Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

gen x review thirteen conversationsI've always accepted the premise that enough good intentions could kill any film, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing very nearly proves this case.

Thirteen Conversations follow four people as they grapple with destiny, fate, luck and human relationships in contemporary New York City. The film is strangely beautiful despite the screenwriter's heavy-handed treatment of the subject and the acting is subtly powerful. This is the kind of movie that works on you over time, as you're driving home discussing it with your favorite SO.

Violent acts change everything that follows, but sometimes it's the quiet moments of reflection that have real power. Sometimes it isn't the last slap in the face that breaks the camel's back, but the pretty smiling girl on the subway platform. We underestimate the drama in the everyday, forget the preciousness that bind us to each other, and become captives of our own routines.

The world is full of train wrecks waiting to happen, individuals who are trapped by their own perceptions and can't see that the only thing between them and happiness is themselves. For Gene (Alan Arkin), an embittered middle manager at an insurance firm, life appears like a series of bad breaks. Troy (Matthew McConaughey), a young lawyer in the District Attorney's office, believes in the power of the law and the individual to choose right from wrong. Walker (John Turturro) is a physics professor who doesn't understand how his belief in the immutable laws of the universal has predestined him to repeat his past errors. Beatrice (Clea DuVall) has put her faith totally in god, but only so she can feel special in a world full of compromise and unhappiness.

Each character meets the limit of his or her belief in the film. For some it's an unfortunate accident, for others a miscalculated decision or inability to adapt to changing situations. To quote the bumper stick “Poop Happens,” but we do things to ourselves, too. Because Gene sees the future only as a repeat of the past, time appears to be a prison, a crap shot game of luck. And luck is just a cruel game of giving in order to take away. Beatrice has faith that everything will work out, but when she's struck by a car for no reason she must face the senselessness of life.

What connects the characters in Thirteen Conversations is a sincere desire for happiness. Each struggles with how to understand the mostly absurd details of life. Draw a line between any thirteen people at any movie you will ever see and you would have the same plot line: A story of modern people trying to understand the meaning of life.

If people are hell, as the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, they're also a form of salvation. What connects us to one another is as mysterious and magical as destiny. You cannot control what happens to you -- whether fate smile or scolds at you -- but you can control how you choose to interpret it and who you want to share it with.

McConaughey is a surprise, offering a quietly intense portrayal of a man slowly losing his grip on reality, and Arkin is the definitive “man in the gray flannel shirt,” an uber everyman, barking his lines out with tight-lipped authenticity. DuVall’s Beatrice is strange, shy and utterly adorable, the sort of girl who you see everyday at the library or Salvation Army, but never really speak to. The is a true ensemble cast, an outstanding collection of actors really working through the characters’ idiosyncrasies.

Thirteen Conversations isn’t without faults. The characters often seem like petty philosophical mouthpieces and the resulting dialog sometimes sounds like it could have been written by an overzealous college student, but somehow Thirteen Conversations works. Yes, conversations are wooden and the screenwriter’s preachy tone is occasionally infuriating, but the film is often poignant and sometimes downright lovely.

Just like life.



gen x review signsYou’ve seen the signs and you know that we are not alone, but sometimes you wonder if there is someone or something watching over us or just waiting to snatch us up in our sleep.

Master director M. Night Shyamalan understands how you feel and is willing to push you into the dusty corners of your mind, where everything you have ever feared is possible. This is a world where aliens and god do not necessarily want to be your friend and even dust bunnies sometimes have fangs.
Signs is a subtle, wonderfully paced film, a work of art so haunting that it nearly defies comparison.

Only the recent film Frailty produces this level of exquisite ambiguity, and that film lacks the courage to resist its own resolutions. Signs is the most complex, compelling work of storytelling so far from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Ex-priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a man facing a crisis of faith. He has recently lost his wife and renounced his priesthood, believing that the accident that took his significant other was an arbitrary act, a sign without meaning. He lives with his small children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) on a farm in rural Pennsylvania.

One day he discovers a crop circle carved into his corn field. He initially believes the signs to be the work of petty vandals, but when nearly identical circles appear all over the world and strange lights are seen hovering over Mexico City, he changes his mind. The signs are dangerous portents for the cleric turned atheist, because they signify the possibility of another aggressive force in the universe.

The invasion that follows makes Graham re-evaluate his values. The alien signs are ultimately as material as any in the universe, but beneath them lies an entirely different system of meaning. Graham must determine, interpret and rationalize the world through the grammar provided to him. Are the signs empty absurd gestures in a demystified and meaningless Existential world or do they constitute some real language, a miracle.

The film teases out conflicting interpretations, playing with audience expectations until the uncertainty reaches a crisis of possibilities. The signs are overdetermined and metaphoric, designed to evoke a sense of ambiguity and doubt. Bo says, “are you in my dream,” or Graham mutters, “I’m not ready to face this yet” and the audience lets out a collective Aha, thinking they understand the film’s subtle narrative tricks -- but they don’t, trust me.

The film takes place is a real so symbolic that it may be a gross allegory for some deep psychological or spiritual trial, a setting so troubled by the past that it could be merely a psychic hallucination or cheap trick of consciousness, the kind of exercise college English professors are enamored by. Yet somehow the characters don’t feel wooden, unrealistic or contrived.

Graham stutters over swears he barely knows; Merrill interprets dating mishaps as signs from god; Morgan makes tin foil hats to protect his thoughts from the aliens; and Bo has a problem drinking one glass of water at a time. These are ordinary, flawed people, living lives of quiet desperation and trying to come to grips with the recent death of Graham’s spouse. The mysterious crop circles are merely the outer most ring of meaning in the story of people struggling to understand their world.

The family farm is a pressure cooker, forcing Graham and his family to face their lives in new ways. Emotions are intensified and amplified by the alien invasion, yet the real story isn’t so much the crop circle signs and warnings as the possibility of redemptive faith. Sometimes god speaks in a very private language. Sometimes our lives run in distant circles that seem arbitrary from the ground, but take on significance when seen from another perspective.

The aliens are uncanny, enigmatic signposts pointing toward some even stranger truth. They appear as vague shapes in doorways, strange figures creeping along the horizon, or indistinct eerie faces peering in from dark windows. They are the things we all see out of the corner of our eyes as we’re walking to our cars on cold autumn nights, the things we secretly know live in our basements eating grub worms and beetles.

Shyamalan builds suspense like a master architect -- a mad genius redesigning the tower of babel from its description in scripture. Every step forward reveals more of the uncertain underpinning holding everything together. The spiral stairwell leads nowhere, but you must follow it until you stand at the very top of this demon structure, where all signs appear both divine and utterly meaningless.
Signs are all around us. How you choose to interpret them is up to you.

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