Carly at the Movies | What are we doing in this room? (or) Two out of three ain’t bad

Sometimes a movie will present you with a blinding moment of truth, a glowing epiphany wherein everything it has to say is suddenly revealed in one character’s line. I experienced such a moment shortly after the beginning of “Duplicity,” currently playing at the Regal Staunton Mall Cinema.
Tom Wilkinson, head of a huge conglomerate-type company, calls his underlings together to make a speech, and begins by saying, “What are we doing in this room?” I burst into rude laughter, because I had no idea what I was doing in this darkened theater, watching a movie that had me completely bumfuzzled. I didn’t know what was going on, who was doing what to whom, or why, or – given the film’s proclivity for hopping around in time – even when they were doing it.

And it only got worse in this endless hunk of glitzy chatter. Of no help were the stars, cool-looking Clive Owen and old-and-tired-looking Julia (Sigh!) Roberts, together again after their co-starring in the mildly interesting “Closer” in 2004. They looked like they’d used up all their chemistry during rehearsals and were secretly as puzzled as I about the endless corporate double-dealings and shenanigans. I suddenly realized that I knew less about what was going on than the dumbest character in the movie. Needless to say, personal despair ensued, followed quickly by impatience.

Julia and Clive play ex-spies, now involved in industrial espionage working for business rivals Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. Good cast, good notion, but the film is so talky and the plot so twisty that someone like me, who’s just there to have a good time and not crack the Da Vinci Code, is hopelessly lost after the first dozen-or-so plot curves.

Sorry, but how many film reviewers will be honest enough to admit that they must be too stupid to enjoy a movie. (Unless, of course, the burden of communication is on the filmmaker.)

For awhile, it seemed to have a lot to do with frozen pizzas. I’ll say no more, just in case this is your cup of tea and you have the intellect and patience to sit through it. Myself, I just trudged home, slapped my well-worn old VHS tape of “Pretty Woman” in the machine, and tried to forget that “Duplicity” ever happened.

But the weekend was not lost. Even in as dreary a sport as baseball, two out of three ain’t bad. I had recently signed up for Netflix, and two of my early choices turned out to be hidden gems from 2007 that I somehow missed and am eager to share with you.

If you have never heard of a little film called “The Band’s Visit,” let me play Santa Claus, as it’s a wonderful gift. Filmed in a little backwater town in Israel’s Negev Desert, this is tale of an Egyptian city police force band that’s come to Israel to give a concert. Decked out in their ridiculous powder-blue uniforms, they arrive — in the wrong city. And the hilarious tale begins.

Underplayed, told with a subtle humor where the silences say as much as the dialogue, “The Band’s Visit” is the sweetest, funniest film I’ve seen since “Juno,” and I urge you to either catch it on DVD or screen it instantly on Netflix.

The reason most of us haven’t heard of this little beauty is because it was rejected, via a technicality, by the American Academy Awards. (Over 50 percent of the dialogue, they found, is in English, so it wasn’t eligible for Best Foreign Film judging.) But Israeli writer/director Eran Kolirin’s wee masterpiece won awards at more than a dozen film festivals from Palm Springs to Tokyo and wowed virtually all (well, only 98 percent) of the U.S. film critics.

It stars Sasson Gabay as the stuffy band leader who meets sultry Ronit Elkabetz in the stagnant Israeli desert town where his band has been inadvertently dumped. Everyone is very careful, as the aura of Arab/Israeli relations floats heavily in the background, and representatives of both cultures tread warily.

The band is forced to stay over one night in the tiny burg, awaiting the next day’s bus, and the evening becomes completely magical. Through a series of vignettes we are allowed to touch the depths of many characters on both sides. The language, much of it in English, is no barrier as some things are universally understood.

This is the best film I have seen in 2009.

Another film I somehow missed is “Starting Out in the Evening,” starring Frank Langella. It’s certainly as talky as “Duplicity,” but that’s where the similarity ends.

In what is virtually a four-character tour de force, Langella plays an aging author whose four novels are long out of print, but who is struggling to complete one final book before heading for that big literary tea in the sky.

A student, glowingly played by Lauren Ambrose (from TV’s “Six Feet Under”) is writing her Master’s Thesis about his work, and approaches him for an interview and is at first rejected out of hand. The author is too busy writing.

Langella’s daughter is played by Lili Taylor, struggling with her own life and her relationship with her idealistic boyfriend, Adrian Lester.

I’ll admit the film will have greatest appeal to people who like books and authors and are curious about the creative process, but Langella’s dignified and well-paced performance is magnificent, especially after seeing him recently in “Frost/Nixon.”

If you are turned on by The Literary Life, as I am, don’t miss this film. In ways, it will remind you of “Wonder Boys,” that sparkling Michael Douglas film circa 2000. And it is character-driven: always the hallmark of interesting films for grown-ups.

 

– Column by Carl Larsen


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