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To put a pin in the beauty of The End of the Tour is a philosophical venture potentially as challenging as James Ponsoldt's latest accomplishment. Detailing a three-day exchange between Rolling Stones journalist David Lipsky and rock star author David Foster Wallace, Ponsoldt's film is talky and emotionally whirling, thick with dry-mouthed moments and cemented with a kind of human earnestness that cannot be bought or bartered for.
Ponsoldt's again adapts from the page - this time working from memoirs penned by Lipsky following Wallace's suicide at 46. Unlike most, he biopics like a pro - offering a detailed potrait of a series of days that succeeds at trying to sum up the two men at its center as they undergo a short but massively influential union of minds.
Taking us 12 years back in time to the tail end of a book tour, David Foster Wallace is an overnight celebrity, lionized for his best-selling existential novel, "Infinite Jest", but uncomfortable in accepting his new VIP status. Infatuated by Wallace's work and hunting for a hot story, David Lipsky - then a Rolling Stones writer still cutting his teeth - takes off to do a profile on the celebrated writer and quickly finds a human counterpart in Wallace's nervous energy and racing mind.
Jason Segel one-ups himself as Wallace, delivering a performance well beyond any potential he's shown before. Breathy and withdrawn, he feels so desperately real. Though quiet, Segel's performance is orchestral; singing in shades and colors that traverse the whole human spectrums. Willing to bear for all his foibles in intimate and profound strokes, he's the kind of tortured human soul that we can all relate to on one level or another. Jesse Eisenberg is equally good, driving home the harsh realities to balance out Wallace's raw pontificating. Eisenberg is so tapped into the minutia of shifts in emotional atmosphere that he can communicate volumes with the faintest flicker of his eyelid. Neither has ever been better.
They verbally spar; intellectual gladiators playing a game of one-upmanship. Unsure if they're best friends or worst enemies, the profile turns to each trying to cut to the heart of why being a human is just so downright hard. As they charge through raw, bookish dialogues, Ponsoldt's intention to craft a love letter to conversation is crystalline.
The End of the Tour has been likened to Richard Linklater's masterful Before series and for good reason. Ponsoldt trades in Linklater's picturesque ambles through European landscapes for the snowy purgatory of middle America (namely Minnesonalopis). His tour takes us to crummy bookstores, down blistery cruvaces and to the national heritage site that is the Mall of America - a literal monument to the glory of consumerism.
As such, his film makes for a pressing portrait of our nation, its values and its populace. But even more importantly, it welcomes us with open arms to this imitate portrait of two brooding, depressive beings.
As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on "the Meaning of Life" through the lens of Nietzche's "Thus Spake Zarathurstra". It was a wordy but personally meaningful dissection of individual value systems and was my best attempt to cut to the bone of why we do what we do. Classic philosophy student fare. Ponsoldt handles his material with the weight of a philosopher, presenting ideas that feel like they've always been on the tip of our tongue in such an entrancing, elegant manner that they land like hammer strikes to the sternum. He guides us through the human experience with the virtuosity of a never-to-be-forgotten college professor, going for broke and leaving you unequivocally emotionally drip-dried.
Danny Elfman drives the whole thing home with a score that elevates Ponsoldt's emotional arches with heartfelt panache. The result is a soaring independent drama; a Socratic wax on existence itself. Both life-affirming, deeply-affecting and willing to play a dangerous game of bringing you to the brink of tears, The End of the Tour is essential watching - a lovely, beautiful tragedy that will shake you to the bone.
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Things came in twos at this year's Sundance Film Festival with a pair of Cobie Smulders' features competing against one another for the Dramatic Competition prize, a set of unexpected pregnancy comedy/dramas, Tye Sheridans (who actually was showcased in three films: Last Days in the Desert, Entertainment and this film we're in the midst of reviewing) and, most notably, a duo of 1960-70s social psychology experiment films. One of which, The Experimenter told the story of Stanley Milgram, administer of increasing electrical shocks and student of peer pressure. The feature starred Peter Sarsgaard and was met with middling reviews.
Read more: Sundance Review || "The Stanford...
Robert Redford's adaptation of Bill Bryson's popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford's travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis' internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte's character drags his feet, it's Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem.
Read more: Sundance Review: "A Walk in the...
An oasis for serious cinephiles this season was the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Let There Be Light, a near-complete retrospective of the films directed by the maverick John Huston, mostly screened in good 35-millimeter prints shown on the impressive screen of the Walter Reade Theater, and including all of his features as well as some films by other directors which he acted in or influenced. The series ran from December 19th to January 11th. Below I note some of the highlights of the series screened in 35-millimeter at the Walter Reade.
Atypical for Huston was the interesting and rarely screened drama partly about racial injustice, In This Our Life, like almost all of Huston's works an adaptation, in this case from a novel by the eminent writer Ellen Glasgow, and starring Bette Davis, a luminous Olivia de Havilland, George Brent and Charles Coburn, as well as featuring a Max Steiner score. It was shown in what appeared to be a newly struck print.
Also very rarely screened in 35-millimeter is the beautiful Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, one of the director's finest works, about the romantic feelings of a marooned Marine in the Pacific for a nun during World War II. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, in the lead roles, were never better. Exquisitely photographed in color by Oswald Morris and scored by Georges Auric, it was presented in an outstanding print.
Another rarity was the unusual drama about conservation, The Roots of Heaven, adapted from a novel by the distinguished Romain Gary, who co-authored the screenplay with the esteemed travel writer, Patrick Leigh-Fermor. The film stars Trevor Howard, in a characteristically superb performance, alongside an excellent supporting cast including Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Eddie Albert, Orson Welles, Paul Lukas and Herbert Lom. The Roots of Heaven was again elegantly photographed in color by Morris and features a score by another esteemed composer, Malcolm Arnold. It was screened in a fine print.
Also quite scarce is one of Huston's lesser works, the intermittently entertaining The List of Adrian Messenger, a murder mystery with a lighter tone. The eccentric cast is headed enjoyably by George C. Scott and Kirk Douglas, with assistance from Dana Wynter, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, Herbert Marshall, and Huston himself, along with bizarre cameos by Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. The film was photographed in monochrome by the superb Joe MacDonald and scored by the extraordinary Jerry Goldsmith; it was shown in a good print.
Reflections in a Golden Eye, an exercise in Southern Gothic adapted from a novel by Carson McCullers, is, by contrast, one of the director's strongest works. Dazzlingly shot by Aldo Tonti in an unusual color process, the film's high-powered cast is dominated by a quartet of leads with its members delivering some of their best performances: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith and Julie Harris (also notable is the debut of a gorgeous Robert Forster as the object of lust for Brando's tormented character). Scored by the significant Japanese composer, Toshiro Mayuzumi, the film was projected in an excellent print.
Reflections was shortly followed by the unexpectedly delightful, seldom screened period romp, Sinful Davey, handsomely photographed in color by Freddie Young and Edward Scaife, featuring abundantly pleasurable work from an impressive cast including John Hurt, Pamela Franklin, Robert Morley, Donal McCann, among others; it was presented in a very good print.
Huston's next film, A Walk with Love and Death is an interesting, if not entirely successful, romance set in medieval times featuring an unusually convincing recreation of the period — as noted by one of the director's most eloquent defenders, Positif critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon — this work's most remarkable facet. The cast includes Anjelica Huston —in her first starring role — opposite Assi Dayan, with support from Anthony Higgins, Michael Gough, and the director himself. The evocative score is by the magnificent George Delerue.
Huston's next film, the baroque Cold War thriller The Kremlin Letter, is one of his most gratifying and underrated productions. Patrick O'Neal, in a thoughtful performance, leads an astounding cast including Bibi Andersson, Richard Boone, Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, Lila Kedrova, Micheál MacLiammóir, Barbara Parkins, George Sanders, Raf Vallone, Max von Sydow, Orson Welles and Niall MacGinnis; it too was screened in a very good print.
Huston followed this with one of his most enduring achievements, the pessimistic boxing film Fat City, adapted by Leonard Gardner from his respected novel. Memorably photographed in color by the brilliant Conrad Hall, the superior cast includes Stacy Keach in the lead role, alongside Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark and Nicholas Colasanto. It was screened in another very good print.
Finally, another rarity was the director's engaging espionage film, The Mackintosh Man, again shot by Morris and featuring a score by Maurice Jarre. Paul Newman confidently heads a wonderful cast including Dominique Sanda, James Mason, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Michael Hordern, and Jenny Runacre, among others. Regrettably, the print was merely adequate but this was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.
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