Paul Giamatti Win Wins

Actors are the main interest this week — Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Jake Gyllenhaal, J.K. Simmons — and we offer a farewell to Elizabeth Taylor.

Win Win

What law of thespian karma could explain the improbable rise to stardom of Paul Giamatti? A squat dumpling with chipmunk cheeks and an expanding bald spot, yet with an authoritative voice even when he whines, Giamatti has achieved a run of ace performances in American Splendor, Sideways, Cinderella Man, Lady in the Water, John Adams, Cold Souls, The Last Station, and Barney’s Version.

Now he is the struggling New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty in Win Win. Desperate to keep his practice afloat and support his family, Mike bends the law and his scruples by becoming the guardian of an aging client, Leo (Burt Young). He pockets the monthly fee while a retirement home maintains Leo. Giamatti is a first-rate squirmer, and Mike’s opportunism tests and finally underscores his essential decency as he virtually adopts Leo’s teen grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer).

The boy becomes a dazzler on the wrestling team, coached by Mike with such advice as, “Do whatever the fk is necessary.” Shaffer, with his dyed-blond hair and streamlined body, is terrific not only on the mat — his quietness has gravity, a feel of soul stamina, for Kyle has fled his dysfunctional mom (Melanie Lynskey). The film’s main interest, within the script’s often rather obvious devices, is the complex connection between Mike and Kyle. Amy Ryan provides able backing as Mike’s warm, canny wife.

Writer and director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is also an actor. With performers, he doesn’t miss a beat. He gets funny work from David Thompson as a kid who is a wrestling disaster and from Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale as coaches. I like that McCarthy avoids a courtroom finale, though Mike’s final situation could use a bit more clarity. But the film has charm.


Certified Copy

At age 70, the subtle and allusive Abbas Kiarostami has made his first European film, Certified Copy. The Iranian master of tricky but grounded cinema is not a certified copy of a European auteur, though echoes resound (not too pedantically). Even if you don’t notice a debt to Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad) and Roberto Rossellini (Viaggio in Italia), you can enjoy the best, long walk-and-talk since Richard Linklater’s heartfelt salutes to European cinema, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

An English writer, acted by operatic-baritone William Shimell, comes to Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy, to talk about his book on artistic authenticity and duplication. Juliette Binoche, who owns an antiques gallery rich in copies, offers him a tour of the area, then flirtingly but unflinchingly breaks down his subtle pomposity. There is sparking conversation about art, though we never see Arezzo’s greatest originals, the church frescos of Piero della Francesca.

Kiarostami artfully gazes at Binoche, hops among languages (Italian, French, English), and reflects lovely Italian sites in windshields and mirrors. Prompted by a very feminine chat with a café owner, Binoche pretends that she and Shimell are married. For an afternoon, they become a rather fractious couple. Are they married? Were they? Did they have a past affair? Kiarostami deals these cards with the fluency of his past work, though viewers who didn’t like the surprising, even magical finish of Taste of Cherry will probably feel manipulated again.

This is an elegant, conceptual teaser for cinephiles, though it lacks (for me) the intellectual excitement of Orson Welles’s F for Fake and some Godard films. It remains accessible because of Italian sensuality, the humor (including a cameo by Luis Buñuel’s great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière), and, above all, Binoche. As a film star, the rather gray, harried Shimell is a bit of a fake, but Binoche is the real thing, an original. When she uses the camera as her cosmetic mirror, our eyes fill up, gladly.


Source Code

The most depressing thing about many modern (often Hollywood) movies is the expenditure of obvious talent in duds. The latest example is Source Code, a sci-fi thriller. Not scientific, feebly fictional, and rarely thrilling, most of it takes place on a commuter train heading into Chicago. As a former Chicagoan, my doubts about the story emerged long before it put Union Station on the lakefront (it’s about a mile west, facing the Chicago River).

Jake Gyllenhaal is Afghan War hero Colter Stevens. He awakens on a train...and inside the body of another man. His own body is a crypto-dead relic, kept mentally alive in a secret lab of the government’s Source Code project, inside a metal container rather like Professor Wilhelm Reich’s once-famous “orgone box.” Source Code allows Colter an afterlife of extended patriotism, as he jumps back and forth in time to foil a terrorist who has put a bomb on the train. His volunteer helper is a perky commuter (Michelle Monaghan).

Duncan Jones directed as if Ben Ripley’s script is a revelation (it isn’t). Gyllenhaal, Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright are effective, but nothing makes much sense, even as a derelict Star Trek episode. When Wright tells Colter that he cannot return to the train one last time because “it doesn’t work that way” — why has it been working that way repeatedly? The romantic finale is ridiculous. The movie is like a Comic-Con appetizer.

The Music Never Stopped

Usually cast as a hard-case snarler, supporting actor J.K. Simmons is the center of The Music Never Stopped as engineer Henry Sawyer. In 1986, Henry bunkers into his LP collection, listening to Bing Crosby or Count Basie while his sweet casserole of a wife (Cara Seymour) attends his needs. They both miss son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci). Scorned by dad for loving rebel rock and opposing the Vietnam War, Gabriel fled with other hippies in the late ’60s but now returns with a benign brain tumor, soon removed.

Sadly, another benign tumor, the script, remains (the source was Oliver Sacks’s essay “The Last Hippie”). A therapist (Julia Ormond) realizes that vintage sounds (Dylan, Grateful Dead) are still a groove for mute Gabriel. He listens, smiles sweetly, and says things like “What a trip, man.” Director Jim Kohlberg’s approach is so dull and dutiful that he would be better off interviewing the actors. The movie, with its facile vegetative episodes and glaze of musical nostalgia, must be the squarest film ever made about a man who lived (and almost died) to be hip.

Newsreel: Not even Chaplin, Gable, or Kate Hepburn was more of a movie star than Elizabeth Taylor. She died at 79 on March 23. Taylor rose up from the MGM contract system with a tough, willful, but good-spirited zeal for stardom. She had 58 films, 8 marriages, and many medical crises (her charitable work was deep, not just publicized). Her violet-eyed beauty had its apex in A Place in the Sun, and a decade later it was not quite enough to sustain the ponderous Cleopatra.

Taylor’s acting merged beauty and sincerity, her limited voice sometimes rescued by a Southern accent (Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Reflections in a Golden Eye) or rich moments of hysteria (which brought her Oscars for BUtterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). My favorite Taylor role is quieter: Leslie in Giant, so graciously dominating two men she loved, Rock Hudson and James Dean. One was secretly gay, the other “bi,” and both, on screen and off, were in thrall to her stellar femininity and human strength. Glow on, Elizabeth.

Reviewed in the movie capsules: Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, Sucker Punch, and Winter in Wartime. ■

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