Monday, February 23, 2009

Two Lovers

By Elise Nakhnikian

James Gray's latest and perhaps best feature, Two Lovers, is a clear-eyed, unromantic movie about romance. (His first, Little Odessa, won a Silver Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.)

Gray respects all his characters and lets us in on everyone’s motivation, so nobody comes off as a bad guy. And yet, in this Midsummer Night’s Dream of a story, one person’s happiness is inevitably another person’s pain.

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hulking bipolar bear of a manchild, old enough to live on his own but living with his parents in a claustropobic but beautifully shot Brighton Beach.

Leonard loves women. He lights up when he flirts, showing flashes of humor and attentiveness that make it plausible – just barely – that the lovely Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) would be drawn to him. But when he’s in shutdown mode, as he usually is, he’s as awkward as Quasimodo, hulking about in the shadows of his own bedroom to spy on his glamorous neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Michelle is a shiksa goddess right out of a Woody Allen movie – in fact, at first she seems to be channeling the Mia Farrow of Crimes and Misdemeanors. A frail blond beauty who seems girlishly undefended, she assumes center stage from the moment she wanders into Leonard’s life, displacing Sandra, the nice Jewish girl his parents want him to marry. Michelle has no romantic interest in Leonard — she’s got a smarmy married lover at the law firm where she works – but she likes keeping him around as an adoring sidekick.

Phoenix, a Gray regular who starred in We Own the Night and played a key role in The Yards, is painfully vulnerable as Leonard. You cringe when Leonard goes to a fancy restaurant and tries to cover up his unease by ordering a girly drink, then trying to suck it up through a swizzle stick. And you brace yourself for something bad to come of the feverish happiness that emerges as he starts spending more time with Michelle— and stops taking his meds.

As Leonard’s parents, the elegant Israeli actor Moni Moshonov and the always sympathetic Isabella Rossellini exude waves of quiet empathy. Everyone in this daisy chain – from Leonard’s parents to Leonard to Sandra to Michelle to her lover – seems to mean well. They all want to take care of each other, but they just keep getting in one another’s way.

Two Lovers mines the gap between what we want for ourselves and what others want from us.

The Class

By Elise Nakhnikian

French writer-director Laurent Cantet is one of the best filmmakers alive. Working in the tradition of Robert Bresson, he shows how forces like class, race, and gender can warp lives, and he does it without preaching or pyrotechnics.

His deceptively simple yet engrossing stories contain too many levels of truth to be summed up in one pitch-friendly phrase. They also have an almost documentary sense of reality, partly because Cantet works mainly with nonprofessional actors. Workshopping the script with them for months before shooting, he helps them develop characters who are based on themselves or people they know.

Cantet’s Time Out (2001) is the story of a man too ashamed to tell his family he’s been laid off, who slides into a shadowy secret life parallel to – but increasingly removed from – the comfortable routine his wife and kids still follow. Human Resources (1999) looks at the gulf between blue-collar and white-collar workers through the eyes of a young man, the first in his family to go to college, who takes a summer job in the HR department of the factory where his father has labored for years. Heading South (2006) follows a group of white, middle-class North American women at a Haitian resort, where their relative wealth and the color of their skin makes them the inadvertent oppressors of the local men who serve as their companions – an imbalance we barely bat an eye at when the sexual tourists are men.

Cantet’s latest, The Class, recreates life inside a multicultural Parisian high school to look at what it means to become acculturated and what kids really learn in school. Cantet, whose parents were both schoolteachers, was working on the script when he met François Bégaudeau, a teacher who had written a novel based on his experience at a multiracial Parisian school. The two rewrote the screenplay, merging their stories with the help of frequent Cantet collaborator Robin Campillo.

In the movie, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Bégaudeau plays Francois Marin, a version of himself. The other teachers are all played by actual teachers, and the kids are students from Belleville, a district much like the one where Bégaudeau taught. Cantet filmed almost entirely inside the school, mostly staying in Marin’s classroom as he teaches French – or tries to. Three digital cameras were always running, one capturing unscripted things kids did when they didn’t think the camera was on them.

Marin uses a kind of Socratic method of teaching, peppering his students with questions to get them to think about what they’re learning and why. The students respond in kind, forcing him to confront some of his own assumptions as his frustration bubbles up, cracking his cool façade. Cultural differences keep getting in the way of communication, and Marin winds up in a toxic standoff with Souleymane (Franck Keita), an alienated Malian immigrant; the rebellious and outspoken Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), and her quiet but equally strong-willed friend Khoumba (Rachel Regulier). For a while, Marin’s job appears to be in jeopardy, but when Souleymane winds up taking the fall, you wonder if he ever really had a chance.

Cantet says he wanted to make a movie that upends the false pieties of Hollywood films like Dead Poets Society, "where the teacher is always a guru figure, always says exactly the right thing. Our teacher is the opposite of the Robin Williams character – he takes risks, gets it wrong sometimes, asks questions more than he provides answers.”

Mission accomplished.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The International

By Elise Nakhnikian

At the end of The International, Interpol investigator Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) draws a bead on bad-guy Jonas Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), a banker who thrives on creating chaos. Skarssen's bank, IBBC, funds insurgencies, buys up missile guidance systems, and blithely assassinates whoever gets in the way of its nefarious plan to control the debt produced by wars worldwide.

Salinger has spent years trying to hold the bank to account for its evil ways, so this showdown should be his moment. But The International apparently aspires to be more than just a travelogue studded with shoot-em-up showdowns. And so, instead of pulling out an RPG or pleading for his life, Skarssen tries to calmly talk Salinger out of killing him. Shooting me won't solve a thing, he says. Another banker will just take my place, and business will go on as usual.

He's right, of course. You can't fix a corrupt system by blowing away a few head guys and henchmen. But by pointing out the futility of Salinger's quest, director Tom Twyker and screenwriter Eric Warren Singer undermine their own narrative, making their hero's attempt to hunt down the people behind the bank look dumb or deluded -- or worse. After all, Salinger's personal jihad causes a lot of what someone in the film actually refers to as "collateral damage."

What really cuts the legs out from under this story is its hamfisted dialogue and almost total lack of character development. Salinger, his allies, and his enemies are the flattest set of characters I've seen in a long time. Were the filmmakers trying to prove Skarssen's point about individuals being interchangeable or is this just bad writing?

The scene where Salinger interrogates Skarssen's right-hand man Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) highlights one problem with that approach. Since we know almost nothing about Wexler, the movie has to grind to a halt while Salinger delivers a long, lumpy speech about Wexler's background and motivation and the role he has played in fomenting mayhem for IBBC.

The other problem, of course, is that you don’t really care what happens to someone if you don't have some idea of what makes him tick.

If there were a law against wasting acting talent, Twyker would be locked up for years for this movie. Owen works hard to give Salinger heft, frowning and fretting and throwing the occasional tantrum. Naomi Watts swathes her neck in scarves to show that she's tightly wound as Ella, Salinger's colleague in the Manhattan DA's office. Brian O'Byrne and Mueller-Stahl make a mesmerizing if opaque hitman-handler pair, and Thomsen's icy Nordic banker is so composed he seems almost embalmed. You can't take your eyes off any of them, but they have so little to work with that you can't do much besides ogle them, as the caressing close-ups invite you to do.

The International does some things well -- the showy shootout at the Guggenheim Museum is very good in spots, though you'd think they could have done more with that setting. But even the things it does best, like its travelogue-style shots of cities like Berlin, Milan, and Istanbul, feel as rote as its undistinguished soundtrack.

By trying to be more than "just" a genre piece, The International winds up being much less than international chase films with soul, like the Bourne series or the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale. Instead, it's just an x-ray of a movie: all structure and no substance.

Monday, February 9, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

From the needle-thin metal fingers that rip apart a rag doll and sew it back together over the opening credits to the flying Scottie dogs that zoom over the audience during the ones at the end, the 3-D version of Coraline makes us all Alices in a stop-motion wonderland.

Based on an award-winning children’s book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline spins a fanciful story on classic fairy tale foundation: Coraline is a resourceful little girl who has to rely on courage, wit, and a little help from her friends to defeat a dangerous witch, who disguises herself at first as an ally. A door in Coraline’s house that usually opens onto a brick wall sometimes becomes the portal to a magical parallel world. And Coraline keeps going repeating her journey, but her reasons for going and her actions once there change as she figures out what’s going on under the surface.

Coraline and her parents (she’s an only child) have just moved halfway across the country, to a rambling old house in Oregon. Her parents are preoccupied with work, leaving Coraline to her own devices. She drops in on the eccentric neighbors, explores the surrounding woods, and befriends a shy neighbor boy, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), and the semi-feral black cat (voiced by Keith David) who shadows them both. And she goes through that door in the wall, of course, where she finds a world that’s almost exactly like her own, only better. Or is it?

The house Coraline finds on the other side of the door is better decorated, brighter, and cosier than her real home. Even the parents she finds there seem better at first. Her “other mother” is all cooing attention and perfectly roasted chicken. Her other dad is suave where her real dad is embarrassingly geeky, crooning away like Bing Crosby. Even the stuff there is cooler: her toys talk and move, and some of the furniture is alive.

Coraline’s world pulls us in because, surreal as it is, it always feels real enough to touch. The 3-D helps, since it’s used not so much to shock and awe as to place you right into the middle of the set. Director Harry Selick specializes in moody, emotionally complex animated fairy tales (he also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), and he makes Coraline’s worlds – particularly the one she enters through the door in her wall -- feel more vivid than our own. You can practically feel the damp chill of the big empty rooms in Coraline’s house, the spongy floor of the tunnel she crawls through to the other world, and the warmth of the other mother’s kitchen.

Selick recorded his Coraline script before shooting the movie, capturing vocal performance by an excellent cast that includes Dakota Fanning as Coraline and John Hodgman and Teri Hatcher as her parents. The handmade sets and puppets were then filmed to match the dialogue, creating what its press release calls “the biggest animated feature production ever to be made in stop-motion animation, and the first to be made in stereoscopic 3-D.” It’s amazing to see how much feeling and life this laborious process generates.

Coraline is a pistol. Brave and funny, curious and ingenious, capable and vivacious, she’s one of the most memorable heroines to appear in a year that was studded with great female movie roles. Wybie is charming too, with his kind heart and nervous motor mouth.

There are also a lot of nice moments where the filmmakers remind us about things like how suddenly lighthearted play can turn scary in childhood, the instant friendships that can form, the almost brutal honesty that’s part of daily conversation between friends, and the things kids notice that grownups look right through.

The faces are amazingly expressive, too – so mobile you almost forget that they’re not real people. The filmmakers created thousands of subtle variations by using so-called replacement animation, making computer models based on drawings created by a 2-D animator. These were then printed out on 3-D printers, hand-painted, and placed on the puppets.

But using puppets in place of actors lets the filmmakers exaggerate body language enough to make it comical – while keeping it accurate enough to be eloquent. Coraline’s affable but ineffectual father, for instance, is so used to hunching over his laptop that his neck extends like a giraffe’s, and Coraline sometimes flings her body around in an exaggerated version of that thing kids do when they’re bored. And every time I see my cat cock her head to look at something, I think about the cat in Coraline, whose head sometimes tilts so far to one side you half expect him to tip over.

The animation also lends itself to equisitively atmospheric creepiness. When Coraline catches on to the witch's game and the witch lets her true self emege, it's like a children's nightmare come to life as she morphs from a prettier, cuddlier version of Coraline’s mother to a skeletal monster, more spider than witch.

Moments like that may be too scary for very little kids, but the preteen Coraline fans sitting behind me last weekend approved of this movie, and it definitely delighted this particular post-teen.

Monday, February 2, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

There's a limit to how many Americans will watch a four-hour movie shot mainly in Spanish, so the Internet chat about Che focuses mainly on why director Steven Soderberg made the movie, with a lot of carping from Che haters who see it as a whitewash.

Watching Soderbergh do the publicity dance on YouTube won’t tell you much about his motives. “I was interested in Che as a warrior, Che as a guy who has an ideology who picked up a gun,” was the closest I could find to an answer. But this scrupulously unsensationalistic movie speaks loud and clear if you're willing to lean in and listen.

Soderbergh, Del Toro, and screenwriter Peter Buchman clearly admire their subject, who comes off as a deeply caring, charismatic man who loves Latin America’s campesinos and hates the repressive class and political systems that keep them mired in poverty, ignorance, and fear. He’s also a by-any-means-necessary revolutionary, convinced you can topple oppressive regimes only by force.

As the often hand-held camera follows Che and his men and occasional women through the jungles of Cuba and Bolivia, you get a stripped-down sense of how it may have felt to wage those particular revolutions. And as this two-part epic outlines his strategies and philosophy, we have plenty of time to wonder why the same tactics worked almost magically in Cuba and failed dismally elsewhere.

It’s easy to see why the Che haters are so worked up about this movie. For one thing, it focuses on the romanticized idealism of armed resistance to injustice, side-stepping the harder questions of how to rebuild and lead a nation. As Che himself says to one of his men at the end of Part 1, just after he’s helped Fidel Castro oust General Batista: “We just won the war. The revolution begins now.”

But the real problem for those who hate Castro and his commandante is how good they look here. The filmmakers have reclaimed the idealized Che of all those T shirts and posters, making him three-dimensional again. Their Che is never larger than life -- and that's part of what makes him great. He’s just wants to be one of the guys. Maybe that’s why he seems most at home in the jungle, reading one of his omnipresent books or joking with one of his men.

Del Toro’s Che has a matter-of-fact directness and humor that goes a long way toward breaking down barriers between people -- but some people even he can’t put at ease, like the young servant, who can't stop acting servile around Che, despite his gentle insistence that his followers think for themselves. “A country that doesn’t know how to read and write is a country easy to deceive,” he says.

This is the kind of father every struggling country needs.

Soderbergh’s framing (the director shot the movie himself, and the cinematography is beautiful) undercuts the usual Hollywood hero treatment, favoring group shots over close-ups and shooting all the rebels and peasants – Che included – in all their sweaty, unglamorous grunge.

Buchman uses telling moments from Che’s diaries to bring Che and the daily life of the camps he helped create to life. Che’s and Fidel’s political and military strategies and beliefs are woven in deftly, as Buchman uses things they said in interviews and speeches and avoids hokey proclamations.

Part 1 is the story of the Cuban revolution. We cut between 1964, in which Che is representing Cuba in the UN, and the months leading up to the revolution in the 50s. In the 60s, he’s engaged in a cat-and-mouse interview with an American journalist played by Julia Ormond, who exudes so much Mod-era cool her whole body seems to have been Botoxed.

Meanwhile, back in the ‘50s, Che sets up camp in the jungle, recruiting and training troops and winning the hearts and minds of the locals (he demonstrates what the revolution will bring by building a school, a printing press, and a hospital) while Fidel (a convincingly commanding Demián Bichir) takes care of the big picture, cooking up strategy and forming allegiances with other rebel groups. It all builds to the final showdown, a gripping reenactment of the battle of Santa Clara that feels as if it’s playing out in real time.

Part 2 starts almost a decade later. This time, Che is in charge, leading a campaign to overturn the Bolivian government. Once again, he sets up camp in the jungle, but this time the locals are more suspicious and fearful, more prone to rat out the rebels. There’s also more infighting and mistrust among the rebels themselves, partly because many feel disrespected by the foreigners running their revolution (Che was from Argentina, and some of his right-hand men in Bolivia were Cubans.)

And there’s trouble from outside: The head of Bolivia’s Communist Party won’t cooperate with the rebels and the U.S. has sent military advisors to train a “special forces” division of the Bolivian Army.

If Part 1 is a feel-good story, Part 2 is a downer. Even the landscape in Bolivia is darker as Che and his steadily diminishing troops slog toward defeat. But the two are flip sides of the same coin. Put together, like two mirrors reflecting each other into infinity, they point to areas worth exploring.

Is a military coup the best way to bring down a repressive regime? Can a national rebellion led by outsiders ever succeed? The ideology that fueled Che’s revolts may be on the wane, but the questions raised by his writing and fighting are as relevant as ever.