Monday, December 31, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

By Elise Nakhnikian

A painter before he was a filmmaker, Julian Schnabel specializes in stories about artists and writers. All three of his increasingly light-footed films -- Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and now The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – were based on true stories about men who lived large, like Schnabel himself, ambitious in their art, voracious in their love lives, and ardent in their pursuit of happiness.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who wrote the memoir of the same name on which The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based, was in the prime of life, accustomed to having his way with just about everything and everybody, when a stroke left him with a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His mind and senses were left intact, but his body was paralyzed – except for one eyelid.

The movie starts as Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up in the hospital and learns the extent of his impairment. We stay there with him for the rest of the film, often seeing the hospital from his stationary-camera point of view, sharing his fantasies and memories, or hearing his dryly funny, unself-pitying commentary.

His words are taken from his book, which he calls “motionless travel notes.” Bauby dictated the book in the hospital, using an ingenious method devised by his speech therapist that let him spell words out by blinking his good eyelid. That method also let him communicate surprisingly well with his doctors and caregivers and with the friends and family members who had the patience to master it, making for a richer social life than you might expect.

Other than his eye, Bauby tells us, he has two things left: his imagination and his memory. Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give his fantasies and flashbacks the supper-real, emotionally charged feeling of a vivid dream.

The real world of this movie is also full of exquisite beauty. Bauby’s two therapists, the woman who takes his dictation for the book, and the mother of his three kids are all gorgeous young women, soulful and chic. Even his hospital room is picturesque, decorated with flowers that look like something from the pages of, well, Elle magazine. Schnabel filmed in the actual hospital where Bauby lived. The walls of his airy room are a lovely Mediterranean aqua, and there’s a long terrace where he likes to sit, overlooking the sea in a spot that looks, as he points out, like a movie set.

Yet even in this surprisingly humane and supportive atmosphere, assisted by what appears to be a respectful, responsive and caring staff, Bauby must cope with enormous frustration. Sharing one annoyance or indignity after another with our irritable hero, even the healthiest of viewers can begin to imagine how it must feel to be unable to perform the slightest physical act without assistance. Sometimes it’s a minor annoyance, like having the soccer game he’s watching switched off by a doctor just as a goal is about to be scored. Sometimes it’s a major dilemma, like having to ask the mother of his children, who’s still in love with him, to translate a charged conversation he needs to have with his lover. A Tom Jones-style fantasy sequence of Bauby sharing a seductive feast with one of his caregivers is a reminder that the simple pleasure of eating is lost to him, and it’s poignant to see Bauby propped up in his wheelchair on the beach, unable to touch or talk to his children as they play nearby.

In a way, what Bauby experiences is an exaggerated and accelerated version of the effects of a serious chronic disability or extreme old age, as Bauby’s elderly father (a stately Max von Sydow) points out. “You try using the stairs when you’re 92!” he says.

Johnny Depp was originally slotted to play Bauby (he gave up the part when it conflicted with his acting in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). It would have been interesting to see what he did with the part, but the puckishly charming Amalric makes it his own. The actor, who looks a little like a young Roman Polanski, captures both the charisma and the restless intelligence of the acid-tongued Bauby.

The rest of the cast -- which includes Schnabel’s wife, Marie-Joseé Croze, as one of the therapists – is also first-rate. Together with Schnabel, Kaminski, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and the rest of the crew, they bring Bauby’s story vibrantly alive, celebrating the fragile beauty of life and the adaptability of the human mind.

Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 top 10

By Elise Nakhnikian

For me, making an annual top 10 list is an excuse to think about the year’s movies as a group, and to decide whether I agree with the people who cluck over the decline of the movies. It’s an encouraging exercise because the answer is always no. In fact, this year I couldn’t narrow this list down to 10.

I couldn’t pick a particular favorite, either. So, instead of ranking these from 1 to 10 (or 12), I’m grouping them the way I think of them, according to certain themes or characteristics they have in common.

This list is also an excuse for me to catch up on promising-sounding movies that I missed during the year: December is the one month when I wallow in movies as much as I would for the rest of the year, if my day job didn’t get in the way. But there are always a couple I don’t manage to get to. Some of these -- like Monster in 2003, Caché in 2005, and Pan’s Labyrinth last year -- would have made it onto my list if I’d seen them in time. The ones that got away this year were Persepolis and There Will be Blood. I didn’t see them until after I wrote this list. If I’d gotten to them earlier, they’re be on it too.

Meanwhile, here are some movies well worth seeking out if you haven’t seen them yet.

The moral development of children
Kids in movies tend to be pretty one-dimensional, played either for sympathy or for for laughs. But two of this year’s movies take the kid’s point of view to show something as rare on film as it is common in life: the moral awakening of a child.

Blame it on Fidel. In this emotionally honest, often funny film, writer-director Julie Gavras (daughter of political filmmaker Costa-Gavras) tells the story of an idealistic Parisian couple who desert their bourgeois life to devote themselves to leftist politics in the early ‘70s. The decision infuriates their nine-year-old daughter, Anna (the wonderful Nina Kervel-Bey), who resents their moves to ever smaller and dingier quarters, the replacement of her beloved right-wing nanny by someone more PC, and the invasion of the family’s cramped kitchen by bearded men who talk politics into the night. As true to her outrage as her parents are to their communist principles, Anna excoriates the adults who turned her life inside out without warning, let alone permission. To their credit, they listen, hearing her out with love and leaving her plenty of room to reach her own conclusions about right, wrong, and individual rights versus group loyalty.

This is England is set in a working-class neighborhood in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when unemployment was high and morale was low. Twelve-year-old Shaun (the mournfully expressive Thomas Turgood) has a loving mum but not much else: his father was killed in the Falklands, he has no friends, and he’s being bullied at school. He finds solace and a sense of belonging in the unlikely form of a group of adult skinheads. But when one of their old comrades returns from prison spouting racist bile and takes over the group, Shaun learns that belonging isn’t everything. The story is autobiographical, which explains why writer-director Shane Meadows got everything so right, starting with Shaun but including the motley skinhead crew.

The World of Long-Term Care
You know how several movies with identical themes often wind up in a sprint for the theaters? Sometimes it’s easy to understand why (Make way for zombies!); sometimes not (what was it about Truman Capote in 2005?) This year, for some reason, we got three excellent movies about a topic we tend to shun: what it’s like to live with a crippling long-term disease or disability, or to love someone who’s living with one. Maybe baby-boomer screenwriters and directors are finally filming what they know. But whatever the reason, I’m grateful for the winning trifecta of Away from Her, The Savages, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Away from Her, an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story, is a delicate character study of a couple who have been married for 50 years. When Fiona (Julie Christie) develops Alzheimer’s, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) begins losing her in stages. First the disease changes her in subtle ways and erases chunks of their shared memories. Then she moves into an Alzheimer’s facility, where she promptly forgets him and forms a marriage-like partnership with a male resident. The excellent cast is headed by a radiant Christie, whose soulful beauty and sense of perpetually keeping some part of herself in reserve embody the “direct and vague, sweet and ironic” Fiona – and erase any possible doubt about why Grant might still be so besotted with his wife.

The Savages is a sometimes fierce, sometimes farcical dramedy about two contentious middle-aged siblings who take charge of their estranged father’s life when he develops dementia. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins nails everything from the texture of daily life in a nursing home to the unceremonious arrival of death, and it feels good to laugh with a theaterful of strangers at things that are nearly taboo even in our talk-happy culture. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the siblings and Philip Bosco as their father all do astonishing work, making the prickly Savages irresistible to watch and impossible not to empathize with.

Also unexpectedly good company is the sardonic hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s poetic adaptation of a memoir of the same name. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of Elle, is a man in the prime of life, accustomed to having his way with just about everything and everybody, until a stroke leaves him with a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His mind and senses are intact, but his body is paralyzed – except for one eyelid. Amazingly, with that eyelid and a method devised by one of his therapists, Bauby communicates with his caregivers, family and friends, even dictating the book this movie is based on. Filmed mainly in the actual hospital where Bauby lived after the accident, receiving care in a beautiful room from a trio of gorgeous young women, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly celebrates the fragile beauty of life and the adaptability of the human mind.

Genre Classics
In a very good year for genre pictures (I Am Legend, Grindhouse, Michael Clayton), these two were my favorites.

Though, having said that, I’m not sure just what genre No Country for Old Men fits into. Definitely not Western, though it’s set mostly in west Texas. Psycho killer thriller? Heist movie? Or do movies by the Coen brothers constitute their own genre by now? Whatever else it is, No Country is hound-dog faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which tracks an implacable killer, the good ol’ boy he has on the run, and the sheriff who’s trying to stop him. The action is relentless – Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh leaves corpses in his path the way Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs – but there’s plenty of humor and humanity too, not to mention gorgeous cinematography, impeccable pacing, excellent acting, and dialogue that’s pure Texas: full of wry understatement and as much about what isn’t said as what is.

The Bourne Ultimatum is so fast-paced it makes No Country look leisurely, but there’s more to Paul Greengrass’s final contribution to the Bourne trilogy than the famously breakneck and brutal fight and chase scenes he shoots at such dizzyingly close range. As Jason Bourne unravels the mystery of what turned him into an amnesiac killing machine, he unearths an all-too-real secret history of CIA torture, assassination, and unchecked power. Matt Damon’s Bourne was a blank slate at the beginning of this series, but he ends it as a hero for our times, fighting the faceless bureaucrats who order up death and destruction from their sleek glass and steel bunkers.

True Grit
Sure, it’s cool to see people skiing down or climbing up mountains, but it’s a lot more interesting to watch an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances rise to the occasion.

Rescue Dawn is an odd duck. It’s a scripted story played by professional actors – including a riveting Christian Bale as the hero, Dieter Dengler – yet everything they’re acting out really happened. A German-born American pilot, Dengler was captured and tortured by Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War when his plane was shot down over Laos. He not only survived but escaped, thanks to his ingenuity, apparently unshakable optimism and practical skills learned a welder, a soldier, and a starving kid in war-ravaged Germany. Director Werner Herzog had already shot his story once as Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary starring Dengler himself, but he was smart to remake it. The re-enactment packs more of a punch, showing us scenes Dengler could only describe or act out unconvincingly. Rescue Dawn also touchingly dramatizes a touching relationship that’s barely mentioned in the documentary: Dengler’s friendship with a fellow prisoner who escaped with him but did not make it out of the jungle.

The Golden Door. Using minimal dialogue, this visual stunner follows the members of an Sicilian family as they leave their grinding rural poverty for the United States in the early 1900s. Fine acting, a generous use of ambient sound, and the unhurried pace anchor us in their world as we learn as they do, by watching the sometimes incomprehensible actions of strangers. The occasional lush fantasy scene breaks up the rigorous reality, cluing us in on the immigrants’ unspoken hopes. This movie also includes what may be the year’s best visual metaphor: As the family’s boat leaves for America, a space opens up, then slowly grows between the people lining the deck of the boat and the friends and relatives crowded onto the pier to see them off, who started out as one indistinguishable mass. The filmmakers hold the shot long enough to let you think about the distance those brave people put between themselves and everyone – and everything – they’ve ever known. Their Ellis Island reception by disdainful immigration officials is a sobering lesson in the xenophobic politics of the day.

Days of Glory is about the North African Arabs who fought for a racist France in WWII. Their idealism about their adopted “motherland” slowly drains away as they endure insults and indignities and are sent into the worst spots and given the least equipment. Yet they never lose their heart for the fight against the Nazis. Director Rachid Bouchareb cowrote the screenplay only after conducting extensive interviews with Algerian and Moroccan veterans of the French Army, and his research paid off: The characters may be composites, but everything they do, say, and experience has the feel of truth.

Everything Old is New Again
Killer of Sheep. Shot on 16mm for just $10,000 in 1973 as director Charles Burnett’s film school thesis and released for a very brief run four years later, this poetically told story of a working-class African-American family’s struggle to make it into the middle class was restored and given its widest theatrical release ever this year. The black-and-white photography is beautiful, but what makes this a masterpiece is the range and depth of emotion Burnett captures in one claustrophobic LA ghetto. Like August Wilson’s plays, Burnett’s movies bring to life and preserve chunks of our country’s psychic history that might otherwise be lost. As hard as it is here to watch stoic slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his patient wife (Kaycee Moore) hang on to the knife edge of the lower-middle-class while their kids fend for themselves on the street, it’s even sadder to think how much further guns, drugs, and the corrosive effects of poverty have eroded the quality of life, and the ability to hope, for many South Central residents in the two generations since this movie was made.

Blade Runner: Final Cut. I didn’t think much of Blade Runner when it first came out in 1982, but I was blown away by the final cut released this year. I’m sure the difference is mostly in me – when I watched Final Cut this year, I realized how many images from this fiercely original neo-noir had burned their way into my brain way the first time around and wondered how I failed to appreciate them then. It’s also fascinating to see how much of Scott’s dystopic vision of a then-futuristic LA has already come true, or likely will soon.

I do remember disliking the improbably upbeat ending, which didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie. Thankfully, it's been replaced by a much better one. (Director Ridley Scott put back the darker ending he’d always wanted when he made other changes, including digitalizing the already detailed sets to make them look even more realistic.) But maybe it just took two viewings for me to appreciate the depth and intensity of this hallucinatory masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


By Elise Nakhnikian

Juno is one of the best movies of a very good movie year, but it gets off to a slow start.

Like Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the woman desperate to adopt Juno’s baby, the movie tries too hard at first, establishing its too-cool-for-school cred with a faux-folksy soundtrack and frequent dissolves into hand-colored rotoscoping reminiscent of those Charles Schwab ads. What’s worse, Juno (Ellen Page), her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and the hipster convenience store clerk (Rainn Wilson) who Juno chats up are all so glibly hip that, for the first 10 or 15 minutes, you might think the script had been written by a 16-year-old, not about one.

Then Juno shifts into gear, and we’re off.

When she wrote Juno, Diablo Cody was only about a decade older than her heroine – and probably still leaning a little too heavily on her adolescent shock-jock schtick. For those of you who haven’t already read too much about Cody, she’s a nice, middle-class Midwestern girl (she invented the name because her real one was too boring) who earned fame and fortune by spending a year as a stripper – the post-modern, feminist sort of stripper – and writing about it, first in a blog and then in a memoir.

Teen pregnancy, her subject in Juno, is another topic – like stripping – that isn’t much talked about in polite society, although it’s common as dirt. Cody and her director, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman, adopt a tone of deadpan humanism that allows them to find the pathos in Juno’s predicament while mining it for a steady supply of laughs.

They were about 90 percent of the way there when they cast Page, the 19-year-old actress who plays Juno. Open yet guarded, self-confident but prone to wading in way over her head, boiling over with feelings but always struggling to look cool, kindhearted yet often scathing, Page’s Juno is a jumble of teenage contradictions with a rock-solid core.

Forever tossing off sardonic asides, Juno uses her sense of humor as a weapon and a shield. Sometimes she’s fending off things that can hurt her, sometimes she’s trying to act tougher than she feels. And sometimes she’s doing both at once, like when she tersely sums up her mother’s desertion of the family years ago. Mom’s out West now, she notes, raising three “replacement kids.”

Juno’s story tips toward comedy rather than tragedy thanks to the excellent parents who stuck with her. Her gruffly loving father is played by J.K. Simmons, whose face you’d probably recognize even if you don’t know his name. Her understanding stepmother, Brenda (the always wonderful Allison Janney) gets a couple of the movie’s best moments, including a fierce speech in Juno’s defense at an ultrasound clinic. No wonder Juno says she loves coming home after she’s been somewhere else for a while.

What’s not so easy for her to admit is how she feels about her best friend and the father of her child, Paulie Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera, still looking about 12 years old). Juno and Bleek’s inability to tell each other how they feel is poignant – though it’s written and played with a light enough touch to make you smile. After all, as Juno points out in a humorously illustrated voiceover, everyone’s always crushing on someone unattainable in high school: the jock secretly lust after the “alternative” girls they torment in the hallways, while the cheerleaders the jocks are supposed to want chase after the teachers.

Cody provides less insight into the relationships between the adults in the story. I wonder if she was as clueless as Juno about what Brenda calls “the dynamics of marriage” when she wrote that screenplay. If so, she isn’t now, having married and divorced since then. She’s teetering on the edge of 30, too. Makes you wonder what she’ll be drawing from in her next project.

Writers always use great chunks of autobiography in their fiction. Some rework the material more than others, but they all do it. Yet those who openly draw on their experiences often get criticized for it, as if that somehow diminishes the value or artistry of the work.

Cody has come in for more than her share of that kind of criticism, but I hope it doesn’t discourage her. We need writers like her – explorer/observers who remain true to their own thoughts and feelings – to chronicle the lives of21st century American women.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Savages

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the conundrums that must keep Hollywood executives up at night is that happy endings have to be earned.

If you start your big, dumb, would-be blockbuster with one-dimensional characters in clichéd situations and sand off any remaining edges with script doctors and test screenings, your feel-good ending feels as tacked-on as the donkey’s tail in that old children’s game. To deliver a truly happy ending, you have to hit your emotional marks along the way, getting the details right. And when it comes to doing that, the suits could learn a thing or two from The Savages.

A classic character-driven dramedy, writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ second feature doesn’t sound like much on paper: Two contentious siblings on the cusp of middle age take charge of their estranged father’s life when he develops dementia. In the process of caring for him, they reconnect with each other and begin to take more responsibility for their own lives.

It’s the details that guide this arrow to the bullseye. Jenkins and her colleagues get almost everything just right, from the texture of daily life to the unceremonious arrival of death. Seemingly insignificant incidents or people sometimes loom into the foreground, while “big” moments turn out to be surprisingly anticlimactic. And anything can trigger a meltdown.

Jenkins aims at common experiences that are still taboo enough, even in our talky culture, to make most of us feel alone when we experience them. Part of the pleasure this movie provides is the release of laughing with a theater full of strangers at dementia, death, sibling rivalry, and the challenge of caring for an aging parent who never cared all that well for you.

The humorous yet humanistic tone is set with the Busby Berkeley-esque opener, in which an energetic group of elderly women in cheerleader costumes do a routine involving a row of aggressively trimmed hedges in Sun City. It’s fun to see the filmmakers gently send up this sunny American vision of “retirement living,” golf carts forever moseying across its featureless landscape. It’s also poignant to see the contrast between that façade and the misery inside the bright and tidy Sun City home of Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco).

But none of this would have worked if the movie were not so brilliantly cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jon Savage, Laura Linney as his sister Wendy, and Bosco as their father all do astonishing work, making these prickly people irresistible to watch and impossible not to empathize with. A few of the minor characters – notably Gbenga Akinnagbe as an achingly kind nursing assistant in the nursing home where Lenny winds up – also make indelible impressions.

When the movie starts, Wendy is stuck in a self-made trap, carrying on an affair with a married man while perpetually reworking her unproduced “subversive, semi-autobiographical play.” Jon is more outwardly successful, holding down a responsible job as a drama professor and living with a woman whose rightness for him shines through in every moment of their brief shared screen time. But Jon is the flip side to his melodramatic sister. While she always wants to talk about her feelings, he never wants to deal with his own – or anyone else’s.

The actors find inventive ways to telegraph Wendy’s neurosis, Jon’s stoicism, and the unresolved trauma and barely suppressed rage that feed both. Jenkins empathizes with her characters, but, like a good parent, she doesn’t indulge their bad habits. And slowly but surely, she leads them out of their trough of stasis and self-pity.

Jenkins’s husband, Jim Taylor, is Alexander Payne’s writing partner. He and Payne are also the executive producers of this movie, and it’s a good fit. Like the best of Payne and Taylor’s collaborations – Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways The Savages finds humor and pathos in the human condition, especially our weaknesses and the lengths we go to in trying to cover them up.

When that’s your playing field and you get the details right – and when your players are actors of this caliber – you don’t have to run a scene long to make your point. Jenkins, whose first feature was the equally original and authentic-feeling Slums of Beverly Hills, intersperses seconds-long snippets with longer scenes to capture things like the cold comfort of watching old movies in a cheerless hotel room, the casual cruelty of a blended family in crisis, and the saccharine fantasy world of nursing home marketing. And when Wendy and Jon have their ultimate in a series of vicious verbal smack-downs, we hear just enough to know what they’re saying and what’s behind the heat. Then they get into a car with their father, and the camera shifts to his point of view as he turns off his hearing aid and tunes them out, looking out the window with a mixture of sorrow and irritation.

The Savages never beats you over the head with too much information. Instead, it shows enough to make you believe in a situation, laugh out loud at the home truths it reveals, and root for an ending that leaves you room to hope about people you’ve come to care about.

And there you have it, the formula for a good comic drama. Simple, right? But it takes an artist to make it look this easy.

Monday, November 19, 2007


The blurb at the start of the IMAX 3D version of Beowulf promised “the ultimate movie experience,” and I was hoping it would be – of its type, of course. After all, what better way to watch an epic action adventure scripted by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman than as a three-dimensional image on a four-story screen?

Beowulf is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind having spent a Sunday morning on it, but it was hardly a revelation. Some scenes, like one of a warrior galloping across a burning bridge just ahead of the flames, had me gripping my armrests, but I kept wondering why director Robert Zemeckis had gone to all that trouble to make things feel hyper-real with 3D cameras and CGI imagery only to shoot his actors in that motion capture mode that makes everyone look like a plastic action figure.

The director used the same technique in the creepily expressionless Polar Express. The technology has gotten somewhat better since – people’s eyes don’t look as dead -- but the cast of Beowulf still looks like a bunch of refugees from a Botox carpet bombing.

The 3D amps up the camp factor, as spears protrude to what feels like an inch or two from your eye. It also exaggerates the way distance changes perspective, separating an image into a series of unnaturally distinct planes. And the picture gets a little blurry every time the camera swoops or swirls, which it does a lot, giving me vertigo whenever it goes on too long. It’s as if John Candy’s Dr. Tongue, the character who simulated 3D on SCTV by swooping things right up to the camera and then away again, were in charge of the cinematography.

The screenplay supersizes the Old English legend, a pretty straightforward tale of heroism from a highly militaristic age. A young warrior named Beowulf conquers Grendel, the demon who’s been terrorizing King Hrothgar’s Denmark. Then Beowulf kills Grendel’s even more fearsome mother and a bloodthirsty dragon that shows up a little later, like the bonus round on a video game. Beowulf is killed for his trouble, but he dies a hero, his fame assured.

The screenplay, which was cowritten by Gaiman and Roger Avary, Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner on early movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, gives us a compromised hero and a pitiable monster, updating the 10th century fable for the 21st century with lines like: “We men are the monsters now.”

In this version, Grendel has major Daddy issues that explain his hatred of the king and his men, Beowulf is plagued by a guilty conscience, and the Danes are more hard-partying frat boys than they are the self-sacrificing warriors of the original. Swilling beer and harassing barmaid, they’re hardly admirable as they carouse in a new mead hall their king calls “a place of merriment, joy, and fornication.” So when the horrific-looking Grendel, the original party-pooper, rampages through that hall, tossing drunken warriors into the air while dripping gelatinous slobber, like a mastiff on steroids, you’re more fascinated by the verisimilitude of his flayed, misshapen body than you are put off by the gore.

Grendel’s formidable mother (Angelina Jolie) is also a trip. She’s not on the screen much, but the camera makes the most of every second, hugging her tight while she rises slowly up out of the water or circles seductively around Beowulf, purring promises in the same vaguely Translyvanian-sounding accent she rolled out for Alexander.

Jolie looks unreal enough without the help of motion capture technology. With it, she’s positively extraterrestrial, and she’s wearing nothing but a rather elegant tail, stiletto heels, and a kind of molten gold that drips slowly down her superhuman body. It’s an inspired piece of stunt casting, and it’s echoed – though it can’t be matched – by the equal-opportunity performance of the buff body double who does the acting for Beowulf (Ray Winstone provides the voice), who strips down for Beowulf’s big battle with Grendel. The technology is the real star here, but the naked bodies probably helped make Beowulf the best-selling movie in theaters on its opening weekend.

With its grimly gorgeous settings, faux-archaic speech, frequent and brutal hand-to-hand combat, embattled royalty and mythical creatures, Beowulf will probably remind you at times of Lord of the Rings. And that’s too bad for Beowulf, which is much thinner gruel than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.

Still worth seeing, if you’re a fan of this kind of story. But hardly the ultimate movie experience.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

“It’s very good that the Coens took the words Cormac wrote and didn’t try to ‘improve’ them,” said Tommy Lee Jones, sounding a lot like the master of understatement he plays in the movie, after a New York Film Festival press screening of No Country for Old Men.

Joel and Ethan Coen were incredibly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s tale of an unstoppable killer and the good man he has on the run when they adapted it for the screen -- but then you’d expect as much from two such smart cookies. With its near-mythic characters, vivid imagery, spectacular violence, propulsive pacing, and minimalistic dialogue, the novel is nothing if not “cinematic.” Strip out the descriptive passages, collapse a few scenes, and run it through Final Draft and you’ve got yourself a kick-ass screenplay.

What I hadn’t expected was that McCarthy and the Coens would bring out the best in each other.

Both the novelist and the filmmakers take a pretty dim view of people in general, though McCarthy’s bleak pessimism seems to spring from a despairing view of human nature as essentially feral, while the coldness that characterizes much of the Coens’ work feels like the contempt a couple of smart, nerdy boys turn back on the crowd that once froze them out. Merging the two sensibilities in No Country for Old Men brings out the Coens’ often latent humanity and lightens McCarthy’s sometimes oppressively dark tone by a shade or two.

McCarthy’s story takes the Coens back to Texas, where they started their career more than 20 years ago with Blood Simple. But instead of the mouth-breathing yokel caricatures of their clever but snarky debut, this tale features a rich range of fully rounded characters – and a wise, plain as dirt local lawmaker who rivals one of the brothers’ greatest fictional inventions, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.

At the heart of the story is a killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who leaves corpses in his path the way Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs. Chigurh is a human demon, implacable and unplaceable. Even his name seems to come from nowhere in particular, and so does his anti-stylish Prince Valiant haircut, a look so weird that it has gotten more press than most of the excellent supporting cast.

With his thousand-yard stare and the innocuous-looking but lethal machine he totes everywhere, Chigurh is a nightmare figure, the personification of the horror beginning to be rained down on either side of the Mexican border by dueling drug dealers in 1980, the year of the story. When Chigurh steals drugs and medical instruments and holes up in a hotel room to tend to his own gunshot wound, he brings to mind the Terminator, another unstoppable killing machine.

No Country for Old Men is a warning bell sounded about the damage being wrought by the U.S.-Mexican drug trade and the general degeneration of social codes in a world where, as Bell sees it, everything started going downhill when kids stopped saying “sir” and “ma’am.” Yet this ranks as a relatively hopeful story for McCarthy, whose post-apocalyptic landscapes are sometimes too sere to house a drop of human kindness. Chigurh may be the ultimate bad guy, but he’s facing off against an old-fashioned hero and another good ol’ boy gone slightly bad, and the two give him a tightly paced run for his money.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a breakout role) is a welder who stumbles upon the gory aftermath of a gunfight between rival drug runners in the West Texas brush. He impulsively makes off with the abandoned case full of cash, seizing a chance to transform his and his wife’s hardscrabble existence. Jones’ Bell is the sheriff who sizes up the situation and tries to save Moss and regain the money before the killers get both. Smart, capable men who know how to read people and how to get things done, both strive to do the right thing. And both are also married to good women who keep them grounded and soften their hard edges. (The wives are played by Tess Harper, who was born for roles like this, and by Kelly MacDonald, the Scottish star of The Girl in the Café, who plays that girl’s West Texas equivalent with the same quiet strength and a flawless accent.)

In his best role since Lonesome Dove, Jones plays the story’s moral center, drawing on his Texas bona fides, his dust-dry sense of humor, and that retro tough-guy gruffness that got so nicely tweaked in Men in Black. The movie preserves some of his musings as voice-overs to give us his perspective on how much more brutal things are getting in his part of Texas, where life has never been easy.

The story lopes forward relentlessly, as lean and focused as the three men at its core. On the way, it passes through a typical Southwest Texas landscape, including dusty towns with just one main street, gas stations and hotels and diners that haven’t had a face lift in half a century or more, miles and miles of featureless highway, and the Mexican border, that portal to an alternate reality.

The dialogue is pure Texas, too. Full of wry understatement, it’s as much about what isn’t said as what is. “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” Bells’ deputy remarks as they survey the scene of one of Chigurh’s killings. “If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here,” Bell replies.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Running Funny

On first impression, Anthony Grippa strikes you as a likeable, somewhat diffident guy, as much a watcher as a doer. But he obviously knows how to get things done: His first feature is one of the homegrown movies being shown at this year’s New Jersey Film Festival.

The film is Running Funny, and it’s part of the crop of extremely low-budget, do-it-yourself features by young filmmakers with a prosumer video camera and a story to tell. “I decided two or three years ago that I’d get a day job and make my life about getting this film made,” says Grippa, 25. “I watched as more and more of my friends started making more money and getting cool cars and apartments. But I have this film, which to me is a lot more valuable.”

Based on a play by Princeton-based playwright Charles Evered – who’s also Grippa’s uncle – Running Funny tells the story of Ed (Gene Gallerano) and Mike (Maximilian Osinski), friends just out of college who rent a garage together for a few weeks from a wise elderly landlord (Louis Zorich) while trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

Grippa read the play after graduating from Rutgers, when he was living in the same state of confusion as Mike and Ed. He called the man he calls “Uncle Chuck,” who has written movies as well as theatrical plays, and proposed that they turn his 1988 play into a screenplay.

The two agreed not to stray far from the play’s script. “We didn’t want to open it up to much to become something completely different, because the heart of the story is these two guys living in this small apartment-garage,” explains Grippa. “Also, we knew we couldn’t afford to open it up too much, since we’d need to shoot most of it in that one location.”

I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it
Grippa grew up in Upper Saddle River with his psychotherapist mother and two younger sisters. (His father, who runs a business in the Fulton Fish Market, lives with a second wife and their two children.) For the last couple years, he’s been living in Hoboken, working his day job at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, and making and marketing this film on his time off.

“I didn’t want to write a script and wait for somebody to give me $5 million to make a movie, because it just wasn’t going to happen,” says Grippa, who started making short movies in high school. “I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it. I think when you have less resources available, you really learn how creative you can be.”

Making his first feature was a much bigger production than making those high school shorts -- but it was essentially the same process on steroids. The most important thing, Grippa says, was “just committing to it, saying ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’

“I’m the co-writer, I’m the co-producer, I’m the director, I’m the marketing guy, I’m the caterer, I’m the sales guy. It’s basically the best film school I could ask for.”

Getting it made
Making the movie was “definitely a grassroots process,” he says. The key to success was telling everyone he came across about what he was doing, since “you never know who might want to help you out.”

The whole thing cost only $10,000, which he raised from “friends and family, and friends of friends and family. No amount was too small. Some people gave 20 bucks; some people gave a thousand bucks.”

Other things were donated too. He found the garage where they shot in Upper Saddle River after his hometown paper ran a story on the movie and a reader called to offer his garage, free of charge. “It was the first one we looked at, and it was perfect,” Grippa marvels.

An indie filmmaker operating on a shoestring has to be “a great communicator,” he adds. “You have to be able to get people as passionate as you are about what you’re trying to do.”

For his cast and crew, he rounded up a group of people, most of them also starting out their movie careers, who volunteered their time in exchange for adding a feature to their resumes. Grippa was hardly the only one who did more than one job. “The gaffer was also the sound guy; the grip was also helping out with wardrobe,” he says. “Everyone was wearing many different hats. I think everyone was working on it for two reasons: because they really cared about the story and to gain experience.”

For the actors who play Mike and Ed, there was a third reason: “the chance to work with Louis Zorich. They couldn’t turn that down,” says Grippa.

Zorich, who plays the landlord, is best known for his role as Paul Reiser’s character’s father on TV’s Mad About You and for cofounding the Whole Theater in Montclair with his wife, actress Olympia Dukakis. “Louis became involved because he was in my uncle's play The Size of the World about ten years ago when it ran Off Broadway,” says Grippa.

Getting it seen
“In a way, making the movie was the easy part,” says Grippa. “The hard part is getting people to care about it. How do you get them to see it?”

Hoping to interest a distributor in putting the movie into theaters or on DVD, Grippa submitted it to film festivals. So far, it’s been accepted by three, including the Woods Hole Film Festival, where he won the emerging filmmaker award. He does advance publicity for festivals, plastering area coffeeshops with flyers, contacting the media for stories like this one, and “telling everyone I see about the movie.”

And he doesn’t stop with film festivals. “I’ve done all this work for two years, so why do I want to put the life of this movie in the hands of these festival programmers?” he asks. So he’s also screening it at colleges that accept his offer to show the movie and answer questions afterward.

“I think you became a filmmaker by making films,” says Grippa. “I made my feature film for a third of the cost of one year of tuition at NYU film school. The technology is so accessible -- it’s all digital now. You just need a desire to do it and a camera.

“The bad thing is, since more and more people are making films it becomes more difficult to break through the pack.”

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Away From Her

Forget the hype about Sofia Coppola: Sarah Polley, the 28-year-old writer-director of Away From Her, is the real deal. Sure, Coppola has a precocious sense of style, but her gaze never travels far from the general vicinity of her bellybutton. Her movies all have the same non-plot: Pretty young things nearly drown in ennui, trapped in a world that Just Doesn’t Get It.

Like Coppola, Polley comes from an artistic family and has been acting since childhood and directing since she was a young adult, starting with short films (Away From Her is her first feature). But Polley’s saucer eyes soak in everything around her. For this movie, the actress chose to adapt a short story by fellow Canadian Alice Munro about a couple who have been married for 50 years, whose relationship changes drastically after the wife develops Alzheimer’s disease.

Away From Her is the kind of quiet character study that generally gets shouldered aside by flashier stuff, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t stay long in theaters this spring. But it’s one of the best movies I saw this year, so it’s worth adding to your Netflix queue if you missed it the first time around.

Polley was not yet married when she first read Munro’s story, but an apparently rich capacity for empathy – not to mention what filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who directed her in The Sweet Hereafter, has referred to as her “alarming maturity” – drew her to the story. "I think we have a really hard time culturally with what happens to love after the first year [of marriage]," she told the New York Times. “It is difficult and it is painful and it is a letdown. It was interesting to me to make a film about what love looked like after life had gotten in the way, and what remained."

In Munro’s story, Grant, a retired professor, must adjust to playing a severely diminished role in the life of his wife, Fiona, after she moves into an Alzheimer’s facility. Within a month, Fiona has forgotten virtually everything about Grant and bonded with a man in the facility, tending to him as if he were her husband and Grant a curiously persistent suitor who can’t take a hint. Polley captures Fiona’s elusive grace, Grant’s sorrow and regret, their potent love for one another, and the increasing delicacy with which they treat each other, falling back on manners when all else fails.

She’s aided by a brilliant cast. Polley says she saw Julie Christie in the part from the time she first read the story, and it’s easy to see why, though it took months for her to persuade the reluctant actress to play the part. Christie’s soulful beauty and her sense of perpetually keeping something of herself in reserve embody Fiona, whose husband describes her as “direct and vague … sweet and ironic.”

Christie is matched by Gordon Pinsent, a renowned Canadian actor whose Grant is dignified and devoted, still trailing whiffs of the charm he once exuded but dulled down a bit by age and sadness. The rest of the cast is also fine, especially Michael Murphy as Aubrey, Fiona’s wordless yet demanding new love; Olympia Dukakis as his bitter, brusque wife; and Kristen Thomson as Kristy, the sympathetic young nurse who helps Grant come to terms with the changes in Fiona.

Polley augments the story to fill out two hours of film. She fleshes out the daily life of the facility, adding an officious administrator and further exploring the character of Kristy. She also shows Fiona thinking about Grant’s decades-old affairs, though those memories haunt only Grant in the story. Polley’s wry sense of humor and eye for idiosyncratic behavior rhyme with Munro’s, making the new material blend in seamlessly.

Cinematographer Luc Montpellier gives the story a steely beauty that matches both the tone of Fiona and Grant’s long marriage and the feel of the Canadian winter, “to bathe Fiona’s and Grant’s relationship with cool winter source light and stay away from warm, romantic clichés,” as he puts it.

In one recurring image, Fiona leaves Grant and their home on her cross-country skis, heading out on a blue winter evening. Christie’s bright eyes, still-sharp cheekbones, silver hair and athletic body are lovely to watch against the trackless snow, but this is more than just a pretty picture. It’s a haunting image, vibrant with significance, that contains the whole ache and arc of Fiona and Grant’s near-lifelong partnership.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

Allan Loeb is one of those screenwriters who’s famous within the industry for a movie nobody has seen. An as-yet unproduced script titled The Only Living Boy in New York has gotten passed around and buzzed about in Hollywood for years, burnishing his reputation though his only credits, until now, were a handful of TV scripts.

But if Only Living Boy is really that good, why is Things We Lost in the Fire, Loeb’s first feature to make it to the screen, such a cliché-ridden, lugubrious misfire?

The fault is surely in the script, since Danish director Susanne Bier’s other work is all about the unpredictability and intensity of human emotions. Take Brothers, Bier’s film about the effect of the war in Afghanistan on a soldier and the family he left behind. When the tension that’s been building erupts in a fight, it’s genuinely scary: The sparring starts suddenly and proceeds messily, building up to a charged standoff that could easily go either way.

There’s nothing approaching that raw naturalism in this prefab construction. Instead, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make up for what’s lacking in the overdetermined script, we get close-ups so uncomfortably extreme that part of one giant eyeball sometimes fills an entire quarter of the screen. In the right context, zooming in that close on a stranger’s body parts could be revealing, especially when it’s Benicio Del Toro’s shifty eye and pale, puffy eyelid you’re anatomizing, but the effect here is more opthalmalogical than psychological. The same happens in the editing room during a big breakdown. The scene should be an emotional climax, but it goes on so long and makes so many pointless shifts in camera angle that it starts to lose its impact, feeling more like a screen test than a genuine experience.

Loeb’s fashionably fractured narrative jumps back and forth in time and includes a lot of patly packaged moments. It also features a juicy, Oscar-bait female lead. Audrey is a sexy wife, a fiercely protective mother, and a bereft widow, and she gets several big emotional scenes, plus the speech that gives the film its title. No wonder the part “drew the attention of just about every female movie star from Julia Roberts down,” according to the LA Times.

Berry acquits herself with dignity, handling Audrey’s anger particularly well, but the film is stolen by the magnificently unpredictable Del Toro, who plays Jerry, the junkie who was the best friend of Audrey’s deceased husband, Brian (David Duchovny).

De Toro's Jerry vibrates with energy even when he’s nodding out. The intelligence and soul the actor brings to the part singlehandedly make Jerry’s instant chemistry with Audrey’s kids one of the most believable and charming parts of the story, even though the adorably curly-headed actors who play the kids are a bit guarded and self-conscious.

Audrey, who resented Brian’s friendship with Jerry while he was alive, moves his friend into their garage after her husband’s death (this is a better deal than it sounds like, since their house is so swanky that even the garage looks like it was lit by Hurrell.) It’s not clear even to her why she does this, but once she does, Jerry’s relationship to her family becomes the core of the story.

It’s a relief that Jerry and Audrey never hook up romantically, and that the sexual tension between them is acknowledged in a scene where they almost make out and regret it instantly. But everything else that happens after Jerry moves into the garage follows so deep a rut that only Del Toro’s prodigious talent keeps the movie from bogging down completely.

A dull sense of familiarity sets in as Jerry gets clean, get his life back on track, and bonds with Audrey, her kids, and their neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch). Look, there’s Audrey picking a fight with Jerry and kicking him out. There’s Jerry’s relapse, and Audrey tracking him down in a bad part of town. And yup, there’s Jerry, with the blankets and the thrashing and the puking and the sweat, going cold turkey in Audrey’s garage.

The supporting characters are ciphers. all Howard is played strictly for comic relief, his rotten marriage sketched in as lightly as an image traced in steam on a bathroom mirror. Audrey’s mother (or is she her sister?) has even less heft, popping in and out of a couple of scenes without leaving a trace. And Loeb fails to develop either the character of Kelly, a charming girl who falls in love with Jerry in Narcotics Anonymous, or her relationship with Jerry.

A would-be realistic, character-driven drama that lacks the unpredictability and rough texture of real life, Things We Lost in the Fire relies on its stars' personal magnetism and talent, magnified by melodramatic camerawork and editing, to appeal to our emotions. It succeeds now and then, but in the end it's just the emotional equivalent of empty calories, one more piece of processed Hollywood cheese.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ernie Gehr: Exploring the Senses

Central Jersey film lovers have a rare opportunity to see works by a distinguished director of short “avant-garde” films when Ernie Gehr screens several of his movies in Princeton.

Gehr, who has been making movies since the 1960s, is widely recognized as one of the best living experimental filmmakers. In the words of the copy for an exhibit of his work that’s currently running at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, his films “create a sense of wonder with their unfailingly lush, sensual image quality and minute attention to contrast and framing.“

His most famous, Serene Velocity, a hypnotic study of a hallway in which he switches between long shots and close-ups at regular intervals, adjusting the focal length just a bit with each shot to create the illusion of movement, is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. But none of his two dozen or so movies is available on DVD or video, so chances are you’ve never seen one of his eye-opening meditations on light, color, composition, and film as a medium, which function as a kind of wakeup call to our overtaxed, generally half shut-down senses.

Well, a few have popped up on the Internet, but Gehr advises against watching them there. “They look terrible,” he says. “The one on YouTube is even at the wrong speed. They’re totally misleading.”

Gehr’s November program will consist of recent work on digital video, including some films shown at this year’s New York Film Festival. Next week, he’ll kick off his showings with five older works on 16mm film: Serene Velocity, Wait, Rear Window, Passage, and Side/Walk/Shuttle. The last, which shows aerial views of San Francisco shot from a glass elevator as it floats up and down, was named one of the 10 best movies of 1992 by three of the Village Voice’s contentious critics.

Gehr began making movies after moving to New York and discovering filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinemateque. The film series showed movies by people working outside the Hollywood tradition, including Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mekas himself. “My education took place by going to see these films, again and again, and seeing the possibilities – that filmmaking wasn’t locked into a certain narrow direction,” says Gehr. “I was also looking at paintings and reading contemporary fiction by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and so on. These films seemed to echo that same tradition of exploring the possibilities of the medium.

“I was interested in cinema, but I didn’t think I would be able to make films,” he adds. “I didn’t have the personality, the connections, or the money to work in Hollywood. I’m a relatively shy person – or was. So when I was finally able to pick up a camera, and to find places where there were other people who would look at this work, it was very exciting. It really opened up opportunities for expressing myself.”

Gehr’s voice sounds a lot like Peter Lorre’s: quietly intense and lightly dusted with the Germanic accent of his youth. His parents were German Jews who survived WWII in Europe, moving their family to this country in the late ‘50s when Gehr was a teen. The family settled in Milwaukee, and Gehr has spent nearly all of his adult life in either San Francisco or New York City.

“I’ve lived in cities all my life,” he says. “Occasionally I would visit a friend in the country and stay overnight, hear the sounds of the crickets, but I don’t know what living in the country is like. I’m drawn to the city. It’s where human history is made, the environment that shapes us in so many ways.”

Perhaps that’s why city life is an integral part of much of his work -- even the main subject of some more recent films. Critic Tom Gunning has called Gehr’s films “a discovery of, and vivid response to, a range of visual phenomenon available in the modern urban environment,” saying they show the city as “a circulatory system, a channeling of flows.”

His work is also an exploration of the characteristics, strengths, and limitations of film itself, so switching to digital video at the turn of the new century was a significant change for Gehr. He did it with considerable trepidation, initially more for financial than artistic reasons.

“I make films, most of the time, with my own savings,” he says. “I do apply for grants, but I’m not very good at that, and since the NEA stopped giving grants to individuals in the mid-90s, it’s been difficult to find support. I make a living teaching rather than from the work itself.

“The problem with working with film now is the labs. To get a print that looks the way you want it to look, sometimes you have to ask for three or four additional prints, and you have to pay for every one. Before, they would just do it over if they didn’t get it quite right the first time.”

Gehr likes the control he gets from “processing” his own digital images in the computer, adjusting colors and so on. He also prefers digital sound quality to the compromised sound you get from converting 16mm magnetic tape to the optical sound used by virtually all U.S. projectors. But there are also things he prefers about film, which he still uses on occasion. “Video is not as dramatic as film,” he says. “The colors are more controllable in film. The image is sharper. The light is more intense. The fact that you have a flicker in the projector makes the image more tactile, more physical. Also, the image in film has the illusion of being more dimensional.

“One of the [digital] pieces that I’ll be showing in November in Princeton, Glider, accentuates that flatness of image,” he adds. “I bring it out rather than trying to hide the quality of video.”

In other words, the details may change in Gehr’s work, but the fundamental things remain the same. And perhaps most fundamental of all is what he calls “a certain responsiveness to the formal characteristics of the medium -- trying to bring them to the foreground and make them tactile, so they can be experienced pleasurably, as something with intrinsic aesthetic value and not just as an idea.”

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In the Valley of Elah and Days of Glory

With our country in an increasingly unpopular war, movie audiences seem to be dividing into two camps. Most people are getting enough of the war in their lives or on the news and want distraction when they go to the multiplex, but some see movies as a way of learning about how the war looks and feels to those who are caught in it. For that second group, two very different war stories are playing this week.

Days of Glory and In the Valley of Elah are both based on true stories – Glory on the experiences of the Algerian soldiers who fought for a racist France in WWII and Elah on the killing of Iraq war veteran Richard R. Davis, as reported in Playboy magazine by Mark Boal. Both focus on a young man whose life is tragically warped and wasted by the war he volunteers to participate in. But beyond that, the two don’t have much in common.

Paul Haggis, the director and cowriter of Elah, started his professional life on The Facts of Life and remained in TV for the next 20 years or so. It shows. His screenplays – which also include Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby and Crash – always start with conventional storylines and piles them high with a self-conscious sense of social import and a heavy layer of foreshadowing. Elah may not be laden with the coincidences and binary contrasts that made Crash feel like a kindergarten primer on racism, but it’s still the kind of movie whose main character can’t go to an auto parts store without the guy behind the counter making a wise observation about his character.

A standard police procedural, Elah follows Hank (the always excellent Tommy Lee Jones, whose jug ears, simian forehead and hound-dog eyes fit this blue-collar hero to a T) as he teams up with Emily (Charlize Theron) to find out what happened to his son, a soldier who was gruesomely murdered just after making it home safe from Iraq. While Hank, a former military policeman and crack investigator, labors to learn why, Haggis and cowriter Boal dole out the usual clues, red herrings, breakthroughs and setbacks.

But Elah is also an antiwar film. Mike’s death turns out to have everything to do with the things he did in Iraq and how that experience warped him and the other soldiers he served with. We see some of the atrocities they commit played out on a digital video downloaded from Mike’s damaged cell phone. Often breaking up into unreadable patterns, those cryptic glimpses of hell force you to pay close attention, since you’re never quite sure what’s going on. And when you realize what you’ve been seeing, it’s often genuinely disturbing.

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is the first American battle to generate antiwar movies while it’s still being waged, and studios are cranking out features as if to make up for lost time. The first English-language fiction film about the occupation, Philip Haas’ The Situation, came out just this spring, but several more will open before the end of the year. They include Grace is Gone, starring John Cusack; director Brian de Palma’s Redacted; Lions for Lambs, with Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise; and Charlie Wilson’s War, which features Tom Hanks.

Hopefully at least some of these will be memorable, but so far the most powerful images and observations have come from the many documentaries released in recent years. Compared to the docs, fiction films like Elah seem overdetermined: They may get a lot of the details right, but they package things up too neatly, turning an unholy mess into neatly resolved melodrama.

Days of Glory, in contrast, makes a long-ago war feel intensely real. The 2006 French release tells the story of several Algerians and Moroccans who enlist in the French Army in WWII to help fight the Nazis. Said (Jamel Debbouze), a sweet-natured young man and his comrades Yassir (Samy Nacery), Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) never lose their belief in the necessity of the war they are fighting or their attachment to the adopted “motherland” they are serving, but their idealism about France slowly drains away as they endure insults and indignities from Army officials -- and from some civilians.

At the same time, they are warmly welcomed by one village, Messaoud has a tender affair with a French woman, and Said develops a fiercely close interdependence with their sergeant, whose alternate championing and mistreatment of the Arabs in his unit turns out to have twisted roots. The complexity and variety of these experiences, not to mention the bravery and gallantry of the men, who we come to care deeply about, give this story emotional range and depth.

Director Rachid Bouchareb cowrote the screenplay after conducting extensive interviews with Algerian and Moroccan veterans of the French Army, and his research paid off: The characters may be composites, but everything they do, say, and experience has the unvarnished feeling of truth without that movie-of-the-week gloss that makes Haggis’s stories feel so predictable.

It’s probably unfair to expect any movie to accurately recreate the experience of war for those of us who have never served. But Days of Glory comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen, creating a nuanced world that feels achingly real.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

2 Days in Paris

Julie Delpy is the kind of star you feel as if you could be friends with if your paths ever crossed. She’s not too vain to let her classically beautiful face look tired, even a little doughy at times, and when she plays quick-witted, articulate, socially conscious women, like the one she reprised in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Waking Life, her own intelligence, humor, and moral outrage light them up from inside like the flame in a Halloween pumpkin.

The daughter of bohemian French actors who encouraged her creativity from an early age, Delpy has been writing screenplays since she was eight. She cowrote Linklater’s movies with the director and her costar, Ethan Hawke, and the three earned an Oscar nomination for their Sunset script. She’s also a musician (her music was featured in Before Sunset). So it’s hardly surprising that she wrote the screenplay and composed the soundtrack for 2 Days in Paris -- or that she directed and coproduced it.

But I wasn’t expecting it to be so funny.

2 Days sounds a lot like Before Sunset. Both are about an American man and a French woman, played by Delpy, who are in love and in Paris. The similarities are intentional – she thought she could raise more money for her movie if it sounded like a variation on her most recent hit – but they’re superficial.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are elegiac romances. In both, the couple exists in a social vacuum and the dialogue between them is virtually the only action. 2 Days in Paris is a fast-moving, fast-talking comedy about dysfunctional relationships. It’s also about reaching the age -- and the point in a relationship -- where you’re ready to move past the starry-eyed stage and make a serious commitment.

Marion (Delpy), a Parisian now living in New York, is stopping off at home for a couple of days on her way back from a Venice vacation with her American boyfriend, Jack (played by Delpy’s ex, Adam Goldberg). It sounds like something out of a movie, but this film’s only interest in romantic clichés is to puncture them. Jack annoyed Marion in Venice by photographing absolutely everything. Now that they’re in Paris, it’s her turn to get on his nerves.

The two stay in the apartment Marion bought just above her parents’ place, spending most of the two days with her family and friends. Jack has never been here with her before, and he’s learning things that make him feel as if he doesn’t know her at all.

Marion and Jack are 35 and have been together for two years. That may seem a little late to be reaching this point in their relationship, but that’s part of what Delpy is getting at. “A lot of people say your 30s are like your 20s now, and I think that's actually true,” she told Salon. “We put work and career before family and relationships, and then you start thinking about the family stuff in your mid-30s. Which is really late.”

That may not be a totally original insight, but it’s a valid one. The same goes for the pronouncements made in the movie, which tend to run along the lines of “Taking pictures all the time turns you into an observer.” Unlike Linklater’s romances, which are about the thrill of connecting with a soulmate and which include a strong dose of philosophizing and talk about ethics and other big ideas, 2 Days in Paris is a comedy of manners that's studded with little gems of wry, observational wit, and permeated by the anarchic thrill of watching people indulge in wildly inappropriate behavior.

Marion, who Delpy says was inspired by Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, has what you might call an anger management problem. She’s constantly sparring with Jack, and she’s prone to picking serious fights with other people. In one wildly funny scene, she encounters an ex-boyfriend in a restaurant and attacks him like a rabid Rottweiler. The startling sight of this porcelain beauty lunging across a table to throttle her ex, toggling back and forth between apparent calm and homicidal rage, has the guffaw-inducing unpredictability of Harpo Marx’s sneak attacks.

The people Jack and Marion encounter in France – including her parents, who are played by Delpy’s real-life parents – talk about sex all the time. Yet Jack and Marion never quite manage to make love, partly because Marion just won’t stop talking, even when Jack tries to kiss her. “It’s like dating public television!” he complains.

To make matters worse, they keep running into Marion’s exes, who all come on to her as if Jack, who doesn’t speak French, simply weren’t there. Even more creepily persistent is a stalker on the subway. Jack tries to scare him off in a wonderfully funny little scene, glaring until he’s practically cross-eyed.

By the end of this compact 96-minute movie, we know the hypochondriac, somewhat paranoid Jack and the motor-mouth, rage-prone Marion well enough to like them in spite of their faults and root for their happy ending.

True, that ending feels a little tacked on. A couple other scenes don’t quite work either, like when Jack gets mistaken for a thief or Marion gets sick at a party. But that’s easy to forgive, since there’s always another laugh hard on the heels of a dud.

Besides, who could hold a grudge against a movie that leaves you feeling this full of life?

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, August 13, 2007


I was surprised not to see any kids at the crowded weekend afternoon screening where I saw Stardust. This neo-classic fantasy seems tailor-made for tweens – in fact, director Matthew Vaughn says he did it partly to make a movie that his kids could enjoy. But maybe a sweet, old-fashioned romantic fantasy is just too uncoolly sincere for the PG-13 crowd.

Vaughn started his career as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s briefly trendy hard-guy caper films, and he must have learned a lot behind the camera. The first feature he directed was Layer Cake, an elegantly assured double-cross story. With Stardust, his second film as director, he’s pulled off another pleasant surprise, adapting a novel by comic book artist Neil Gaiman into a sweet escapist fantasy.

We’re in familiar territory from the start in this meta-fairy tale, which Vaughn calls a combination of The Princess Bride and Midnight Run. The setting is a small town surrounded by a stone wall in an idealized version of Victorian England – and, in time-honored fairy tale fashion – the magic land that lies hidden on the other side of the wall.

The story more or less begins when a young man named Tristran (a blandly handsome Charlie Cox) enters that world, as his father did one night before he was born. Tristran is looking for the falling star he promised to bring back to Victoria, the flirty, flinty town beauty (Sienna Miller), but instead, of course, he finds things he was never looking for. As the plummy narration by Ian McKellen informs us, this will be a story about how Tristran became a man and won “the heart of his one true love.”

There’s barely a surprise or a moment of genuine wonder in what follows and yet, once it’s had a chance to tune up, it works, sounding that reassuring note of inevitability that resonates in all good fairy tales. But first we have to get past some rough spots, including the twee staginess of the magical market town that Tristran’s father visits and a stiff performance by Kate Magowan as Una, the captured princess he encounters there.

Even Tristran’s story takes a little while to get moving, mainly because Claire Danes as Yvaine, the fallen star come to ground as a cranky beauty, is a black hole of charmlessness at first and Cox doesn’t have enough charisma to carry those scenes on his own. Yvaine is supposed to be the soulful antidote to the narcissistic Victoria, and eventually you buy it, as the actress’ stubborn integrity grows on you. For her first few minutes of screen time, though, she leans so hard on Yvaine’s peevish discomfort that she threatens to become just another pill.

But no warm-up is needed for most of the excellent supporting cast. Peter O’Toole grins craftily from his deathbed, the self-satisfied king of the magic world. Rupert Everett and a flour-white lineup of less famous but equally adept actors make for a high-class peanut gallery as the king’s heirs, who keep killing one another to clear the way to the throne -- and then stick around like a ghostly Greek chorus. And Ricky Gervais of the original The Office is wonderfully slippery as a fast-talking fence.

Best of all are Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. Pfeiffer plays Lamia, an ancient witch bent on regaining her lost youth and beauty by eating Yvain’s heart. Whether she’s gazing in glee at her own gorgeous gams after temporarily regaining her looks, recoiling in disgust as her age spots begin to return, or erupting in murderous fury when she is defied, Pfeiffer’s Lamia is a juicy caricature of a woman used to using her looks to get what she wants -- and an only slightly more monstrous version of the tyrannical aging beauty queen Pfeiffer plays in this year’s Hairspray. Pfeiffer is awfully young and gorgeous to be playing late-Joan-Crawford-type aging harridans, but if that’s what Hollywood’s offering her, at least I’m glad she’s having fun with them.

The middle-aged male actor’s version of playing a shrew seems to be doing comic versions of one’s youthful persona. In movies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, De Niro has been spoofing all those tough guys he's played, and it looks like he’s enjoying himself too. This time around, he plays the captain of a flying pirate ship, a tough-talking showboat with a secret of his own.

If De Niro’s captain and ship remind you a bit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and his beloved Black Pearl, it doesn’t look as if Stardust is going to burn half as hot as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. I like it much more, though. Both are kitchen-sink fantasies, throwing in elements from all kinds of fantasy genres, but the Pirates movies feel too frantic to me, piling on the special effects and the gimmicks as if to distract you from the thinness of the plot. Stardust keeps things much more low-tech, and the pace is less frenetic; Even the inevitable chase scene is a low-key, CG-free affair, with everyone either on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage.

Stardust keeps its feet on the ground too, moving at a nice clip without ever spinning out of control. In the end, there’s nothing transcendent about this old-fashioned fairy tale, but it makes for a satisfying afternoon’s entertainment.

Monday, May 14, 2007

SXSW 2007

When a friendly young woman with a fistful of flyers and a headful of curls worked a line I was in at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival last week, inviting people to a screening of her first feature, her enthusiasm and the “great stories” she promised convinced me to give it a try.

The curly-haired young woman is 29-year-old Naomi Greenfield. Her co-director, another first-time filmmaker – and a native of Princeton Junction -- is 27-year-old Sara Taksler. And their movie, which they call a “balloonamentary,” is Twisted, a charming, warmhearted, surefooted, often funny and sometimes deeply moving look at a close-knit community of people who twist and tie balloons into animals and other shapes.

Nominated for an Emerging Visions award, SXSW’s prize for first-time directors, Twisted isn’t about balloons per se, though it does show some amazing latex creations made and displayed at an annual balloon-twisting conference. It’s really about the collaborative culture of the balloon-twisting “family,” and how balloons helped several of the convention regulars transform their lives. “We wanted it to be stories about people,” says Sara. “And we lucked out, because it’s about life and love and death and race and all of those big themes. For us, it’s really a movie about finding your life – following your passion.”

The movie also includes a short animated sequence on the history of balloon-making narrated by Jon Stewart, who the filmmakers were able to book because Sara’s day job is helping to produce the field segments on The Daily Show. “We were trying to find somebody who would have a familiar voice and who would let people know right off the bat that it would be a funny movie,” she says, “so I asked if he’d do it. He said as long as there were no anti-Semitic balloons he was fine with it.”

Another excellent documentary that was looking for a distributor at the festival and seemed likely to find one (the Film Forum in Manhattan had already agreed to show it) was Manufacturing Dissent, an investigation of filmmaker Michael Moore by documentarians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine. The filmmakers decided to make a film about Moore because they admired his work, but they developed a warier stance after being given the runaround by Moore, getting harassed by the handlers who surround him at public appearances, and hearing disturbing stories about how he distorts the truth in his films and how he can be, according even to his one remaining self-professed friend, “a little bit megalomaniac at times, with a tinge of paranoia.”

Melnyk and Caine practice what they preach, generally avoiding cheap shots and innuendo and giving Moore his due at the same time that they question his methods. In the end, they say, the most disturbing thing about Moore’s often glib, self-focused, rabble-rousing style is what its popularity says about the rest of us. “If there were a vibrant political left in the United States, Michael Moore’s milquetoast populism would be laughed at rather than laughed with,” says political journalist and critic David Marsh.

Documentary is usually the strongest category of film at SXSW, but a lot of my favorites this year were fiction. The best was Exiled, a 2006 Hong Kong action thriller scheduled for release in the U.S. this June. Director Johnny To is huge in his own country and deserves to be here, but pretty much the only Americans who get to see his taut, clever, and stylishly soulful films are cinephiles and Hong Kong movie buffs. A cat-and-mouse game between a tight-knit group of gangsters and the boss they are trying to outwit and outrun, Exiled is studded with To’s expertly choreographed gunfights, which are usually held at claustrophobically close range.

Like its older sibling, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, director Judd Apatow’s latest starts with a plot that’s exaggerated for comic effect and stuffs it full of perfectly pitched set pieces about contemporary life that get you humming like a tuning fork. Also like its older sibling, Knocked Up radiates genuine affection for every one of its characters. I don’t want to spoil it for you, since it will be in theaters this June. Just go see it, and tell me if Ben’s “dice move” and the exchange between Debbie and the bouncer don’t make you inordinately happy.

But another fiction film by an established writer-director, Reign Over Me, left me stone cold even though it co-starred one of my favorites, the always excellent Don Cheadle. As in The Upside of Anger, director Mike Binder dresses up a melodramatic screenplay with big-name actors, pairing a gifted artist (Joan Allen in Anger and Cheadle in Reign) with a star who can act if he tries, but doesn’t always bother (Kevin Coster in Anger, Adam Sandler here). Binder, an actor himself, coaxed fine performances out of both Costner and Sandler, but his overwritten scripts squeeze the life out of his films despite the casts’ best efforts. Reign Over Me opens today, probably in way too many theaters.

Young directors worth watching for include Ry Russo-Young, whose first feature, Orphans, is a smart, sad story of a difficult relationship between two sisters that conveys an impressive amount of emotionally complex material without a word of excessive or unnatural-sounding dialogue. Moon Molson’s heartbreaking 20-minute short, Pop Foul, had far more heft than almost any of the full-length films. Shorts are often calling cards for a longer film the director hopes to make on the topic, if he can raise enough money. If that’s what Molson has in mind, I hope someone has the sense to fund him. He clearly has a lot to say about the Siamese-twin diseases of urban poverty and violence and their close cousin, misplaced machismo, and I’d like to hear it all.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, April 23, 2007

Hot Fuzz

There’s a big difference between riffing on material you love and mimicking something you don’t feel in your bones. It’s the difference between first-class jazz and Muzak. It may also be the reason why Shaun of the Dead soared and Hot Fuzz fizzles out.

Hot Fuzz is the latest from actor/cowriter Simon Pegg, actor Nick Frost, and cowriter/director Edgar Wright, the talented English team behind Shaun. A fanboy mashup of romantic comedy and zombie movie clichés (or, as its creators put it, “a rom zom com”), Shaun was also a clever satire on the stalled rhythms of life in middle-class London, grounding its laughs in authentic-feeling relationships, emotions, and routines. Hot Fuzz sounds similar on the surface. In an interview with The Onion, Wright says: “we pretty much cover the corruption cop genre, the fish-out-of-water cop genre, the serial-killer thriller cop genre, the buddy-action film.” But this time the parts don’t quite mesh.

An amiable Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, Hot Fuzz as hard to dislike as the eager-to-please, childlike cop played by Frost. It works hard to win our love, creating an internally logical world from its mismatched parts, but it can’t breathe more than fitful life into its creation.

The main joke in Fuzz is the disconnect between the mundane routines of a rural police officer’s life and the heroics and pyrotechnics routinely displayed by Hollywood cops. “There is no way you can perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork,” observes Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Pegg) after watching a blow-em-up cop movie with his partner, Danny (Frost).

The fish-out-of-water box gets checked off early as Angel, a hotshot London cop who has alienated his fellow officers by outperforming them, is packed off to the quiet little village of Sandford. His starstruck new partner, Danny, follows him around like a St. Bernard puppy, asking if he’s done any of the things cops do in the movies, like “firing your gun up in the air and going ‘AAARGH!’” But things aren’t as quiet as they seem in Sandford, and Angel is soon coping with more than stray swans.

The film is shot in the picturesque town where Wright grew up, which is portrayed as a place where the biggest concern is what one of the village elders refers to as “the extremely irritating living statue” and one farmer’s accent is so impenetrable it takes two translators to make it intelligible: one to break it down to somewhat less garbled form and another to turn that into the Queen’s English.

Sounds funny, right? And so it is, in spot, but it plays best on paper. Onscreen, the pacing is off, as the filmmakers spend much time spent establishing characters and situations or repeating jokes too fragile to bear the extra weight.

The trouble with writing your film after putting in, as Pegg told The Onion, “a 138-film research period” is that you can end up with a glorified Oscar-night montage. Knowing that the countless chase scenes are takeoffs on the “real” ones isn’t enough to make them funny after a while, especially when they’re too predictable, like the bit where the trim Angel vaults a series of backyard fences as his portly pal lumbers after, crashing right through the first one.

Some of their riffs inject new life into an old tune. When Angel finally warms up to his partner, agreeing to go out to the pub after work, what ensues is a funny, nicely understated spoof of the homosexual subtext underlying buddy movies, as the two go on what amounts to a romantic first date. There’s also a nice variation on that chestnut of running from an impending explosion to dive to safety in the nick of time, like a base runner sliding home.

But even the clever bits are sometimes overused. At first it’s funny when the camera zooms in and music pulses ominously at the least eventful moments, like when Angel throws his coat onto a hook, but after a while that bit gets as annoying as that living statue.

“Riffing on genres is kind of a reaction to formula,” Wright told The Onion. “When you watch so much of the [TV shows] and the films that you just think you've seen before, it's kind of going back to the well in terms of trying to conjure up the spirit of what made you excited about films in the first place.”

Maybe that’s where they went wrong. In Shaun of the Dead, it didn’t feel like they were trying.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Abbas Kiarostami

“I don’t like to engage in telling stories,” says Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in an interview packaged on the DVD of his masterful 2000 feature, The Wind Will Carry Us. “I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt.”

As a result, his films can seem meandering and slow-moving, even a bit boring at first, to attention spans calibrated by Hollywood movies and cable TV. Time and again, in fiction films like Ten, Taste of Cherry, Crimson Gold, and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami follows a frustrated protagonist as he or she traces and retraces a path through the Iranian landscape. The talk reveals character and conflict that can be literally life-and-death as the lead character interacts with various locals – mostly nonactors playing people much like themselves – in a seemingly random series of encounters.

Even a documentary like ABC Africa feels loosely structured and somewhat repetitive. Bearing witness to the millions of Ugandan orphans who lost parents to their country’s long-running civil war or to AIDS, Kiarostami does the usual interviews with local experts and films evidence of the ravages of the disease, but he and his crew also walk or get driven around a lot, filming as they go, and they frequently linger on groups of kids mugging for the camera, on people singing and dancing, or simply on the signs and scenes they’re passing in the street.

But the rich texture of his settings and the realism of his characters reward those willing to slow down for a walk through one of Kiarostami’s worlds. His work is simple without being simpleminded, always accessible yet never predictable or trite. Kiarostami credits the children he worked with for years early in his career, when he made movies for and about children, with simplifying and clarifying his approach. He has made a conscious effort, he says, to see things as clearly and honestly as children do and to live as fully in the present. And his movies, he thinks, have developed “a kind of childlike playfulness.”

One of the leading directors of the Iranian New Wave film movement that took root around 1970, Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for 1997’s Taste of Cherry and the Jury Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival for 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us. His films are thoughtfully and intricately constructed. Mixing long shots that situate people in their environments with close-ups that stay on one face for minutes, not cutting away even to show a glimpse of the people or animals we hear offscreen, Kiarostami concentrates our attention like an observant host giving a visitor a tour of his town, always aware of what is happening off screen but always filtering it through the perspective of his protagonist. Slowing down to look through his eyes, we start to tune into the soul of the person or place he’s observing.

In one memorable sequence in the African documentary, Kiarostami and his men venture outside their hotel during one of the nightly blackouts imposed to conserve the scarce electricity in Kampala. As they talk about how isolated it feels to be someplace with no lights whatsoever – not to mention no TV, no radio, no internet, and no other electronic distractions – we peer with them into the oppressive blackness, humbled by its power to shut down almost everything. Then a storm boils up, illuminating the landscape with crackling bolts of daylight-bright lightning.

A gifted photographer with a deep love of nature, Kiarostami has published some of his landscape photography. New York's Museum of Modern Art is holding a major retrospective of his films and photography this spring, and the filmmaker will stop briefly in Princeton during a visit to the U.S. for that event. He’ll join Ivone Margulies, a film historian and critic who has written about his work, for a Thursday afternoon discussion, following a Sunday afternoon screening of 1994’s Through the Olive Trees.

That’s a rare chance for local film lovers to see a movie by a gifted director whose movies seep quietly and unobtrusively under your skin. “I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them,” he says on the Wind Will Carry Us DVD. “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater…. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”

Written for TimeOFF