POSTED ON APRIL 20, 2011:
A Big Win from men and Gods
Two very different slices of cinematic life
Going into a film with next to no idea of what you might see is something people don't do enough. More often than not, the studio's marketing won't even allow you to go see a movie without knowing something about it, be it revealing too much in a trailer or oversaturating the media landscape with a tired sequel/reboot from filmmakers that are just cashing in on some sad pop cultural dog whistle.
That's why seeing Win Win lived up to its name. It's an excellent film that wasn't Scream 4.
Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), from a story by Joe Tiboni, serves up yet another understated slice-of-life, this time of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a New Jersey attorney and family man whose practice is on the skids. Part of his work involves determining guardianship of the elderly when they are declared unfit to care for themselves and so he meets Leo (Burt Young), a victim of onset dementia who has no immediate family aside from a daughter, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years. Leo wants to stay in his home though his condition is causing enough problems for emergency services that he must have a full time, state-appointed guardian: a job that comes with a $1,500 a month paycheck.
Flaherty's other line of work involves coaching young wrestlers at his alma mater, New Providence High School, with his law partner, Stephen Vigman (Jeffery Tambor in all his Tambor glory). The team is terrible but when Flaherty makes a decision to assume guardianship of Leo in order to shore up his ailing financial ship, without the knowledge of his freakishly perceptive wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), it brings some of Leo's family out of the woodwork; with providential and grave consequences.
And it doesn't even sound like I just described a comedy.
I'm trying to avoid giving up too much of the plot but that's the beauty of McCarthy's script and the performances he gets from Giamatti and Ryan, as well as supporting players Tambor and Bobby Cannavale, as Flaherty's best friend, Terry. The laughs come from the characters more than the situations and it's McCarthy's eye for character detail and his ability to capture the wry humor in the seemingly mundane errata of day-to-day life that anchors Win Win. It's the same sublime narrative aesthetic that made The Station Agent a joy to watch and here McCarthy once again employs his subdued storytelling sense and visual style, as well. Indeed, the verdant New Jersey neighborhoods (Jersey never gets credit for being pretty) as shot by Oliver Bokelberg (The Bounty Hunter) take on an almost Hal Hartley-like aura of lived-in beauty.
But it's McCarthy's direction that ably peels back the layers of the naturalistic, warm, finely written narrative with wonderful fluidity to explore essentially good people who are forced to make huge choices in their lives; and how their convictions and decency act as moral bastions against the consequences of bad decisions. Amazingly enough, McCarthy maintains a tone that never feels preachy or heavy handed. On the contrary, he seems to wring wry humor from the pathos of his fully realized characters with adept directorial panache.
Big Win. Paul Giamatti’s character strikes a perfect balance as an empathetically kind man who is feeling the geologic pressure of his life bear down on him. He’s the perfect actor in Win Win, and his innate irritability makes for some funny moments while his everyman sincerity grounds the drama.
McCarthy's job is made that much easier from the great performances he elicits from Giamatti (Sideways) as Mike Flaherty and Ryan (In Treatment) as his wife, Jackie. Giamatti is typically sallow and electric as Mike, striking a perfect balance as an empathetically kind man who is feeling the geologic pressure of his life bear down on him. He's the perfect actor for this kind of role, his innate irritability making for some funny moments while his everyman sincerity grounds the drama. He has a great chemistry with Ryan. As Jackie, she embodies the gravitas of a wickedly shrewd matriarch who takes zero shit from anyone, including Mike, but always has the best interests of those she cares for at heart. Ryan is great here, stealing just about every scene she's in.
Alex Shaffer as Kyle, a young man who comes to live with the Flaherty's, gives a fine debut performance while supporting turns from Tambor and Cannavale buttress the comedic moments with confident quirkiness. Burt Young, as Leo, reminds you that he is the most understatedly strange actor in film history, aside from Jack Nance (Eraserhead).
Win Win is another feather in the caps of everyone involved, but none more than McCarthy, who is carving a clear cinematic niche with a filmography that now includes one more soul-satisfying gem.
Of Gods and Men
It's been a slice-of-life movie kind of week, which is a welcome occurrence. I always love when a film puts me convincingly into the lives of others, lives only considered from afar, and even more when its story enlightens. Of Gods and Men, the long-in-conception true story of a group of nine Trappist monks at a North African monastery in the midst of the '90s Algerian Civil War, is a film that achieves both ends.
Of Gods and Men may be a story that takes place in a semi-contemporary context, but it's about people whose motives haven't essentially changed in thousands of years.
Lambert Wilson (The Matrix Reloaded) is Christian, the head of an order of French Trappist monks who have been stationed at a monastery in Algeria for decades. The ongoing civil war and its toll on the mostly Muslim inhabitants taxes the monk's resources, particularly their ailing, bear-like doctor, Luc (Michael Lonsdale) who does what he can for the locals, be it free medical care for injuries or just making sure his wards have shoes. The monks have lived in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors, a circumstance attributed to Christian's liturgical philosophy of peace for all.
Heaven Sent. Of Gods and Men is rife with the larger philosophical musings of what it means to be a conscientious human and a true man of God.
Life on the monastery is idyllic and austere, for the most part, as the monks tend to the day-to-day of gardening and prayer, chanting incessantly depressing hymns that end in crow-pecked death, canning honey and preserves, and generally being monastic.
But a group of Muslim extremists led by a particularly bloodthirsty terrorist named Ali Fayattia (Farid Larbi) begin to kill off the monastery's workers and eventually coerce medical attention from Luc. Christian, as devout a believer as Joan of Arc, it seems, has to make a choice between going home when he feels like he's already there or holding fast to his heritage and devotion to his calling even as the government itself begins to crack down on the order when they suspect they might be aiding the insurgents.
Directed by Xavier Beauvois, from a script by Etienne Comar, Of Gods and Men is a beautifully constructed film that stylistically recalls Ingmar Bergman in theme and often Kurosawa in visual mastery. It's an irony that many of my favorite films of theirs take place in the Middle-Ages, be they The Seventh Seal (whose last shot Beauvois dourly gives homage to) or The Hidden Fortress -- though Of Gods and Men's painterly compositions of scenic vistas more closely resemble Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala--since this story is so reminiscent of their styles, and subjects, and yet is a relatively contemporary, true-life tale.
Here Beauvois combines the gorgeous cinematography of Caroline Champetier (Tokyo!) with a minimalist approach to the narrative that unfolds at an initially languorous pace. Rife with the larger philosophical musings of what it means to be a conscientious human, a true man of God, some of Christian's speeches, where he implores his fellow monks to not give up their mission and turn tail back to France, achieve genuine lucidity. They are rationales for faith and fealty that are among the best excuses for religion I've ever heard, despite their idealism being almost utterly absent in regular practice. But that's what makes Of Gods and Men the moving, enigmatic tale it is. Christian's ideals are its ideals.
Of Gods and Men's execution is a bit heavy-handed--its sense of humor resides in a few small scenes involving the world-weary Luc; a Last Supper montage set to Swan Lake is cloyingly operatic--but while the films pace doesn't frustrate, the oblique manner in which the script reveals the background of the events surrounding the monks plight will have you wondering about the larger details behind their fate. I liked its style, though, a deeply philosophical treatise on the devotion of the pious conflated against forces, old and new, beyond their control. Despite its dead seriousness, Beauvois' confident direction and Comar's erudite script make for a compellingly dense work of cinema.
Lambert Wilson as Christian, is fine, though again, deadly serious. His character is wracked with doubt: unwilling to be a martyr, yet unable to relinquish his faith and commitment to his role in the events unfolding in his adopted home.
Michael Lonsdale is unaffectedly great as Luc, a tired, old-soul of a doctor whose fidelity to his calling and his waning years makes him a fearless stalwart with an air of mirthful exhaustion. Nothing really fazes him anymore. Lonsdale crafts a truly memorable performance.
Of Gods and Men is leisurely in its pace and grudging in its narrative reveals. You'll probably want to find a book about the larger tale after it's over. But, the characters that it renders and the deeply considered lives they lead are more than compelling enough to leave a mark.
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