Anthony LaPaglia’s Sensitive Dad Warms the Heart in Winter Solstice

Josh Sternfeld’s Winter Solstice, from his own screenplay, has been generally demeaned for its overabundance of usually praiseworthy qualities like subtlety, restraint and understatement. Still, for a first-time writer-director, Mr. Sternfeld is remarkably sure-footed as he tracks the travails of widower Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two rebellious teenage sons, high-school graduate Gabe (Aaron Stanford) and high-school junior Pete (Mark Webber). Despite Jim’s persistent failure to communicate with his kids, one can nonetheless feel the bonds of respect and affection that hold the family together for almost the entire movie. And when the inevitable separation occurs, there is no histrionic excess or release of pent-up sentimentality. This kind of conceptual and directorial control isn’t as easy to accomplish as it might look, and it’s particularly welcome in this era of overheated hysteria, both on the screen and off.

One might imagine that naming the contentious family “Winters” is at least vaguely allegorical. The gloomily underlit cinematography of Harlan Bosmajian contributes to making the unprepossessing New Jersey suburb in which the film was shot look like a place from which a young man might yearn to escape. Some reviewers have complained that Mr. Sternfeld’s script is so skimpy with early exposition that the source of the family’s tensions remains a mystery for too long a time. Something has obviously happened to the mother, but what? And when? It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I simply didn’t mind waiting to receive the back-story information that Jim’s wife had been killed in a car accident while she was driving Pete to basketball practice. He survived and she didn’t-and her still-grieving husband has never gotten over the loss. This information doesn’t come to us through the family, but through Jim’s detailed retelling of the tragedy to a comparative stranger, Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney), an unmarried middle-aged woman who has just moved into the neighborhood temporarily as a house-sitter for a friend. And Jim only tells his story after the outspoken Molly confides the circumstances of an unsatisfactory courtship that has left her an unmarried woman.

It’s not clear what will eventually happen to Jim and Molly, but one immediate result of this exchange of confidences is a perceptible weight being lifted from Jim’s shoulders. Thus, he’s relieved of the arduous task of being both a father and a mother to his two sons.

In the end, Gabe chooses to abandon his father and younger brother for a new start on the boat of a rich friend’s father in Tampa, Fla. In the process, he also breaks up with his very appealing and clearly beloved girlfriend, Stacey (Michelle Monaghan), but with a curiously unexpected stoicism on both their parts. One of the reviewers complained that each of the characters is seen at one time or another riding a bicycle. This, too, may be an allegorical expression of sorts-perhaps the sign of an underlying restlessness pervading the entire community. Or maybe not. One can never be sure with a minimalist enterprise like Winter Solstice.

What isn’t minimalist is the forceful and nuanced acting of a surprisingly blue-ribbon cast in this low-budget directorial debut. Mr. LaPaglia, in particular, anchors the film with the authority and conviction we’ve come to expect from him over the past 15 years in movies, plays and on television, most memorably for me in Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (2001) and in his long-running dramatic series Without a Trace, in which he plays an F.B.I. detective trying to locate missing persons. (I never miss it.) Mr. Stanford, Mr. Webber and Ms. Monaghan are endowed with enough expertise to sustain the seamlessness of the ensemble. As for Ms. Janney, she is pure gold in the much-too-small role of Molly.

Ron Livingston’s perceptively compassionate stint as Pete’s history teacher has also stayed in my mind-not simply for the skill of the actor, but also for his character’s summer-school lectures on the conquests of Genghis Khan. I don’t know much about this almost mythic figure, and I can’t recall his name coming up in my own history classes at John Adams High School, but I do remember Dick Powell’s very bad 1956 movie, The Conqueror, in which a slant-eyed John Wayne played Khan opposite Susan Hayward. The gruesome aftermath of this production, shot on location in Utah near a nuclear test site, was that Wayne, Hayward, Powell and most of the rest of the cast and crew all eventually died of cancer. So when some pundits argue that we need nuclear power to ease the world’s impending shortage of energy, I just think of those lost lives and shudder a bit.

Hockney’s World

Maryte Kavalianskas and Seth Schneidman’s David Hockney: The Colors of Music is surprisingly successful as a feature-length nonfiction film. It creates absorbing marriages of such seemingly irreconcilable abstractions as space and time, painting and music, opera and cinema, all bound together by the sensibility and personality of David Hockney, a controversially eclectic visual artist with an unabashedly gay and narcissistic reputation. Indeed, when I met Ms. Kavalianskas at a cocktail party, all I could think of to say when she mentioned the title and subject of her film was: “Are there any swimming pools in it?” She replied with what, in retrospect, I now consider a touch of justified exasperation: “Only one or two brief shots.” This is to say that before I saw her film, I knew next to nothing about Mr. Hockney beyond his famous, allegedly decadent painting of a swimming pool and a seemingly self-adoring young man in a bathing suit.

But then, for a supposed authority on a largely visual art form, I am shamefully lacking in confidence and judgment when I make my mandatory pilgrimages to the art galleries. I can talk the talk and gawk the gawk, but my heart isn’t in it with the same emotional certitude I experience with the movies. Indeed, I have often confessed that if cinema were to abandon dramatic narrative, then I would abandon cinema and return to my first love, narrative fiction-a love that I have never really abandoned. As for music, I share with Mr. Hockney the mantra of not knowing much about it, but knowing what I like-and loving that ecstatically.

The point is that Mr. Hockney turns out to be a far more complex and substantial human being than I would have suspected from my casual, homophobia-tinged appraisal of the only painting I knew by him. Indeed, his awareness of his gradual hearing loss during almost 20 years of producing set designs for the opera introduces layers of pathos, poignancy and mortality to his otherwise buoyant journeys across the borders between the arts. To put it bluntly, Mr. Hockney turned out to be not at all what I expected, as I came to appreciate him as the immensely likable and articulate heart and soul of the film.

The footage was shot starting in 1991 and continuing through 1993, concurrent with Mr. Hockney’s creating the set design for Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten, the seventh and last opera production with which he was involved. This side of his multi-faceted career began in 1975 with his stage design for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, which John Cox directed. Mr. Hockney then worked on Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 1978. (In the film, he flatly declares The Magic Flute to be the best opera ever written.)

In 1981, Mr. Hockney went to New York to provide the set design for Parade, an evening of one-acts set to music by Satie, Poulenc and Ravel, at the Metropolitan Opera, with John Dexter directing, followed that year at the same venue with an Igor Stravinsky triple-header: Le Sacre Du Printemps, Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex. In 1987, Mr. Hockney moved westward to the Civic Opera in Los Angeles for Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with Jonathan Miller as director, and then back eastward in 1992 for Puccini’s Turandot at Chicago’s Lyric Theatre, with Bill Farlow as director.

One can see in Mr. Hockney’s choice of musical projects a wide range of affinities, from the Viennese classicism of Mozart to the proto-modernism of Wagner to the Italianate lyricism of Puccini, all the way to the varied modernist dissonances of Strauss, Stravinsky and Poulenc. Unfortunately, the absence of any onstage performance footage in front of a live audience makes it difficult to imagine how expressively effective Mr. Hockney’s design contributions appeared to the various opera audiences involved. But even if we had transcriptions of the operas as they were sung, we would still have the barriers of cinema to overcome before we could reproduce the immediacy of singer and listener-viewer in the privileged spaces of both.

Indeed, the perennial problem faced by opera on film is the impression that it gives of generally overweight performers floundering in an essentially static setting while their voices send the melodious music speeding along inexorably on its time-machine-like course. Mr. Hockney seems aware of the problem, inasmuch as he makes valiant efforts to energize the décor with the bursts of chromatically charged lighting effects that he prepares in his technologically innovative studio. Despite the film’s not providing much evidence one way or the other, it would seem that Mr. Hockney’s tastes and methods would be more appropriate for the modernist operas on which he’s worked than the old standbys with their encrusted traditions. (One of the funniest exchanges between Mr. Hockney and one of his collaborators invokes the image of “Lufthansa Gray” as a hackneyed leftover from old-fashioned Wagnerian set design.)

Mr. Hockney is a revelation as a conversationalist-not one of the egocentric, stand-up variety, but rather as a genuinely witty man who knows how to listen to other people. And when he reminisces about a father who was tone-deaf but still enjoyed taking his little boy to musical-variety shows, I was both charmed and moved.

David Hockney: The Colors of Music is a ravishing feast for the eyes, with a steady stream of operatic excerpts to appease more impatient ears. Meanwhile, Mr. Hockney and his friends keep the proceedings on an exhilaratingly human level. Don’t miss this in any form you can see it.

Den of Thieves

Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was written by Mr. Gibney and based on the best-selling book The Smartest Guys in the Room by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. This is the best movie, fiction or nonfiction, I have ever seen on Gordon Gekko–like greed in action, and that includes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), which ended up glorifying the lizard. Mr. Gibney and his associates do not glorify Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow, the chief culprits in one of the most massive frauds in the financial history of the United States. But they do humanize these miscreants without in any way whitewashing them. This is not to say that the film made me identify with them. Truth to tell, I have never had enough business acumen to sell my mother a lock of my hair. By contrast, Messrs. Skilling, Lay and Fastow were all financial wizards who eventually degenerated into self-deluding charlatans.

In any event, this very entertaining piece of muckraking, narrated by Peter Coyote, should be required viewing for anyone who voted for George W. Bush, or who thinks private accounts are a great idea for Social Security, or who still believes in the eternal beneficence of capitalism and the free market in general and the stock market in particular. But these are precisely the people who are not likely to see Mr. Gibney’s incisive autopsy on the corporate corpse of Enron, once hailed as America’s most innovative (and seventh-largest) company. Thus, Mr. Gibney-like Michael Moore-seems destined to wind up preaching to the converted.

Still, at the very least every Californian should see this film, if only to speculate on the possibility that Arnold Schwarzenegger came to power in their state through a coup d’état planned by Mr. Lay, Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney. The facts are these: In the midst of the California energy crisis engineered by traders at an Enron subsidiary to boost profits (thereby resulting in several “rolling blackouts”), Mr. Lay visited Mr. Schwarzenegger in the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles. What did they talk about? No one is telling, but shortly thereafter the recall procedure for removing Governor Gray Davis was set into motion. Meanwhile, television talk-show hosts made jokes about California’s plight. Not to be outdone, Mr. Skilling, on June 12, 2000, made a joke at a Las Vegas conference comparing California to the Titanic.

Indeed, what is most remarkable about the Enron story is how long it took for the media even to speculate out loud on what had gone so terribly wrong with the company. A mere handful of people began blowing their whistles over what turned out to be a gigantic updated Ponzi scheme that invented profits out of imaginary companies set up by Enron itself to hide its debts. A resignation here, a mysterious firing of a top executive there, and still no one seemed to deduce that Enron had become a den of thieves, with the employees and shareholders set to become the ultimate victims.

On August 23, 2000, Enron stock hit an all-time high of $90 a share, with a market valuation of $70 billion. On Nov. 28, 2001, Enron shares plunged below a dollar. In a little more than 15 months, thousands of people lost their life’s savings. Meanwhile, several Enron executives had cashed in millions of dollars in stock options.

How was all this done? Bits and pieces of the story have surfaced in various newspapers and magazines. But even in this one marvelously lucid film, it is a little difficult to keep track of all the skullduggery. Here, up to a point, the medium is the message. You can read in cold print in a newspaper or magazine that on Oct. 23, 2001, in a massive shredding operation, Arthur Andersen destroyed one ton of Enron documents. One ton of paper is hard to visualize, and the eye drifts to other news of the day with more sex and shock appeal. But onscreen, the sight of oodles and oodles of paper being shredded is nothing short of mesmerizing. Wow! The rats are deserting the sinking ship. In the process, the good name and reputation of one of the oldest and most respected accounting firms in America had been shredded as well.

Here, one picture is worth a thousand words. On Aug. 31, 2002, Arthur Andersen surrendered its license to practice accounting in the United States. Eighty-five thousand people lost their jobs. Nine billion dollars in annual earnings disappeared. These are the cold facts and figures, but it is the shredding of paper that puts the facts and figures in a vividly visual context.

Of course, there are certain questions that this film is in no position to answer. Why were the federal prosecutors so zealous in prosecuting Martha Stewart for a comparatively trivial offense (with the help of perjured testimony from a government witness), whereas the fraud and conspiracy trials of Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling have been put off till Jan. 17, 2006? Could it be that “Kenny Boy” has friends in high places to put pressure on the Justice Department? Are movies like Mr. Gibney’s turning me into a conspiracy theorist? Yes!