Monday, December 29, 2008

Frost-Nixon and Gran Torino

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?” David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Frost/Nixon.

"I'm saying that when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal!” says Nixon.

Spoken like a true Nixon-era Clint Eastwood character. Substitute “a cop” for “the President,” and can’t you hear Dirty Harry saying the same thing?

Nixon never changed his mind, remaining unrepentant to the end, but Eastwood’s vigilantes know better now. Like Bill Munny of The Unforgiven, Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski is not just a lot older than Harry Callaghan; he’s a lot sadder and less self-righteous too. And though he’s still a hero, he’s also a goat, a funhouse-mirror version of the actor’s youthful antiheroes.

At first, we laugh at the retired Detroit autoworker as he snarls and growls at his disrespectful grandkids and his suspiciously foreign Hmong neighbors, surrounding himself with a protective circle of empty beer cans and blanketing anyone who approaches with insults and racial slurs. But by the end of this tightly constructed entertainment, we’re laughing more with Walt than at him.

His reluctant rapprochement with his neighbors may be a foregone conclusion, but Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk make it fun to watch as it plays out. They also make the cliché of kids who melt the heart of a closed-off old man feel fresh, letting us see the core values the gimlet-eyed geezer rejects in his own relatives and finds in the family next door. And, though we know Walt will defeat the gang that threatens his newfound friends, they keep us in suspense about just how he’ll do it, right up to the satisfyingly melodramatic end.

Frost/Nixon also keeps the suspense cranked up. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play for the screen, specializes in dramatizing important historical figures and turning points. He likes to focus on the relationship between two people at the center of the storm: Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen; Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his Scottish doctor in The Last King of Scotland; and guess who in Frost/Nixon.

The writer portrays the two men as fighting for their professional lives, each trying to use the other to salvage his reputation. Nixon sees the interview as a chance to burnish his legacy as president by focusing on his foreign policy triumphs. Frost, a TV personality whose star is falling, sees it as his chance to climb back to the top of the ratings – but only if he can get Nixon to confess to having broken the law by having ordered and then covered up the Watergate break-in.

Sheen and Langella do excellent work, reprising the roles they played onstage. Sheen looks nothing like Frost, yet he recreates his strangled diction and natty bearing while hinting at his underlying insecurity. Langella brings a pitch-black intensity to the role. Hunched over like a hibernating bear, his black eyes radiating wary intelligence, his Nixon is a formidable foe.

It’s a riveting show, but two questions nagged at me afterward: did Nixon really make that drunken late-night phone call to Frost, laying out the movie’s themes so perfectly? And why would he suddenly decide to confess to having been part of a cover-up, after having worked so hard and long to deny it? The answer to both questions turns out to be the same: He didn’t. The phone call and the confession were Morgan’s inventions.

The phony phone call bothers me mainly as bad drama: it’s the sort of intrusive exposition that takes us out of the moment, like the “interviews” Howard films with the actors playing Frost’s research team, who talk to the camera about the story as we watch it unfold.

The fake confession bothers me as bad history. In a story that’s centered around a battle to land a confession, inventing a confession that never happened feels like a significant cheat.

Howard’s directing can be heavy-handed in other ways, too. He often sends the camera zooming in to search for the truth in somebody’s iris or to ogle Frost’s mistress, Caroline Graham (Rebecca Hall), who gets way too much screen time for someone whose main purpose is to brighten up the scenery.

Still, both movies are well-made machines, entertaining while they last and thought-provoking enough to give you something to talk about afterward. Just don’t mistake either one for the truth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Top 10: A good year for women

By Elise Nakhnikian

2008 was a good year for women in film. Four of my favorite movies this year -- Happy Go Lucky, Wendy and Lucy, Trouble the Water, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days – are built around extremely capable and sympathetic women, and there are memorable female characters in all six of the others. It may just be a fluke – this year’s picks are from seven different countries, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’re all experiencing a simultaneous renaissance in women’s roles – but it’s a hopeful sign.

Happy-Go-Lucky. The effervescent Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an English primary school teacher with a wide-open heart and eyes to match, sees hopeful signs everywhere. Unused to that much guileless good cheer in the movies, except from ditzy dames and all those infantile adults played by Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell and their pals, I wondered what was wrong with her at first. Then I braced myself for the trouble she was bound to get into (girls in movies can’t be friendly to scary strangers, can they?) But finally I relaxed and just enjoyed director Mike Leigh’s “anti-miserabilist film.” Leigh’s and Hawkins’ portrait of a generous, loving, and vivacious woman is a delight. Like its heroine, it’s also deeper than you may at first assume.

The Class. Like Poppy, François Bégaudeau of Laurent Cantet’s The Class is a caring schoolteacher whose kids are a multicultural mélange. The characters and plots of both films were developed in months of workshops and improvisation, giving them a feel of caught-on-the-fly reality. (That documentary feel is particularly strong in The Class, since Bégaudeau is an actual teacher who plays a version of himself, and the kids in the class are all students in a Parisian school much like the one where he taught.) But where Happy-Go-Lucky is mostly about Poppy’s personal life, The Class takes place almost entirely within the walls of the school (the movie’s French title literally translates to Between the Walls). The cultural conflicts and communication gaps between the well-meaning but sometimes blundering teacher and his equally good-hearted but easily offended students feel painfully real, making us think about how acculturation works and what we’re really meant to learn in school.

The Edge of Heaven. Another sensitive and insightful exploration of the chain reactions that can occur – for better and for worse – when cultures collide, The Edge of Heaven tells the gracefully interwoven stories of three sets of parents and their adult children as they shuttle between Turkey and Germany. You learn so much about its six main characters that, by the end of the movie, you feel almost as if they were part of your own family. It’s an amazing achievement: an intelligently structured, deeply felt story about the power of old-fashioned virtues like kindness, forgiveness, and love.

Synecdoche, New York. Watching screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s first outing as a director of his own work is like finding yourself inside someone else’s dream: always intense, often achingly beautiful, and frequently incomprehensible, with sudden sideways leaps into the absurd. Speaking more to our subconscious than our conscious minds, this profoundly moving movie somehow manages to peel aside the veils of self-delusion we all hide behind, leaving us face to face with the elemental truth of our shared humanity.

Mad Detective. Hong Kong’s prolific Johnny To hit another home run with this funny, poignant, stylish hard-guy mystery about a wildly unconventional detective. Is former police detective Bun certifiably insane or does he have a supernatural gift – or both? To keeps you guessing as a rookie cop enlists the forcibly retired pro to help track down a cop killer. As usual, To takes you far enough inside his main character’s lives that you care what happens to them when they start blasting away at one another, unleashing maximum mayhem in claustrophobically close quarters. And Bun’s intriguing, often absurd visions, Cheng Siu Keung’s beautiful cinematography, and a charismatic cast help make this unassuming genre film a great escape.

Trouble the Water. If you see nothing else about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, see this movie. As Katrina approached New Orleans, Kimberly Rivers Roberts was there with a video camera. A natural leader, Roberts picked up her camera and roamed her neighborhood, checking in with friends and relatives who, like her, had no car and could not afford a ticket out of town. She kept the camera rolling after the storm hit, filming the rising water and the chaos outside, the people she brought into her attic, and their odyssey as she, her husband, and some of their neighbors left the only home they had known to try to put down roots elsewhere. Two weeks into the Roberts’ journey, documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (whose credit include Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) joined them. Trouble the Water combines Roberts’ footage with Deal’s and Lessin’s to paint a riveting and ultimately inspiring picture of their struggle to survive. The real damage, the film makes brutally clear, was done not by the storm but by the government whose stunning indifference – even antipathy -- to the poor people of the city is documented in literal black-and-white.

Wendy and Lucy. We learn almost nothing about where Wendy (Michelle Williams) came from or what led to her being homeless and almost flat broke, living out of her ailing car with her beloved dog, Lucy. But as we watch her navigate an unforeseen stop on her way to Alaska, accepting occasional kindnesses and enduring occasional indignities with the same self-contained dignity while doing her beleaguered best to take care of her dog, we learn enough about her character to care deeply about her fate. This spare, beautifully shot fiction (the film is based on a Jonathan Raymond short story), with its soundtrack of train whistles promising an escape Wendy may not ever achieve, boils reality down to its essence, and not knowing Wendy’s back story helps. As you wonder what knocked this warily resourceful, conscientious young woman off the grid, you can’t help but think about all the real people you probably encounter in your daily life who are in the same boat.

Still Life. In its recent push to industrialize, China has been transforming on a scale unprecedented in human history. Morphing from a primarily rural society to a primarily urban one in the space of a generation or two has made China the world’s rising superpower, but it has also caused tremendous upheaval in the lives of its people. Director Jia Zhangke has made an art of recording the effects of those cataclysmic changes on individual people – a perspective, he notes, that has been left out of the official record. At a recent New York screening of his 24 City, Zhang said he sees history as “a mixture of reality and imagination.” That’s a good description of Still Life, the beautifully filmed, deceptively simple tale of a couple of people who go back to the alien landscape of a mostly leveled town, which will soon be flooded as part of the enormous Three Gorges dam project. The two are searching for spouses they lost in an enormous sea of constantly moving humanity. The movie feels slow and uneventful at first, but as the details and atmosphere soak in you begin to appreciate how densely textured Jia’s composition is, layering the frustrations and scams encountered by the unassuming main characters with the poignancy of losing not just your own personal past but an entire, ancient city and everyone in it. Filming on location while workers destroyed the city and mixing in real people with the professional actors adds to the movie’s near-documentary feel.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. This grim tale follows Gabita, a college student in search of an illegal late-term abortion (Laura Vasiliu) in Ceauşescu’s Romania, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the sad-eyed roommate who helps her get it, for about 24 hours. It starts in the middle of a conversation and ends during a lull in another, and it feels so realistic that you almost forget that Gabita’s and Otilia’s lives don’t continue beyond the frame of the film. But thank goodness they don’t, since the two are mired in a nightmarish totalitarian world. Nothing works as it should even when they go by the book, and getting what they need on the black market requires enormous tenacity, ingenuity, toughness, and personal sacrifice – almost all of it from Otilia. As we watch her soldier through this day from hell we steadily gain respect and empathy for this admirable young woman, so her final bleak stare into the camera – which contains a bitter awareness of just how stuck she is – cuts like a knife.

Tell No One. This Hitchcockian French thriller is based on a Harlan Coben book, and it owes much of its appeal to his signature elements, including strong, unconventional female characters and an ordinary-guy main character who finds himself on the lam and turns out to have a hero’s ability to think – and run – fast. The acting is excellent, artfully planted red herrings add texture and suspense, and we get an intriguing tour of Paris, from high-society horse shows to low-rent back alleys. Though the pace is brisk and the plot complicated, we never get lost, in part because so much is conveyed without words. And somewhat miraculously – especially since there isn’t a moment of tiresome exposition – every loose end is neatly and ingeniously tied up. This is an elegant piece of work, as beautifully put together as those show horses.

Monday, December 8, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

When it comes to telling the story of a real person’s life, it takes a great fiction film to beat a good documentary. And since The Times of Harvey Milk was good enough to earn an Oscar, you have to wonder just why we need director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s flatfooted Milk.

One of the best things about Milk is its use of documentary footage. In the silent, black-and-white opener, furtive men in what appears to be the ‘50s carefully shade their faces from the camera while mingling in gay bars or getting stuffed into paddy wagons. It’s a chilling introduction to the gay experience as it was first encountered by Harvey Milk, who was born in 1930.

Milk shows Milk (Sean Penn) only briefly as a closeted middle-aged businessman in his native New York, but Penn’s delicately calibrated acting lets us appreciate the sense of liberation Milk must have felt after moving to San Francisco in the early ‘70s. Indulging his own interest in photography while running a camera shop in the Castro with his beautiful boyfriend, Scott (James Franco), Milk became a pony-tailed, blue-jeaned bohemian – and found himself at the center of a fledgling gay-rights movement.

After jumping around in time a bit, the movie soon settles into chronological order. Milk organizes his gay friends and customers to boycott the Castro’s gay-unfriendly businesses and then moves on to bigger political battles, rallying gays to help the Teamsters boycott Coors beer and launching a campaign for city supervisor. Somewhere along the line, he becomes the self-styled “Mayor of Castro Street” and begins running for elected office (it took him several tries to win a city supervisor slot), fueled by the conviction that gay people need political representation just like any other minority group. “If you help elect to the central committee and other offices more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised,” he says in a moving signature speech that’s reenacted in the film.

The movie spends a lot of time outlining the strategies that led to Milk’s eventual victory, yet it always feels a little stagey and never quite recreates the feel of his legendarily disorganized campaign. Its overreliance on montage keeps us at emotional arm’s length, and a generally welcome lack of sensationalism has the unfortunate side effect of making Milk’s election to office feel anticlimactic.

But the main problem is the script’s failure to dig beneath the surface. We get little more than a cameo appearance by crucial campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), who we learn about more by hearing how others describe her than by watching her in action. And we know almost nothing about either of Milk’s two live-in lovers, Scott and Jack (Diego Luna), except that Scott is supportive and stable while Jack is demanding and unstable. Of course, that makes Milk’s relationships with both men feel pretty thin.

Milk’s fellow city supervisor and eventual murderer Dan White (Josh Brolin) remains wholly opaque, which in turn makes it unclear whether Milk was killed because his activism set off anti-gay bigotry or because he crossed paths with an emotionally unstable coworker who fixated on him for some unknown reason. And Milk himself comes off as too good to be true – although one scene, in which he directs campaign organizer Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) to incite a near-riot just so he can play the hero by stopping it, hints at an opportunistic, manipulative side.

The movie leans too heavily on a couple of gay stereotypes. There are at least two too many scenes of Milk basking in opera, including a laughably heavy-handed death scene. Not even Sean Penn can pull off teetering before a window on his knees, mortally wounded, while gazing at posters advertising Tosca.

Penn also gets the unenviable task of reading from the final statement Milk left to be played in the event of his assassination. Every so often, the movie grinds to a halt while we watch Penn’s Milk sit at a kitchen table and record parts of that statement, most of which tell us things we’ve already seen unfold or are about to watch.

In spite of everything, Penn does a wonderful job. Widening his deep-creased smile and softening his eyes, he exudes waves of joy, loving kindness, humor, and courage that make it easy to imagine why so many people might have been so drawn to Milk – though I could never quite stop wondering what might have been airbrushed out of that portrait.

Brolin is also excellent, giving White a stiff, needy nerdiness that makes him pitiable rather than odious. And Franco’s slow-burning incandescence, Luna’s askew intensity, and Hirsch’s flirty charisma make their characters interesting to watch even when they don’t have much to do.

And yet, when the filmmakers intercut footage of the actors with documentary footage of the people they’re playing at the end of the film, almost all the real people look more complex and compelling than their Hollywood counterparts.

The last one we see is Milk, caught in the middle of an extended laugh, surrounded by friends, and delighted by the life he was living so fully. More than anything else in this two-hour-plus movie, that fleet, flickering image made me mourn his violent and untimely death.

Monday, December 1, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“Grandfather tell me most important lesson of all: Tell your story,” says Nullah (the liquid-eyed Brandon Walters), the half-white, half-Aborigine boy who narrates Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

Too bad Luhrmann, who created this story and cowrote the screenplay, didn’t heed Grandpa’s advice.

Originality has never been Luhrmann’s thing: what distinguishes him is not what stories he tells but how he tells them. Nobody since Douglas Sirk has done color-saturated melodramas better than Luhrmann. Like a chick-flick Tarantino, he plucks colorful clichés from other movies and weaves them together with lush music, creamy cinematography, and wife Catherine Martin’s gorgeous production design to create a plushly feathered cuckoo’s nest. Watching one of his swoony concoctions, you get the feeling that no one is more intoxicated by the lush cinematography, swirling cameras, stylized acting and cleverly constructed sets than Luhrmann himself. His movies are always at least in part about the sheer joy of losing yourself at the movies.

Lord knows I love movies, so I admired the sheer intensity and seamless artifice of Moulin Rouge even though Luhrmann’s campy style and well-worn stereotypes left me cold. And I liked Romeo + Juliet, which injected a jolt of teenage hormones into a Shakespeare classic. So I was prepared to enjoy Australia, Luhrmann’s flowery love letter to his native land – but this lumbering Frankenstein’s monster is patched together from too many corpses to feel alive.

Australia is part Rabbit-Proof Fence, part Red River, part African Queen, and part Wizard of Oz. It also shares DNA with every story of a band of misfits that triumphs against the odds – or a couple that bonds over a child.

The couple is a straitlaced English lady, the porcelain-skinned Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and a rugged Australian drover (Hugh Jackman) known only as “the drover.” The two start out like a poor man’s version of the already parodic Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke in those lady-and-the-tramp movies they used to crank out, the always chilly Kidman icing up as hard as the evil queen she played in The Golden Compass while Jackman trots out his best Marlboro Man butch act.

For the most part, their exaggerated styles fit the contours of Luhrmann’s meta Western, but they slide perilously close to self-parody when the drover washes up at night in the campground he shares with two other men, his perfect pecs glistening in the moonlight while a terrified Lady Sarah peers at him, gathering the folds of the tent around her face like a nun’s wimple.

The two soon get together, as of course they must, rounding up a motley crew of women, children, Aboriginals, foreigners and drunks for a cattle drive aimed at saving Lady Sarah’s farm from the rapacious neighboring landowner, a hissable villain by the name of King Carney (Bryan Brown). And Sarah’s heart soon melts, of course, as evidenced by the tears pooling up in those pale blue eyes.

As if that weren’t enough melodrama, Nullah must dodge the police who are taking mixed-race kids from their parents and imprisoning them in Christian boarding schools “to breed the black out of them” – and who eventually catch him. And then half the country is on the run from the Japanese, who try to occupy Australia after Pearl Harbor. True, there are a couple of idyllic years for our makeshift family on Sarah’s farm before all hell breaks loose, but that part of the movie doesn’t last long: Luhrmann doesn’t do daily life.

He doesn’t do humor either. He tries now and then, but the efforts fall flatter than the drover’s frequently ogled abs.

Instead, we get earnest pronouncements, mostly from Nullah. Walters is a charmer, but even he can’t justify the script’s lazy reliance on his voiceover narration. And, though I think Luhrmann is offering up this part-Aboriginal, part-English child as symbolizing the soul of his country, there’s something creepy about the way the director places not one but two Magical Negroes at the center of his story – Nullah and his grandfather, the ubiquitous King George (David Gulpilil) – and keeps giving them Wise Things to say in pidgin English.

The visuals are just as unsubtle, yet the silhouetted figures frozen in picturesque tableaux, stampeding cattle seen from above, and travelogue shots of canyons, cliffs, and mesas are often arresting.

The supporting cast is wonderful too, stuffed with powerful Aussie actors like Gulpilil, Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant, The Thorn Birds), and David Ngoombujarra (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Kangaroo Jack). I was also happy to see Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain of The Road Warrior, in a bit part as a racist chief of police.

But the thing doesn’t hang together, and it goes on for too long. There’s too much repetition, for one thing. How many times do we have to see King George striking a yoga pose against a colorful background? And how many times must the drover come to Sarah’s rescue? The pacing slows to a crawl in the last half hour or so, which cycles through one false stop after another before finally lurching to an end as loose ends from the various storylines are neatly tied up.

Early on in their relationship, Sarah tries to comfort a grieving Nullah by stammering through the story of The Wizard of Oz. She’s painfully bad, sketching it out in such broad strokes that she’s done in two or three sentences.

If only Australia ended that quickly. Instead, it takes hours to do the same thing, floating so far above the surface of the stories it tells that it leaves our emotions untouched.

Monday, November 24, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

What’s with all those fatally attractive vampires vamping around on our screens? There’s one for every age group, starting with Bill, the chivalrous yet smoldering Civil War vet who squires a woman too sensitive for ordinary men on HBO’s True Blood, and Eli, the world-weary 12-year-old who rescues another tormented tween in Let the Right One In, a pitch-black Swedish comedy currently playing in New York. And Edward Cullen, the glamorous 17-year-old who literally sweeps an alienated teen off her feet in the film adapted from the first book in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (a sequel has already been greenlit.) I guess they make good bad boys and girls for fantasies about forbidden love.

Director Catherine Hardwicke should have been an inspired choice to adapt this one, since her first two films – Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown – were buzzing with anarchic teen energy and angst. Unfortunately, Twilight follows in the plodding footsteps of her only previous misfire, the monotone Nativity Story, which plays like an earnest History Channel reenactment.

Twilight’s Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is a self-described “suffer-in-silence type” who has just moved into her dad’s house in tiny Forks, Washington. Moving from sunny Phoenix to the perpetually overcast Northwest and from her mother’s nurturing warmth to the chill of her dad’s reserve, she’s braced to suffer through a few months while Mom and her new stepfather find a new town to settle in. Then she meets Edward Cullen (tall, dark ‘n brooding Robert Pattinson), a picturesquely pallid hunk, and falls like a rock.

Edward lives with a vampire “family” (Nikki Reed, who wrote and costarred in Thirteen, plays his “sister” Rosalie) cobbled together by the town doctor, a closeted vampire who acts as the family’s father. The area’s Quileute Indians know the Cullens’ secret, but they’re bound by an ancient tribal oath not to tell “the palefaces.” So it’s up to Bella to figure it out on her own – which takes up about half the movie’s running time.

Since everyone in the theater already knows Edward’s secret, waiting for her to catch on gets a little tedious. And even when she finally wises up and we get to the romance, with Edward scaling trees and flying up hillsides as she clings to his back, like Superman taking Lois Lane for a spin, it’s not as exhilarating as it should be, since Stewart and Pattinson don’t generate a calorie of heat.

The barely repressed heat of the vampire-meets-girl love story that is reportedy much of the book's appeal got lost somewhere on the way to the screen. When Edward urges Bella to leave him for her own good she mewls like a grounded teenager, not a spurned lover. And when he leans slowly in to kiss her, Pattinson seemed less like an ardent suitor fighting to control strong impulses than a kid afraid he might do something wrong. Then again, I don’t think even Cary Grant could have pulled off lines like “You’re like a drug to me – like my own personal brand of heroin.”

Edward’s family resists the urge to feed on humans, restricting themselves to other animals, but a trio of old-school vampires in the neighborhood has no such compunctions. Munching down on the locals, they make life difficult for the would-be-respectable Cullens – and one of them zones in on Bella when she starts hanging out with Edward.

But not even a warp-speed vampire chase scene or the lingering “will he or won’t he?” that gives a certain je ne sais quoi to Bella and Edward’s romance keeps this movie from feeling stagey and inert. It’s partly the actors’ lack of chemistry. It’s partly the book’s wooden prose, which has been preserved in Bella’s voiceover (“Death is peaceful. Life is harder,” she informs us) and in unwieldy chunks of expository dialogue. It’s also the airless, overdetermined feel of the thing.

Maybe trying to boil more than 600 pages into two hours made some exposition unavoidable, but Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay includes almost no small talk without subtext, no little bits of business that tell you something about a character or their world without propelling the plot forward.

A few shards of Hardwicke’s empathy for teenagers shine through the haze. As in her other movies, adults are generally benign but irrelevant, either too clueless or too busy to notice what their kids are up to. The director has fun with the fact that even Bella’s dad is no help at all, though he’s the chief of police and therefore in charge of investigating all the vampire killings (he thinks they’re animal attacks.) In fact, Bella winds up protecting him, in a novel twist on a dynamic that’s all too familiar to children of divorce.

There are also some mildly funny bits, though I wasn’t always sure if they were intentional. Did Hardwicke want us to laugh when Bella enters the biology classroom she shares with Edward for the first time and locks eyes with him? If not, she shouldn’t have had her stop in front of a fan that made her hair blow like a model’s in a fashion shoot.

But really, who cares what I think about this one? All that matters is whether it works for the teenage girls it’s aimed at.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

By Elise Nakhnikian

A speech toward the end of Synecdoche, New York sums up the arc of a life: the great expectations at the start; the disappointments and detours that dim those hopes; the people who fall away through the years; the realization that we’re none of us so special after all – that “everyone is everyone.” It’s a beautifully written chunk of dialogue, but that’s not why it resonates so profoundly.

I’ve watched this movie twice, and I still can’t figure out how its impressionistic, sometimes absurd layering of emotions and ideas adds up to a moving meditation on the meaning of life. So I can’t tell you why it works, but I can tell you that it moved me as deeply as any film I’ve seen this year.

Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), one of Hollywood’s few truly original writers, initially intended to hand his script over to Spike Jonze, who turned Kaufman’s screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation into cult hits. But when the writing took longer than expected and Jonze got tied up in his own pet project, Kaufman took the lead, rocketing out of the chute with a directorial debut that feels like the work of an old master.

Like Kaufman’s other stories, this one centers around a frustrated antihero who’s struggling with work, love, and life in general. This time it’s Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an acclaimed theatrical director who can’t seem to get what he wants. His wife (the radiant Catherine Keener) is leaving him, taking their adorable four-year-old daughter (Sadie Goldstein) with her, and he is developing a series of mysterious illnesses.

Afraid he’s about to die (after you’ve googled “synecdoche,” take a look at “cotard”), Caden worries that he’s frittering his life away – “staging someone else’s play,” as his wife says of the Arthur Miller production he directs.

Then he gets a MacArthur grant. He uses the money to develop a play aimed at revealing the inner lives of every actor in it. In pursuit of “the brutal truth,” he rents an enormous soundstage and fills it up, first with actors and sets and then with street upon street of neighborhoods that mirror the city outside. Over the next few decades, he schools his actors on how to play themselves and each other, eventually even hiring someone to play himself.

In time, everyone on the set has a double. Some of the doubles even have doubles of their own. People are living other people’s lives, falling for their loved ones’ doubles or their doubles’ loved ones in a nonstop, unscripted dress rehearsal.

Meanwhile, Caden is neglecting his own inner life, starting a second family with Claire (Michelle Williams), his lead actress, while mooning for his first wife and daughter. He also nurses a lifelong unconsummated romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), the steadfastly devoted flirt who ran the box office in his first theater and becomes his assistant at the second.

Keener, Williams, and Morton are just three in a long list of excellent actresses – including Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Dierdre O’Connell – who infuse the movie with much of its life. The women also help make the borderline grotesque Caden sympathetic. Eyeing him with amusement, exasperation, and love, they reveal the humanity that makes him feel, in the end, like a stand-in for us all.

Kaufman says he wanted this movie to have the texture of a dream, and so it does. The time-warping narrative telescopes whole decades while lingering over significant moments, leapfrogging through time the way we do in our memories and dreams. Many encounters are also surreal – even absurd – in the deadpan, unquestioning way of a dream. Hazel’s house, for instance, is on fire for the many years she lives in it, though it never burns down. (“The sellers are very motivated,” the realtor chirps, as young Hazel eyes the flames leaping through a chink in the wall.)

But the emotions are always utterly real, and all the talk about bodily functions and malfunctions makes the whole thing feel very down to earth.

There are also lot of laughs – particularly early on, while you’re still surprised by the absurdity and not quite attuned to the melancholy undertones. And there are gorgeous images, like the eerily beautiful blimp that glides by in the background one night, silver and black against a dark sky, like something out of Metropolis.

Synecdoche is about the betrayals of the flesh and life’s many other disappointments. But, like the poignant song that plays over the closing credits, it’s ultimately uplifting. Its simulated world may contain all the sorrow and horror of life on Earth, but it also contains all the beauty and joy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

By Elise Nakhnikian

There’s not enough originality, character development, or emotional depth in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa to leave much of an impression, but it’s fun while it lasts. Like the popular original, this creamily beautiful animated sequel combines upbeat energy, catchy pop anthems, and a general spirit of benevolent goofiness. As Nana, its indestructible Jewish grandma, might say: What’s not to like?

Madagascar 2 starts with the back story of Alex (rather blandly voiced by Ben Stiller), the performing city-cat lion who ruled the Central Park Zoo in Madagascar – until he and his friends broke out to vacation in Connecticut and landed way off course. The sequel’s streamlined script shows us just enough of the unconventional cub’s idyllic life on an African game preserve before he’s kidnapped by poachers and winds up at the Central Park Zoo. A TV news clip recaps his escape with his friends Gloria the hippo (voiced by the lively Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer, playing yet another winsomely whiny neurotic). It also reintroduces Nana, whose cameo in part one, a wink to the toughness of many elderly Jewish New Yorkers, is stretched too thin here.

Cut to the present. Alex and his friends are preparing to leave their cozy Madagascar community to head home to New York on a patched-together plane. They’re joined by King Julien (riffed by Sacha Baron Cohen in a choked yet joyous polyglot accent), who continues to serve up some of the franchise’s loosest and silliest comic relief. And they’re guided once again by the militaristic penguins, still led by the unaccountably confident and always wrong Skipper (codirector Tom McGrath, who appears to be channeling the late Phil Hartman).

Things go wrong en route, of course, and the penguins crash land the plane. This time, they wind up in the middle of the reserve where Alex was born. It’s paradise, gorgeous vistas teeming with herds of animals, including one for each of the uprooted friends. “It’s like Roots!” crows Marty, in one of many references aimed straight past kids’ heads at their parents.

What’s more, Alex’s father, Zuba (warmly voiced by the late Bernie Mac, to whom the movie is dedicated), is still the leader of the reserve’s lion pride. He and Alex’s mother soon recognize their son and there’s a joyous reunion, but peace and quiet never last long in this movie.

Screenwriter Etan Cohen and directors McGrath and Eric Darnell keep several conventional story lines going at once, stripping each down to the essentials and then decorating it with a few mildly funny lines or situations. Marty finds that every zebra in the herd looks and acts exactly like him, making him doubt his own uniqueness. Gloria gets wooed by a Mr. Right who turns out to be all wrong – and then finds true love in the unlikely form of Melman. Melman finds use for the knowledge he’s stored up in a lifetime of hypochondria by becoming the animals’ doctor – and, of course, gets his girl. And Alex finds not only his parents but his place in the pride, vanquishing a crafty rival voiced by a purring Alec Baldwin.

In the original, animals that would normally either eat or be eaten by one another can coexist peacefully in the zoo because they’re fed by their keepers -- but Alex has to deal with his primal need to eat when he’s on his own in the wild. Even his best friend, Marty, starts to look disconcertingly like dinner.

Madagascar 2 has developed amnesia about that part of its story, except for a few cracks Marty makes about the time Alex bit him. This game reserve is Eden, a place where lions make pets of dik diks, adorable little antelopes that make tasty snacks for real lions in Africa. These animals face trouble when their water hole mysteriously dries up, but there’s no hint that they have anything to fear from each other.

But hey, why look for logic in pure escapism? Think of Madagascar 2 as a vaudeville routine. Its best bits are its song and dance numbers (Alex’s slow-mo move is particularly sweet) and absurdist riffs on a theme. And every now and then there’s a great corny joke, like when the skipper admires the blueprint one of his crew made of the plane they’re repairing. “Looks impressive, Kowalski,” says the skipper, “but will it fly?” Why sure, says Kowalski, folding the blueprint into a paper airplane and sailing it out past the rest of the crew.

Madagascar 2 moves like a mountain stream, shallow but bright and quick-moving. Go with the flow if you want a mini-vacation from reality.

Monday, November 3, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

A good story badly told, Changeling keeps digging its elbow into our ribs to drive home its message, like a drunken joker who wants to make sure you got the punch line.

This is one of those films that tries to evoke the past by mimicking the look and feel of an old movie. We hop from one sensationalistic genre to the next, opening in a sentimental, sepia-toned idyll as a devoted single mother, Christine Collins (Anjelina Jolie), coos over her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). It’s 1928 LA, and everything’s being shot through that gold-toned nostalgia lens – though dark tones and muted colors hint at trouble to come.

Then Walter disappears and we switch to the face-swallowing shadows and inky blacks of film noir as the corrupt LAPD palms off a strange kid on Christine, insisting that he’s her son so they can declare her case closed. There’s a detour to the medieval horrors of The Snake Pit, when the cops throw our ladylike heroine into the hell of LA Hospital’s Psychopathic Ward after she goes public with their scam. And throughout, there’s the hyper-emotional feel of any one of those Susan Hayward melodramas where a brave, beleaguered woman fights the system with all she’s got.

The facts behind this self-declared “true story” are horrible enough to earn our sympathy without elaboration, and director Clint Eastwood, who has always had a soft spot for underdogs and a hatred of abusers of power, homes in on some powerful moments. It’s hard to watch stony-faced cops, doctors, and other authority figures bully marginalized women (a single mom, a prostitute, a beaten wife) and kids. And the whirlpool of brutal repression that threatens to swallow Christine, erasing not just her testimony but her very existence, is a chilling example of how people can be “disappeared” in a police state.

But time and again, the way the story is told blunts the power of those facts.

It’s partly the Angelina factor. Jolie’s roles fall into two categories. There’s the stunt casting in movies like Alexander, which invite us to sit back and enjoy her extravagant physical gifts, ignoring little things like campy accents or wooden acting. Then there’s the serious stuff like A Mighty Heart, in which she impersonates a regular human being well enough to disappear into the role, reminding us that she really can act. Eastwood is clearly shooting for the latter here, but he misses the mark.

With 1920s red lipstick and dark eye shadow emphasizing her already surreal features, Angelina is distractingly jolie, making her hard to buy as an everyday working mom. We might have gotten past that after the first few minutes, but the film’s broad emotions and tight camera angles function like a blinking Actress At Work sign.

It’s moving when Jolie fights to hold back tears as she waits for the cops to tell her the fate of her child or allows herself a little smile of triumph in the courtroom, but those moments belong to Jolie, not Christine. And when Christine lunges at a scary character who’s withholding vital information about Walter, throwing him up against a wall to demand that he tell her the truth, all I could think of was Jolie’s action heroines. Sure, a middle-class mom in the ’30s might have fantasized about doing something like that, but I doubt that she would have tried it – let alone pulled it off.

Christine’s isolation feels suspect too, likely based more in the melodramatic tradition of a woman alone in a cruel world than in the facts of Collins’ life. Didn’t she have even one friend or relative close enough to attest that the “son” foisted on her by the LAPD was an imposter? The filmmakers seem to take the phrase "single mom" awfully literally; the only witnesses who surface in the movie to back Christine up are Walter’s dentist and grade school teacher.

The main story gets resolved a little too quickly and neatly, the good guys literally applauded and the bad guys all but hissed at, while related subplots drag on too long. Some tangents, including a gory hanging and a stunted subplot about Christine’s shy boss, who wants to date her but can’t break through her obsession with finding her son, feel completely superfluous.

The movie seems to be searching for closure as desperately as its heroine, pushing past three or four possible endings before it finally clocks in at an overlong 2 hours and 20 minutes.

But mostly it’s that elbow in the ribs – the intrusive soundtrack that tells you what to feel; the script that never taps you on the shoulder when it can hit you on the head with a mallet – that made me care less than I should have about Christine’s plight. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski has worked mainly in comic books and sci-fi TV, and he brings that sensibility to this script.

Take the climactic scene where a reverend who is championing Christine’s cause strides into the psych ward to demand her release. Cut to Christine struggling as she’s strapped to the punitive electroshock table. Cut to the reverend shoving aside the evil head nurse. Then to an orderly’s hand reaching out to throw the switch. “Oh no, they wouldn’t,” I prayed of Eastwood and Straczynski.

Cue music as a nurse bursts in on Christine’s tormentors in the nick of time, shouting that they must stop.

Oh yes, they would.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Film as a Human Song: Nathaniel Dorsky interview

By Elise Nakhnikian

“One of the reasons that I’m a late bloomer in terms of recognition in the avant-garde is that I broke the two biggest taboos: I included beauty and I included heart,” says Nathaniel Dorsky. “Heart especially is taboo.”

“Heart” is good shorthand for the organic feel of Dorsky’s mystery-rich, plot-free short films, which lead viewers into a contemplative state of heightened awareness. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Dorsky’s silent films are “about as close as movies can come to evoking the experience of lying on your back in the grass on a summer day, gazing through leaves at the clouds and letting your mind drift into the cosmos.”

In a recent phone interview, the filmmaker described what he does as “trying to see if I can get film form itself to become a human song.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings,” added Dorsky, who looks like an absent-minded professor but is refreshingly direct and partial to plain English when discussing his work. “One is depicting humans. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”

In Dorsky’s films, a thing often appears as an abstract shape or pattern before coalescing into a familiar form, often because he shows it to us first out of focus, in extreme close-up, or from an unfamiliar angle. Being unable to name the thing you’re looking at makes you look at it differently – and more attentively – than you otherwise would. “I’m trying to create images that are a state of mind rather using pictures to represent language or an idea,” Dorsky says. “The idea is to see what is intrinsic to film itself: The language of the unconscious. Dream language.”

Summerwind, an early film Dorsky recently showed at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, was shot when he was high on LSD and is, he said, “in a way a reflection of that,” but it’s hardly the only one of his works that induces a trippy state of blessed-out hyper-awareness. His films find beauty everywhere, even in a shower curtain or a scattering of Styrofoam peanuts dancing in the wind.

Dorsky’s beatific images are generally taken from nature, often showing light that moves like a living thing. He’s also prone to layering images, and likes to shoot something moving in the background behind a still foreground. It’s all part, he says, of “trying to create images that are more state of mind – not using the screen as a stage where the bottom of the screen is the bottom of the stage. State of mind is very layered. When different layers of the frame are resonating with each other, then it starts to become a world in itself rather than a picture of a world.”

Dorsky, who is 65, began making films by instinct as a boy and started developing his philosophy of film in the early 1960s. As a young man who loved poetry, he says, “I became very curious to see if one could create film that could be a self-existent thing. I got some ideas from other people’s work – especially (Yasujiro) Ozu, whose work provided cues about a cinematic language which could reflect and promote human wisdom.”

Another epiphany came from a concussion he received in a head-on collision in the mid-1990s. While recovering, he says, “One of the few things I could do was walk about with my camera. I started to make an avant-garde film, and the idea of copping an attitude with the camera made me feel nauseous, because a concussion makes you feel like a child -- very simple. I went back to what I was when I was 10 years old and I started making films, and it all started to work. I got shaken out of my adulthood, in a way.”

Dorsky is teaching this year at Princeton University, where he’ll show his three latest films --Sarabande, Song and Solitude and Winter – next week. The clarity and passion of his vision and his talent for articulating what he and other filmmakers are doing probably make him a very good teacher, yet a campus is an odd setting for his work. “My films are not about being in school,” he says. “Being in school is about behaving well, being good for society. This is about what happens after school, when true adventure starts.”

Monday, October 20, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“We make our own luck in life, don’t we?” says Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) to her friend Poppy (Sally Hawkins) at the end of Happy-Go-Lucky.

Mike Leigh’s latest feature is a lighthearted yet serious answer to Zoe’s question. “An anti-miserabilist film,” as the director called it after a screening at the New York Film Festival, it examines what it takes to live a good life. “We are living in tough times, and it’s very easy – and appropriate – to be gloomy,” Leigh said. “But there are people out there who are getting on with it, not least among them the teachers. You can’t be a teacher without being an optimist and caring for the future. Poppy is the embodiment of that.”

When we first see Poppy, she’s riding her bike through town, wearing what we come to learn is a perpetual smile. As engaged with the world as her grammar-school students, she sees everything she passes and likes everything she sees.

It takes us a little longer to figure out what to make of her. After all, movie audiences aren’t used to seeing giggly, friendly young women presented as anything but airheads. But it soon becomes clear that Poppy’s anything but a ditz.

Happy-Go-Lucky moves as briskly through Poppy’s life as she does, telling us what we need to know without ever feeling forced or formulaic. As in most of Leigh’s films, nothing momentous happens, yet every moment feels full. We get to know Poppy by watching her interact with other people, including Zoe, her best friend, roommate, and world travel companion for about 10 years; Suzy, her hapless but goodhearted sister; and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor.

The scenes with Scott, a splenetic misanthrope, form the core of the movie as the two tool around London in a claustrophobically small car, their diametrically opposed world views bumping up against each other. Scott spouts bitterness and bile, shouting at Poppy about her failings and everyone else’s. Poppy teases him good-naturedly, trying to coax him out of his shell. Their back and forth yields considerable humor and tension before culminating in a scene that I won’t ruin by describing it here.

In general, this movie lifts your spirits like a helium balloon, but that scene and others filled me with dread. My fear that something awful was about to happen to Poppy is partly thanks to the story’s spontaneity. Leigh creates his films by collaborating with his actors, whom he casts after only loosely deciding what he wants to explore.

For Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh and his cast spent half a year in rehearsal, developing the characters and workshopping scenes before he wrote the script. “The job is to discover the film by making it,” he says. As a result of that process, his films retain the veracity of those initial exercises and the unpredictability of life itself.

I’m sure I was also conditioned by countless other movies and TV shows. How many times have we seen a woman in peril pay heavily for her good intentions or naivete – or sheer bad luck? How many damsels in distress have needed rescuing by stalwart heroes?

But when Poppy gets herself into a fix, she gets herself out. What’s more, she handles every situation with grace, compassion and a contagious air of calm. “This is a film about somebody who can deal with things,” says Leigh. “This is a woman who confronts things. We look through her eyes, which are open and honest and non-judgmental.”

It’s startling to realize how refreshing that courage and competence feel, even in these supposedly post-feminist days. The same goes for the detailed and authentic depiction of the female friendships that sustain Poppy.

With her wide open heart, mobile face, and empathetic eyes, Hawkins’ Poppy is a study in pure goodness – what Christ might look like if he came back as a woman in modern-day London. When Scott tells her “you celebrate chaos,” he’s right, for a change, though he chooses a typically negative way to describe the constant churning of life.

Those same traits make her a great teacher. The intervention she engineers for a kid who’s been bullying others is a beautiful thing to behold, kind and loving and delicately sensitive. Oh yeah, and her kids actually learn stuff.

The contrast between Poppy’s nurturing teaching style and Scott’s punitive one couldn’t be clearer. But apparently Leigh doesn’t want to imply that Poppy’s way is the only one. Another alternative is presented in the form of a charismatic flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) whose classes Poppy attends. That teacher lays herself so open, while explaining the emotional core of the art, that she has to leave the classroom to compose herself. It’s a funny scene, but she maintains both her dignity and the respect of her students, who appreciate the lengths she will go to for them.

Josh Rosenblatt, a reviewer for the Austin Chronicle, recently wrote about how we most love the movies that “provide us the greatest understanding of ourselves. Either the selves we are or the selves we want to be.”

I don’t know about you, but Poppy is the best fictional role model I’ve come across in ages. More than any souped-up superhero or self-serious goon with a gun, her story speaks to what it takes to be a good person, making the most of your own life and brightening others.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Express

By Elise Nakhnikian

The Express is one of those inspirational movies that gets to you in spite of itself.

Screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder develop characters so thin you can practically see through them, then wrap them in a cloud of cliché. But the extraordinary man whose story this more or less is – and the raw shame of the racism he endured just half a century ago – burn through the fog.

Ernie Davis was a quiet kid from Pennsylvania’s coal country who found a way out of poverty through football just as traditionally all-white college and professional teams were beginning to recruit black players. As a star at Syracuse University, which won a national championship during his tenure, Davis got lots of laudatory press coverage, but he and his team were also on the receiving end of vicious slurs, death threats, and more.

Davis died at age 23, before he ever had a chance to play professional ball, but he managed to make history even so, becoming the first black player to win a Heisman Trophy. He was also voted MVP at the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Dallas – and ushered out of his own celebration early, since it was held at a whites-only country club.

The Express sketches Davis’s story in strokes so broad they could demarcate the lanes on a highway. Virtually every scene in the movie is about racism, a reductive impulse that surely does his memory a disservice. And they sometimes twist the truth into melodrama, as if the casually uttered racial slurs, social ostracism, and derogatory assumptions that kept black Americans “in their place” in his day needed embellishment. One of the most shocking set pieces in the movie, a game played in West Virginia where the other team’s fans rain racial epithets and broken glass on the Syracuse players, never happened at all.

Two polar opposites represent the possible responses to racism in the unsubtle universe of The Express. The first is Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in major league baseball by walking softly and swinging a big stick (“This here’s a man who’s doing a lot without saying nothing,” says an admiring young Davis). The second is pro football pioneer Jim Brown, who stands up to the injustice he encounters, earning a reputation as an Angry Black Man.

In life, Davis followed in Robinson’s path. He mostly does the same in the movie, but the screenwriters can’t resist giving him a few cinematic – but totally uncharacteristic – defiant speeches.

Davis is played by the sweet-faced Rob Brown, who played varsity football in high school and college. He seems like a nice kid, but he’s a bit of a lightweight, failing to project the self-confidence and strength of character needed to achieve what Davis did.

The fault lies mainly in the script, which tells us almost nothing about Davis’ inner life. But it doesn’t help that Brown seems anachronistically young, a still-adolescent 21st-century American kid rather than the young man that Davis probably was by his early 20s. People grew up faster in those post-war years, and black kids from the wrong side of the tracks probably grew up fastest of all. And people who knew Davis invariably talk about his gentle grace, a grown-up quality that Brown can’t quite muster.

The movie’s structure feels numbingly familiar. First, sepia flashbacks show us the shy, stuttering young Ernie, a fatherless boy with a gift for sports. Next we meet Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), Syracuse’s craggy head coach, who shows up with Jim Brown, a recent Syracuse grad, to woo Davis. Then Davis arrives at Syracuse, where the college boys actually wear beanies and the white kids all stare at him coldly.

He instantaneously befriends one of the team’s two other black players, Jack Buckley (played by the likeable Omar Benson Miller) and just as promptly falls for the first black coed he sees (an adorable Nicole Beharie). Meanwhile, he and Schwartzwalder stumble awkwardly into a sort of father-son bond, though none of the relationships in this movie has enough heft to feel truly significant.

We see a lot of football along the way, which is rendered tedious by bad camerawork and editing. Slow-motion close-ups of Davis running fail to convey a sense of his legendary speed, though we do get a sense of his famous footwork. Too many balls spiral slowly through the air toward the camera, and there are too many WHOMPs as one player tackles another. And one sequence that keeps switching between present-day footage and old (or old-looking) black-and-white is just plain annoying, shredding the action into incomprehensibly tiny bits.

Yet some of Davis’ accomplishments are so impressive it almost doesn’t matter how they’re portrayed. When he finally got his Heisman, the popping flashbulbs, freeze frames, and swelling music were corny and predictable – but I was so choked up I didn’t really care.

Monday, October 6, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

You know niche marketing has come of age when even we atheists get some representation, mostly in the form of books and YouTube videos from the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. And now comes our first official feature, Bill Maher’s Religulous.

About time, too. After all, as Maher points out in Religulous, about 16 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. That’s “a huge minority,” he says, “much bigger than Jews, black, NRA members – lots of minorities that have lobbies and get everything they want, or are at least in the game.”

Yet atheists and agnostics have no representation in Congress, politics are often skewed to the interests of religious extremists, and nonbelievers tend to maintain a don’t-ask-don’t-tell stance, fearful of being branded as amoral, un-American, or worse.

In theory, it’s great to have some spokesmen of our own out there, taking on the hypocrisy and intolerance that are often part of organized religion. But hypocrisy and intolerance aren’t just part of organized religion. They’re part of human nature, and they pop up just as much in the anti-religious arguments of professional nonbelievers like Maher as they do in the fundamentalist sermons those guys like to quote. And, even for a member of the choir he’s preaching to, that can make Maher’s message of tolerance and open-mindedness ring pretty hollow.

Maher’s movie is a loosely structured diatribe that skips around, both geographically and thematically, as he visits religious hot spots like Jerusalem, where he mostly talks about Christianity; Amsterdam, where he briefly investigates the fanatical brand of Islam that resulted in the death of Theo van Gogh; and Washington, D.C., where he talks to Senator Mark Pryor, one of several creationists in Congress.

Maher also makes side trips to parts of the American heartland – and to other religions, like Scientology and Mormonism, which he calls the “really crazy stuff.” Wherever he goes, his central questions remain the same: “Why is faith good?” and “How can smart people believe in the talking snake and people that are 900 years old and that kind of thing?”

Director Larry Charles, a longtime producer of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, also directed Borat. This movie uses a similar approach to that one, combining man-on the-street interviews that often come off as ambushes, even when they’ve been pre-arranged.

Maher establishes a good rapport with the people he interviews, and he really listens to them, as he always listens to the guests on his TV shows. He gives people their due if they make a point he appreciates – and cuts them off to keep the conversation focused if he thinks they’re talking nonsense.

But that respectful attention is sometimes undercut by snarky captions that pop up to comment on what people are saying, or by his own sneering after-the-fact commentary, which he makes to an unseen filmmaker as they travel between interviews. What’s more, a lot of his interviewees come off more like straight men, saying hardly anything at all as Maher riffs on a topic.

Charles and his editors keep the pace lively and the tone light, delivering a couple of belly laughs and a lot of smirks. They make good use of clips of characters like Mel Brooks’ Indian chief in Blazing Saddles, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana from Scarface, and Maher himself in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, whose snippets of dialogue function as wry asides. But they lean too much on montages featuring easy targets like Osama bin Laden, TV evangelists speaking in tongues, and football coaches praying for victory.

Every so often, Maher raises a truly thought-provoking question and hammers the answer home with humor, like when he asks whether we’ve maintained any other Bronze Age beliefs other than our religious ones, then tosses out a few others that are laughably absurd. He tosses out some tasty tidbits, like the fact that Thomas Jefferson called Christianity “the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” And he takes us to some interesting places, like a museum of creationism that shows animatronic dinosaurs coexisting with people and the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, where the crucifixion is played out as a tourist attraction.

But on the whole, Religulous is too glib to be thought-provoking and too doctrinaire to be consistently entertaining.

Maher claims to be “selling doubt,” yet he’s just as certain of his own point of view as any of the religious people he talks to. What’s more, he can be rudely disrespectful, drawing comparisons between pastors and pimps and equating religion with “f---ing kids and burning people alive.” And he ends with apocalyptic talk and imagery that he hasn’t earned, suddenly claiming that religion may lead us into a world-annihilating war. That’s a case that could be made, but he hasn’t made it, so his mushroom cloud feels like a cheap scare tactic.

Does anyone really believe there would be no homophobia, misogyny, or war if there were no religion? Haven’t people found plenty of other reasons to demonize “others”? And why bother trying to prove how irrational religious beliefs can be? To believers, logic is beside the point: That’s why they call it faith.

For an atheist used to being marginalized by a hyper-religious culture, Maher’s certitude is as dangerously seductive as that talking snake that he’s so obsessed with. In the end, his movie left me with just one question: Is it any better for an atheist to be intolerant of religious people than the other way around?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mirace at St. Anna and The Lucky Ones

By Elise Nakhnikian

Miracle at St. Anna and The Lucky Ones are less compelling – and a lot less complex – than most of the Iraq docs that have had such a hard time getting booked in theaters. Still, they’re both sporadically successful at getting us to care about their conflicted soldiers.

Much of the credit for what works in The Lucky Ones probably belongs to the casting director. The dialogue and characters are pretty corny, and the setup is hackneyed – three Iraq vets head home in a road trip that becomes a journey of bonding and self-discovery. But the actors are so good you can almost overlook the rest.

As Fred Cheever, the middle-aged family man who’s just finished his third and final tour of duty, Tim Robbins is touchingly gentle, a benign surrogate father to his much younger companions. Michael Peña’s TK Poole is the kind of bullshit artists who doesn’t fool anyone but himself, but Peña makes him sympathetic rather than grating. And Rachel McAdams’s Colee is a skinless optimist whose wide-open guilelessness is annoying at first – until you start to see the insecurity and rootlessness behind it.

Miracle at St. Anna has its own unworldly innocent. Train (Omar Benson Miller) is a gentle giant with the expressively homely face, diffident manner, and awkward bulk of a young Charles Laughton. He’s also one of several fictional members of a real all-black infantry division that fought in Italy during WWII (the movie is based on a novel by James McBride, who also wrote the screenplay).

Train and three other soldiers – stalwart Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), streetwise glamour-boy Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), who doesn’t even have one clear defining character – go through their own version of a road trip, getting trapped behind enemy lines and holing up with an Italian family that sides with the partisans.

Lee’s movies nearly always have a point to make or a historical moment to capture, giving them a sense of urgency and purpose. This time around, he’s determined to give black WWII vets their due, acknowledging not just how they helped win the war but the racism internal conflicts they endured while doing so. That’s rich turf to till – Days of Glory did great things with it last year – but Lee goes broad and shallow rather than digging deep, risking didacticism and stereotyping in his scramble to set the record straight.

St. Anna is more Bamboozled than Do the Right Thing, a kitchen-sink compendium of too many confusing minor characters and subplots, too many speeches, and too many unconvincing relationships – most problematically the relationship between Train and a trauma-addled boy he rescues, which feels contrived and is central to the story.

Just to give you one example, the story’s framed by a muddled bit about a marble head taken from a church and a murder trial. Then there’s a frame around that frame, which involves a young reporter (an uncharacteristically clunky Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who talks, for some reason, like a tough guy in a Depression-era gangster picture.

Even Terence Blanchard’s generally fine soundtrack occasionally wells up too loudly, and Lee’s constantly prowling camera sometimes overdoes it, whirling dizzyingly around two characters as they talk or creeping up to a closed door like a stir-crazy cat.

But the truth beneath the fiction is strong enough to break through all those barriers now and then. McBride and Lee dramatize the conflict most effectively through an ongoing argument between Stamps and Bishop. Lee films one of their showdowns against a war propaganda poster that says “Fraticide,” and the two sometimes seem capable of killing one another. But mostly they just yell, setting up camp on opposite sides of the divide over whether to fight for a country that treats them like dirt – like slaves, as a silky-voice Nazi propagandist says in a radio broadcast aimed at talking them into defecting.

Stamps does his duty for his country without stopping much to question how it treats him, holding tight to his faith that his children will have a brighter future that he can ever hope for. Bishop has no such faith. All he wants to do is survive, protect his fellow soldiers, and try to have some fun along the way.

The soldiers in The Lucky Ones aren’t fighting for idealistic reasons either: They just need jobs, and the Army’s always hiring.

The John Wayne film Hector watches at the beginning of St Anna glorified combat by showing servicemen as macho ideals. Wayne’s soldiers were always as certain of the rightness of cause and country as they were of their eventual victory. But ever since we got mired in Vietnam, that certitude feels outdated.

St. Anna and The Lucky Ones are not great art, but they capture the mood of our time as clearly as Wayne captured the mood of his, mirroring the ambivalence of a “volunteer” army comprised almost exclusively of the poor, the disenfranchised, and those who have, as TK would say, “no skills.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ghost Town

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Ghost town” pretty much describes the theater where I saw Ghost Town on its opening night, and that’s a shame.

This sweet-and-sour rom-com isn’t as good as the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 40s that I’m always raving about. It’s not even in the same league as Groundhog Day, another tale of a self-loathing misanthrope who earns the love of a warmhearted woman by learning to be a mensch. But that’s hardly a fair comparison. Precious few movies are that good, and Ghost Town is entertaining and original, a very satisfactory late-summer film.

A smartly sardonic new take on an old formula, Ghost Town is about a dead guy who can’t stop haunting the woman he loves, trying to engineer her romantic life from beyond the grave. It’s cowritten by director David Koepp, who made genre pieces like Stir of Echoes and The Paper pop by building them around believable characters and dialogue. He does the same here.

That aging-boy charm Greg Kinnear cranks out with such apparent ease fits the dead husband, Frank, like a glove – and so does the faint hint of self-doubt, maybe even desperation underlying that veneer of confidence. Frank was a philandering scumbag with a surfeit of surface charm, the kind of guy who loved to make things happen. But it’s hard to crack that whip when you’re dead.

Enter Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais, creator of the original version of The Office), a prickly loner whose life consists of shuttling between his dental office and a sterile apartment that looks like a page from a West Elm catalog.

After a mishap at a hospital caused him to die “just a little,” as his skittish surgeon puts it, Bertram finds himself surrounded by hordes of people wherever he goes. Turns out they’re dead, part of the throng of ghosts haunting New York City, who he can now see because he came so close to joining their ranks.

The ghosts are used to being invisible except to each other, so they’re as excited as kids on Christmas morning when they realize that Bertram sees and hears them. It seems they have unfinished business with the living, so they flood him with requests to help make things right. But they don’t get anywhere until Frank weasels his way around Bertram’s rock-hard heart. If Bertram will save Frank’s his widow from marrying a pompous do-gooder, Frank promises, he’ll make the other ghosts go away.

Bertram goes along with the plan with his usual ill humor – until he sees Frank’s widow.

Gwen (Téa Leoni) is a real prize – a beauty, sure, but also kind and accomplished. Leoni has always been an appealing physical comedienne who radiates quirky, approachable intelligence, a Renaissance actress in the mold of the great dames of Hollywood's Golden Age.

But there’s a touching vulnerability to Gwen that’s new for Leoni. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between Gwen’s life and her own (Leoni’s husband is David Duchovny, whose “sex addiction” you’ve probably read about), though that may have nothing to do with her performance. Whatever the reason, Leoni ‘s tired eyes, tight mouth, and nervous hands give Gwen the look of a woman on the defensive, wary and weary. They also make it that much more of a pleasure when she starts to crack up at Bertram’s jokes, her reserve melting away.

In the end, Ghost Story is more about Bertram’s very-odd-couple relationship with Frank than it is about his kissless romance with Gwen – and it’s more about his changing relationship with the world around him than with either of those things.

Strewn along Bertram’s path to enlightenment are a couple of McNuggets of wisdom and some nice bits of comic relief. Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live is endearingly goofy as Bertram’s equivocating surgeon, and Gervais’ crack comic timing makes even his misanthropy funny, winning over the audience as he slowly wins Gwen. And Koepp and cinematographer Fred Murphy put a golden gloss on city landmarks like the Monkey Bar, the Bethesda Fountain’s angel, and the Metropolitan Museum, making Manhattan look like the ideal setting for a fairy-tale ending.

Now and then, the creak of a too-neat contrivance breaks the spell. But there’s more magic in this movie than in Igor, and a whole lot more respect for women than in The Women. Too bad those clunkers did better last weekend than this sweet little caper.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The White Sheik

By Elise Nakhnikian

An officious social climber who has his honeymoon trip to Rome planned down to the minute, Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) of The White Sheik looks as if he’s never done a spontaneous thing in his life. So you’re hardly surprised when his beautiful bride Wanda (Brunella Bovo) escapes at the first opportunity, disappearing from their hotel as soon as they arrive.

But part of the charm of this light-footed farce is in the sympathy we develop for both of these foolish innocents. The White Sheik is the first film Federico Fellini directed, and it’s lighter than most, more a comedy of manners than an existential journey. Fellini fans may miss what they see as the maestro’s melancholy and contemplative side – though personally, I like this movie better than some of his more heavy-handed efforts. But they’ll find plenty of his trademark touches here, starting with his genuine, if somewhat patronizing, affection for his characters – especially the colorful artists and mountebanks who create our popular culture.

On the Criterion DVD of the movie, Trieste talks about how Fellini recruited him for the part, assuring him he was “born to be a clown” though he had never acted at the time and took himself quite seriously as a writer. Another commentator says Fellini picked Trieste in part for that self-seriousness and for his fussy way of dressing and used the actor’s traits to help mold the character – as he often did in later movies. The process works: we care what happens to this the pompous, status-conscious rube.

Meanwhile, Bovo gives shy, sheltered Wanda a sweetness and sense of wide-eyed wonder that trigger our protective instincts, even as her beauty and vulnerability bring out the wolf in the men she encounters.

Wanda is a great fan of the melodramatic photographed Italian comic strips known as fumetti (literally, “little puffs of smoke.”) Her favorite is The White Sheik, so she takes advantage of her trip to the big city to seek out the Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who plays the sheik, at the studio where he works. The comic adventure that ensues seems thrilling and perilous to her.

Flattered by the admiration of their beautiful young fan, the troupe embraces Wanda, bringing her with them to film on the beach that doubles as the desert in their photo shoots. She winds up with a part in the production and a romantic boat ride with Rivoli himself. The contrast between her idealized image of Rivoli and the doughy, craven womanizer that he turns out to be is an old joke – Shakespeare did it with Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he undoubtedly stole it from somebody else – but Fellini updates it deftly, making her awestruck admiration a comment on celebrity worship and the mesmerizing power of pop culture. But reality soon crashes into her fantasy.

The story was originated and cowritten by Michelangelo Antonioni, but ultimately it’s those Fellini touches that make this movie work, from the carnivalesque Nino Rota music to the whimsical sets and stylized imagery to the gorgeous, creamy lighting and cinematography. There’s also a lovely little cameo appearance by Fellini’s wife, actress Giulietta Masina, as Cabiria, the friendly prostitute she later played in his Nights of Cabiria.

The White Sheik was a flop when it was released in 1952, dismissed by most critics as inconsequential. Neorealism was the trend at the time in Italy, and it produced some great works, movies like Open City and The Bicycle Thief. But if every movie were that intense and realistic, going to the movies would be like eating nothing but vegetables for dinner every night, and we all like a little dessert now and then.

In the world of The White Sheik, a fire eater or a camel is liable to show up any time, a character known as “the evil Bedouin” turns out to be a wisecracking flirt, and a well-oiled pickup line may be interrupted by a bonk on the head by a wayward sail. It’s a duplicitous yet marvelous place, a richly entertaining fantasy that existed only in Fellini’s imagination – until he put it in the movies so we could dream it too.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous

By Elise Nakhnikian

It’s easy to imagine why Nicolas Cage would want to remake 1999’s Bangkok Dangerous. A hit at the Toronto film festival that was barely seen in this country, it’s loaded with trendy camerawork, expertly glamorized violence, and celluloid-tourist shots of Bangkok’s red-light district. Best of all, its hit-man hero is a sensitive soul who puts a hold on the killing for a while to pursue a doomed romance with a sweet young thing who works at a pharmacy.

Cage was smart to hire Danny and Oxide Pang, the gifted twins who cowrote and codirected the original, to direct their own remake. But in turning this flashy little genre movie into a brooding Hollywood star vehicle and casting himself as the lead, he rubbed out almost every trace of life, charm, and visual interest.

The first shock is how muddy, grainy, and just plain dark and depressing the whole thing looks.

The original uses a hatful of showy styles to grab the eye. Maybe they were just the hot visual trend of their day, the way all those popcorn movies now are going dark to seem “deep,” but the Pang brothers used them with panache. Beautiful characters are bathed in a greenish glow or framed against patches of intense color – lime green, sky blue, ochre yellow. Night scenes are vibrant, silver with light and throbbing with energy. The film stock sometimes switches abruptly, turning sepia or black-and-white, but the images it captures are always creamily beautiful. Jump cuts between close-ups that home in on a detail – the side of a face; a drop of sweat hitting a surface; an upside-down, lizard’s-eye view of a scene – focus the eye that much more intently, finding beauty in unexpected places, like the blood of a murdered man that slowly spreads across a bathroom floor after the killing that opens the movie.

All those attention-grabbing tricks can’t hide the fact that the story line is both thin and convoluted, but they make it interesting to watch. And somehow, the tightly engineered artificiality of the style makes the interactions between people feel more visceral, pulling you into the scene with them.

It helps that the actors who play Kong, the mercenary, and Fon, his pharmacist girlfriend, are both gorgeous to look at and enormously sympathetic, with soft eyes and vulnerable, open faces that make you root for their characters no matter how they behave.

Cage’s remake flips the story, making Kong the sidekick and focusing on Joe, the hired killer who takes Kong under his wing and teaches him his trade. Cage plays Joe, of course, and he does it on full sociopathic weirdo mode. Sulky and stringy-haired, his Joe is as off-putting as Pawalit Mongkolpisit’s Kong was winning.

The original Kong was deaf, which helped focus our attention where the Pang brothers wanted it, since most of the first movie unfolds without words. But Hollywood stars like their lines, so Joe has plenty of Mickey Spillane-style dialogue. He even gets some superfluous narration, like when he portentously pronounces, as a montage makes the same point with marginally more elegance: “Bangkok. It’s corrupt, dirty, and dense.”

Hi deafness was also used as motivation, implying that the isolation and persecution he experienced as kid because of his deafness led to his becoming an alienated killer. That may be a stretch, but it makes it easier to relate to him – and to buy his change of heart when he starts to regret his line of work.

The remake tells us nothing about Joe. We know only what we see, and watching this dour zombie zoom about in humorless pursuit of yet another victim doesn’t exactly make you admire his humanitarian spirit. So when Kong starts talking about what a good man he is, in what leads to Joe’s big change of heart, it’s not just maudlin; it’s downright mystifying.

Even the love story is off-putting this time around. While the original pharmacist was spunky and soulful, this one’s as insipid as an animated Disney heroine.

There are still a handful of showy shots, like when Joe kills a man in a boat and we see the shot from below. But these are just flashes of light swallowed up by a big black hole, like the gunshots the Pang brothers stage in the dark, the blasts of automatic fire creating a strobe-like effect.

Movies about mercenaries who want to retire are a popular subgenre (probably because they let us have it both ways, getting all the cool killings while salving our consciences with some chat about how bad they are), so there are plenty to choose from. If you want turbo-charged action with a heart, rent Johnny To’s excellent Exiled. If you want the kind of talky, self-aware pop culture pastiche that Quentin Tarantino does best, take another look at Pulp Fiction. If you want black humor, go with In Bruges or Grosse Pointe Blank.

But unless you’re in the mood for a deadening dose of mindless summertime violence, don’t waste your time or money on Bangkok Dangerous.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pixar Picks

By Elise Nakhnikian

I don’t think the people at Pixar are capable of making a bad movie—though Cars veered dangerously close to the line—but there are the Pixar movies you like and the ones you fall in love with. And for me, the best are the ones that shake off the constraints of the natural world, like a dog drying off after a dip.

Take Wall-E — at least, up to what my husband calls the Titanic portion of the movie. Until the two little love-bots start running around the space station, calling out each other’s names for what feels like forever, the premise is ingenious, funny, and poignant all at once. It’s also exaggerated just enough to make you think about the growing gap between nature and the American way of life without getting preachy or self-righteous. The setup on the space station is interesting too, until it degenerates into a standard chase scene/showdown, but the great parts of this movie are the huge chunks that need no dialogue at all, just music and sound effects and the occasional coo or cry or clip from Wall-E’s favorite movie, Hello Dolly. Best of all is the first half hour or so, a wordless ballet of motion, music, and sound effects. It’s weird and wonderful, instantly recognizable yet strange, like a dream so intense it wakes you up. This is the kind of movie Max Fleischer would have made if they’d had CGI in his day.

Better yet, take Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, or almost any of Pixar’s shorts (Netflix rents a DVD that holds about a dozen). These great Pixar movies are all set in a dada world that operates by its own rubbery rules. In these worlds, the monsters kids see in their closets or under their beds at night are real – and more scared of the kids than the kids are of them. A babysitter faced with a spontaneously combusting toddler winds up with her chin in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other, spritzing the baby periodically while looking bored as only a teenage girl can look. A young alien hovering above Earth in his spaceship practices his abduction technique – badly – on a human teenager who’s so deeply asleep that he never wakes up, though the alien kid flings him around like a pinball, destroying his house in the process. And a little plastic snowman working to bust out of his snow globe comes off like the bastard son of Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx, radiating hapless intensity while producing a series of increasingly outlandish tools (a hammer? A jackhammer?? A bundle of TNT???) from who knows where.

The not so great Pixar movies start with much less original premises. Think Ratatouille. Very good but not great, right? And what’s it about? Two odd-couple losers pair up and show all the naysayers that they’re winners after all. Or Finding Nemo, the sweet but predictable story of a youngster who learns independence while his overprotective dad learns to let go. Or, worst of all, Cars, that big wet kiss John Lasseter and crew blew to faux authenticity. Every character and relationship in that movie is a cliché, from the postcard-picturesque gas stations and tourist traps of Route 66 to the “homespun” humor of Larry the Cable Guy.

Even when the story and characters are stale, Pixar can make them palatable. Pixar movies are beautiful to look at, with carefully observed textures and movements and ambient sounds. They have fun with music – especially the shorts, which are often built around a song. And they always work in some nice bits of business around the edges. Even the credits are funny.

Pixar’s crew is smart about how they mimic the lighting and camera angles of live-action movies, too, creating drama or heightening the humor with conventions like low angles, slow pans, and key lights. And they’re always in the forefront of CGI technology. It’s impressive to see how far they’ve come in the 20 years since Tin Toy, a short about a rampaging baby as seen by his terrified toys. The toys look amazingly realistic, but the baby does not, since the look of human skin and hair is a lot harder to replicate than the look and movements of plastic or metal toys.

But best of all, the Pixar people never lose sight of the fact that technique is just a means to an end. What makes their great movies great is the stories they tell, and the vivid worlds they conjure up. Pixar’s best flare like comets: beautiful, bright, unforgettable.