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Column Fri Jan 21 2011

The Company Men, The Way Back, Barney's Version, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within & Great Directors

The Company Men

I know several critical thinkers who really dislike this movie, and I'm baffled as to why this is the case. I'm not saying that writer-director John Wells first time out as a filmmaker (he's made a comfortable living writing and producing shows like "E.R.," "The West Wing," and the new Showtime dark comedy "Shameless") is the finest example of high drama around in this awards season, but I actually found it a fairly accurate portrayal of the current corporate culture that has led to layoff that have nothing to do with merit and everything to do with the bottom line. If two highly skilled and qualified people are making more money than two underperforming but lesser paid employees, guess which two get the axe. It's short sighted behavior, but it's also exactly what's happening, and I thought the movie captured this trend rather nicely.

The Company Men focuses on three men and different levels of the same company. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck, in a performance that's as good as his excellent work in The Town) is on the lowest rung of the upper levels of this particular corporate ladder, but he's still pulling in enough to afford a nice house for his family (including his wife, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and a Porsche. But when his position is eliminated, he hits the wall hard. He immediately hits the bricks looking for work, but in slow increments, all of the material things he held dear begin to vanish, including his home. Eventually, his family must move in with his in-laws, and he has to go to work for his construction contractor brother-in-law Jack (an amusing supporting turn by Kevin Costner).

A little further up the ladder is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a guy in his 50s who never in his wildest dreams thought he'd be trying to re-enter the workforce at a time when he was probably starting to look into retirement. Phil's story is the most difficult to watch because he poured every part of his soul into his job, and his company repaid him with nothing. Cooper excels at playing desperate guys on the brink, and this is another devastating performance from him.

The third member of this story is Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who is an old friend of the company's CEO, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson, at his slimy best). Gene also happens to be having an affair with the company's human resources director (Maria Bello), so he assumes his job is safe and doesn't think twice about speaking out of turn at meetings and embarrassing Salinger. The film has its most difficult challenge making us feel sympathy for Gene (the dude is probably walking away from this job with a healthy golden parachute), but Jones is so good here that he doesn't so much make us feel sorry for his character, but he sells us on the idea that this life change happens at just the right time to save his heart and soul, and chase a dream of starting his own company in a field he actually cares about.

I wouldn't say The Company Men is breaking a whole lot of new ground, but it certainly feels like a movie of the times. What it actually reminded me of is the flip side of Up In the Air. All of those people who George Clooney fired, this film is about them. I was also fascinated with the atmosphere in what I can only describe as an unemployment halfway house--a series of cubicles and offices on the floor of a building, filled with recently laid-off company men and women, all looking for new jobs in an office setting. The mood in that environment goes from depressing to upbeat and back to depressing in the span of a couple hours, each and every day. I was totally unaware such places existed, but both Affleck and Cooper's characters land there, with mixed results.

I wish that The Company Men didn't try so hard to go for the uplifting, life-affirming ending, but a poor choice of final moments wasn't enough to kill my interest in or enjoyment of the movie. For the most part, the film avoids going the melodramatic route in favor of measured, more believable moments for each of the three main characters. That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to empathize with anyone in the film, but I did. I found The Company Men a soft look at a difficult subject: the way a part of who we are is ripped from us when we lose our jobs and the tough road back from such a traumatic event.

To read my exclusive interview with The Company Men writer-director John Wells, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Way Back

It's tough to find a film by Australian director Peter Weir that I didn't enjoy on some (usually most) level. From 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock through Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, The Truman Show, and his last work, Master and Commander, Weir's movies have always had a kind of depth that most other directors simply don't possess. He knows how to be entertaining, but not at the expense of character. And his telling of the novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz is no exception, telling the horrifyingly real story of a small band of prisoners who escape from a Russian prison in Siberia in 1940 and walk 4,000 miles to India over the harshest terrain and climates the earth has to offer.

This grueling, but wholly satisfying story is told through the eyes of Polish prisoner Janusz (Jim Sturgess, an actor I'm growing increasingly fond of with each successive movie he's made since Across the Universe and 21). He was framed for being a spy against Russia, and is committed to getting out of this Siberian hellhole as soon as possible. At first, he befriends an actor (a nice cameo from Mark Strong), whose crime apparently was playing a capitalist too convincingly in a propaganda film--an entire film could probably be made about that guy's life. After realizing the actor is all talk, Janusz falls in with a internationally diverse group of men that devise a serious escape plan. Among those men are American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and the Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell).

Across snow, heartless winds, blazing deserts, the Himalayas, and five nations who would capture the men and send them back to Siberia if given the chance, the group's numbers dwindle for various reasons. But they also add a member to their party, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a teen girl with secrets galore about how she ended up alone on this brutal terrain.

I'm pretty sure I would have died on this journey in the first 24 hours, so it's incredible to consider the physical damage these travelers must have endured from exposure and lack of food and water. You will likely leave The Way Back hungry and parched. There's an entire segment of the film devoted to their torturous search for water that will result in more than a few trips to the concession stand for drink refills.

There are a couple other members of this party, and I apologize for not knowing the actors' names who play them, because everyone in this film does great work here. I was especially impressed with Farrell's nasty turn as the criminal whose only priority is survival, even if someone else must die. Of course, it turns out he has a softer side, but that never takes away from his venomous performance. The biggest surprise for me was Sturgess, the kindest member of this motley group, a weakness that is exploited from time to time by others. Following great work in recent smaller films like Fifty Dead Men Walking and Heartless, I'm a total convert to his brooding ways, mainly because he doesn't really brood much any longer. He's the least colorful character in The Way Back, but there has to be some credit given to those who play the emotional centers of a film, around whom the flashier characters revolve around. Sturgess performs this duty beautifully, and gives the movie its emotional focal point.

But a great deal of credit for any emotional pull The Way Back succeeds in emitting has to go to director Weir, who structures his work in a way that simply makes us care about each and every life (and death) in this story. And he pushes his actors and uses his locations in ways I simply haven't seen in a long, long time outside of a documentary. It's likely you will exit The Way Back exhausted and emotionally spent, and that's a good thing because that's the intention. There's really no way you can appreciate the hell it was for these people marching one step at a time on this impossible journey. The film is as much a spectacle as it is adventure story and a character drama, and I love movies that dare to make us care about the individual as much as they want to dazzle us with an unbelievable story like this one. You're in for a rare treat with this offering.

Barney's Version

I'll admit, I knew nothing about Mordecai Richler's darkly humorous final novel going into Barney's Version late last year. But I do know that when you feature a morally reprehensible character at your center, you have to make certain you find the part in him/her that is worth an audience caring about. Thankfully, Paul Giamatti plays these kind of characters on a regular basis. Here, he plays aging television producer Barney Panofsky, who is looking back at his long life through a mind that is slowly but steadily falling victim to Alzheimer's. The key landmarks in his look back are his three wives, who seem to frame and define the kind of general mood he displays and the places where his life takes its most dramatic shifts.

As a younger man living in Rome, Barney meets Clara (Rachelle Lefevre), a red-haired angel who spirited ways simply sweep Barney off his feet. He probably would have been a very different man if she had lived longer. His second wife (Minnie Driver) is the classic model Jewish American Princess, whose parents are filthy rich and very much a third and fourth wheel in their marriage. As if to emphasize how miserable Barney will be with her, he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike) at his own wedding and pursues her relentlessly until his divorce from Wife No. 2. It's toward the end of this marriage that we see the last of one of Barney's few friends (Scott Speedman), who goes missing after a weekend of rehab/detox at Barney's cabin in the country. The circumstances behind the friend's disappearance are suspicious, and many suspect that Barney killed his friend after finding him and Wife No. 2 in bed together. But with no body, Barney is never arrested.

As soon as Barney signs his divorce papers, he arranges a date with Miriam, his true love, with whom he has two children and many good years together. But Barney's self-destructive tendencies get the best of him and even this adoring woman grows tired of his obnoxious, unreliable ways. I'm not ruining anything by telling you this, since, when the film begins, we already know that the mother of his now-grown children is no longer his wife. One of the more interesting staples of Barney's life is his father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), who somehow manages to be both the angel and devil on his son's shoulders. Hoffman hasn't been quite this invested in a character in many years, and it's fun and refreshing to see him sink his teeth into this fully realized creature, who would kill to protect his son.

As directed by Richard J. Lewis, Barney's Version is a work that is both easy to slip into and get comfortable even as the people we're watching make us decidedly uncomfortable. In a roundabout way, the film is a love story populated by some very difficult to love people and one or two characters so likable that, of course, their lives must be made miserable. I didn't need Barney to show us a little bit more of why any woman would want to date him, let alone marry him, but I'm guessing quite a few people who check out this movie will. Still, Giamatti's performance is a stroke of mad genius, and his staggering work here is enough of a reason to check this film out. He finds ways to inject Barney with kindness and selflessness that might not have been in the script, and he's the reason the film succeeds at any level. Barney's Version opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

Told in a surprisingly conventional biopic fashion considering the subject, this doc about the life and times and junkie tendencies of writer, poet, artist, and occasional musical contributor William S. Burroughs, A Man Within covers a lot of ground with its wide brush. Narrated by Peter Weller (who is interviewed in the film and played a version of Burroughs in David Cronenberg's adaptation of Naked Lunch) positions Burroughs as almost the anti-rebel who never quite fit in with the hippie leanings of the Beat Generation (he was a Harvard man) or the outcast lifestyle that other gays and junkies led during the 1950s. He was considered the godfather of punk and often hung out at CBGB's, since it was in the Bowery, a place he frequented often.

A convincing case it made by director Yony Leyser and the who's who of dignitaries interviewed for the film that Burroughs might have been the most influential off all of the significant writers of his ilk. Filmmakers like Cronenberg, John Waters, and Gus Van Sant sing his praises, while musicians like Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith, and members of Sonic Youth all made a point to borrow from his writings or even record with him; Kurt Cobain even recorded a song with him. We know Burroughs is great because people tried to censor him, so he must have done something right. And much of what he was writing about in graphic detail is queer culture, drug culture, and all of the places those two worlds intersected.

Thanks to previous unseen home movies (much of which Burroughs shot) and interviews with some of his more constant companions, A Man Within has a more personal quality to it that allowed me to understand the artist in a way not done before. He was clearly a troubled man, a terrible father, and someone who felt at his most awkward in intimate moments. All of that is painfully illustrated in this respectful but honest record, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Great Directors

I'm a sucker for films like this, as I'm guessing most of you are, and I'm guessing that director Angela Ismailos is by no means declaring that the 10 excellent directors that she has chosen for her documentary are a definitive list of the greatest directors living today. But she has assembled some enlightening discussions with certainly some of the best filmmakers that America and Europe have to offer (hell, I've interviewed five of them myself over the years, so I know she's chosen wisely). I also don't believe that Ismailos is looking for running themes among her subjects in terms of their early years, sources of inspiration, or what keeps them going even today. These are simply 10 unique visionaries, all with great stories to tell.

The list consists of Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles, and Agnes Varda-- all of whom have very different outlooks on life and art. Breillat wants to destroy the notion of the female as a sacred object, while Loach and Sayles have a thing or two to say about their respective country's working class. Lynch wants to leave the audience in a constant state of wonder and tension, while Linklater loves stories about the little guy coming up in the world. Politics, sexuality, fantasy, reality, and the fabric that holds them all together are explored in Great Directors.

I was a bit annoyed at Ismailos' insistence at constantly showing herself, either sitting with the directors or reacting to them with an overly earnest look that might break into a knowing grin. But she makes the right call by letting the work speak for itself--the sheer volume of great clips used to illustrate whatever point her subjects are making is a gift from the film gods. This is a film theory master class and less a discussion of technical matters or working with actors or "the business" (only Frears, who has had an equal amount of success in Hollywood and Britain talks about working big vs. working small). I hope Ismailos does a second and third volume of this and turns it into a wonder series, if only because she seems to have a gift for igniting great conversation in her subjects. Todd Haynes turning into a fanboy over Fassbinder made me giddy. My guess is there are dozens of moments in this film that each of you will geek out over, whether you know who all of these directors are or not.

The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 22 at 7:45pm; and Tuesday, January 25 at 6pm.

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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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