Monday, July 28, 2008

Step Brothers

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Genre films essentially ask the audience: ‘Do you still want to believe this?’” wrote film scholar Leo Braudy. “Popularity is the audience answering, ‘Yes.’ Changes in genres occur when the audience says, ‘That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.’”

That “something” may involve parody, stripping a genre back down to its bare essentials, or taking it to an extreme. Think of what’s been happening to horror movies lately, from the affectionate satire of the Scream series to the retro feel of all those zombie movies – including new installments from old master George Romero – to sadistic gorefests like the Saw and Hostel series. Or look at Step Brothers, which both exaggerates and parodies its genre.

Step Brothers is the latest in a long line of American comedies that celebrate arrested adolescence. The heroes of these Peter Pan comedies– and they’re always heroes, not heroines – are youngish men who refuse to grow up. Sure, sometimes they see the light at the end and promise to become responsible adults, but that’s about as convincing as those Hayes Code endings where “bad girls” and criminals paid for their crimes. After they’ve knocked off Jimmy Cagney or sent Barbara Stanwyck to prison, you’re not left thinking about the tacked-on takedown. What sticks is the gutsy rebel’s stardust and spunk.

In Peter Pan movies, our heroes rebel by refusing to grow up. That refusal is seen as a sign of integrity, and they’re richly rewarded for it, winning improbably hot chicks, maintaining airtight friendships, and shutting out the competition in the ultimate American sport: the pursuit of happiness. Audiences show them a lot of love too: Forbes magazine’s 2008 list of the 10 best-paid male actors of the previous year included four – Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler – who specialize in Peter Pan roles.

That run of movies has only lasted for five years or so but, thanks to the ever-shortening evolutionary cycle of American pop culture, we’re already ready for something more complicated. And the makers of Step Brothers – who include producer Judd Apatow, the Midas of the Peter Pan genre, and director/cowriter Adam McKay, director of the very funny Talladega Nights – intend to oblige.

The “kids” in Step Brothers – Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) – aren’t just young adults trying to cling to adolescence; they’re solidly middle-aged. At 39 and 40, with receding hairlines and softening stomachs, their impulsiveness, impracticality, dependence on their parents and fierce attachment childish things isn’t just laughable; it’s ludicrous.

These two don’t act like teenagers; they act like grade school kids – totally clueless grade school kids with overactive libidos. And, unlike most of the man-children in Peter Pan movies, whose innocence is paired with a softhearted sweetness, these guys aren’t even likeable, at least not at first: Brennan is a mewling mama’s boy, and Dale is a swaggering parody of manhood who has, as his fed-up father points out, a hair-trigger temper and an utterly unearned sense of entitlement.

The other characters are drawn with a very broad brush. The women, who are typically treated with the awed, somewhat awkward respect accorded one’s first love in Peter Pan movies, are pushed so far into the background this time that they’re barely visible. They’re almost entirely irrelevant too -- except for Brennan’s indispensable mother, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), the endlessly loving, resignedly tolerant, unthreateningly sexy mother of every boy’s dreams.

Dale and Brennan meet when Nancy marries Dale’s father, Robert (a nicely acerbic Richard Jenkins). Both sons are appalled at the prospect of sharing the parents they’ve been mooching off for all these years, so they engage in an instant sibling-rivalry battle but wind up “best friends for life.”

The filmmakers keep winking at us, to let us know they know we know how ridiculous it all is, but they’re clearly rooting for the “boys” to stay boys – and I’ll be damned if they didn’t bring even me around, and men being boys is not my favorite brand of comedy. Reilly and Ferrell are just too much fun to watch, particularly after they bond with each other and drop the sulking.

Just the way Reilly walks, with a stiff-legged imitation of a macho strut, made me laugh. And when he and Ferrell get going, reigniting the spark they lit as another dumb-buddy pair in Talladega Nights, they come up with wonderfully goofy stuff, like when an awestruck Dale tells Brennan his singing voice is “like a combination of Fergie and Jesus.”

Some of the jokes fall flat, like the noncompliant guide dog that pops up every so often for no apparent reason, but for every bit that fizzles there’s one that pops. Ferrell and Reilly are great at physical comedy, like a bit involving a cobbled-together bunk bed and their flailing fights. And they’re just as good at verbal silliness, like their grandiose plans to start “a huge multinational corporation.” Their job interviews are funny too, though chances are you’ve already seen the best parts in the trailer.

But what makes this movie endearing rather than annoying is the sheer intensity with which they bound around like overripe eight-year-olds. “Can you imagine how cool this would be if we got this when we were 12?” Brennan asks Dale as they try his night-vision goggles.

“Even better,” Dale says, “we get it when we’re 40!”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tell No One

By Elise Nakhnikian

The vertigo you get from watching footage shot with a shaky handheld camera is such a cliché that it literally makes me feel a little sick. But Tell No One, a beautifully executed old-fashioned murder mystery, rejuvenates even that tired convention.

An everyday hero caught in a Hitchcockian maze mined with deadly traps, Alex Beck (François Cluzet) is relentlessly focused on solving the mystery of his beloved wife’s death – and clearing himself of the murder rap someone is trying to pin on him. A man of deeply felt but closely held emotions, he doesn’t have a moment to waste on self-pity or panic. So when the camera starts to shake during two or three moments of particularly high stress, it’s not just a gimmick: It’s a highly effective way of delivering a jolt of the emotion he’s working so hard to suppress.

That’s typical of the intelligence and artistry that forged this gem of a thriller. It’s also a reminder of something that’s true of all movies, but especially genre films: What matters is not so much what story you tell as how you tell it.

Tell No One opens as Alex relaxes after a booze-soaked dinner with his wife, Margot; his sister, Anne, and Anne’s partner, Hélène. The grown-ups talk and laugh; Hélène rolls a joint; Alex plays with Hélène and Anne’s baby; Margot watches him with a little half-smile. Director, co-screenwriter and co-cinematographer Guillaume Canet says he told the actors to improvise because they were having trouble with the lines. Whatever he did, it worked, doing enough in one brief scene to make us feel Alex’s loss, later that night, when Margot is killed at the lake where they have swum together since childhood.

Flash forward to eight years later. Two bodies have been found at the lake, so the case is reopened – along with a number of long-buried questions. The cops, who had suspected Alex of having killed his wife before pinning the murder on a serial killer, get suspicious all over again. Meanwhile, he begins to believe that she’s still alive but hiding, though he doesn’t know where or why.

Canet is best known in his native France as an actor, though his first feature as a director, My Idol (2002), was nominated for two Césars. He says he was attracted to Tell No One, a novel by Newark native Harlan Coben, because “It contained many strong characters, which was perfect for me because I have a particular weakness: each time I meet an actor or actress I like, I want to work with them.”

And boy, does he ever work with them. Cluzet, who’s on screen for practically the entire movie, is a revelation, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, though a few years older. A regular guy (Alex is a pediatrician) with regular flaws (his temper can be downright scary), he proves capable of near-heroic ingenuity and toughness without ever seeming superhuman. The fact that Alex sometimes falls down only ups the ante when he’s on the run.

One heart-pounding chase conducted entirely on foot, in which he threads himself between speeding cars on a freeway, is the best I’ve seen all year, partly because it’s so well edited but also because it feels so real that the risks really count.

Marie-Josée Croze’s Margot has a slightly haunted look that makes her feel a bit absent even when she’s onscreen, yet her presence imbues the movie even when she’s not in it. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a strong, unusually loose performance as Hélène, and Jean Rochefort is magisterially icy as Gilbert Neuville, a multimillionaire whose name keeps surfacing (Canet plays his sociopathic son).

Also mesmerizing are vivid minor characters like Alex’s tightly wound, hotshot lawyer, played by Nathalie Baye, and the female mercenary (this is a movie full of interesting and unconventional female characters) who tortures and kills with deadly, near-silent efficiency. When this pain-generating machine is shot point blank, she just walks away and we watch with dread, half-convinced she could survive even a bullet to the heart.

The story was originally set in New York City, but it transposes surprisingly well to Paris – though it does seem a bit odd that Margot’s death is attributed to a serial killer. The Bronx of the book becomes a hardscrabble banlieue in the movie, where Alex holes up with a grateful patient named Bruno, and the tour we get of Paris, from the high-society perch of Neuville’s horse shows to the seedy back alleys of Bruno’s neighborhood, adds to the movie’s appeal.

Despite all the characters and the constantly mutating plot, we never get lost, in part because so much is conveyed without words. Funny moments relieve the tension and artfully planted red herrings add texture and suspense while the fast-flowing plot keeps your nerves humming at a pleasurable level of dread. And somewhat miraculously, especially since there isn’t a moment of tiresome exposition, every loose end is tied up – after one final twist just before the end credits.

They don’t make suspense thrillers any better than this. In fact, if you could just lop off that saccharine (but mercifully short-lived) coda at the end, this might just be a perfect movie.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

By Elise Nakhnikian

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m in no way part of the Hellboy demographic. In fact, I never even knew the big lunk existed until I saw the humongous line for Hellboy at the 2004 South by Southwest film festival. So when I say that I only liked director Guillermo del Toro’s Big Red One, that doesn’t mean you won’t love it if you’re a fan of the first one and/or the comic book series.

What finally drew me to Hellboy was my admiration for del Toro’s two tales of the Spanish civil war: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, and I found a lot of similarities between the four. All are beautifully shot and meticulously art-directed yet sometimes hard to watch, showing sympathetic characters in mortal danger or excruciating pain. All share an open-hearted embrace of humanity that leaves you buoyant with hope. They all contain creepy creatures from some supernatural netherworld who cross the barrier into contemporary time and space (in Hellboy II, the battleground is the streets of present-day Manhattan and Brooklyn). And fighting those creatures – or working with them – is a hero or heroine brave enough to look horror straight in the eyes, even if those eyes are embedded in its wings or the tips of its fingers.

Which brings us to Hellboy. There are plenty of superheroes whose greatest battles are with their own demons, but only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a demon. Summoned from Hell by the Nazis in 1944 to destroy Earth, he was saved by an expert in paranormal phenomena who could see that he was “just a boy” and raised him as such. Now a red-blooded (and red-skinned) American guy, he lives in the basement of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a secret agency disguised as a waste management plant and stashed safely out of the limelight in Trenton.

Hellboy’s main companions are his girlfriend, Liz (a wooden Selma Blair), who struggles to channel her humiliating habit of bursting into flames when she’s angry, and his best friend, Abe. Abe,who’s played by the elegant Doug Jones, a del Toro favorite who played both Pan and the albino wraith with eyes in its fingertips in Pan’s Labyrinth, is a fish-man who spends most of his time in a tank.

Liz is human and can pass for “normal” when she isn’t on fire, but that option’s not open to Hellboy, with his beet-red skin, sawed-off horns, huge stone hand, and Schwarzenegger-squared physique. So he doesn’t get out much – except when the bureau calls on him to kick some supernatural tail, which he does with grim relish.

Hellboy is a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling, cannon-toting, authority-touting bad boy, the Dirty Harry of the netherworld, but he’s a little more well-rounded than most other movie hard guys. The self-mocking, smart-ass humor that runs through the Hellboy movies like coolant through a radiator lets us see that pose as a mask rather than taking it at face value. We know what a geeky, needy, sheltered kid Hellboy used to be, and we see the childlike insecurity and hunger for approval that fuel him still. And so, when he poses for the news cameras after beating down yet another set of monsters, the heroic half-sneer thing he does is kind of funny – and endearing.

It’s endearing mostly because the crowds don’t love Hellboy: in fact, most people mock or revile him. Coming on the heels of Iron Man, the story of an American arms dealer trying to undo the harm he has done in the world, and Hancock, another story about a superhero who creates a lot of collateral damage and is generally hated or mocked, it’s enough to make you wonder: Could our superhero movies be telling us something about America’s image in the rest of the world?

Del Toro has worked with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro on nearly all his films, and it’s easy to see why. The underworlds these two create together are densely textured, lived-in-looking realms, their velvety blacks shot through with shafts of light that illuminate murky yet detailed depths.

But the art direction is weaker than in other del Toro movies. While there are plenty of clever visual effects and memorable monsters, the special effects aren’t always all that special. A troll market has the synthetically busy, lifeless feel of a too-fussily designed CGI scene, for instance, and the head of an obsequious chamberlain (also played by Jones) looks like a papier mache bag that’s short a few coats of paste. The soundtrack leans too much on ominous mood music and expository pop songs – though Hellboy and Abe’s off-key duet to a Barry Manilow song is sweet. And a lot of what happened just felt too familiar to me, with echoes from some other movies – particularly Men in Black and Lord of the Rings – ringing loudly enough to interfere with my enjoyment.

But the main thing that kept me from surrendering to this movie was that I never believed Hellboy could get seriously hurt, let alone die. It’s not enough to keep hearing about what’s at stake in a movie like this: you have to really feel it.

Without that, epic battles just play like championship wrestling matches.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Babel and The Edge of Heaven

By Elise Nakhnikian

The Edge of Heaven is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year—and if that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t; it’s been a good year. The gracefully interwoven stories of three sets of people covers a lot of emotional ground as it shuttles between Turkey and Germany. You learn so much about its six main characters—three parents and their adult children—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, ultimately uplifting story about the power of old-fashioned virtues like kindness, foregiveness, and love.

It’s also amazingly similar to Babel, at least on paper. Both are cautionary fables for a globalized world, following several sets of people from distant cultures who intersect with one another in unpredictable, life-altering ways. Violence and death disrupt both stories—there’s even an accidental shooting in both of a woman by a young boy. Political disagreements quickly escalate to accusations of terrorism. Everyday people suffer, struggling with political corruption and repression in their own lands and xenophobia and alienation abroad. Lapses in communication cause crises, and so does Western imperialism.

Both movies are also about a sometimes fatal failure to communicate, but in both there are more good people than bad wherever you go, and when good people from different cultures connect, they generally manage to reduce the walls between them to rubble.

So why does the sadness-tinged optimism of Edge of Heaven stay with me like a benediction, while Babel’s portentous gloom dissipated as quickly as an early-morning mist? What makes Edge the kind of movie where you can imagine all the main characters’ lives continuing after the credits roll, while in Babel you can never quite forget that you’re watching what Jon Lovitz’s smoking-jacketed ham used to call “THESpians — ACTing”? And why did Babel get so much more attention — so many more awards, so much more press, and, most of all, so much more screen time — in the U.S.?

The things that made me love Edge are probably the same ones that made it teeter on the knife edge of the U.S. distribution network. For instance:

No huge international stars
If you're making a movie about how global politics affect regular people, you might want to go easy on the big international movie stars. I don't mean great actors who are beloved in their own countries and among film buffs, like Babel's Adriana Barraza or Edge's Hanna Schygulla, both of them fairly bursting with sad-eyed, full-hearted soul. I'm talking stars so big they can't just disappear into a role any more even if they want to—and let's face it, most of them don't.

This seems pretty obvious to me, but then I'm not a producer, and I'm sure casting Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a married couple from the U.S. whose Moroccan vacation goes horribly wrong didn't hurt Babel when it came time to raise money or get booked into theaters. Yet it's the cast of Edge of Heaven that gets under your skin—people like Baki Davrak as Nejat, a Turkish-German professor, and Tuncel Kurtiz as his life-loving father Ali, whose natural empathy is tragically overcome by his threatened machismo.

No melodrama
Sure, melodrama tugs at our heartstrings, but realistic, human-scale drama can play them like Itzak Perlman. Judging by how rarely it's done, I'm guessing that mimicking the random encounters and seismic emotional shifts of an average day is one of the hardest things you can do in a movie, but done right it's utterly engrossing, and Edge of Heaven does it right. The only time I came up for air while watching it was when the main characters' paths crossed two or three times too often, drawing attention to a thicket of Dickensian coincidences.

But Babel kept distracting me, trying to dazzle me with its Important Movie moves. Like the way every main character has one big conflict, which you learn about as soon as you meet them. ("Why can't we just relax? Why are you so stressed?" an annoyed Pitt asks a sullen Blanchett in their first scene together. Looking at him accusingly, her eyes brimming over, she says: "You don't think I tried?" Ooo-kay, folks; I think we got it.) No subtext or indirection here; everyone just blurts out whatever they're thinking. Maybe that's why the story of the deaf Japanese girl was my favorite part of Babel: While Rinko Kikuchi's Chieko is morose and inarticulate, her lively friend's broad smile and easy giggle is like the release valve on a hot air balloon.

A little mystery is a good thing
While everything in Babel is spelled out in capital letters, like the captions in a Barbara Kruger photo, and all the big events are foreshadowed, it sometimes takes a while to figure out what's going on in Edge. That can be a little disorienting—you don't know what the opening scene is about until it's replayed at the end, by which time the context of the rest of the movie gives it resonance to burn—but you always wind up learning what you need to know. Meanwhile, trying to figure it out helps keep you on your toes, and makes the movie feel that much more like life.

You have to know your characters inside out
It might have helped if Babel had only covered three stories instead of four, like Edge, but that probably wouldn't have made much difference. Its characters are too flat, lacking the complexities and contradictions of real life—and of Edge. There are also lots of wordless montage sequences in Babel, which I see as a sign that screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and co-creator/director Alejandro González Iñárritu just didn't know their characters well enough to let them talk very much, aside from those expository speeches.

Avoid the National Geo close-ups
Babel is big on lingering on picturesquely winkled faces. This just makes people seem more foreign and "other," more set dressing than autonomous beings.

Go easy on the portentous music
The gloomily plunk-plunking strings and eerie keyboards that play behind virtually every scene set in Morocco set the mood a tad too insistently in Babel, while Edge uses its sad Turkish music with typical restraint and sensitivity, providing emotional release rather than constantly yakking about how you should be feeling.

Use silence judiciously
Those montages Babel keeps hurling our way may be wordless, but they never feel quiet, as one clichéd image tumbles after another onto the screen. In contrast, several key scenes in Edge are played out purely visually, and they are among the most haunting in the movie.

In one bracketed pair of scenes, a coffin holding one of the main characters is taken on or off an airplane, the first one going from Germany to Turkey and the second heading in the opposite direction. And in the last scene of the movie, Nejat sits on a beach on Turkey's Black Sea coast and waits for his father to come in from fishing as the camera sits patiently behind him. We can look on too, absorbing his measured excitement and soaking in the calm beauty of the scene. It may be silent, but it's breathtakingly eloquent, giving us space to contemplate the journey he has made and to wonder what his future may hold.

Written for The House Next Door

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

If only we Americans were as good at running things in real life as we can be at making movies. We could just put the people at Pixar in charge of the nation and sit back, as carefree as the obese former Earthlings who endlessly orbit their trash-strewn planet in WALL-E, socked into their mobile easy chairs with their built-in video screens and giant sippy cups while an army of robots attend to their every need….

Okay, bad idea. But it was pure genius on Disney’s part to put the Pixar lunatics in charge of their asylum when they bought out the smaller, far nimbler, and infinitely more creative studio.

Pixar isn’t perfect – Cars felt familiar to the point of banality – but at their best, its animators are as intelligently inventive as Max Fleischer and as optimistically all-American as Chuck Jones, creating parallel worlds that distort some part of our own just enough so we can see it clearly.

This time around, their target is our relentless trashing of our own environment, and the machine culture that keeps making us more sedentary and less capable. The movie starts several hundred years in the future, in a city that looks like Manhattan except that towers of compacted trash have sprouted up between the skyscrapers.

Those towers were presumably built by WALL-E, a stalwart little robot whose purpose is to collect and compact trash (his name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-Class). And so he does, every day – even though, as we eventually find out, the humans left the planet centuries before, after rendering it uninhabitable.

Orbiting in a giant space station, people have steadily devolved, achieving a state of infantilized, comfort-sucking uselessness. They’ve even changed physically, becoming slug-like ur-couch potatoes, with neckless torsoes, soft bones, and attenuated limbs.

But the humans are just the sideshow. This is WALL-E’s story, and since he’s a romantic it is, at heart, a love story.

It’s a sweet one, too, with its earnest, unabashedly smitten hero and its glossy, initially impenetrable heroine. By the time Eva, WALL-E’s robot love, is unceremoniously dumped on his turf by a space probe, we’ve spent more than half an hour just watching him go through his daily routine, and we’re as solidly in his corner as Angelo Dundee.

WALL-E, who was based in part on Buster Keaton, is curious and sweet, the kind of non-materialistic dreamer who will toss out a diamond ring and keep the box it came in. Alone except for a companionably clicking cockroach pal, whose indestructibility is a running (but not overdone) joke, WALL-E seems lonely only when he bunks down at the end of the day. The metal container he’s made into a home is cozy enough, but there’s not much to do there, other than add a new treasure to his trove of reclaimed trash. (Bringing home a plastic spork, he hesitates over where to put it: With the spoons? No… With the forks? No… Spoons? Forks? Spoons? Forks?)

His other favorite way to unwind is by watching a battered video of Hello Dolly, from which the hopeless romantic learns to yearn for a soulmate who seems fated never to arrive – until, one day, she does.

WALL-E’s love, Eva, is a fearsome thing, a blue-eyed, platinum blond-skinned Amazon. A sort of cross between an egg and a bird of prey, she’s prone to blowing things up when she’s angry, and at first she seems likelier to incinerate him than to fall for him. But his devotion eventually wins her over. As they explore his blighted city to the tune of La Vie en Rose or dance an impromptu pas de deux in the peaceful beauty of outer space, they flow together like Rogers and Astaire.

The story gets a bit bogged down on the space station, dwelling a little too long in what my husband called the Titanic portion of the movie, in which the two run about the spaceship, trying to rescue one another or escape while calling each other’s names (“WALL-E!” “Eva!” “WALL-E!” “Eva!”)

But the pleasure of watching these beautifully detailed, thoroughly engaging, soulful characters in this delicately spun cautionary fable outlasts any minor quibbles about the plot. The dust and grime of WALL-E’s sepia-toned city, with its motion-detector-activated Buy ‘n Large superstore billboards still flickering to life when WALL-E passes, feel eerily realistic, as do the antiseptic brightness and order of Eva’s space station.

Pixar’s masterful simulated camerawork and lighting also help bring the story to life, making this feel so much like a live-action movie that you subconsciously buy into the characters more than you probably would if they were set against the flatly lit, static backgrounds of an old-school Disney cartoon.

It’s all very well to see Earth turning green again at the end, but the real satisfaction comes from witnessing WALL-E and Eva’s reunion. Here’s hoping they live happily ever after.