Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by the conversations I have with cab drivers. The ones who spend hours listening to NPR impress me with their political acumen, and could easily take on any cable news pundit. Others grill me with bizarre hypothetical questions. Some even tell me their life story in disturbing detail. Yet some cab passengers, I know of one in particular, prefer silence above all else. A gregarious cab driver and his ornery passenger are at the center of Goodbye Solo, the new drama by Ramin Bahrani. Naturally the cranky man warms to the passenger, but Bahrani isn’t interested in a by-the-numbers story. His characters have genuine flaws and virtues, and are seen with uncommon clarity.
William (Red West) has an interesting proposition for Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese immigrant with a big smile. On October 20th, William will give Solo $1000 if he drives to the top of a mountain and leaves his fare there. Solo is the kind of guy who loves company and conversation, and becomes curious. William gruffly refuses to provide any further details, but Solo finally agrees to the deal. He instinctively sees William has a death wish, so he makes it his job to learn more. They spend time together, and Williams finds himself crashing on Solo’s couch. In the morning William meets Quiera (Carmen Leyva), Solo’s wife, and her daughter Alex (Diana Franco Galindo). Solo shares more – he’s saving money for family back home, and has aspirations to become a flight attendant. Quiera thinks Solo’s ambitions interfere with family, and becomes so frustrated she throws him out. Solo decides to move in with William. The two learn more about each other, and the 20th gets closer and closer.
Every element of the movie feels so natural, and it’s easy to overlook how well they all work. Bahrani uses a simple narrative style, one that does not district from his characters or message. Takes are generally long, giving the audience time to consider the ebb and flow of conversation. Some shots, particularly those atop the foggy mountain, are eerily beautiful. The performances are uniformly the stellar – the actors seem to embody and not perform. Souleymane Sy Savane is a wonder. He’s constantly talking, friendly and likeable, and uses his positive attitude to hide his fears. Some moments are funny (such as his nonstop use of hip-hop slang with friends), yet in Savene’s hands, Solo does not become a caricature. We see all his dimensions. And William is not just a cranky old bastard (although he’s that too). We learn little about why he wants to die, but his eyes betray his attitude. From the beginning, the audience sees old wounds in his eyes. West, who was once Elvis’ bodyguard, never strains for affect. He speaks directly, never gets too emotional, a decision which makes him all the more sympathetic. Much to my relief, Alex is written as a believable child, not a precocious movie character cliché.
The final scenes helped me realize how special Goodbye Solo is. In a way, the conclusion is inevitable. Nevertheless, these two men handle their situation with respect and dignity, and it becomes clear that they (and by extension the audience) understand each other on a deep level. The relationship is authentic and true, and Bahrani proves that careful observation is the key to a poignant conclusion. William helps Solo change in a subtle way, and better prepares him for what lies ahead. The addition of Alex makes it all more wistful than sad. How Solo carries himself, particularly in the final interactions with Alex, are quietly inspiring. Sure, you’re excited to see Captain Kirk kick some Romulan ass, but you won’t regret also seeing this tiny drama. Hurry fast, though – it’s only playing at E Street until Thursday.
Here are other gently paced dramas about ornery people and the unlikely bonds they form:
The Straight Story. David Lynch is a director movie nerds often adore – I am not among them. I find the nightmarish dream logic of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. maddening, and Blue Velvet never struck me as a masterpiece (although a David Foster Wallace essay I recently read made me reconsider my position). It should come as no surprise then that my favorite Lynch movie, The Straight Story, possess none of the characteristics that distinguish his work. It tells the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a proud septuagenarian with poor eyesight who wants to see his brother one last time before he dies. He’s in no position to drive and doesn’t even own a car, so Straight hitches a trailer to a John Deere mower, and sets off on the 300 mile journey. Along the way he meets colorful strangers with instinctive kindness, and we learn more about the man. A lot is done through dialog, simple and true, and through quirky behavior. Straight stubbornly refuses to use a stranger’s phone, not even going into his house, and only agrees to park nearby. A movie like this is effective precisely because it carefully regards the characters, and does not exploit them for sympathy. For months I refused to see this movie – my parents doggedly recommended it, insisting that I’d find no Dennis Hopper or Sting. There were right – sometimes all you need is a simple story told exceedingly well.
The Station Agent. I wonder have never guessed that Thomas McCarthy, the actor who played the opportunistic reporter in The Wire’s fifth season, would make unique character-driven dramas. This movie is his directorial debut, and marks the first time I noticed Peter Dinklage, who is now on the short list of actors whose mere presence causes me to smile. He plays Finn, a distant man who inherits a train depot when his only friend dies. He goes the depot to sit around and think about trains, and runs afoul of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), an affable guy who runs a food cart – he’s the kind of man who gets excessively friendly when he’s lonely. Finn consistently rejects Joe’s company, yet Joe is relentless, and the two become uneasy friends. Meanwhile Finn is almost run over Olivia (the always sublime Patricia Clarkson), a sweet woman who is reeling from the death of her son. These three come from different backgrounds and sometimes heartbreakingly clash, yet they work out their issues in a way that’s surprisingly true-to-life. McCarthy has an ear for good dialog, and gets terrific performances. Dinklage in particular is a stunner – he has a commanding presence, and does an effective job of demonstrating how a little person might deal with everyday life. I particularly like his scene in a bar where he gets so fed up that he finally calls attention to himself in a hilariously brazen manner. The Station Agent is one of those rare dramedies that excels at both funny and serious scenes. Between this and , I eagerly wait to see what McCarthy rolls out next.
Four Minutes. I’m not sure how this one turned in my queue, but I’m glad it did. It’s the kind of foreign drama that’s easily overlooked. Traude (Monica Bleibtreu) is a severe German woman who teaches piano lessons at a women’s prison. She meets Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung), who is clearly psychotic and very talented. She plays soulful piano with her hands handcuffed behind her back. Traude finds Jenny obscene (she loathes “colored music”), but adopts Jenny as her pupil out of sheer appreciation of her gift. They have tenuous relationship and form a friendship of sorts. They both have old wounds – Jenny is the victim of childhood abuse, Traude lost her true love in WW2. Soon Jenny develops as a highly skilled pianist, and gets ready for a recital. Forces struggle to keep Jenny from performing, yet you know the movie will conclude with the Big Performance. Both actresses are stellar – it’s difficult to convincingly portray crazy, yet Herzsprung is consistently believable. She wisely understands the audience won’t understand the nuances of Jenny’s psychosis, and so opts to be simply suggestive. Bleibtreu plays the kind of piano teacher that could haunt my nightmares, but has reasons for her cruel demeanor. The movie’s title does not make sense until the final scene – it one of raw emotional power, something not seen too often. The scene alone could justify you renting this movie, even if all the ones preceding it are similarly captivating.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I’m a real-life Spinal Tap.