Beyond the Multiplex

What a week! A subtle, profound film that's likely to get an Oscar nod, a deep chat with Mr. Madonna -- and more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 6, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

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I know I say this nearly every week, but: What a week! Just when I think I'm going to sip some eggnog by the flaming hearth, sharpen my 10-best list for the year, and break out the stash of reissued '70s Euro-horror flicks, along come some more new, or semi-new, or gently pre-owned movies I can't avoid. Guy Ritchie was in town last week to talk about his intriguingly nutso crime film "Revolver," which is finally getting a United States release two years after opening in Britain. If you think I was going to resist that you've got the wrong lemming-like entertainment reporter.

This week also brings us a brief, bicoastal Oscar-qualifying run for "The Band's Visit," a gentle, likable and subtly profound film about an Egyptian police band lost in the Israeli desert that pretty much the entire world expects to be among the Academy's foreign-film nominees. John Cusack may also be in line for a statuette for his lumbering performance as a bereaved and bewildered dad in "Grace Is Gone," even if the picture has the constricted airways of a formula weeper made for the Hallmark Movie Channel. In the documentary world, there's something of a controversy brewing over "Billy the Kid," a pseudo-vérité portrait of an awkward small-town adolescent. But given how compelling the movie is, who cares? Let's get right to it.

"Revolver": What if Deepak Chopra did a remake of "Reservoir Dogs"?
Guy Ritchie demurred when I told him that "Revolver" was one of the strangest films I've ever seen, but I wasn't blowing smoke up his bum (as he might say) and I didn't exactly mean that as either praise or criticism. The film begins as if it's going to be a fast-paced, hard-boiled noir thriller in the vein of Ritchie's "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Dressed like Billy Jack, or like a 1970s porn star hoping to go straight (which may come to the same thing), Ritchie pal Jason Statham plays Jake Green, an English thug just out of prison with a vendetta against Macha, a lizard-like casino lord played, with ample wit and venom, by Ray Liotta.

Throw in a deadly blood disease, a couple of mysterious bystanders (Vincent Pastore of "The Sopranos" and André Benjamin of the hip-hop group Outkast) who keep saving Jake from Macha and then blackmailing him, a series of stylish heists, a fractured, "Memento"-style puzzle and a deliberately unspecific setting that suggests "The Matrix," and it all sounds like a dandy entertainment, right? Well, OK, sure. But the $12 bills, the lack of license plates, and all the murky chess games and con games are only the beginning of the weirdness, frankly. And then a whole bunch of shrinks appear, in inset boxes against the closing credits, to tell you what Jake's struggle with Macha and the unseen Mr. Gold (also referred to as Mr. I-run-this-game, Mr. Ambiguity, Mr. Mystery and "the man behind every crime ever committed") is all about. Yep: Deepak Chopra shows up at the end to explain the movie. I shit you not.

If you're a spoiler fascist, I'm totally sorry but you'd better go someplace else and read about some other movie, because Ritchie hardly talks about this movie except in psychological or philosophical terms. He's made a film about the self's struggle with the ego (unless it's the other way around) wrapped only in the thinnest thriller disguise. It's likely to bewilder almost everyone who sees it, but frankly you've got to see it to believe it, and that's a recommendation of a certain kind. In person, the 39-year-old Ritchie is bluff and cheerful, even at the moments where he cut my questions short to breeze through his answers more quickly.

The famous person to whom he is married only came up when he turned to his assistant to ask "Has the wife e-mailed back?" Which left me thinking about the implausible vision of Madonna at the kitchen table, surfing the Web. I could have asked him whether the half-baked Joseph Campbell-esque psychological voyage-narrative of "Revolver" derived to some degree from conversations with his spouse (and my editor is sad that I didn't). But, you know, read the interview. It's a dumb question. (Listen to a podcast of the interview here.)

I gather "Revolver" got a pretty mixed response in Britain.

It wasn't mixed at all. They pretty much hated it. It's already been received in a more positive light here than in the U.K., which surprised me. I would have thought it was the other way around.

I don't know. I have to say that the psychological exploration aspect of this movie doesn't seem very English.

To be fair to them, they walked in blind. They thought they were going in to buy apples and they bought oranges. Or bitter lemons. You have to engage yourself with this movie, and if you don't engage yourself you'll be disappointed. They thought they were in for "Snatch." They wanted to laugh, they wanted entertainment and they wanted fast, snappy dialogue. The primary drive behind this film is intellectual, and until you can get over that aspect, it can be a miserable experience, as I've been told.

Did you ever think you'd be sitting here telling someone that you made a film that was primarily intellectual? That's not what your career has suggested, up to this point.

[Laughter.] No. I've tried to make everything I've done clever. But it wasn't primary. It's intellectual and it's not intellectual, right? Sometimes intellectual people get pissed off with it, because they don't understand it. Your intellect can only take you so far, and your instincts need to take you the rest of the way. I'm suggesting that your intellect is actually your greatest enemy. It's your greatest friend and your greatest enemy.

I suppose that's really what the movie's about. The ego, the false self, whatever it is that you want to call it, is essentially an agency that matches your ability -- whatever your blessing is, it marries it with its own form of negativity. So great people have great big egos, but the battle they're actually playing is with themselves and with no one else. One of the aspects of the mind is to make you think you're playing other people and not yourself, and I think it's exactly the other way around.

Which raises the question of what your other movies are about. Are the confident, tough, funny gangsters in "Snatch" or "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" actually fighting a battle against the false self or whatever?

Absolutely. I think we're all fighting the same battle. I don't think there's a person on the planet that isn't fighting this battle. It is the battle. It's the human condition. But there's some ambiguity about that, because the mind is so good at defending its position. In every tradition there's a version of trying to understand this, be it in religion, be it in psychiatry, be it in myth, be it in philosophy. It's all pointing toward exactly the same entity, but we keep giving it different names. The reason we give it different names is because once we've branded it, it controls that brand. We have to constantly keep rebranding it, because it's smart. Its job is to be unidentified. What we're trying to say in this film is: It's impossible to identify it. It will move. It owns the goal posts. It owns what we understand reality to be, which, if you think about it more than 10 minutes, isn't reality at all. We are minds conditioned to be seduced by illusions, and repulsed by truth. From an intellectual point of view, that's not difficult to accept once you've thought about it for a while. But the mind's job is to make sure you don't think about it.

After 10 or 15 minutes of your film, I assumed that either it was all taking place in one character's imagination, or all these people were inside a video game. That's not quite right, but it's kind of in the ballpark, isn't it?

Yeah. It is and it isn't. I would argue that all the games take place in your head anyway, but they manifest themselves physically. So it's both. I'm not sure there's much difference between a video game, our version of reality, and our version of imagination. They're all different parallels of the same thing. What's the difference between one and another? The game is taking place both in Jake's head, and being manifested in a game, like in the game of chess. You're making the moves in your head, and than manifesting them on a board.

Talk about the setting of the film, which is so specifically unspecific ...

I know what you're going to say, so I'll answer that. I was specific about not making it specific, because it's a ubiquitous and uniform characteristic of the human condition. So it's not specific to culture, genre, ethnicity, nationality or anything else. I wanted to be clear that it's a non-specific environment or period, so we didn't get bogged down. It's supposed to be the story, and to a degree all stories are the same story. It's the story of the struggle with one's self, but one's self is cunning. The last three films I saw were "Beowulf," "Michael Clayton" and "American Gangster," and all of them were about the same story! And it's the same story as "Revolver." You don't see who you're being seduced by, and you end up paying for it. All these films are about pattern recognition. No story is a new story, but the mind is not interested in finding the metaphysical seed of that. It's interested in all its manifestations, because as long as you stay interested in that, you don't threaten its position.

It's pretty ambitious to hide all these metaphysical ideas -- or not hide them, maybe -- inside what in many ways is a recognizable genre film, with familiar actors we associate with action movies and gangster movies. Do you want people to have two kinds of experience at once?

I do. I don't think one experience is mutually exclusive from another. I don't think entertainment should exclude something that's more profound. That's what I liked about "Beowulf." I thought the story was quite brilliant, but I wasn't sure how many other people in the audience also thought it was brilliant. They liked the action, but it's a pretty sophisticated story, and I thought Robert Zemeckis and whoever else was involved did a brilliant job of manifesting something that could fulfill you on many levels.

I wanted to be more specific, right? I wanted no ambiguity about exactly where the problem was. I don't think "Beowulf" was being ambiguous either, if you really look at it. But the mind wasn't forced into that direction, if you will, and you could enjoy it on either level. It is about homogenizing or reconciling these two seemingly disparate subjects, one being intellectual, physical and literal and the other being infinitely profound and non-literal.

You may hate these comparisons, but anybody who watches this movie is going to come away, at least initially, thinking about "Memento" and "The Matrix." Are you OK with that?

"Matrix," yes. "Memento," no, only because I never really understood "Memento." "Matrix" I did understand, and it's conceptually the same premise. You're trapped in this world and you think it's the be-all and end-all. There's a Bob Marley line, "You think you're in heaven, but you're living in hell." There's no reason why you shouldn't believe that this reality is not a reality.

I understand why people don't like the movie. I understand why they get frustrated with it. I understand why they think it's complex, and I understand that the movie's not for everyone. But if people are broad-minded and interested in thinking about this particular subject, which man's been thinking about for I don't know how many thousands of years, then maybe it's a rewarding experience. I don't know, probably you can answer that better than I can.

To be honest, I don't think it all works. But it's so ambitious, and some of it is brilliant. And it really is highly original. When it was over I said to the friend I was with, "I've never seen anything like that before."

[Laughter.] Well, that's a big deal. At the end of the day, I think you'll conclude that you have seen things like it. It's not unlike "Matrix," "Fight Club," those kinds of movies. I hope I've tried to do it in an original way, but it's not an original story. I've just been blunt about it.

What were you reading or thinking or talking about that got you launched on this?

Nothing specific. I was first interested in it because I was interested in how con men work. Con men work on a formula, and con men say that it's impossible to con an honest man. It's impossible for the devil to seduce an honest man. I tried to apply the sophistication of the con man to parallel the devil, if you will. Ultimately, is the devil a good guy or a bad guy? I would argue that he's a necessary guy. He's the coach. He's the guy that allows you to grow, because he's smarter than you are. As you grow smarter, he grows smarter. He's the very thing that allows you to develop.

Think about "The Godfather." Every crime story that you've ever seen is about the inflation of one's self, within the physical domain, and then the inevitable collapse. Once you build yourself up to a point that everyone wants to get to, no one ever sustains it. And there's no evidence to suggest that once you're there you're going to be happier than you were in a different position. So why is it that you want to inflate yourself? Eventually, you pay. You just don't know when it's all going to go tits up.

"Revolver" opens Dec. 7 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities.

"The Band's Visit": Arabs, Israelis make peace at last! Or at least roller disco
Ever since premiering at Cannes last spring, Israeli director Eran Kolirin's picture "The Band's Visit" has been piling up awards around the globe, and in anticipation of a foreign-film Oscar nod, Sony Classics is opening it for a qualifying one-week run in New York and Los Angeles. (It'll be back for a national release in February.) I tend to dig in my heels and resist this kind of thing, and at first Kolirin's film -- based on a minor news story about an Egyptian police orchestra that wound up in the wrong Israeli desert town some years ago -- seems like it might be too lightweight and insubstantial, a fantasy vacation from the unpleasant political realities of Arab-Israeli relations.

In fact, if you stick with it, the story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra's visit to the dusty nowheresville of Beit Hatikva (when they're actually looking for Petah Tikva) has an irresistible tragic and romantic undertow. Under the command of Tewfiq (played by the Israeli actor Sasson Gabai), a courtly, sad-faced widower who clearly feels the world he once knew slipping away under his feet, the police band are strangers in a strange land, crossing the frontier of the cold and formal 30-year peace between Israel and its most formidable former enemy. When no one meets them at the airport, this motley group of traditional Arab musicians in powder-blue dress uniforms are forced to muddle along on public buses, with a little English and almost no Hebrew, while trying to uphold the dignity of Egypt, their crumbling hometown and their underfunded department.

When they reach Beit Hatikva, which is no more than a cluster of apartment buildings in the empty, flat desert, sexy divorcee Dina (leading Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz) tells them there is no Arab cultural center in the town: "No Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no nothing." So the musicians are dispersed among the more or less unwilling sofas and spare bedrooms of Beit Hatikva until the snafu can be sorted out.

Not much happens: Dina puts on her hottest brick-house dress and convinces Tewfiq to take her to the town's only restaurant, where they briefly and tentatively flirt with the idea of what could theoretically happen between them. As Dina admits later in the evening, she was hoping for an Omar Sharif love scene out of the Egyptian movies Israelis used to watch on TV in the '60s and '70s, and the impossibility of anything beyond a momentary, tender friendship between these two is the movie's central expression of tragedy. (Gabai and Elkabetz are a magical pair; I could easily watch a whole love story about them.)

During a tense dinner at the home of Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), an unemployed Israeli man feuding with his wife, a group singalong of "Summertime" helps break the ice, at least for a while. Bedroom-eyed Khaled (Saleh Bakri) tags along with an awkward young Israeli to the roller disco, and gives him a few strategic tips about girls. Eventually the Egyptian embassy finds the band and puts them back on the road to a town that does have an Arab cultural center. All they've encountered along the way is a few people and a few moments; almost nothing, really, but enough to suggest an entirely different world.

"The Band's Visit" opens Dec. 7 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider national opening in March.

Fast forward: Cusack as a wounded monster in "Grace Is Gone," growing up off-kilter in "Billy the Kid"
I've seen James C. Strouse's directing debut "Grace Is Gone" twice now, and everybody in the theater cries. You already know what's going to happen when two U.S. Army officers in full dress uniform ring the doorbell at the house of Stanley Phillips, a hulking, awkward big-box-store manager played by John Cusack. His wife, Grace, whom we only see in photographs (and hear, matter-of-factly, on the family's answering machine), has been killed in Iraq, and the only thing that happens in the movie is that Stanley's somehow got to get it up to break the news to their two daughters.

There's a lot to be said for simplicity, and there's a lot to be said for a movie anchored by two terrific performances. I felt occasionally as though Strouse were viewing Stanley -- himself a military vet and an inarticulate, short-tempered, pro-war conservative -- through a faintly condescending, almost anthropological lens. But I never had that feeling about Cusack, who goes beyond shaggy Supercuts haircut, hunched shoulders and shambling, football-injury gait to find a man who is just dealing with events as they pile on top of him.

Possibly even better is Shélan O'Keefe as Heidi, the Phillips' 12-year-old daughter. Perched exactly on the edge of adolescence, Heidi immediately suspects that all is not well when the normally strict Stanley pulls her and younger sister Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) out of school for an impromptu road trip to a Florida amusement park. A lovely, poised actress, O'Keefe communicates Heidi's tormented back and forth with minimal effort: Does she want to grow up or stay daddy's girl? Does she want that really cute white dress? Does she really want to know the truth about her mom?

Strouse's screenplay is well crafted, never insisting on a political interpretation; presumably a war supporter could watch "Grace Is Gone" without having his opinion changed. (It's not clear that losing Grace has shifted Stanley's views.) But the movie canalizes your emotions in predictable directions, constantly cueing you with a doleful, plinky-plonky soundtrack that seems about to erupt into a folk-rock ballad at any moment, and sometimes does. Maybe Cusack will win the Oscar for this role, and maybe "Grace Is Gone" will be the Iraq movie that some paying customers actually want to see, but that's because it's a condolence-card picture that's about dads and daughters and grieving, and beyond that has nothing to do with the war. (Opens Dec. 7 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.)

Casting director-turned-filmmaker Jennifer Venditti followed an unlikely chain of circumstances to Billy Price, the unlikely teenage protagonist of her memorable documentary "Billy the Kid." All that happens in the movie is that Venditti trails the motor-mouthed, volatile and precocious Billy around his Maine hometown, from the double-wide he shares with his adorable and endlessly patient mom, to the high school where he's the frequent butt of bullying, to the diner where he's bravely seeking to romance an older girl. Since Billy is clearly the co-creator of these scenarios, some critics have accused Venditti of exploiting him or violating documentary ethics (whatever those are, these days). To which I say: Feh.

If you read anything about this movie, you'll learn that Billy has subsequently been labeled with a diagnosis (Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism). He has said that the diagnosis was helpful to him, but Venditti's point is that it may not be terribly helpful to us in dealing with kids like Billy who don't conform to social norms. I don't imagine any adult could watch "Billy the Kid" without sharp pangs of recognition; everyone who passes through the crucible of teenage-ness feels at least momentarily as awkward as Billy, and endures the same painful struggle for love and acceptance. Whether he's playing guitar along with KISS or summoning the courage to take Heather, the waitress with the eye problem, behind the building next door for their first-ever kiss, Billy suffers for our sins. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York. Opens Jan. 4 in Boston and Jan. 11 in Chicago, Seattle and Omaha, Neb., with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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