Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Man on Film: Not so Smart People and Snow Angels

So it seems as though the movie-going public is in the midst of an abysmal stretch of releases--releases more worthy of being excreted in public restrooms than being projected upon big screen. Hopefully we finally pass through these doldrums this weekend, which sees the release of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and the coming out party for Jason Segel's cock. We also get to see the eagerly anticipated "88 Minutes"... All right, maybe I jumped the gun in expressing my hope that we were in the clear.

As a result of there having been no noteworthy releases over the past few months, "Smart People" made my list of things to do this evening. Excepting a predictably likeable performance by Thomas Haden Church, there really wasn't a whole lot to like about this film. That's not to say that "Smart People" was bad, per se, but it wasn't good either. The film occupies that realm of the spectrum littered with slightly better than mediocre films. The curmudgeonly protagonist starts to move past his emotional issues and grows slightly, enough to give the viewer who doesn't really care what happens by the end of the uninteresting film that much needed hope for the future of the hero. The ne'er-do-well, somewhat dim brother and underachieving son are the two who are not completely socially retarded, and thus the only characters who could easily be happy. The precocious, Young Republican , perfect-SAT-score daughter who has taken over the role of her dead mother is deeply damaged by her exploited role as 17 year-old homemaker/surrogate wife. Introduce a love interest who challenges the protagonist (and has no chemistry with the protagonist), and anyone who has ever seen a movie knows what will happen.

The film looked all right. It wasn't visually arresting, and "Wonder Boys", for one, captures the area much more vividly, but it wasn't shot poorly. The soundtrack/score was particularly irritating, being reminiscent of just about every other film ever made about a professor where the score wasn't classical. It was the standard acoustic fingerpicking bullshit with sparing percussion here and there.

Honestly, were it not for the portions of the film in literary academia, I don't know that I'd have liked much of anything about the film. And I'm not saying the literature aspects were particularly stimulating, but I do have a soft spot for that type of thing, so I can't say I was disinterested when the classroom setting scenes came up.

As for "Snow Angels", it was much better. In fact, it's the only thing I've seen in months that was truly worth seeing. Having sat in post-Sundance limbo for over a year, it finally saw its release a couple weekends ago. It was well worth the wait.

The films consists of two storylines. One dark. One light. One exploring a poisonous end of a volatile relationship. One delving in to a blossoming teen romance.

Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glen (Sam Rockwell) have separated as Glen's instability that pervades his entire being makes their relationship untenable. Glen begins to come back around, having found sobriety and God. Annie would really like to distance herself from him if at all possible, and one gets the sense quickly that--while she is certainly flawed--it would be best for her and her family if she could get him to stay away.

At the other end of the spectrum is young Arthur (the great Michael Angarano), who works at the restaurant where Annie waits at and who Annie babysat for when he was a child. His burgeoning relationship with new girl/outcast Lila comes in the wake of his own parents separating, as his professor father wants to selfishly pursue a single lifestyle.

As anyone who has seen David Gordon Green's previous output ("George Washington", "All the Real Girls", and "Undertow") would know, these storylines may seem simple, but they are finely nuanced. His deft hand allows the audience a glimpse at small-town America that is seldom portrayed accurately, certainly not this side of TV's "Friday Night Light". Where other films resort to caricature and cliche, Green's "Snow Angels" shows its scabs and scars and raw nerves, allowing the viewer's gamut of emotions to run from satisfaction to disappointment and from grief to elation. And while it would be easy to say that all of the troubles with the adult relationships featured in the film are just what will come of the innocent, youthful love between Arthur and Lila, it seems that there is always at least a glimmer of hope in Green's films, and that Arthur and Lila's love serves as a beacon of hope in this glacial adult world.

To write on the film without mention of Sam Rockwell's turn as Glen would be a gross injustice. Glen's transference of power over his actions to his God is startling, and his volatility keeps you on edge throughout the film. Yet, in spite of his myriad shortcomings and faults, he is ultimately pitiable. There's an innate sympathy the must be felt for him, tearing the viewer between the two sides of the coin with this likable foil.

Additionally, as one might expect from an approved disciple of Terrence Malick, the film is breathtaking, capturing the wintry Pennsylvanian landscapes with a hushed brilliance owing much to Green's mentor.

In less able hands, this film would have been a deeply depressing film, but--as Green tends to do--the film is imbued with enough heart, humor, and hope so as to leave the viewer happy upon exiting the theater, which is an epic achievement in light of the film's ending.

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