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Undertow, Around the Bend, Sideways, p.s., and The Machinist (review)

Screen Journey

I’m not a huge fan of David Gordon Green — I found his much-lauded debut George Washington ponderously and self-consciously “arty” and his recent All the Real Girls simply dull. But with Undertow, Green (and fellow screenwriters Lingard Jervey and Joe Conway) attempts narrative, quite a bold move for a filmmaker who’d seemed content merely to photograph in a painterly way ugly or merely unseen ordinariness. He’s still doing that here, looking at people and places with a fresh, uncritical eye, but there’s more story to go with it this time. Call me bourgeois, but I like a story.
This one is a little domestic horror tale of two young brothers, two adult brothers, and the greed and tenderness that separates and unites them all. The Munns are bereft of wife and mother: dad John (Dermot Mulroney: Where the Money Is, My Best Friend’s Wedding), who ekes out a living on a dusty farm in backwoods Georgia; his teenaged son, Chris (the wonderful Jamie Bell: Nicholas Nickleby, Billy Elliot), whom John rides hard and shows little affection for; and 9-year-old Tim (Devon Alan: Simon Birch), sickly and weak but much loved by dad and older brother alike. Enter, like a drawling Satan swaggering into a hardscrabbble garden of eden, John’s ex-con bother Deel (Josh Lucas: Wonderland, Secondhand Lions), who takes an evil glee in making a lot of trouble.

Green turns Undertow into what is certainly the most expressively lyrical Southern Gothic in a good while, tenderly introducing us to characters and situations that take on surprising nuances — like the childless black couple the young Munn boys meet after they (inevitably) run away from home — and finding an ineluctable, everyday horror in something like Tim’s birthday cake, which looks like fuzzy mold covered with wet-cement frosting. (It must be delicious, because the Munns scarf it down, but still…) But those are all details, easter eggs in the background — I’m not sure that even the assured control Green has of his pastiche of gritty, 70s-cinema realism is enough overcome the inherent stereotypical melodrama of the larger tale he’s telling.

Josh Lucas’s Deel, for instance, is rather obvious in his villainy. That’s not his fault — Lucas has nowhere to go with Deel, but with his talent and range he can’t help but bring a grounded reality to a character that might otherwise have been a cartoon. Lucas is so good at playing the heavy, though, that if he’s not careful, he’s going to find himself typecast in the role. So it’s refreshing to see him in something as winsome as Around the Bend portraying a guy with problems more down-to-earth than where to bury a dead body.

Although, actually, Lucas’s Jason Lair does face that tricky issue in Bend, too, if on a thoroughly less felonious level. Upon the death of his grandfather, Henry (Michael Caine: The Statement, Secondhand Lions), Jason discovers that he has left complex instructions for the disposal of his ashes, instructions which necessitate a road trip through the great Southwest for Jason, his young son Zach (Jonah Bobo), and — this is the sticky part — Jason’s father (Henry’s son) Turner (Christopher Walken: The Stepford Wives, Envy), who’d abandoned Jason when he was just a child and has now turned up again out of the blue. Jason has not been looking for a reason forgive his father, and coming face to face with the old man after so many years has done nothing to warm him to the prospect… the very prospect, it seems, that may be behind Henry’s scattering-the-ashes scheme.

This is a lovely debut from writer/director Jordan Roberts, one that walks a fine line that many films fall to navigate: the one that divides wacky-for-wacky’s-sake from the wacky kind of oddballness that characterizes, you know, life. As a writer and director, Roberts manages to turn what would be crass commercialism in another film — Henry’s road-trip plans take the Lair boys on a grand tour of the many, many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets of the Southwest — into both a warm appreciation for pop-culture kitsch and a recognition that shared experiences — even if it’s the torture of nothing to eat but Extra Crispy drumsticks for a week — are irreplaceable bonding experiences.

But the superb cast gets lots of credit, too, for being unwilling to give up the humanity of their characters in exchange for cheap laughs — the laughs here are instead the kind prompted by observations on love and family and forgiveness and understanding that are as likely to bring a tart tear to your eye, or to elicit both chuckles and tears at the same time. Young Jonah Bobo is as intent and intense a screen presence as either of the iconic names he’s working with here — he is there and in the moment, even with Caine or Walken, in a way that most child actors simply aren’t able to achieve. And it’s clear that Lucas, if he keeps challenging himself with roles like this one, could come to see his name as iconic eventually, too.

Grapes of wrath
Boys hit the road in Sideways, too, as a chronically depressed, romantically dispossessed writer (Paul Giamatti: American Splendor, Paycheck, who’s fast becoming a treasure) and a perpetually horny, about-to-be-married washed-up actor (Thomas Haden Church: 3000 Miles to Graceland, George of the Jungle, all outrageous id and an absolute hoot) hit the road for a week-long bachelor party amidst the rolling hillsides and gorgeous sunsets Napa Valley Santa Barbara wine country. Think Thelma and Louise with guys and a lot more wine, and, oh yeah, they don’t die in the end. They might want to, though, because About Schmidt and Election director Alexander Payne has done it again, delving into the messed-up lives of regular people in his search for truth and beauty (he finds it) and shaking them up something awful in the process.

This may be the first wine-porn movie, so much of the luscious liquid is flowing onscreen, lubricating the sudden onslaught of midlife crisis for both men. Erudite Miles (Giamatti) is determined to give party-boy Jack (Church) the foundation of a wine education, but none of it will take: Jack simply does not think about things before diving in to enjoy them, whether it’s a wine that Miles thinks is past its peak or an impulsive fling with an intriguing gal they meet in a winery. This is a glorious exploration of a friendship that personifies the old dictum that “life is a tragedy for those who think and a comedy for those who feel” (or is it the other way round?): Miles makes himself miserable overanalyzing everything — like his attraction to smart, beautiful, wine-loving Maya (Virginia Madsen, who’s so delicious even I’d go to bed with her), who seems like the perfect woman for him; but he resists getting involved with her, and he’s not even getting married in a few days! — while Jack gets himself into tons of trouble (but has a ball doing so) by going with the flow, even when that means getting in way too deep with funky Stephanie (Sandra Oh: Rick, Under the Tuscan Sun, and oh do I love her), who of course has no idea that this fun guy she’s been falling madly in love with, who’s talking about moving to Napa Santa Barbara and starting a winery, is already spoken for.

It’s all just wonderfully, beautifully realized, with a wise, literate bent (perhaps because the film is based on a novel by Rex Pickett). Every scene is pretty much perfect, but one stands out in my memory: Maya asks Miles what his favorite wine is, and why, and in this unguarded moment, when he can talk about his passion, he doesn’t realize that in discussing the fragility of the varietal, the care and nurturing it needs for its potential to be released, he’s describing himself. But Maya realizes it, and so do we, and it makes you want to just hug this mess of a man who doesn’t appreciate himself anywhere near as much as he should.

Terrific as Sideways is, it’s covering ground that’s nothing new: the male midlife crisis. Judging from “the movies,” you’d think women never suffered from this particular malady. But here’s a rare example of the filmic female midlife crisis: Dylan Kidd’s p.s., based on Helen Schulman’s novel. From the protagonist of his debut film, Roger Dodger, who was as hilariously clueless about himself as a man can be, Kidd moves on to a woman — Louise Harrington, a Columbia University admissions officer — who, with forty approaching, is divorced, lonely, and living a constrained, strangled life … all without seeming to realize that anything’s wrong. Until, that is, she meets a prospective Columbia student who reminds her, startlingly so, of a long-dead boyfriend she’s been mourning for far too long.

Laura Linney (Love Actually, Mystic River) is one of those actors at whose feet I just want to drop and grovel: she’s so smart and expressive and real. There’s a kind of squirmy rawness to how she slowly unfolds Louise’s dawning comprehension that life is not meant to be lived in the cold, aloof bubble she’s been occupying — Linney has a way of restraining herself that’s quiet and polite and ladylike that, when the bubble starts to burst, makes you understand that this woman’s quiet politeness was the result of external factors — a societal push to control and contain women’s passion — as well as internal ones: she’s stuck in a fantasy of the past that the present can never match up to. She’s barely met young F. Scott Feinstadt (a winning Topher Grace: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, Mona Lisa Smile) before she’s, well, fucking him on the sofa in her living room, and there’s an energy and a frankness to the scene that we don’t see on film anywhere near enough, one in which power and control is ceded to a woman in a male/female sexual encounter without making the guy a victim. That this is a moment of truth for Louise, too, her awakening back into the life of the world, makes it even more potent.

Past the past
Trevor Reznik is stuck in the past, too, but where the effect on Louise is a subtle, gentle gnawing on her soul, Trevor’s body is literally wasting away. “I haven’t slept in a year,” the gaunt metal worker says early on in this powerful evocation of guilt, anxiety, and incipient insanity, and we’re not sure how literally to take him… or how much of his paranoia is justified. Is he teetering at the edge of madness all by himself, or is he being pushed?

The Machinst opens with Trevor, who’s agonizingly, skeletally thin, dumping a dead body into the ocean, but what isn’t clear till much later is whether this is the beginning of the story, or the end of it: are the events after the dumping a flashback, or what? It gets so that we’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t, or what’s happening when, or at all. If it’s disconcerting, it’s meant to be, director Brad Anderson (Happy Accidents) mirroring Trevor’s increasing disconnect by immersing him and us in a flat, gray world where the connection to reality is tenuous at best.

But the most disturbing aspect of the film is Christian Bale’s (Reign of Fire, Laurel Canyon) alarmingly physical performance: he dropped more than 60 pounds off an already fit frame to play Trevor, a man trying to escape his past and his own self by reducing himself down to nothing. Anderson isn’t too squeamish to let his camera linger on this commandingly effective outward manifestation of Trevor’s derangement, and to see someone usually so hale and handsome looking absolutely awful grounds this compelling nightmare in hellish reality. Bale may be as crazy as Trevor, if in a different way, to have endangered his own health like he did — this is some insane dedication to one’s art — but the film is far more perversely fascinating because of it.

Undertow
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for violence
official site | IMDB

Around the Bend
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language
official site | IMDB

Sideways
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity
official site | IMDB

p.s.
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language and sexuality
official site | IMDB

The Machinist
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for violence and disturbing images, sexuality, and language
official site | IMDB


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