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+
Dirty Pretty Things Sure, critics are influenced by the quality of movies we've recently seen or reviewed. We try not to be, but we're only human, or — to quote any number of actors I've met on the subject — we're only sub-human.
I'm sure my trepidations over Dirty Pretty Things had more than a little to do with the fact that I saw it on the same day I saw the ineptly titled (and ineptly everything-elsed) Gigli.
The storytelling alone in Gigli was so obvious, crude and poor that what struck me first about Dirty Pretty Things was the way it involved me even before I knew what the story was about: A love story that never really happens, a mystery that's never really solved, a serious social document that doesn't pretend to offer a solution.
This is one of the best films I've seen in a long time, one of the best of the year.
The first character we meet is an African named Okwe, beautifully played by English-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. (I guess it's official: we've outgrown having to rename every Margarita Cansino and Bernie Schwartz, Rita Hayworth and Tony Curtis.)
Okwe is the night man at a small, sleezy "hot sheet" hotel. He's soft-spoken, intelligent, educated, too good for the job. But as an undocumented alien, he doesn't have many choices, nor does another undocumented Turkish-born girl, played by the dazzling Audrey Tautou. They are the love story that never happens.
Ten minutes into the film, a hooker, finished with her night's work, flirts with Okwe, and we think, "Ah, so it's that kind of hotel."
It's even worse. It's some kind of safe house for illegal aliens who will do anything to stay in England. The hooker tells Okwe to check the room she was in. He does and he discovers a human heart clogging the plumbing, the mystery that's never really solved.
Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette; if you haven't seen it get the DVD) with a kind of anxious realism where you swear the camera was shaking even though it wasn't, he's made a near perfect film. Grade: A.
The Secret Lives of Dentists
Hope Davis and Campbell Scott are husband-and-wife dentists. We discover their marriage has decayed and get to see the depths and lengths to which they'll go to save what they love.
Director Alan Rudolph delivers his best work; perhaps that's because he's interpreting someone else's script. Davis and Scott are excellent, too.
Scott is in many ways the 180-degree opposite of his father, George C., who never met a piece of scenery he wouldn't eat. Campbell Scott, it seems, would rather become part of the scenery, which makes this performance stand out all the more.
Denis Leary shows up as a mean Jiminy Cricket character. Sadly, Rudolph mixes fantasy and reality the way Boss Tweed's minions used to vote: too early and too often. Grade: B.
Step Into Liquid I know I don't look it, but I was born in Los Angeles. Bruce Brown's surfing film, Endless Summer, was shown lunch hours at Hamilton High.
The last place I lived in L.A. was in Ocean Park, about 100 yards away from the surf shop where the kids who invented skateboarding (and were documented in Dogtown and Z Boys) hung out. I am not unfamiliar with the surf genre. Or the surfer type.
Bruce Brown's kid, Dana, made Step Into Liquid and the footage is, kowabunga, dude! Totally awesome!
But Dana didn't get the message. Instead of making a movie about surfing, he made a movie about surfers. Maybe it's spending 12-hour days with your head underwater, but you don't want to hear these people talk for two hours. Grade: C+