We Don't Live Here Anymore
Opens Fri., Aug. 20, at Seven Gables and Uptown
Larry Gross (48 Hrs.) won the top screenwriting prize at Sundance, plus the year's most phoenixlike career resuscitation, with this amazing adaptation of Andres Dubus' Raymond Carver–ish fiction about adultery. I can't think of a truer movie about adultery, and the performances are so incendiary it's a wonder they didn't burn down the woodsy suburbs of Vancouver, B.C., where the film was shot. It's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice with a brain, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a heart.
The two couples in question are Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts). The men are mired in modern academia, going nowhere in jobs they're lucky to have, but which scarcely pay enough to support their young families. Jack teaches English, Hank creative writing. Their main creativity gets channeled into remedying their thwarted sex lives. Terry and Edith are absolutely wonderful wife material: pretty, sexy, smart, fun.
Unfortunately, Jack and Hank are egregious assholes with immense personal magnetism. Jack is a passive-aggressive weasel who's ingenious at finding Terry's weak points and jabbing at them: It's true, she drinks too much, alternately neglects and manically overdoes the housework, and, being the intuitive type, screws up in many of life's tasks. Hank doesn't even bother to notice his wife's flaws. He's too busy ogling coeds—his fiction seminar boasts a suspicious preponderance of female beauties—and bagging grown-up women as well. And now he's got his eye on Terry.
Ruffalo, a co-producer of the film, accelerates his own rising star in the part of Jack. He's cruel and vulnerable, conniving and spontaneously clueless, hot-blooded with his secret mistress—Hank's wife Edith—and, with his own wife Terry, like a guy with liquid nitrogen for blood. Brilliantly, he makes us sympathize with him even at his most unsympathetic.
In order to get Naomi Watts, who got the film financed, the filmmakers were forced to hire Krause, the Six Feet Under hunk. He's the most lightweight actor in the bunch, but it works great—he's playing a hunk with a soul carved from styrofoam. His user's smile is blinding, his macho rivalry with Jack authentically reeking of musk. He nails the self-absorption of the successful writer. It's hard not to like him, even though underneath all that pose is just more pose.
As the "angry housewife," Watts rocks. Her face, with those expressive little pouty packets by her mouth, radiates fugitive emotions in succession: the thrill of sneaking away with Jack and banging him against a tree, the exultation of danger, the pervasive sadness that drove her into Jack's arms in the first place. "I wonder how we'll get caught?" she asks Jack, friskily, flirtily, guiltily, and deep down desperately hoping it will happen and solve the intolerable problem of her loveless marriage.
And the Oscar for 2004 goes to . . . Laura Dern as Terry. Dazzlingly but for too long, Dern was a horndog ingenue, then a cartoonish presence in movies existing in a plane skewed to reality: David Lynch flicks, Jurassic Park rides. She really was a horndog as a young woman (she told me, "I could never be a lesbian, I like cock too much!"), and some of that randy vitality shines through Terry's eyes. But there's more to Dern's persona than weirdness and lust, and Terry is her most emotionally grounded role. When Jack tormentedly drives her to give in to Hank's gropings, she's no passive victim but a courageous woman battling, ultimately, to save her marriage, however fucked-up that might sound.
Everything is so realistic in this movie: love, friendship, badinage, parties out of bounds, mornings after when you step into the spilled cat box in your socks and it's the objective correlative of your emotional state. The kids are adorable without being yucky, solemn-eyed innocent bystanders to the slo-mo car crash of their parents' love lives. The upshot is convincing without a hint of showbiz formula.
It's not a flashy film, which is why it took 23 years to get made. But when was the last time you walked out of a movie talking about the motives of the characters? And what was the last movie that had anything of substance to say about how to make love last? (R) TIM APPELO
The Clay Bird
Opens Fri., Aug. 20, at Grand Illusion
The first Bangladeshi film to receive general release in the United States and the U.K., The Clay Bird (Matir Moina) manages to portray the political/social upheavals and tensions of 1960s Pakistan by focusing almost exclusively on the complexity of one family. And one central theme could hardly be more relevant today: the conflicts between strict Islamic traditionalism and the forces of modernity.
The film weaves a complicated web centered on the character of Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu), a boy who lives in a small village in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with his strict Muslim father (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) and a more liberal-minded mother (Rokeya Prachy), who is increasingly dissatisfied with her role as the repressed wife. When Anu's father sends him to madrasa, or Islamic school, where he faces even more religious rigidity, the only thing that allows him to retain any sense of playfulness is his interaction with an imaginative, nonconformist schoolmate, Rokon (Russell Farazi). Soon after Anu settles into madrasa, the increasingly explosive tension in the family comes to a head when Anu's sister becomes gravely ill and his father refuses the modern medicine that could save her, trusting only their faith in God. This is a turning point in the film, and the story delves increasingly into the larger context of the conflict between East and West Pakistan—although not deeply enough that an uninformed viewer will take away a thorough understanding of the issues.
Director Tareque Masud, who has previously made only documentaries, maintains a meditative pace and a focus on character rather than action. Some viewers may find the going dull at times, while others will appreciate Clay Bird's quiet lyricism. The film is especially strong in its vivid evocation of childhood emotions, and it illuminates the richly textured culture and beautiful landscape of Bangladesh while creating characters who are both complex and recognizable (most played, remarkably, by nonprofessional actors). The soundtrack's artful use of Bangladeshi folk music adds to the mystical, almost magical atmosphere. Bird was initially banned in Bangladesh but, when released, broke box-office records there. It's easy to see why, and hard not to hope it finds the audience it deserves here. (NR) HEATHER LOGUE
Father and Son
Opens Fri., Aug. 20, at Varsity
If you can free yourself from wanting an even minimally comprehensible plot, then Father and Son is a golden, muscular free fall into a hypermasculine dream world. In it, a widower and son live in a rooftop apartment in an unnamed city above the sea; what action there is comes as each one pushes, in turn, against the sinews that have bound them in hermetic closeness, until they face "a fairy-tale collision."
What ups the ante, visually and psychologically, is that this broodingly handsome father (Andrey Schetinin) is 40, at the outside, while his army cadet son (Aleksay Neymyshev) is roughly 19. (Both actors were nonprofessionals, although Bruce Weber certainly must have them both in his sights by now.)
This is the second entry in director Alexander Sokurov's planned trilogy; the wrenching, exquisite Mother and Son was his breakthrough film in 1997, and Two Brothers and a Sister is planned. Of course, in the interim he tossed off Russian Ark, that electrifying one-shot gallop through the Hermitage.
He opens Father and Son simply with sound, the calming murmur of one man quieting another, rapid gulps of breath gradually slowing down, as "It's over, it's over . . . " continues (in Russian). Finally we see the two: handsome, naked, their pale bodies intertwined until one takes a shuddering breath, the anamorphic lens turning his mouth into the O of The Scream before he goes limp.
Sokurov absolutely wants his opening both ways: He wants the maximum wattage from this seeming sexual explosion and cooldown, yet he's shocked, shocked that our "sick European minds" might take this for anything but fierce fatherly tenderness after his son's bad dream. Ohhhhh-kay.
I discovered that Mother and Son, called "difficult" by some, was a piece of cake once you looked at it like a ballet, a grief-drenched lament of devotion and loss; all it needed was Nureyev and lillies. After seeing Father and Son only once, I'm not sure yet what the key to it is, but in its constant physicality—gymnastic rings in the spare attic room, heart-in-the-mouth acrobatics out on the sloping roof, tests of balance on planks between rooftop windows—an almost Cirque de Soleil vein seems to run beneath the push-pull of boundary testing that's going on.
The son, pulled away by a sweetheart (the quintessential blond Russian madonna)—and by young manhood itself—wants her and his same life with his father, while his father, trying to let him go, must keep his heartbreak to himself. More than once we hear the son's mantra: "A father crucifies; a loving son lets himself be crucified."
It's certainly as dreamlike and evocative as any magical tale: shot all in apricot hues, pinned down to no place or period by its costumes and decor. (That shimmering rooftop with its dome is actually in Lisbon.) As with any dream, we're muddled, unclear, squinting to make sense of it. Don't try too hard; hours later, you'll find it's still there, in the corners of your mind, and likely to stay a long, long time. (NR) SHEILA BENSON
My Sister Maria
Opens Fri., Aug. 20, at Varsity
My Sister Maria is a truly unfunny valentine from actor-director Maximilian Schell to his once-celebrated actress sister, Maria, who now lives in indulgent seclusion in the breathtaking Austrian village that has been their family's home for generations.
Featuring Maximilian's large, exceedingly handsome family, most of the film is staged and intercut with his sister's greatest hits: Maria dancing up a storm as Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov while Yul Brynner looks on; in the title role as the suffering Gervaise, for Rene Clement; mortally wounded in the huge antiwar success The Last Bridge; learning to see again for Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree. No one could beat or even equal Maria Schell at smiling through tears.
Those irresistibly sunny smiles palpably cheered post-WWII Germans and more when she moved triumphantly, if briefly, to Hollywood. Erroneously, her brother claims she was the first actress to have a Time cover; indisputably, she was the only actress to win at both Cannes and Venice in the same year for different films (Gervaise and The Last Bridge).
Her take on that huge body of work is refreshing. "I have the right to just be," she tells her little brother, who's dismayed that his sister, frail but healthy at 78, spends day and night watching her own films on one or another of her 11 TV sets. "I made so many people happy," she says calmly, "now other people should take care of me." Hollywood still rankles. "Being beautiful all day, and strong—I didn't feel part of that. It was like a pane of glass behind which I was moving." Paparazzi still invade her house for an unflattering shot: "I used to be on Page 1. Now I'm on Page 3."
This whole adoring family (including Maximilian's spectacular Russian wife, Natasha, called Nasti) is rapturous about how much love Maria has given them all. Still there is a faint, sour smell of dirty linen being aired. Since it's the very best linen, Porthault at the least, there's a certain awful fascination to it; but I promise you, you won't be able to forgive yourself in the morning. SHEILA BENSON
Seducing Dr. Lewis
Opens Fri., Aug. 20, at Harvard Exit
Jean-Francois Pouliot's cute little French-Canadian quirkathon is sort of a combination of Bill Forsyth's small Scots beach-burg tribute Local Hero, the rube boob movie Calendar Girls, and Northern Exposure in its first few episodes, before it got good. At first, the Roslyn-based TV show depended on labored gags flogging an overobvious Hollywood high concept: Snooty New York doctor refuses to adjust to Alaskan hamlet's dim-bulb eccentrics. What saved Cicely was a shift to smarter scripts featuring richer eccentricities that respected Alaska residents and TV viewers alike.
Pouliot aims lower, and scores a probable sentimental hit in the current cinema of sea-level expectations. His urban doctor (David Boutin) is a numbskull with a cocaine habit played for laughs. Busted by a cop who used to be mayor of Quebec's incredibly picturesque Ste. Marie-La Mauderne, pop. 120, he gets a choice: go to jail, or take a powder for a month in Ste. Marie, which desperately needs a doc in order to convince a factory to locate there and rescue the town's unemployed fishermen. It's the opposite premise of Local Hero—now rural types don't want to preserve paradise, they crave a plastics factory to make them some money.
The new mayor, rumpled Germain (Raymond Bouchard), who sports Don Johnson's perpetually incipient beard without his sex appeal, bugs Dr. Lewis' phone in order to deduce how best to seduce him to stay. The townsfolk feign a passion for the doc's favorite sport, cricket, despite knowing zilch about it. They add his favorite dishes to the diner's menu. Germain takes him fishing and has a diver affix a finny fat one to the doc's hook. The doc notices the fish is frozen; Germain explains that it's a fish from deep, cold waters.
Boutin is a frozen lox, but the rest of the villagers are pretty flavorful. Bouchard has the best face in the crowd—warm, inviting, rascally, calculating, rubberishly lovable. If you don't mind a plot without a thought in its head or a single surprise of any kind up its sleeve, you may well revel in Seducing. The opening and closing scenes of the village's bedroom rituals are naughty, clever, imaginative, and very sweet. The rest of the movie is just sweet. (NR) TIM APPELO
Without a Paddle
Opens Fri., Aug. 20 at Pacific Place and others
When their childhood buddy croaks, Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, and newcomer Dax Shepard convene for some Big Chill brooding, then embark on one last Goonie adventure, a treasure hunt of financial and spiritual Deliverance through the Oregonian wilderness. Funny—you'd expect something original, if torturously obnoxious, from Steven Brill, the mastermind behind Little Nicky, but Paddle is actually an agreeable inverse. While there's not a speck of innovation in the swashbuckling or casting (Green as the mousy, effeminate wet blanket? I never!), the film exudes a breezy, nostalgic vibe that anyone born in the late '70s will appreciate. Green deals with his myriad phobias by imitating C3PO or imagining himself on a speeder bike, and even manages to drop some formidable a cappella Dr. Dre ("Doctors study other doctors' work," he explains). Be forewarned, Deliverance fans: Aside from the obligatory "huddling for warmth" scene, the male bonding here is entirely figurative. (PG-13) ANDREW BONAZELLI