimes substantial differences don't take away from the glory of Tati's satire on the ridiculous excesses that the rich surround themselves with both at home and the office. Retitled My Uncle, Tati plays the hapless brother of a woman married to a wealthy industrial tycoon, who does try to find Hulot a job in his organization. But the polite elderly gentleman in the trench coat, carrying an umbrella, has no real interest in taking up a trade when there is life around him to explore and get distracted by. On Hulot's brother-in-law's property, there's an alarming fountain that sounds like someone peeing in the pool, the buzzing sound that accompanies the opening and closing of the front gate (you will grow to hate that sound), and a rock garden and stone walkway that takes the longest path from point A to point B. Tati notices everything and mocks it all with abandon.

The film also features one of the single funniest visuals I've ever seen, and it involves nothing more than two people peering out two windows at the same time in the middle of the night. If you know the scene, you know I'm right. My Uncle is a must see for Tati newcomers as well as enthusiasts who know in their heart that seeing his works on the big screen is simply something you cannot resist. It's where they belong, no matter how many Criterion versions of his movies there are (there are four, and I own them all). In my estimation, this is an early candidate for best reissue of 2011. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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