I have violated the covenant between reader and critic. You, the reader, expect me, the critic, to leave his home in Brooklyn, get on the subway, and attend screenings 25 or so minutes away in Manhattan. This I understand. And I do it without complaint. Without public complaint, that is. I mean, I could complain. About the disruption to my other daily tasks: tending the cat litter, say, or rearranging my Netflix queue. (Only two weeks till the unrated version of The Ruins hits the streets. Awesome!) The crowded trains, which have me longing to purchase the biggest, baddest SUV I can find and expand my carbon footprint to Godzilla size. The frisking I endure at “all-media” screenings, where full body cavity searches conducted by ex-cons with “Mother” tattooed on their biceps are the norm lest we in the media sneak in video cameras to record Prince Caspian for Estonian bootleggers. The deprivation at smaller-group indie screenings, where food and drink are strictly prohibited, and a little man taps me on the shoulder when I reach past my concealed video camera for my concealed Poland Spring and says “No water” as I slowly die of thirst between subtitles.
But that is only part of our unspoken agreement. The other part is getting to the point when I tap out my usually sort-of weekly report card. This time, I am duty-bound to say that I wrote part of this piece while actually watching the movies—not on one of those horrid blue-glow devices that pop on and off and make it look like a search party is intermittently erupting in the theater but on my MacBook, which I took with me to bed as I curled up with my beloved Vera Farmiga in Quid Pro Quo and Matthew Broderick in Finding Amanda, which has just opened for real. And for this I can thank my new best friend, Mark Cuban.
There has been some thoughtful discussion here about alternative delivery systems for music and their potential for somehow dehumanizing the experience. The same goes for home video and, now, moviegoing itself. It’s dispiriting that both Virgin Megastores are going the way of the covered wagon in Manhattan within the year. That Blu-ray, as highly promoted as it is, is pretty much the end of the line for DVD as the industry starts priming the pump and squeezing us for cash via upgraded downloading. That people will be watching the widescreen Lawrence of Arabia on their tiny screen iPhones, a “nightmare scenario” that, to cine-bloggers, rivals a Republican-condoned terror attack by fall or pregnancy pacts among teens.
But Senator, I say, in paraphrase of Michael Corleone in Godfather II, we are all part of the same hypocrisy. Give me Amazon or give me death: I haven’t set foot in either Virgin Megastore in years, save for shelter from the rain. I have no plans to go Blu and though my better half would not believe it, my DVD buying has been on the wane for some time, as the catalog goodies I want are ignored in yet a new DVD variant and the same hits I would ignore as a download are bound to be repackaged and recycled again and again. And I’m more worried about anyone still caring to watch Lawrence of Arabia than I am in how they’re watching it.
Which brings me to the entrepreneurial Mr. Cuban. Among his many assets are distributor Magnolia Pictures and the HDNet Movies Channel. For some time now Cuban has been previewing his latest theatrical releases on the station, typically the Wednesday before they open, and dabbling with simultaneous day-and-date DVD releases with certain titles. He’s not the only one doing this: IFC Films has its entire slate On Demand on certain cable providers. (If that were true in my house, I’d have even less reason to venture outside, given how prolific it is.) I don’t know what the numbers are on any of this, and how one hand washes the other in this cross-promotion. Or if it works at all: I’d recommend you see the better of the two pictures, Quid Pro Quo, in a theater, but in the charnel house that is the stressed-out indie film market it’s already gone from New York, and like most of Farmiga’s pictures you’ll have to track it down on DVD (it’s scheduled, already, for Aug. 19 release) or wait for it on cable, from whence it came for me.Watching at home is certainly convenient, yet challenging. Time Warner in Manhattan (and, I understand, elsewhere) runs a compressed HD signal that is better than typical cable, but no match for the crystalline images I drink in at others’ homes. I feel a little cheated. And a little crowded, as our cats elbow me for bed space, their home during the daytime. Quid Pro Quo runs just 82 minutes, but I made the tactical error of watching it after a carb-heavy lunch, and kept dozing off, so between that and bathroom breaks it took over two hours to get through it.
For Farmiga, the effort was worth it. It always is. She had the female lead in the boys club that was The Departed, as some actress had to, but it was not her best showcase. She’s more at home etching memorable portrayals in smaller-sized fare like Down to the Bone and Joshua, and adds another to her gallery here. She plays Fiona, an art restorer whose deepest desire is to be partially destroyed, and left wheelchair-bound. Seeing her hobbling about on leg braces brought back memories of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which I admired as both a novel and a film, but debuting writer-director Carlos Brooks takes a low-key, non-apocalyptic approach to similarly outrageous material. Sin City creep Nick Stahl brings a Matt Damon-type intensity to the role of Isaac, a public radio reporter, paraplegic since a childhood car accident, who is tipped off to the existence of a group of paralytic pretenders and fetishists in Manhattan and meets Fiona. He is curious about her eroticized attraction to “PWBs” (people with disabilities); her “AB” (able-bodied) self is more tantalized about probing his handicapped lifestyle as she prepares to take the plunge into paralysis. Their QPQ involves tastefully handled sex scenes, a turnabout for Isaac, and a final revelation that conveniently explains what was more intriguingly left inexplicable.
Still, Brooks avoids obvious mistakes in what is a compelling short story for the cinema, home or otherwise. He is stronger on the details of a paraplegic’s life than on a radio reporter’s work (Isaac is a terrible journalist, barging in on secret meetings and so on) but the former is more crucial to get right. Moreover it establishes a certain wary but interested tone, with some well-chosen New York locations and adept cinematography by Michael McDonough; if only my hi-def signal could better represent the many shots of tulips, a recurring motif. Brooks had some heavy hitters on the indie scene watching his back, including Desperately Seeking Susan and Eight Men Out producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, and composer and Devo-tee Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s a shame that the theatrical market is all but non-existent for such a film, but I’m glad an alternate window opened for me to catch one of America’s finest actresses finding her way through a multifaceted role.
Rested and ready, I sat (or laid) down with Finding Amanda, and realized I watched them in the wrong order. If only I could have slept through this incompetent would-be comedy. I beg you: Under no circumstances find Amanda, or let the skanky ho find you when she hits the video store and cable lineup. This is one of those tiresome in-between indies, with a higher-profile cast than average but a questionably “edgy” scenario and execution that underachieves. Broderick (who must be calling his agents every day: “Where’s my middle-aged superhero movie?”) plays Taylor, a sold-out TV scriptwriter whose rehab for alcoholism and gambling is on the rocks. To appease his long-suffering wife (a typecast Maura Tierney), he volunteers to go to Las Vegas and retrieve her barely legal niece, an Ecstasy-addled hooker in need of drying out, or at least a good talking-to. Temptation beckons as Taylor, a dubious role model, attempts to get Amanda off the game and on the straight and narrow.
Taylor is a hack. But writer-director Peter Tolan, in his film debut, is not, at least on TV, where he has the brilliant Larry Sanders Show and Denis Leary’s inconsistent but watchable The Job and Rescue Me to his credit. Finding Amanda is fraudulent from beginning to end, and not even occasional pop-ins by Steve Coogan as a glad-handing casino boss can redeem it. Brittany Snow, all grown up since TV’s squeaky clean American Dreams, attempts a Goldie Hawn cuteness as the “adorably” wayward waif. But Tolan’s approach is half-baked: Her life is safely semi-seamy, with an uncaring boyfriend (Peter Facinelli) who mooches off her, but not so off-base that there can’t be plenty of obvious john and blowjob jokes, a nice home, wardrobe and car for her labors, and ample opportunity to bare, not her breasts (perish the thought!), but her clichÃ©d heart of gold. Tolan equates the prostitution of Taylor’s talent with the prostitution of Amanda’s body, and implies that the writer is in worse shape than his merely free-spirited charge. The stench of soft-boiled unreality hangs over the picture, which has been written, directed, and filmed as crudely as a bad sitcom. As for the thickening-in-the-middle Broderick, whose unappealing character exists to be dumped on, his next in-betweener (opening next week) is called Diminished Capacity, and you can insert your own joke about that title and his career.There is more to say about the incursion of the theater into the home, and as new initiatives come down the pike the situation is fluid. For all the hassles and inconveniences of moviegoing I’m not about to abandon the multiplex, though a blessed event on my horizon has me all ears regarding new ways to pipe new releases into my home. Memo to Mark Cuban: I like your idea, but let’s have more Vera’s and fewer Amanda’s.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.