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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

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Off the Map

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Off the Map
2005 (2005) - Sony

While it's always a good time writing about slasher flicks, vintage exploitation and other such gonzo movies, the thing I enjoy most about this column is when I get a chance to champion a small movie that fell through the cracks and deserves a wider audience. Off the Map is one such buried treasure. Released with virtually no fanfare last year, Off the Map is a touching and funny comedy-drama that genuinely surprised me.

The movie paints a portrait of a family that has disconnected from society and lives off the land in a remote part of the New Mexico desert. Joan Allen is Arlene, the matriarch of the family. Her husband Charley (Sam Elliott) is battling a depression so deep he can barely be bothered to speak to anyone. Their daughter Bo (Valentina De Angelis) doesn't quite understand what's going on and tries to bring her dad around as best she can. Their routine is interrupted by the arrival of an IRS agent (Jim True-Frost) assigned to audit the family for back taxes. Once there, he undergoes a profound change of life and abandons his job, moving into a trailer on the family's property.

Director Campbell Scott is a familiar face as an actor but movie buffs will remember that he also co-directed the quietly wonderful Big Night with Stanley Tucci, one of the most underappreciated films of the 1990s. Off the Map isn't quite at that level but it's still a delight. Scott has assembled a wonderful ensemble of actors and gets outstanding performances from each and every one. Possibly the biggest surprise is Sam Elliott, who taps a deep well of powerful emotions with very few lines of dialogue. His eyes tell his story better than words ever could. Joan Ackermann wrote the rich screenplay from her own stage play and it's a tribute to both Scott and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia that the film makes it difficult to imagine this story being told on stage. The landscape of New Mexico becomes so integral that it feels like a stage version would be missing an entire character.

The technical aspects of Sony's disc are excellent with a beautiful anamorphic transfer that suits the photography and a subtle but very effective Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Extras are few but not bad. Two featurettes originally hail from the Sundance Channel. Out There Now is a by-the-numbers behind-the-scenes promo piece while Anatomy of a Scene is more interesting, delving into the specifics behind one important sequence. The best bonus is the audio commentary by Campbell Scott and Joan Ackermann. While the pair do delve into some standard commentary anecdotal material, the best stuff is when they enter into a free-ranging discussion on theatre, film, and the differences between them. It's an intelligent and lively chat, kind of like being invited to a dinner party with the cool professors at a university.

Off the Map is a quiet, thoughtful movie that requires an audience to give it some time and space and allow the story to unfold at its own pace. If you're willing to do that, I think you'll find it grows on you. By the movie's end, I was thoroughly absorbed and glad to have been given a chance to get to know these fascinating characters. Seek it out, give it a chance. I hope you won't be disappointed.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C+


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2005 (2006) - Sony Pictures Classics

People seem to either look back on their high school years as the best years of their lives or the absolute worst. Seen objectively, the truth is that for most of us, they were really neither one. The good old days weren't really all that great and as horrible as things may have seemed to you at the time, those problems probably pale in comparison to real human suffering. Nevertheless, writers and filmmakers by the score keep returning to the angsty teenage years as a source of inspiration, usually with a much cooler soundtrack than our actual lives played out to. The latest movie to tap into this well is Mike Mills' Thumbsucker.

Based on a novel by Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker follows angsty Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci), a goal-less teen who can't break the habit of sucking his thumb, much to the disgust of his sporting-goods-store manager dad (Vincent D'Onofrio). Justin's unorthodox orthodontist (who else but Keanu Reeves) suggests using hypnosis to cure him and it seems to work. But with no outlet for his anxieties, he's diagnosed with ADD and put on Ritalin, turning him into a hyperkinetic overachiever.

Thumbsucker is a pretty good movie, certainly one that kept me entertained and interested while I was watching it. Mike Mills, a veteran of music videos and commercials, has a distinct visual style and his eye helps kick the movie to a level that a more pedestrian filmmaker wouldn't have reached. The cast is uniformly excellent. D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton might not seem like a natural couple at first but the very unlikeliness of their pairing makes their relationship feel that much more organic. Vince Vaughn is good in a smallish role as Justin's debate team coach. And I don't know if Keanu's acting is improving with age or if directors are simply casting him more effectively these days, but he's terrific as the orthodontist whose life is changed by Justin in unexpected ways.

But the movie really stands or falls on Lou Pucci's performance. He's at the center of the film, appearing in virtually every scene. And he's good but he's also something of a blank slate. To be fair, this is by design, since Justin himself is struggling to find his personality. But by the end of the film, I wasn't sharing in his sense of exhilaration and freedom. I had enjoyed the film but I was left wondering why this particular kid's story was any more film-worthy than anybody else's.

The disc is pretty good, with a nice 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and a subdued but effective 5.0 Dolby Digital mix (at its best when dealing with music performed by the Polyphonic Spree). Extras include a intermittently interesting commentary by Mills, a half-hour making-of piece, and Mills' Director's Blog available as a DVD-ROM feature. By far the best extra is a 40-minute conversation between Mills and novelist Walter Kirn. It's captivating throughout, better than most audio commentaries. I'd love to see similar features for other movies based on books.

Thumbsucker is similar in tone and style to something like Rushmore but it didn't grab me in quite the same way. No doubt there are plenty of people who will see themselves in this story somehow and will identify much more strongly with Justin than I did. But if you're already starting to grow weary of the modern teen's coming-of-age movie, Thumbsucker probably won't change your mind.

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/C+

Adam Jahnke
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