Saturday, March 29, 2008

Road Rage

While we eagerly wait for news via Owl Post from The House Next Door regarding my recent submission on the films of Peter Weir, I finally had the opportunity to view the only one of Weir's films (incidentally his first) that I hadn't seen prior to writing the aforementioned piece. The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), an oddball horror-comedy about a small-town in Australia (the Paris of the title) whose denizens purposely cause car accidents and use the parts as economic stimulus, fully embodies the timeless Lottery/Wicker Man/Hot Fuzz genre of friendly rustics performing hideous acts of violence. Following a brief prologue, where an affluent young couple depart a roadside shop (the music swells happily and a man waves and smiles as they drive away) only to have a wheel fall off with tragic consequences, Cars introduces its main character, a meek-mannered young man named Arthur (Terry Camilleri) who survives another accident that kills his brother and is grudgingly accepted into the community.

The Cars That Ate Paris is a supremely silly movie, with abrupt tonal shifts, amateur-hour acting (the veteran John Meillon, as the town mayor, gives the savviest performance), and apparent switches in film stock. (If it hasn't aired on Mystery Science Theater, it should.) The fascination of the film lies in hindsight. There are foreshadowings of George Miller's Mad Max movies in the depiction of the destructive punk youths of the town and their monstrous hot-rods, one of which has sharp porcupine-like steel quills along its sides. (Bruce Spence, who would go on to appear in The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- and whose teeth were cast as the Mouth of Sauron in Lord of the Rings -- has a memorable bit part here as the obligatory village idiot.) As has been pointed out elsewhere, the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to Weir's The Truman Show, as the townies resort to scare tactics to prevent Arthur from leaving.

In an interview on the DVD, Weir reveals his roots in sketch comedy, which explains a lot about the improvisational subtext within the formalism of many of his movies as well as the unexpected bursts of humor in this one. (A confrontation between Arthur and some hostiles is staged and scored --out of nowhere -- like a spaghetti Western.) Weir's direction in Cars is all over the place, with some scenes elegantly framed (namely an automobile graveyard) and others that appear haphazardly constructed. Yet there's something charming about a now-accomplished filmmaker's unaccomplished first feature. A year later, Weir would take a quantum leap forward with Picnic at Hanging Rock; and unlike so many young auteurs today, who set the bar for themselves unaccountably high, his later works reaped the benefit of past mistakes.

The Naked Truth

Lady Chatterley (2007), the very French film version of D.H. Lawrence's very British tale of sexual awakening, is a good litmus test for viewers of soft-core art films: the languorous narrative buildup, the pregnant pauses, the physical frankness -- either you find this sort of thing enrapturing or a holy bore. For me, Philip Kaufman set the standard with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and here director Pascale Ferran comes very close to matching it.

While Lady Chatterley's story is well-known, Ferran (who also co-wrote the script) chose to adapt the second and less familiar of Lawrence's three versions. Constance (Marina Hands), the lonely wife of Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), a wealthy English nobleman who returns paralyzed from the First World War, begins an affair with Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch), a gamekeeper who works and lives on the vast estate. Clifford, who is pompous and privileged but not unfeeling, gives Constance implicit permission to acquire herself (and him) with an heir without knowing this potentially involves a member of the lower-class. As Constance and Parkin's encounters intensify, and sex turns to love, the lush splendor of the estate takes on the aura of a Paradise that you assume will be inevitably spoiled.

For me, one of the pleasures of the film (not having read any versions of Lawrence's novel, I can't say how faithful it is to the source) is the surprises that develop out of the characters' motives. Clifford, who loves his wife, experiences a rekindling of that affection and gradually overcomes his infirmity to retake to the outdoors. (There's a grimly funny sequence where his motor-powered wheelchair gets stuck on an incline, and he refuses help from Parkin to scale it.) A long vacation by Constance wreaks havoc with Parkin's life (much of it occurs offscreen), but the reprisals don't come the way one might expect. In this adaptation, theirs isn't a doomed love so much as a transformative one, and the obstacles in the relationship come out of their own personalities -- her physical and emotional neediness, his predilection for solitude and old-fashioned notions of "manliness" -- and not just the strictures of their society.

Sexual passion, for all its challenges, is depicted as a positive thing in Lady Chatterley. And if Ferran stacks the deck somewhat by casting Gallic actors (the language is also French), the movie works largely due to the fact that those same performers aren't pretty the way Unbearable Lightness's Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, for all their talent, are. Back in their heydey, virile-male filmmakers like John Derek or Roger Vadim would have gone even further and populated the movie with models, but Ferran's accomplishment is in enabling us to see that Hands and Coullou'ch, while certainly possessing attractive qualities, are virtued by their very ordinariness. The uninhibited way Coullou'ch reveals his pot belly (and more) is every bit as funny as Hands's rapturous regard for it. Ferran is alive to the mysteries of attraction, understands that you never know what will turn people on.

Lady Chatterley is a long movie -- almost three-hours -- yet watching it on DVD, I was able to absorb its quietude in segments over a few days. That the spell restored itself each time is, I think, a testament to its achievement, ending in a deeply moving final scene, a long conversation between the two lovers that is as emotionally naked as their prior encounters were physically, and veers from hope to doubt and back again, climaxing, like Joyce's Ulysses, in a simple yet earth-shaking "Yes."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Breaking In

I love heist movies. They all follow a basic template, yet can go in any number of directions. They can be comedies, actioners, thrillers, or a combo meal. They often provide good parts for male and female leads (unless you're David Mamet's wife), as well as colorful supporting roles for aspiring character actors. The villains and/or "vault" (to use the term generally) can offer all sorts of entertaining obstacles, and the gang can be either clever enough to inspire our admiration, or a bunch of clodhoppers that make us laugh. It's a damn near full-proof genre; you'd have to be a complete nutter (or David Mamet) to screw it up.

Roger Donaldson's no nutter. He's been making generally good movies for over 20 years now, in a manner that makes me want to recant my half-hearted praise for James Mangold as an efficient journeyman director. At his best, Donaldson's work is exciting where Mangold's is merely competent, streamlined instead of bloated, kinky over bland. Exciting, streamlined and kinky are all good adjectives to describe The Bank Job, Donaldson's true-story heist picture about a motley band of thieves hired by some shadowy British officials to rob a London bank in 1971. Items incriminating to the Crown are -- unbeknownst to the crew, led by Terry Leather (Jason Statham), who are merely after cash -- stuffed in one of the safety deposit boxes, along with certain other unmentionables that acquire attention from a whole gallery of unsavory characters.

The heist itself -- which includes tunneling underground, ordering take-out, and taking a nap -- is over rather quickly. The second hour of The Bank Job is devoted to the police force, the British government, the secret service, and various representatives from the drug and porno industries in pursuit of the robbers. As the nooses tighten around their necks, Terry desperately starts pulling back, resulting in a climax that isn't entirely convincing but, after watching Chigurh hobble away and Plainview bludgeon Eli with a bowling pin in other films, made this one feel like a tonic. As with his expert 1987 Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out, Donaldson is in his element here, and he has the perfect lead in Statham, a charismatic actor who doesn't seem to care whether we like him or not -- thus I like him all the more.

Whereas The Bank Job focuses on the whys, the wherefores, and the how-the-hell-do-we-get-out-of-heres of a heist gone wrong, Scott Frank's The Lookout (now on DVD) is a heist movie in the form of a character study. It stars Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Chris Pratt, a twentysomething janitor at a Kansas City bank who suffers brain damage as the result of a car accident from a few years back. As Chris tries to put his life back together, he is befriended by a young tough named Gary (Matthew Goode), whose gang not incidentally intends to rob Chris's employer.

There is much to admire about The Lookout: a good structure; crackling dialogue; some interesting characters and situations that don't go the way you expect. (I particularly liked Sergio Di Zio's Deputy Ted, a gentle police officer who watches over Chris's night shift, and whose climactic scene turns a cliche on its ear before finally acquiescing to it.) Yet I must admit I expected better things from Scott Frank, one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood making his directorial debut. His movie lacks momentum from one scene to the next, as does Gordon-Leavitt's performance, which veers between idiot and savant without ever fully connecting the two. In the critical role of Gary, Goode has everything but charisma. It would have been better to have Gary actually like Chris, to add something complicated to the mix. Despite its best intentions, nothing really feels emotionally at stake, and that makes The Lookout unsatisfying.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Words and Pictures

Despite poster art that suggests a florid Harlequin romance, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983) is actually one of a trio of films released a year apart in the early-1980s that depicted Western journalists growing a conscience while covering the plight of Third World nations. The Killing Fields took place in Cambodia; Under Fire, Nicaragua. The locale of The Year of Living Dangerously, 1960s Indonesia, is the most atmospheric of the three -- no surprise coming from Peter Weir, who has always had a knack for creating fish-out-of-water scenarios that regard the local habitat as more than window dressing.

Mel Gibson (who looks as astonishingly boyish here as Al Pacino does in The Godfather) is Guy Hamilton, an ambitious Australian correspondent sent to Indonesia during the dictatorship of Sukharno. His established colleagues, a mix of Brits and Americans, have resigned themselves to a sense of bored entitlement involving the purchase of bungalows and the courting of starving prostitutes, but Hamilton is hot for a story. His hastily developed partnership with Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a photographer with mysterious contacts among Sukharno's communist rivals, enables him to score hard-to-get interviews; and his romance with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), an attache at the British embassy, acquires him with secret information about an upcoming coup.

Most of the attention for this movie was paid to Linda Hunt's portrayal of a male character, but her turn isn't a case of stunt casting. (Weir has stated that she simply auditioned and won the part.) Billy is the audience surrogate in the early and best passages of the movie, as we follow him from expatriate taverns to an impoverished neighborhood where he tends to a young woman and her gravely ill child. Half-Chinese, diminutive in stature, Billy is treated as a kind of mascot by the Anglo-Americans, and the slyness of Hunt's performance is in how cunningly Billy uses their condescension to his advantage. Yet right away, Billy's relationship with Guy is on a more complicated level, mutual admiration evolving at the same time each one is using the other. "We'll make a great team," he tells Hamilton. "You for the words, me for the pictures."

Structurally, Weir and his co-screenwriters attempt something very tricky: as the love affair between Guy and Jill comes to the forefront of the movie, Billy recedes into the background while still registering as the prime mover of events. Billy, who once proposed to Jill, orchestrates their relationship, surreptitiously photographs their rendezvous together, and hammers out files about them on his typewriter. Never fully trusting Billy's intentions, Guy suspects him of being a CIA operative. Both are actually closet idealists, differing only in the means by which each strives to achieve his objectives: Guy impulsively throwing himself into hostile situations, Billy like a chess-player surveying the board.

More than most Western filmmakers, Weir takes pains to present the inhabitants of foreign countries as human beings with lives of their own. But The Year of Living Dangerously gets muddled in its final act, with Guy racing to the airport while negotiating his way through squads of soldiers with angry, leering faces. Underused is Michael Murphy in a one-note role as a boorish American journalist, the only surprise being that he isn't killed by film's end. Hunt's great performance is undercut only by one of her last scenes -- when Billy tells Guy that he "created" him -- which requires her to get self-consciously actorly.

25 years later, The Year of Living Dangerously is still worth another look. (I have no idea if a special edition is planned.) It's a reminder that Gibson was once a charming actor, and Weaver an uninhibited one. Their relationship, however cliched, is one of the movie's most convincing, funny and touching elements. While they mesh well together, they are far from a perfect fit. In one pointed scene, Jill tells Guy that she found one of his on-the-air news stories melodramatic, mentioning the faces of starving children repeatedly when, she opines, "perhaps once would be better." That's a good description of Weir's own style, which is socially conscious without sacrificing the economy of the story. Moreover, Weir's deeply felt romanticism -- which would reach a creative peak in his next film, Witness -- is burnished in a wonderful sequence where Jill, having just translated a coded message with dire portents, walks dazedly through a monsoon to Guy's studio to the sound of Vangelis's "Opera Sauvage" (actually from another movie; Maurice Jarre, Weir's frequent collaborator, composed the overall score), and in a long unbroken take the camera lingers on the image of Weaver holding Gibson close, soaking him with rain.

Can't Stop the Geat

What has happened to Bob Zemeckis? How did the director of wonderful films like Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Forrest Gump -- movies about, you know, people -- become a manufacturer of soulless animation? Following 2004's The Polar Express, his creepy-as-hell Christmas story, Zemeckis has now turned to Norse legend with Beowulf, only to return to Yuletide celebration with A Christmas Carol (ugh) due next year. As the middle movie in this trifecta, Beowulf is, as far as I can recall 8th-grade English class, relatively faithful to its source material; and there's nothing inherently wrong with the liberties Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's script takes, since it's not great literature anyway. It's about beasties -- first Grendel, then Grendel's mum, and finally a dragon -- attacking a kingdom of perpetually drunk Danes, and the titular Geat war-monger who rides in with his circa. 500 A.D. posse to save the day. Like The Magnificent Seven, though the monsters here are far less scary than Eli Wallach.

One of Spielberg's disciples, Zemeckis has always been in friendly competition with his mentor, as well as George Lucas, James Cameron and every other F/X guru of the last thirty years. Still, it used to be that Zemeckis deftly blended his special effects into a compelling story: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was groundbreaking, to be sure, but it also featured a great lead performance from Bob Hoskins; and some of the most remarkable effects in Forrest Gump were the ones that were almost unnoticeable, like the amputation of Lt. Dan's legs. Now he appears hellbent on being a pioneer in "performance capture" animation, where the actors' physical gestures (and, of course, voices) are later employed into the characters.

Based on Beowulf -- which is, technically speaking, a marked improvement over The Polar Express -- I can see the appeal of this: it allows for greater visual freedom (such as in a swimming race that turns into a battle between Beowulf and a sea monster) and permits actors to play their characters (or even a variety of characters) from youth to old-age. If it was evident that the story still came first, then Zemeckis would really have something here. As it stands, all I'm looking at onscreen is something visually ugly -- like a computer game, though I understand there's a demographic for that -- and a bunch of animated characters who can't compete with the soulfulness of their human counterparts. Compare Ray Winstone's Beowulf and Robin Wright Penn's princess with the real McCoys, and the comparison ends there. (As for Grendel, he's not half as weirdly entertaining as the person who plays him, Crispin Glover.) I'd almost like to think that Zemeckis, still in the testing stage with new technology, is presently choosing subject matter he doesn't really give a damn about. But if he doesn't care, then why should we?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cop Outs

Don't worry, I haven't forsaken thee. Just enjoying spring break, which sadly isn't a cross between Blame It On Rio and the "Girls With Low Self-Esteem" series from Arrested Development, but in my own little corner pleasant nonetheless. Been working on a magnum opus, catching a couple of crappy flicks along the way. In brief:

Neil Jordan's The Brave One is a revenge melodrama with so many implausibilities and coincidences that it could have only worked as a dark fable: I'm surprised Jordan didn't completely go that route, considering he's done it before (most notably with Mona Lisa and The Crying Game). As it stands, his movie resides in an awkward halfway-house between hallucination and grim reality, with Jodie Foster waging battle not only with the vile scumbags lurking around every corner but also -- in a more losing cause -- against her own surgically-enhanced features. (It's depressing to see one of moviedom's most expressive faces turn into a rigid mask, as well as an actress whose large part of her appeal was the sense that she could take acting or leave it choose to embrace Hollywood's shallow notions of beauty.) There's a compelling idea at the core of The Brave One, and had the film the courage to implicate Foster's tragic heroine in her own crimes, something interesting might have happened. As Pauline Kael might have put it, it's the kind of screw-up only a talented director could make.

I drifted away from American Gangster at approximately the one-hour mark, or around the twentieth close-up of a syringe being injected into an extra's skin; did I miss anything? Mindblowingly boring, with a miscast Denzel Washington, an autopilot Russell Crowe, and a director more ill-suited to the material than Ken Loach helming a sequel to Master and Commander, Ridley Scott's Oscar-wannabe didn't fool anybody, other than those (including herself, to judge by the telecast) who thought Ruby Dee's five-minute supporting turn was A Sure Thing. We're not talking Judi Dench or Beatrice Straight, folks.

Friday, March 7, 2008

There Will Be Backlash

(Note: Since this post continues getting comments, I'm moving it out of the archives and back on the main page. Thanks to all for their thoughts!....)

With the Oscars soon upon us, the attacks against one of the main contenders, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, have cranked up like a derrick. More specifically, critics have been zeroing in on Daniel Day-Lewis' anticipated Best Actor-winning performance as if it and the film were inseparable -- because they are. There Will Be Blood is an unusual hybrid, an epic with a singular focus on one character: if you don't buy Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview, you won't buy the film.

I welcome the criticisms -- who needs sacred cows? -- and find them on the whole thought-provoking, even though many aren't even compatible. Over at Salon, Stephanie Zacharek echoes earlier sentiments -- by Dan Sallitt and others -- that the problem with Day-Lewis's performance lies in the obscure motivations of the character. "We may know what Plainview is feeling (or not feeling) by the look on his face," Zacharek writes, "but Day-Lewis, hampered by his heavy brocade cloak of technique, is less effective at navigating the fine gradations of action necessary to define a supposedly complex character. Why does Plainview feel and act the way he does? We never know."

Meanwhile, Jim Emerson, in a lively debate with Kathleen Murphy, thinks that Day-Lewis's histrionics oversell the role: "And that's the fatal miscalculation of this film and this performance: Day-Lewis isn't content to play this character; he stands apart from Plainview, judging him and telling us how we should feel about him, every step of the way."

To be fair, defenders of the actor (and the film) haven't been entirely consistent either. Some have argued that Plainview is actually representative of something larger -- as Murphy writes, "a force, a power, ultimately a blight that haunts America still." Others like Bill, a commenter to Dennis Cozzalio's year-in-review wrap-up from about a month ago, believes that some viewers of There Will Be Blood "(are) frustrated the film focuses on an oil baron and a religious fundamentalist, but doesn't play like an allegory or a metaphor....One of the things that I think is so great about it is that it is very specific. Plainview, to me, represents nobody but himself."

Having recently seen There Will Be Blood for a second time, I think I lean toward the latter view. Playing a symbol would be pretty heavy lifting, even for an actor of Day-Lewis's caliber; and unless we're talking about Milton or Spenser, allegorical stories don't strike me as being particularly interesting. Yet to return to Zacharek's critique, if Plainview represents nobody but himself, then who exactly is he?

Sandra M, a reader responding to Zacharek's piece, seems to me on the right track when she writes: "I find it extremely telling that Zacharek's review takes absolutely no stock of the historical time in which the movie takes place. Periods of not just take place in an arbitrary goegraphical [sic] landscape, they DEFINE the landscape of not just the movie, but the character of Plainview himself." Indeed, one of the elements that impresses me about Day-Lewis's performance is the care to which he thinks and behaves like a turn-of-the-(20th)-century man.

The "napkin scene" -- perhaps second only to the climax of the movie in its notoriety -- is a good illustration of this. Late in the film, Plainview has just ordered drinks for himself and his son at a local tavern, only to have to wait for them when the bartender makes a big fuss over some competitors from Standard Oil who have just walked through the door. In response to this, Day-Lewis unfolds a long napkin, puts it over his head and boasts about having made a deal with Union Oil instead. Some have cited this scene as a textbook example of an actor hamming it up -- or, more charitably, that it's what may be called "an interesting choice." Others believe that Plainview doesn't want H.W. to read his lips, but he doesn't appear to say anything that he wouldn't want his son to hear. What I think is going on is Day-Lewis is conveying Plainview's disdain at being in the shadow of the Standard bigshots -- at feeling invisible in the room -- and does this with an imaginative use of a prop, in the manner that a man from his era might express himself.

Getting back to the Emerson-Murphy debate, Jim makes a keen observation that "(w)hile Day-Lewis and Plainview get bigger and drunker and crazier as it goes along, the movie constricts thematically and narrows to a terminal point, pinning Plainview to its canvas like an insect specimen." (More on this in a minute.) But I disagree with his earlier accusation that Day-Lewis doesn't fully inhabit the character. The actor's organic commitment is evident from Plainview's limping, bow-legged walk to how he moves his hands. Focusing on one scene (when Paul Sunday tips off Plainview about the oil beneath his family's farm) as an illustration of Anderson's craft, David Bordwell states: "It takes confidence to make a raised hand the climax of a scene, but the gesture gains its force by being the most aggressive moment in an arc of quietly accumulating tension." (Hat-tip to Chet Mellema for the link.) By pointing this out, I think Bordwell also effectively refutes the claim that Day-Lewis's performance is all showy tics and mannerisms. (Hard to do with your back to the camera.)

As I suggested in an earlier review, There Will Be Blood strikes me as the cinematic equivalent to a early 20th-century novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since it was adapted from one; but Anderson literally seems to be creating a visual language -- a narrative shorthand -- akin to the prose of those works. A comment by Harry Lime, in one of Jim Emerson's aformentioned posts, explicates this best:

"As I said in another post, (There Will Be Blood) has all the characteristics of a film directed by an old man: the austerity, the formalist's rigor, and the absence of sensational elements (sex, gore, pop music)....The final scene in the bowling alley, we see Anderson let go of the formalist's leash on Daniel Day-Lewis's grim mad dog. I think the direction over the acting in the bowling alley scene is actually expansive, and incongruous to the style of the rest of the film, which is why it's so strange and seems so out of place. Plainview doesn't just lose control, the film loses control. Just as a narrator in a Faulkner novel loses his grasp on sanity, so too does the prose become fragmented and disorienting."

Make no mistake, the varied readings by both critics and admirers are indicative that There Will Be Blood is a film to grapple with. I still struggle with my reaction, which is torn between awe at the climactic struggle between Plainview and Eli Sunday to finding it reductive. This is a movie that ends with no single interpretation or answer. To paraphrase the title of an episode of Deadwood -- a series that also pivoted around an individual of outsized ambition and his ongoing conflict with a character his opposite -- it is, at the very least, a two-headed beast.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Days of our Others

Certain elements of Lost have always flirted with soap opera, but never so blatantly as in tonight's episode. Even the title, "The Other Woman," has a kitschy, double-entendred appeal, but all the hour managed to do was something I'd thought impossible: make Juliet (and Elizabeth Mitchell, the actress with the most unnerving gaze on television) look dull. Ben's infatuation with her was more effective when implied; now that he's inexplicably on the loose again -- courtesy of resident island dumbass John Locke -- we can expect the wheels of manipulation to really start rolling once again. Too bad.

All in all, "The Other Woman" felt like a housecleaning episode, and not entirely in a bad way. I hope this means the last of "The Others," and the end of the flashbacks. (After watching both Kate and Juliet separately draw firearms on Charlotte and Faraday, I also second the motion that Lost lose the guns.) Not having read any spoilers -- this isn't an invitation for any -- it's not a stretch to predict that Michael is the special mystery guest (and Ben's spy) on the boat, and that Jin and/or Sun round out the remainder of the "Oceanic Six."

Sunday, March 2, 2008


I had mixed feelings about Michael Clayton long before I finally saw it last week, which possibly made the let-down less of a plummet. I'm a sucker for paranoid conspiracy thrillers, the likes of which haven't really been seen since the 70s. Enemy of the State is the only recent movie I can think of that has successfully capitalized on the anxieties brought on by the merging of the Information Age with the meddlesome tendencies of human beings. Played by George Clooney -- in a solid performance though not an especially memorable one -- the title character of Michael Clayton, a "fixer" of dicey legal cases, watches his own smug circle of existence collapse over the span of a few days. Whatever tension there is in the movie evolves out of whether Clayton's own shaky ethics will also fall into the abyss.

But the air is let out of the premise by Tony Gilroy's screenwriting implausibilities -- namely that the plot hinges on a mentally unstable attorney having the kind of courtroom breakdown (screaming epithets, running around naked) that exists only in movies. What made me dread Michael Clayton was the casting of Tom Wilkinson as the loony lawyer. One of my least favorite actors, Wilkinson tears into the role with predictable grandstanding. Some scenery chewers are creative (Daniel Day-Lewis) or so naturally charismatic (Jack Nicholson) that I'm willing to give them a lot of line, but Wilkinson's choices are always thuddingly, grindingly obvious. Gilroy (who also directed) has given him some long-winded Peter Finch-style monologues, but there's no context for them other than the blatant attempt to earn an Oscar nomination. (Mission accomplished.) The surprisingly underpopulated cast, namely the always-game Tilda Swinton, does what it can; but in this dramatically inert film, it's a ridiculously oversized bag of baguettes -- upstaging even Wilkinson -- that makes the most lasting impression.

Fool for Melanie

So the other day I'm at my local small-town, big-university Ohio coffee shop, when who should walk in but Melanie Griffith.

My celebrity sightings have been few. In college I once shared an uncomfortably silent elevator ride with Rodney A. Grant, the Native American actor who'd just had a major supporting role as the temperamental Wind In His Hair in Dances with Wolves. (The unnervingly intense Grant, who was on campus for a cultural heritage event, had an entourage of fellow American Indians packed in that elevator, though he looked like the last person who needed help with anything.) A year or so later, a friend dragged me to a thirty-second stump speech by his hero Pat Buchanan during one of the Patster's runs for president, after which Buchanan mingled in passing with the crowd, shook my hand, got distracted by a hollering hippie, then shook it again. ("You got two!" my irked friend said.)

Yesterday, I was at a table in the corner of the coffee house, when I noticed a couple of women with Hillary Clinton buttons enter. One of them approached the guy sitting at the table directly in front of me and asked if she could discuss the election with him. Assuming I was to be next, I recoiled and grimaced and said to myself, I don't want to talk about the election! Then I turned and noticed, lo' and behold, Melanie Griffith, tall, striking, and dressed in a charcoal-grey striped suit, approaching his table. And my immediate thought was, But I will talk to you....

For about fifteen minutes I was the only person among fifteen or twenty who recognized her -- including the guy she was talking to, who didn't care who she was and in an agitated voice said he wanted only numbers, actual figures as to how much on taxes a self-employed musician like himself would have to pay on his non-income with Clinton as president. Eventually, the place started buzzing, with "She was in Working Girl" and "She's married to Antonio Banderas" the two main identifiers. I was trying to think of an opener and didn't want to mention Working Girl as it was too obvious, so while she was trapped with the sullen musical artist I scrolled through her filmography. I had to scroll quite a ways down because, Jesus, she's made some bad movies. I couldn't mention Bonfire of the Vanities or Milk Money because they sucked, Night Moves seemed too obscure, Body Double too inappropriate somehow. As for her recent foray into television, Viva Laughlin was a big red flag.

Then I happened on Nobody's Fool (1994), a little-seen gem directed by Robert Benton and based on the novel by Richard Russo, starring Paul Newman in arguably his last great performance as a down-on-his-luck small-town rogue who endures one of the worst days of his life that ends up being one of the best. It's a lovely comedy with a great cast that includes Jessica Tandy (taking a final bow), Bruce Willis, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Philip Bosco, Dylan Walsh, Jay Patterson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Griffith, who turns in one of her best performances, funny and vulnerable, as the wife of Newman's boss. It was the right movie to say to Griffith, who beamed and sat down at my table and told me why she was voting for Hillary: "She's a woman. She's a friend. And she's got experience, and we need experience right now because our country's so fucked up." For some reason, hearing Melanie Griffith say "fuck" in person was very funny. And who was I to argue?

I was holding out hope that she'd get around to saying, "I have a head for business and a bod for sin," but before long she got up and left with the rest of the Clinton crew to a rally in Akron. (Probably for the best, since I'd hate to get Zorro'd.) Still, it was the most enjoyable conversation I've had with a woman all year. I'll have to return to that coffee shop soon -- maybe Diane Lane will show up.