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  DVD Reviews - Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her

      Date posted: January 29, 2002

Things you can tell just by looking at her
Written and Directed by Terence Davies; Columbia Tri Star
Home Entertainment; anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Dolby Digital
and 2 Channel Dolby Surround; English, French, Spanish subtitles.

     
Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her
Written and Directed by Rodrigo Garcia;
MGM Home Entertainment; Anamorphic Widescreen
1.85:1; English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1,
French Dolby Surround.

      If you watch enough movies sometimes the most startling visions come in the smallest packages. The craft of filmmaking is dependent on attention to detail-beginning with script and character development, which translates to picture and sound, which is edited and mixed into a massive universe of blood, sweat, and tears that can be viewed on the same machine you play Gran Turismo 3, if one so chooses.

      When such extreme care is taken on every level of a project’s development and completion, there is an overwhelming sense of sadness when nobody seems to care. It’s not like music, where if you ‘discover’ a buried treasure in a used CD shop you assume psuedo-ownership of the band, and it will always be yours to respect and protect. When a movie is ignored, it just vanishes. You can’t bring a movie along on a road trip to play for your friends when all the good radio stations fade. You can’t pass a dog-eared DVD to a colleague to view while they lie on the beach on vacation.

      All you can do is mention it in passing, and hope that someone takes a chance. In the case of “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her” you’re probably better off not saying a word.

“What’s it about?”

“Women. Intuition. Relationships. Abortion. Lesbians. Secrets.”

“Hmmm. Feminist, huh?”

“It’s not, I swear.”

“Who’s in it?”

“Calista Flockhart, Glenn Close, Cameron Diaz, Amy Brenneman, and Holly Hunter.”

      That’s one movie that won’t be coming home tonight. And so this remarkable directorial debut by cinematographer Rodrigo Garcia (son of Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez) will be forever tainted as chick-flick, feminist diatribe, insufferable ‘entertainment.’

     Here’s what you’ll be missing if you leave this film sitting on the shelf: breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Not the Lawrence of Arabia kind, but the Five Easy Pieces or A Civil Action kind-where you find yourself saying things like, “I’ve never seen an ugly bathroom look so beautiful before” and “have suburban strip-mall banks always been so visually stimulating?”

     And then there’s the masterful sound recording, coupled with a nifty, jazzy original score. Rarely have I noticed space being so defined by the simple, natural sounds which occupy them. And again, these aren’t German submarines or candle-lit ballrooms we’re talking about here, just bedrooms, offices, streets, and cars. It’s a combination of being both attentive enough to record the silent sounds of a blind person reading brail, and patient enough to not have some voice gabbing over top of it.

     And finally, when astonishing performances are matched with fascinating characters, the results are moving, mind-expanding, and memorable. Say what you want about the Ally McBeal phenomenon, but part of the reason that show remains successful is because audiences believe that this horrible, whiny, self-obsessed character is a real person. Calista Flockhart has had to suffer the consequences of being an extraordinary actress, simply playing the character as it is written. Her terrific range and intensity are on full display once again here, as a tarot-card reader caring for her terminally-ill lover.

     Kathy Baker, a woefully under-rated performer (Street Smart, Jackknife), somehow manages to steal this film from teary-eyed Oscar and Emmy stalwarts. Her character, a divorced mother raising a teenager, trying to begin a new career as a writer, suddenly finds herself obsessed with the dwarf who just moved in across the street. Albert, played with wit and flair by Seinfeld guest-star Danny Woodburn, senses romantic possibilities and a touching story ensues.

     Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her operates as a series of short stories, held together loosely by character, strongly by theme. At its core it is about the nature of intuition, and the things people consciously choose not to share with others. As Cameron Diaz eloquently states in the film’s closing monologue, “Only a fool would speculate about the life of a woman.” But this film does not shield its women, or present them as ideals: the characters are full, robust, and flawed, often to the extreme.

     The dialogue is somewhat mannered, but then, so is Shakespeare. Not all of the stories draw to a natural conclusion, but then, which of life’s activities do? This film has heart and soul, and does not deserve to be missed. A stunning directorial debut for Garcia, and a triumph for each actor who took a chance on playing small roles in a small film.

     Special Features: Theatrical trailer. This is a bare-bones package, not surprising considering the lack of support the film received from the studio.

Darryl Stenabaugh

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