Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Atlanta Film Festival report No. 3: "The Good Heart"

Since when I'm not on vacation (like I am now), this is often about movie news, here's first a tidbit that intrigued me this morning.

If I were list say, 10 or so favorite directors, I think Greg Mottola would make the list somewhere in the bottom half. His movies are far from complex works of art, but I have unconditional love for "Superbad" and almost as much for "Adventureland," so I'm certainly a fan.

He'll be back this summer (I believe, but I've allegedly been wrong at least a few times before) with "Paul," which sounds like nothing but a big geeky ball of fun. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star as a couple of British blokes on a cross-country tour of the U.S. on their way to Comic-Con who encounter and sort of adopt the titular alien on a visit to Roswell. Count me as thoroughly psyched for that, whenever it will actually be coming out.

And now comes word of his next project, which will be a romantic comedy but likely less raunchy (but hopefully nearly as fun) as what he's done this far. He's signed on to write and direct a movie based on the novel "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry" (the title of which rather wisely will be shortened to simply "Important Artifacts.")

The movie, is set to star Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman (sheesh, can a movie just be too good looking?) in a tale described as "a fictional estate auction catalog full of personal items and photographs from the four-year romance between a male photographer and a younger food columnist." Like I said, fairly heady stuff for Mottola, but I'm still intrigued.

However, since I'm a guest at the Atlanta Film Festival, this is supposed to be about the pretty uniformly great sights I've seen there, and I'm certainly happy to share them (I suppose this would feel more like "working" if I were ever to get paid for it.)

We start (and perhaps finish, depending on how long I go on about this flick) with "The Good Heart," which I was thoroughly psyched to see on the strengths of its two leads, Brian Cox and Paul Dano, who would both make any short list of my favorite actors. And, unlike with most of the movies being shown at the festival, you can probably see this one right away for a few bucks using the On Demand function, depending on your cable provider.

And, despite some qualms (the ending is ludicrous!), I'd say it would be well worth it for an evening rental. I deliberately read nothing about the movie going in except for the barest of plot structures: Cox plays a cantankerous bar owner who takes in a young homeless man (Dano) and tries to make him his protege. Within that loose framework, however, what you get is much more of an intense character study than you usually find in movies nowadays, and a real showcase for its two stars.

The two are brought together after Cox's Jacques, who is none-too-slowly drinking and smoking himself to death, suffers what is apparently not his first heart attack and meets Dano's Lucas, who has tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, in the hospital. It would be hard to find two sadder sacks, so they form an immediate bond, and Jacques decides to help Lucas out (and get in the process an indentured friend, of course.)

Most of the joy in watching "The Good Heart" comes in seeing the two of them spar with each other and slowly adopt to each other's idiosyncrasies, which are many. In lesser hands, the story arc - Jacques slowly lowering all of his hostility and Lucas realizing there's something to live for - would be pretty seriously hallmark stuff, but here it never fails to engage. Most of the credit for that goes to Cox, who clings to Jacques' maddeningly inane fixations, like how to make the perfect cup of coffee, and makes you almost understand why he lives that way even as you just want to shake him and yell "wake up!" Dano, however, holds up his half of the successful equation too, letting his nerve build up at a steady pace until he finally stops taking all of Jacques' considerable abuse.

But there wouldn't be enough for a feature-length movie with just the two of them, so a temptress inevitably enters the picture to compete for the attention and affection of Lucas in the form of Sarah, played with vibrant appeal by Stephanie Szostak. Even better, however, are the bar regulars (none of them played by anyone you would recognize, so I'm not gonna bother to try and track down their names) who turn this into something we haven't seen since "Barfly," a genuine drinker's movie. And though that may not sound terribly appealing, I promise you that you'll be surprised by just how perfectly writer/director Dagur Kari knows this world, and how quickly what seem like deep bonds can be revealed as the empty shells they are, especially when a patron manages to piss off Jacques for what is inevitably the most trivial of "infractions."

OK, as predicted, I went on about that longer than I had planned, but it would be a real disservice if I didn't mention that the ending, which I won't reveal, will either bewilder you (as it did me, though not nearly enough to not like this movie) or seem like a natural fit. All I'll say is that if you think about the title a bit while you're watching this, it won't seem like nearly as much of a slap in the face as it did to me.

This one isn't showing again at the Atlanta Film Festival, to which I'll be returning Thursday, but like I said, you can probably find it on cable On Demand, and if you like Paul Dano and Brian Cox (and if you don't, why the heck not?), I hope I've made enough of a case to make you want to check it out.

And I'll leave you today with the trailer for a movie that looks like it will appeal to me in the same sort of way. Called "Get Low," it stars Robert Duvall as a man who decides he wants to plan his funeral party so he can attend it, and Bill Murray as the attorney who helps him plot this madness. It's set to come out in at least some corners of the world on July 30. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.


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