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Life and Death in a Small Town

By Shawn Stone

Snow Angels

Directed by David Gordon Green


It’s as homespun a scene as can be: A high-school football team practices on a partially snow-covered field, while the marching band goes through its halftime choreography, halfheartedly. The band director (Tom Noonan) is not pleased, and gives his musicians an angry pep talk: “Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart?”

Just when you’re (simultaneously) pondering his heartfelt words and absorbing the joke—they have been playing the Peter Gabriel song—the quiet is shattered by two very loud gunshots.

You know from these opening moments of David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels how it will end—with this pair of shotgun blasts on a bright winter afternoon. What you don’t know is who gets shot, and therein lies the drama as the film flashes back to cover the three weeks previous.

The surprisingly brisk film (surprising because enduring Green’s last film, All the Real Girls, was like watching paint dry) deftly weaves together the lives of a half-dozen people in a small, working-class town. Waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale, endearingly un-self-conscious) is estranged from moody, depressed Glenn (Sam Rockwell, nicely dialing back his usual intensity), who is in turn obsessed with becoming a good father to their young daughter (Gracie Hudson). Annie’s stressed coworker Barb (Amy Sedaris, acting without a trace of irony) is unsure about her cheating, doofus husband Nate (Nicky Katt). Teenager Arthur (Michael Angarano) is dealing with the breakup of his parents (Jeanetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne), while falling in love with quirky new-girl-in-town Lila (Olivia Thirlby).

I know what you’re thinking, but none of this comes across as soap opera. Instead, the film plays as a kind of realism otherwise absent from most contemporary movies. It’s a rich, full portrait of everyday people. Even Glenn’s newfound Christianity is only incidentally humorous—his pain and spiritual neediness are taken seriously.

There are other mysteries in Snow Angels. Where is this town? Other than the climate—snow-covered—it could be anywhere north of Maryland and east of Indiana. (It might even be in Canada, except that no one pronounces “about” as “aboot.”) When does the action take place? The clothing, the décor, the appliances and the tchotchkes span the last three decades. None of this calls attention to itself, however; it doesn’t have any (David) Lynchian weirdness. Instead, director Green creates, through subtlety and restraint, a genuine “Anytown, U.S.A.”

And when you find out what the “snow angels” of the title are, and who has that rendezvous with a shotgun, it hurts.


Smart People

Directed by Noam Murro

Haven’t I seen this before? A movie, visually grounded in earth tones and aurally accented by wanky coffeehouse tunes, intent on minutely observing the lives and inactions of people who are insanely clever (at least in their own minds)? A brief riff through this middle-aged mom’s fading memory reserves recalls The Squid and the Whale, Friends with Money, Margot at the Wedding. . . . While there were things I liked about all of these movies, they weren’t exactly films I’d care to own, let alone see again, and they’re the kind of reviews that get me into trouble, because people tend to equate a favorable impression of what a filmmaker is trying to do with a “thumbs up” mentality. But I digress.

The latest in the growing oeuvre of this kind of movie is Noam Murro’s Smart People, in which a crusty Carnegie Mellon English prof, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid, looking suitably paunchy and rumpled), bores his students to distraction with his pompous sense of self. His treatises on Bleak House come across as verbal assaults on an entire generation not worthy of his wisdom. Only daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a young Republican and, in the wake of her mom’s untimely passing years ago, the de facto housekeeper of the Wetherhold abode, appreciates her father’s greatness. The two strategize about titles for his latest tome; she clucks over his lateness and what it will do to the beef Stroganoff. In another movie, the entire relationship might reek of incest. However, Murro can’t be interested in anything smacking of the emotional or interpersonal, however sensational. He’s too interested in the sound of smart characters trading barbs with deadly precision. Just so you know, in this case, that’s akin to the sound of one hand clapping.

Lawrence’s carefully preserved sense of self starts to crack, literally, when he suffers a concussion, and is then forced to hire his sad-sack adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to be his chauffeur. Both Lawrence and Vanessa abhor Chuck’s utter lack of direction, but of course, he proves to be by far the wisest of them all. He immediately calls his niece on her joylessness and insecurities, and tries to loosen her up with a beer and a joint. The upshot is that she puts the moves on him, clearly the only reason for the script’s continued reminders of Chuck’s adopted status. Meanwhile, Lawrence, in fits and starts, dabbles at an affair with his doc, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who survived an innocent crush on him only to have to endure his boring dinner conversation years later. Of course, Janet, herself is one of the eponymous smart people, somebody whose emotional well-being is kept in check by her need for control.

Quaid clearly likes the challenge of playing somebody so the opposite of his usual charming persona, but he’s got little to do beyond growling and pulling at his whiskers. Page delivers her verbal blasts like a master badminton server, but despite her preppy sweaters and pleated skirts, she’s far too similar to Juno to serve the story’s purpose. Throughout Smart People, we keep waiting for something to happen that will force the characters to react in ways other than delivering still more acerbic zingers, but this never happens. A happy ending of sorts, played through the closing credits, gives us the impression that everything turns out fine, but it’s a hollow coda. Murro is more interested in getting the feel of a book-crammed library right than he is in providing any sort of human connection. In the end, it’s the cinematic equivalent of staring at a shadowbox all day.

—Laura Leon

Slightly Charming

Nim’s Island

Directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin

Nim (Abigail Breslin) is a self-sufficient young girl who lives with her scientist father, Jack Rusoe (Gerard Butler), on a remote island. He’s an oceanographer who homeschools Nim; while he’s at sea collecting plankton, she plays with her animal friends—a seal, an iguana, and a pelican. And she reads: Her favorite books are by Alex Rover, an adventure hero she imagines as looking like her father. Alex, however, is actually Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), an agoraphobic who is behind deadline on her latest novel. Inspired by an article about the oceanographer living on a volcanic island, Alex sends an e-mail and begins a correspondence with Nim.

Adapted from the novel and directed by Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Wimbledon), Nim’s Island is a sweet, lightly fantastical romp that juxtaposes Nim’s daring with Alexandra’s attempts to break out of her isolation. When cruise-boat tour operators dressed as buccaneers invade the island, Nim assumes they are real pirates and single-handedly launches a defense—with reptiles for ammo. Though her doglike seal is a dud, her CGI-faced iguana has as almost as much personality as the actors. Foster and Butler make the most out of their slight roles and the underdramatized plot, and Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is expectedly sunshiny as a tomboyish tween.

Concerned for Nim’s safety when Jack doesn’t return, Alex sets off for the island, which she does at the prodding of her swashbuckling alter ego (Butler). Though she throws up just getting into a cab, Alexandra perseveres through airport security and a Third World marketplace, buoyed by Foster’s deft attacks of silly frilliness. On the island, silly bravura is the norm, as when Nim’s pet pelican makes a reconnaissance mission to Jack’s storm-tossed boat. And when the action lags, the magic realism of the island’s critters and coconut groves keep the film’s childish charm afloat.

—Ann Morrow

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