The Air I Breathe


The Air I Breathe

Forest Whitaker ponders how much simpler his life would be if he were a butterfly.

(THINKfilm) Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Bacon, Emile Hirsch, Julie Delpy, Clark Gregg, Kelly Hu. Directed by Jieho Lee

An ancient Chinese proverb breaks life down to four core emotions – Happiness, Sorrow, Pleasure and Love. These are as essential to life as the air we breathe (clever, no?) and without a balance of these things, we are unable to live our lives properly.

Each of the four vignettes in this film is centered around one of these emotions, or at least so we’re told. The first, “Happiness,” presents Whitaker as a timid banker who overhears a conversation at work in which a snide young man with “connections” tells some friends that they need to bet heavily on a race in which the outcome has been fixed. Whitaker goes to the same underground and illegal betting parlor and puts everything on his credit cards on the horse, going so far as to take a $50K line of credit out from the house. This is an extraordinarily unwise thing to do when you don’t have the ability to pay that kind of money back, especially from this kind of house.

The horse that was supposed to win stumbles and falls and the banker is on the hook for fifty grand to the notorious Fingers (Garcia), who came by his nickname honestly albeit gruesomely. At first, the banker resolves to skip town but a visit from Fingers’ menacing right-hand man (Fraser) dissuades the banker, who in a knuckleheaded move then decides to rob a bank to get the cash. For a vignette that is supposed to be about happiness, things sure don’t end happily.

The second vignette, “Pleasure,” is about Fingers’ man Friday, who has a special gift – he is able to foresee the future, only not his own. Fingers orders him to take his nephew Tony (Hirsch) on his rounds and show him what’s what. As the clairvoyant flunky complies, he discovers that he has lost his gift – which has been both a blessing and a curse. It certainly hasn’t been much of a pleasure.

The third vignette, “Sorrow,” concerns Trysta (Gellar), a pop singer who is on the verge of breaking out. Her manager gives Fingers her contract to pay off a gambling debt, which makes Trysta uneasy. The direction she wants her career to go isn’t necessarily the one that Fingers wants her to go to; when she attempts to flee, Fingers sends his clairvoyant assassin after her. This was the first segment that is aptly named.

Finally, there’s love in which an MD (Bacon) who is in love with his best friend’s wife (Delpy) is horrified to discover that she requires a transfusion in order to survive a bite from a rare snake (don’t ask) and her blood type is impossibly rare – unless you write for the movies, in which case it so happens that a certain pop star serendipitously has the same blood type.

Lee is a first-time director, so it is impressive that he put together a cast the caliber of this one together, which includes the Oscar-winning Whitaker and A-listers like Fraser and Bacon, as well as the up and coming Hirsch who may yet turn out to be the next Leonardo di Caprio.

In terms of performance, he gets what he pays for here as nearly the entire cast delivers, with outstanding grades to Fraser in particular, who plays the grim and rough clairvoyant with enough heart to make him sympathetic, but with a reptilian cold shell. Garcia plays Fingers with the same oily menace that made his performance as Terry Benedict in the Oceans movies so delicious.

What submarines this movie is the same thing that torpedoes most independent anthology movies; the unevenness of the vignettes. While the Fraser bit is the best of the bunch, the tone and flow are jarring when put next to the Bacon bit (I always wanted to say that – groan if you must) so in other words, the ride gets bumpy.

Also, the thematic conceit of linking each vignette to one of the Chinese core emotions doesn’t work for me as well; perhaps the point is to illustrate the lack of those emotions in order to play up their importance. If so, then the filmmakers are being unnecessarily indirect and sly; if not, then they probably could have used a steadier hand on the rewrites.

The main problem is you wind up wondering if you haven’t seen this all before and better, and the truth is that you have. With the success of Crash and Babel, indie filmmakers were anxious to channel their inner Robert Altmans and there consequently has been a rash of these sorts of movies that were released with varying degrees of success – including another one in which Whitaker stars that was previously reviewed here entitled Powder Blue.

I like a movie that takes chances and this one takes a few, but if you’re going to take chances you need to have your act together first and this movie isn’t quite there. It has enough moments that make it worthy of a mild recommendation, but understand that this isn’t a movie that’s going to give you a case of the “oh wows” by any stretch of the imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some interesting moments and performances, particularly from Fraser, Whitaker, Garcia and Hirsch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overall pretty disjointed and as most independent anthology movies are, uneven in terms of quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and foul language and a fair share of sexuality and a smidgen of nudity; add it all together and it spells out “mature.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pop songs supposedly sung by Gellar’s character Trysta are in reality sung by Kim Wayman.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Summer Hours

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

A beach party, Pittsburgh-style.

(Peace Arch) Jon Foster, Peter Skarsgaard, Nick Nolte, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Keith Michael Gregory, Seth Adams. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

There comes a point where we all need to find ourselves. We drift aimlessly from moment to moment, never really sure who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act. Sometimes, it takes one strange summer to right our drifting ships.

Art Bechstein (Foster) has a very bright future ahead of him. The son of Joe Bechstein (Nolte), a powerful businessman in the city of Pittsburgh, he’s been accepted to a prestigious university to learn business, with an eye to becoming a stockbroker, much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe’s business, you see, is laundering money for the mob, and he is eager for Art to take over the family business.

Art would much prefer to lose himself in a minimum wage job for the summer, and he finds just the one as a clerk at a book store. He gets involved in a highly sexual relationship with Phlox (Suvari) his manager, and exists in a state of passive stupor. Only when he meets Jane (Miller) at a party does he begin to rouse from the waking slumber he seems caught in.

Jane also has a boyfriend, Cleveland (Skarsgaard), a petty criminal who has a penchant for manipulation, bisexuality and occasional violence. Still, Art is fascinated by him and the two become buddies, each sleeping with Jane and eventually with each other. Cleveland is his own worst enemy and soon runs afoul of the wrong people, leading Art to seek intervention from his father, the ultimate in degradation as far as Art’s concerned. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh, happy endings aren’t a regular occurrence.

This is based on Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel which he wrote in 1988. Chabon, who also wrote “The Wonder Boys” and “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” is one of my favorite authors today. He is a very literary, smart kind of writer and the movie tries to capture that feeling. Director Thurber, who previously helmed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, was much taken by the novel and convinced Chabon that he was the man to bring it to the screen after many failed efforts to do so. That he persevered and got the movie made is to be commended.

That said, it should be noted that the movie suffers from a surfeit of languidness. I think Thurber was trying to emphasize the overall passiveness of the Art character, but Christ on a crutch, he’s borderline narcoleptic here. Art never acts at any time in the movie, always reacts and consequently it’s hard to get fully invested in the character. Foster doesn’t help by playing him colorlessly, although that may have been intentional given the script. Foster’s voice-over narration is over-utilized in places, although the fact that much of the narration is lifted directly from the book is somewhat compensatory.

That opens the door for Skarsgaard and he kicks the damn thing in with a vengeance. This becomes in no small way Cleveland’s movie and Skarsgaard plays the character as something of a modern-day pirate, full of lust for life and zeal for lawlessness. It’s a memorable performance and Skarsgaard could well be on his way to becoming one of the better young actors in Hollywood.

Nolte has become a solid character actor with his hangdog expression; he glowers often like a pit bull is hidden inside. He’s tough but reaches out to his son with regularity, knowing in advance that his feckless boy will turn away. He puzzles over how such a creature could have come from his loins, but doesn’t overly obsess about such things. It’s a great role for Nolte and he’s perfectly cast.

Miller and Suvari are both pleasant enough in their roles, with Suvari getting the nod for performing in a role that has little going for it and makes it at least memorable, which is more than Foster could do with the lead role.

The Pittsburgh depicted here is a tough survivor, the capital of the Rust Belt. While Philadelphia carries with it certain sophistication and is firmly planted in an Eastern mindset, Pittsburgh is more rooted in the Midwest and is much more blue-collar. Abandoned factories and rough and tumble punk clubs are just some of the hangouts for the characters here, and it feels pretty authentic – that much the filmmakers got right. Unfortunately, the movie could have used a bit more oomph in it and quite frankly, a different actor as Art. Foster may well be a decent actor, but he simply couldn’t make Art a character I’d want to spend any time with – not even the 90 minutes of the movie that is about him.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard gives an electrifying performance that lights up the screen. Chabon’s prose, utilized in the narration, is always quite wonderful to hear. Nolte gives yet another solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is uneven and Foster is unfortunately not terribly memorable as Art, although this is perhaps intentional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, sexual tension and nudity throughout, as well as some fairly strong language. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, the character of Cleveland is not bisexual and plays a very minor role. His character was merged with the main gay love interest Arthur Lecomte in order to provide a love triangle for dramatic purposes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting interview with author Michael Chabon, director Thurber as well as some other people connected with the production detailing the novel’s somewhat bumpy journey to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Great New Wonderful