Monday, November 24, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

By Elise Nakhnikian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

By Elise Nakhnikian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yes, they would.