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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Meanwhile (Blu-ray)
Meanwhile (Blu-ray)
Olive Films // Unrated // April 23, 2013 // Region A
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Christopher McQuain | posted May 6, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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THE FILM

Please Note: The images used here are stills provided by director Hal Hartley's Possible Films website, not the current Blu-ray edition under review.

Joseph Fulton (D.J. Mendel) is the least troubled of writer/director Hal Hartley's typically down-on-their-luck leading men, a gallery that ranges from Martin Donovan's suffocated genius in 1990's Trust to Thomas Jay Ryan's...suffocated genius in Hartley's masterpiece, 1997's Henry Fool. Fulton, too, is a genius whose ample gifts go underappreciated and barely paid, but, though the shagginess of Hartley's dogs has often been consciously exaggerated to create his hallmark blend of dry-ice-deadpan hilarity and odd pathos, Joe's particular qualities makes this an atypically (but frequently delightfully) light foray into human nature, behavior, and society for Hartley; of all the sardonically put-upon, sometimes truly down-and-out protagonists Hartley has drawn, this one seems most capable of seeing the humor in the abyss that divides his potential from his accomplishment. It's this appealing, quirky, but levelheaded figure, a Brooklyn-dwelling modern-day Renaissance man, around whom Hartley spins Meanwhile, his latest tale and first full-length (or at least nearly so, with its hour-long running time) narrative feature since 2006's Henry Fool addendum, Fay Grim.

The compact film (originally conceived as the first installment of a TV miniseries, though it stands alone just fine) spans an unusually packed day-in-the-life, or at least what would be for most people; it would seem that the perpetually occupied Joe has days like this all the time, since he has a dozen ambitions running at once and seems quite accustomed to being in a state of incredibly nonchalant multitasking. Joe has talents: He can play the drums at the professional level (Mendel's actual occupation when he's not in front of the camera, and it shows in a scene where Joe performs an intimidating audition for a successful indie band), and a peripheral character not even prone to liking the couch-surfing Joe becomes immersed in the galleys of his huge, "nearly-published" novel, Meanwhile. Joe has projects: We're let in on his sometime vocational activity directing videos for an online-advertising concern when an unpaid actress (Kanstance Frakes) from the shoot accosts him (revealing to us in the process that Joe also has principles, and in spades; he'll ensure she gets paid, and gives her the last of his meager cash as a token of good faith), and he can't stop pitching his great, very well-considered business idea for importing German-made green-technology windows for use in Brooklyn's condo-construction boom. And Joe has a way with the ladies, whether he's having the most amicable and kind breakup ever with a half-clad girlfriend (Danielle Meyer) in the film's first scene or revisiting an ex-wife (Anais Borck) for a touching and hilarious exchange (she's an actress, a semi-regular on Law and Order, rife with an actress's insecurities; she wants to be Mary Magdalene in a gospel-based film Joe might be producing, not the "matronly" Mary, mother of God), or giving a put-upon maid (Soraya Soi) the most miraculous, literally spine-tingling massage of her life in a scene that revisits Hartley's paradoxical talent for near-slapstick.

Most of all, Joe is a people person; he almost compulsively helps his fellowman and seems incapable of unkindness or dishonesty, whether he's taking very personally an attractive woman's idle musings about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (an early exchange that haunts him and sort of ties the film together as a through-line recurring concern), dropping everything to watch a lost and harried fellow New Yorker's cartload of stuff so he can retrieve his truck 40 blocks away without the burden, or fixing a famous novelist's special typewriter in a bar with spontaneous, impressive expertise and alacrity. (The constant motion in which Hartley keeps Mendel engaged is a gratifying reminder of the physicality of actors the director has for so long visibly appreciated and celebrated; Mendel's crackerjack, minutely choreographed disassembly, cleaning/repair, and reassembly of that typewriter, all while seamlessly delivering Hartley's characteristically artificial/rapid-fire dialogue, could've been conceived and performed by Buster Keaton.) And Hartley, cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff, and longtime editing collaborator Kyle Gilman have in present-day Manhattan the perfect playground in which to set eager-beaver, un-showily self-sacrificing Joe loose: One slowly develops a clear, sure sense that Joe's action-packed life of (mis)adventure and high-aptitude/low-income subsistence couldn't really happen anywhere else, and Hartley uses his photographer's eye for composition and mise-en-scène (often in gorgeous shallow focus; the blurred, twinkling lights of the cityscape in the background at night visually render Joe, foregrounded against an apartment window, a sort of secular saint) to make a showcase/tribute to the Big Apple so vital to and well-integrated with the story, you don't even realize until midway through that it comes damn close to rivaling Manhattan as a letter of undying love to New York.

The film has a real depth and richness to it, but not a whole lot of any great consequence; it feels like a purposely "minor" work, almost a lark, its 10 or so mini-episodes (each demarcated with a chapter-header intertitle, not the first time Hartley has paid stylistic tribute to primary influence Jean-Luc Godard) rich in detail and interest but light on momentum or cumulative force. It's therefore unusually light fare for Hartley, not because the big philosophical/ethical/aesthetic matters he's often concerned himself with are absent (NYC's economic injustices and post-9/11 Orwellian-authoritarian feel come into play as part of Joe's day, as do treatises, readings, and musings on love, life, and art), but they're not so desperate, not so make-or-break as they have seemed when he's in more ambitious mode; nothing, one has the impression, could really break Joe Fulton, who bears his unfair lack of big success with no signs of letting it stop him from getting up and trying again ad infinitum. This is a modesty the film wears very well, though; its lightness of step, its ultimately carefree air despite Joe's cavalcade of setbacks and frustrations and failures, is the key to its success. It's not thought-provoking or emotionally intense and elevated enough to rank with Hartley's more major contributions, but it's a worthy shedding of light onto the sweeter, kinder, more relaxed side of Hartley's particular vision -- an amusing, diverting comedy about doing the right thing in contemporary, multitasking big-city life, a perfect little breeze of smart, funny, tender, minor-key cinematic uplift that never strains itself or wears out its welcome.


THE BLU-RAY DISC


Video:

The film's transfer, presenting it a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1, does beautiful justice to the high-def digital video on which it was shot, Hartley's and cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff's simply but beautifully lit scenes and shallow-focus framings coming through with wonderful crispness, clarity, vividness, and surprising depth and texture, with virtually no compression artifacts (save for the barest hints of virtually unnoticeable edge enhancement scattered here and there).

Sound:

The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio surround track delivers the film's sound with great resonance and fidelity, all the dialogue, music, and multitude of city sounds (particularly memorable is the multidimensional soundscape of a scene which an elevated train roars by in the background) full, deep, rich, and clear, with no imbalance, muffling, or distortion at any point.

Extras:

--The Everyday (15 min.), a making-of documentary featuring interviews with Hartley, Mendel, and editor Kyle Gilman, all of whom describe the process of how the film came about (creatively, at least, it seems it's an extension of Hartley's work during his recent few years as an expat in Berlin, where he made shorts meant to be about moments as "everyday" as possible, some of which are excerpted here), contextualizing it within Hartley's body of work and noting its subtle but thorough status as a cinematic love letter to every part of present-day Manhattan.

--The film's theatrical trailer.



FINAL THOUGHTS

Meanwhile is former American-indie wunderkind Hal Hartley's return to long-form narrative filmmaking after a sojourn doing shorts and stage work in Europe, and it's a modest but quite pleasing success -- an economical, lightweight, somewhat diffuse but quite charming and endearing crystallization of the aesthetic, dramatic, and philosophical concerns that engendered the string of New York/Long Island films (from The Unbelievable Truth to Henry Fool and beyond) that made his name back in the day. The real-life drummer New York-based drummer D.J. Mendel, Hartley's latest nonprofessional-actor protégé, is an affable shaggy-dog presence, playing a sort of version of his own Renaissance-Man self as Joseph, a Brooklynite who can do, fix, or create a great many things very well, yet whose generous nature, indefatigable integrity, and insatiable curiosity about his fellowman perpetually sidetrack him from realizing any of his own ambitions, all of which he is fully capable of though they range from consummate musicianship to film directing/acting/producing to international green-technology entrepreneurship. The film, only an hour long, is just an explicitly episodic day in the life of this peculiarly good man in his rich and vibrant city (the film is equally a celebration of New York as of this very moment, economic struggles and Orwellian tinges and inconveniences and all), but it agilely encompasses all the stuff of which life and drama are made -- vocational yearning and striving; love, lust, and romance; promises made and either kept or betrayed; and, not least, the choice we all make daily of whether to go on living, Joseph being a firm, hearty, and wise endorser of an affirmative response to that niggling, troubling question. Meanwhile finds an older, more relaxed and expansive Hartley leavening his classic, cooler intellectualism with more straight-ahead, unmitigated warmth and affection, for both people and places, than he's ever shown before. It's a purposely "little" film, but it's beautifully and passionately crafted, and it wears its slightness well, very proportionately; like its protagonist, it's handsome, smart, tough, and somewhat sardonic, but consummately good-humored and cheerful in a way that shows the rare thought and conviction underlying that rare but heartening and well-deserved attitude. Recommended.

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