Everybody’s Fine


Everybody's Fine

Are you looking at me?

(Miramax) Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Lucian Maisel, Damian Young, James Frain, Katherine Moenning, Brendan Sexton III, James Murtaugh, Austin Lysy. Directed by Kirk Jones

Family dynamics can be a very complicated thing. Often, the relationship between the parents and the children is channeled through the mom. When that’s the case, what happens to that relationship when the mom passes away?

In the case of Frank Goode (De Niro), the relationship deteriorates. Frank was responsible for putting the protective coating on telephone cable, millions of miles of it. He’s retired now, with a nice house and bad lungs from years of inhaling toxic chemicals. He is also mourning the loss of his wife some eight months prior.

Growing up, he always pushed his kids to be achievers and he is proud that they have done just that. Amy (Beckinsale) owns a successful advertising agency and has a great marriage and a son of her own. Rosie (Barrymore) is a dancer in a successful Las Vegas show. Robert (Rockwell) is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Then there’s David (Lysy), the youngest whom Frank pushed the hardest. David is an artist living in New York City.

He’s invited them all over to the house for the weekend. It is an ambition of his to have all of his children eating a meal at the same table. He goes to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a memorable steak dinner; he even buys a new state-of-the-art barbecue grill just for the occasion. Then, one by one, they call and cancel.

Frank decides to visit them all, one by one and see what is going on. His doctor advises against it and forbids him to fly – the pressurized environment could cause problems for his lungs. So, he takes the train and the bus. With him he brings his medication and an envelope for each of his kids. When he gets to New York, to his surprise David isn’t at home. He slips David’s envelope under the door and heads west.

He will find that his ideas about his children has been mistaken and that in fact far from being fine, they have been hiding things from him and in some cases outright lying to him. The secrets of his children at last come out, as does the contents of those mysterious envelopes he has been giving to his adult kids.

This is based on the 1990 Italian movie Stanno Tutti Bene. I haven’t seen that one so I can’t really compare the two, but on its own I can say that director Jones has assembled an impressive cast. What can you say about De Niro that hasn’t already been said? Even when he is at his worst, he is still always an interesting presence. Heck, I’d go see one of the Twilight movies if De Niro was in it.

Rockwell is no De Niro but he is still a superb actor who seems to get better with each role. Here he is much more in a supporting role but he plays Robert note-perfectly. Barrymore is truly America’s sweetheart if Julia Roberts is not (and certainly Barrymore is heir to that throne if she is). Beckinsale, after years of being considered more of a genre star for the Underworld series has proven herself a capable actress in movies like Snow Angel and this one.

There are some unexpected twists to the movie – the contents of the envelopes, for one. One of the problems however, is that the overall structure is a bit cliché – you know the kids aren’t telling him everything. You know that Frank isn’t telling his kids everything. You know there is going to be a great emotional upheaval. You know that everything happens for a reason and that the filmmakers take great pains to make sure that what appears to be throwaway bits of business or characters will turn out to be significant in the end. And quite frankly, the metaphor of the telephone lines for inter-familial communications is shoved down our throats overly much, and doesn’t work quite as well in a cellular phone world. It worked quite well the first couple of times but after that it was more of “Okay we get it we get it!” type of thing.  For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read the last paragraph – it may alter your enjoyment of the film.

One of the things that I found to work well for me is that the movie is being promoted as a heart-warming holiday film and it truly is not. The more cathartic moments worked for me because I wasn’t expecting them quite frankly. So in that sense, that’s the great strength of the movie. That and another opportunity to watch one of the greatest film actors in history work his craft.

REASONS TO GO: Hey, it’s De Niro – he’s always interesting, even at his worst. The supporting cast is superb. The storyline goes to some unexpected destinations.

REASONS TO STAY: It gets a bit maudlin in places. While there are some interesting twists and turns, there are also some stretches that are cliché-ridden.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some strong language and some of the subject matter is not for the young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell played Barrymore’s lover in Charlies Angels and Beckinsale’s ex-husband in Snow Angels.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate film and perfectly good on a small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover

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The Visitor


Richard Jenkins doesn't like making long-distance phone calls.

Richard Jenkins doesn't like making long-distance phone calls.

(Overture) Richard Jenkins, Oliver Bokelberg, Hiam Abbass, Maggie Moore, Danai Gurira, Haaz Sleiman, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Thomas McCarthy.

We travel through the world, experiencing it however we can. Some of us embrace life, rolling around in it like a dog in a field of grass, trying to immerse ourselves in every moment. Others hold life at arm’s length, content to watch from a distance, analyze it and take it in intellectually.

Professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) is neither of those sorts. He’s a widower who doesn’t really participate much in the world around him. Oh, he goes through the motions but nothing really affects him much. He goes through his life with the same expression on his face – neither smiling nor frowning, but there is a sadness in his eyes that is telling.

He’s a civilized sort who drinks wine with dinner and loves music. His late wife was a professional classical pianist, and he listens to her recordings but not to reconnect with her so much as to fill the empty room with something that isn’t silence. He teaches the same course as he has for years, not varying so much as a word, allowing little into his world as he can get away with. His life is comfortable. His life is empty.

He’s also an honest man. When asked to present a paper at a conference in New York that he co-authored, he confesses that he only attached his name to it as a favor to a colleague and hasn’t even read the document. Nonetheless, he is dispatched to New York to the conference and goes directly to the apartment he keeps in New York.

When he walks in, he is surprised to find a naked African woman in his bathroom. When the dust settles, we learn that Zainab (Gurira), the naked woman – originally from Senegal – and her boyfriend Tarek (Sleimann), who’s from Syria, thought they were subletting the apartment. They agree to leave, gather their things and walk out the door. Initially, Vale does nothing but for some reason he impulsively goes outside, where he finds them and invites them to stay for the night.

As it turns out, they are decent people and Vale grows to admire their quite different point of view. Tarek is a drummer who plays at various venues around New York, and he teaches Vale some pointers about how to play the djembe. For the first time, Vale takes an interest in life. However, a miscue in a subway station leads to a change of circumstance that affects everyone.

While this is ostensibly a movie about immigration, bureaucracy and culture shock, in reality this is a movie about change. The immigrants are not the visitors, Walter is. He is a visitor to life; not really staying, but just passing through, taking a couple of snapshots and moving on. This is about his journey, not Tarek and Zainab’s.

There are some nice moments when a new character is introduced, Tarek’s mother Mouna (Abbass). Vale develops a bit of a crush on her, but this never would have happened had he not had his sense of living awakened by Tarek. We watch this supremely conservative educator come out of his shell and seeing him completely lose himself to the rhythms in a subway station is downright amazing. Jenkins received an Oscar nomination for his work here. A character actor who often assumes the role of wise father figure, he shows he can also handle lead roles.

This is not a loud, abrasive movie that assaults the senses. It is a quiet movie that is as expressive in its silences as it is in its dialogue. It expects – demands, even – a level of commitment from the viewer that they will find their own meaning and understanding in what they see, rather than handing them all the answers on a plate. In that regard, it is much like life, and that’s really the secret to learning and growing, isn’t it?

WHY RENT THIS: A quiet movie that speaks volumes in its silences. A bravura Oscar-nominated performance by Richard Jenkins deserves to be seen. This is a movie that demands that the viewer take from it what understanding they are willing to work for.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit more cerebral than is to some viewers liking.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief implied nudity, some drug references and some sexual innuendo, but nothing worse than you might see on your typical prime time drama.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parking lot in which Walter parks his car after arriving in New York – on East 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue – was torn down shortly after the film was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An instructional guide to playing the Djembe, the drum that Tarek teaches Vale to play in the film.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Invention of Lying

Grace Is Gone


Cusack learns that once again he was passed over as Sexiest Man Alive.

Cusack learns that once again he was passed over as Sexiest Man Alive.

(Weinstein) John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola, Shelan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Zachary Gray, Marisa Tomei, Mary Kay Place, Doug James. Directed by James C. Strouse.

In war, there is loss. It is an inevitable scene in any armed conflict, a military Chaplin arriving at the home of a wife-now-widow to inform and comfort. However, in the modern American military, there is now the potential of grieving widowers as well as widows.

Stanley Phillips (Cusack) is the definition of wasted potential. Overweight and awkward, his dreams of a military career were dashed by poor eyesight. Married to the vivacious, beautiful Grace, he has watched as she has assumed his dreams of serving in the military. She is deployed to Iraq while he cares for their two daughters and works a dead-end job as a manager for a home improvement store, trying to generate enthusiasm and motivate employees for a workplace he is neither enthusiastic for or motivated about.

Then one horrible day before work, he is visited by an Army Chaplin (James) to give him the news he least expects and most dreads; his wife has been killed in the line of duty. He is stunned and devastated, of course but the terrible task that lies before him is how does he tell his daughters that their mother is gone? The fact of the matter is that he barely knows how to communicate with his girls – 12-year-old Heidi (O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Bednarczyk) even in the best of circumstances.

After picking them up from school, he spontaneously decides to take them on a road trip to Enchanted Village, a Florida theme park where the family had vacationed before Grace had shipped out. It would be one last beautiful memory before he must shatter the lives of his little girls.

This is highly emotionally charged subject matter. There is never an easy way to tell a child their mother is dead, and it certainly can’t be any easier when mommy is a soldier. However, as compelling a subject as this may be, that really isn’t what the movie is about. The core of Grace Is Gone is the relationship between Stanley and his daughters, how he struggles to understand them and relate to them particularly without the aid of his wife, who up to then he had relied on heavily in the raising of his children.

Stanley is not a particularly easy man to like. He is opinionated, intolerant and somewhat stand-offish. In the movie’s midsection, he goes to visit his mother only to find her not at home, while his ne’er-do-well brother (Nivola) is. The two men have a strained relationship, which makes sense; they couldn’t be more different. Whereas Stanley is uptight and responsible, his brother is relaxed and irresponsible. Stanley is staunchly conservative; his brother liberal. Those must have been some interesting family meals.

Still, Stanley is so centered around his wife, it’s painful to watch how lost he is without her. He calls their home phone answering machine to hear her voice, and then carries on conversations with her as if she had just answered the phone. It tears at the heartstrings, but it also is a powerful expression of his grief.

Cusack is magnificent in a role that is totally unlike anything he’s done before. Far from the wisecracking, fast-talking and urbane hipster he’s perfected in movies like Grosse Point Blank, High Fidelity and Say Anything, his Stanley is slow-moving and slow-witted. Not only does he not have all the answers, he barely knows what the questions are. In short, just like most parents. It’s a good thing he turns in a great performance here – the movie completely revolves around him, he’s in virtually every scene.

This made the film festival circuit and received a great deal of critical acclaim. There was talk of a campaign to lobby Academy members for a Best Actor nomination for Cusack although that either never materialized, or was unsuccessful. However, there are some missteps here. The script veers dangerously into maudlin territory at times, and it doesn’t help that the young actresses who play the daughters aren’t particularly memorable. Also, the landscapes are washed out and are curiously gray, as if the entire world is overcast, even indoors. Still, the intensity of the source material makes this a riveting, wrenching experience that will break your heart but also lift your spirit.

REASONS TO RENT: A timely subject matter about a situation rarely seen in movies. A magnificent performance by Cusack. A lovely soundtrack written by Clint Eastwood (!).

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasional over-the-top maudlin moments. Child actresses aren’t memorable. Washed-out cinematography.

 FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for younger tykes. There is a scene of teen smoking, and some mild cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Originally this was to be directed by Rob Reiner until he had to drop out during pre-production. The producers called in the film’s writer to direct.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Defiance