The Movie Club

Bob Altman, R.I.P.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2007 6:16 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Keith, Carina, Wesley, and readers:

Kablammo! That was some kick to the groin you delivered Babel, Wesley. Despite my own lack of balls, I'm laid out flatter than Cate Blanchett on the floor of a Moroccan hut (and where's my opium pipe for surcease of pain? Anyone?). Between my review, my top-10 squib, and yesterday's defense of the movie, I think I've spoken my piece on Babelalready, and I don't want to be the movie's lawyer. But just a couple of things: Adriana Barraza's nanny character (not, as far as I can tell, a maid, and if we're objecting to her use as a sociopolitical symbol, the distinction must matter) seems neither more nor less stupid than anyone else onscreen (and nowhere near as clueless as Jérémie Renier's baby-selling drifter in the Dardennes' superb L'Enfant). She makes a couple of dumb decisions (taking the kids across the border in the first place, trusting the drunken Gael García Bernal to drive them home), but they do spring from her own agency, not the script's. And from the horror stories I've read about it, finding one's way through the Sonora Desert on foot is every bit as disorienting as Barraza's grotesque drifting makes it look: Is the highway just yards away, or is it miles?

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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I'd also contest the claim that Babel is interested in ramming pleasurelessness down our throats like a vitamin pill (though I laughed out loud at your line about Whole Foods, Wesley). There are so many moments of joyous, pulsing, near-dangerous pleasure: the bravura wedding sequence, the nightclub scene Carina mentions, that awesome-looking Ecstasy trip in the public fountain. And I liked how Kikuchi's character never fell prey to some drably obvious sexual exploitation, despite her pantyless jaunts about Tokyo. The scene where she licks the dentist is funnier, sadder, and sexier than anything in Catherine Breillat.

I was interested to see that Carina split the difference on Babel, remembering being moved by it on first viewing but then feeling it recede in her memory into something tendentious and manipulative. What I'm about to ask may disclose the dirty secret of all career film critics—I'm new enough to the trade not to know if it's just me—but did any of you see it twice? I haven't, though I try to re-see things whenever possible. The onrush of holiday releases pushed it off the priority list, and now I probably won't check it out again until, and unless, it gets some Oscar nominations. With all of your smart words ringing in my head, I'm sure I'll see things I didn't the first time. Maybe with your help, I can learn to hate it, too.

(And though it's a tiny detail, Carina, yes, I did notice the anachronism of the children's names. Mike and Debbie are the last things two yuppies in 21st-century California are going to be calling their kids—you can trace their waning popularity on my favorite time-wasting Web site, the Name Voyager. In a related digression, I wonder if Olive, the dear little girl Abigail Breslin plays in Little Miss Sunshine, will single-handedly bring back that old-fashioned and unjustly neglected name.)

Performances are always fun to talk about, because they can be enjoyed (if necessary) separately from the movies they appear in, like chocolate chips picked out of substandard dough. The Pursuit of Happyness was a little too happy for its subject matter—I agree with Wesley's friend that it made climbing out of poverty look like too much of an individualist, bootstrap-yankin' adventure. But I really liked Will Smith in that part. I respected the fact that he didn't grovel for an Oscar by delivering a performance from what I think of as the Mucus School of Film Acting: the theory that great emotion is best telegraphed by failing to wipe away one's snot while weeping abjectly. He wasn't afraid to put his God-given gift for charming audiences to a different use than it's ever had before: He was the Fresh Prince of Skid Row.

Amy Adams was also fun to watch as the NASCAR nerd who lusts for Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights: You looked at her and went, whoa, who's the redhead?, and then flashed back to her in last year's Junebug, all pregnant and Southern and lighting the whole movie with her glow. And while Brick was a bit too slick for me, the maturing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt from the goofy space-alien kid on Third Rock From the Sun into this lanky, smoldering young actor is something astonishing to see. But if readers want to get their Gordon-Levitt on, I'd send them not to Brick but to Gregg Araki's 2004 Mysterious Skin.

There are a lot of roads we could go down for this, our (alas) final day of conversation. A friend of mine suggested we debate the topic "David Lynch: Genius or Fraud?," but I'm not particularly compelled to—especially because, despite my bemused reaction to Inland Empire, I'd actually place myself firmly in the former camp. He's a genius, and a nut, and long may he wave his self-distributed flag; if I don't happen to get what Inland Empire is on about, maybe I just need to try transcendental meditation. We never got to the bottom of the love-story question—I can't think of a single great one this year, though I appreciate Keith's loopy defense of The Lake House and his sweet reminiscence about the viewing conditions in which he saw it. Hell, hitting a Midwestern drive-in with your wife on a hot July night probably would've made Beerfest seem like The Philadelphia Story. But I couldn't stomach the clumsiness of that movie's central conceit, the Magic Time-Traveling Mailbox. And if the movie's set in 2006 (or 2004, for Keanu Reeves), wouldn't the principals be e-mailing instead of writing paper letters?

As for Robert Altman … God. I feel like I've hurled so much ink at the poor man lately, between my nonobit of an obit and my 10-best tribute, that I don't want to lay it on too thick here. But I can't think of another artist who's died in my lifetime whose loss leaves such a palpable hole. (OK, John Lennon, but I was only 14.) I tend to think Wesley covered it yesterday in his evocation of the (literally) haunting last scene in A Prairie Home Companion, with Virginia Madsen's angel/ghost as a walking memento mori from a director who likely knew he was approaching his own final scene. Keith? Carina? Any more thoughts about Bob?

Dana

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