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No. 46: “Lars and the Real Girl” (2008)

“Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.”

Acute loneliness can drive people to extremes. It drives the quiet, mild-mannered Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) to purchase Bianca, an anatomically correct life-size doll, online and make her his real-life girlfriend. No, this is not the set-up for an elaborate joke. Lars brings Bianca into his small social circle literally: She takes a room in his childhood home, now owned by Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his expecting wife Karin (Emily Mortimer); she attends church regularly; she volunteers at the local hospital. And because Bianca matters to Lars, she matters to the people that love him.

It’s hard to believe that “Lars and the Real Girls,” a film in which one of the main characters is a sex doll, could be anything other than juvenile or perverse. Believe it. With “Lars and the Real Girl,” director Craig Gillespie earns a giant heaping of forgiveness for the trainwreck that was 2007’s “Mr. Woodcock.” Certainly Nancy Oliver’s tender, funny script — an homage of sorts to Frank Capra — has something to do with the change. Oliver has crafted a love story so sweet-natured that resistance is pointless. Gosling, who relishes offbeat and challenging roles, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and nuance. He reveals much about the fiercely private Lars through the eyes only. Gosling’s character, in his self-imposed isolation, is a heartbreaking figure: a human being who has become a shell.

Lars, as a result of his isolated and sad childhood, has become a tactophobe and a functional hermit. Although Lars holds down a full-time job and attends church, people frighten him, so he avoids them. He comes up with hundreds of ways not to touch or be touched. He makes up lame excuses to avoid get-togethers with Gus and Karin, then sits alone in his grim, chilly little apartment in their backyard. Around his coworkers — particularly Margo (Kelli Garner), who finds him cute if a bit odd — he’s twitchy and guarded. And Lars seems content with this lonesome existence until he catches his cubiclemate salivating over a website that sells life-size sex dolls. Six weeks later, Lars brings Bianca to dinner with Gus and Karen. (Their stunned reaction is the film’s most hilarious scene.) Lars has prepared a detailed history for his new love that explains her immobility and strange outfit (her wheelchair and suitcase were stolen), her muteness (she’s very shy) and her aversion to staying with Lars (she’s a missionary). Gus declares his brother “totally insane,” but local psychiatrist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, warm and wonderful as ever) sees Lars’ behavior as a positive step. “Bianca’s in town for a reason,” she notes, and urges them to play along. Spurred on by the no-nonsense, plainspoken Mrs. Gruner (a frank, funny Nancy Beatty), the townspeople welcome Bianca into their homes.

What’s disarming about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way that this decision reflects not lunacy, but kindness. There’s not a scene where Oliver paints Lars as a pathetic or creepy figure, or where the script makes a joke at his expense. The film’s gentle comedy emerges from the town’s bumbling but loving attempts to accept Bianca. She’s given a “part-time job” at the mall, gets a hair cut, goes to the doctor, accompanies Lars to an after-hours party with all his coworkers — and through it all, the only chuckles come from the awkward business of pretending that a doll is a real person. The sincerity tempers the laughter somewhat in the movie’s most touching scenes, like Gillespie’s lingering, unbroken and beautiful shot of Lars frozen on the doorstep, unsure whether to join his coworker’s party. The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses make him want to flee; Bianca, however, gives him the courage to push the doorbell. “Lars and the Real Girl” is filled with small moments like this, but they build to a wrenching, strangely hopeful conclusion. Clarkson and Schneider are quietly powerful, while Gosling is nothing shy of a revelation. Even in the darkest moments, Gosling finds hope and determination in a man we believed years dead to this world.

M. Carter’s Oscar nominations (and then some)

As a fledgling movie lover, a burgeoning blogger, I grew up trusting that The Academy as the ultimate and final word on what was good and award-worthy in cinema. Then, somewhere around the time I realized that my parents didn’t know everything, either, I turned a corner and headed down the “Hey, Academy People, You Might Have Petrified White Dog Turds for Brains” Hallway toward the “Wearing a Leopard-Print Wonderbra and Screaming Obscenities at Albert Finney Does Not Translate to Acting Talent” Conference Room. 

(Yes, I am still a little bitter about how the 2001 Best Actress Oscar race played out and please, let’s change the subject before I have to go back to therapy.)

Old grudges aside, the point is that sometimes The Academy gets it right. But more often than not these sorry, sad little people get it wrong. Very wrong. This is why Frank, the Pompous Film Snob himself, asked a number of us movie bloggers to come up with our own nominations for the best of the best in 2010. Find the compiled list here, and peruse my own nominations below.

Best Picture: “Winter’s Bone”; “The King’s Speech”; “Black Swan”; “Restrepo”; “Cairo Time”

Best Director: Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”; Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”; Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech”; Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, “Restrepo”; Christopher Nolan, “Inception”

Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man”; Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”; James Franco, “127 Hours”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”; Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”; Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Patricia Clarkson, “Cairo Time”

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”; Jeremy Renner, “The Town”; Christian Bale, “The Fighter”; Ken Watanabe, “Inception”

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Hall, “Please Give”; Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”; Amy Adams, “The Fighter”; Dale Dickey, “Winter’s Bone”; Barbara Hershey, “Black Swan”

Best Original Screenplay: “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “Winter’s Bone”; “True Grit”; “Shutter Island”; “The Social Network”; “The Town”

Best Ensemble: “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”; “The Fighter”

Best Cinematography: “Winter’s Bone”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”

Best Score: “Shutter Island”; “Inception”; “True Grit”; “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”

Best Editing: “Restrepo”; “Predators”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Social Network”; “Winter’s Bone”

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Richard Jenkins and Ron Leibman (let’s hear it for the underappreciated character actors!)

Review: “Cairo Time” (2009)

On the murky subject of love presented in cinema, the rule tends to be: When two people aren’t supposed to fall in love, they will. Whether the process is charming or cloying depends on the story and the actors swept up in the story. Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time” succeeds as a romance because the would-be lovers, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), don’t give in to their passion carelessly. Nor do they resist it too stubbornly. They are locked in an alluring dance of resistance and acceptance where one always seems in danger of toppling the other but does not. The conclusion remains uncertain until the moment it happens. 

Juliette and Tareq’s growing attraction supplies what passes as action/intrigue in “Cairo Time,” which is thoroughly indie in its sensibilities about human emotions and behavior. Much of what happens in the film goes unspoken or happens beneath the surface. Arguments and conversations do not dissolve into frantic attempts at bodice-ripping, Harlequin-approved sex. Grand pronouncements of undying love are in absentia. So viewers demanding immediate gratification will not be pleased; those with a measure of patience and trust in Nadda’s story — helped enormously by the frenetic setting of Cairo, stunningly lensed — and Clarkson’s acting gifts will be. Nadda’s tale is deceptively simple: Juliette has traveled to Cairo to visit her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), but finds he is held up at a Gaza refugee camp. In his stead Mark sends Tareq (Siddig), a former colleague. Tareq, a native of Egypt, is polite and impersonal at the start, then comes to enjoy and — without admitting this to himself — rely on Juliette’s company. Juliette is seduced by Cairo, wonders aloud about moving there, taking her own apartment. Mark shuffles to the background. It’s not that Juliette forgets her husband; it’s more that she forgets to remember him. Cairo changes her. It is a place where she does not have to be herself. With Juliette there, Cairo much changed to Tareq, too.

There’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land fantasy in here somewhere waiting to be exploited, but Nadda opts out of selling out with an easy and convenient coupling. The director does not hurry any part of “Cairo Time,” so many scenes in the film are languid and relaxed. (It is the Patricia Clarkson way, and it never, ever fails.) It’s the romantic tension, which simmers suggestively instead of boiling over, that keeps things saucy. Tareq is a bachelor brought up according to the mores of Muslim culture, taught to be hospitable to guests. He has the unfailingly polite demeanor of a gracious host, even when Juliette breaks taboos by walking into his men-only cafe, or walking the streets of Cairo with no escort. Juliette surprises him with her interest in his life. As the two sight-see or walk the moonlit streets, they get to know each other. Cordiality gives way to teasing, which gives way to silences and glances a little longer than Juliette and Tareq know they should be. It’s attraction they feel, but they won’t say it. Because they are adults, and they sense that a sunset carriage ride is not the ending they will get.

Yes, an adult love story — “Cairo Time” earns this designation the same that recent films like “Last Chance Harvey” and “All the Real Girls” did: by showcasing a relationship developed carefully over time, where intimacy is tended for and cultivated and relationships offer no guarantees. Clarkson was born for these parts; as a younger actress, she surely must have been frustrated that she’d have to get older in order to play them. She does not need words to communicate; in fact, she’s better, infinitely better, the less dialogue she has. Clarkson’s tremulous smiles and knowing glances are, or should be, considered national treasures. Here they find a capable match in Siddig, whose resume thus far is an assortment of bit parts in grandiose productions (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Syriana”). His looks are not pining, but longing. He achingly conveys the plight of a man who is afraid to want what he wants because he has reached an age where fairy tales are just painful reminders that love is love; it promises nothing, and guarantees less.  

Grade: A

Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

A bang or a whimper?



The showdown between expectation and reality begins tonight…

No. 28: “The Station Agent” (2003)

“It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person,” notes reclusive dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) in Thomas McCarthy’s oberservant indie “The Station Agent,” and you might be tempted to apply that observation to the movie. Resist the urge. Sure, “The Station Agent,” a little-seen Sundance darling anchored by three stellar performances, is a gently unassuming little movie where nothing much happens, but it packs an emotional punch that will leave you smarting for days.

A few minutes into “The Station Agent,” this claim might seem far-fetched. Here, after all, is a movie that consists, primarily, of three characters doing one thing: talking. And talking. Eating and talking. Drinking. Drinking and talking. Then talking some more. To be fair, there’s very little action here, and zero melodrama. But McCarthy has a sly way of hiding real breakthroughs, real relevations, in conversations that sound like they’re full of offhand comments. Credit the actors — Dinklage, who’s quickly becoming a first-rate character actor, the always-faultless Patricia Clarkson and promising newcomer Bobby Cannavale — for creating characters so human, so intriguing, so affecting, that we’re drawn completely into their world.

That world centers on Finbar, a train buff and unrepentant loner who drops out of life altogether when his sole friend dies and Finbar inherits a run-down train station in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. He figures he’s done with people, done with the world, but he’s wrong. Enter Joe (Cannavale), a motormouth extrovert operating his sick father’s hotdog/coffee stand near the abandoned station. More than a bit intrigued by this curious hermit, Joe tries his hardest to draw Finbar out but has little luck until Olivia (Clarkson), a klutzy but well-meaning divorcee and artist still mourning her young son’s death, enters the picture. (The picture of distraction, she nearly runs him over with her car … twice.) After much fumbling, much stumbling and awkwardness, the trio strikes up a most improbable friendship that threatens to do away with their self-imposed exiles.

Of course, that plot summary doesn’t begin to do justice to such a stirring film. Why? All the poignancy, all the layers of meaning and the little truths and the sock-you-in-the-gut insights, exist in these three understated but phenomenally effective performances. Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale aren’t the kind of actors to spoon-feed meaning: You have to do the work, do the digging and the excavating, but the emotional payoff is well worth all the effort. Take Dinklage, for example. He plays Finbar as tight-lipped and wary, the kind of man who’s drinking alone even when he’s in a bar jam-packed with people. He keeps people at arm’s length because he’s learned that his smalls size makes the world feel … entitled — entitled to pat his head and grin, entitled to talk down to him, entitled pry into the most private details of his life to feel out his “normalcy.” But behind that wariness there’s a fire in his eyes, a kind of tamped-down rage, that makes this hermit anything but boring. In fact, Dinklage is the opposite; he’s smoldering, ready to ignite when it’s least expected.

Cannavale, on the other hand, has the most verbally expressive role — Bobby almost literally never stops talking — yet with tiny gestures he reveals a man whose world has shrunk to two people. Joe has become a drowning man reaching out to anyone and everyone to pull him out of solitude. (The scene where Finbar cruelly dismisses him will make your heart twist painfully.) The more Finbar pulls away, the tigher Joe wants to cling to him like a life preserver. He sees a chance for connection and won’t let it go. And Clarkson, a undervalued actress if ever there was one, is the queen of understated performances; this, if possible, is one of her best. Like Finbar, she is unsociable and lonely, but she reveals Olivia’s hidden pain through her distracted actions: She doesn’t answer her phone or return calls, she drives all over the road, she doesn’t refill medications, she forgets to eat or even buy groceries. These details are slight, but they sting as sharply as “The Station Agent” does.

The countdown begins…

…only 11 more days until my year-long misery is ended and “Shutter Island” is released!

Since I blabbered on about my excitement here, I’ll spare you a repeat performance and leave you instead with the trailer. Scorcese, don’t fail me now!