What We’re Watching – 8/10/11

King of Marvin Gardens

Around Christmas time last year, I picked up a copy of the Criterion Collection’s box set “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.” It wasn’t until just a couple weeks ago that I finally sat down and watched King of Marvin Gardens, starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, and Julia Anne Robinson. Directed by Bob Rafelson, who was coming off the critical success of Five Easy Pieces, King of Marvin Gardens takes a different look at the male psyche in modern America. The story centers around two brothers (Nicholson and Dern) and the nature of their relationship.

The film opens on an amazing scene of Nicholson speaking into a microphone on the radio. At first, while enthralled with the words he was saying, I was a bit put off by the obvious overwriting of his speech, but as the film develops (even as the scene itself does), it becomes apparent that this isn’t overwriting for the sake of the script—this was the character. Nicholson plays David Staebler, a late night radio show host. He’s neurotic and obviously a type-B individual. David outwardly treats his brother Jason like he’s somewhat of troublemaker, and a nuisance. Inwardly, David idolizes Jason, and is jealous of his relationship with Sally and Jessica (Burstyn and Robinson), and it’s through this dynamic that the film weaves its nerve-wracking web. The film is layered with a sense of tension that seems to come from nowhere, yet is constantly building.

In my opinion, this is one of Nicholson’s finest performances. His actions are nuanced and hint at a much more complex character than his dialogue allows. Bruce Dern is fun to watch as the over-the-top troublesome doppelganger to Nicholson. However, the film is totally stolen, almost quite literally, by Ellen Burstyn, who has always been one of my favorite actresses.

The Informant

Steven Soderbergh’s tale of company Vice President turned informer, Mark Whitacre, is an unexpected fun ride. Matt Damon turns in another surprising performance for me, as the happy-go-lucky Whitacre, who appears to be the most forthright man in perhaps all of existence. He’s so Ward Cleaver that the FBI agents he turns informer to carry his photo as a reminder that decent people do exist. One of the most fun things about this film, aside from Damon’s performance, is the plot delivery. Soderbergh calls on a specific style to tell this film, one that evokes images and emotions from late ’60s spy films. Using this technique, he applies a sense of mystery to the unfolding of the story. The audience is never quite sure what Mark Whitacre is about, or what is really going on. So much of the story is cleverly reliant upon the information Whitacre unfolds, and whether Whitacre is someone we can trust or not is what remains to be seen.

To be honest, I’ve fallen out of the Soderbergh scene for a while, but it appears while I’ve been gone he’s been extremely busy, churning out films, such as Bubble, Che, The Girlfriend Experience, The Good German, as well as having two films releasing in the near future, Contagion and Haywire, and a handful in pre-production. I’ve always generally had a fondness for Soderbergh; whether I like the film itself, he knows how to direct and what elements are necessary for each piece he takes on. I actually plan on watching all his films I’ve missed in the coming weeks. I’m particularly interested in Che, his epic two-part film that apparently is responsible for him retiring from directing when he’s done with the films on his slate. It’s unfortunate that such an experience has burned him out. In one interview he even stated he no longer wanted to stage an over-the-shoulder shot again. He seems to be burnt, but that list he made of every film he watched for a year was inspiring for a movie lover such as myself.


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Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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