Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Frozen River

By Elise Nakhnikian

Frozen River is the kind of movie that brings out the Goldilocks in viewers. Some find it too dark. Others think it sold out by giving its hapless characters an improbably happy ending. But for some of us, this gritty indie gets the balance between struggle and hope for the growing army of America’s working poor just right.

Kindness and comfort are in short supply for Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo). Her one indulgence is bubble baths, but she can’t take them in her cramped, rusty tub – and that’s the least of her worries. Her husband, a gambler, ran off with their savings a week before Christmas, leaving her to hold things together for 15-year old TJ (Charlie McDermott) and little Ricky (James Reilly), who’s only about five.

Without that money for the balloon payment, she’s going to lose not only the double-wide trailer of her dreams but the downpayment that was everything they had. She doesn’t even have Christmas presents for the boys, the TV is about to be repossessed, and her callow young boss at the Yankee Dollar store won’t up her part-time hours to full time.

While looking for her husband at a high-stakes bingo parlor run by the local Mohawk nation, she finds his car instead, and that leads her to Lila (Misty Upham), the young woman who stole the car. Both too desperate to give any ground, the two women strike a wary partnership, Ray Eddy agreeing to use her car to help Lila smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen Lawrence River from Canada.

As the two make the slow, scary drive across the ice, they gradually get to know each other. Depressed and defensive, Lila doesn’t give much away, but she does confess that she needs the cash to take care of her baby, who was taken from her by her mother-in-law after her husband’s car fell through the ice during a run.

The actresses’ eloquent eyes and body language, and cinematographer Reed Morano’s frequent close-ups, stripmine the emotions these women work so hard to bury. We also see how much they have in common, though we’re not sure they’ll get past their initial contempt and mistrust to see it themselves -- and, frankly, I found it a little hard to believe that they'd bond as tightly as they do in the end.

We also feel the dangers they face every time they make a run, from the treachery of the black ice and the bone-chilling cold to the menace of a sleazy strip joint manager who supplies some of their human cargo, who looks like Tom Waits on prednisone.

The movie touches on racial politics, showing us Lila’s resentment of white privilege and her refusal to live by white laws. In her view, since the Mohawk nation extends into the part of Canada where she picks up her cargo, the U.S. border she crosses is irrelevant. “This is free trade between nations,” she tells Ray Eddy.

But that border means everything to the illegal immigrants who stream across it. We don’t learn much about the people Lila and Ray Eddy smuggle in, but what we glimpse of their predicaments makes Lila’s and Ray Eddy’s lives look almost easy in comparison.

The bravest thing the movie does is highlight our lack of mercy for the working poor. Frozen River illustrates the struggle involved in trying to scrape together enough money to fulfill just one dream, when you’re stuck in the grinding cycle of poverty. Mercifully, it also shows the grit, ingenuity, and unquenchable hope that allows women like Ray Eddy and Lila to provide at least the basics for themselves and their children, without which with their lives – and this movie – would be unbearably grim.

This is the first feature for writer-director Courtney Hunt, but she’s no neophyte. Forty-four years old, she has a master’s degree in film from Columbia University, and she sold her 20-minute thesis film to PBS.

Frozen River also started life as a short film. Screened at the 2004 New York Film Festival, it got enough attention to allow Hunt to raise the money (well under a million dollars) for the feature. She wrote the short after learning about the women who drove across the frozen river to smuggle near her husband's family home on New York’s border with Canada. Over the next few years, she spent hours with some of the smugglers and other members of the Mohawk nation before deciding she knew enough to create a credible character and story.

Hunt’s own mother was married at 18 and divorced when Hunt was just three, raising her daughter alone. That’s probably why Hunt gets the details of Ray Eddy’s life so right, from searching the couch cushions for loose change when her kids need lunch money to asking for $2.74 worth of gas – and upping it to $7.74 when she finds a five she didn’t know she had.

The actors all look just right, too. Even Leo, a rawboned beauty who looks good even without makeup, is made to look wrung out, washed-out, and sometimes downright ordinary in her bad haircut and unglamorous clothes.

Leo, who created vivid supporting characters in Homicide: Life on the Street and little-seen indies like 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is mesmerizing in her long-overdue starring role in a feature. The work she and Upham do here proves that you don’t need to look like a Barbie doll to win a viewer’s heart.

The House Bunny

By Elise Nakhnikian

Maybe I’m as hopelessly optimistic as Shelley, the eternal innocent whose expulsion from the Eden of the Playboy Mansion sets the story in motion, but I actually had high hopes for The House Bunny.

Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith have written some nice screenplays, and this sounded a lot like Legally Blond, which is one of their best. Like that highly satisfying girl-power revenge fantasy, The House Bunny is about a hot little blond, perky but shallow, who proves there’s more to her than meets the eye. And, just as Reese Witherspoon was perfect as the steel magnolia of Blond, Anna Faris was an inspired choice to play Bunny’s comically clueless, sexy-sweet, solid-gold-hearted heroine.

The opener is funny enough, as Shelley sunnily narrates the fractured “fairy tale” story of her blighted youth, but things quickly turn creepy when we cut to the present and watch her frolic about the Mansion, like a lamb that’s never heard of shish kebab.

I know we live in a post-feminist Suicide Girls/Mary Gaitskill/Diablo Cody era of empowered sex workers, but, please, Hugh Hefner as a daddy figure? I think (though it’s a little hard to be sure) that the filmmakers see Shelley’s love of the Playboy Mansion as a delusion she needs to grow out of, but must we keep flashing back to Hef as he mopes about in his pjs, mourning the loss of his perky little Shelley? Guess it’s hard out there for a pimp.

After her exile from the Mansion (a devious plot cooked up by a mean-girl rival, of course, since Hef would never do anything to hurt one of his girls), Shelley finds herself homeless and penniless, dumped even by her cat. But she soon stumbles onto Zeta Alpha Zeta, a sorority in need of a live-in house mother – and an IV infusion of fabulosity.

Zeta is about to lose its house because its members, a six-pack of assorted losers, can’t attract any guys – and therefore can’t get new pledges. So Shelley, who is to guys what flypaper is to flies, signs on as house mother, promising to teach the girls how to attract the 30 pledges they need to stay open.

Faris works as hard to sell the movie as Shelley does to lure pledges. You can’t help but like the sunny goofball, but even Faris can’t turn the collection of punch lines and pratfalls that is Shelley into a coherent character. Her fractured English can be funny (she thinks a brothel is a place where they make soup), but it’s more cringe-inducing than comic when she thanks people for calling her “vapid,” assuming that it’s a compliment. And how could this Mansion-forged hot chick forget everything she knows about seduction the minute she goes on a date?

The other actresses have even less to work with. Each of the Zetas has one distinguishing trait that’s exaggerated way past the point of humor – though Emma Stone’s Natalie has some endearingly funny moments, especially when she starts working up a head of enthusiasm about some ludicrously dorky idea.

Directed by Fred Wolf, a long-time sketch writer for Saturday Night Live, The House Bunny plays like a series of skits, prone to skittering off on tangents and losing its internal logic. As fractured and senseless as the mangled amalgamation of fairy tales Shelley runs through in her opening narration, it combines bits of other classic tales at random, from Cinderella to Animal House.

Or maybe it’s more like a series of music videos, since all those scenes of girls primping and partying and getting guys and supposedly finding themselves tend to be scored (and underscored) by songs that talk about getting guys and having fun and finding yourself. The songs are awfully familiar, too. With heavy-rotation numbers like When I Grow Up, I Know What Boys Like, Girlfriend, and New Soul dotting the soundtrack, you start to feel like you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. Worse yet, you wish you were, since that would be a lot less annoying than sitting through this.

By the time we get to the makeover montage, it’s redundant: This whole movie is essentially a makeover montage. Shelley and the women of Zeta try on new personas like little girls changing outfits on their Barbies, urging each other to “be yourself, only different.” For a moment – and it literally lasts for just about a moment – the Zetas even turn into what they have hated for all these years, rejecting the pledges they’ve attracted for the shallowest of reasons.

Meanwhile, the camera leers at Faris, practically peering up her skirt at one point, and there’s a positively icky scene of the girls dancing with nursing home residents to show how philanthropic they are. This is also the kind of movie where all bystanders freeze in their tracks to watch when one of the characters does something in public, whether it’s making a fool of yourself at a restaurant or shedding a body brace to emerge as (surprise!) a smokin’ hot babe.

If a good comedy lifts your spirits, a movie like The House Bunny weighs them down. Pretty vapid, girls.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

By Elise Nakhnikian

In his latest movie, Woody Allen does for Barcelona what he used to do for New York. Watching beautiful young people explore a beautiful old city, you’re not so much watching a couple of tourists as becoming one yourself. While Vicky (Rebecca Hall), Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), and their lovers are falling for idealized versions of one another, we’re falling in love with an idealized vision of the city where they live.

Vicky and Cristina are gorgeous girls on the cusp of adulthood who are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky is a responsible young woman, in Spain to do research for a master’s thesis on Catalan culture, but her best friend, Cristina, is adrift. Cristina knows more about what she doesn’t want than what she does, but she’s sure she wants authenticity, art, and adventure.

She finds all three in Juan Antonio Gonzalez (Javier Bardem), a gifted painter and a romantic who’s determined to live life to the fullest. Juan Antonio is the kind of guy who not only invites you to the perfect country getaway for the weekend but flies you there himself. And did I mention he’s played by Javier Bardem? The moment Bardem swivels that exquisite profile to clap those soulful eyes on our girls, we know they’re goners, though it takes Vicky a while to realize that none of her carefully laid plans can protect her – not even her imminent wedding.

Juan Antonio’s serial seductions of the two and the feelings that awakens in them – not to mention the complications that swirl up whenever his tempestuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) shows up – makes for a satisfying highbrow soap. Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t deep, but it’s not shallow either. The narration keeps it moving briskly, hopping from one high to another. Its wit, creamy cinematography, and frequent emotional peaks keep things engaging, but there’s a kind of wistfulness underlying it all.

As always, Allen has cast his movie brilliantly. Bardem and Cruz are magnificent, both separately and together. Their on-again, off-again, occasionally homicidal marriage functions best when they set up a ménage a trois with Cristina. In their role as the “anything goes” couple, Juan Antonio and Cristina sometimes take things too far, but Bardem and Cruz make the pair not just plausible but loveable, showing us the outsized emotions and sense of honor that prevent them from playing by the rules most of us live by.

Rebecca Hall was a revelation to me, though I admired her in The Wide Sargasso Sea and found her magician’s wife very sympathetic in The Prestige. Maybe it’s just the close-ups Allen and director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe lavish on their actors, but her sensitive rendering of a proud young woman whose defense are crumbling feels like a career-changing performance.

Chris Messina makes you feel for the earnest bore of a boyfriend Vicky is forever talking to her on her cell, who seems decent, devoted, and crashingly dull.

Even Johannson fits her role. She still reads her lines as if she were reading lines, but she’s less wooden than usual, and her residual stiffness could be interpreted as a sign of Cristina’s much-discussed lack of self-confidence. Besides, though I don’t find her almost boneless brand of beauty particularly attractive, I’m obviously in the minority there. Her pillowy lips certainly captivate Allen, who lingers on shots of her face when Cristina makes love, though he cuts to everyone else either just before or after the act.

Johannson starred in Allen’s last two movies (Match Point and Scoop), and while they weren’t nearly as good as this one, they shared a focus on younger characters and their concerns that has rejuvenated his work. His aging neurotics, who had overstayed their welcome a bit, now people the edges of his stories rather than sitting at their centers. Rather than dwell on the angst and frustrations of people who’ve long since settled into a routine, he’s looking at the lifelong consequences of choices we make while we’re young. And, while he’s still prone to pairing very young women with older men, the age difference is not so extreme in Vicky Cristina Barcelona – and the arrangement seems less creepy because we see it from the women’s point of view. In fact, Vicky Cristina is a little like Manhattan as it might have been experienced by the Mariel Hemingway character.

But Allen’s age, and his own well-publicized rollercoaster of a romantic life, give this story a perspective no twenty-something could have. While Allen gives both practical Vicky and romantic Cristina their due, he makes it clear that neither is traveling a sure road to fulfillment.

The last shot is of the two friends as they walk through the airport on their way back to the United States. In what may be a conscious homage to The Graduate, what starts out as a traditional-seeming wrap-up soon takes on an unsettling feel as the camera lingers on their impassive faces. Grab the good things in life while you can, Allen seems to be saying. Pleasure is fleeting; only pain endures.