Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

By Elise Nakhnikian

Sunshine Cleaning is so pleased with its own smug noncomformity and sometimes strenuous quirkiness, you’d think it would be painful to watch. Actually, I liked it well enough, thanks to the excellent cast. But the more I think about this paint-by-numbers indie, the less I want to.

As you probably know if you know anything about it at all, Sunshine Cleaning was produced by several of the producers of Little Miss Sunshine – and the similarity doesn’t end with the title.

This time around, another adorable grade-school-age kid, Oscar Lorkowski (Jason Spevack), sets what there is of a plot in motion. Oscar has to leave school because of a string of vaguely defined incidents (It seems he is so very quirky that only his semi-bohemian extended family can appreciate him), so his single mom, Rose (Amy Adams) decides to get a better-paying job so she can send him to private school. Instead of cleaning regular homes, which is what she’d been doing, she starts specializing in ones where someone has died – and enlists her sister to help.

This sets the stage for some odd-couple antics as Rose, the conscientious sister who always worries about what people think, pairs up with the rebel-without-a-cause Norah (Emily Blunt). Rose frets when some of her old high school friends, who used to see her as an equal – or better (she was the head cheerleader -- condescend to her because of her job. But Norah’s not having any of that. “You’re better than they are, Rose,” she says.

The Lorkowski girls’ crusty but loyal father (Alan Arkin) doesn’t care what anyone else thinks either. He’s Oscar’s biggest fan and ally, scoffing at the teachers and principals who can’t see that his grandkid is “an imaginative kid, that’s all!” In short, he’s basically the grandpa from the other Sunshine transplanted into this one. He’s even played by the same actor. (Though to be fair, if you could get Alan Arkin to play that part, would you turn him down?)

The actors really are wonderful. Adams seems skinless as a smiling-through-tears, underappreciated good girl. After her guileless Southern housewife in Junebug and her oppressed junior nun in Doubt, she runs the risk of getting typecast this way. That would be a shame, since she’s got tremendous range – just look at her charmingly sunny ditz in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or her savvy political aide in Charlie Wilson’s War. But she is great at playing soulful vulnerability. When she lets Rose’s humiliation slowly redden her transparent skin or tighten the corners of her mouth, you can’t help but feel her pain.

Blunt is equally moving as the sister who slides through life behind a shield of tough-guy detachment. I could have done without the scene where she goes “trestling,” climbing up beneath an elevated train track to scream and then cry as the train roars by overhead, not just because it feels so contrived but also because Blunt does such a good job of showing us the emotions her character is repressing that we don’t need to see her release them.

There are a lot of teary confrontations and melodramatic moments, most of which you can see barreling toward you, like so many trucks on a desert highway. Rose meets a nice cleaning supplies salesman, Winston (a quietly alert Clifton Collins Jr. in a role that's as truncated as Winston’s amputated arm), who looks like a romantic prospect. Norah becomes embroiled in an ambiguous relationship with Lynn (the endearingly awkward Mary Jane Rajskub), the daughter of a suicide they cleaned up after. Winston bonds with Oscar. A salesman tells Oscar that the CB in the van for their cleaning business transmits “right up to Heaven,” so Rose uses it to have a teary chat with her dead mother. Rose leaves Norah alone on a job, where she messes up in a spectacular way.

The whole thing doesn’t quite hang together, roaring from one episode to the next and finally just stopping rather than reaching a conclusion.

Maybe leaving things unresolved was supposed to be proof of the movie’s indie cred, but I found it frustrating. After all, the point of a movie like this is to empathize with the characters -- and to get a kick out of watching them. Arkin and Adams and Blunt and Collins Jr. made that work, so by the end of the movie, I cared enough about their characters to want to know they’d be okay. Would Rose and that nice Winston get together? Where were Norah and her cat heading off to? And whatever happened with Oscar’s school, anyhow?

On second thought, never mind. I could really care less.

Monday, March 23, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

Why don’t we have more screwball comedies these days? It was during the Great Depression that they first flowered in Hollywood and, as a recent Breadlines & Champagne lineup of movies from that era at New York’s Film Forum reminded us, we could use that same kind of smart escapism today.

In her 2007 book, The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger blamed the lack of modern-day screwball comedies on the talent pool. “It’s not, as everyone supposes, that they can’t write them; it’s that there’s no one to play in them,” she said.

I beg to differ. George Clooney came as close as any mere mortal could to nailing the Cary Grant role in movies like Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, playing an impossibly suave, inhumanly handsome, occasionally larcenous leading man who loves his female costar but doesn’t take anything else all that seriously – including himself. And wouldn't you like to see Will Smith take a break from saving the world, or Robert Downey Jr. take a break from soul-searching intensity, to star in a good screwball comedy?

As for women, how about Amy Adams or Anna Faris as a Carole Lombard/Jean Harlow-style glorious ditz? Téa Leoni as Katharine Hepburn without the tony accent: an intelligent, athletic, eminently capable beauty who can also play the fool? And I wish I could have seen what Meryl Streep or Emma Thompson could have done with the kinds of roles Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy used to get.

But forget speculation. If you want proof that there are actors alive who can do screwball comedy, go see Duplicity.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are gloriously confident in Duplicity’s leading roles. Their two-hour sparring match is a lightfooted blend of irresistible attraction, prickly defensiveness, and reluctant respect. And, thanks to a refreshingly witty script, their weapon of choice is words.

Ray (Owen) and Claire (Roberts) are former government spies now working for rival corporations. The absurdity of using computers with better encryption coding than the Pentagon’s to steal formulas for hand lotion sets the tone nicely. So does our introduction to the two CEOs, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), who we first see as they get into an awkward fist-fight, clashing in slow motion like a pair of aging bull elephants on the Discovery channel.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) leads us through a Hitchcockian series of twists, turns, and switchbacks as Claire and Ray labor to uncover the secret formula Tully is working on. They’re intent on cashing in on it, though all we really care about is whether the two of them will wind up together.

The movie jumps back and forth in time, doling out the story of how Claire and Ray hatched their plot – and the answer to a question that never stops haunting them both: Are they just gaming the CEOs who hired them, or is one of them playing the other one?

Their bipolar romance can switch moods in a moment: They’re forever starting to make love, then stopping to accuse one another of betrayal. Ironically, the paranoia is part of the attraction, an essential trait they have in common. But will they be able to get past it?

An overhead shot of Ray early in the movie shows him striding through the streets of New York with an athlete’s grace and speed. He never lets up, focusing on Claire with seductive intensity and never stopping his pursuit even as she keeps knocking him off balance.

But she does keep knocking him back. Ray may have the upper hand in the game they play out in public, but Claire pulls the strings behind the scenes. You could always sense Roberts’ intelligence, even when she played lightweights, but Gilroy brings it to the surface: You never doubt that Claire could not only seduce but outmaneuver Ray, and it’s fun to watch her glory in that power. Roberts hauls out her famously wide-mouthed laugh once or twice in Duplicity, but she’s much more inclined to smirk – or to cut the smile altogether, using those big brown eyes like lasers to bore through someone’s defenses.

In classic screwball comedy fashion, Duplicity also reserves some choice parts for supporting characters, and the actors make the most of the opportunity. Carrie Preston is endearingly gullible as the corporate travel agent Ray seduces in the line of duty, and the excellent Kathleen Chalfant (the original angel from Broadway’s Angels in America) has as much fun with her role as part of Ray’s surveillance team as Tilda Swinton did with another nontraditional part for a middle-aged woman in Michael Clayton.

Add in the vicarious pleasure of watching beautiful people blow obscene sums of money in beautiful settings, and you’ve got a thoroughly satisfying distraction for these tough times.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Girls Can Play

I bought this poster in a used bookstore in Corpus Christi in the early '80s. It may have been the best 5 dollars I ever spent; it's been up every place I've lived in since.

I've never seen the movie, but that's okay; stories about dying beauties aren't exactly my thing. But I love that 1930s design, and I love the title.

The Depression years were my favorite period for Hollywood movies. It's partly the sense of style -- the dresses, the clean geometric lines of those Deco sets, the melodramatic intensity of movie posters like this. But mostly I love the fast-talking couples in the great screwball and remarriage comedies of the '30s and early '40s.

Cary Grant and Roz Russell in His Girl Friday, Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Holiday and Philadelphia Story, Irene Dunne and Grant again in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in Palm Beach Story, Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib, Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve... If you've seen these movies, you know what I mean. If you haven't, go find them; you're in for a treat.

Those girls could play.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Race to Witch Mountain

By Elise Nakhnikian

Crammed full of shock-and-awe music, Glock-toting SWAT teams, Road Warrior-lite car chases, and Darth Vader-looking alien assassins, Race to Witch Mountain is a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay–style testosterone fest on training wheels. Would someone please tell me who decided it’s okay to have that much violence in a movie for kids?

And while we’re on the subject, what exactly makes this a children’s film? Is it the fact that there’s no sex or swearing? Is it because the closest we come to nudity is the way the sleeves of the Rock’s T shirt keep inching up his arm, nudged aside by those cartoonishly bulging biceps? Or could it be that the violence is all video-game spectacle, with none of the good guys getting the least bit hurt?

Jack Bruno (the always likeable Rock, who’s now using his real name, Dwayne Johnson), is a Las Vegas cab driver who’s already having a bad day when a teenage brother and sister pair, Sarah (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), materialize in his backseat. The two trigger the first of several games of high-speed bumper cars in what’s basically a movie-long chase scene.

See, the kids are aliens from a planet hundreds of light years away, come to Earth to save their dying world. There’s a vague ecological message and a lot of talk about science, which is mainly invoked as “proof” that UFOs are real.

The kids are, as one character puts it, “humanoid in form” – much like the Rock himself. But the stiffly formal diction and weird powers of this towheaded Aryan twosome (Sarah can read thoughts and move objects with her mind; Seth can pass through any barrier and set up force fields powerful enough to deflect bullets) make them seem a little fishy.

The kids are after some special device that looks a lot like one of those things they give you at busy restaurants to light up when your table is ready. We never get a good look at it, though, or at any of the scary alien assassins or amazing alien hardware – probably because the special effects are surprisingly cheesy.

Jack appoints himself the kids’ father figure, following them into danger even as he warns himself aloud: “Don’t go into the pimped-out frig, Jack.” Newsflash to screenwriters: heroes who crack wise about the clichés in your script are a cliché themselves. Maybe that’s why none of Jack’s “funny” lines got even a giggle at the screening I went to.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is so wooden (Sarah keeps saying things like: “If you abandon us now, our mission will be in serious jeopardy” and “Maybe you need help too, Jack Bruno”), or that the acting is no better. Johnson’s range of emotion runs from mildly concerned to annoyed, while Robb wears out the look of worried supplication she overused in Because of Winn Dixie, and Ludwig simply looks robotic.

Something about this movie makes even good actors turn bad. Ciarán Hinds is so stilted as the head of the government agency in charge of dealing with a whole new kind of illegal alien that I was convinced he was going to turn out to be an alien double agent. And the usually tough and tender Carla Gugino is stripped of her usual intensity as UFO expert Alex Friedman, a pillow-lipped PhD who winds up playing mommy to Jack’s daddy in this wholesome insta-family. They even adopt a dog – though Junkyard disappears for long stretches, as if the screenwriters had forgotten he was there.

That’s typical of this sloppy script, which doesn’t even bother to follow its own internal logic. The movie was adapted from a book, so maybe the screenwriters just tried to fit in too much and left out crucial connective tissue. But not having read the novel, I was left to wonder why two kids who can deflect bullets or make things explode spend so much time running from guys with guns. And, if Sarah can read minds, why does it take them so long to realize they can trust Jack?

About halfway through Race, Jack drops off his battered cab with a mechanic (Cheech Marin), telling him he has an hour to give it a major overhaul. Race to Witch Mountain feels like it was thrown together in about as much time, using spare parts from a dozen other films.

This deeply cynical movie is not just lifeless; it is anti-life, both a product of and a promotion for the military industrial complex.

But, hey, it must be good, right? It was tops at the box office last week!

Monday, March 9, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

Based on a novel about the camorra, a criminal underground that apparently has a pretty effective stranglehold on Naples, Gomorrah is a whole new kind of mafia movie. Beautifully shot but bleak, this naturalistic tale of relentless brutality makes the Godfather series look like a romantic fantasy. Compared to the goombahs of Gomorrah, even Tony Soprano looks tony.

Roberto Saviano, who cowrote the screenplay, must have struck dangerously close to the truth in his 2006 novel: He’s been under constant police protection since the book was published. Director Matteo Garrone, who is a painter as well as a filmmaker, artfully translates the novel’s grim intensity to the screen. He creates a world as visceral as a kick in the gut and as claustrophobic as the tanning booths that cocoon a group of paunchy men in the opening scene, bathing them in an eerie blue light.

We never do learn who those men are or why they get slaughtered like so many penned cattle, but as Gomorrah layers scene upon scene, their gory ending becomes part of the fabric of this bloody society.

Gomorrah’s hand-held camera joins people in mid-activity, simply following one individual or group for a while before switching to another. Before the main characters emerge from the crowd, you get a sense of their world and the rules they live by.

And what a world it is. Men kill each other with dull, emotionless efficiency while boys watch and girls and women hole up in their apartments, locking their doors in midday. Everyone – even housewives and children – must choose a side in this perpetual war. Wads of money are constantly being counted and passed off – yet nobody ever seems to enjoy his earnings. There’s no release to be found, even in nature, from the limited horizons of this gang-ruled gulag. And while the kids are beautiful and full of life, the grown-ups generally look either drawn and defeated or coarse and cruel.

Much of the action takes place in one teeming apartment complex, a multi-layered maze of dwellings and walkways that functions almost as a city within the city. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, and the most private things get played out in public – sometimes all at once. In one particularly memorable scene, a wedding party parades through one passageway while gangsters wage a gunfight from the next tier up.

Saviano grew up in Naples, which may explain why so much of the focus is on boys and young men. We spend enough time with Marco (Marco Macor) and his skinny friend Ciro (Ciro Petrone), wannabe gangsters foolish enough to think they can operate independently, to grow fond of the half-feral knuckleheads. Their eventual destruction by the gang feels as inevitable, and weighs as heavily, as any classic tragic ending. So does the catch-22 that traps Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), an even younger boy who gets adopted by one of the gangs after returning a pistol they lost in a gunfight.

The boys – like many of the adults in the film – are played by nonprofessional actors from the area. The filmmakers direct and shoot them masterfully, making it easy to forget that they’re acting. When a few boys serve as crash test dummies for bulletproof vests, testing them by getting shot at point-blank, Garrone shows just enough of the fear on their faces and the vulnerability of their small bodies disappearing into the dark of the cave where the gangsters are waiting for them. You ache for these little guys, who believe what they’re told about this dark passageway being the route to manhood.

The stories of a couple of grown men expand the picture, showing how the camorra’s tentacles reach into the bowels of the global economy.

Pasquale, a gifted tailor who has been virtually enslaved since boyhood by his connected boss, sneaks out at night to coach the workers at a rival sweatshop. His story is a grim illustration of how the camorra deals with competition. We also get a sense of how far their business dealings extend, as we watch Scarlett Johansson spin on a red carpet in a dress made by Pasquale.

We also get a window into another camorra-controlled business – and the damage they’re doing to the land around Naples and the people who live there – when a young man named Roberto (Carmine Pasternoster) is apprenticed to a slick operator who manages the dumping of toxic waste in the area. “We solve problems created by others,” Roberto’s boss says of their waste-dumping scam.

That may be a rationalization, but it contains an uncomfortable dose of the truth.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

“My basic thought in life is that suppression is not that bad. It might help you live your life,” said Ari Folman at a Q&A after a screening of Waltz With Bashir last December.

For individuals, that is. When it comes to nations, the writer, director, and “protagonist” of Waltz With Bashir is clearly no fan of denial. This may be an animated movie, but it’s definitely not kid stuff.

In 1982, thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp were murdered over a two-day period. The camp was outside Beirut, and the killings were carried out by Lebanese troops: Christian Phalangists who were loyal to Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel. Waltz is an explosive exploration of that notorious incident.

The camps were under the control of the Israeli army and ringed by Israeli troops – including Folman himself. Those soldiers stood by during the two days of the massacre, sometimes catching glimpses of the horror but unsure of what they were seeing, and under orders from their superiors not to intervene.

The movie starts by literally unleashing the dogs of war, while a friend of Folman’s describes a nightmare he’s been having about the time he served in Lebanon. As the two sit in a bar late at night, we see the dream played out, and it’s terrifying: 26 ferocious dogs gallop through the streets of a city, eyes and fangs aglow as they snarl and snap at the people they pass.

Folman has suppressed his memories of his own time in Lebanon, which is by now about 20 years in the past. But that night he dreams about it, seeing an eerie image of young soldiers emerging slowly from the ocean and putting on their uniforms as if in a trance. That dream – or it is a memory? – prompts him to look into what happened when he was stationed in Lebanon.

Just as he did in real life, the movie’s Folman (the filmmaker and most of the other characters provide their own voices) seeks out other now-middle-aged men who served there at the same time, all of whom he either knew or is connected with by one or two degrees of separation. He also consults a couple of psychologists for perspective on how soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress, piecing together his own suppressed past like a detective investigating a crime. As he hears his former comrades’ vivid stories and he starts to remember his own, we see it all play out, in hand-drawn animation that changes its look to fit the tone of each scene.

This is Folman’s first animated film (before Waltz, he directed two live-action features and wrote for the original, Israeli version of In Treatment), and it was a smart choice. “Memory is dynamic; it’s alive,” he says in his voice-over. That’s one of this movie’s key themes, and animation helps make it concrete.

The drawing also turbo-charges reality, from the young soldiers’ panic to the middle-aged witnesses’ taut self-control and fevered dreams. Key memories are imbued with a pathos or horror that would be hard to achieve with live action, and characters are drawn to subtly emphasize key traits, like the haunted hazel eyes of Carmi, a former soldier turned falafel king.

The animators focus our attention on details that pull us in, like smoke slowly drifting upward from a shared joint or the juddering weight of a tank as it lumbers down a city street. And they make the soldiers’ nightmares and fantasies so vivid that certain images, like the slavering dogs of that opening scene, burrow their way into our own memories.

But animation has its limits. At the end of the film, Folman shifts from animated scenes of the few surviving refugees as they flee the carnage on foot, passing corpses of little children, to news footage of the same scene. The videotape serves a documentary function that Folman found “essential,” proving that the story he has told was “more than just my personal story, my memories.”

The Israeli government submitted Waltz as its contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar (it was one of the five nominees) and sent Folman all over the world to flak it. Folman, who said he’s surprised to have written “this thing that the establishment just loves,” thinks Israelis embraced the film partly because nearly everyone can relate to post-traumatic stress in a country where military service is mandatory. “I think they thought: ‘He’s one of us. He’s a little bit freaked out, but it’s okay.’” But he wonders if the government also latched onto it the movie because it could help clear up the common misconception that it the Israelis killed the refugees.

In other words, the film Folman made to remind people of the massacre and the responsibility Israel shares for it could serve as propaganda for a government looking to absolve itself. If that’s so, it’s a bitter irony.

Folman’s film is a powerful anti-war story about what happens when middle-aged men with opaque motives throw clueless young men into battle. “I think this [story] could be told by anyone who woke up one morning in a distant place and is getting shot at and thinks: ‘What am I doing here? It has nothing to do with my life,’” he said.

This is hardly the first time that story’s been told, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a rare treat to see it done so well.