September 24, 2008

Snow Angels


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of 5): ****

There are those who see writer/director David Gordon Green's career improving, with Undertow (2004) as his best work, and others see it in decline, with his debut George Washington (2000) remaining his finest to date. His fourth feature Snow Angels should at least have both camps in agreement; it's not his best, but it's an accomplished, wrenching, satisfying drama of the highest order. (It's every bit as good as -- but 180 degrees from -- his subsequent film, Pineapple Express, released just a few months later.)

Based on a novel by Stewart O'Nan, centers on a circle of people living in a snowy American small town. Annie (Kate Beckinsale) is divorced from Glenn (Sam Rockwell) and raising their daughter Tara (Gracie Hudson) alone, with occasional help from her well-meaning mom. Annie works at a Chinese restaurant (though no actual Chinese people are anywhere to be seen) with her best pal Barb (Amy Sedaris) and teen Arthur (Michael Angarano), whom she used to babysit. Annie is secretly sleeping with Barb's ridiculous husband (Nicky Katt, with a square haircut and rectangular moustache), and Arthur shyly flirts with her at work. Meanwhile, Arthur's parents are splitting up and a new girl in school, Lila (The Wackness' Olivia Thirlby), has a crush on him. And Glenn is trying to beat his alcoholism and depression with a desperate grab at religion so that he can earn his way back into Annie's life. All this comes crashing down when Tara goes missing.

That's a lot of plot, and there's more that I haven't even gone into, but Green handles it with the relaxed grace of a novelist. Filmmakers normally trim and snip to urge their films to move faster, but Green spreads himself out, unafraid to use space and time to let things settle in. (Yet, miraculously, the film only runs 106 minutes.) With George Washington, Green spent at least half the film setting up "mood" shots, showing locations, objects and weather. Here, he's more densely concentrated on plot, but has not given up those "mood breaks" (or "pillow shots" as they were called in Ozu's work).

Moreover, with all this luxurious space, the actors give extraordinary performances across the board, notably Beckinsale, who more or less ties the entire story together. Likewise, Sedaris, who is usually used as a quick joke in films. Here she's still hilarious, but her humor is integrated into her surroundings. (The movie's greatest trick is that it's very funny for its first hour, until the drama settles in.) Lastly, Green wraps up the entire package in a palpable sense of cold and snow and small town life. This is a terrific film.

Warner Home Video's DVD comes with the widescreen version on one side and the pan-and-scan on the other, but this is a movie that definitely needs to be seen in widescreen. It comes with an optional French-language track and optional subtitles, but that's it. Picture and sound are excellent, but it's a fairly disappointing DVD treatment for such a good movie.

More: Interview with David Gordon Green.

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Posted by cphillips at September 24, 2008 2:40 PM
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