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Review: “Quid Pro Quo” (2008)

The human mind is capable of doing bizzare things to the body it controls, and it’s even more capable of making people want things that defy common sense. Fiona (Vera Farmiga) can’t escape these truths because she lives them. She is an able-bodied woman who straps on leg braces behind closed doors, feels a sense of completeness when she sits in her wheelchair. Fiona doesn’t so much want to be paralyzed; she believes she is paralyzed, just “trapped in a walking person’s body.” Every step she takes reminds her that she feels wrong in her own skin, and she’s convinced paralysis is the only thing that can make her feel right.

Fiona’s predicament makes for the most intriguing plot thread in Carlos Brooks’ unusual, noirish “Quid Pro Quo,” so it’s unfortunate that her story gets muddled by another, which exists only to provide an “aha!” climax that, to be frank, could be seen from space. What would make a woman like Fiona, a woman capable of rational thought, want to spend her life in a wheelchair? Fiona herself wonders about this; friends in her support group wonder; and Brooks has other characters pose the question numerous times. No one arrives at an answer. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if the strategy felt deliberate, as though the director wanted us to come up with our own reasons, perhaps chalk Fiona’s desire up to a disconnect between what the brain knows as fact and what the heart wants. But Brooks abandons the question totally in search of that blasted twist, and in doing so he abandons what could have been a fine journey into aberrant desires.

At least “Quid Pro Quo,” which feels uncomfortably similar at times to David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” gets off to a promising start. New York reporter Isaac Knott (Nick Stahl), a paraplegic since the childhood car accident that killed both his parents, gets a tip about a man who tried bribing an intern to amputate his leg. This isn’t your average story, and when Isaac follows the trail he ends up at a meeting for people who desire paralysis. They pepper him with questions about what it’s like to be paralyzed. Isaac’s answers, about wanting to walk again, aren’t what they want to hear. That tip also leads Isaac to meet Fiona, an art conservator who won’t give him an in with the group until Isaac becomes her paralysis consultant. She knows how she sounds to Isaac, asking “You think I’m fucked in the head, don’t you?” He does but he doesn’t scare easily. Fiona’s situation piques his curiosity; he wants to understand this woman who wants the one thing he’s spent his life trying to reverse. 

Had Brooks let this growing relationship stand alone, “Quid Pro Quo” might have been touching, a film in the vein of Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” — two lovers who accept each other’s oddities. However, Brooks shifts gears 30 minutes in and pushes “Quid Pro Quo” in several other directions. These diversions are jarring, especially one involving Isaac finding a pair of “magic shoes.” We’re never sure which path to follow, since none of them are remotely as intriguing as Fiona’s unconventional desires. We want to know more about these people, driven underground because society won’t accommodate them. There’s a candid talk between the support group leader (Phil LaMarr) and Isaac that’s left hanging. Being open about his wish for paralysis, he informs Isaac, has cost him his family. This is the real story (touching very indirectly on Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID), and Brooks doesn’t tell it.

“Quid Pro Quo,” with its neo-noir stamp (Sam Spade Isaac is not, mind you), disappoints on other levels. Farmiga, ordinarily a wonderful actress, can’t find the right tone for Fiona and trends toward overacting. Never a terribly expressive leading man, Stahl underplays Isaac to the point that his dry wit is undermined by his dullness. Their chemistry is off kilter, or just “off,” and so is the dialogue, which sounds hyperstylized and strained. Still, Brooks has a fair amount of undisciplined talent and the gumption to tackle Hollywood-unfriendly subjects. This makes him a director worth watching and one deserving of another go. 

Grade: C

* * * * *
Readers out there who have seen Cronenberg’s “Crash” — what’s your verdict on the film?

Clooney, Reitman hit new heights in “Up in the Air”

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) discovers life's better with company (Farmiga) in "Up in the Air."

Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.

In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.

Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.

Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.

Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties.  In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.

Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America. 

Grade: A

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Review: “Dummy” (2002)

dummySometimes good actors happen to bad movies, but more often good actors happen to average movies. Such is the case with Greg Pritkin’s half stirring/half frustrating “Dummy,” an odd movie about a socially stunted man (Adrian Brody) closing in on 30 who still lives with his parents and relates to people through his ventriloquist dummy. Sounds a little kooky, and perhaps a little gimmicky, too? “Dummy” is both, but mostly the movie clicks along enjoyably enough for four reasons: Brody, Illeana Douglas, Milla Jovovich and Vera Farmiga. This is a lesson in character acting and a kind of survival guide for good actors who find themselves in movies that don’t deserve them.

Brody leads this sublime cast as Steven, a man with no social skills and, thanks to his smothering parents (Jessica Walter and Ron Leibman, both in fine form), no dignity. But he does have two things: a new dummy and a faithful best friend, Fangora (Jovovich), a foul-mouthed dweeb who aspires to be singer. Getting fired from his go-nowhere job is all the push he needs to become a ventriloquist — his lifelong dream — and he lands a few jobs with help from his unemployment counselor Lorena (Farmiga). The two begin a tentative flirtation that, at times, threatens to become one of the sweetest, strangest couplings since “Harold and Maude.”

Here is where frustration rears its ugly head. Actors as good as Brody, who seems as at ease playing a social pariah as he does a hip hustler, and Farmiga, who could make Courtney Love a sympathetic character, deserve better than a subplot about a stalker (Jared Harris) chasing Steven’s sister Heidi (Douglas), who also lives at home. It feels tacked on, as if Pritkin finished the script, then thought to himself “Oh no! I need comic relief!” What about all the endearing oddness? The subplot almost renders it meaningless. Worse, there’s the insulting wrap-up that doesn’t fit the plot or suit the characters, who end up standing around barely concealing their exasperation.  You get the sense there, in those last few minutes, that this isn’t what they signed on for. Hear hear.

Still, hating a movie with such strong acting doesn’t seem fair (or, according to my genetic code, possible). The actors rise above the worst parts of this material and make us forget Pritkin’s attempts to insult our intelligence. Leibman and Walter are funny but believable as Steven’s parents, who treat him as an oddball because they’re not sure how to handle a grown man who talks to a dummy. (Walter in particular has killer instincts for line delivery — listen for zingers like “better an unwed mother than just plain unwed.”) Douglas, forever the character actress, never the star, registers the humiliation of being reduced to begging her mother for the car keys. Farmiga adds another spot-on performance to her eclectic resume, showing us what Lorena sees in a shy misfit like Steven and making us see it as well. As for Brody, this is just another example of why he’s one his generation’s finest actors. In less capable hands, Steven could have been too menacing or off-putting. Brody has better instincts than that, and he finds the right balance of awkwardness and heart in Steven. He’s just a guy who was too scared to let life in until he had a good reason.

The real shocker here, however, is Milla Jovovich. This is amazing, energetic stuff from someone who’s made a career of kicking zombie ass and maintaining her CoverGirl finish while doing it. Whether she’s spewing profanity that gets her kicked out of Target or chasing a dream to become a Yiddish folk singer, Fangora’s the kind of character you don’t forget. That Jovovich gives us little glimpses into her post-high school anxieties, her fear of becoming what her mother expects — a nobody — is an unexpected bonus. In a movie like “Dummy,” that has ambition but no will to use it, that’s a nice surprise.

Grade: C

Top 5 “WTF?” moments in Scorcese’s “The Departed”


"OMG WTF?": Damon's shock won't compare to your own as "The Departed" slams one "WTF?" moment after another over your head.

So I have this friend. (Every truly interesting story begins this way, right?) You may have heard of him; his story is the stuff of urban legend. Or it should be. At any rate, he’s the guy who let a copy of “The Departed” — that would be the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture, savvy readers — gather dust on his TV stand for, oh, about six months. Yes, it sat there, untouched, unappreciated, unwanted and unwatched for six months. I’d mention it periodically (re: “aren’t you ever going to watch that?”) and he’d make some noise about not being able to make “that kind of commitment” to sit down and watch it. (He fancies himself something of a comedian, this one.)

Then one day something crazy and momentous happened: He watched it. And watched it again … and again … and again. (I can’t hazard a guess at how many times he’s seen the various parts in various orders; however, I suspect the number would make me cringe with laughter.) So you might say he’s become something of a “Departed” connoisseur.

It’s not surprising that during a recent discussion of great gangster films (“GoodFellas”: hell yes; “Miller’s Crossing”: I say also yes) “The Departed” came up. Of course, you can’t discuss “The Departed” without saying the words “what the f!@#$!?” (in that order and with an infinite number of inflections) roughly 30 times. It’s a film littered with “WTF?” moments; I’d bet my next paycheck it has, minute for minute, more “WTF?” moments than any movie ever made (excluding “Syriana,” which makes less sense the more I watch it, and “The Usual Suspects”).

So behold the birth of the newest list: The Top 5 “WTF?” moments in “The Departed.” (Note: There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie (a) I blow my nose at you and (b) Stop reading, get off your duff and buy — not rent — it.)

5) Baby daddy drama: A weary, lonely shrink (the divine Vera Farmiga). Her is-he-or-isn’t-he? impotent fiancee (Matt Damon). Her hardscrabble but kind-hearted patient (Leo DiCaprio). Oh, what a love triangle it is, and in the next-to-last scene in “The Departed” we viewers — heads still reeling from Number 1 on this countdown — discover the head doc is in a family way. That’s surprise enough, but better still is Scorcese’s absolute refusal to divulge the father-to-be’s identity. (Even if you think you know, you can’t prove it.) I do so love a director who pimp-slaps me around.

4) Sweet revenge (the final scene): The last five minutes of “The Departed” kick you in the face, throw you to the ground so you can pick up the teeth you lost and then lift your spirits with a blackly comic and satisfying ending where Matt Damon’s charmed life meets a dramatic end — but in a way you’d never, EVER expect and with an abundance of sarcasm and satire. Consider it the bittersweet cherry topper on this “WTF?” sundae.

3) A guy walks into a warehouse … and gets thrown off it: Talk about a twisted punchline to that old joke. Captain Queenan/Martin Sheen’s untimely demise is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shockers, something so totally and wholly unexpected that even the shrewdest viewer/critic can’t see it coming. Once the shock wears off (it takes at least 10 minutes), the full impact will have you whispering “WTF?” with the particular abject hopelessness of a duped moviegoer who knows no explanation is forthcoming.

2) Will the real FBI informant please stand up?: So we have a rat who’s pretending to be looking for a rat … and a rat who’s pretending not to be a rat while looking for his own rat. Confused? A careful viewing of Jack Nicholson’s role in the second half of “The Departed” will clear up the mystery. Get used to whiplash; you won’t be shaking your head in disbelief so much as whipping it around constantly “Exorcist”-style. My response? W. T. F?.

1) I get capped, you get capped, we all get capped: This one will make you want to pull the “emergency stop” button before the elevator parks at your floor. This blow-your-mindhole moment inaugurates — with a very literal bang — a slew of gangland-style executions that become more shocking as the brain matter coats the walls. You’ve never seen a death scene this shocking — NEVER; it bears repeating — and you won’t again. It will have you reeling for days; in fact, it might have you shrieking “WTFF?” (“what the effing f?” of course). Thus, it is deserves the honor of being christened the Number 1 “WTF?” moment in “The Departed.”

Review: “Down to the Bone” (2004)

There are two kinds of alcohol/drug addiction movies: ones that are as loud, sloppy and insistent as a last-call drunk, and those that are as bleak and haunting as a junkie’s pinned-pupil gaze.

Powered by what should have been a star-making performance by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”), “Down to the Bone” fits squarely into the second category. There are no Oscar-bait “Basketball Diaries” smack sickness enactments, no drunken meltdowns (Meg Ryan, anyone?), no “Buck Up, Little Toaster” speeches (a la Morgan Freeman in his “Clean and Sober” days). No, “Down to the Bone” cuts through all the histrionics — hence the title — and offers a bleak, unsparing and ultimately hopeful look at one woman’s struggle to reclaim sobriety.

A bored grocery store cashier, Irene (Farmiga) is an addict who epitomizes Matt Dillon’s “Drugstore Cowboy” philosophy: She snorts coke to cope with the everyday things, like grumbling managers, squabbling kids and an increasingly distant and clueless husband (Clint Jordan) who thinks his wife’s just a casual user. And Irene believes that, too — until she offers her dealer her son’s birthday check to buy coke. Finding herself smack at the bottom, she checks into rehab and meets an unlikely ally: Bob (Hugh Dillon), a nurse and recovering heroin addict. Both weary of life, both yearning for change, they strike up a friendship that quickly becomes — you guessed it — more amorous than either expected.

But please, I beg you, don’t go thinking this turns “Bone” into a Lifetime movie starring MBB (Meredith Baxter-Birney for those not in the know). In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Director Debra Granik handles Irene and Bob’s tenuous bond with effortless grace. Here is a real relationship, shaky and reassuring and frightening, where two people find each other because they share something that has shaped their lives for years: drug addiction. Their plain, unstilted conversations, their halting, shy touches — it’s all painfully awkward and painfully real, with no “When a Man Loves a Woman” schmaltz to color and muddy the real issues of the day-to-day drudgery of life without dope, without a coping mechanism. The relapse, though expected (relapse, after all, is more common than stone-cold sobriety), is that much more gut-wrenching because it’s real. Addiction is bleak, but so, too, is the constant struggle to overcome it — something that Granik gets absolutely right.

Granik’s no-frills direction (almost) pales in comparison, though, to the first-rate performances of Dillon and Farmiga. Dillon’s Bob is hardly a knight-in-shining-armor figure; he’s as damaged as Irene, but he considers his job — working with addicts in rehab — his penance. He’s guarded but friendly, and he opens up to Irene because he sees a kindred spirit, someone as bored with everyday life as he is. Dillon finds the right mix of world-weariness and hope, but he’s matched, frame for frame, by Farmiga. It’s hard to describe what she does so well in “Bone” because there will be people (ignore them; they’re a nuanceless, pedestrian group) who say she’s too low-key, too emotionless. But it’s that lack of visible emotion that makes Farmiga’s Irene so believable a character: She’s a woman who has maintained a secret life for over a decade. She reveals nothing about her true self to anyone until she meets Bob, and even then she holds back. The beauty of Farmiga’s character emerges in the subtleties: the way her eyes change when she looks at Bob or her children, her tentative friendship with a fellow recovering addict (Caridad de la Luz). It takes work to see it, but it’s worth the effort.

And maybe that’s what makes “Down to the Bone” so compelling: So much of the power is underneath the surface. It’s what you don’t see that kills you.

Grade: A