Friday, October 21, 2005


Here in late October, the temperatures are dropping but the movies are hopping...

Capote B+
Yes, it takes a while to get used to Philip Seymour Hoffman's rococo affectations as the epochally affected Truman Capote, just as it takes a while to clear the dust off the Period Biography genre and clear the hurdle of solemn reenactment. But Capote, more than almost any movie I've seen this year, improves as it unfolds, revealing its interrogative agenda just as guardedly but expertly as Capote reveals his own. Dan Futterman's confident and literate screenplay poses the question of how much was lost and how much gained when In Cold Blood was born. The film is interested in Capote's own ambiguous motives and the gathering storm of ethical and psychic burdens he confronted as he wrote. While ever retaining this stern and lucid point of focus, the script's shrewdest means of chronicling Capote's loss of control is to slowly cede the movie to other characters and performers: to Catherine Keener, whose wariness and disappointment as Harper Lee only grow more palpable as he recedes from the kind of dignity she immortalized on the page; to the impeccable Bob Balaban as New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose chillingly amoral support of In Cold Blood and its author is likewise sorely tested; and to Clifton Collins Jr., whose poignant neediness as Perry Smith is the engine for both his sadistic physical violence and his intricate, almost telepathic undoing of Capote's inner tranquility.

If Hoffman's performance, capable as it is, ultimately struck me as the least rewarding in the movie—excepting Bruce Greenwood's vain effort with the underwritten part of Capote's lover, Jack Dunphy—I don't think it's a discredit to the actor so much as to the man. Capote's inordinate self-consciousness and all of his ornate barriers against candor and two-way communication almost doom him to being implausible and unsatisfying as a dramatic presence. Still, the story of murder he both recorded and perpetuated in the form of In Cold Blood is so rich in Faustian compromise and social import that, especially in the hands of such proficient filmmakers, it achieves the herculean feat of upstaging the title character. The deep blacks and cold, breathy whites of the cinematography, mediated by a sallow palette of yellows and grays, had me thinking frequently of The Pianist, another true-life tale of a hollowed-out man whose claim to fame is a life that, whatever the rewards of celebrity and improbable survival, no one could ever want to live. In Capote's case, of course, his mercenary narcissism and his lapses into ethical flippancy are a self-imposed sort of crucible, even as the film rightly and brightly attests to his resilience as a person and to the beauty, rigor, and lasting value of what he wrote. A moral parable of enviable layers, Capote truly gets under your skin.

The Squid and the Whale A–
Here's a movie that's so very good that it clarifies what's wrong in other movies of its kind, even as it gloriously pursues its own eccentric, unpredictable, and sublimely successful agenda. From one vantage, The Squid and the Whale replays last year's The Door in the Floor with three enormous improvements: the movie's funny bone is given much freer rein, the female lead is allowed to be as interesting and fully dimensional as her titanically self-absorbed spouse, and the adolescent epiphany actually happens within the family unit, broken as it is, rather than relying on the dramatically dubious mechanism of the son-for-hire. Meanwhile, regarding these films' primary point of intersection, Jeff Daniels is an even more falsely avuncular and mundanely monstrous father-mentor than Jeff Bridges was, silly though it may be to split hairs among such fine achievements. Telegraphing his moods, impulses, and simmering instincts in a robustly physical performance, Daniels is just as articulate in his line-readings and his seriocomic timing, while Laura Linney excels herself as the flawed but increasingly self-righteous Georgia Brown surrogate, and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are aces as the estranged couple's duo of wavering sons.

Written and directed with a stunningly secure hand by Noah Baumbach, and edited with a split-second precision that puts even Junebug to shame—one of the year's most gratifying belly-laughs comes from a perfectly judged cut to a scene from Blue VelvetThe Squid and the Whale is taut and rhythmically sound where the films of its lead producer, Wes Anderson, tend to go slack and hermetic. Compare a climactic sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums, where a wedding we barely care about is almost arbitrarily interrupted by a car-accident and a streetside brouhaha that, in narrative terms, we do not quite believe, with a similarly structured episode in Squid where Jeff Daniels collapses in the street in front of his old Brooklyn brownstone, barely avoiding getting hit by a car and finally aware that the family he ignored for too long is never going to reabsorb him. Little works in the Tenenbaums sequence, even as residual good will from the film's earlier, richer passages tide us over, but The Squid and the Whale never lets up for a second of its 81 minutes, eliciting giggles and anger and questions and surprise as it wends its way toward a finale that feels much less conventional than it probably deserves to. There's too much music in the soundtrack, and Anna Paquin gets stuck again as the brazen object of age-inappropriate fascination, but these are minor errors in a beautifully calibrated picture, full of recognizable people leading remarkably illuminating lives.



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