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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Win Win, Poetry

Win Win (Three Stars)

U.S.: Tom McCarthy, 2011 (20th Century Fox)

Paul Giamatti has that look — you know the one — that exasperated, slightly fed-up look…That hangdog pall we saw on his gloomy mug when he played the frustrated writer/vinomaniac in Sideways, or that scruffy comic artist in American Splendor: the look of a guy who has few illusions left, and who finds himself in a world where dreams are dying, and in his own way, rages, rages against the dying of that light, the dying of those dreams. Or at least gives them a sour glance and a nasty crack or two. What can you do? When they’re gone, they’re gone. And when you‘re gone, you’re gone as well. So what more is there to say? Phooey, maybe. Giamatti is one actor who could say “phooey” and make it sting. Oh, I forgot: This movie is called Win Win.

Still, if you want a little hometown glory in this fouled-up world, there’s always high school sports. In this case, it‘s high school wrestling. Giamatti is the coach, and a young phenom will soon arrive to spark up the movie, save the season and give the coach‘s off-kilter, all-too-vulnerable life a tilt toward glory. Aw no, you say, this is a story we’ve seen too many times before. Why, you can almost see the last shot, the freeze frame, the coach embracing the wrestler, both of them embracing the trophy cup, the crowd behind them going wild. Clichés, you think, nothing but goddam phony clichés. You’d be wrong though.

Tom McCarthy wrote and directed Win Win, and it’s clear now, after McCarthy’s third feature as writer-director, that his intentions, quite laudable, are to write good roles for some of the best actors around, and to bring humanity, character and comic realism — and people we can at least somewhat recognize — back to the movies. More power to him, I say. I liked his first film The Station Agent, liked the odd wonderful trio of Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. I thought The Visitor (though not Richard Jenkins) was a little overrated. And I wish more people had gone to this movie Win Win, than did. Maybe they’ll buy or rent the DVD. It’s sure worth it.

Giamatti‘s character, perfect for him, is Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer of highly dubious integrity (at least in this story), who’s married to a fine woman, Amy Ryan as Jackie Flaherty (a beautiful name), but has to scrape to make those damned ends meet, who has some stuff around him that may not last (including a broken boiler), and who also works a job as a local, highly unsuccessful high school wrestling coach, along with his two friends and unsuccessful assistants, the even gloomier accountant Stephen Vignam (Jeffrey Tambor) and ex-good time guy Terry Delfino (Cannavale again, just as good as before).

These three guys, a seeming Lose Lose trio each drawn with real expertise by the actors, are going nowhere with their team, except maybe for a couple of beers and some reminiscences after the matches. Then suddenly he shows up: Kyle, the natural, a great high school wrestler, or at least a great local high school wrestler, lithe and strong and quick and always heading for a pin — played byAlex Shaffer, a champion high school wrestler in real life, and here, a very good actor as well. The three can see it in him: Youth, their youths, the ones they didn’t quite have.

There’s a problem though. A particularly bad one. Kyle showed up in New Jersey, at a certain home (his grandfather‘s), because he doesn’t get along with his selfish mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) and because Mike is the legal guardian of Kyle‘s grandpa Leo Poplar (Burt Young, of Chinatown and the Rocky movies). Only Mike has been conning everybody, Leo especially, by accepting the $1,5000 a month stipend he gets for being Leo’s legal guardian, and supposedly keeping the old man, who has Alzheimer’s eating into his memory, in the home Leo didn’t want to leave. Instead, Mike has stashed the old man in a nursing home. Take my word for it: Old people don’t want to be kept in nursing homes. They want to live, die even, in their own homes, with people they know and love around them. We owe them that. Mike owes Leo that. For the $1,500, if nothing else. Christ.

Giamatti is a first rate actor, and a guy whom nobody can accuse of getting roles because of his looks. Well, let me take that back: Giamatti actually has exactly the right look for his roles. With that anxious face and schlubby torso, he’s an uncommon common man, a poet of anxiety, a virtuoso of exasperation. It’s just that moviemakers often think we don’t want to see roles, or watch stories, like this one. They think we want Thor. And Justin Timberlake, over and over.

Here, Coach Mike has got a lot to be worried about, and it doesn’t matter if we sense that he‘ll get home free, maybe, somehow. (We may be right, we may not) The movie is enough of the usual sports sitcom saga to keep us comfortable, but enough of a different type to keep us on its side intellectually — because these people have real problems, real sadnesses and humors, real gut-twisters and regrets. (And real-looking wrestling matches.) That’s what movies are supposed to give us, and, all too often don‘t. This one does, at least a good part of the time.

McCarthy is an actor himself, and he knows how to write for actors, how to give them lines that enrich their personalities and deepen their relationships with each other, and hand us a chuckle or a chastening moment. Movies are often at their strongest when they give us people that seem real, that we can recognize or remember — even if the plots become a little contrived and familiar. Well, sometimes life is a little contrived and familiar.

One of the reasons we follow sports, in life and in the movies, is to be around when a story, and a backstory, like this comes around. It gives us a charge: and so does a show with actors like Giamatti and the rest, from a filmmaker like McCarthy. Or from a state like New Jersey. As the Boss says: Baby, we were born to run. Or in this case, to wrestle: Shaffer with his opponents, Giamatti with his conscience — and we moviegoers with our sense of how to spend our time and money. Seems to me it’s an easy pick. Like the man says: Win Win.

Extras: Sundance Festival conversations with Tom McCarthy and Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer and David Thompson; Deleted scenes; Featurettes; McCarthy and Joe Tiboni discuss Win Win; Music Video by The National; Trailer


“Poetry” (Four Stars)
South Korea: Chang-Dong Lee, 2010 (Kino International)
Her face is careworn but still pretty, the face of a once beautiful woman now in her ‘60s, her hair still black, her eyes soft, her once dazzling smile now almost completely vanished. She wears colorful flower print dresses and a white beach hat, which, at one point, sails away in the wind when she bends to look at the river. She works as a maid and caretaker for an elderly, disabled man, who gives her tips and gets aroused when she bathes him.

With no help at all from her absent daughter, she tries to feed and provide a home for her teenaged grandson Jongwook (David Lee), a boorish, pimpled bully who treats her with cruel and offhand neglect — and who has committed a hideous crime (a gang rape that drove a young classmate to suicide) that she must now try to make right, by paying reparations (of 500 million won) that she cannot afford. She is gentle and giving, tireless and kind to everyone she meets. She has begun to get distracted, to forget nouns and verbs, and she doesn’t yet know what that may mean.

Once, when she was a little girl, her teacher told her she would grow up to be a poet. And now she remembers those words, as she spies a notice in the street for a poetry class. She decides to take the class, because she wants to write a poem. Just one.

Her name is Mija.

Listen to her, please. And listen to this film as well. The sorrows, pains and occasional beauties of old age — the way the old can by ignored, hurt and sometimes horribly abused by the young — have rarely been more movingly portrayed than they are here by the superb Korean actress Jeong-Hee Yoon, and by the gifted and deeply perceptive director-writer Chang-Dong Lee, in Lee’s film Poetry. Lee, an acclaimed Korean novelist, who began his movie directing career late in life, at 40, is now one of South Korea’s finest contemporary filmmakers. Yoon is a one-time film star and great beauty whom Lee coaxed out of retirement for this role. No one in the world, from any place, in any country, could have played it better.

The movie is quiet and subtle, and like some of the best poems we read or hear, perfectly phrased. It does not coax our tears. We watch it quietly, and our heart breaks. Seeing this woman, so kind, so good, so badly and uncaringly treated, as she struggles to live her life, to cope with her great troubles, and to write her poem — even as the words slip away from her — is an experience I will never forget. Neither should you. (In Korean, with English subtitles.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon