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Arts & Entertainment Preview | October 2001 | Sponsored by Chrysler


by Ella Taylor

Death on the Highway

Paul Franklin Dano as Howie,
in L.I.E.

Michael Cuesta is not the first to find poetry in Long Island (or to quote Walt Whitman in his first movie), but he's surely one of the first to wax lyrical about thuggery, sexual exploitation, and parental neglect in that suburban idyll. Inspired—if that's the word—by a couple of famous real-life deaths (singer/songwriter Harry Chapin and director Alan Pakula) on the Long Island Expressway, L.I.E. begins and ends with an adolescent boy, Howie, whose mother died in the same way, climbing out onto a bridge and teetering above the freeway. In between you will be moved to feel sympathy not only for Howie (Paul Franklin Dano), but for his feckless fellow delinquents; for the father (Bruce Altman), who is so wrapped up in his legal troubles that he fails to notice how badly his son is hurting; and even for a literate local pedophile, Big John Harrigan (played with quiet brilliance by the Irish actor Brian Cox). Yet there's nothing remotely self-indulgent or sentimental about the movie, which stubbornly resists categorization as a "gay movie" or a "teen drama"—just as its characters, with their plausibly opaque motivations, resist being typed as perverts, hoods, or dysfunctional dads. It hardly matters that the expressway deaths don't quite hold up as metaphors for the dangers that threaten Howie's fragile hold on his identity. Beautifully shot and with a literate screenplay by Stephen M. Ryder, Cuesta, and Gerald Cuesta, L.I.E. evokes with candor and delicacy a suburban world filled in equal parts with tenderness and danger.

Sins of the Father

Set in Liverpool, England, in the 1930s, Stephen Frears's new film,
Liam, observes the impact of the Depression and rumors of war on an impoverished Catholic family, as seen through the eyes of its youngest child, a pinched-looking boy (movingly played by Anthony Borrows) with a severe stammer brought on by dark intimations of sin. When Dad (played with magnificently grim truculence by Ian Hart) loses his job, he grows increasingly bitter and ashamed that his eldest son, a socialist, is the breadwinner, while his daughter must work as maid to a wealthy Jewish matron. Dad turns for solace to drink and a nascent Fascist movement, with tragic consequences for the whole family. The situation is primed for religious and political extremity—and for the florid screenwriting of Jimmy McGovern, which is jarringly at odds with Frears's tactful, poetic direction. McGovern (who wrote the appallingly disingenuous Priest and the rather better television series Cracker) based the story on his own childhood experiences, and though the movie is nothing if not heartfelt, it is rich in contradictions of which, at the most charitable estimate, he seems unaware. At a time when the vast majority of English Jews were every bit as poor as the Catholics, Jews are represented in this film by an intransigent rent collector, a grasping pawnbroker, and the shipyard owner who's responsible for Dad losing his job. Similarly, the Catholic Church appears to be peopled solely by tub-thumping priests and scary schoolmarms threatening fire and brimstone for every small infraction. If that's not stacking the deck, I don't know what is.

Temporary Measures

Jacob and Josh Kornbluth's charming first feature must be one of the more original appreciations of commitment phobia. Certainly it's one of the most eccentric.
Haiku Tunnel poses the question, To temp or not to temp? The movie is worked up from a 1990 monologue by Josh Kornbluth, whose anxious, owlish face and tubby body encased in a succession of shirts, each louder than the one before, serve him well in his role as the nerdy, exemplary temp who beats all deadlines and never steals the office equipment or uses the phone for private calls. Until, that is, a terrifyingly put-together managerial gorgon at the S & M law firm offers him the opportunity to "go perm." (The manager is played by the performance artist Helen Shumaker, who has a day job as a secretary.) Realizing that his whole life is an avoidance of one kind or another—replete with strategically aborted romances and unfinished novels—Josh bites the bullet, only to find that his skills desert him overnight, and, while desperately trying to finish the "seventeen important letters" his boss has given him to type up and mail, he gets deeper and deeper into trouble. Kornbluth has a wonderfully sharp ear for the absurd excesses of contemporary office lingo and culture. He and most of his cast have worked for years as temps, and his real-life boss, on whom the movie boss was closely modeled, saw the show and loved it. The movie draws amusingly pointed parallels between the dilemmas of temping and marriage: in both, permanence offers benefits and security, while temping is all freedom and no stability.

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Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.
Photograph from L.I.E.: Lot 47 Films.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.