Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

When Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), those goofy post-racial potheads, first ambled into theaters in 2004, they must have been a little startled by the stir they created. After all, our underachieving heroes were just fighting for their right to party – and satisfy a monster case of the munchies. But a lot of us gobbled up Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle as greedily as the guys lit into their burgers. Maybe we were hungry for something that defanged ethnic stereotyping so deftly, reducing it to a punchline.

Harold’s parents are from Korea and Kumar’s are from India. That’s part of who the two best friends are, of course, but it hardly defines them. In fact, the main conflict in Kumar’s young life has been his struggle to break out of the good-Indian-boy mold his family wanted to fit him into, which would have dumped him out into the world as a doctor – and, as we see in a flashback in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – a bit of a nerd.

Writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg told the New York Times they based the two on friends from their “very multicultural” New Jersey high school. “Harold and Kumar’s attitude toward racism is more frustration at having to deal with idiocy than moral outrage. We try to create a world where racism is stupid,” said Schlossberg.

The first movie succeeds by playing everything for laughs, but the second tries too hard for political significance, falling as flat as a punctured helium balloon when it tries to be more than an absurdist road trip with the occasional rest stop to skewer a stereotype or let the boys get their weed on.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Flight of the Red Balloon

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ever since movie cameras were invented, people have tried to use them to cheat time, freezing shards of life at 24 frames per second. But since the camera changes everything, from how things look to how people behave, making a fiction film that feels like an undoctored slice of life is a complicated act of alchemy. A lot of people may try, but not many pull it off.

Fewer still can string together a series of realistic moods and moments in a way that concentrates life’s poignancy into a pungent broth. That takes a real artist – like Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-hsien (Three Times, The Puppetmaster).

Hou’s latest feature, The Flight of the Red Balloon, was commissioned by Paris’ Museé d’Orsay as part of a series of films by prominent directors that the museum financed on one condition: at least one scene had to be filmed there. Hou’s contribution, which he cowrote as well as directed, is an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon.

The Flight of the Red Balloon is a lovely work, delicately observed, emotionally resonant, and reminiscent of the great poetic realist Ozu, whose Tokyo Story inspired Hou’s other homage, Café Lumiere.

Nothing momentous happens in Flight, yet it contains a whole world. As in The Red Balloon, a young boy finds – or is found by – a large red balloon, which seems to follow him of its own volition. The camera follows the two through the city as the mysterious balloon floats over the boy’s head like a benediction. Its string is generally just out of reach, though it dips down occasionally to let the boy catch hold of it.

But the similarities end there. The original story, in which the solitary boy defends himself and his balloon from jealous peers and imperious adults, is about the forces that erode childhood innocence and joy, but Hou’s Paris is a kinder and gentler place than Lamorisse’s. Simon (Simon Iteanu), the well-loved seven-year-old of Hou’s film, may exude the scent of only-child solitude, but he’s rarely alone, and the adults in his life are almost universally loving and respectful.

In fact, Flight is at least as much Simon’s mother’s story as it is his. Maybe that’s why Simon’s balloon doesn’t trail him like a faithful dog or appear in every scene. Instead, it bobs up periodically after a long absence, looming outside a window like an old friend.

Simon’s nurturing but harried mother, Suzanne (an electrically alive Juliette Binoche), is a puppetmaster engaged in staging an adaptation of a Chinese fable. Suzanne has created a cozy nest for herself and her son in a bohemian section of Paris: Though she’s breaking up with her absent boyfriend via long-distance phone fights, there’s a constant ebb and flow of visitors in her comfortably cluttered apartment. The high-strung Suzanne can’t relax even in her own home, thanks in part to a dispute with a tenant who’s months behind on the rent. Calm and in control only when she’s working with her puppets, Suzanne uses art to make sense of the chaos of life.

The other main adult character is Simon’s new nanny, a Chinese film student named Song (played by a Chinese former film student of the same name). Like Hou, Song is shooting a tribute to The Red Balloon with Simon cast as the boy. We often see her work as well, and her movie parallels and sometimes overlaps the one we’re watching. Watching the two women work or talk about their work lets Hou explore the intersection between life and art, mulling over some of the ways they enrich each other.

But you never for a moment lose your footing in Suzanne’s and Simon’s world, thanks in part to the strands of real life that Hou wove into his script. The director based the fight between Suzanne and her tenant on a real conflict involving the woman whose apartment they filmed in, who was one of the movie’s producers. He also gave the actors a lot of leeway in shaping their characters and their dialogue. “There was no [scripted] dialogue,” Binoche told Time Out Chicago. “There was no indication of sitting here or going there. It was all free. And the [cinematographer] had the same situation. He could shoot whatever he wanted to shoot.”

Cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, who has shot several other Hou movies, finds a soft beauty in old-city Paris, whose silvery grays make an elegant backdrop for the pomegranate-red balloon. He also brings out the eloquence in inanimate objects like Suzanne’s puppets and Simon’s balloon.

Lee and Hou layer their compositions, feeding that sense of life being captured in the raw by showing two or three people doing unrelated activities in one shot. Watching it all from a bit of a distance,in long shots that let things unfold in real time, they create a quiet, contemplative rhythm that draws us in further, encouraging us to notice things we might otherwise overlook.

The pace picks up and nerves get jangled periodically when Suzanne, that human whirlwind, injects a jolt of adrenaline into the mix. But in the end, this quietly moving film leaves you feeling as buoyant as the balloon that floats in and out of its frame.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Street Kings

By Elise Nakhnikian

“We’re the police. We can do whatever we want,” says Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) in Street Kings. “Doesn’t matter what happens: It’s how we write it up.”

Reeves’ Tommy (as most of the guys call him) is a 21st-century Dirty Harry. A maverick in conflict with his own department, he acts as judge, jury and executioner to the suspects he tracks down. But in this casually fascistic vigilante fantasy, that implacable drive to hunt people down and kills them makes him not a sociopath but a hero – or, as Tommy’s captain puts it, “the tip of the f--ing spear.”

Street Kings is nonstop action, but most of its tension comes from the interplay between Tommy and his captain, Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), who seems to be on the scene whenever Tommy needs rescuing from the trouble he keeps slipping into.

Reeves’ Excellent Adventure-era California cool has solidified into a mask-like stiffness that fits this character nicely. Tommy is a none-too-bright middle-aged hard guy gone a bit to seed. His stubbly jowls, heavy gait, and constant procession of airplane-sized bottles of vodka mark him as a man in retreat from life – and so do Reeves’ guarded eyes.

Reeves’ underacting is thrown into relief by Whitaker’s overacting. When the captain gets worked up – and he usually does – spit flies out of his mouth, his face glistens with sweat, and Whitaker’s wider eye works overtime to register emotion. The actor is the epitome of soulful peace in that phone ad where he talks about spirituality, but in recent roles like this one and his Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, he looks like he’s about to blow a gasket. You feel his pain, all right, but you don’t want to sit too close to the screen.

Street Kings was cowritten by James Ellroy, who wrote the story it’s based on. It was directed by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day. Both men are LA natives who specialize in hard-guy stories about cops, criminals, and the permeable line between the two. But Street Kings, like Training Day, has a hyperbolic adolescent swagger that undercuts the hard-edged realism it strives for. Several other directors turned down the script – including Spike Lee, which is a pity. His version of Ellroy’s cynically hopeful urban drama might have been a minor classic.

You wouldn’t want to live in Tommy’s world, but it’s a titillating place to visit. There’s a gun or a body in every car trunk and a double-cross around every corner. And there are plenty of colorful characters, like the cocky Sergeant Clady (the nicely acerbic Jay Mohr) and the enigmatic Terence Washington, Tommy’s former partner. Terry Crews, who played President Comacho in Mike Judge’s underappreciated Idiocracy, plays Washington with just the right amount of gravity - and a face that would fit right in on Mount Rushmore.

There are a couple of token love interests – most notably Washington’s babelicious wife, played by the always riveting Naomie Harris – but the only real love on display is the bond that forms between brothers in blue.

There’s no love lost between Tommy and the criminals he chases. He tracks one down by getting him snarled up in barbed wire – and leaves him there, howling in pain, after questioning him. That kind of police work looks awfully ugly. But, according to Street Kings, it has to be done – to “keep the animals at bay,” as Captain Wander puts it.

When the first of the Dirty Harry movies trumpeted that message, a lot of people dismissed it as fascist propaganda. But we’re in the age of Dexter now, and a movie like this raises barely a peep of protest.

Have our streets become that much more violent over the past 30 years? Or are we being brainwashed by the politics of fear?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“I liked George Clooney’s smile,” the woman in the bathroom told her friend. “And I liked the relationship between him and Renée Zellweger. But I kept looking over and seeing Earl asleep.”

I’m with Earl. I didn’t buy the relationship between aging jock/con man Dodge Connelly (Clooney) and perky newsgal Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) in Leatherheads for a nanosecond. And when they started twitching and twinkling at one another in a strenuous effort to generate sparks, even Clooney’s piano key smile looked forced.

Leatherheads starts with the Universal logo from Hollywood’s golden age of the late 1920s and ‘30s. That’s a wink from director Clooney, who did such an elegant job of evoking the ‘50s in Good Night, and Good Luck. It’s a pledge that his latest movie will capture the stardust from those long-ago years, like some kind of cinematic Hubble Telescope, but this time he can’t keep his promise.

Set in 1925 (and how), Leatherheads is about the birth of professional football – well, sort of. It actually bears the same relationship to pro football as The Bad News Bears does to Little League: the sport is just the backdrop for a comic drama. But that’s not a fair comparison, since Leatherheads makes The Bad News Bears look like Shakespeare.

It’s impossible not to think of other films as you watch this one – and to wish you were watching them instead. A magpie of a movie, Leatherheads stuffs its nest with shards of other films: the romantic triangle in Bull Durham, the tough-cookie newsgal in His Girl Friday, the sepia-toned look of O Brother Where Art Thou, and so on. But borrowing so obviously was a mistake, since this movie suffers in comparison to every one that it pilfers. It even made me miss the flawlessly executed visual style of O Brother, itself a riff played on better films from the 30s that worked much better as a soundtrack than it did as a movie.

You can tell by their comic-book names how deep the characterizations of Lexie and Dodge are – and they’re two of the three main characters. Imagine how stunningly little is done with minor characters like the sadly wasted sports reporter (now there’s a fresh idea), who’s played by the sadly wasted Stephen Root.

The other main character is Carter Rutherford (nicely played by John Krasinski of The Office), who is all-American to the point of parody. A war hero and a football star, Carter draws far bigger crowds to his college games than Dodge’s scruffy professional team, the Duluth Bulldogs, can attract. So Dodge recruits Carter to play for the Bulldogs, figuring the publicity will draw the crowds needed to keep his team – and the sport as a whole – alive.

Will it or won’t it? I couldn’t care less, yet that’s pretty much the plot. Well, that and the inevitable love story, which plays out as a triangle between Dodge, Carter, and Lexie, whose Chicago paper assigns her to do a story on Carter.

Zellweger plays another of her patented spunky, smiling-through-her-tears, game little gals next door. She’s Jean Arthur all over again, that one, but this time she’s trying to play Roz Russell in His Girl Friday, and she just doesn’t have the vinegar or the salt – or the chemistry with her costar. When those two woo, Zellweger pruning up her kewpie doll lips while Clooney twitches his in an exaggerated pantomime of desire, you just feel sorry for them both.

Truth be told, Dodge seems a lot more interested in Carter. Homoerotic undertones are a cliché of sports movies, but they’re highlighted in this one, by the excess of male bonding over fistfights and a climactic football game that looks more like mud wrestling.

The pace is choppy, starting in a jerky setup-punchline mode and degenerating into shapelessness. It’s all strenuously underscored by Randy Newman’s self-consciously, often ironically, perky score, which leans on period pieces like “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye,” lest we forget for a moment that we’re in the ‘20s.

Things like the headlines twirling as papers come off the press in some of the way-too-many montages only make you conscious of how hard Clooney is trying to evoke the movies of the ‘30s. The joy of those movies came largely from their inventiveness and wit and the trust their makers had in the audience’s intelligence. Trying to revive those qualities by recreating now-cliched scenes like a speakeasy raid and a frenetic press conference, complete with popping flashbulbs, is like trying to create life by reanimating a corpse.

The dialogue – the crown jewel of those ‘30s comedies – lurches to life for a moment here or there, mostly when Dodge and Lexie are trading insults. But for the most part it’s either pedestrian or labored.

The camera is lumbering too, coming in tight to magnify the mugging rather than hanging back far enough to focus on relationships. And the pacing is way too slow. The great screwball comedies moved twice as fast – and that was before our attention spans had been so famously amped up.

Even the story’s internal timeline is off. If Carter was a WWI hero, why is he a fresh-faced undergraduate seven years after the war has ended? How do we go so fast from pro football being written off to sellout crowds? How did all those ads and posters with Carter’s face on them get produced so soon after he goes pro?

But hey, if Clooney doesn’t care, why should we?

Friday, April 4, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

Stop-Loss is a flare sent out on behalf of all the soldiers who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s partly a tribute, partly a protest, and partly a promise to never forget, either the individuals who died or what those who survived experienced. It also acknowledges the price paid by families and girlfriends when soldiers are away, when they come home, and when they don’t.

Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) as always been an upright soldier, but he rebels against the Army when he’s told he must sign up for a second tour of duty. The “stop-loss” policy that keeps him from going home is a loophole in the armed forces’ contracts that lets the government ensure that it will have the people it wants to fight overseas without reinstituting the draft. According to a title card at the end of the movie, it has been used on 81,000 of the 650,000 troops to serve in Afghanistan or Iran since 2001. Stop-Loss wants us all to feel as outraged as Brandon does when he first learns about it.

Stop-Loss has some serious flaws. The filmmakers sometimes wander off on tangents, making Brandon’s journey feel more like a greatest hits – or misses – tour of the Iraq war’s consequences than one man’s story. They wrap it all in a loose-fitting road-trip cloak and give Brandon a problematic love interest, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), leaving the relationship unresolved at the end. And some of the characters are so underwritten that even fine actors like Ciarán Hinds (as Brandon’s father) and Mamie Gummer (as his friend Tommy’s wife) barely register. But it carries out its larger mission, delivering a love letter from America to all those kids who’ve lost their limbs, their lives, or their peace of mind in Iraq.

This is the first non-documentary American film about our post-9/11 presence in Iraq that has the heft and urgency of truth. Last year’s lugubrious In the Valley of Elah and talky Lions for Lambs were preachy fables, weighted down by their sense of self-importance, but Stop-Loss is as unpretentious as its blue-collar characters. When director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) nudges you, it’s not to deliver a moral. It’s to say something plain and true, like: “Look at what these guys have been through,” or “Look at how much they love each other,” or “Hey, guys. I know you think we don’t care, but some of us really appreciate what you have done.”

Peirce and her cowriter Mark Richard, an award-winning author of literary fiction, always keep things on a human scale. They neither lionize nor demonize Brandon and his friends, and they never judge what they do. They just look on sympathetically as these very young men mess up, joke around, and commit casual acts of heroism. That humanity, along with their fierce loyalty to one another, makes it easy to relate to them even when PTSD makes them do scary stuff.

Phillippe is particularly touching, manning up to make Brandon believable as a natural leader, even a “true Texas hero,” as a smarmy senator calls him. So are Linda Edmond as Brandon’s mother and Victor Rasuk as Rico Rodriguez, a soldier in Brandon’s unit.

Interviews Peirce did before writing the script contribute to the sense of realism. A lot of the things her characters do come from the stories soldiers told her about themselves, like when Tommy takes his unopened wedding presents to a homemade shooting range and blasts them full of holes, after his new wife kicks him out. And having a brother who served in Iraq put Pierce in touch with the family members’ feelings. “My own mother would call crying about not knowing what's happening to her son,” she told Rotten Tomatoes.

Peirce also watched a lot of videos soldiers shot in Iraq, modeling the “home videos” that stud her movie on them. Faked amateur video footage can easily feel like a cliché in a mainstream movie, but she uses the device sparingly and well, cutting to the footage for just a few seconds here and there to provide context to the soldiers’ lives in the U.S.

She and her cinematographer, the great Chris Menges, also capture some powerful images in the “present-day” shots. When Brandon visits Rico at a military hospital, the first thing you notice is how badly he is hurt, with two limbs truncated and half his face – including both eyes – half-melted by fire. Next you focus on his admirable good cheer and lack of self-pity.

Then his visitors leave and the camera stays on Rico as he gets back into bed, his blasted features settling into an expression of patient resignation that is, you sense, his new true face.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The 2008 Orphan Film Symposium: Preserving Our Cultural Past

When I first read about orphan films, in an email newsletter from Thom Powers, what caught my eye was not so much the orphans as their foster dad. Dan Streible was a good friend of mine in film school but we’d lost touch in recent years. He was teaching film history in South Carolina last I knew, but he’s in the city now, teaching in NYU’s cinema studies department – and he brought his orphan film symposium with him.

Orphans are neglected films, most of which have no copyright pending. That covers a tremendous amount of ground, of course, and that seems to be the point: Dan and his fellow “orphanistas” find and preserve newsreels, educational and propaganda films, home movies by gifted amateurs, personal movies too quirky or short to ever be shown commercially, and more. They love movies, but they're also working the same vein as the historians who archive old diaries, newspapers, and other documents of daily life: They’re studying shards from our cultural past.