Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
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.
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 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 A MAN WITHIN 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.
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 GREAT DIRECTORS that each of you will geek out over, whether you know who all of these directors are or not.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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