PICKS OF THE WEEK
Win Win (B)
U.S.: Tom McCarthy, 2011, 20th Century Fox
Paul Giamatti has that look -- you know the one -- that exasperated, slightly fed-up look. That hangdog pall we saw on his gloomy mug when he played the frustrated writer/vinomaniac in Sideways, or that scruffy comic artist in American Splendor: the look of a guy who has few illusions left, and who finds himself in a world where dreams are dying, and in his own way, rages, rages against the dying of that light, the dying of those dreams. Or at least gives them a sour glance and a nasty crack or two.
Still, if you want a little hometown glory in this fouled-up world, there's always high school sports. In the case of Win Win, it's high school wrestling. Giamatti is the coach, and a young phenom will soon arrive to spark up the movie, save the season and give the coach's off-kilter, all-too-vulnerable life a tilt toward glory. Aw no, you say, this is a story we've seen too many times before. Clichés, you think, nothing but phony clichés. You'd be wrong, though.
Tom McCarthy wrote and directed Win Win, and it's clear now, after McCarthy's third feature as writer-director, that his intentions, quite laudable, are to write good roles for some of the best actors around, and to bring humanity, character and comic realism -- and people we can at least somewhat recognize -- back to the movies. More power to him, I say. I liked his first film, The Station Agent, liked that movie's odd wonderful trio of Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale.
Giamatti's character, perfect for him, is Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer of highly dubious integrity, who's married to a fine woman, Amy Ryan as Jackie Flaherty, but has to scrape to make those damned ends meet, also working another job as a local, highly unsuccessful high school wrestling coach, along with his two friends and unsuccessful assistants, the even gloomier accountant Stephen Vignam (Jeffrey Tambor) and ex-good-time guy Terry Delfino (Cannavale again, just as good as before).
These three guys are going nowhere with their team, except maybe for a couple of beers after the matches. Then suddenly he shows up: Kyle, the natural, a great high school wrestler, or at least a great local high school wrestler, lithe and strong and quick and always heading for a pin -- played by Alex Shaffer, a champion high school wrestler in real life, and here, a very good actor as well. The three can see it in him: youth, their youth, the one they didn't quite have.
There's a problem, though. A particularly bad one. Kyle showed up in New Jersey, at a certain home (his grandfather's), because he doesn't get along with his selfish mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) and because Mike is the legal guardian of Kyle's grandpa Leo Poplar (Burt Young, of Chinatown and the Rocky movies). Only Mike has been conning everybody, Leo especially, by accepting the $1,5000 a month stipend he gets for being Leo's legal guardian, and supposedly keeping the old man, who has Alzheimer's eating into his memory, in the home Leo didn't want to leave. Instead, Mike has stashed the old man in a nursing home.
Giamatti is a first-rate actor, and a guy whom nobody can accuse of getting roles because of his looks. Well, let me take that back: Giamatti actually has exactly the right look for his roles. He's an uncommon common man, a poet of anxiety, a virtuoso of exasperation. Here, he's got a lot to be worried about. The movie is enough of the usual sports sitcom saga to keep us comfortable, but enough of a different type to keep us on its side, intellectually -- because these people have real problems, real sadnesses and humors, real gut-twisters and regrets. (And real-looking wrestling matches.) That's what movies are supposed to give us, and, all too often don't. This one does, at least a good part of the time. (Extras: Sundance Festival conversations with Tom McCarthy, Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer and David Thompson; deleted scenes; featurettes; McCarthy and Joe Tiboni discuss Win Win; music video; trailer.)
South Korea: Chang-Dong Lee, 2010, Kino International
Her face is careworn but still pretty, the face of a once beautiful woman now in her '60s, her hair still black, her eyes soft, her once dazzling smile now almost completely vanished. She wears colorful flower print dresses and a white beach hat, which, at one point, sails away in the wind when she bends to look at the river. She works as a maid and caretaker for an elderly, disabled man, who gives her tips and gets aroused when she bathes him.
With no help at all from her absent daughter, she tries to feed and provide a home for her teenage grandson Jongwook (David Lee), a boorish, pimpled bully who treats her with cruel and offhand neglect -- and who has committed a hideous crime (a gang rape that drove a young classmate to suicide) that she must now try to make right, by paying reparations (of 500 million won) that she cannot afford. She is gentle and giving, tireless and kind to everyone she meets. She has begun to get distracted, to forget nouns and verbs, and she doesn't yet know what that may mean.
Once, when she was a little girl, her teacher told her she would grow up to be a poet. And now she remembers those words, as she spies a notice in the street for a poetry class. She decides to take the class, because she wants to write a poem. Just one.
Her name is Mija.
The sorrows, pains and occasional beauties of old age -- the way the old can be ignored, hurt and sometimes horribly abused by the young -- have rarely been more movingly portrayed than they are in the movie Poetry by the superb Korean actress Jeong-Hee Yoon, and by the gifted and deeply perceptive director-writer Chang-Dong Lee. Lee, an acclaimed Korean novelist who began his movie directing career late in life, at 40, is now one of South Korea's finest contemporary filmmakers. Yoon is a one-time film star and great beauty whom Lee coaxed out of retirement for this role. No one in the world, from any place, in any country, could have played it better.
The movie is quiet and subtle, and like some of the best poems we read or hear, perfectly phrased. It does not coax our tears. We watch it quietly, and our heart breaks. Seeing this woman, so kind, so good, so badly and uncaringly treated, as she struggles to live her life, to cope with her great troubles, and to write her poem -- even as the words slip away from her -- is an experience I will never forget. Neither should you. In Korean, with English subtitles.
The Killing (A)
U.S.: Stanley Kubrick, 1956, Criterion
In 1956, at the age of 28, Stanley Kubrick, a hardcore New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx and once hustled chess games in Washington Square Park, traveled to Los Angeles and Hollywood to direct the movie that would not only make his reputation and jump-start his international career, but would provide the template -- the patented Kubrickian clockwork nightmare -- that would define most of the films he made from then on.
Those later films include acknowledged masterpieces: Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971). But none of them is more brilliantly designed or more perfectly executed than that inexpensive film Kubrick made in L.A. and San Francisco, a little heist thriller called The Killing.
The Killing, looking lustrous here in a new digital restoration, is the kind of movie that used to be called a "sleeper" -- the cheaply made, often unusual, stylish and brainy surprise hits that aficionados hunted for and buffs loved. Based on a neatly-plotted crime novel, Clean Break by Lionel White, it was scripted by Kubrick and nonpareil pulp novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me), photographed by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond), and blessed with an expert, pungent, very iconic cast.
That cast -- a sort of Who's Who of prime lower-budget noir types -- it included Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle), Coleen Gray (Kiss of Death), Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon), Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin), Ted De Corsia (The Naked City), Timothy Carey (Crime Wave), James Edwards (The Phenix City Story), Joe Sawyer (Deadline at Dawn), Vince Edwards (Murder by Contract), Jay Adler (Sweet Smell of Success) and Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night). That's a formidable gallery, and, with all that talent, assembled and guided by young maestro-on-the-rise Kubrick, the show clicked. It conquered audiences, especially critics.
The Killing was immediately hailed as a classic of its kind, the very model of a high-style, low-budget, hard-boiled Hollywood crime thriller. "Kubrick is a giant," Orson Welles said after watching The Killing, and it was the young Welles, of Citizen Kane, to whom the young Kubrick was most often compared. If anything, his third feature's reputation has grown over the years, as has the stature of the type of movie it embodies: the lean, swift, shadowy, cynical, hard-case '40s-'50s crime genre we call film noir.
The Killing is a deliberately archetypal movie that takes place in typical noir locations, dark rooms and stark sunny city streets and ill-lit bars -- and also, an obvious Kubrick touch, in a chess club. A lot of it, perhaps inspired by Kurosawa's four-part '50s art house classic Rashomon, keeps circling back to that same race at that race track, the fictional Lansdowne (actually the Bay Meadows in Frisco), during the equally fictional $100,000 Lansdowne Stakes for three-year-olds. That mythical race, which opens the picture during the credits, and which we first see uncut in one rapidly panning take around the track, is a prime piece of the "jumbled jigsaw puzzle" (as one character calls it) that will supposedly end as a two-million-dollar heist of Lansdowne's Saturday gambling receipts.
The heist is the brainchild of a brusque self-confident criminal mastermind named Johnny Clay (Hayden), bankrolled by the above-mentioned Marvin Unger (Flippen). And Johnny has devised this complex robbery, which involves many of the people above (with the exception of outsiders Windsor and the two Edwardses, loan shark Adler and Johnny's gal Gray), and will get its kickoff when crack rifleman Nikki Arcane (Carey), shoots the Lansdowne Stakes favorite, Red Lightning, from a parking lot outside the track, at one of the turns.
It's all as cleverly designed and interlocking as a clockwork... heist. And thanks to Johnny, it's all been planned to the last detail, the last second, the last inch, with each of the seven participants keenly aware of his special part in the robbery, and all of it immaculately orchestrated by Johnny, an ex-con eager to start life anew with his adoring girlfriend Fay (Gray) -- just as Hayden's tough guy Dix in The Asphalt Jungle, wanted, even as he was dying, to get back to Kentucky with Jean Hagen. But in both roles, Hayden, with his granite-tough face and slightly mad eyes and hurried, racing, whiney delivery, plays that classic Hollywood outlaw character: the integral thief, the generous bad guy. Nobody played it better.
The Killing is a great film, as good as anything Kubrick made afterward, and he made more than a few classics. Including, definitely, this one: his perfect crime. His perfect score. The consequences... well, they came later. (Extras: interviews with James B. Harris, Sterling Hayden and by Robert Polito (on Jim Thompson); video appreciation of Killer's Kiss by Geoffrey O'Brien; trailers; booklet with essay by Haden Guest and interview excerpts with Marie Windsor.)
Killer's Kiss (B-)
U.S.: Stanley Kubrick, 1956
Kubrick's second feature, and his first collaboration with producer James Harris, is one of the most gorgeous-looking low-budget B-crime movies ever -- shot by cinematographer Stanley in a style that effortlessly mixes the street-scene poetic realism of movies like Little Fugitive and On the Waterfront, with the film noir expressionism of the whole noir school.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Police, Adjective (B)
Romania: Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009, KimStim/Zeitgeist/IFC
The best of the New Wave of Romanian films -- which have been taking international festivals by storm ever since The Death of Mr. Lazarescu at Cannes -- have been spare but bracing and ultra-realistic experiences, pleasurable for their artistic economy, humanistic view of the world and sheer cinematic austerity. Porumboiu's new film is no exception: the ultra-minimalist tale of a young Romanian policeman (Dragos Bucor) undergoing a moral crisis over his impending bust of a teenage drug dealer. The cop's problems are complicated, but they're handled semantically.
This may be one of the only films where a dramatic impasse is busted by a dictionary. The movie will please some aficionados, but puzzle more casual filmgoers, who -- if they ever wander into this one -- will wonder why dictionaries, and definitions, and adjectives, are so important. With Vlad Ivanov, the heavy of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 days. In Romanian, with English subtitles.
Madea's Big Happy Family (C)
U.S.: Tyler Perry, 2011, Lionsgate
Tyler Perry again, back with his popular drag alter-ego: Madea, an old lady with quite a mouth. This bizarre elder statesman of profanity and down-home wisdom is once more mouthing off, and solving lots of family and sex problems, while writer-director-star Perry's script mixes scatological cracks and schmaltz, poignancy and four-letter words with the usual shameless abandon. Perry and his unbuttoned cast pour it on, and actress Cassi Davis steals a lot of scenes as Aunt Bam, who likes ganja. (Extras: featurettes.)