Movie Reviews - 2011 postsWednesday September 11, 2013
Movie Review: Super (2011)
“I’ve wondered all the time why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero.”
That’s Libby (Ellen Page), early in James Gunn’s low-budget, Troma-inspired “Super,” before she becomes Bolty, girl sidekick and sometime lover (or rapist) to the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson). Anyone not caught up in a fantasy world, of course, knows the answer to this one, and it comes to Libby later in the movie. Too late, it turns out.
She and the Crimson Bolt are storming the palace of drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in an amused performance), until one of the bad guys shoots them both and they fall in the high grass. By this point, we know they’re wearing body armor so we’re not worried. And sure enough, Frank Darbo, the Crimson Bolt, groans, shakes his head and begins to get up. He shakes Bolt Girl, who is lying on her side away from him—c’mon, get up—and she rolls on her back and half her face is gone.
That’s the answer. That’s why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero. Because bullets don’t bounce off.
Credit “Super” for not imagining otherwise. “Kick Ass,” which was released a year earlier, and had a bigger budget and bigger stars, pretends a young girl with martial arts moves can take on a roomful of bad guys and not get injured. That movie feigns ironic indifference to the very thing it desperately wants: wish-fulfillment fantasy.
“Super” doesn’t. But it’s still an odd movie. It still sends mixed messages. It still gives us an improperly sweet ending.
Finger of God
Frank Darbo is a man for whom two good things happened in his life: he pointed out a thief to a cop (“He went in there, Officer!”), and a beautiful girl, Sarah (Liv Tyler), agreed to marry him. He draws pictures of both of these things and puts them on his wall. Then Sarah gets involved with drugs again and Frank is too weak to stop her. Then she leaves him for Jacques, the local, genial drug lord.
Jacques is so genial, in fact, and Frank so grotesquely, huffingly obstinate, it’s as if Frank is the villain. Frank goes to the cops, who tell him they can’t arrest Jacques for winning the girlfriend battle. Frank goes to Jacques, who remains good-natured even as Frank pounds on his car. But then Jacques’ men, including Michael Rooker, pound on Frank.
Why the superhero route? Because Frank comes across a TV show, “Holy Avenger,” in which the long-haired pot-bellied hero (Nathan Fillion) uses the power of Christ to defeat villains and keep the same two clean-cut teens on the straight and narrow. Apparently this show is based on some direct-to-video thing called “Bibleman,” starring Willie Aames, which is an odd thing to parody—something that’s barely made inroads into popular culture. Oh, and Frank also has a dream, or maybe a vision, in which his skull is cut open and his brain touched by the finger of God.
Despite God, his crime-fighting starts poorly. He hangs behind a garbage dumpster for a few days waiting for crime to happen. In his first encounter, a drug dealer pulls his mask down (“No fair! No fair!”) and Frank is forced to run. So he returns to the local comic book store, where Libby works, and asks a question: How do superheroes without superpowers get by? Libby shows him Batman, who has a utility belt, and the Green Arrow, who has his arrows, and Frank decides on a weapon: a pipe wrench. He clocks bad guys on the head with it then says his line: DON’T STEAL! DON’T MOLEST KIDS! DON’T DEAL DRUGS!
Is he too distracted? What does fighting crime have to do with rescuing Sarah? He gets further distracted waiting for a movie only to have a middle-aged couple butt in line. He speaks up; they sass back. Then he splits the guy’s head open. It’s actually kind of funny—the awfulness of what he does—but then Libby, guessing his identity, defends him to him. “I hate when people butt,” she says. That’s kind of funny, too.
Libby is there to make the wholly unreasonable Frank seem entirely reasonable. She insists on dressing up as his sidekick, all 5’ 1” of her, and taking out a smarmy dude who keyed her friend’s car. She crashes a glass vase over the dude’s head but afterwards reveals doubt about the crime. “Yeah, pretty sure it was him,” she says. She rams one bad guy into a wall with Frank’s car and revels in his pain:
That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ha ha ha ha ha! .... It’s called internal bleeding, fucker!
I assume we’re supposed to laugh and be horrified at the same time—that’s what I did anyway—I just can’t tell if there’s more going on or less. The goal of “Super” is to shock us with the consequences of violence, but to what end? To what alternative? And what to make of the sex?
Right, the sex. Libby comes on to Frank. She asks to make out with him. Later, she rapes him. If “no means no,” she rapes him. It never would have made it off the page, let alone on screen, if the genders had been reversed, but here it’s, I don’t know, horrific and funny again. And sexy? A bit.
Plus her action spurs Frank to action, to taking on what he’s been putting off. They attack Jacques’ place, and Libby sacrifices half her face, and her life, but the Crimson Bolt kills everyone else, and rescues Sarah, who’s a virtual prisoner by this point, a near rape victim herself. In a few months, we’re told in an afterword, she leaves Frank again to marry a better man. She has four kids with him. These kids call Frank “Uncle Frank”; and Frank, who began the movie with only two good memories, and who was too timid to even buy a rabbit for a pet, now holds his pet rabbit while gazing at a wall full of great memories he’s had from the adventures we’ve just watched, and his voiceover searches for a greater meaning to everything that’s happened.
Now I guess I’m doing that. I’m searching for greater meaning to everything that happened.
“Super” was written and directed by James Gunn, who also wrote “The Specials,” a lame superhero parody from 2000, but is this movie even a superhero parody? I like the scene where, in the mirror, a la Travis Bickle, the Crimson Bolt tries out his signature lines:
- Everybody give up!
- It’s me, the Crimson Bolt!
- You just made the biggest mistake of your life!
Before settling on one:
- Shut up, Crime! Here’s the Crimson Bolt ... Crime.
But the Crimson Bolt isn’t super. He knows no skill like Batman or Green Arrow or Zorro. If anything, the movie feels like a parody of vigilante movies or worm-turns movies than superhero movies. It’s a “true life” version of those genres. It reveals, via an imperfect, dangerous hero, the awful violence implicit in our stories. Gunn doesn’t clean it up; he doesn’t make it easy for us. We are revealed by what we want—even as he sometimes gives us what we want.
Overall “Super” gives us massive mixed feelings. When the Crimson Bolt stabs Jacques to death, he says the following:
You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t CHANGE!
This is wrong twice over:
- The rules do change
- The rule that changes least is the one Frank is engaged in.
Would the movie have been better if it had not played up Jacques’ 11th-hour villainy—allowing Sarah, for example, to be nearly raped? If Jacques had remained fairly genial throughout? If Sarah had been watching TV when Frank burst in? Would it have been better without the semi-sweet ending, which allows Frank both epiphany and happiness? His epiphany involves self-sacrifice, in letting Sarah go, which is also how he finds happiness. Fine. But Libby is still dead, dozens have been wasted, and that couple in line still had their heads cracked. It gives us sweet when we needed a little more horror.
Movie Review: The Intouchables (2011)
There’s a scene 30 minutes into “The Intouchables,” the second-highest-grossing film in French history (after “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis”), in which a family friend of French aristocrat and paraplegic, Philippe (Francois Cluzet), warns him about his new North African caretaker, Driss (Omar Sy).
By this point in the movie we’ve seen Driss: 1) barge into the job interview for the caretaker position by pretending to be someone else; 2) proposition Philippe’s red-headed assistant, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) at the job interview; 3) steal a Faberge egg from same; 4) still get the job; 5) object to the most basic elements of the job, such as fitting Philippe with support hose; 6) pour boiling water on Philippe’s legs because he has trouble comprehending that Philippe feels nothing below the neck; 7) poke Philippe in the eye with a forkful of food because he’s watching Magalie’s ass; 8) refuse to give Philippe chocolates (M&Ms), saying “No handy, no candy”; and 9) disparage the artwork Philippe buys.
So by this point, the family, and the family friend, are justifiably concerned. “These street guys,” the family friend says at an expensive café, “they have no pity.”
“Exactly,” Philippe responds. “And that’s what I want. No pity.”
It’s the first true moment in the movie. It’s practically the last.
What to make of the appeal of this film? Google “the intouchables” and “magic negro” and you get 1,200 results from critics in America, where the film grossed $10 million. What must the French, with their tendency toward philosophizing, be saying? That Philippe is representative of modern France, a once-strong entity now reduced to wriggling its head helplessly? That the old, crippled France needs younger, more brash immigrants to revive it? That France, made immobile by centuries of crippling civilization, needs to find its brash voice again?
Who are the intouchables of the title? Both men, one assumes: the North African immigrant and the paraplegic. French society doesn’t want to touch either. They don’t know how to deal with either. If that’s the idea, we don’t get enough of it in the movie. No one stares awkwardly at Philippe. They tend to react with fear to Driss only when he physically threatens them.
Are we supposed to like Driss? He’s an asshole but the movie stacks the decks in his favor. At the job interview, the other applicants, with their degrees and knowledge and empathy, can’t answer the actorly question, “What’s your motivation?” Money, one says. The men, says another. I like crippled people, says a third. The question is never asked of Driss because we know the answer. He wanted the signature that showed he was looking for a job so he could continue to receive unemployment benefits.
There’s a jerk, a businessman, nouveau riche (you know), who parks his sports car in front of Philippe’s gated driveway, talking on his cellphone all the while, so Driss strongarms him, threatens him, to the smiles of the servant, Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) inside. Philippe’s daughter goes out with a boy with swooshy hair, who dumps her and calls her “a whore,” so Driss strongarms him, too. Demands croissant pour la famille tous le matin. The boy is dutiful. He even puts his hair in a barrette as Driss suggests. Driss may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.
We get a bonding scene. One night Philippe wakes in a panic with labored breath, barely able to talk, and Driss put a warm compress on his face and talks him through it. He brings him outside in the night air. They stroll along the Seine. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen Paris at night,” Philippe says. Good, sad line. They talk about girls, sex. “How do you …?” Driss asks. “You adapt,” Philippe says. “You find pleasure elsewhere.” The ears, for example. Odd that he doesn’t talk about giving pleasure. He can still do that, yes? The two smoke pot. Philippe barely seems to know what it is, what it does. Assume Philippe is Cluzet’s age. That means he was born in 1955. That also means he was 18 in 1973, 21 in 1976. And he doesn’t know from pot? Please.
We wind up at Le Deux Magots at dawn and get some of Philippe’s backstory. He always liked extreme sports, he says. He liked speed. He went paragliding in heavy winds, crashed, broke his 3rd and 4th vertebrae. Et voila. At the same time his wife contracted an illness and died. “My real handicap,” he says, “is living without her.” Another nice line.
But at the moment he’s corresponding by mail with a woman named Eléonore (Dorothée Brière), who lives in Dunkirk. He dictates purplish prose to Magalie, who sends off the letters. When Driss listens to the awful dictations, when he finds out this has been going on for six long months, he takes matters into his own hands, as he is wont to do. He snatches one of the letters off the lap of the helpless Philippe, finds Eléonore’s number, calls, puts Philippe on. Magalie does nothing. In this moment she’s as helpless as Philippe. Of course Philippe loves it. Of course this is what he wanted all along. Photos are then exchanged. (Turns out Eléonore is gorgeous.) A meeting is set up. But Philippe is nervous, too nervous, and leaves just as Eléonore is entering. We see, he doesn’t. La tragedie.
The movie keeps doing this. Driss will act the asshole, but he’s either our asshole or he’s doing something the characters wanted all along. So it’s good. We were just too uptight, see? We were paralyzed with inaction. Thank God we hired this asshole. He’s making everything right.
Buying into the bullshit
Eventually Driss’ own life, in the form of a cousin being enticed and/or harassed by a drug-dealing gang, shows up, and Driss must return to it. This doesn’t ring true, either. Driss finally has a good job, with good pay, but he’s going to leave it in order to help his family? Really? We see him and his cousin meet the hard-working family matriarch (aunt/mother, respectively) at the train station and carry her bags. I liked that scene. We see Driss talk to the gang members in their black SUV. I didn’t like that scene. Because apparently that took care of the problem. Just that.
Meanwhile, Philippe is lapsing. None of the other caretakers work out. They’re too polite, no fun, don’t get it. When Philippe asks for a massage, the caretaker brings in a dude, for God’s sake, rather than two Asian babes who will massage both men while they smoke pot, as Driss had done. And Philippe can’t ask for himself. Because while some of Philippe’s culture rubbed off on Driss, none of Driss’ matter-of-fact brashness rubbed off on Philippe. So in the end, after a bad episode, they have to call Driss back, and he takes Philippe first on a joyride, then on a carride to a seaside town, where they go to lunch. That’s where Driss abandons him. Why? Guess. Right. Eléonore. And she and Philippe meet and fall in love. And Yvonne winds up dating one of Philippe’s relatives, and Magalie’s girlfriend (ah ha!) moves in with her, and we get a final shot of the real Philippe and Driss looking out to sea—because apparently this bullshit is based on a true story—and all is right with the world.
France loved it: $166 million at the box office in 2011. (Perspective: The No. 1 box office hit in France in 2012, “Skyfall,” grossed $60 million.) It was nominated for nine Césars, including best film, best director, best original screenplay, and two nominations for best actor. It won one: best actor for Omar Sy. Over Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”
Me, I felt trapped 10 minutes in. I felt paralyzed, helpless, forced to endure the movie’s odd form of race fantasy and wish-fulfillment fantasy. Philippe isn’t representative of the problems of modern France; the success of “The Intouchables” is. Even France buys into the bullshit.
Movie Review: The Monk (2011)
For half the movie we’re wondering: Is it “the devil is a woman” or is it just the devil? The answer disappoints. Me anyway.
Vincent Cassel plays Capucin Ambrosio, who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a monastery in 16th-century Spain. The title graphic, “1595,” intrigues on its own when you consider that, for most movies, 1979 is ancient history. (The source material, by the way, is a gothic novel first published in 1796 by Matthew G. Lewis, Esq., who was not yet 20 years old. It’s been filmed twice before: in 1972 starring Franco Nero; and in 1990 starring Paul McGann. We get a new version every 20 years, basically.)
Groupie? Snake? Gateway drug?
The movie opens with Ambrosio in the confessional telling a penitent, a man known only as Le Débauché (Sergi Lopez), that “Satan only has the power we give him.” Turns out Le Débauché has given Satan much power. He talks of falling, again and again. He talks of sleeping with his niece several times a day. “What an exquisite abyss,” he says with wonder in his voice. He seems to be enjoying his confession. Ambrosio is not amused. His eyes get darker and spookier. This is Vincent Cassel, after all.
At this point, Ambrosio is something of a local legend. He is a firmly devout man who is able to communicate his faith, and the glory of God, to others. “His faith is so alive it swept my heart away,” says one supplicant, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who faints after a sermon. We can’t help notice she’s pretty.
Then we follow several storylines:
- Ambrosio’s mentor is dying, and warns of great evil all around.
- A boy in a mask, a burn victim who has lost his parents, Valerio, asks to join the monastery. “I want to withdraw from the world and be closer to God,” he says. The other monks are doubtful and fearful; Ambrosio lets him in.
- A nun visiting Ambrosio’s confessional drops a note indicating an illicit relationship. She begs understanding but Ambrosio gives her up. “Instead of fleeing punishment,” he tells her, “you should yearn for it.” She gets it. Pregnant, she’s imprisoned by L’abesse (Geraldine Chaplin) until she starves to death. She blames Ambrosio for her fate.
- Antonia is courted by a handsome noble but her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), haunted by her own past, is doubtful.
We wonder how these stories will come together. Antonia’s, in particular, seems to have no relation to Ambrosio’s. Until it does.
The mentor dies, the nun dies, Valerio is revealed to be a girl (Deborah Francois of “Les tribulations d'une caissière”), who wants to be closer, not to God, but to Ambrosio. Is she an early version of a groupie? She asks for a rose from his garden before he sends her away, but as he reaches for it a scorpion bites him and poisons him. Near death, Valerio arrives and … Does she suck the poison out? Does she make love to him? Both? He lives, realizing he’s sinned, then sins again. She’s less groupie than the snake who has entered his Garden of Eden. But is she the snake?
The world turns dark. A fellow monk, about to finger Ambrosio for his infidelity, is killed by a fallen gargoyle. When Ambrosio investigates on the roof of the monastery, he realizes, as do we, that he’s living through a moment he’s dreamed about several times. Over the parapet, on the ground, he sees a woman in a red cloak praying in the baking sun. In his dream he reaches for her but can’t touch her. Now he does. It’s Antonia. She wants him to console her mother, who is dying and haunted by her past. He does. But now he’s haunted by his present and Antonia.
Rebuffed, Valerio offers Ambrosio a further temptation: a floral aphrodisiac, or organic date-rape drug, with which to seduce Antonia. He takes it, takes her, and the two of them, naked, are discovered by Elvire, who recognizes the birthmark on Ambrosio’s shoulder as the birthmark of the baby she gave up. Ambrosio is her child! And he’s sleeping with his sister! But before Elvire can say anything, Ambrosio wakes, walks up to her, and kills her. His mother.
By this point, yeah, I’d lost interest.
Why Satan should stay on the sidelines
While Ambrosio is worth watching in his moral rectitude, he’s not at all interesting in his fall—or in how he falls. It’s an unfair fight, really. Throughout I kept wondering what sexual release 17th-century monks had. None? How impossible. And to then have Satan gang up on you? Poison you and entice you with beautiful French girls? Speaking for men, we have little shot even if Satan stays on the sidelines. Once he gets into the game, it’s over.
The interesting battle, in other words, is internal, not external. The interesting foe is within, not without.
“The Monk” (“Le Moine”), directed by Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry…”), is beautifully photographed by Patrick Blossier, who juxtaposes the cool monastery with the white-hot, baked surroundings. As always, Vincent Cassel is a force, here mostly held in check. Joséphine Japy has a delicate beauty. But I’m not a fan of gothic anything.
After his trial but before his death, Satan finally appears before Ambrosio. He’s Le Débauché, from the beginning, who throws Ambrosio’s own words back at him: “Satan only has the power we give him.” Then a final deal is struck. Antonia has gone mad (her rapist is her brother who kills their mother) and Ambrosio sells his eternal soul to make her well and happy. One wonders: Is this redemption for Ambrosio, since it’s the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it the final step in Ambrosio’s fall, since his eternal soul belongs to Satan? At which point, black birds, who pecked at the baby Ambrosio at the doorstep of the monastery, pick at the remains of the grown man, dead in the desert.
So probably the latter.
-- March 10, 2013
Movie Review: The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
There’s a moment in “The Woman in the Fifth” when the title character, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), having just given a handjob to down-on-his-luck novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), leads him into another room in her high-ceilinged luxury apartment in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. The next shot is a close-up of an incredibly handsome man, with bare shoulders and hair slicked back, and, for a second, I wondered if Margit had led Tom into some kind of orgy with an Italian model. Then it dawned on me: Oh, that’s Tom. That’s Ethan Hawke. She’s bathing him.
That’s right. He’s handsome.
You forget watching “The Woman in the Fifth” (“La femme du Vème”). His character is so skittish and drawn, peering at the world through crooked, smudged glasses, and wearing the same musty clothes (hence the bath), that you forget the guy’s a movie star. Women in the movie are forever removing those glasses. With reason. They’re too askew, and the lenses enlarge his unstable eyes too much. They’re the glasses equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose in “Chinatown.” They’re so unflattering you can’t imagine a movie star wearing them.
An actor, on the other hand...
When did I begin to hate Ethan Hawke with the white hot hatred I usually reserve for members of the New York Yankees? Was it “Reality Bites”? The offhand way he explains the meaning of ‘irony’ to poor Winona Ryder? Was it the fact that he published a novel, “The Hottest State,” in 1996, at a time when I was trying and failing to get short stories published? Was it the privileged, pretentious way he moved through that privileged, pretentious decade? And when did I begin to let go of this unnatural hatred? “Training Day” helped. “Before Sunrise”/“Before Sunset” were OK but he played pretentious in the first and novelist in the second. So it must’ve been his loser brother in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He stole the film from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I watched for Philip, despite Ethan, and Ethan blew me away.
He does it here, too. He’s a novelist again, with one published book, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him. He seems stunted. Every move he makes is tentative and uncertain. At times he tries to act confident, as before a lawyer, but his bluster augments the uncertainty in his face. It’s hollow and painful and followed by bursts of unrepentant anger. It’s no surprise when we find out he was recently in a mental institution.
As the movie opens, we see him bluffing his way through immigration, bluffing his way into a Parisian apartment building, and when a woman, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), tries to shut the door in his face, he pushes his way in. He speaks a passable French but talks to her in English (“Can’t we talk like normal people”) and she responds in clipped French (“Tu n’est pas normal”). Turns out she’s his ex-wife, but he’s less interested in her than in seeing his six-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon), and, voila, runs into her as he’s leaving the building. She’s glad to see him; she’s not scared the way Nathalie was. He’s happy she wears glasses like his. Later, he’ll tell her, “You see the world like I do.” Even then, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
He’s still on the run, though. Nathalie’s called the cops, so he leaves Chloe and tugs his luggage down the street. After falling asleep on a bus, his luggage and wallet are stolen. When he complains, the bus driver tells him, “Go to the police.” The very thing he can’t do.
In this manner he winds up in a rundown Arab cafe/hotel at “Au bon coin” (the Good Corner), which has a pretty Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig), and where he has to give up his passport to the owner, M. Sezer (Samir Guesmi), to get a small, dingy, second-floor room with a loud, angry neighbor, Omar (Mamadou Minte), who doesn’t flush their shared toilet. At the same time, some luck: Sezer, who may or may not be a petty gangster, gives him a job, €50 a night, to monitor a videocamera in a dingy, locked room, and let in anyone who asks for “M. Monde.” Then at une librairie anglaise, he’s recognized for his first novel, “Forest Life,” and invited to a swanky literary party, where he runs into Margit (Scott Thomas), whom we know to be our titular character, a potential femme fatale, with whom he talks on a balcony overlooking the base of the Eiffel Tower. She’s direct and gives him her card. When he shows up at her place, with a few scraggly flowers in his fist, we get the handjob scene mentioned in the opening graph.
So what’s her game? What’s his? He’s trying to see his daughter, as a father rather than as a stranger on the wrong side of the playground fence. In the meantime he writes her a long letter complete with drawings of woodland creatures, as in the enchanted forest of his first novel, which Ania finds in a Polish translation and reads. She’s impressed and he winds up sleeping with her, too. Unfortunately, Ania is Sezer’s girl, and Omar attempts to blackmail him. He leaves a note:
1,000 EUROS TOMORROW OR YOU’RE DEAD.
Margit, for her part, remains supremely confident in Tom. She tells him his next novel will be great since he has all this material: Sezer, down-and-out in Paris, her. He confides in her about Omar’s threat but she dismisses it:
Tom: You have no idea what these people are capable of.
Margit: You have no idea what you are capable of.
Then things move fast. Upon returning to au bon coin, he can’t open the second-floor WC. It’s blocked. Yes, by Omar, who sits on the toilet, dead, with a plunger down his throat. The cops come and question Tom about his arguments with Omar; they show him the blackmail note with his fingerprints on it. One wonders: Did Sezer set him up? To get back at him for Ania? Tom winds up in a solitary jail cell. Can he sink any lower?
He can. Margit is his alibi, and he tells the cops where she lives. But she doesn’t live there. She’s not even alive. She’s been dead since 1991.
But suddenly he’s released. The police have a new suspect, Sezer, who, when he sees Tom, reacts angrily, claiming Tom set him up.
Throughout the movie, intercut with the action, we’re shown dreamy images of a forest, like the one from Tom’s novel, with a girl in a colorful dress, blurry and just out of view, leaning against a tree. Is she dead? At one point we wonder if it’s Ania in her flower print dress. But when Chloe goes missing, we know it’s her. Not dead, though. We see her wandering back into the city, and the police pick her up and reunite her with her distraught mother. Tom, meanwhile, is reunited with Margit, who represents madness or death. At the end of the movie, he shows up at her door again, sees a flash of white hot light, and gives into it completely.
“The Woman in the Fifth,” the work of Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a smart, atmospheric, noirish thriller that clocks in, like a true 1940s noir, in under 90 minutes. I went in not expecting much. It has a 5.1 IMDb rating, so I assumed pretentious; I assumed it would fall apart. It doesn’t. I was hooked from the beginning. I’m still hooked.
We see the world through Tom’s eyes, like his daughter, and once we know that Margit doesn’t exist we try to figure out who does. Omar? Sezer? Ania? He could be imagining the whole thing from an asylum in England. It would explain why he often winds up in cells: the small chambre, the video room, the jail. It would explain why Paris is mostly empty side-streets.
Indeed, some post-coital conversations suggest that the entire movie is in his head:
Ania: It’s not good for you here.
Tom: There is no ‘here.’
Tom: I feel like the real me is somewhere else ... and the one that’s here is like a sad double.
At the same time, this last line is eminently relatable. Most of us have felt this way. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I due for better things? Yet here I am. We don’t have to be in mental institutions to feel this way; we just have to be human.
Me, I want Omar, Sezer and Ania to be real. I think the movie’s better this way. So, yes, Tom is in Paris. Yes, he kills Omar but doesn’t remember it. Yes, he kidnaps his daughter. That’s why he returns to Margit. He gives in to the white hot light of death/madness to protect his daughter from himself.
That’s why he does what he does with the letter, too. That’s why it’s poignant. He’s been writing it throughout the movie. It’s long. But in the end he doesn’t trust it, or himself, enough. So to protect her, to make sure she doesn’t see the world through his eyes, he throws the letter in a trash bin. Then he returns to retrieve one page, which he tears in half. That’s the one he mails. It contains two words: Love, Dad.
Movie Review: Starbuck (2011)
“Starbuck” is a small joy of a film: sweet without being cloying, gentle without being dull, and, above all, unassumingly, organically funny.
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a genial bear of a middle-aged man. He’s affable, forgetful, bumbling, with a strong back, a widening middle, and a mane of dark hair. He’s the delivery driver for his father’s boucherie but can’t drive across town without getting a parking ticket. He’s dating a local police officer, Valerie (Julie LeBreton), but never invites her over because he’s growing pot in his apartment. He’s a friend to all and no one, a punchline within his own family, going nowhere and not really resenting it. Under his old warm-up jacket he wears the worn T-shirts of favorite hockey, futbol and baseball teams. He’s 42 and you get the feeling he’s been sleeping on a couch half his life. He’s been hibernating. He’s about to wake up.
He’s awakened at the start of this movie by local toughs, French-Canadian gangsters, who want the $80,000 he owes. Later that day, he discusses it sheepishly with one of his brothers at the family butcher shop.
Brother: How much do you owe?
Brother: 80 thousand?
David: When you say it with a face like that, it sounds like a lot.
Everyone else is more interested in the jerseys. David has volunteered to get the jerseys for their own futbol squad and they assume he’ll screw it up. They keep reminding him, he keeps assuring them, until finally he explodes: “I have the jerseys!” There’s a pause until one responds, matter of factly, “He obviously doesn’t have the jerseys.”
He doesn’t. Attempting to retrieve them, he gets into an argument with a man in a sportscar who has taken his parking space, and while he’s arguing the shopkeeper closes shop. He has to talk him into reopening the shop, by which point he’s got another parking ticket. But he’s got the jerseys. “They’re in the van,” he tells his friends. Cut to: the van being towed because of the parking tickets. Cut to: the taking of the team picture, with everyone but David looking annoyed, and everyone but David attired in something besides the team’s red jersey.
Then his life gets complicated.
One of the running gags in the film involves all the different people who break into his apartment. The gangsters are first. A slick lawyer is second. He informs him that during the period between 1988 and 1990, under the pseudonym “Starbuck,” David donated sperm 693 times at a local sperm bank. (We later learn he was earning money to take his Polish-immigrant parents to Italy before his mother died.) Of those donations, 533 kids were born. Of those 533, 142 are enjoined in a class-action lawsuit to overturn the sperm bank’s confidentiality agreement and uncover who he is.
Oh, and Valerie’s pregnant, too.
There are good, honest bits on the horrors of children. “Never reproduce,” his brother with a pregnant wife tells him. His lawyer and friend (Antoine Bertrand), who must contact the local bar to get his license back to take David’s case, talks about his post-parent impotence. David wonders how he can use such language in front of his kids, but his friend remains unfazed. “I can say whatever I want,” he responds. “They don’t listen to me. They don’t pick up the frequency of my voice.” Even level-headed Valerie worries about what kind of mom she will be. She sees the snotty-nosed kids at the local playground and wants to smack them around.
All of David’s kids, of course, with the exception of Valerie’s, are in their early 20s now. David is given a manila envelope with the names and stories of each. He’s told not to look at it. Being David, he can’t resist.
The first is a professional soccer player. He and his lawyer attend a game and whoop it up. The second is a would-be actor working as a barista. David takes over for him so he can make an important audition. The third is a young drug addict. David takes her to the hospital when she ODs.
In this manner, anonymously, and seeing himself less as father-figure than guardian angel, he makes contact and tries to help those who need it. He’s as curious about them as they are about him. One is a lifeguard, another is a street musician, a third is developmentally disabled and living in an institution. David follows one offspring around town, a handsome gay man seemingly meeting boyfriend after boyfriend, until he hooks up with a girl in front of a fancy hotel. David follows them inside and into a conference hall where—he slowly realizes—he’s attending a meeting the 142 children of Starbuck. By this point he’s standing, looking around in disbelief at all of the life he’s helped create, and he’s asked, by the moderator, the street musician (played by French-Canadian musician David Giguère), why he’s there and what he wants. He claims to be the adoptive father of the developmentally disabled child who can’t make it. But he bucks them all up. He tells them that they may not know their biological father but they now know half-brothers and sisters. They now have another family. Everyone applauds.
“Starbuck” has its problems. All of the characters are a little too good-hearted. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. The gangsters, for example, have the patience to wait out the rest of the film, and break no bones, merely hold David (and then, more horrifically, his father) underwater in a bathtub. The second time they do it to David, in the midst of all his problems, he doesn’t even struggle. He seems to be thinking, “Well, this is one way out.”
Then there’s the scene with the drug addict, Julie, played by former child actress Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse. David helps her, trusts her, and the next morning she doesn’t betray that trust. Problem solved. Anyone who knows anyone who’s alcoholic or a substance abuser knows that one morning is nice, but it’s one morning.
And how did David wind up owing $80 K anyway? It’s the opening salvo that drives the rest of the film but it doesn’t fit into his T-shirt and sweatpants lifestyle. Is he a gambler? Did he sink all of that money into sports memorabilia or harebrained business schemes? How do we know he won’t do it again?
Even so, the script by Ken Scott and Martin Petit, which won the Genie Award for best French-Canadian screenplay last year, goes in interesting, unexpected directions, and it never stops being funny. Its lead, meanwhile, Patrick Huard, handsome in profile, with a bit of Gerard Depardieu in his stunned, close-set eyes, and a bit of Bill Murray in his overall slacker demeanor, is glorious.
“Starbuck” winds up celebrating what it mocks (fatherhood, for example) but in a way that never tips over into schmaltz. Its joys are small: a baby’s hand in the tip of your finger; a montage of people jumping off a dock. Its laughs are big.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard