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Ofttimes of late, and not so late, I get into a discussion/ argument/ knock down drag out fight as to whether the director or the screenwriter is more important to the success of a movie, or even to the existence of a movie. The conflict usually boils down to which is more important, the visual or written aspects.
It’s a silly argument, at least it should be, because the answer is that both are important and neither should be denigrated (and are often so intermingled that you can’t even tell what part of the film resulted from one over the other). It’s a pretty obvious conclusion, though you’d be surprised as to how many people don’t go for the obvious.
But I did think of these discussions while watching the new film Words and Pictures, a study of the growing relationship between an alcoholic poet with writer’s block and a famous artist coming down with a debilitating arthritic illness.
It’s a new rom com cum rom dram, written by Gerald di Pego (a technically proficient writer from what I can tell from his credits) and directed by Fred Schepsi (who has given us such wonderful pictures in the past as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, The Devil’s Playground and A Cry in the Dark).
I thought of these arguments because theoretically that is what this movie is about: a 111 minute argument as to whether the written word or the visual image is supreme. And just like those arguments, it takes all that time to come to the conclusion that was written visually on the wall from the beginning: the answer is both.
There’s one ironic scene early on that suggests what I’m getting at. The artist arrives to teach class one morning only to be confronted by an exhibit created by the writer as he tries to demonstrate the supremacy of the written word, an exhibit of commercial ads with statements below them that comment on the images.
Now I would have thought to anyone with an ounce of sense that since these pictures have no meaning without the words and the words have no meaning without the pictures, that that should have settled the argument right then and there (hence the irony).
But no, none of the characters seem to get said irony (and perhaps even worse, neither do the writer and director) and we’re stuck with 111 minutes of intellectual inanity.
Actually, though, I did use the word theoretically up there somewhere because I never felt this visual/aural argument was even organic to the movie. The whole tit for tat felt pasted on, as if it were added in later because the author felt (or whoever was advising him, gave him notes to the effect) that a romance between an alcoholic writer and an arthritic artist wouldn’t be interesting enough on its own, so they have to give the movie something more.
Well, I’m not sure I can actually argue with that. The romance in and of itself may not have had meat enough to sustain the meal.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that the something more they came up with was the something more that could do the trick.
And I never really understood the way the argument was being, well, argued, either. The writer starts it all by declaring war on the visual artist and starting a competition. But I never understood the rules of the game or how one scored points or won any battles or even declared victory. It just seemed a series of scenes that didn’t have enough of a context to affect the plot or the audience emotionally.
(The major exception here, though, might be the various scenes of the art teacher desperately trying to find a new way to paint around her disability—in the end, these were the only moments in the movie I found to be fresh and original and emotionally involving.)
As for the romance itself, as well as the character journeys and arcs, well, it’s all pure formula. Clive Owen as the writer and Juliet Binoche as the artist are very good, actually quite good (though Owen has one of those odd, muddled American accents that those from the Commonwealth often come up with).
They play their roles as if they were written by Eugene O’Neill and give the whole thing much more credit than it deserves. They more than have their moments, but since their characters and their actions either never make a lot of sense and their through lines are so screenwriting 101, there’s not a lot more they can do than that.
Actually, all the adult actors are very good, with Bruce Davison as an older father figure teacher (who for some reason kept reminding me of Colonel Sanders) in many ways stealing the whole shebang because of the ease and simplicity with which he plays his role.
However, the major disappointment in the film may be the teenagers played far too broadly and in a different acting style by all the young actors. I’m not sure why Schepsi, who showed a great deal of deftness with young performers in one of his first films, The Devil’s Playground, made this decision, but these high schoolers never seem remotely like real people. They all telegraph their emotions and are so over the top, you feel like real kids have been replaced by some sort of pod people in a teen horror film. They all act like they’re in a totally different movie.
And it’s punctuated by a subplot about a racist, sociopath, bully who sexually harasses a student with an Asian background. There is a moment where this whole through line gets frighteningly ugly, but I’m not sure what any of it had to do with any of it. It also seemed to belong to a different movie.
In fact, most of the movie felt like it belonged to a different movie.
I’m afraid that Cold in July, a new neo noir written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, who also directed (they gave us in the past the clever and effective living dead movie Stakeland and the clever and not so effective cannibal movie We Are What We Are) started out in a way that didn’t bode too well for me.
The first act is about a young father, Richard, who accidentally shoots and kills an intruder and then has to deal with the intruder’s father who has just gotten out of prison. It’s basically a Cape Fear set up and it all felt a bit too much been there, done that and I was losing hope quickly.
And then something happens. I mean, something really happens. There’s this twist, see, and it’s a really neat twist. It comes out of nowhere and really stops you in your tracks.
And from then on, I was all in. I had to see not just what was going to happen to everyone involved, I just had to know the solution to the central mystery.
And it’s not just the twist that draws you in and keeps you in your seat. The intruder’s father, Russel, is played by Sam Shepard and it’s probably one of his best performances with his underplaying and his steely menacing eyes that stare piercingly in a way that frightens the hell out of you. He’s grizzled and getting older and it’s like he wears the whole of his life on his skin.
And that’s not all. Don’t send in the money for those steak knives yet.
Not long after that an almost unrecognizable Don Johnson struts into the scene with his slightly over the top clothes and his flamboyant car. He’s Jim Bob (of course, what else would he be called) a private detective who is an old friend of Russel’s and agrees to help him get to the bottom of things.
And from then on, the story is one intense, gripping thriller that as noirs are apt to do, reveals the slimy, cruel, sadistic and ugly underbelly of what on the surface appears to be just a normal town with everybody going about their business.
It’s not a perfect movie. Damici and Mickle’s screenplay has a view odd oddities to it, mainly in that struggling first act. I had no issue with the idea that we never find out who the intruder really was. But as the story went on, I did wonder first, why a burglar would even chose to burgle the house of a lower middle class couple with a little boy since they obviously have nothing worth stealing. And perhaps more important, once the truth is discovered, it does seem odd that no one ever reports a missing person, since the intruder would probably be a local.
Even all that I could probably overlook, but I couldn’t figure out how some of the plot turns that happen off screen, well, happen. Did the FBI send out requests to various police departments far and wide crying, “hey, if you have some stranger with no family and no one who is going to try and claim him get killed, contact us because we need him for a witness relocation program scheme?”
I mean, you’d have to send out such a request to a huge number of locations, so many, one would think it would go against the whole secrecy thing the witness protection problem stands for, and just what are the real odds of that happening anyway, and what are the real odds of that happening in a town where the police would say, “sure, why not, we’ll do that”.
I just never could come up with a scenario in my mind that was convincing.
There’s also a through line, or character arc, for Richard that I don’t think really works. After killing the intruder everyone keeps commenting (to the point that it almost becomes a running joke) that they didn’t know Richard had it in him and it’s great how he’s now manned up. In other words, he has a reputation of being something of a milquetoast weakling.
But this reputation has been earned off screen and I never really understood what it meant. It all felt a bit vague.
At the same time, what is amazing is that, even with all these issues, none of it mattered. It just didn’t matter. Once that twist comes and Shepard and Johnson become the focus of the story (with Richard sort of along for the ride—he becomes the everyman there to interpret everything for the audience), I couldn’t care less about everything that came before.
The story was just too clever, too fascinating, too edge of your seat, and too well acted and emotionally evolving.
Richard is played by Michael C. Hall, now trying to expand his career after the ending of his television foray as Dexter (perhaps one of the more brilliant series of all times). He does a fine enough job. He’s not a particularly subtle actor, but he always had a smoldering intensity on the show (he could somehow look at a character with complete calm and blankness while you could feel the volcano building up inside him) that works well here. It’s a good choice for him and it doesn’t hurt his performance to be surrounded by two such veterans.
In 2002, filmmaker Cedric Klapisch began a series of films about a young man making his way through life and through women with the gentle comedy L’Auberge Espagnole. In it, a student, Xavier (played by one of the living definitions of heartthrob, Romain Duris, he of the perpetual sneer and hirsute body and penchant for wanting to break out into a dance), goes to live with a variety of foreign students in a house in Spain.
Kaplisch then followed it up with Russian Dolls as Xavier tries to make his way forward as a writer while trying to figure out his various relationships (most famously in a wonderful scene where Xavier runs nude down the streets of Paris in the early morning chasing after his equally nude girlfriend as she freaks out over his inability to make a commitment).
Now it’s ten years later and Xavier is still trying to figure out his life and women. He has published two books, one which is a critical and commercial success and he’s in a committed relationship with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who he first met in L’Auberge Espagnole. They have two cute kids and he’s a wonderful father.
But when Wendy goes to New York for a job, she returns saying she has met someone and is moving to the Big Apple with the children.
What’s a guy to do?
Well, in Xavier’s case, he just ups and moves to New York so he can be near his kids. He does it on a tourist visa with no job and no real plans on how to survive.
But survive he does.
Chinese Puzzle is not a great film, but it’s a fun one. It has all the feeling of the semi-autobiographical movies of the great new wave French director Francois Truffaut that followed the more bleak The 400 Blows, movies like Love on the Run and Bed & Board.
Klapisch’s film is light and breezy, perhaps the lightest and breeziest of the three films. It doesn’t quite take itself as seriously as the others as it hops from one madcap, farcical situation to another, with Xavier always managing to survive by the scruff of his long, baggy shorts, which he now wears instead of his more serious Francophile long pants now that he is on this side of the ocean.
Xavier may be twenty years older than he was in L’Auberge Espagnole, but it feels as if he’s running twice as much as he did in that first film. He’s constantly huffing it from once place to another as he tries to figure out how to be close to his two children, write his book and find a way to stay in the U.S. while immigration closes in on him (which he tries to solve with a fake marriage).
The culture divide between the two countries is also something of a shock to Xavier. While there are some ugly things that happen, for the most part his new country seems to have a lot more heart and is much friendlier, with absolute strangers willing to help you out if they can, even if it’s in an argot Xavier sometimes has trouble following. And he’s confronted by such Americanisms as Saturday being the day that fathers take their kids to the park.
This relaxed feeling is mirrored in the look of the city, filled with a strange energy and neighborhoods covered with graffiti and buildings that seem as if they were just thrust upon the area with no real thought and design. The whole place seems made up as it went along.
And so does the film. There’s a shaggy dog haphazardness to the whole thing, which is appropriate in many ways since it’s a story of someone who has to constantly dodge everything that is constantly thrown his way. He never knows what is coming, so he can’t be prepared for it. He just has to keep going.
It’s a constant set of interlocking pieces that Xavier has trouble fitting together in a whole (hence, the title). But it’s this chaos that also invigorates him and helps him write his new novel. It’s as if he can’t create unless he can’t put all the pieces together.
But in the end, the story comes full circle from the first film in the series. And Xavier is again running and running and running as he realizes that his first love is now his present love and he has to convince Audrey Tatou, who has come to town to visit, to stay with him.
It may be one of those clichés of a lover running after his beloved, but after all these years, it still works.