Joe's Movie Reviews

Saturday, November 10, 2007

There He Goes Again

1. "Music Within". This is definitely a movie whose heart is in the right place. It tells the story of the man who was responsible for the creation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and an inspiring story it is too: a Vietnam vet at the beginning of the 1970s who became virtually deaf (with a permanent ringing in his ears) when a shell landed right next to his tent, he struggled to be accepted in both work and school, and when he eventually started a company designed to find work for disabled people, and realized the barriers they faced, began dedicating himself to the cause of getting congress to pass this new act.

Great material there, and there is a lot to admire in this film. But great material and good intentions (not to mention great performances) aren't always enough when faced with a script that follows all the usual patterns of the "Inspirational TV movie of the week" sort. There are a lot of people who will love this movie, and there certainly are some who I would recommend it to. I was even very impressed by certain parts of it. But too often I felt like I had seen most of it before, done better... and with better, less cliched, dialogue and situations. It might not be exactly true to say "you've seen one true-life overcoming adversity story and you've seen them all", but this particular movie IS one that made me THINK OF that expression.

That said, it wouldn't be fair to not mention that several of the performances were among the best I've seen this year. Ron Livingston does a very good job in the lead role, and in particular Michael Sheen is truly outstanding as his best friend, an intellectual genius confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsey and barely able to communicate coherently to anyone but Livingston. I was very impressed by Sheen early this year as Tony Blair in "The Queen", but until I saw his name in the credits I had no idea it was the same person. You do not see and actor playing a character here... Sheen completely BECOMES the character and obliterates an memories you may have had of him in any other role. THIS is great acting, when you get no sense that it IS acting. And the use of humor at just the right moments is quite effective, as well. "Music Within" is by no means a bad film, and it MIGHT be worth seeing just for Michael Sheen alone. But I do feel the material could have been done better, and I can't QUITE give it a thumbs up.

2. "Wristcutters: A Love Story". What could be a more natural subject for a romantic comedy than suicide, right? Well, okay, I suppose there might be one or two. But that is the subject we have with this particular one. A young man (Patrick Fugit of "Almost Famous") commits suicide after a disastrous romantic break-up, and is surprised to wake up in an afterlife specifically reserved for suicides that is much like the one he left, only more drab and dark. When he finds out that his ex girlfriend has also killed herself, he and a new friend (a Russian would-be rock star) go on an afterlife road trip to find her, picking up along the way a young woman hitch hiker (Shannon Sossamon of "40 Days and 40 Nights") who insists her death was accidental and therefore she doesn't belong here.

This low-budget indie picture takes a subject that most sane people would find absolutely nothing amusing about and twists it into a gently amusing and entertaining story. It never trivializes suicide, but actually gives us comparitively real characters with real problems and regrets... and who still manage to be funny. It's not one of those loud, obnoxious Hollywood comedies... I'm sure Adam Sandler was never considered for any of the major roles... and audiences who need a movie to be loud and hyper to laugh at it will not find "Wristcutters: A Love Story" to be their cup of tea. But those who appreciate a low-key, subtle and deadpan style of humor will appreciate this film like nothing else that's playing right now (or recently, for that matter). It's definitely the very definition of "quirky", but then again, I like quirky. And any movie that gives us Will Arnett ("Blades Of Glory") and Tom Waits as rival cult leaders has a lot going for it.

This movie is currently playing as a Twin Cities exclusive at the Lagoon Theatre. I know some of you in St. Paul will probably not want to travel into "foreign territory", but if you have a taste for quirky comedy that, ultimately, is also surprisingly sweet, trust me on this: it's worth the trip.

3. "Lions For Lambs". I wanted to review this one just so there could be one single review actually said what I felt about this movie, and so far I haven't seen one. So here goes.

I have been astonished at the plethora (I don't get to use that word often enough) of reviews this picture has gotten complaining about it beeing "talky" and insufficiently action-packed. "Show, don't tell" they keep saying, and even bring up such modern classics as "My Dinner With Andre" as other examples of movies that weren't "cinematic" enough. The consensus also seems to be that the movie is more like a lecture on contemporary political concerns than it is a story about them. I don't happen to agree with any of that.

The film gives us three parallel but intersecting stories: Robert Redford (who also directs) as a college professor trying to inspire a sense of involvement and political commitment in a promising young student, and using as examples two former students (Michael Pena of "World Trade Center" and Derek Luke of "Antwone Fisher") who are now fighting in Iraq (theirs is the second of the three stories), while slick Republican congressman Tom Cruise tries to persuade journalist Meryl Streep to help him sell the White House's new troop surge plans... which Pena and Luke are currently part of.

This is a film that argues very persuasively for an end, or at least drastic reduction, in U.S. Involvement in Iraq/Iran/wherever else we may be trying to take over by the time you read this, but it never once seemed like a "lecture" to me. What I got out of it was a group of genuine, real characters who were passionate about these issues... and naturally, as a result of being so passionate about them, they talk about them and try to persuade others. And stage plays often tend to be speach & dialogue heavy too, aren't they? (But then, I suppose there are those who'll call "Lions For Lambs" "Stagey" too. You just can't please some people.)

And while clearly from a liberal viewpoint (anyone who's read many of these reviews knows I have no problem with that), it certainly doesn't let the liberals off without criticism, either. For instance, Redford, for all his dedication to getting others involved, has used very little of his potential and taken very little direct action to change things, and as Streep comes to realize, as part of the so-called "liberal media" (now, THERE'S one of the great myths of all time) she has played just as much of a part as congressman Cruise has in selling the administration's war plans and policies to the public with its too-rarely-questioning acceptance of the "facts" and intelligence they've been given. There's enough blame to go around here.

Yes, "Lions For Lambs" is a "talky" film (even the Iraq combat scenes have a surprising amount of dialogue). But I happen to think it's a stronger one for all of that, because some stories need that approach and while "Show, don't tell" is frequently the best approach, it would have been mighty difficult to put forth the ideas this movie does by just showing them. When dialogue is as... alright, let's use that word again... passionate as it is here, and delivered by actors of this caliber (amazingly, even Cruise does a decent job), resulting in the level of both intellectual and emotional content this film has, then the film makers have taken exactly the right approach. And if that's not enough for some critics (you know, I'm actually beginning to understand why some people resent and dislike movie critics)... well, that's just too bad. For the critics, that is... their loss.