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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bottle Shock

By Elise Nakhnikian

You know that famous hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night, the one where Clark Gable can’t get anyone to stop so Claudette Colbert takes over and gets them a ride right away?

That’s repeated in Bottle Shock, but instead of flashing a little leg, Sam (Rachael Taylor) flashes her tits. And that pretty well sums up this movie, which never reaches for a scalpel when there’s a samurai sword at hand.

“Based on a true story,” Bottle Shock is about how California wines won the respect of the wine snobs of the world. Back in 1976 – when, as the movie self-consciously reminds us, car tires still went flat, young people still wore their hair long, and casual sexism was rampant even in California – a panel of blue-ribbon French wine experts held a blind taste test between California and French wines. To the chagrin of the judges, the winning wines, both red and white, came from California.

The decision shocked the wine world. As Bottle Shock cowriter/director/editor/distributor Randall Miller puts it, in a typically overwritten director’s note, the test results “ignited the enological fire that burnt down the cronyistic forest that triggered the creative earthquake that upset the status quo and opened the world to new pioneers of viniculture and viticulture around the globe.”

There’s plenty of talk about the significance of the decision in the movie, too, but the shock of the title is missing, since the mechanical way the film cuts between two stories makes the victory feel more inevitable than astonishing.

The main storyline follows Jim Barrett (a puffy Bill Pullman), a prickly ex-lawyer turned winemaker in Napa Valley, and his golden-boy hippie son, Bo (Chris Pines), who works for his dad as a self-described “cellar rat.” Jim and Bo are constantly sparring, mostly about Bo’s lack of ambition but sometimes about Bill’s pessimism and pigheadedness. Just in case you didn’t pick up on the tension between the two, they periodically climb into a boxing ring and go few rounds.

We also meet Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), the English ex-pat who set up the taste test. We see him first in Paris, then touring Napa to find the right wines, and then back home in Paris to conduct the test. Rickman is slyly charming, as usual, as a steel-spined Englishman so snooty he can sneer even while drinking, but even he overplays here. Faced with a piece of KFC chicken or a chipful of guacamole, he acts like a kid being forced to eat spinach, barely able to choke down this barbarian American fare.

Spurrier’s sidekick is an American named Maurice (Dennis Farina), the owner of a neighboring business and apparently the only person ever to enter Spurrier’s wine shop. Maurice is on hand mostly for comic relief (Dennis Farina? As a wine lover?), but he also serves as the audience for some of the metaphor-clogged speeches Miller likes to write.

People in Bottle Shock are prone to proclamations like “great wine is a great art” and “from hardship comes enlightenment.” When they’re not spouting off, chances are good that they’re sniffing and sipping at a glass of wine and then making significant eye contact. Miller and his cowriters throw in funny bits to lighten things up, but the jokes are heavy-handed too. In one totally gratuitous scene, Spurrier praises the local wines to the owner of a Napa bar and she snaps: “What were you expecting to find? Thunderbird?” Yeah! take that, you France-loving British wine snob!

Mike Ozier’s sun-drenched cinematography makes life in the vineyards look appealing, but we learn surprisingly little about what goes into growing grapes or making wine. Then again, that’s probably just as well, since this script would have crammed all that information into another overstuffed monologue.

Miller seems to believe that anything worth saying once is worth saying twice or more. At the same time, most of the characters and relationships are seriously underdeveloped. We see a lot of Sam, the beautiful intern at Barrett’s Chateau Montelena, and of Gustavo (Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez), who works there with Bo. Rodriguez does good work as always, giving Gustavo a gravity and sense of purpose that make us care what happens to him. But his and Sam’s stories – not to mention the romantic triangle they sort of form with Bo – are so underdeveloped you wind up wondering why they’re included at all.

A few years ago, Sideways used its characters’ relationships with wine as a way into their relationships with each other and with themselves. Wine was sometimes a metaphor there too, but it was always a living thing, with a complicated story of its own.

Bottle Shock looks at everything and everybody as a symbol for something else. And that robs them of the specificity that might have made them fascinating.