Monday, December 28, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

By Elise Nakhnikian

Do you want to see a movie set in America’s Great Depression that makes the era feel as real, and the characters’ feelings as urgent, as your own heartbeat? Rent Public Enemies.

Me and Orson Welles is the kind of movie that’s shot in golden-brown sepia from the first frame to the last, lest we forget for a moment that our story takes place in The Past. It’s the kind of script in which a young woman gazing at a Grecian urn in a museum recites Ode on a Grecian Urn aloud – and then tells our hero what she’s quoting, just in case anyone missed the reference. Even the sets and hair and makeup are too carefully engineered, from the shiny cars lining the streets to the impeccably clothed extras crossing self-consciously in front of the camera.

Based on a novel of the same name, Me and Orson Welles is set in New York City in 1937. Still a wunderkind, Welles (Christian McKay) hasn’t yet made the leap to directing movies, but he’s already a star on radio. And he’s about to open the Mercury Theater, where he will burnish his reputation as a theatrical director and actor.

The movie ushers us backstage at the Mercury with Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), an enterprising local high school student who skips school to hang out at the Mercury. Good-looking and confident, he soon catches Welles’ eye and lands a minor role in the theater’s inaugural performance.

Me and Orson Welles is most alive when we’re inside the theater, watching the company bicker, rehearse, and then perform Welles’ inventive version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s interesting to see how Welles exploited, abused, and motivated his company, and often fun to watch the actors. Ben Chaplin is both laughable and touching as a high-strung, highly insecure actor. Eddie Marsan earns our respect as the long-suffering John Houseman, who managed the Mercury for the mercurial Welles. And every so often the whole ensemble clicks, making the cast’s neuroses, narcissism, and catty competition entertainingly believable.

But a few good scenes can’t carry a movie. My Favorite Year took another story of a high-maintenance theatrical genius as seen through the eyes of a starstruck young man and made it touching and funny, in part by playing the contrast between the dashing star and his young sidekick for laughs (who could forget Alan Swann’s dinner with Benjy’s family?) Me and Orson Welles falls into the same trap as Julie and Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, treating a callow sidekick as if he or she were as interesting as a savvy star, or more so.

Richard gets far more screen time than Welles, though the man is far more interesting than the boy can even dream of being. Outsized and outrageous, Welles attracts us in spite of ourselves, like iron filings to a magnet. McKay is too old for the part (he’s in his mid 30s, while Welles was just 21 in 1937), but he nails the actor-director’s resonant voice, penchant for bombast, and endless capacity to amuse himself, often at the expense of others. Most importantly, we see enough of the play he creates to know he’s the real thing, a genuine theatrical genius. That doesn’t excuse his boorish behavior, but it does make you wonder whether he, like the magazine editor in Prada, might have developed a monstrous carapace to protect a fragile creative ego.

Richard is just a kid, his ambitions too inchoate to be compelling. Welles tells him he’s “a God-created actor,” the kind you can’t help watching, but Efron doesn't earn that billing. The scenes of Richard at home or at school are uninteresting and unenlightening, telling us nothing we didn’t already know. And what a waste of potential to focus on his bland flirtation with the theater’s ambitious office manager, Sonja (Claire Danes) when we could be watching a world-class womanizer like Welles home in on his prey.

I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected so much more. Welles’ director, Richard Linklater, has a gift for making pungent slice-of-life movies – Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset – whose characters seem to have wandered into his frame from the street.

I like Linklater’s genre movies too – how could you not like School of Rock? – but what impresses me most is how he can take movie that are all talk, like Waking Life and the bookends of Sunrise and Sunset, and make them shimmer with intensity. Like few other living American directors, Linklater can capture the dorm-room thrill of smart conversation.

A talky love letter to great theater and the characters who make it should have been right up his alley, but somewhere between the conception and the execution, the blood got drained out of Me and Orson Welles. It comes to us DOA, a wax museum tableau shot through a tea-stained scrim.

Monday, December 21, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

“The legendary floating mountains of Pandora – heard of them?” a jealous colleague needles Jake (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. Matter of fact, I have, and if you’re at all interested in movies, I’m sure you have too. Thanks to Avatar’s $150 million marketing budget, we’d heard a lot about Pandora’s floating mountains – and its exotic flora, ferocious fauna, and New Age-y blue-skinned giants – long before the movie opened last weekend.

So does it live up to the hype? Yes and no.

Writer-director James Cameron’s movies always aim for maximum impact. First they immerse you in an extreme, often imaginary environment that feels as real as the floor beneath your feet, whether it’s postapocalyptic Earth (the Terminator movies), a deadly space station (Aliens), the depths of the ocean (Titanic) or outer space and the sea combined (The Abyss.) Then they pile on the shock and awe, with the help of state-of-the-art special effects.

In Avatar, most of our time is spent inside the world of the Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue humanoids who people the fictional planet Pandora. Thanks to Cameron’s immersive use of 3D and the elaborately realistic look of the computer-generated landscape and creatures, you truly feel like you’re inside that world, and it’s an enthralling place to be for a while, with plants that snap shut and collapse when they’re touched and huge, pterodactyl-like birds that let the Na’vi ride on their backs.

The thrill of immersion in a wide-screen virtual reality experience is all the reason I need to see Cameron’s movies. Sometimes it’s all I get, too. The Abyss got bogged down in ditsy pseudo-spiritualism and a tedious subplot about a troubled marriage, and Titanic was nearly swamped by cardboard characters, laughable dialogue, and poor pacing that made it feel way too long.

Avatar is close to three hours long, but except during a couple of fight scenes, the special effects were special enough to keep me afloat. And, though Cameron hasn’t gotten any better at dialogue, that didn’t bother me much here. After all, the characters were often speaking a foreign language they weren’t fluent in, as English-speaking humans spoke the Na’vi’s language or vice versa.

The humans, who have made Earth uninhabitable, have come to Pandora in search of unobtainium, a potent source of energy. Jake, who is there to help a small group of scientists who are studying the planet, explores the planet through his avatar, a beautiful body as tall and blue as any Na’vi’s.

A paraplegic in real life, Jake experiences his avatar body as a release from the prison of his actual one. Exploring the beautiful, deep-hued planet in his powerful new body is a thrill – for us as well as for him – especially since the Na’vi chief’s beautiful daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), is showing him the ropes. One of the tough-girl characters Cameron loves to create, Neytiri looks something like a cross between Angelina Jolie in Beowulf and Rebecca Romijn in X-Men, and she’s so fierce she hisses when she first encounters Jake. Not that there’s never any doubt that she’ll wind up succumbing to his alpha-male charms.

The predictability of Cameron’s plot didn’t bother me much this time – at least, not until the end. The whole thing plays like a fairy tale, so you expect happy endings you can see coming a light year away. But some of his archetypes felt played-out and tiresome, and the characters were all mighty thin.

Cameron tries to play it both ways here, preaching nonviolence and ecological balance while lingering lovingly on gigantic choppers and guns and people clanking around in those metal exosuits combining armor with weaponry that Cameron introduced back in 1986 in Aliens. And in the end -- yawn -- the only way our Na’vi heroes can banish the human intruders is by beating them in a bloody battle.

To create the avatars and the Na’vi, Cameron covered his cast with motion sensors that converted their movements and expressions to digital form as they acted out the parts. Then a team of computer animators converted those streams of data into wasp-waisted, elegantly near-naked bipeds with tails, long braids, and cerulean skin. The process, which was used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, creates characters that don’t exist yet look completely alive, their body language and expressions borrowed from the actors who played them.

Sam Worthington, who radiates an old-fashioned combination of modesty and machismo, makes Jake believable as a grunt with hidden resources who can rise to almost any occasion when challenged. And it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver (as Jake’s no-nonsense scientist boss) and Michelle Rodriguez (as a soldier with a conscience) nailing two more of Cameron’s tough-chick roles.

But much as I enjoyed watching the avatars and the Na’vi, with their huge, expressive eyes and lithe bodies, I can’t say I really cared about any of them. Just as Star Wars and Tron were eye-popping in their day despite pretty minimal plots, Avatar is significant only for the way it bumps computer-generated imagery up to a whole new level.

What will really be cool is when someone uses that technology to create a story that feels as engaging as it looks.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Films of 2009

Elise Nakhnikian

As always in recent years, I've heard a lot of buzz lately about how movies are going down the tubes. And as usual I don't agree, since I always find it hard to choose just 10 favorites from the films that first hit U.S. theaters this year. But I do wonder about American movies. Once again, only four of the movies on my year-end top 10 list are from the USA. The last time there were more than that was 2005.

I don't exactly feel deprived. Thanks to Netflix, movies on demand, film festivals, and the rich array always on tap in Manhattan theaters, there are always more movies I want to see than there is time to see them. But I worry about smart, gifted American filmmakers who have something to say. Is it getting so hard to finance anything other than a wannabe blockbuster that they're giving up and doing something easier? If so, that's everyone's loss, even if the online options jostling for our attention keep us from noticing right away.

Speaking of that list, I couldn’t narrow mine down to 10 this year, but we all know that number is arbitrary anyhow. So here are my 11 favorite movies of 2009, in no particular order.

The Maid. Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the live-in maid for an upper-middle-class Chilean family for her entire adult life. Despite all the talk about how they love one another, she’s really not part of their family – or of her own, after living apart for more than two decades. In fact, she has no intimate relationships at all. But her little room is the only home she knows, so when the mistress of the house announces that she’ll be hiring someone to “help” her, Raquel starts acting out in increasingly bizarre ways, until a new maid comes to the house and changes everything.

Writer-director Sebastián Silva lays out the nuances of the rickety relationships between Raquel and the family with sensitivity and sly humor. Saavedra is a revelation, using her thin lips and bruised-looking eyes to convey both the pain of the emotions roiling around in Raquel’s aching head and her grim attempts to quash them, and the rest of the cast is excellent too. This story feels so real you sometimes forget you’re not watching it through a security camera.

Goodbye, Solo. It’s a pleasure to spend two hours in the company of Goodbye Solo’s title character (played by the excellent Souleymane Sy Savane), a sunny Senegalese cab driver whose insistence on connecting with the people around him amounts to a form of grace. We meet him as he’s homing in on William (Red West), a cantankerous codger who would prefer to be left alone. But Solo just keeps planting himself in William’s way, armed with a smile and a story, winning his grudging friendship while trying to solve the mystery behind this toxically lonely man’s depression.

Based on a cabbie Ramin Bahrani met in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Goodbye, Solo is the director’s third feature about immigrants struggling to survive in inhospitable American cities, and they just keep getting better. (The others were 2005’s Man Push Cart and 2007’s Chop Shop.) All three mix professional and non-professional actors and real locations to place a scripted story within an interesting subculture, which Bahrani films with a sensitivity that establishes him as one of America’s best living directors.

Bright Star. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story places us smack in the world of poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the young woman he loved. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the springtime and summer.

Writer-director Jane Campion revives the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations are as compelling as our own – if not more so. Keats is a born Romantic, full of feeling and fun, and Fanny is Campion’s most self-assured heroine yet, self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. And that pairing of lionhearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.

Gomorrah. Gomorrah is a whole new kind of mafia movie. Compared to the goombahs of Gomorrah, even Tony Soprano looks tony, and the Godfather series look like a Cosa Nostra recruitment poster, with its movie-star Mafioso.

Writer Roberto Saviano, a native of Naples, based the screenplay on his own novel, which was in turn based on extensive research into the camorra, the criminal underground that maintains a chokehold on Naples and the surrounding countryside. Saviano exposes the hidden workings of the system by showing how it affects the lives of nearly everybody in its orbit, even infiltrating parts of the global economy.

Director Matteo Garrone, a painter as well as a filmmaker, artfully translates the novel’s grim intensity, creating an absorbing world as visceral as a kick in the gut and as claustrophobic as the tanning booths that cocoon a group of paunchy gangsters in the opening scene. There’s nothing noble or melancholy about the gangsters in Gomorrah; they’re just ugly brutes who cripple the world they rule.

The White Ribbon. While Gomorrah aims for reportorial realism, The White Ribbon is intentionally unreliable. Writer-director Michael Haneke refuses to wrap up his films too neatly on principle, often leaving key questions unanswered to prod us into doing our own thinking about what we’ve just seen. In The White Ribbon, he undermines his own narrative from the start by having the narrator inform us that he can’t trust his own memory and never did know all the facts.

At first, all seems well in this creamily photographed black-and-white tale of a farming community in Protestant northern Germany shortly before WWI. But little by little, Haneke reveals the authoritarian brutality so casually wielded by the sternly self-righteous men in charge. One father canes his children for imagined sins. Another has sex with his teenage daughter. A blithely entitled baron forces the sharecroppers to put up with daily humiliations and unsafe conditions and makes a virtual prisoner of his wife.

Meanwhile, seemingly random acts of cruelty or violence are occurring. Since we never learn who is doing them, they come to seem like an inevitable reaction to rampant oppression. Where your thoughts lead you from there – to the Nazi regime that the kids in this movie will vote in as adults? To someplace closer to home? – is up to you.

Where the Wild Things Are. Though it’s cowritten by Dave Eggers and closely based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are is a classic Spike Jonze Joint: intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted, and as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.

The opening and closing scenes economically convey the anger and angst that causes Max (Max Record) to run away and the love that pulls him back. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly poignant, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, frustration, and unconditional love. And when he runs away, it’s to an exhilaratingly primal island peopled by wild things that are awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Played by actors in giant puppet suits and voiced by a stellar cast, the wild things are vulnerable, tender, and occasionally terrifying.

Wild Things is refreshingly free of the pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals that gum up most children’s movies. There are things to be learned -- Max learns how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, and the wild things learn not to blindly follow a king. But those lessons emerge organically from a plot as impulsive and focused on fun as a child at play.

The Hurt Locker and In the Loop. Of all the movies I’ve seen so far about what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and how we got there – and I’ve seen a lot – these two may be my favorites. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a visceral, clear-eyed look at the pull exerted by the war on Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline junkie who disarms bombs in Iraq. Bigelow knows how to maximize the suspense inherent in a violent confrontation or an armed bomb, but she’s also good at showing how men reveal themselves even when they’re trying to hide. We get to know the taciturn James and the other men in his squad well enough to share the hurt when the war warps their lives.

In the Loop, a mordantly funny British satire based on a BBC-TV series, is a fictionalized tale of how the Bush Administration engineered the occupation of Iraq, as seen through the eyes of Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a British politician pulled into a “debate” on the topic by an American State Department official (a tart Mimi Kennedy). Too inept to know he’s being used, Foster happily bumbles into a world in which nearly everyone – himself included – is motivated by self-interest, more interested in salvaging or furthering their careers than in deciding whether their country should go to war. The barbs fly by like darts as the Brits use their best remaining weapon, erudite sarcasm, to bully and manipulate each other. It’s all very funny, yet it feels alarmingly plausible – office politics with a capital P.

A Serious Man. A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last. His life could easily be played as a tragedy, but codirectors Joel and Ethan Coen – who also cowrote, coproduced and coedited, as usual – are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper.

The story takes place in a Jewish suburb of Minnesota in the late 1960s or early ‘70s, which the Coens recreate with their usual attention to detail. You can almost smell the pot the kids are smoking and feel the chilly disinterest of the aggressively unattractive secretaries. (Remember secretaries?) But there’s always just enough comic exaggeration to nudge us into the realm of fable and make us laugh. At their best, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness while celebrating human nature, and A Serious Man is one of their best.

Anvil! The story of Anvil. It took me a few minutes to get past the similarities to This Is Spinal Tap and stop smirking at this oddly named documentary about a balding heavy metal band trying to regain its past glory, but once I did I was hooked. Anvil is really about drummer Robb Reiner (for real) and lead singer/songwriter Steve "Lips" Kudlow, and it turns out these two are very likeable guys.

Good friends and good family men who grew up together in Toronto, Reiner and Kudlow started jamming together at age 14, made it big for a bit at the start of the heavy metal movement in the ‘80s, and quickly lapsed back into obscurity. But they never stopped playing – or hoping to become professional musicians. Their journey, as documented by director Sacha Gervasi, raises some interesting questions for a culture that constantly tells us to follow our dreams while making most dreams almost impossible to achieve. Are these guys admirable for sticking with the music they love or self-indulgent for risking their families’ financial security? How you answer may tell you more about yourself than about Reiner and Kudlow.

Summer Hours. The plot of Summer Hours doesn’t sound very interesting: The adult children of an haute-bourgeois French clan converge on their lovely old family home to bury their mother and settle her estate. But this elegiac work of art captures the ebb and flow of family life across generations, the decommissioning of an aging empire’s ruling class, and how globalization is weakening ancient cultures.

Some of the best naturalistic actors working today, including Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier, make us believe in the jokes and shared memories that keep these siblings together, the differences in temperament that still grate, and the interests and obligations – including working abroad— that pull them apart. On one level, as the movie makes clear, the estate is just so much stuff. But it is part of the roots that have nurtured the family for generations, and they will be weaker without it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Road

By Elise Nakhnikian

With collapsing economies and intractable wars eroding our sense of security, no wonder there are so many movies about the apocalypse these days. 2012, Wall-E, I Am Legend, and all those zombie movies (to name just a few) offer a little catharsis. First they wipe out whole civilizations, then they show how a few hardy survivors cope with the consequences.

I can’t get enough of this stuff, the trashier the better: I’ll see anything with a zombie or a tidal wave in it. I can’t resist serious apocalypse movies either, but they’re more of a risk. A self-aware splatterfest like Zombieland aims to let a little air out of your sense of dread, but it wants to entertain you too. Earnest apocalypse movies just want to pump up the dread, challenging you to question your own assumptions or behavior.

Apocalypse stories don’t come much more serious than The Road, a bleak, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy specializes in Old-Testament-style stories about old-fashioned good guys – taciturn hombres who know how to do things like forage for food or evade a homicidal killer – pitted against implacably evil foes in perilous landscapes.

As its title indicates, The Road is a road trip stripped down to its skivvies. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – identified only as “the man” and “the boy” – are making their way through a dead landscape a decade or so after an unspecified disaster. Virtually all animal and plant life has been decimated. The few human survivors are either refugees like the man and the boy, travelling on their own or in very small groups, or near-feral cannibals roving the countryside in bands.

As the Coen Brothers did in their 2007 adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, director John Hillcoat sticks like Velcro to the novel’s storyline, rarely embroidering the author’s spare but eloquent dialogue. That makes for an unusually austere apocalypse film: What interests McCarthy is what makes us human and what we will do to survive, so we don’t get the usual perverse thrill of seeing the world get destroyed.

We feel no glory or glee when people die, either: When someone pulls out a weapon in The Road, we feel the full and terrible weight of that act. But most of all, we feel the tenderness and ferocity with which the father protects his boy, nurturing his compassion, teaching him how to survive on his own, and trying to shield him from the worst of the horrors that surround them.

The trashed-looking sets and the grimly beautiful cinematography make a valiant attempt to communicate the melancholic beauty of McCarthy’s prose, but they don’t quite succeed. Maybe it’s just too much to ask any actual location to match the power of the impressions unleashed by a passage like: “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

Visual clichés, like the golden sunlight that bathes the man’s flashbacks or the handsome Pendleton blanket he finds in time for a climactic scene, occasionally make the movie feel more Hollywood than holocaust. It doesn’t help that the main actors are so beautiful, either, giving their suffering the art-directed feel of Garbo’s death throes in Camille.

Mortensen pours his formidable soul into his role, suffusing the father with tenderness and vulnerability while looking entirely capable of extracting an arrowhead from his own calf. He can’t help it if starvation just makes him look better – he worked hard to get grungy for the role – but his picturesquely gaunt cheekbones and fashionably scruffy beard are as distractingly Hollywood as Smit-McPhee’s limpid blue eyes and improbably well-nourished cheeks. (In contrast, Robert Duvall and Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire’s Omar, look convincingly down and out in their standout cameos.)

Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penall also soften the book’s adamantine spine by giving us less of the man’s thoughts and fears and by toning down the boy’s terror and amping up his faith in human nature. They conjure up golden images of the man’s wife far too often, diminishing his grief for a lost world by roping it too tightly to that single cause. And where McCarthy follows his far from neatly resolved happy “ending” with a mournful final paragraph, the filmmakers end with happy talk, sold hard.

The movie was beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and occasionally creepy, but it won’t haunt my dreams the way the book still does.

Does that come as something of a relief? Yeah, I guess so. But it’s more of a disappointment.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

By Elise Nakhnikian

The camera in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans keeps dropping down to slink along at eye level, often tracking some reptile – a snake, a gator, a pair of iguanas – as they take in the scene. Director Werner Herzog has a habit of inserting references to the malevolence of nature into his movies, but that’s not all he’s doing this time around. Those gator-cam shots help give Bad Lieutenant a trippy, Hunter Thompson-ish vibe. And when Herzog uses the same trick to film Nicholas Cage in the title role, you see his Terence McDonagh as another dangerous predator prowling the half-deserted streets of post-Katrina New Orleans.

We need that reminder. McDonagh, who starts off as a police lieutenant and winds up a captain, is such a charismatic kook – and so good at his job, except when he’s awful – that you sometimes start to forget what a nasty piece of work he can be. He’s both good cop and bad cop, single-mindedly and inventively tracking down the people responsible for killing a family in their home while raiding the evidence room for drugs he can inhale.

Drugs are McDonagh’s Achilles’ heel, though you get the feeling he’d be pretty messed up even without them. Cagey, reckless, and unpredictable, he’s prone to impulsive actions and violent extremes, so it doesn’t help that he’s strung out on Vicodin, which he supplements with coke, crack, and heroin.

Still, he’s good company. Cage gives McDonagh a manic energy that makes him hard to resist, whether he’s erupting in hysterical giggles over a drug-induced hallucination, roughing up a john who beat up his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), or nodding out on a couch with his father’s slovenly girlfriend (Jennifer Coolidge, proving that she can play it straight).

Just to give you an idea of how crazy Cage plays it, Val Kilmer is his partner and Brad Dourif is his bookie, and both actors feel tame next to Cage. His McDonagh even looks odd, between the hairline receded so far it looks like a yarmulke and the back injury that makes him lumber like Frankenstein’s monster.

Screenwriter William Finkelstein, who has written a lot of TV cop shows, leavens the gonzo stuff with plenty of realism. McDonagh plants evidence to convict the killer when he can’t nail him through legitimate channels, and the scenes where he and his partner interrogate people feel unsettlingly authentic. So does the bone-dry sense of humor that makes him snicker at a gangster’s lame street name or compliment someone he arrests for his family values. “You may be hiding in the armoire, but your child knows you’re here,” he tells him.

The movie shares a title -- or part of one—with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 New York City-based Bad Lieutenant, whose producers envisioned this as a very loose sequel. But aside from the fact that both are about police detectives who are addicted to Vicodin for back pain and who do some very good police work along with some very bad things, the two movies don’t have much in common. And that’s a good thing, since Harvey Keitel’s dour performance and the humorless, self-serious tone of the original made it a drag.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may be a little uneven – an oddly happy near-ending followed by an inscrutable actual ending left me a unsatisfied – but it’s brimming with juice and always entertaining.

Faces are often half-hidden in the smudged darkness, shadows pooling in their eye sockets, to augment the sense that you never know what someone’s likely to do next – not to mention the murkiness of McDonagh’s morals. But there’s nothing indistinct about this movie. Herzog stuffs the frame with fascinating visuals and sound bites, from a throwaway shot of a dwarf crossing a bleak-looking street to the slot machines in Biloxi that constantly nag passersby to “Insert more coins!”

And just wait till you hear what McDonagh has to say to a dignified elderly woman and her even more dignified nursing assistant in an upscale assisted living facility. That scene alone was enough to earn him his title, if you ask me.

Monday, November 23, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

“What do I mean if I say the author portrays her protagonist’s situation as unrelenting?” asks Miss Rain (Paula Patton), the Christlike teacher who saves Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), the teenage Job at the center of Precious.

Oh, Miz Rain! Miz Rain? Over here, Miz Rain! That one is just too easy.

Precious is based on Push, a well-received novel published in 1996. The story is set in 1987, and the costumes and sets invoke the period deftly, but the boom boxes and shoulder pads aren’t the only things that feel retro.

Precious is a product of the identity politics that was just finding its voice in the ‘80s, often shouting to be sure it was heard. Despite the extravagant splashes of color director Lee Daniels uses to illuminate Precious’ fantasies, this simplistic tale of victims and perpetrators, good guys and bad, darkness and light is essentially a black-and-white movie.

Darkness and light play out in terms of electrical wattage: Precious’ oppressive home is a cave, while blinding floods of light welcome her into Miss Rain’s classroom and into the fantasies she escapes into when reality gets too grim. They’re also at war in Precious’ painful awareness of her dark skin, which she experiences as a curse.

No doubt light skin plays better than dark in America -- and did even more so two decades ago -- but her melanin level is the least of Precious’s problems. Morbidly obese and functionally illiterate, she is 16 years old and pregnant with her second child by a father who seems to come home only to rape her. Her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, is being raised by her grandmother, and she rarely sees her either. So she basically lives alone with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a perpetually erupting volcano of physical and emotional abuse.

Daniels would like us to think that this is gritty realism. In fact, it’s more like a ghetto version of one of those post-WWII weepies in which an iron-jawed woman – often played by Joan Crawford or Bette Davis – endures a double-barrelled assault of hell and humiliation for 90 minutes, emerging with her dignity undented.

But those movies were aimed at earning the empathy of the women in the audience, who saw the protagonists as an idealized version of themselves. Crawford and her sisters suffered for the housewives of America, their travails and eventual triumphs making their fans feel better about their own unsung sacrifices.

Precious is more of an emotional safari, an invitation to the audience (mostly, I suspect, comfortably middle- and upper-middle-class white folks) to experience the self-flattering thrill of sympathizing with an exotic Other from the comfort of their padded seats. Precious’ troubles are piled on so relentlessly that the movie starts to feel like a parody of itself. Around the time I learned that, on top of everything else, her father had given her HIV, I half expected to see one of the Wayans brothers pop up in drag to whale on her with a rolling pin.

Sidibe, who has never acted in a movie before, is getting a lot of praise for her performance. She deserves it. She tells us how shut down Precious is by showing us nothing but her impassive face, determined gait, and tendency to turn on her tormentors and whomp them until they leave her alone. Precious doesn’t always act sympathetically – she’s mean to a young neighbor who just wants to be her friend – but Sidibe always has our sympathy, letting us see the pain behind the bad behavior. She also shows us glimpses of a deeply buried sense of play.

But the actress is limited by her script. The running voiceover, presumably taken from the journal Precious writes for Miss Rain’s class, gives us some insight into her thoughts, but they’re pretty crude – mostly, she just describes things we’ve already seen or voices the naïve fantasies that keep her hope alive. Precious morphs from an illiterate to an apparently gifted writer in Miss Rain’s class, winning a literary award along the way, which presumably means she also learned to think. That sounds like a thrilling journey. Too bad we never feel her mind expanding.

The movie’s also tainted by an air of self-righteousness. The novel’s author, Sapphire, wrote it after a stint as a teacher in Harlem. The beautiful, sensitive, just tough-enough Miss Rain, who always knows just what to do or say, is all but sanctified here, a good guy with a capital G.

So see Precious if it sounds appealing, but don’t go because you think you should. In spite of Oprah’s seal of approval, there’s no enlightenment to be found in this relentless parade of pain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Elise Nakhnikian

“We all are [different] – especially him,” Mr. Fox’s wife tells their son in Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson’s latest feature and his first to be shot in stop-motion animation. “But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”

Defiant yet defensive, slyly funny, and delivered by an actor at the top of her game (in this case, the great Meryl Streep), that’s a classic Anderson line. It also sums up the spirit that animates his world.

Like J.D. Salinger, Anderson always tells stories about sensitive, intelligent misfits with an adolescent combination of diffidence and arrogance. Think the sad-sack brothers and their truth-seeking mother in The Darjeeling Limited, or Rushmore’s Max Fisher and the faux family he finds at boarding school.

These are the kinds of people you either love or hate. I’ve swung both ways. I liked Steve Zissou’s spacey charm in The Life Aquatic, but I wanted to wipe the eyeliner off Gwyneth Paltrow’s face and tell her to get a job in The Royal Tenenbaums. And, though I enjoyed the ride for a while in Darjeeling, I eventually got bored by all the whining.

But even when his characters annoy me, there’s a lot to enjoy in Anderson’s movies. Like his deadpan humor, or the way he plays with color, like a kid with a new 64-piece box of Crayolas. Or the sights and sounds he creates, which can be as surreal and compelling as a recurring dream. And there’s the air of melancholy underlying it all, which bubbles up to the surface every so often to produce a moment of poetic pathos.

I can’t say I loved Mr. Fox – it’s a little too cool for me to get that fiercely attached – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first of Anderson’s movies that I’ve liked without reservation, maybe partly because it’s the first one he based on a story by somebody else – a less-known work by classic children’s book author Roald Dahl.

Dahl’s story was a lot shorter than the one told here. Anderson and his cowriter, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding) are very faithful to the tone and plot of the original, but they flesh it out with new characters and action scenes and a much more complicated relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Anderson also slipped in one of his patented tormented misfits, replacing the Foxes’ four nondescript kids with one runty malcontent, Ash (muttered by Jason Schwartzman).

But Ash isn’t the main character this time; he’s a comically miserable supporting character. This is the swashbuckling story of a jaunty, resourceful hero, the fantastic Mr. Fox (nicely voiced by George Clooney in cocky/suave, Ocean’s Eleven mode).

After Mr. Fox enrages a trio of farmers by stealing their poultry, they vow to take revenge. But just as they’re about to extinguish him, his family, and all the animals unlucky enough to live on the same hillside, Mr. Fox organizes a clever counter-offensive.

It’s a simple enough story, but it’s nicely told, with plenty of that wry, borderline absurdist Anderson humor (“Beagles love blueberries,” Mr. Fox explains as he dopes a guard dog with a berry laced with knockout drugs). It’s well paced, too, holding our interest by staying at just 87 minutes and cutting judiciously between domestic drama, action, and light nonsense, like Mr. Fox’s encounters with a drunken rat (Willem Dafoe).

Stop motion – that painstakingly handmade technique, in which puppets are moved through miniature sets, their every motion broken down into pieces and shot frame by frame – is a natural fit for Anderson. His strongly imagined but relatively one-dimensional characters turn out to make very good cartoon animals. After all, who could be slyer than a fox? The DIY look of stop-motion rhymes with his trendily retro sensibility, and building every inch of every set from scratch lets him indulge his famously obsessive penchant for controlling environments and salting backgrounds with entertaining details. What's more, the visual freedom of animation sets him free to create lovely bits, like the loopily frenetic sequences in which the animals tunnel through the earth at supersonic speeds.

Anderson augmented the tactile feel of his laboriously constructed sets by filming his actors in action, rather than shutting them up in sound booths to lay down tracks in isolation and then combining them in post-production, the way most animated movies do. When the characters were outdoors, the actors were shot out of doors, and when there's a group scene or a dialogue, the actors involved got together to shoot the scene.

The excellent cast, which includes Michael Gambon and Bill Murray, does wonderful voice work, individually and together. Their sometimes overlapping dialogue and the ambient sounds captured along with their dialogue help the movie breathe, banishing the airless feel of so much computer-generated animation.

As a result, the Foxes' world feels surprisingly real, even though every millimeter is made by hand and it doesn't look the least bit "realistic."

And there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

By Elise Nakhnikian

There are already a lot of documentaries and a handful of fiction films about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – everything from the artful angst of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure to the labored metaphors of John Cusack’s War Inc. and the formulaic melodrama of Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah. It’s enough to constitute a whole sub-genre of war movie – or antiwar movie.

The latest addition to the list, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is not a great movie by a long shot, but I liked it better than most of the others. A lighthearted comedy with a few dark edges, it has a deadpan irreverence that makes it fun to watch, thumbing its nose like an eight-year-old at the casual cruelty, misplaced machismo, and flat-out absurdity of war.

It may not be quite fair to call this a U.S. occupation movie, since it aims at a broader target than our current military mishegoss. Part buddy/road movie and part antiwar satire, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows a naïve reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), as he uncovers a lightly fictionalized version of the First Earth Battalion. The Army created First Earth in 1979 to train soldiers to develop their paranormal abilities for use in warfare. Bob stumbles across one of the fictionalized battalion’s graduates, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), as he’s about to embark on some shadowy mission in Iraq, and Lyn reluctantly agrees to let Bob tag along.

Clooney plays Lyn in his best earnest/cocky mode, staring up through half-moon eyes as he hammers home some urgent point like a snake oil salesman who believes his own pitch. He’s supposed to be some kind of psychic genius, the battalion’s star recruit, but Peter Straughan’s screenplay delights in undercutting him. Lyn is constantly messing up simple tasks, like the bit you may have seen in the trailer where he crashes his car on the only rock for miles around by the side of a deserted desert road.

When we’re not watching the boys venture into Iraq, we’re seeing the story Lyn tells Bob about the New Earth Army acted out in flashbacks. Jeff Bridges is fun to watch as the battalion’s creator and original leader, Bill Django, a magnetic hippie who never met a New Age trend he didn’t like. But things drag a bit when his nemesis, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a promising recruit turned bad, takes over.

Based on a nonfiction book of the same title by Jon Ronson, the story ranges from a Vietnam flashback to Iraq during the first year of the U.S. occupation, nearly all of it played as broad farce. When someone picks up a gun in this movie, it looks more ludicrous than scary, especially when a carload of Blackwater-style American mercenaries turns an Iraqi street into a shooting gallery, starting an accidental battle with a matching clutch of soldiers-for-hire from another contracting firm.

Django’s soldiers looks pretty silly too, so it’s interesting to learn that they’re doing a lot of things the Army’s “psychic soldiers” have actually experimented with, like attempting to walk through walls and the bizarre exercise the movie is named for: trying to stare down goats and other animals until they drop dead.

The tone shifts abruptly sometimes, which doesn’t always work. When Bob and Lyn go home with an Iraqi citizen and see how his life has gotten shredded in the crossfire, the sobriety of their response feels right, but the amped-up goofiness of the feel-good ending, which felt like a non-ironic version of the ecstatic hippie dance at the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, tried too hard to convince me.

There’s also too much of Bob’s back story and the odd-couple bickering between him and Lyn. I suspect those parts of the movie felt tired even to the filmmakers, since they use gimmicks try to liven up some of that backstory (even staged as a pantomime narrated by his ubiquitous voice-over, I could have done without seeing Bob’s breakup with his wife), and some of Bob’s and Lyn’s squabbles sound canned.

But the movie bubbles back to life when it’s spoofing the military, regaining a deftly edited comic rhythm.

The overexposed, desaturated palette reminds me of Three Kings, another antiwar satire about Americans in the Middle East that also starred George Clooney. For all its stylized sequences and heist-movie drama, though, Three Kings was far darker and more realistic than this one. It was also much denser, a near-great film with emotional and moral heft.

This movie is in a whole different weight class than that one. Still, there’s an art to using a light touch when dealing with a heavy subject, and except for a few minor missteps, The Men Who Stare at Goats remains entertaining without being disrespectful or flat-out inane. Like the men of its title, it’s an odd duck – offbeat but kind of endearing.

Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paris and New York, I Love You

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ever since Méliès took his trip to the moon more than 100 years ago, there’s been a market for magic carpet movies – films whose main purpose is to transport us to a faraway place. But now that we’re well into the second century of the moving picture, it takes more than a few lightly sketched characters against a picturesque background to hold our interest.

Paris, a pleasant fictional travelogue now showing on the IFC In Theaters channel on cable TV, is the French version of a minor Woody Allen movie, with Paris standing in for Manhattan: A feast of luscious eye candy and finely calibrated performances, it goes down easy, though it doesn’t have much nutritional value.

Writer/director Cédric Klapisch and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne make the city look so good you don’t just want to live there; you want to roll around in it, like a horse in clover. The background keeps becoming the focal point, as rows of yellow-leafed trees or urban vistas viewed from on high upstage the low-key drama simmering in the foreground.

The filmmakers like to make the background pop by blurring it, using shallow depth of field to set their actors against impressionistic canvases of color and light, which are almost always brightened with a splash of red. That effect is particularly dazzling when they shoot the Eiffel Tower at night, the soft focus making its lights vibrate until it dances, like a living thing coated with diamonds.

Every now and then the drama in Paris heats up enough to distract us from the scenery, thanks to electrically alive performances by Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris. Duris plays Pierre, a dancer whose terminal heart condition has kept him virtually captive for the past few weeks. Holed up in his cosily charming Parisian apartment, he watches his neighbors and daydreams about their lives, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Binoche is Pierre’s sister Elise, who moves into his apartment to take care of him until he can have the surgery that will either cure or kill him.

His illness has turned Pierre into a walking Seize the Day billboard, but Duris gives him a gentle intensity that makes the cliché work, even as Pierre urges family and friends to relish the good fortune of not just being alive, but living in the City of Light. Besides, it’s such a pleasure to watch Binoche’s hesitant Elise let down her guard and unleash a tsunami of warmth and joie de vivre that you don’t want to quibble about what made it happen.

Klapisch wants to give us a panoramic view of Paris through his story as well as his lens, so he crams the script with intersecting stories. But these generally fizzle out before they ever really get started, leaving us emotionally stranded. Some characters are barely on screen long enough to register as individuals, like a would-be Parisian from Cameroon who dies trying to emigrate illegally. Others – like a professor who falls for a student young enough to be his granddaughter – play out their thinly developed stories long enough to wear out their welcome.

In the end, you don’t really care about anything but Pierre, Elise, and the idealized city they love – and you don’t know them well enough to care very deeply. But they make good company for a couple of hours, and sometimes that’s all you want from a movie.

New York, I Love You makes Paris look profound. Like Paris, it spins several intersecting narratives at once, but this time there’s no core story to hold our interest. Instead, about a dozen directors each tell a separate and equally unengaging squiblet.

It sounds like a gimmick – and it is. This is part of a planned series of similar films set in different cities. The first one was Paris, je t’aime, which had some genuinely engaging segments though it still failed to gel into a compelling whole. This one is about as compelling as one of those circus performers who keep a bunch of plates spinning at once.

So slight they register more as notions than as narratives, the stories are cut into pieces that are interspersed with each other or reflected in even shorter transitions, an superficial attempt to create synergy that just makes them seem all the more artificial.

Only rarely do we get the feel of a real New York moment, like when Chris Cooper, playing an American businessman, surprises a Chinese drycleaner and his customer by greeting them in Cantonese after they’ve used it to joke around behind his back. The writers and directors, who are almost all from somewhere else, tend to set their stories in iconic places (cabs, Central Park, Chinatown, more cabs, Coney Island, again with Central Park …) instead of exploring less familiar parts of the city. The views are mostly unimaginative too, and the interactions are generally stagey and unconvincing, whether Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are fighting cute as a long-married couple in Brighton Beach or Julie Christie is having an incomprehensible encounter with a crippled bellhop overplayed by Shia LaBoeuf.

New York, I Love You is a magic carpet movie with no magic. It wastes an almost criminal amount of talent, but the real shame is how it reduces the grit, grandeur, and greatness of New York to an insipid formula.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Serious Man

By Elise Nakhnikian

Six years ago, I wrote about what makes the Coen brothers some of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. Even their worst movies burn images into your brain forever, and their best are minor masterpieces.

I also wrote about how their perpetually bemused tone and the Olympian distance from which they view their characters (these guys love crane shots) can be a liability. Some of their smart movies about dumb people, like O Brother Where Art Thou or Blood Simple, feel coldly condescending, scoring points at the expense of their characters.

But I’m beginning to wonder if that snarkiness was a phase they’ve outgrown. It doesn’t seem to have tainted any of the six features and two shorts they’ve directed since 2000’s O Brother (I’m hedging because I didn’t see Ladykillers, but seeing as how Tom Hanks is the lead character, I’m guessing it’s a snark-free zone.) And there’s no hint of cattiness in their latest movie, which could be their best yet.

A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last.

Larry’s cylindrical, helmet-haired wife (Sari Lennick) is cheating on him. A student at the high school where he teaches is trying to bribe him for a better grade, and it looks like he won’t get the tenure he’s up for. His shiftless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has set up camp on his couch, and his teenage son and daughter barely notice, let alone care, what Larry is going through. Even the Columbia Record Club has him on the ropes, insisting that he pay for a membership he never ordered. And that’s just the first 15 minutes or so of the movie.

Larry’s life could easily be played as a tragedy, but the brothers (I am, of course, talking about Joel and Ethan Coen, who cowrote, codirected, coedited and coproduced this one, as they do nearly all of their movies) are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper than straight tragedy.

As always, the Coens have set their story in a particular place and time, which they and their crew bring to riotous life. This time we’re in a Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s or early ‘70s – and, within that, in the close-knit Jewish community that lives there. The world they create is so tangible you can almost smell the pot and feel the disdain of its officious, aggressively unattractive secretaries (remember secretaries?) But it’s just exaggerated enough to nudge Larry’s story into the realm of fable.

A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish tale about a dyybuk (an evil spirit that possesses a dead man’s body), which puts us into that supernatural/surrealistic realm and introduces the movie’s central theme: You can’t always take things – or people – at face value. Or, as Larry puts it: “Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.”

Part of Larry’s problem is that he’s caught on the cusp of a cultural revolution. His son is listening to Jefferson Airplane when he’s supposed to be studying Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, the sexy woman down the street sunbathes in the nude, and they’re both getting high on a daily basis. The filmmakers keep showing us messy unrest beneath apparently placid surfaces, like the pan from the outside of Larry’s son’s Hebrew school bus to the sheltered kids swearing heroically inside.

Judaism is the sea the Gopniks swim in, always part of the story but never the story itself. The Coens cast generally unknown actors to make it easier for us to see that world and the people who live there on their own terms.

The acting is universally excellent. I particularly loved Lennick, who has never been in a movie before and who is wonderfully loathsome as Larry’s self-deluded wife, and Fred Malamed, who looks like Francis Ford Coppola, acts like Dr. Phil, and is hilariously sanctimonious as her lover. Amy Landecker is mesmerizing and slightly ridiculous as the sunbathing neighbor who, when Larry finally gets up the nerve to pay her a visit, drawls: “Do you partake of the new freedoms?” And Kind is wonderfully repellent as Arthur, nearly activating your gag reflex when he turns his turtle-like back to the camera to drain an enormous sebaceous cyst.

They’re tough acts to follow, but Stuhlbarg never cedes center stage, coming up with as many ways to look bewildered or beleaguered as Burger King has to make it your way.

Like modern-day Molieres, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness and societal silliness while celebrating human nature. In A Serious Man, they’re served up a tasty slice of the American experience, toasted to a nutty golden brown.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

By Elise Nakhnikian

Spike Jonze’s origin story is legendary wherever hipster artists congregate. One of the first of a generation of filmmakers who got to Hollywood via music videos and ads, he started out as a skateboarder who made wildly inventive, no-budget skate videos of his friends.

He’s about to turn 40 this week, but he’s never lost his youthful energy, originality, or fearlessness, cranking stuff out so fast the Museum of Modern Art called its recent retrospective of his work “Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years.” (Yes, Spike can even get MOMA to loosen up.) And he’s equally at home in the art house (he directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and played a touching young grunt in Three Kings), at the multiplex (he produced the Jackass movies), and on the Internet (check out his free online broadcast channel,, or the YouTube videos where he plays a wannabe b-boy who rocks out in public places.)

Where the Wild Things Are, his adaptation and expansion of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, is about as mainstream as anything he’s done. But it’s still a Spike Jonze Joint, an intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted creation as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.

A natural collaborator, Jones attracts other people as gifted and original as he is. For Malkovich and Adaptation he paired up with Charlie Kaufman, probably the most interesting screenwriter working in Hollywood. For Wild Things he enlisted the help of another brilliant youngish writer, Dave Eggers. Eggers hadn’t written any screenplays when Jonze approached him (his first feature, Away We Go, was released during Wild Thing’s long gestation period), but Jonze believed he could nail this one – and so he did.

The screenplay starts and ends at home with Max (Max Record), showing us a deceptively simple series of scenes. This part of the story is new, but it echoes the book’s poetically spare use of words. Shot with a handheld camera that follows Max so closely you share every outsized emotion, it economically conveys the anger and angst that causes Max to run away from home. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly masterful, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, yearning, and unadulterated love.

Watching Max play with ferocious abandon, listen to a scary lecture in science class, or gaze up at his mother from the floor beneath her desk, we see a well-loved but lonely kid with a vivid imagination, stranded in a family where everyone else is either absent (his parents are divorced) or too busy to give him the attention he needs.

Cinematographer Lance Acord, who shot all of Jonze’s features and many of his music videos, gives Max’s home a warm tone, switching to cool greys, blues and blacks and a lot of underexposed, murky shadows after Max runs away to the island where the wild things are. The island scenes are shot on location in southern Australia, where the filmmakers found deserts, seas, cliffs, and forest – primal sites with the dreamlike intensity of the pictures in Sendak’s book.

The wild things also look amazingly like the book’s illustrations. The Jim Henson Company created the creatures, constructing giant puppet suits that look like the characters in the book. These are worn by actors whose movements make their body language surprisingly eloquent. Shot to look nearly ten feet tall (they’re actually more like seven), with enormous heads and sharp teeth, they’re terrifying at times, but they can also be tender or vulnerable.

Essentially huge children, they’re quick to make friends, prone to magical thinking and impulsive actions, and brimming over with feeling. In short, they’re the greatest playmates in the world for Max – except when they threaten to eat him.

Whatever their moods, they’re as believable as the dirt clods they heave at each other. Computer animation helps make their faces and eyes amazingly expressive. Watching the grief-ravaged face of Carol, the wild thing Max is closest to, as Max sails away moved me almost as much as seeing the look on Keener’s face when he showed up at home.

I loved this movie’s lack of pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals (Max does learn some important things about how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, but those lessons emerge organically). I also love the fact that it’s not tied down by the standard narrative arc that constricts most kids’ movies.

Wild Things has a rhythm all its own, but it’s easy to flow with it. Instead of obeying the dictates of screenwriting 101, it follows the logic of human emotion, leaping from one big feeling to the next just like a kid – or a wild thing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the best parts of Capitalism: A Love Story is the footage shot in a Chicago factory whose laid-off workers occupied it for several days last December. The workers filed out obediently when they were let go but then returned, barricading themselves inside to demand the vacation and severance pay that had been denied them.

Capitalism writer/director Michael Moore’s camera was the only one allowed inside the building, and it captures some inspirational moments as downtrodden workers stand up for themselves. We also hear from a quietly charismatic union organizer, who says the workers are starting to consider options – like running the plant themselves – that they never would have thought of before. There’s no telling where this new thinking will lead, she says, but questioning the status quo is a huge step in the right direction.

I think Moore wants this movie to spur audiences to take that same step. Capitalism is peppered with calls to the vast majority of Americans, urging us to rise up against the wealthiest 1% or so -- along with laments about how slow we are to wake up. Can't we see how the moneyed elite controls not just nearly all of our wealth but also the legislative and regulatory checks and balances that are supposed to keep the robber barons from stripping the rest of us down to our skivvies? Like Howard Beale, the mad prophet of Network, Moore wants us all to declare that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.

Moore doesn’t have any more ideas than Beale did about just what we should do, once we've awoken from our capitalism-induced coma. That doesn’t seem to bother him, though. Maybe he trusts us to figure it out.

As we all know, Moore has pretty much single-handedly invented an engaging form of cinema. I think of his movies as pop docs, with the "pop" standing for populist as well as popular.

Moore frames his pop docs as a personal quest to figure out something that’s been bugging him. That can seem annoyingly self-aggrandizing at times -- he puts more of himself in this one than he does of several subjects I wanted to hear more from -- but it's an effective way of hooking us in, eliciting some kind of emotion even if it's just irritation. And he always starts out with a good question. Bowling for Columbine wants to know what’s with all the guns in America. Sicko asks why we can’t we have a decent health care system, when so many other countries manage to. Roger and Me wonders how corporate executives can sleep at night when they make millions of dollars by laying off thousands of people. And Capitalism wants to know what it will take for America's poor and middle class majority to throw off an economic system that drives thousands more into desperate instability every day.

He may not be much on visuals – his films often look like YouTube videos – but Moore is a whiz with words, coming up with metaphors and phrases that memorably characterize or caricature a problem (In Capitalism, he calls Congress’s 2009 bailout of Wall Street “a financial coup d’etat.”) He knows the value of a strong anecdote, too, and he and his researchers always unearth some wrenching real-life stories.

Most of the people featured in Capitalism have lost their homes or their jobs to the recession brought on by the games Wall Street played with other people’s money. Moore outlines the financial shenanigans and dismantling of regulations that led to our economy's near-collapse, but he doesn't go into much depth. His aim is to launch a broad ideological -- and surprisingly religious -- attack on the organizing principles of capitalism, and to show its effects on working-class Americans.

As always, he keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming fast, in part by cramming his movie full of found footage that becomes wryly funny out of context. And he’s got plenty of glib gimmicks to entertain us, like showing up outside AIG with burlap bags “to get the money back for the American people.” But his thesis is so poorly defined that many of these bits, like a segment on the low salaries of regional airline pilots, feel random -- a splattering of BBs rather than a few well-aimed rifle shots.

I’m no great defender of capitalism, but Capitalism brings out the devil’s advocate in me. A sidebar on the so-called “dead peasant” life insurance policies that corporations often take out on their employees will enrage you, but what’s the culprit here: greed or capitalism? And is the lack of democracy within the workplace really a problem only in capitalist countries?

Moore’s nostalgia about the working-class paradise of his childhood undercuts his own argument, since the economic system that allowed his family to thrive was as capitalist as they come. Moore himself claims here that our economy was strong in the 1950s and ‘60s for a couple of reasons. First, so many of the world’s other industrial nations were still recovering from WWII that there wasn’t much competition for our manufactured goods. Second, a robust system of regulations and high taxes on the rich kept Wall Street in check and reduced the gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

So does that mean capitalism could work if we put the right regulations in place -- and found a way to deal with honest competition? Moore says no, but he never says why. “Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil,” he asserts in the voiceover that runs through the film. “You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people. And that something is called democracy.”

Hold on. Isn’t capitalism an economic system and democracy a political system? So how can you replace one with the other? I’m confused.

Moore maintains his near-religious faith in unions as the best hope of the working class. He also exhibits a touching belief in the power of democracy and populist politicians.

One of Capitalism’s heroes is Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who urges her constituents to become “squatters in your own homes” if someone tries to evict them. Banks, she says, can rarely locate the mortgage on the properties they’re repossessing, because the financial deals behind them are so convoluted. And they can’t prove they own the house unless they can show you that paper.

It’s a galvanizing insight -- and a rare piece of pragmatic advice in a movie that’s rich in anecdotes but poor at analysis.

I used to know an organizer for the International Socialist Organization who told me Sicko was a great catalyst for organizing people around the need for health care reform. I can see how Moore’s movies would be useful tools for the ISO, or any other political group with a clear-cut agenda, and maybe that’s what Moore is aiming for.

But I got pulled far enough into Capitalism to be frustrated when I couldn’t go further, and that’s not the first time one of his movies has left me feeling that way. Like a lot of other Americans, I think there's something seriously wrong with our economic system, but I don’t know what to do about it. That puts me square in the middle of the audience Moore seems to be trying to reach here, yet I left the theater feeling all fired up with no place to go.

In a Q&A with Moore on the movie’s press site, a young woman -- she gave her name, but I'm not sure I heard it right -- describes the excitement she felt when she first saw Roger and Me. “I wanted to do something to make the tragedy that I’d see on the screen better,” she says. “And that’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve seen one of your movies.” She can feel that same excitement spread through the audiences she watches with, she adds, yet it never seems to translate into effective action once the movie is over.

Then she asks the question I can’t stop thinking about: “What do you think the disconnect is between the excitement, the desire for change, that we all feel together as an audience when we watch the movie and the actual change happening? And what can we do to bridge that gap?”

The young woman says she wants to make movies like Moore's. I'd love to see her make one that tackles that question.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bright Star

Writer-director Jane Campion came up with the idea for Bright Star while sitting with “a ragtag group of horses I used to like to sit with and read,” she told the audience after a September 14 screening at the Director’s Guild Theater. When one of the horses delicately opened Campion’s bag with her hoof and sniffed it, Campion says: “I thought, that’s what I like, that kind of tenderness and gentleness. I wanted to make a story about that.”

Mission accomplished. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story is infused with a closely observed specificity that ushers us into the world of the great English Romantic poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and the woman he loved.

Campion’s screenplay animates the story of Keats and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a stylish and strongminded young woman. It begins in 1818, when Keats is 23 and Fanny just 16. Keats’ poetry has been mostly badly reviewed and brings in almost no money, so he lives in genteel poverty, dependent on the patronage of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider.) As a result, he can’t marry Fanny after they fall in love, since he is too honorable to marry a woman he cannot support. Instead, the two embark on a passionate, deeply tender, but sexless
affair, which lasts until Keats' death of consumption at age 25.

Like Keats' love poems, Bright Star is an intimate story that contains a whole world. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the spring and summer. The yellow-white sunlight, the wind rustling through the leaves, and the shock of nature’s beauty are near-hallucinogenic at times.

Campion makes you feel the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations feel as compelling as our own – if not more so.

To create that sense of intimacy, Campion spent most of the rehearsal time getting the actors to stop acting. “I really wanted to have a sense of just being from the actors,” she said at the screening. “Whenever people were relaxed and the work was coming from that place, that’s when it felt right.”

To help the actors get past their own neuroses to that state of grace, she talked to them about “Keats’s concept of negative capability – a capacity to stay with the mystery of life, without having to create any answers.”

Keats’ own poetry was one route to that mystery, but Campion knew that a movie about poetry would be a hard sell. “People are allergic to poetry, kind of,” she said. “And they don’t just dislike it; they’re really aggressive about it.” By weaving excerpts from Keats’ letters and poems and talk about poetry organically into the script (“poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery,” he tells Fanny), Campion makes poetry part of the action, using it to deepen the intensity of the characters’ emotions.

Another “important talisman” for the cast was Fanny’s much-younger sister, Toots. Edie Martin, the gravely graceful little sprite who plays her, doesn’t have many lines yet plays a significant role, attracting the camera like a magnet. Campion said the young actress “embodied that quality of delicacy, just naturally. From the start, she had what the others were striving for, and they saw it.”

And now and then, the camera seeks out the Brawne family’s cat, a pacific black-and-white beauty that is, like all cats, a master of the art of living in the moment.

Bright Star’s impassioned but unconsummated love affair is a switch from the eroticism of Campion movies like The Piano and In the Cut, but the film falls in line with Campion’s others in one important way: There's a strong, free-thinking woman at its center.

In her own day and for decades after her death, Fanny was painted as shallow and insincere, a selfish flirt incapable of matching Keats’ depth of feeling or appreciating his genius. More recently, she has often been put on a pedestal, idealized as a sort of human muse. Campion rescues her from both forms of erasure, creating her most self-assured heroine yet.

The Fanny imagined by Campion and embodied by Cornish is self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. Hollywood rarely gives us female leads with that kind of strength and solidity, and that’s a shame. Because it’s those traits that make Fanny a fit mate for a soulful poet, and that pairing of great-hearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.

Are you listening, Sandra Bullock?

Monday, September 21, 2009

An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the few unexamined aspects of the bureaucratic bungling that made such a disaster of Hurricane Katrina is what happened to the pets refugees were forced to leave behind. That’s the subject of An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!

Producer/director/narrator Tom McPhee went to New Orleans a few days after the storm to help. He wound up photographing rescued animals at a central holding area, as part of an effort to reunite pets with their owners. McPhee brought along a video camera too, and the footage he shot at the processing facility became part of An American Opera.

The greatest strength of this sometimes overwrought piece of citizen journalism is its often emotional immediacy. We see people rescuing dogs or breaking into houses to find them dead. We meet some of the volunteers who do the bulk of the rescuing, including a couple who came all the way from Canada. And then there are the animals.

Sad or scared, friendly or reserved, and almost always touchingly compliant, the dogs – the movie never gives us statistics on which species were rescued, but it looks as if nearly all of them were dogs— gaze into the lens and straight though to our hearts. Like their owners a few days before, they’re rounded up, processed, and herded onto planes, confused and alone in a strange new world.

The lack of a coherent plan makes it impossible to rescue all the animals people had to leave when they were evacuated. Volunteers provide much-needed help, but they also add to the confusion. That chaos is compounded – as it was for Katrina’s human victims – by fear, firearms, and a bureaucratic focus on controlling than on helping the victims. It’s chilling to hear the head of the Louisiana SPCA talk about the abandoned animals they’re “trapping.”

McPhee does a good job of retracing the infighting between officials and volunteers in the weeks after the storm, as differing aims and philosophies lead to friction and finger-pointing – not to mention the suffering and deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals.

He avoids showing that suffering in too-graphic detail, for the most part, though young children and the especially tenderhearted should probably steer clear of this movie. The hardest parts to watch involve two mass killings of dogs by law enforcement officers.

One of these stories is narrated by Christopher Acosta, an admirable young man who has clearly earned the right to his School of Hard Knocks T-shirt. Acosta rescued his own dogs, then commandeered boats to save scores of his neighbors before he was evacuated and forced to leave his own surviving dog behind. After all that, he returned to the school where his dog had been left with many others, only to find they'd all had been shot by the law enforcement officers in charge. His telling of that story, and McPhee’s footage of its aftermath, are powerfully matter-of-fact.

But the strength of those moments is diluted by the haphazard structure of this inchoate movie, which sometimes feels as chaotic as the situation it describes.

I kept wondering just what McPhee was trying to achieve. A challenge at the end indicates that he wants to mobilize people to action. But if so, what does he want us to do?

Does he just want us know what a great guy he is? Unfortunately, there’s enough self-promotion in here to beg that question – especially early on, when he keeps breaking into the story with his breathless voiceover to say things like: “If I ever had a time in my life to do something really important and unique and to help out, this was it.”

Or is he trying to use this story as a metaphor for something larger? In the first of several endings, McPhee dwells on the costumed dogs at a Barkus festival in New Orleans, which seems to be a kind of canine Mardi Gras. He says that event proved to him that the city would survive, but it’s never clear to me just what Barkus is or why he finds it so significant.

He also highlights a statement by a photographer who says you can measure a society by how it treats its animals. True enough, but the thing about Katrina is, you don’t need to show what happened to its animals to get to our failure as a society. All you need to do is look at how the people were treated.

The abandonment and botched rescue of Louisiana’s animals after Katrina was, as one of the movie’s subjects puts it, “a disaster within a disaster.” A shame and a tragedy on its own terms, it doesn’t need to be compared to anything else. That’s why what stays with you after watching An American Opera is not the hyberbole or the rebel rock or the garbled calls to action. It’s the quiet dignity of all those stranded dogs and cats.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

By Elise Nakhnikian

To turn the children’s picture book it’s based on it into a full-length animated feature, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs puts a lot of meat on its bones. And I do mean meat: This is no veggie tale.

It’s not what you’d call subtle, either. I had never read the book until after watching the movie, so I took the movie on its own terms, but I wonder whether its fans will accept the changes writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made to Judi Barrett’s story, or the way they’ve amped up its energy level and dumped the book’s subdued cross-hatched drawings for a candy-colored explosion of action. The book treats its story as a fable, a tale told by a grandfather around a family dinner table. The movie explains it all to us – in Imax 3-D, no less.

Yet the two feel related, like siblings from a family with a strong shared sensibility. They’re both an appealing blend of whimsy and homespun wisdom. And they both center around an imaginative concept: a town where food rains down from the sky.

We are not talking manna, whatever that is. This is America, by god, so we’re talking REAL food. Hamburgers. Steaks. Spaghetti and meatballs.

Lord and Miller create a back story to explain the book’s central mystery: Where did all that food come from? They also dream up a whole new set of characters, starting with boy inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), an upbeat misfit and the creator of a machine that turns water into food.

Flint’s best friend is a monkey named Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) who wears a contraption of Flint’s invention that translates his thoughts into English. It’s the same idea as the dog collars in Pixar’s Up, but it’s done better: Steve is all id and idiocy, which makes for some nice comic relief.

Our hero eventually gets a human sidekick too (she’s also his love interest, but that part of their relationship is strictly PG). Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is a smart girl who hides her brains, acting “cute and super-perky,” as another character puts it, so she won’t get picked on. As depressing as it is to be reminded that girls still have to do that in 21st-century America (does the fact that brainy boys can get picked on too make it better or worse?), it’s a treat to see a female lead whose arc is about learning not to play dumb.

The minor characters are sketched broadly enough so little kids can get the picture, yet they don’t feel overly familiar. My favorites were an underemployed, understated Guatemalan immigrant (Benjamin Bratt) with hidden talent to burn and Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan, doing some surprisingly tender, melancholy voice work). A refrigerator-shaped slab of a man with two enormous eyebrows where his eyes ought to be, Tim is a nurturing dad who feels things deeply but can’t articulate what’s in his heart. The speech he makes when Sam gives him Steve’s translating device should resonate with every kid who feels estranged from a parent who doesn’t do well at expressing his or her support.

There are plenty of funny lines, sight gags, and humorous situations, like when the fate of the world depends on Flint being able to walk his tech-averse father through e-mailing him a file via cell phone. Tim’s interpretation of “drag it off the desktop” made me laugh out loud.

But the best part of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is Flint’s elaborate lab and the inventions that emerge from it. Animation frees the filmmakers to create some magical sequences, like the giant Jello mold pictured in the book, which materializes here as a love offering from Flint to Sam. The two slip through its rubbery rind into a hollowed-out interior, playing on its wobbly surface or diving into the translucent core in a courtship scene as transcendent as WALL-E and Eva’s dance in outer space.

Cloudy doesn’t talk down to its audience. In fact, it probably sails right over the heads of very young kids much of the time, spoofing targets like appearance-obsessed newscasters and hypocritical politicians. A running joke about the town’s slowness to wean itself from its longtime dependence on an outmoded business rings so true it almost qualifies as social commentary.

But we’re back to pure spoof when a pompous new anchor (Al Roker) reports on the huge entrees that are raining down around the world, landing first on famous landmarks like Times Square and the Eiffel tower. “It looks like the foodstorm is falling in an unusual pattern,” he remarks.

Next time I see a disaster movie that falls back on that tired trick, I hope I’ll remember that line.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

World’s Greatest Dad and Extract

By Elise Nakhnikian

Four decades into the age of identity politics, are middle-class white men finally just another beleaguered minority? That seems to be the message behind Extract and World’s Greatest Dad, dark comedies about men whose bland exteriors mask some pretty big problems.

Extract isn’t just dark; it’s downright dour. I used to think writer/director Mike Judge was an amiable social satirist, tossing foam-tipped darts at late-capitalist consumerism from a La-Z-Boy somewhere in middle America. Just look at Office Space, his 1991 debut and one of the best comedies ever made about the drudgery and daily humiliation of low-wage work in America.

Granted, Judge always liked to lampoon stupidity too. 2006’s Idiocracy may have aimed mostly at deserving targets like cable news networks and show-biz politicians, but it started with the elitist premise that the USA of the future has devolved into a failed circus-state because smart people stopped having babies while dumb people kept having lots, so over the years we just got too dumb to function. Beavis and Butt-head were a preliterate pair of stoners so dumb they could barely breathe, and none of the Hills in King of the Hill are exactly the brightest bulbs in the box.

But I always thought Judge loved even the dimmest of his characters – I know I do – so I was surprised by the snarky misanthropy of his latest movie. Our hero this time around is Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a small factory that makes food-flavoring extracts. Joel radiates disapproval of everyone around him, like the character Bateman played on Arrested Development. He may be as selfish and shortsighted as anyone else, but he thinks he’s smarter, more rational, and just all-around better. In short, he’s a self-righteous prig, though Bateman projects a tattered goodwill beneath the exasperation that makes you empathize with Joel even when you don’t like him.

Extract consists of two parallel stories, both of which putter along with the occasional burst of energy before petering out. In the first, Joel struggles to resist, then outwit Cindy (Mila Kunis), a gorgeous but predatory young woman. Cindy insinuates herself onto the floor of Joel’s factory and into his erotic dreams – which isn’t hard, since he’s obsessed with the sex he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) aren’t having.

The other half of the movie is about Joel’s factory. The eternally self-pitying Joel surveys his employees from an office perched over the assembly line or smiles tightly as his manager, Brian (J.K. Simmons) rolls his eyes about the incompetence of some “dinkus.” Whether they’re trying to make the factory run smoothly or trying to sell it, the two keep running up against the absurdly exaggerated idiocy of their employees, nearly every one of whom is lazy, incompetent, laughably grandiose, or all three at once. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but I just found the whole thing cynical and depressing.

There are a lot of stupid human tricks on display in World’s Greatest Dad too, but there’s also plenty of decency. Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), is a genuinely nice guy, though most of the other people he has to deal with are anything but – starting with his own son.

Writer/director Bob Goldthwait isn’t interested in straight realism here any more than he was in the standup routines that made him semi-famous in the ‘80s (he was that sloppy-looking guy with a high voice that kept cracking, as if he was stuck in eternal puberty). But this loose-limbed, oddly life-affirming story has some pretty funny things to say about the platitudes and false piety we tend to revert to when we talk about the dead.

Lance is a sweet but schlubby high school English teacher, who works at the school his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends. He’s also a frustrated novelist who gets his first break as a writer in a way he never imagined. When Kyle dies in a potentially embarrassing accident, Lance tries to protect his boy’s reputation by making it look like an intentional hanging and leaving a suicide note.

The note gets printed in the school paper and becomes hugely popular, and a cult springs up around Kyle. Goldthwait has fun with the deification of a nasty loner. The students soon start sporting Kyle tattoos and WWKD tee shirts, and the faculty talk about how “sweet” and “kind” he was.

There’s also a nicely developed subplot about Lance’s sickeningly sweet girlfriend and fellow teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) and their perfect colleague Mike (Henry Simmons), a touching one involving Kyle’s forlorn only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), and some funny bits about an Oprah-like talk show host, a high school “grief counselor,” a literary agent, and Bruce Hornsby (don’t ask).

But the heart of the movie is Williams, whose mercifully understated, affecting performance makes us care about a mousy man who finds the courage to follow his heart.