Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two movies

We last saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River in Melbourne, when we were visiting there about four years ago. It’s a powerful and disturbing movie that keeps on uncovering more layers just when you think you’ve got it sussed out. The acting is uniformly superb, especially amongst the three male leads, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, and the two wives: Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden.. With a kind of gritty almost documentary look to the photography, none of the actors are allowed to look like ‘film stars’; every crease and crevice in their faces is visible.

I don’t know why it’s such a moving film, considering that it’s violent and has a murderer at its heart, paedophilia as one of its subject matters, petty criminals acting as though they’re pillars of society, a wife who dobs her husband in and another wife who turns out to have an incredibly warped view of morality - and policemen who can’t pin down at least two murders because they’ve been so well covered. And then there’s the ongoing silent phone calls from Bacon’s wife, which becomes the only thing to be resolved by the end of the movie. (The murders and murderers are resolved but not at all comfortably.)

Somehow Eastwood makes us have sympathy for these people: Penn’s attempts to repress his sorrow for his daughter, the way Robbins has the incident from his childhood hanging over his whole life, Bacon’s disillusionment with his job. It’s a man’s film, about tough men, but it’s not a blokey one. There are genuine tears aplenty. These are tragic characters fit to stand alongside some of the great tragic characters of famous dramas. They may not be as articulate, but their sorrows and pains are as deep.

Curiously Laura Linney appeared in the film that followed Mystic River on TV last night. It was an odd piece called You Can Count On Me, and somehow, in spite of excellent acting from Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick and yet another of the Culkin clan - Rory – it never really took off. It was hard to figure what writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was trying to do. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, in spite of some humorous scenes. Lonergan himself appears as a priest in it, and it’s hard to tell whether we’re supposed to take the guy seriously or see him as a bit of a fraud.

Linney’s character accuses her somewhat shiftless brother of hypocrisy, but this comes oddly out of her mouth when she’s having it off with the boss, and her boyfriend, and telling lies to her child and brother. We never quite know what to make of her: does she know what she wants and can’t find it, or is she just confused. Perhaps her brother is the one who’s really alive by contrast? None of these things are clear enough to make sense for the viewer.

Leonard Maltin calls it ‘a wonderful comedy-drama about the peccadilloes of sibling relationships, the workplace, and life in general, sparked by great performances and an unusually perceptive script.’ Ebert calls it one of the best movies of the year, saying that it’s rare ‘for the director to be more fascinated by the process than the outcome.’ Unfortunately while that might be fair enough, it’s very unsatisfying for the audience, and the lack of any sort of denouement leaves the viewers up in the air.

Salon.com gets closer to how I felt about the movie: ‘All the praise being heaped on "You Can Count on Me," the filmmaking debut of New York playwright Kenneth Lonergan, may say more about the tepid state of American cinema in 2000 than about this wry, modestly appealing small-town drama.’

It could have been a good comedy; instead it shifts back and forth between serious drama and hurts, and never quite makes up its mind where it wants to wind up.
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