Sunday, October 26, 2003

Coen Heads

By Elise Nakhnikian

The fourth wall has been broken so often it’s a wonder there’s anything left of it. But even at this meta moment in the history of movies, Joel and Ethan Coen’s unconventional stories stand out.

The Coen brothers, who have co-written, co-directed and co-produced nine highly stylized movies since their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, are to movies what Madonna is — or anyhow was — to pop music: They revive one mothballed genre after another, sometimes sampling several at once, and make them look sharper than ever.

Blood Simple is a no-star 1940s-style film noir, while The Man Who Wasn’t There is a slick, more Hitchockian noir. Miller’s Crossing is a 1930s-style gangster picture. Barton Fink is a portrait of a self-important Clifford Odets-type playwright set in 1940s Hollywood. The Hudsucker Proxy is a story of corporate duplicity that takes place in the ’50s but has the crisp yet creamy look of Depression-era Deco. And so on.

The Coens aren’t interested in gritty realism. Not even murder is played straight, but they exaggerate the horror rather than the thrill, aiming for something other than cheap sensation. People rarely die easily in their movies (the husband in Blood Simple, who is finally buried alive, is far from the only example, though he may be the most extreme). And when they do, their bodies aren’t easily disposed of (remember that wood chipper in Fargo?)

These guys clearly love movies.

They also love actors — especially character actors with interesting faces and stars with old-fashioned sex appeal, who might have stepped out of one of the old movies theirs are modeled on. Their crew includes Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand; John Turturro; John Goodman; and Steve Buscemi, all of whom look like real people and can give the brothers the exaggerated performances they usually want, stylizing their emotions like kabuki players. Lately the in group has added George Clooney, whose macho good looks and self-mocking intelligence helped him channel Clark Gable in O Brother Where Art Thou and Cary Grant in Intolerable Cruelty, the brothers’ latest.

An update of 1930s screwball comedies like The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve, Cruelty is a perfectly serviceable vehicle, but it’s more Ford than Cadillac. The Coens’ snappy dialogue, bizarre setups and quirky supporting characters fit right into this genre, making this their most accessible movie yet. Probably not coincidentally, it’s also their least distinctive and the first they didn’t write from scratch, instead polishing somebody else’s screenplay. Aside from the brother’s top-notch technique – arresting set, sound, and costume design and beautifully paced editing – this movie is powered mainly by the sparks that fly between its high-voltage stars, the debonair Clooney and the glossy Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Maintaining your vision in Hollywood can be tough, but it’s probably easier if you have the trust, support and shared understanding of a twin/collaborator. Whatever the reason, the Coens always seem to have known what they wanted and how to get it. They’ve been granted final cut on their meticulously constructed movies from the start, and they’ve always had a good eye for talent: They were the first directors to hire composer Carter Burwell, who went on to score more than 50 movies in addition to every Coen brothers film since Blood Simple, and their first director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who later shot movies like When Harry Met Sally and Big and then became a director of his own quirky hits

The brothers have a lot in common with Quentin Tarantino, another meta moviemaker whose gorgeously shot, lit, and art-directed movies plunder old genres but have a distinctive tone all their own, not to mention a smart sense of humor and a brilliant way of using popular music to help tell the story (the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? won a Grammy for Album of the Year).

But while Tarantino always seems to like his main characters, the Minnesota twins often seem to feel contempt for theirs. Their smart movies about dumb people, like O Brother and The Big Lebowski, can feel coldly condescending toward what Barton Fink would call “the common man.” It’s hard to care about a story when you feel no warmth for any of the characters, and it’s no coincidence that their best movies all have sympathetic characters, like McDormand’s pregnant policewoman in Fargo or Holly Hunter’s baby-craving cop and her sweetly devoted ex-con husband in Raising Arizona.

Even the snarky Coen brothers movies contained images I still remember, even if I saw them only once and years ago. Considering how fast most movies fade from memory, that’s saying a lot. But it’s not enough: Movies should be moving images in both senses of the word.

The brothers are just 46 and they’ve been averaging about one movie every two years since Blood Simple came out, so they should make a lot more before they start slowing down. That will be good news if they keep making stylish, funny, flyaway confections like Intolerable Cruelty. And if they mine more gems like Miller’s Crossing, it’ll be more than just good. It will be great.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Kill Bill—Vol. 1

By Elise Nakhnikian

Director Quentin Tarentino’s kung fu cliffhanger opens with white letters on a black screen: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The shopworn phrase hangs there for a beat. Then it’s redeemed by the attribution: “Old Klingon proverb.”

A few people are still giggling when the panting begins, loud and desperate. The credit sequence soon gives way to black and white footage of Uma Thurman’s battered face. She’s the one panting, and she looks panicked as two feet in pointy-toed cowboy boots stride toward her. We’re less than two minutes into the movie, and we’re already no place but Tarantino’s world.

Tarantino works by rummaging through the detritus of late 20th century, pulling out ideas here and there, adding a little connective tissue, and stitching it all together into a movie. You might think his pop-culture pastiches would feel like awkward patch jobs, but each one’s an original, as improbably light on its feet as Peter Boyle’s monster in Young Frankenstein.

Maybe that’s because Tarantino’s tongue is nowhere near his cheek. He genuinely adores the movie stars, genres, TV shows, and other pop cultural markers he resurrects in the movies he writes and directs. The songs on his soundtracks are usually handpicked personal favorites. He writes roles for his favorite actors — many of whom he has worshipped for years — just for the joy of working with them, and he doesn’t care if everyone else sneers at one of his favorites. In fact, he often makes the rest of us see what he loves about a performer, famously reviving John Travolta’s career with Pulp Fiction and briefly resurrecting Pam Grier’s with Jackie Brown.

Not all of Tarantino’s darlings are down on their luck. He wrote the starring role in Kill Bill for Thurman, who he has called “my actress.” A female version of the terse Clint Eastwood part in Sergio Leone’s westerns, the character is unlike anything else the actress has played before, but Thurman’s impressive athleticism and intensity justifies the director’s faith in her.

Like Eastwood’s in Leone’s movies, Thurman’s character is nameless, though the script calls her The Bride. She got the nickname when she was left for dead on her wedding day by The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad after they had murdered her groom and the rest of the wedding party. Four years after the massacre, she wakes up from a coma and sets out to kill every member of the squad. She gets to two of them in Vol. 1 but leaves three more — including Bill, the group’s leader — for the sequel. Along the way, she inflicts a lot of what the Army calls collateral damage.

It’s not much of a plot, and some people will be turned off by the stylized but copious violence. But for those who are not, the movie is exhilarating.

Like the syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart that revived Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s storytelling wakes up the senses. Even the soundtrack commands your attention: A pistol fired in the opening sequence goes off with a tremendous BANG. Constant zigzags through time and space as we learn the main characters’ back stories keep things interesting, as do frequent switches between color, black and white, and sepia; silhouette shots; and other attention-getting visuals.

Tarantino says his movies usually take place in two worlds. “One of them is the ‘Quentin Universe’ of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown — it’s heightened but more or less realistic,” he says in the press kit. “The other is the Movie World. When characters in the Quentin Universe go to the movies, the stuff they see takes place in the Movie World. Kill Bill is the first film I’ve made that takes place in the Movie World.”

The director spent his childhood watching kung fu movies at the theater and a ninja detective series on TV, and he steeped himself in Hong Kong martial arts movies and Japanese samurai and anime movies for a year before making Kill Bill. The movie features several Asian cinema stars and some equally famous behind-the-camera talent: The climactic fight scene was staged by the Chinese martial arts expert and direct who choreographed the gravity-defying action scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. The good news is, those references undoubtedly heighten the enjoyment of Tarantino and his fellow ninja buffs. The better news is, they don’t get in the way for the rest of us.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of anime to appreciate the emotionally powerful segment done in that style by one of Japan’s leading animation studios. And you don’t have to know the yellow jump suit Thurman wears for much of the movie is an exact replica of a suit Bruce Lee wore in Game of Death to appreciate the duel she fights in a snow-covered courtyard while wearing it.

In that scene, two implacable women warriors clash in an idyllic setting, in a fight that culminates in a highly stylized death. It’s memorable stuff, and you’ll only find it in Quentin Tarentino’s Movie World.

My review of Vol. 2

Saturday, August 23, 2003

American Splendor

Midway through American Splendor the movie’s subject, Harvey Pekar, runs into a woman he went to college with. He tells her about the book he’s reading and she says it’s one of her favorites. “It’s pretty truthful,” she says. “Which is rare these days.” She’s talking about something by Theodore Dreiser, but she could just as well be talking about Harvey’s own work.

Harvey — after reading his comics, it’s impossible to call him Mr. Pekar — introduced blue-collar realism to comics in the ’70s. His adult comic books come, as their tagline declares, “from off the streets of Cleveland,” and he’s not talking Shaker Heights.

A working-class Woody Allen, Harvey’s main subject is himself. He’s prickly and sardonic, whiny and defensive, obsessive-compulsive and congenitally unhappy. He often behaves badly. Yet he’s likeable in spite of himself, and he has a gift for turning his dyspeptic life into art. He’s funny, too.

His characters would barely make it into the background of most American stories, though they’re as typical as anyone can be (one thing this movie makes you think about is how there’s really no such thing as an “ordinary” person.) Like Harvey, who’s a file clerk at a VA hospital, they have dead-end, low-paying jobs, and they spend a lot of time just getting by: selling stuff for a few bucks, coaxing ailing cars back to life, waiting at bus stops.

Harvey may be easily annoyed, but he’s no misanthrope. He listens when people talk, and when he repeats their words they have a way of reverberating. He never condescends to anyone or writes anyone off, even people like Toby, a coworker who has an almost robotic way of speaking. Harvey’s wife may see Toby as “borderline autistic,” but Harvey just sees him as Toby, and their relationship — at least, as depicted in the movie — is a friendship between equals.

Harvey has been famous among the comic cognoscenti for years. He’s made a few inroads into the mainstream too, thanks to endorsements by what he calls “all the important media that tell people how to think,” but this movie will presumably introduce him to a much wider audience. He couldn’t have asked for a better calling card.

The format is as inventive as Pekar’s own work, shifting between scenes played by actors, panels from Harvey’s comics, and interviews with the real Harvey and his wife, Joyce Babner. Filmed action is often combined with comic-book techniques, like the hand-lettered descriptions in panels at the top of the screen that introduce many of the scenes. A voice-over read by the real Harvey has the same deadpan tone as his comics, though it was written by husband-wife writer/director team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.

This is the ultimate meta movie. First we see something happen to Harvey, then we see him turn it into a comic strip, and then we see the comic strip made into the movie we’re watching. Every now and then, the real people show up in the same scene as the people who play them, behaving just like the actors only more so. At one point, the actors playing Harvey and Joyce even watch other actors playing Harvey and Joyce reenact a scene from a play adapted from Harvey’s comics.

If all that were just a gimmick it might get tiresome, but it’s an integral part of the story. The stories Harvey writes are illustrated by a series of comic artists, each of whom draws him and his regular characters differently, so seeing different versions of them in the movie makes a kind of sense. And seeing different versions of his stories makes you think — as Harvey often does in his comics — about how stories are told and what makes the good ones work.

The movie is as episodic as the comic book, but the writers fit their scenes together like dominoes, creating seamless transitions from one to the next. A lot happens: Harvey finds his soulmate in Joyce and his life work in his comics, gets cancer and goes through a year’s worth of grueling treatments, and he and Joyce adopt the daughter of a friend who’s unable to care for her. But this movie isn’t really about any of that.

American Splendor is about the sad sweetness of life, the importance of being true to yourself, and the difficulty of being an artist and a self-taught intellectual in a country that doesn’t have much use for either. It’s about what “family values” really means and about how tales get changed in the telling. And, as Berman says in the press kit, it’s about “a man who found his life through comic books.”

If that sounds like a lot to pack into the musings of “a nobody flunky selling records on the side for a buck,” it shouldn’t. After all, as Harvey says, “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Swimming Pool

With her watchful, slanted eyes and sliver of a smirk, Charlotte Rampling has a feline edge of mystery and barely suppressed ferocity that few directors have known how to tap into. But for French director Francois Ozon, who wrote the lead in Swimming Pool for her, the 58-year-old actress is an inspiration. “Swimming Pool, like Under the Sand, is the fruit of a true collaboration between Charlotte and me,” he told Cinema magazine. “We’ve found one another, and we’re not about to let each other go.”

Under the Sand, the unsettling story of a devoted wife who slowly goes mad after her husband’s sudden disappearance, became an art-house hit in this country and did well in France largely on the strength of Rampling’s powerful performance. She’s also onscreen for almost every scene in Swimming Pool, the story of a woman who quite deliberately creates her own reality, but this time she dances a compelling tango with an equally strong young actress.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Bad Boys II

Bad Boys, which made a movie star of Will Smith, was a $10 million sleeper that the studio almost pulled the plug on. Smith, who played too-cool-to-care Miami cop Mike Lowry, and Martin Lawrence, who played his perpetually frustrated partner, Marcus Burnett, were brought in after Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, for whom the script was developed, dropped out. Director Michael Bay, a 28-year-old who had directed only music videos and ads, had only a pittance for rewrites, so his lead actors improvised heavily to make the script work for them. In the process, they came up with the banter that was one of the loose-limbed movie’s greatest charms. Bay and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson did the rest, giving the movie their signature polished look, high-voltage energy, and copious explosions.

Bad Boys II, the sequel the studio was panting for, cost more than seven times as much, which makes you appreciate the slick look of the original. It also makes you wonder what all the extra millions were spent on. A lot must have gone to salaries, since both stars are now hot and Bay has since upped his salary by directing hits like Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. But a lot must have literally gone up in flames. Bad Boys II is Bad Boys on steroids, with more and bigger explosions, a much larger and classier fleet of vehicles to trash, and a tendency to take things too far.

Once again, Mike and Marcus are trying to keep a big drug deal from going through. Complicating the bust this time is Syd (Gabrielle Union), Marcus’s sister and Mike’s girlfriend, who gets abducted by the dealer in the course of her work. Syd, it seems, is a gun-toting, stunt-driving, bad guy-seducing undercover DEA agent — a twist that the talented but sweet Union can’t quite pull off.

Syd’s romance with Mike does not convince either, though Union is easy to buy as a love interest. The damp head of that match seems to be Smith, who has yet to pull off a convincing onscreen romance. But the lack of chemistry between Mike and Syd doesn’t detract from the fun as much as the chill between Mike and Marcus.

Smith is a bona-fide movie star, and he always plays smooth-talking ladies’ men. He’s a man’s man as well, though, and his characters tend to do their real bonding with their buddies. In Bad Boys, his Mike played Oscar to Marcus’s Felix: the two squabbled constantly, but the affection between them was palpable. In the sequel, Marcus seems truly fed up with Mike, which makes his complaints a lot less fun to listen to. Their relationship may be more realistic, but it’s not nearly as funny — and who wants realism in a movie like this?

Bruckheimer and Simpson (who gets a co-producer credit on Bad Boys II although he died in 1996) pretty much invented the blow-’em-ups that dominate our summers. From their first effort, 1983’s Flashdance, the producers of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Days of Thunder knew how to tap into our lizard brains.

Their short attention span theater always features underdogs and rebels who triumph by breaking the rules, but the plot is not the point. The real appeal lies in watching self-assured young men and clothing-averse young women fret, flirt, zip around in glistening machines and generally act cool, burnished by picture-postcard-perfect camerawork and lighting and backed by pounding soundtracks. And, of course, to watch stuff get blown up.

But that golden formula may be losing its sheen. Like junkies upping the dose to maintain the same high, Bruckheimer and his imitators have to keep giving us more bang for the buck just to keep our adrenaline flowing at the same rate, and you can only do so much of that before you OD. Even Marcus seems to think things have gone too far in Bad Boys II. “You’re gonna break a world record for gunfights in a week!” he tells Mike.

There are at least seven ferocious gun battles in this movie, plus five drawn-out chases, including one stunner on a bridge, where cars on a fleeing transport truck are let loose one by one to somersault into the cop cars speeding in pursuit. There’s also an infestation of rats; a sawn-apart body whose gory parts are crammed into a barrel; a severed finger; embalmed bodies that tumble out of a mortuary truck into heavy traffic, where some get run over; and a scene inside a mortuary where Mike roots around inside corpses in search of evidence.

Are we having fun yet?

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Today I Vote for My Joey

As stagebound and talky as a sitcom and starring a feisty group of card-carrying AARP members, Today I Vote for My Joey plays like a Yiddish version of The Golden Girls, but producer-writer-director Aviva Kempner has more on her mind than geriatric sex jokes. The subject of this 20-minute short is the Florida voting fiasco of the last presidential election, and Kempner wastes no time on subtleties in driving home her point. As one character puts it: “They stole the election from us!”

The movie is playing this week at the New Jersey International Film Festival, where it was named this year’s Best Short Narrative Film/Video. It opens on the day of the 2000 presidential election in Palm Beach, where a group of elderly Jewish friends and the Haitian home health nurse who tends to one of them are all raring to cast their votes for Al Gore and that nice Jewish boy, “Joey” Lieberman.

The old friends kvell at the prospect of voting for the first Jewish vice presidential candidate ever while the nurse talks about how proud she’ll be to participate in a free election after the political repression she experienced in Haiti. But when it comes time to vote, the nurse is shocked to hear that her relatives have been turned away from the polls and the Jews are horrified to learn that, confused by their butterfly ballots, they voted for “that anti-Semite [Pat] Buchanan.”

There are no gray areas in this brightly lit film, which makes no effort to appeal to those who don’t share its politics. “It’s a real Democratic revenge film,” Kempner said in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. “There’s no doubt about that.” Paired at the festival with Unprecedented, a documentary about the 2000 election that its website describes as “a disturbing picture of an election marred by suspicious irregularities, electoral injustices, and sinister voter purges in a state governed by the winning candidate's brother,” Kempner’s short is a celluloid call to action for people who think the wrong man won. When the two films played together recently in DC, she says, “People were laughing during my movie, and during Unprecedented there was a lot of booing. I think the two films together are a real catharsis for people.”

Though new to fiction films, Kempner is an old hand at documentaries. Her first movie, which she produced and co-wrote, was Partisans of Vilna, an account of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. Promises to Keep, a documentary on the homeless whose narration she wrote, was nominated for an Academy Award, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish baseball star of the 1930s and ’40s that she wrote, produced and directed, was nominated for an Emmy.

Kempner’s movies reflect her passions, which tend to center around what she calls “Jewish heroes.” The daughter of a Jewish-American soldier and a Polish Jew who survived a German labor camp by passing for Catholic, she was born in Berlin shortly after World War II. She grew up in Detroit, under the shadow of her parents’ memories of the Holocaust that killed three of her grandparents and one of her aunts. (Full disclosure: Her stepfather and my dad were good friends, so I have vivid childhood memories of her family -- and of seeing her as a comically full-throated, fur-coated mother in her high school's production of Bye Bye Birdie.)

After getting a masters degree in urban planning and a law degree, Kempner practiced law for a while, but she was soon drawn to moviemaking, inspired by seeing Roots and Holocaust on TV and by obsessive re-readings of Leon Uris' Mila 18, a book about the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Being a child of survivors, I have this feeling that I have a responsibility for telling these under-known stories,” she says. “That Jews did resist the Nazis, or what an amazing player Hank Greenberg was, or how devastating it was for these Jews to inadvertently vote for Pat Buchanan.” Even her production company bears witness, named for the maternal grandparents who died in Auschwitz.

Kempner made Joey under the auspices of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. She decided to focus on the 2000 election because it was “the thing that I felt the most upset about,” she says. “What was so awful was that the butterfly ballot was an innocent mistake, but why not have one consistent system for voting? I think we need voting reform in this country.”

“This is a good time to be thinking about that,” she adds, “since the politicians are already campaigning for the next election.”

Monday, June 2, 2003

The Italian Job

The Italian Job, an American remake of an English cult classic, is as stripped down and efficient as its Mini Cooper costars, and almost as quirkily cool.

Even if you didn’t see the original, you’ve seen variations on the theme: A motley collection of criminals, each with a different area of expertise, gets together to do the ultimate heist. After a lot of planning and preparation, they start a chain of events as elaborate, improbable, and beautiful to watch as a Rube Goldberg machine.

This gang consists of Charlie (Mark Wahlberg), the mellow mastermind; Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), the suave driver; Left Ear (Mos Def), the wry demolitions expert; Lyle (Seth Green), the geeky computer genius; and Stella (Charlize Theron), the gorgeous “professional safe and vault technician.”

Norton is monodimensional as the bad guy, coasting on bad-guy cruise control as a thief who robbed and killed Stella’s master-thief father. What’s worse, the pivotal role of Charlie is miscast. Wahlberg’s guarded passivity worked well in movies like Boogie Nights, Rock Star, and Three Kings, where he played na├»ve kids who stumble into strange new worlds, but his stillness and lack of range look more like stagnation when he takes on a quick-witted charmer like Charlie.

But not even putting a stiff at the wheel can slow down this joyride. Unlike the too-cool crooks in the recent Ocean’s Eleven remake, who smirked through their carefully programmed moves like a troop of department store dummies, this crew has real energy and a few endearingly rough edges. Theron is particularly impressive, investing what might have been a throwaway part with dignity and making us feel Stella’s pain.

Some of the supporting players are real characters, too, the kinds you rarely see these days outside of Quentin Tarantino movies. Like Skinny Pete, a colossus of flesh with long black braids whose petite girlfriend nestles up against him like a lapdog, or the Ukrainian fence who never seems to stop talking — until his mouth gets him into trouble.

Most of the dialogue is more functional than flashy, but now and now and then something glints enough to be noticed. (“If there’s one thing I know,” says Skinny Pete, “it’s never to mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws, or mother-freakin’ Ukrainians.”) The pulse-pounding music is expertly integrated with the action, maybe because first-time director F. Gary Gray cut his teeth on hip-hop videos. Best of all, the chase scenes feel fresh.

The one that opens the movie gooses tired conventions like tearing through a vegetable stand or nearly colliding with another vehicle at a crossroads by using the canals of Venice in place of roads and motorboats instead of cars, and the second features those Mini Coopers. Perky in patriotic red, white, and blue, the little cars bump down stairs and through underground passages like the coolest toys FAO Schwartz ever dreamed of.

And what a treat to see a movie that treats killings as not just morally bankrupt but uncool. Charlie prides himself on never using violence, and the worst his crew doles out is a couple of punches and a few minor traffic accidents. Only Steve uses a gun: That’s what makes him the bad guy. Charlie ends his first showdown with Steve by decking him, but first he lands a sucker punch to the ego. “You’ve got no imagination,” he says with contempt.