Handsome Harry


Handsome Harry

Steve Buscemi wishes he could be as Handsome as Harry.

(2009) Mystery (Paladin) Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Maryann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young, Jayne Atkinson, Rutanya Alda, Bill Sage, Emily Donahoe, Asher Grodman, Andrew Dolan. Directed by Bette Gordon

 

That which we do in our past often doesn’t remain there. There are things that we do that can haunt us or influence us from the moment it happens all the way until this very moment and all the way to the future. Reconciling ourselves with those events sometimes is the only way to find peace.

Harry Sweeney (Sheridan) is, as the title proclaims, a good looking man who has gone gracefully into middle age. He’s one of those charming Irish guys who strides into a bar and everybody knows him. The ladies adore him and the men want to be like him.

Harry’s son (Grodman) is distinctly different in that sense. He and his father have a relationship that is strained to put it mildly, although why it is so is never really explained. Perhaps it’s just the way of fathers and their grown sons. Harry has been a mechanic most of his life, ever since he got back from Vietnam and the Navy in which he served.

When he gets a call from his Navy buddy Thomas Kelly (Buscemi) to let Harry know he needs to talk to him, Harry is a bit reluctant – he has ambivalent feelings about his military years. However when Kelly tells him that he’s on his deathbed and won’t be around much longer, Harry knows he has to go.

Kelly reminds him of an incident in the Navy in which five men, including Kelly and Harry, beat up a sixth and maimed him. Kelly wants to find the maimed man and apologize. At first Harry doesn’t want to do it; he would much rather say his farewells to Kelly and move on but when Kelly passes away, Harry knows the right thing to do is to find the victim of their attack and try to make amends.

To do so, he first needs to visit the other men involved in the beating and not all of them want to be reminded of it. There’s Peter Rheems (Savage), a wealthy blowhard who’s become an abusive husband to Judy (Mayberry), who takes quite a liking to Harry. There’s Professor Porter (Quinn), who pretends not to know Harry or have been in the Navy. There’s Gebhardt (Welliver), another wealthy man who has a love for golf but not so much for Harry.  All of this will lead to Harry’s face-to-face with David Kagan (Scott), whose potential career as a concert pianist was ruined and whose life was forever changed by the attack on him.

Gordon has directed a couple of indie films over the past 15 years – you wouldn’t exactly call her prolific – but this certainly has the look and feel of an assured hand on the tiller. The movie is on the uneven side but the good does outnumber the bad pretty much.

Let’s start with Sheridan. He can be very charismatic (as he was in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and in the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand in which he played Randall Flagg), and while he mostly does television and mostly supporting roles, he shows the ability to carry a movie here. He has that easy charm that translates well to the screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Buscemi, Savage, Quinn and Scott are all capable actors who rarely give poor performances and the quartet of them don’t disappoint here. Buscemi in particular has become a regular on the indie circuit, although his critically acclaimed and Golden Globe-winning performance on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” might bring him some meatier roles in mainstream films.

The writing is a bit uneven. Harry’s character doesn’t always act according to his own nature, going from pacifist in one scene to brawler in the next (and no, I’m not talking about the flashbacks either). There is also a feeling that the malaise that hangs over Harry’s life was hanging over the film as well; there are times it lacks energy.

Still, most films that depict middle aged regret in men show the men to be down and out losers who have drank, drugged or otherwise messed up their lives in almost incalculable ways and require some kind of redemption. Here you don’t get that sense; Harry is not after redemption so much as forgiveness, and the way that it is given is actually one of the film’s highlights.

Gordon never allows Harry to be completely forgiven – after all, the act that was committed by all five men was heinous and there need to be consequences for that and those consequences appear in very subtle ways. There is a lot to like here but there is also a lot that doesn’t quite work and so the recommendation is a mild one I’m afraid.

WHY RENT THIS: Middle aged regret is rarely portrayed as well as it is here. Sheridan does a great job. Terrific supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing can be uneven; certain changes in Harry’s behavior take place that seem a mite extreme.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words sprinkled here and there, as well as a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Handsome Harry premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25, 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,500 on a $1M production budget; undoubtedly this lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Innkeepers

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Cast Away

Disgrace


Disgrace

An awkward silence ensues after John Malkovich asks Jessica Haines for a loan.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Paula Arundelli, Fiona Press, Antoinette Engel, David Dennis, Michael Richard, Natalie Becker, Charles Tertiens. Directed by Steve Jacobs

The consequences of our actions are utterly and completely our own – at least, most of the time. When we perform actions that beget disastrous consequences, then we fall into disgrace.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a professor of Romantic literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He is an arrogant man who teaches poetry without really understanding it. Middle aged, he is divorced and estranged from his family, and spends much of his time taking up with black prostitutes. When he engages in an affair with a mixed race student (Engel) of his, he is found out and brought before a disciplinary board.

However, he refuses to defend himself for, by his lights, following his natural instincts. Given no other option, the board dismisses Lurie, which surprises and shocks him – he fully expected to escape sanction of any kind. His career ruined, he finds sanctuary on his daughter’s farm.

Lucy (Haines) is a lesbian who grows organic crops and takes care of dogs in a rugged part of the country. She is assisted by Petrus (Ebouaney), who does most of the heavy lifting and whom David develops an immediate distrust for. He tells Lucy he doesn’t think she’s safe on the farm with Petrus around.

In the meantime, he helps out the local vet with performing euthanasia on dogs. It’s the only job he can really get. He is actually beginning to put his life back together – until something horrible happens, something that will test his limits as much as anything else in his life to that point had.

Aussie filmmaker Jacobs has taken an award-winning novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee and turned it into a stark, unyielding look at hubris. The landscapes here are soulless and colorless, from the muted colors of the university to the desolation of the countryside of the Eastern Cape.

Lurie is much like that, only reversed – his desolation is on the inside. Outwardly, he can quote the flowery poetry of Byron, whom he most identifies with – but inwardly he doesn’t understand it, is incapable of it. Or, if he is capable, chooses not to because of his own hubris.

Malkovich does a stellar job as Lurie. While his Afrikaner accent has a tendency to slip now and again, he captures the essence of Lurie in his granite façade, his opinionated stare. This is not a very nice man, and bad things happen to him, much of which is of his own device. Haines does a pretty good job in support of Malkovich. She manages to stand up beside him without being overpowered by him. That’s no easy task, as many actors can attest.

Although I’m not familiar with the source material, I understand that Coetzee’s original work was taken as a political allegory about the status of the white male in the changing South African society. I don’t get that as much from the movie, which seems to be more of a morality play about hubris and pride. There are allusions to Biblical wrath of God type of stuff happening to David Lurie, although unlike Job he brought many of his troubles on himself and in doing so, brought them upon others.

There is a lot going on in this movie and nearly all of it is under the surface. That does make for a pretty solid workout in the mental gym, which is not what the general moviegoing public is necessarily after. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure if I caught the nuances I needed to; they may have been more subtle than I’m used to, or else I just missed them entirely. In any case, this is a very solid movie that is going to provoke some thought and maybe even a little debate. What’s it all about? Probably not what I think it is; but I’m probably not wrong either.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful performance by Malkovich is framed by a stark cinematic shell. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence is sudden and ferocious and might put off some.

FAMILY VALUES: The film went unrated, but there were some scenes of sudden and terrifying violence, including a rape. There is also some very adult themes as well as some very adult language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Steve Jacobs is married to Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the J.M. Coetzee novel into a screenplay.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.1M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie just about broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Bang Bang Club