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Of Thee I Sing (On the Waterfront)

I’ve thought of another question that a reviewer always asks herself in the claustrophobic darkness of a screening room, unseduced by trailers or Junior Mints or luxuriantly large screens. The question has echoed in my ears since the United States signed on for another four years of plundering, imbecility, and the general decline of the American Empire — since John Kerry ceded the election to George II. The question is: why bother?

This is not an existentialist rant about the point of film or film criticism when the country is going to hell in a handheld flasket. It’s just that there are certain films and certain days that make me wonder why the filmmaker bothered, why the distributor bothered, why I bothered. There are days when the impetus for a particular film seems cynical or sophomoric or just plain off. And days when even the best movie offers scant comfort once you return, blinking, to the relentless light of reality.

As much as I admire Anthony Lane’s agility and wit — his are the only reviews I cannot read while I’m drinking hot liquids lest I snort through my nose — I don’t aspire to his level of critical ennui. It is clear he’s come to loathe most contemporary films. In his pieces he mostly dwells on the physical attributes of featured actors, and, like the snickering boy in the back of the classroom, he concocts elaborate jokes that only tangentially relate to the movies themselves. Lane singlehandedly has set an unfortunate new bar for cinematic criticism: irreverent and, well, irrelevant.

But I still write because I love movies and because I think they help the human condition. I’m still desperately glad there’s an excuse to creep back into the womb — especially when there’s so much to creep away from. It’s just that a pall has fallen since November 2, and the screening room has not provided the succor I seek.

Today waiting for a film to begin, I overheard two fairly famous critics (who shall remain unnamed) hold an exchange that resonated with me uncomfortably:

Critic John Doe: Do you know how long this movie lasts?

Critic Joe Blow: I don’t know. God, I hope it’s not long.

Critic John Doe (glumly): I know.

Schoolhouse rumblings or elite media discourse? Potato, potawto.

That said, if you reside in New York City, go see the 50th anniversary re-release of working-class hero On the Waterfront at Film Forum. It’ll cure what ails you, albeit for two hours. Karl Malden as an activist priest is hokier than a hooker with a heart of gold; Lenny Bernstein’s score sometimes intrudes rather than interludes; and the happy ending in which the dockworkers unite to oust the mobsters rings about as true as Bush’s election promises. But it’s a rousing ending, nonetheless, and, hell, ain’t grand, rousing endings why we go to the movies? For those, yes, and for such elusive, gorgeously suspended moments as when Brando absentmindedly tries on the delicate woolen glove of the girl (Eva Marie Saint) he’s chatting up on an overcast, wintry day.

Wining and Whining: Why Alfie Fails and Sideways Merely Flails

There’s no way this is going to make a difference, but don’t bother seeing the remake of Alfie, slated for release Nov. 5. Those who dismiss it as the callow eye candy that it blatantly markets itself as won’t see it anyway. And those who, like me, sometimes hasten to a theater precisely for callow eye candy will no doubt ignore my words — but beware, for ye shall be truly disappointed.

I’m the original sucker for Hollywood blockbusters’ special effects, whether they be great car chases or great beauty. And Jude Law’s great beauty is such an empirical fact that I never trust anyone, be he man, woman, beast, or fowl, who denies its existence. That said, after this fiasco, Jude is no longer the Law of my Land. I may never again be able to summon a girlie hard-on for he who preens through every shot of the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

This is a movie about NYC partly filmed in London: unforgivable. This is a movie whose protagonist not only directly addresses the camera, but speaks in voiceover: unforgivable. A movie riddled with every irritating editing device from the worst of draggy ‘60s movies and today’s MTV-inspired shite: unforgivable. A movie that spells out every plot point, every sight gag, every wordplay so thoroughly that it makes Jim Carrey look like a master of subtlety: oh-so-unforgivable. Worse, this is a movie that pulls out every cheaply sentimental stop yet concludes unhappily (yes, I am spoiling the ending in a last-ditch effort to discourage attendance), looking to score the French-film points of not going for the cheap happy ending: unforgivable and cheap. Yes, I hate Alfie, and, yes, I was dying to see it, and, yes, no matter what I say, if you really love ogling Jude’s pretty lashes and Marc Jacobs-clad ass, you’ll see this anyway. But let me say one more thing: Netflix. Hang on to your hard-on a little longer.

There’s something else, too. Part of why the original (1966) intrigued was because it provided a glimpse into the unadulterated assoholicism of Alfie (then-toothsome Michael Caine). The new film soft-pedals its narrator, rendering him more toxically ambivalent than acerbic. Jude’s Alfie is someone who struggles with his emotions, dammit, and weeps a tiny tear. This is a chick-with-a-dick movie: a category that re-examines masculine identity and vulnerability, striving for a new level of honesty but so frequently turning out More of the Same.

Sideways covers much of the same territory, but it’s not the pure bile that is Alfie. It’s nearly glorious, actually, but it sure ain’t a great bottle of wine, even if it invites such comparisons. You needn’t be a vintner to know that a fine wine symphonizes all of its elements, as disparate as they may be, and while Sideways is comprised of many beautiful notes, they fail to settle into a prevailing tone. Luckily, that reconciliation isn’t necessary to dig the film, especially because its protagonist also is thrown by such unevenness.

The story of two 40something never-beens wending their way through California’s wine country the week before one gets hitched, Sideways is a buddy movie that weeps for its own soulfulness. Certainly the word soulful runs like a subtitle throughout the whole film, though it’s uttered merely once. Paul Giamatti, as a flailing writer who’s more articulate when discussing wine than his novel, is soulful. Miles (jazz musicians are tres soulful) struggles mightily to reconcile himself to his own menschy sourpussiness, to his failed marriage and career, and to the bumblings of bad-actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), his caddish college roommate who’s still his best friend, if partly by default. Giamatti is dead-on — his DNA is practically emblazoned with the word soulful (see American Splendor) — as is his is-she-or-ain’t-she love interest Maya, as played by Virginia Madsen. That snapdragon Sandra Oh is wasted as Jack’s fling, though, and I waver when it comes to Church. The true measure of good casting is whether you can imagine any other actor in the role, and I found myself wondering if casting a mediocre TV actor as a mediocre TV actor sacrificed nuance to authenticity. Although Jack makes for some good, ham-hock laughs, they jar rather than dazzle when coupled with Miles’ gaping loneliness.

I’m still hoping for more from director Alexander Payne, who’s yet to live up to the brilliance that was 1999’s Election. (About Schmidt was a chick-with-a-dick movie if there ever were one, slow-poking at an old-school male navigating the landscape of Midwestern gender politics.) This film meanders a little too long, particularly at its end, and blinks a little too often, as if Payne isn’t yet acclimated to California’s golden light after the gloom of his typically Nebraska-set films. But Sideways boasts wonderfully written dialogue — particularly between Miles and Maya — and some genuine surprises (that I will not spoil), so far and few between in a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen era of screenwriting. If it only approaches stripping to these men’s core, and to the core of the truce they call a friendship, it’s still far better than most of what travels up and down Highway 1. Only time will tell if Payne will, well, . . . insert wine metaphor here. In the meanhow, the boys are only just alright.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy