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.