Monday, June 20, 2016

Philosophy in life and art: Tim Blake Nelson's ANESTHESIA makes its Blu-ray/DVDebut

One of the films I most wanted to see this past winter I managed to miss, so catching up with ANESTHESIA, releasing tomorrow on Blu-ray and DVD, was a must. I am happy to say that the film in no way disappoints. As written, directed and acted in by Tim Blake Nelson -- one of Hollywood's hugely under-appreciated triple threats, who has already written and directed three fine movies: Eye of God, Leaves of Grass and The Grey Zone, as well as giving a raft of outstanding performances (from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? to one of my all-time favorites, the woefully underseen Cherish) -- the movie is as good an ensemble piece as has been produced in a long while.

Mr. Nelson, shown at right, has crafted a tale of human connection both grounded and buoyed by philosophy. The character we see first, and who commands a bit more attention that the others we'll soon meet, is a aging and honored philosophy professor played by Sam Waterston (below), and the ideas shown us via his words and deeds will connect to all the other characters we meet in this relatively short movie (it's just 90 minutes long). The connections here are major and minor but they are all important, as are the ideas that pepper the movie. People live by them, for better and worse, and also die by them.

Yet these connections are handled remarkably well -- never ham-handedly, as in some of the "we're all connected" movies you might recall -- and they are brought to rather spectacular life by the performances, every one of them, of the talented cast, beginning with Waterston and Kristen Stewart, below, who plays his troubled student in yet another small role that this actress nails beautifully. (Every role Ms Stewart tackles seems to take her further light years from that silly Twilight franchise.)

What Nelson has done is to create specific and resonant roles for every cast member and has then given these roles to actors who know how to bring them to immediate and pulsating life -- in what turns out to be a remarkably small amount of screen time. He has also chosen very well the scenes and moments we need to see to understand and appreciate these many characters. (Shown below are Nelson, at right, as Waterston's son, along with Jessica Hecht (far left) as his wife and Hannah Marks (center, left) and Ben Konigsberg (center, right) as their children -- playing two generations suddenly involved in activities as diverse as a cancer prognosis and virginity-losing.

The lovely Gretchen Moll (below, left, with Gloria Reuben) plays an unhappy suburban housewife with a philandering husband and a couple of children to whom she need to be paying better attention. Ms Moll is, as ever, a pleasure to watch.

Pride of place, however, goes to an actor named K. Todd Freeman, whom I've seen a number of times but not paid that much attention to. My mistake. Here he plays a junkie named Joe, trying (but not too hard) to kick his habit. I've seen countless actors play junkies at this point in my long life, but Mr. Freeman's performance is the one I'm most likely to remember. He just about steals the movie, bringing to the role such anger, sadness, power and depth that "memorable" doesn't begin to describe it. Freeman takes this character and turns him into the most honest yet awful and unnecessary waste of potential that you'll have seen.

The movie, without undue pushing or obviousness, takes in the good and the bad while quietly and clearly separating the wheat from the chaff. In the latter category would be Junkie Joe's best friend/lawyer (Michael K. Williams, below, left) who abandons his buddy to spend some very unprofessional time with another lawyer (Annie Parisse, below, right).

Corey Stoll (below) is excellent as always in a role that connects to two of our cast members and results in what looks like the most character change to be experienced by any of these people.

I am leaving out a lot of terrific small-but-smart performances; listing them all would take us into tomorrow, at least. For fans of fine ensemble pieces, Anesthesia is a must, but I think it should also be placed at the top of your list if you appreciate movies that use philosophy as an important and genuine tool for living.

From IFC Films, the movie hits the street -- on DVD and Blu-ray (the transfer is a good one, but nothing like that of the recent Every Thing Will Be Fine) -- Tuesday, June 21. for rental or purchase.

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