Friday, June 19, 2009

Let Nothing You Dismay

(Michael Keaton, US, 2008, 97 mins.)

"We're like two peas in a pod."

Once upon a time he was a versatile comic presence who moved from sitcoms in
the 1970s (Working Stiffs) to Ron Howard laughers (Night Shift, Gung Ho) in the 19-
80s. He was, in other words, on the same career track as Splash-era Tom Hanks.

Then he turned away from the light towards the darkness of the Caped Crusader (and long before he launched his movie career, he was a Pittsburgh kid serving as a stage hand on Mister Rogers Neighborhood). Whether by choice or by necessity, actor Michael Keaton has kept a lower profile ever since, though he’s done some of his most interesting work—like Jackie Brown and Game 6—in the intervening years.

Now he makes his directorial debut with The Merry Gentleman, which isn’t a topic-
al comedy like Mr. Mom, a Tim Burton bauble like Beetle Juice, or even a suburban chiller like Pacific Heights, but a two-pronged character study shot in shades of noir.

“It’s not uncommon to mistake boredom for hunger.”

The set-up begins in Chicago with a man (Keaton) and woman (Kelly Macdonald), leading separate lives. The woman, who lives in another city with another man (Bob-
by Cannavale) enters the scene with a bruised eye. After the other man leaves for work, she packs up her stuff, catches a plane to Illinois, and starts a new life.

Meanwhile, Keaton’s Frank Logan watches a trio of men leave a corner bar while he swigs what looks like cough syrup. Moments later, he shoots one of them dead.

Then, while planning another hit, he spies Kate Frazier, now working as a reception-
ist, through his viewfinder. She notices him on the roof, screams, and then calls the police because she thought he was going to jump. He disappears, but after a second murder, they return to question her about the man she saw. In the process, alcohol-
ic Officer Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes) provides a third narrative strand that comments on the first two, since he falls for Kate while looking for Frank.

Now, Frank’s got two bodies to his name and a connection to Kate, who tells dif-
ferent people different stories about her shiner—and about her marital status.

From the opening sequence, the film appears to share thematic similarities with John Dahl’s Chicago-situated You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hit man and Téa Leoni as a fellow tippler, except The Merry Gentleman isn’t a black comedy, despite
a few subtle comic touches, like the world's most depressing office Christmas party.

Plus, the central duo doesn’t really meet until the halfway point, not counting an earlier, "unplanned" encounter in Kate’s building. So, Frank does Kate a good turn (helps her with her tree), and she does one for him (takes him to the hospital after he passes out), unaware that this considerate stranger is also a skilled assassin.

If a first film reveals where an actor-turned-director’s head is at, then Keaton’s mind is in a dimly-lit, but not hopeless place. The Merry Gentleman starts out as a two-hander, but Macdonald gets all the best scenes, while he barely speaks a word. Frank’s die is cast, but Kate’s future is unwritten, and a hit man helps her to write it.

In the end, Keaton’s carefully observed debut is so low-key it could slip between the cracks of the summer movie season, especially since the studio chose not to release it around the holidays as they should have, but like its characters, the film could use a little affection: it’s as if Edward Hopper turned to digital video instead of paint.

"You just might be the sweetest man I’ve ever met."

Endnote: According to WENN, “Keaton took over…when filmmaker Ron Lazzeretti's appendix burst.” (Also, I'm adding the actor to my Men with Eyeliner list.) The Mer-
ry Gentleman
opens today at the Uptown Theater (511 Queen Anne Avenue N). For
more information, please click here. Images from the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What Does Your Soul Look Like?

(Sophie Barthes, US, 97 mins.)

In debut director Sophie Barthes' believably surreal world, lovingly shot by Andrij Parekh, human beings can live without their souls--but it isn't much of a way to live.

Last seen duking it out with Tom Wilkinson in Duplicity, Paul Giamatti plays a look-
ing-glass version of himself, an award-winning actor top-lining Chekhov's Uncle Van-
. When the strain becomes too much to bear, he pays a visit to Soul Storage, where Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) offers to store his soul during the run of the play. After Flintstein's assistant (Lauren Ambrose) extracts it, the lighter Paul can
no longer handle Vanya's heaviness, so he tries on the soul of a Russian poet.

It's an improvement, but Giamatti would rather have his own chickpea-sized soul back. Unfortunately, it's gone missing. Flintstein's associate, Nina (Dina Korzun, 40 Shades of Blue), a Russian mule, has borrowed it on her boss's orders, where it re-
sides in the body of his actress wife, so Giamatti enlists Nina's help to get it back.

His sad and hilarious journey from well-heeled Manhattan to the St. Peters-
berg underworld occasionally recalls Charlie Kaufman's existential comedies,
except the French-born filmmaker, who has cited Carl Jung and Woody Allen
as inspirations, conjures up her own unique universe, where European litera-
ture and philosophy rub shoulders with American ingenuity and impatience.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Cold Souls plays the Harvard Exit on 6/8 at 7pm and on
6/10 at 4:30pm. Director and actor in attendance.

Endnote: Edited and revised from my Amazon review. Title from
a track by DJ Shadow. Images from Row Three and The LA Weekly.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Quick Hits: Food, Inc. and Summer Hours

SIFF screenings for the following have ended, but one title
has already opened in Seattle, while the other opens shortly.


FOOD, INC. ***

Food, Inc. examines the costs of putting value and convenience over nutrition and environmental impact. Robert Kenner explores the subject from all angles, talking to farmers, activists, and authors, like producer Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and takes his camera into factory farms and abattoirs where chicken grow too fast to walk properly, cows eat feed pumped with toxic chemicals, and illegal immigrants risk life and limb to bring these products to market at an affordable cost. If eco-docs, like Super-Size Me and King Corn, tend to preach to the converted, Kenner presents his findings in such an engaging fashion that Food, Inc. may well reach the very viewers who could benefit from it the most: harried workers who don't have the time or in-
come to read every book and to eat non-genetically modified produce every day.

Click here for the accompanying book. Food Inc. opens on 6/26 (venue TBA).



What interests me in the movie in not so much the
material value of things, but their symbolic value.

-- Olivier Assayas in the production notes

For a film about objects, Summer Hours presents a surprisingly affecting scenario. Then again, Olivier Assayas has never taken the easy road to catharsis. It's no spoiler to note that family matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) passes away shortly after her 75th birthday, at which she tells her three adult children (Charles Berling, Juliet-
te Binoche, and Jérémie Renier), that they're free to do what they want with her precious objets d’art, including Musée d’Orsay-loaned works by Degas and Redon. Were he a different kind of director, the superficial would lock horns with the righteous, but these characters aren't quite so simplistic. Largely devoid of music, once an Assayas signature, the movie ends with a raucous house party that recalls his 1994 feature Cold Water, and Berling continues to do some of his finest work for the filmmaker, anchoring this deceptively rich picture with his subtle performance.

Summer Hours, which opened on 5/29, continues at the Harvard Exit.

Sidenote: Though I've been avidly following Assayas' career for 15 years now, I wasn't a big fan of his last film. For Video Librarian, I wrote, "The last act plays like
an attempt at a Johnny To crime drama with guns, drugs, and double-crossings (Kel-
ly Lin is a To veteran), but Assayas lacks the flair for this kind of thing. Intimacy
has always been one of his specialties, and Boarding Gate feels like an exercise in
detachment. Despite [Asia] Argento's earthy sexuality, there's no real heat."

Other recommended openings (all playing at Landmark Theatres TBA): Tulpan (6/26), Moon (7/3), The Hurt Locker (7/10), In the Loop (7/31), and The Cove (8/7).

Scob as shot by the great Eric Gautier

Endnote: Images from the Buenos Aires Film Festival, Cinematic
Intelligence Agency
, and Breath of Life - A2P Cinema Blog.