April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Movies for Grownups: Small Films that Pack a Big Punch

By Bill Newcott, Entertainment Editor, AARP The Magazine

The trouble with “small” films is that they too often get corre­spondingly small theatrical releases. The true blessing of home video is not that it provides a second chance for us to revel in those tightly focused, thoughtful films — in most cases, it’s our one and only chance.

Late August/September is an excellent example as four extraordinary performances finally find the audiences they deserve in a quartet of DVD releases.

— “The City of Your Final Des­tination” (Aug. 17): Two of the screen’s most gratifying actors, Anthony Hopkins and Laura Lin­ney, breathe life into the latest movie from the painterly film­makers at Merchant Ivory Pro­ductions. Hopkins is the brother of a deceased, obscure novelist; Linney is the writer’s emotionally brittle wife. When an American academic (Omar Metwally) turns up at their remote Uruguayan estate to write the dead writer’s biography, he pries open a famil­ial can of worms: The brother hopes a bio will spark sales of the writer’s books, replenishing the estate’s dwindling coffers; the wife fears the book will reveal the fact that she lived with the knowledge that hubby was hav­ing an affair with a much­younger woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The youngsters are pretty to look at, but it’s Hopkins and Linney who carry the dra­matic weight with subtle, deeply realized performances. Linney, in particular, is heartbreaking as a woman who fears she has everything to lose when in fact she had nothing to start with.

— “City Island” (Aug. 24): One of the year’s hidden gems, this delightful comedy has at its center Andy Garcia as Vince Rizzo, a New York City prison guard whose secret yearning is to be an actor. He’s loath to tell his family for fear they won’t understand — but in fact every character in City Island is harboring secrets of his or her own, some dark, some trivial. Garcia, as the lovable lug, skillfully walks a line between tough and transcendent, playing Vince as a guy whose realization of his artistic aspirations is both liberating and downright embarrassing. He and Julianna Margulies, as his longsuffering but exasperated wife, paint a touching portrait of the redeeming drudgery of midlife love. Through it all the Rizzo family, under the guidance of writer/director Raymond De Felitta, remains quirkily appealing in its clumsy struggles to keep up appearances.

— “Solitary Man” (Sept. 7):

“Don’t call me Dad,” Michael Douglas, as a former high-powered car dealer with aging issues, chides his grown daughter.

“What should I call you?” asks his grandson. “You can call me Dad.” Douglas replies. His timing is perfect, his cockiness at once appalling and appealing.

Here’s Douglas’ best movie role since “Wonder Boys,” 10 years ago. His character Ben Kalmen barely escaped jail time for a business deal gone bust, but alas, he’s not one to learn from his mistakes. Now Ben’s indiscretions are on a romantic level: Thanks to his overactive libido he’s lost a wonderful wife (Susan Sarandon) and is well on the way to losing his young girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker). The story’s resolution isn’t as satisfying as it might have been, but Douglas’ assured performance is a winner from start to finish.

— “That Evening Sun” (Sept.

7): What a late-life career Hal Holbrook is having. He was nominated for an Oscar three years ago for his touching performance as a big-hearted mentor in “Into the Wild” — and now he turns in one of the towering works of his long tenure as one of our most reliably inventive actors. He plays Abner Meecham, an old codger who abandons his life in a nursing home to return to the farm where he used to live — only to find that his lawyer son has rented the place to a local family. So Abner sets himself up in the farm’s old sharecropper’s cabin and sits there — just sits there — watching the goings on in his old house through squinting, angry eyes. Of course, the story doesn’t stop there, and as time goes on Holbrook unveils one nuance of Abner’s character after another.

Anyone who claims older actors somehow lose the edge of their craft, or run out of new ways to astonish an audience, need look no farther than Holbrook’s exquisitely crafted performance.

Also on DVD:

— “The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles” (Sept. 7): Commercials and all, these four shows from 1964-65 evoke, more than any documentary ever could, the astonishing impact The Beatles had on American culture. The first appearance on Feb. 9, 1964 — barely three months after the JFK assassination — seems to explode with energy. The Lads, the audience, even the show’s other performers (including impressionist Frank Gorshin and, in a scene from the Broadway musical “Oliver,” future Monkee Davey Jones) bring breathless enthusiasm to the proceedings. Even The Old Stone Face himself seems surprisingly loose-limbed, as if summoning America to awake from an awful dream.