The Man Upstairs

The damage control in Hollywood may or may not live up to its promise of less violence and more films with gentler, unifying themes in this time of reflection, anxiety and fear. For now, Hearts in Atlantis is up at bat-not great, but a nice start. Based on the collection of stories by Stephen King that won him critical attention as a writer of more serious literary ambitions, Hearts in Atlantis is a sweet coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1960, akin in mood to the author’s Stand by Me.

When middle-aged Robert Garfield (David Morse) receives an old baseball glove that conjures up memories of the past, he returns to the suburban neighborhood of his childhood for a funeral. We are taken back in time to a place where people were less stressed and fearful, a kid’s imagination could do magic things and innocence was not yet lost. The 11-year-old Bobby (played with rare intelligence and understated youthful restraint by Anton Yelchin) lives in a boarding house with his poor and bitter mother (the luminous Hope Davis). Bobby is a bright, lonely boy with an uncanny ability to read people’s minds, a gift he shares with a mysterious new neighbor named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Often home alone, Bobby is drawn to the older man for friendship and attention. When Ted pays him a dollar a week to be on the lookout for mysterious men in trench coats who drive flashy cars and leave secret messages, Bobby races about the neighborhood with his pals snooping, prying and constantly searching for unknown villains.

Before the summer ends, Bobby’s mother survives a harrowing experience of her own, the kids are saved from the local bully by Ted (who can be as terrifying to others as he is protective of Bobby), and everyone grows up to face life’s more daunting challenges. Nothing much happens, and when the haunting secrets that shroud the old man in mystery are finally revealed (involving J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. and the Communist witch hunts), they are not exactly credible. But this is a memory piece about relationships, not a thriller, and the nostalgia is well conceived.

The buttery camerawork, by the late Polish cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, lights up this film, bringing to life a period that begins with Nixon’s nomination for President and almost makes it to Bill Mazeroski’s winning home run in the World Series. Anthony Hopkins is mannered but charming as the eccentric tenant with psychic powers who fires the boy’s imagination and expands his view of the world; the performance by young Mr. Yelchin is remarkable for its lack of self-consciousness; and William Goldman’s screenplay captures the warm spell of lost time believably. But Scott Hicks’ direction seems plastic-wrapped. In spite of his attention to detail, his films are so perfectly structured they seem artificial; all that seriousness has a mordant effect. With all those painstakingly composed frames, there’s not much chance for life and emotion and unexpected discovery to break out. Still, it’s great to see June Allyson hairdos and classic Thunderbirds with fins again.

Head Games

Put Don’t Say a Word in the guilty-pleasures file. At a time when we’re all watching our backs, a hair-raising thriller may not be what you want to stand in line for, but this one clicks like a Rolodex. Michael Douglas plays a forensic psychiatrist who finds himself up to his spectacles in trouble. His wife is strapped to her bed, in traction, with a broken leg. His daughter has just been kidnapped by a vicious gang of jewel thieves who, 10 years earlier, stole one of the world’s biggest diamonds and then got double-crossed by a gang member they shoved to his death in the subway. And his newest patient is an 18-year-old junkie in a lunatic asylum with a secret number in her brain that will lead to the location of the priceless gem. The kidnappers want that number in exchange for his daughter, and the poor guy only has until 5 o’clock to get it.

To make grim matters grimmer, it’s Thanksgiving Day. To get to the psycho ward, he has to first maneuver his way through the Macy’s parade. Are you still with me? In the hair-raising events from morning to night, the wife is almost killed, the child is moved to another location, a crafty police detective almost wrecks the plot and everyone’s life teeters on the head of a pin. Just when you think it’s about to end, director Gary (Kiss the Girls) Fleder moves it up another notch, and it just gets scarier and scarier.

From a great apartment on the Upper West Side to a numbered grave in Potter’s Field, the movie covers a lot of ground and keeps you gasping. Michael Douglas is always good, and this is as good as he gets. The writing is tight, the pacing breathless, and the camerawork captures every mood that New York can offer on a sunny November day with horror lurking in the shadows. This is a good old-fashioned thriller in the classic Hitchcock tradition: good people caught up in shocking and terrifying events because they happen to be in the right place at the wrong time. It’s so tense and unsettling that the simple act of opening a closet door takes on the suspenseful impact of a ticking time bomb. If there is such a thing, Don’t Say a Word is a cinematic page-turner.

The Man Upstairs