The Films of Rodrigo Garcia
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (February 4/02)
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her was initially slated for a theatrical release a couple of years ago. A trailer was released and posters could be spotted at movie theaters. But then something happened - apparently some executives at MGM got jittery about releasing a movie without any teenagers or car crashes - and the flick wound up debuting on video. Which is a shame, really - this is an intelligent and well-acted flick that easily stands out from the big-budget blow-'em-ups and juvenile teen comedies.
Featuring a cast comprised of Hollywood's most talented female actors, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her tells five separate stories that occasionally intersect. Glenn Close stars as a lonely abortionist that seeks out the advice of a fortune teller (played by Calista Flockhart) who's having some personal problems of her own - her lover (Valeria Golina) is slowly dying of cancer. Amy Brenneman stars as a detective whose blind sister (Cameron Diaz) seems to have more luck with men than she does. Holly Hunter appears as a successful banker who, after discovering that she's pregnant with her married lover, decides to have an abortion. Finally, Kathy Baker shows up as a bored housewife who finds herself inexplicably drawn to her new neighbor - a man that just happens to be a dwarf.
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her unfolds slowly, much like a novel. When each individual story is wrapped up, there isn't always a big revelation to be had. We're witness to a few moments in the lives of these very different women. And while the movie doesn't exactly whiz by like a freight train, the slow, deliberate pace is entirely effective.
And of course, some of the stories are more compelling than others. The Flockhart/Golina storyline is more morose than anything else, and doesn't really provide any insights into living with a terminal illness. On the other hand, both the Baker and Diaz tales are fascinating looks at flawed women. Diaz, in particular, is quite compelling as a blind woman that tends to overcompensate for her disability by saying whatever pops into her head and sleeping with a lot of different men. Brenneman, as her sister, is treated like dirt by her but is essentially powerless to do anything about it, because who wants to admonish a blind girl?
But in terms of acting, there's no question that Hunter provides the best performance. As the bank manager whose biological clock is approaching its end, Hunter has to run a gamut of emotions (especially once she decides to go forth with the abortion). Had this been a theatrical release as intended, there's no question that Hunter would have garnered an Oscar nomination.
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is often quite difficult to watch, pummeling us with real emotions. But it's for that very reason that it's worth checking out.
Ten Tiny Love Stories
Nine Lives (February 18/06)
Though it'd be easy to label Nine Lives' central conceit (the movie consists solely of nine separate, completely uninterrupted takes) as nothing more than a gimmick, writer/director Rodrigo Garcia effectively uses the device to deliver a series of thoroughly compelling short films. Each segment - at a length of 10-12 minutes - tells an entirely contained story, generally starting with a seemingly mundane activity and eventually working its way to some kind of catharsis. Aside from the fact that Nine Lives is endlessly compelling on a purely visual level, Garcia's use of long takes lends the film a distinct vibe of authenticity. Without any cuts or editing tricks, the various actors are able to let their respective performances unfold in real time (meaning that, in most cases, we can actually see the emotions building within these characters over the course of just a few minutes). Garcia has consequently placed an incredible burden on virtually every actor in the film's cast, though the filmmaker has done an extraordinary job of matching the many roles with just the right performer (Robin Wright Penn, William Fichtner, and Ian McShane are just a few of the many standouts). And although there are a few stories here that aren't quite as effective as others - something that's particularly true of Lisa Gay Hamilton's histrionic installment - Nine Lives is, on the whole, a remarkably powerful little film.
There's little doubt that Passengers represents the least effective entry within Rodrigo Garcia's otherwise impeccable filmography, as the director - working for the first time from a script written by someone else - generally proves unable to infuse the proceedings with the kind of gritty authenticity he's become known for. The headscratcher of a storyline plays a significant role in the movie's inability to capture (and sustain) the viewer's ongoing interest, though it's the curiously (and uniformly) underdeveloped characters that stand out as Passengers' most disappointing attribute - as the incredibly vivid figures that tend to populate Garcia's films are entirely absent here. Ronnie Christensen's spare yet unsatisfying screenplay - which essentially details a grief counselor's (Anne Hathaway's Claire) efforts at helping the survivors of a plane crash cope with their situation - is primarily bogged down in cryptic elements that remain frustratingly nonsensical right up until the admittedly intriguing twist ending, and it's subsequently impossible to escape the feeling that the movie's surprisingly affecting conclusion hardly justifies the dull, almost interminable nature of what preceded it. The end result is a hopelessly uneven effort that just barely earns a positive recommendation, thanks primarily to Garcia's striking visual choices and Hathaway's relatively compelling lead performance.