DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of In the Bedroom, Little Children, Running with Scissors, A Matter of Taste, Moonlight Mile, The United States of Leland, I’ll Sleep when I’m Dead, Separate Lies , Match Point , Dial M for Murder , Transsiberian, Night Train, Revolutionary Road; Reservation Road;  Strangers on a Train, SuspicionThe Lady Vanishes

Title: In the Bedroom

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 140 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: Miramax; Greeneleaf, Good Machine

Director; Writer: Todd Field

Producer:

Cast:   Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei.

 

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Review: This is a slow, tempting drama, played out on a wide screen set up like a stage, with the simple Shakespearian setup of revenge. A somewhat winsome college freshman, Frank (Nick Stahl) is carrying on an affair with an older woman, gets knocked off by a crude blue-collar and somewhat decaying ex-husband-a crime which the family must avenge vigilante style, given the paucity of the police and justice system.

This film was real hit at the 2001 Sundance.  I think it makes an interesting comparison to The Deep End, in terms of psychological intensity and panoramic storytelling, even if the setup is more traditional in content. The final vengeance, though, is chilling, reminding one of Blood Simple.

 

A comparable family grief film is Moonlight Mile, written and directed by Brad Silberling, from Touchstone (why not Miramax instead?)  The setup is that a gangly young man, Joe Nast (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), the son-in-low-to-be, comforts the grieving parents (Ben and Jo Jo Floss, played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) of his fiancé after she is gunned down in a bar. The story is loosely based on an incident earlier in Silberling’s own life. Nast is actually already living in the parents’ home, a setup that seems awkward until we gradually understand how Nast was to get into the father’s “commercial real estate” ambitions. The quiet story gradually reveals layers of secrets and side affairs. The film apparently is supposed to build up to a courtroom drama scene where Nast is supposed to testify about his own loss, but comes apart, mumbling on the witness stand, until he recovers himself to make a rather wincing speech about “the truth.”  Gyllenhaal’s manner is so underplayed and low-key that it seems almost stagnant. I think a lot of script readers would have rather seen the victims’ impact, prosecution and courtroom part done with more emphasis and direction, since courtroom drama is perceived as a good way to explore many different issues (including some of mine). (The death penalty stuff gets short circuited.)  Pets fill in some action into the film, including one scene where a dog barfs on camera (never seen that before in the movies), and later when the dog is attacked by a cat (the cat triumphs again in the final scene). The film is widescreen and looks bigger than it really is.

 

Another comparable film is Kevin Spacey’s production of The United States of Leland (Paramount Classics, Trigger Street, Thousand Words, dir. Matthew Ryan Hoge, R, 112 min, 2004; note – Kevin Spacey is one of the founders of Trigger Street, which provides networking for new filmmakers). This is a non-linear retrospective docudrama of the murder of a retarded boy by a seemingly gentle teenager Leland FitzGerald, played by Ryan Gosling. A prison teacher (Don Cheadle) befriends Leland and then announces his attempt to write a book (“you’re not a writer until people read what you write”) about the boy, although this would obviously violate his confidentiality agreement at work. Leland’s father (Kevin Spacey) is a jet-setting fiction author and literary agent who despises autobiography dressed as fiction. The father also believes that he can be admired for his writing but not for what he is as a person, an idea that locks into the idea of self-handicapping behavior. (A good one for Dr. Phil.) And Leland himself starts handwriting his thoughts in a prison social studies book. The plot builds up around the victim’s family, especially the brother of the victim (Chris Klein) and his father (Martin Donovan). It turns all to Shakespearean tragedy without that much character-driven explanation (as you would find with the bard himself). Leland’s flaw seems to be a kind of apathy that makes him so pliable that he can become unstable. But part of the explanation may be a homophobic statement made by his father to the jail teacher earlier, as the killing happens in an embrace after the retarded kid becomes confused by a barricade on a bicycle path. You leave the theater wanting to see a movie about teens who turn out well. In my own life, I have met enough who did, despite jet-setting parents.

 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Paramount Classics, 103 min, R, dir. Mike Hodges) provides another story about family grief that fits the paradigm of In the Bedroom. Here the movie tracks two brothers Will Graham (Clive Owen) and Davey Graham (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Will is working as a manual laborer logging in Wales, and Davey is dealing drugs in London. We only gradually learn about the characters but when a deal goes bad, Davey is forcibly sodomized. In a brutal sequence that follows, he waddles back to his flat, vomits, slips into a cold bath and slits his wrists. The scenes are quite graphic. Will, when he learns what has happened his family, returns to seek revenge, out of, as he claims, pure grief. The film is remarkable in the detail of the mundane indoor scenes, and tells most of the story with little verbage, except when the medical examiner is explaining the clinical details of forced “bugger” (anal rape).  The opening credits are in black and white, and the colors in the movie itself have an edgy, metallic look, which must have required a lot of playing with film stock.

 

Separate Lies (2005, Fox Searchlight/Celador/DNA, dir. Julian Fellowes, based on the novel A Way Through the Wood, by Nigel Balchin, 1950) again presents us with the aftermath of tragedy, and the moral dilemma of coming to terms with responsibility for it. I remember the topic of moral dilemmas at the Unitarian Fellowship in Eagam, MN a few years ago and the kids took it up. Here it is very much the grownups, in Britain and Wales. Before the credits, an elderly man on a bicycle is struck by a car, perhaps just the handlebars. The driver runs. His widow-to-be Maggie (Linda Bassett) may have seen who did it, a playboy William Bule (Rupert Everett, who in this movie seems to be rather hairy for a change). Bule was having an affair with Anne Manniny (Emily Watson), who feels hemmed in my her moralizing solicitor husband James (Tom Wilkinson). There are delicious sequences as this unravels, as when James calls William and pretty soon James and Emily have their confrontation. While she is preparing delicious hors d’oeuvres and salads, she tells James she did it. When she confesses the affair, he vomits on camera. Now, James had been pleading to get the guilty party to confess because justice under the law is the morally right thing. Or is it? What is the outcome of doing right? The characters change as they face the real consequences of ideology.

 

Match Point (2005, Dreamworks/BBC, dir. Woody Allen, R, 124 min) is a steady British dramatic thriller, in the studied style of Woody Allen, all right, rather than Hitchcock, who seems invoked by the plot. Former tennis star Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) takes on a job as instructor/playboy at a London estate of Alec Hewett (Brian Cox), first teaching the son Tom (Matthew Goode), and quickly marrying Chloe (Emily Mortimer), while falling for Tom’s fiancée Nola Rice (Scarlet Johansson). The scenes with her are quite passionate with mutual undressings. She gets pregnant, whereas Chloe at the time can’t, and we have our problem for Chris to solve. I can say that he gets away with it, somewhat by luck, and you seem to like him.  Some critics have pointed out that all the characters in this movie are evil in some degree, and one wonders why one makes “evil” into a protagonist, but the characters are not presented that way. Instead, Chris, poor-born, has been trying to weed his way into a privileged world based on family ties, and his failures come across as perhaps Shakespearian but not in any way nihilistic. At one point, the police contact him with a phone call to the house and ask him to come in – that is how such things start. Now both Rhys-Meyers and Goode look a bit like hairless-bodied clones of Hugh Grant, and they both parade through the movie open-necked, without undershirts. Interesting metrosexuality

 

Dial M for Murder (1954, Warner Bros., dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 105 min, play by Frederick Knott). “People don’t commit murder on credit.” This famous film, that I wasn’t allowed to see as a boy, is the inspiration of “Match Point” probably, as a retired English tennis player (Ray Milland) plots to eliminate his wife, who is seeing an American writer (Robert Cummings) by blackmailing an ex-con (Anthony Dawson) to break in, hide, and strangle his wife when she is beckoned to the phone. Maybe British phones had the “M” isolated then. There are plenty of Hitchcock’s famous close-ups and the typical detailed plotting of British mysteries with ordinary things. (This style of photography works better in 3-D, in which this film was originally shown.) The plan goes wrong, and the wife gets convicted to be hanged. So the writer comes up with a Plan C. As with the Woody Allen film, all of the characters are rotten.

 

Strangers on a Train (1951, Warner Bros., dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 101 min, novel by Patricia Highsmith) is one of Hitchcock’s most diabolical film noir masterpieces, in the sharpest black-and-white you ever saw. The plot is stock Patricia Highsmith, like Mr. Ripley. On a train (at the time, the Pennsylvania railroad between New York and Washington, probably one of the electric trains), a likeable young tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Grainger) meets a stranger, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who will evolve in the movie as a demented, psychopathic (or at least sociopathic) playboy. Bruno peppers him with questions, having recognized him, and starts exposing his own value system. One should try anything in life once. He proposes the perfect murder, where two strangers commit each other’s crime so that the police will not have motives. (“They swap murders. Each guy does the other guy’s murder. Then there is nothing to connect them.”; “You think my theory is OK, you like it.”) Apparently he knows that Guy’s marriage to his pipsequeaky wife (Kasey Rogers) is on the rocks. After they get off the train, Guy finds out he can’t get a divorce. Bruno stalks her into an amusement park, and strangles her after getting off a lover’s lane ride (and asking her simply, “Is your name Miriam?”). (The shot, reflected in eyeglasses, is famous.)  Hitchcock has mixed plot and character in this film, as he has shown Miriam to be quite a tramp in public herself before her partially deserved demise. Of course, Guy and his family have to keep the police at bay. Guy agrees to go along with his end of the deal and murder Bruno’s father. Does he really agree, or is he just outflanking Bruno? They come into confrontation, and a chase that winds up in a famous merrygoround scene, where they fight, Guy saves a little boy, and the ride crashes.

 

There are obvious “lessons” in the film, about attracting attention to oneself from unstable people and potential stalkers, even in a lower tech, pre-Internet world. There is wonderful attention to the finest details, such as the lost cigarette lighter. The action takes place in unspecified cities in the Northeast, probably around Baltimore.

 

Unlike “Match Point,” here at least one of the major characters, Guy, is good and likeable, for the most part. Hitchcock pays attention to the smallest details, even the manly hair about Guy’s wrists in the opening train compartment scene. Later Guy is presented on the courts in tennis matches (remember how the audience eyes follow the ball, except for Bruno) as a lanky, hairy handsome man, rather like the youngest version of Andre Agassi (before all of the latter’s “changes”).  

The DVD comes with a bonus that offers the “preview” version, which may be the British release.  

The DVD commentary points out differences between the movie and Highsmith's book. For one thing, Guy is an architect in the book (not exactly a Howard Roark) and a tennis player in the movie. And Guy finally gives in to a moment of rare weakness and murders Bruno's father in the book.  The commentary points out that Highsmith seemed to write to exorcise her own compulsive demons, that she imagined herself as capable of these crimes. The commentary even mentions the rather Nietzchean idea that someone who carries out a murder is "superior," perhaps an offensive notion that is "bad for you." This is, after all, a film noir and a novel noir. The film apparent triggered Highsmith's career, that would include 22 novels.

There is also some controversy as to whether Bruno is homosexual. Hitchcock was ambiguous on this, and it is not necessarily so. Nevertheless, the initial meeting on the train, where the shoes touch, playing footsie, is almost like a "pickup."

Highsmith was particularly concerned with randomness, of how things happen, how good people can suffer and bad events can go unpunished, how villains can entice a rooting interest. "You never know what is going to happen in the future."   

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Criterion, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, novel by Ethel Lina White, 97 min) is another delicious old black-and-white mystery based on what happens on a transcontinental train. This time Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) meets an old lady Froy (Dame May Whitty) at a mountain lodge when they are snowbound. They get on a train to go home and Froy disappears, and all the other passengers deny having seen her. Pretty soon there is a faceless corpse, or at least a doll, and then the train is attacked. Miss Froy is carrying a secret code. What is interesting is that the story anticipates World War II, and the plotting to keep secrets away from the Nazis. The movie was remade in 1979 and directed by George Axelrod.

 

Suspicion (1941, RKO Radio, dir. Alfred Hitchcok, novel “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles aka Anthony Berkeley, 99 min). An English socialite Lina (Joan Fontaine) meets a playboy (Cary Grant) on a train, in a tunnel no less, and falls for him, gradually to become suspicious of his intentions when he gambles behind her back and gets fired, all while pretending to work. There is some moralizing about the work ethic. The novel is famous for being told from the viewpoint of the victim. The ending, arguably violating the novel (where Lina is the accessory before the fact for her own murder), is vintage Hitchcock (with the car-on-a-cliff scenes) and anticipates his later work. I love the line about the novelist who says her villains are actually heroes.

 

Little Children (2006, New Line Cinema, dir. Todd Field, 130 min, R) will probably be compared to In the Bedroom but it is much more rhapsodic and impressionistic. The New Line trademark plays against a rising Doppler train whistle (instead of its music trademark), and the train sound becomes a leitmotif for the mood of this most disturbing movie about suburbia. Then we open with the broadcast of a video about a registered sex offender Ronald McGorvey (played by Jackie Earl Haley), whose apparent crime was indecent exposure in front of a child, for which he served two years. He is constantly referred to as a pedophile and pervert, but the facts of his case seem less clear. It’s even possible that the exposure was inadvertent or accidental. Various married couples congregate in various situations (Robert Altman like) and focus on their fear of the sex offender, who faces a societal ostracism out of proportion to his crime. So this turns into a movie about the emotions behind the socialization that it takes most ordinary people to marry and raise families, and connect to their “little children” who are abundant in this film. The people are fruitful and they multiply.

 

The “prom king” is handsome young lawyer Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), married to Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) but he plays around with Sarah (Kate Winslet). That gets explicit, close to NC-17 territory. A retired policeman (Noah Emmerich; Gregg Edelman is Richard) is leading the picture crusade to keep Ronald pilloried, with ugly pictures and bullhorn attacks, but the cop has a skeleton in his own closet—an accidental shooting of an innocent juvenile. The guys have a touch football league that reminds one of Invincible.  

 

The story builds in little steps. One disturbing scene occurs early when Ron goes skinny dipping in the town pool, and all of the townspeople scram because the “pervert is on the loose.” They refer to him as scum or vermin, to be exterminated, or at least castrated (the poor guy will take the knife on himself eventually). All of this hostility and hatred comes out of the need to "protect" their own progeny. You see the "monster" close up, haggard, aging, but at least he isn’t going bald in the legs. But then we learn that Ron lives with his mother (Phyllis Sommerville), who has always overprotected him. She tries to get him to date a woman his own age, and he isn’t attracted to her, he thinks, yet eventually his behavior on the date does turn a bit inappropriate. There is a snide line that any man who lives with his mother is suspect. That is my situation now, but it wasn’t in the 90s, yet some coworkers thought that I lived with my mother when I didn’t, because I had not created my own family. Mr. Field would have had to exercise great caution in constructing this story, to keep the character generic and general, or else risk accidental libel. Yet the reality of all of this is even more subtle. Some of us are not very good at building our own families, so if family responsibility or eldercare comes our way, we aren’t good at it. If Mr. Field wants to explore that angle in another film, I can certainly help him .

The camera focuses a lot on Wilson, his muscularity with hairy chest and legs; it's as if it is the male, rather than the female, that really needs to be perfect in Field's world. The film, from the opening train horn, tries to hypnotize the moviegoer into living in this Stepford-wives like wold, closed off (except for the self-propelled commuter train cars) as if it were a closed universe, to experiment with perfection, and the contempt for those who miss the mark. We've seen that kind of thinking in history before, and we know where it can lead.

This film, though funded by a major studio, is starting with a platform release in independent theaters (like Landmark) to build an audience, due to its very sensitive subject matter.

 

The film is narrated by the voice from PBS Frontline (Will Lyman). 

 

Running with Scissors (2006, TriStar, dir. Ryan Murphy, book by Augusten Burroughs, 116 min, R, USA) also uses the Doppler train horn in anticipation of critical intimate scenes, and I wonder if Murphy and Field were familiar with each others’ films.  The film is adapted from a memoir by the protagonist, Augusten, played for most of the movie by 20 year old New Jersey actor Robert Cross. The greatest part of the film takes place around 1978, during the Carter administration. He is raise by brainy but dysfunctional parents: an alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin), and a wanna-be-famous writer mother Deidre (Annette Bening). When the couple breaks up, the fracture is such an amputation that their therapist (Brian Cox, from L.I.E.) winds up with custody. Augusten winds up living in weird, Tim Burton like environments, where his creativity shines but he has to survive events like the cannibalism of a pet cat. Augusten announces that he is gay (at age 13, according to the movie) and soon is picked up by another of the therapist’s patients, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). The film implies a relationship (it never shows the intimacy explicitly), which would be blatantly illegal (and put Neil in the penitentiary) in every state. But Murphy justifies the relationship, not only by the author’s factual history, but also by making Augusten the one level headed character in the whole movie. The teenager is always articulate and cognizant (like the teen character in “Almost Famous”) in a see of dysfunctional adults. Clearly, Augusten cannot become a victim. You have a moral answer to something most people see as repellent today, and it doesn’t answer the legal questions.  Deidre for a while resents her son’s competition as a writer. She has self-published one book and had the book signing parties, but gets rejected by every “legitimate” New York publisher. Eventually she does get some poetry “published.” Augusten goes to New York as a teen, without school and a job, and somehow makes it and will survive the epidemic in the 80s. This is a slick looking film, Cinemascope, from a standard studio (Columbia TriStar), but made for “only” $12 Million and marketed as an art movie.

 

A Matter of Taste (“Une affaire de gout”, 2000, TLA/Pyramide, dir. Bernard Rapp, novel by Phillippe Balland, France, 90 min, sug PG-13) is a bizarre, somewhat Hitchcockian mind game. A wealthy industrialist Frederic Delamont (Bernard Giraudeau) hires a younger look-a-like Nicholas (Jean Pierre Lorit) as a professional food taster for business trips. He puts Nick through bizarre and intrusive physical exams and surveillance. He seems to fear poisoning and industrial espionage. He becomes jealous of Nick’s relationship with a girl friend (Florence Thomassin) but his attachment to Nick seems to me more a mind game than sexual. There are interesting excursions to North Africa and to ski country, and then bizarre effects with switched identities. The story is told from the point of view of a police narration. Frederic seems to be more interested in living out a head trip than in any real relationship. The title in English used to be used as the rating for a lot of movie reviews in a PTA magazine in the 1950s! 

 

Transsiberian (2008, First Look International / Filmax, dir. Brad Anderson, 111 min, R, Spain/UK) A couple takes the trans-continental train from Beijing to Moscow and is drawn into complex intrigue involving Russian heroin smuggling. Woody Harrelson is the good buy and model train enthusiastic, whose knowledge come in handy with real trains. Also Emily Mortimer (as his wife), Eduardo Noriega as the wild Spaniard, and Kate Mara as his greedy girl friend. Epic visual clues to the plot.  Blogger discussion.

 

Night Train (2009, National Entertainment/A-Mark, dir. Brian King). A passenger dies with a mysterious object, and everyone else on the confined train “changes.” Blogger discussion.

 

Revolutionary Road (2008, Dreamworks/Paramount Vantage, dir. Sam Mendes). Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet square off again in the conformist 50’s.  Compare to Reservation Road (2007, Focus, dir. Terry George) where a lawyer accidentally kills a young musician and then is called upon to help the victim’s family while hiding his secret. Blogger.

 

Related reviews: The Deep End   Proof    A Separate Peace   Anything Else  Torn Curtain; The 39 Steps; other Hitchcock filmsThe Talented Mr. Ripley

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