Now in theaters: American Splendor, Open Range, Pretty Dirty Things, The Secret Lives of Dentists and Step Into Liquid.
American Splendor One thing film does better than any other medium: It takes you to a place you've never been, a place you never dreamed of going and then, a few hours later, walks you back home.
American Splendor does that. It transports you smack dab in the middle of a tedious, trying, terribly unhappy life: Harvey Pekar's life.
Pekar is a clerk at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. He's balding, boring and bored. Yep, this is the stuff of real drama. Make that real-life drama. It's all true.
I know Harvey Pekar from the collections of comics he's authored, illustrated by R. Crumb — and this film will remind you of Crumb, a fine documentary .
At he same time, however, Splendor will also remind you of Ghost World, a fictional film.
This movie can do that because it mixes fiction and documentary. As you watch Splendor, real people pop up in the film and comment on the actors who are playing them, bluring the lines between what's true and what isn't.
As Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, the real Harvey Pekar appears and says, "He don't look anything like me!" Actually, he looks exactly like him.
American Splendor doesn't celebrate the ordinary. It's a far better film than that: It surrounds us with the ordinary, to the point of despair.
Giamatti's Harvey wakes up one morning and says, "There's a reliable disappointment," as he stares at himself in the mirror. That's one of my two favorite movie lines of the summer.*
I'm not sure whether it's a great work of fiction or a great documentary, but one thing I am sure of, it's one of the best films of the year. Grade: A-
(*The other is the mother's desperate cry to the heavens in Bend It Like Beckham, "What did I do in a past life to deserve this?")
Open Range I love Westerns. They're so much a part of America.
My mom was born in Poland, and as a kid, English was more often than not a second language in our home. Now, as the father of a 5-year-old, I bemoan that he's not growing up with the cowboy heroes of the mythic American West.
My Stetson's off to Kevin Costner for risking what is left of his tarnished reputation to try to breathe life into the genre. What's more, he pulled it off.
In Open Range, Costner's cowboy consistently defers to his trail boss Robert Duvall. As an actor and director, Costner defers to Duvall as well.
Set in a very real place that will remind you more of the gritty West of Unforgiven than Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Open Range is wrapped in an inevitable sadness that is echoed in virtually every sentence Robert Duvall utters: "This West is going to die" and, "I'm an old man, I'm going to die with it."
Costner is fine, Annette Bening is excellent, but Duvall makes Open Range a great Western.
Two years ago Duvall told me how much he was looking forward to making this Western with Kevin Costner. "I saw the script," he told me, "If he can pull it off it's going to be great." He did. It is. So is Duvall. I hope he's an Oscar contender.
Duvall's so good here, you can't imagine him being anyone else, until you think about it for a minute and remember all those other characters he played so well from Boo Radley on. Grade: B+