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Films I Neglected To Review: Book Em!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Best of Enemies," "The End of the Tour," "Gemma Bovary" and "The Runner."

In 1968, the ABC network, in a desperate bid to jump-start the ratings for their election year coverage, hit upon the notion of bringing together two of the most notable intellectual minds of the time--liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr.--for a series on ten televised debates on the issues of the day. As crazy as it may sound today, these debates galvanized the country as the two men, both of whom pretty much loathed each other, got into it with each other in ways that would anticipate the yelling and name-calling that would come to define "debate" in our culture while still maintaing a level of erudition that would never pass muster with today's audiences. The history of these debates and the two people at the center of them are the subject of the fascinating new documentary "Best of Enemies," a film that is pretty much a must-see for media and political junkies for its juicy snippets of the conflict that played itself out on television screens across the country. When it comes to summing up the reasons why the media seized upon the junkyard fight approach to public debate and continue to do so to this day, the film is less sure-footed and while it sort of condemns what the process has become, it doesn't exactly seem too upset by it. A more in-depth examination of the subject would have been welcome but this is still a reasonably interesting and definitely entertaining look at one of the first key intersections between political journalism and entertainment and how the reverberations are still being felt today.

Adapted from the book "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" by former Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, "The End of the Tour" recounts the five days that Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent on the road with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during the last leg of the 1996 book tour to promote his groundbreaking literary epic "Infinite Jest." Considering that Wallace himself was notoriously guarded in regards to the details of his personal life and deeply ambivalent about the sudden celebrity that was bestowed upon him after that book's publication--issues that may have indeed played a part in his 2008 suicide--the very existence of the film seems somewhat troubling at best and tacky at worst, especially since the Wallace family refused to endorse it in any way. Happily, neither screenwriter David Lipsky nor director James Ponsoldt seem particularly interested in lingering on the more exploitable aspects of the story (save for a framing device involving Lipsky learning of the suicide that doesn't fit in with the rest of the film and which should have been junk), preferring to concentrate more on observing Wallace as he struggles to make the adjustment from being a teacher at a small college with one poor-selling book under his belt to someone dubbed "the voice of his generation" by virtually everyone he meets. (He is so worried about being viewed as inauthentic that he even finds himself questioning the headbands that he wore long before anyone knew who he was.) However, their efforts would have meant nothing if it weren't for the amazing central performance by Segel as Wallace, who captures the numerous sides of Wallace--from the shaggily lovable to the blisteringly cruel--in ways that go far beyond mere imitation and his verbal sparring matches with Eisenberg (who is also quite good) are as exciting as anything that you will see in a theater right now. "The End of the Tour" is smart, thoughtful and touching and, perhaps most importantly of all, it will no doubt inspire anyone who sees it to rush out and read (or possibly) re-read "Infinite Jest" to get a better sense of what all the fuss was about.

Gustave Flaubert's classic novel "Madame Bovery" already got the screen adaptation treatment earlier this summer with a straightforward-but-dull take on the material starring Mia Wasikowska that failed to bring anything new or interesting to the party. Now comes "Gemma Bovery," a modern-day riff on the book that is interesting in theory, I suppose, but little more than an increasingly tedious literary conceit in practice. In this one, Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is a baker in a small town near Normandy with a passion for the works of Flaubert. When a young English couple (Jason Flemyng and Gemma Arterton) move in nearby and Martin discovers that their names are Charles and Gemma Bovery, he becomes convinced that they, especially Gemma, are the living embodiment of the characters from his favorite book and tries to project that book's eventually tragic narrative onto their lives, even at times trying to mess around with things from afar in order to help them stick to the plot. It sounds amusing enough but director/co-writer Anne Fontaine is never quite sure whether to play the material for laughs or melodrama and flits back and forth between the two, often at the wrong time, before leading to a climax that is meant to be tragic but which I fear will inspire only awkward snickers from viewers. This is a shame because Gemma Arterton is one of those enormously appealing actresses who deserves to have a vehicle that allows her to show her stuff for the world to see--think Rosamund Pike before her big breakthrough in "Gone Girl." She is the best thing here--funny, charming, sexy, touching and charismatic beyond belief--but not even her efforts are enough to make it worth watching for anyone who is not currently a charter member of her fan club.

At this point in his career, whenever Nicolas Cage appears in a new movie--especially one that is more or less going the VOD route with only a token limited theatrical release--the question on the minds of most people is not "How good is it?" but "How crazy is Cage?" The strange thing about his latest effort, "The Runner," is that he is not bad in it at all. Oh sure, this won't go down as one of his legendary characterizations and some fun can be had in the way that his Southern accent appears and vanishes from scene to scene but his performance as a Louisiana politician whose attempts to fight for his constituents (and lay the work for a Senate run) in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill are derailed when his extramarital indiscretions come to light is a solid bit of acting that shows that behind all the weirdness and ill-advised career picks is a performer who can still make the commitment when so inspired. The trouble this time around is that the rest of the film is just not up to snuff. Writer-director Austin Stark never quite seems clear as to how he wants us to see Cage's character--is he a good but flawed man or a self-absorbed bastard who just happens to do the right thing once in a while--and fails to find a way for viewers to connect with and/or care about what happens to him. It is also structured kind of strangely in that Cage's fall from grace occurs so early in the proceedings that the story doesn't really have anywhere to go for long stretches before arriving at a conclusion that is presumably intended to be harsh and cynical but which will inspire more shrugs than anything else. Still, if Cage has to flounder around in movies that will hardly be seen by most audiences, better this than the likes of "Trespass," "Rage," "Outcast" and several others that you have long since forgotten about.

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originally posted: 08/08/15 01:46:00
last updated: 08/10/15 14:30:14
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