Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Goodbye Solo

By Elise Nakhnikian

Goodbye Solo’s Solo reminded me of Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy, another working-class protagonist whose cheerful kindness and persistent attempts to connect with everyone around them amount to a kind of grace. The movies seem related too, both deftly illuminating the lives of people who would only be glimpsed in the background of mainstream movies, if they were seen at all.

But Goodbye, Solo director Ramin Bahrani had another model in mind. Bahrani, whose parents emigrated to North Carolina from Iran, invokes a Persian tradition called tazmin to explain the inspiration he and cowriter Bahareh Azimi, an Iranian-born citizen of France, drew on for their second collaboration after Chop Shop.

Tazmin, Bahrani told The New York Times, is “a longstanding tradition of poets taking one line or one beat or one idea from an earlier poem, picking it up and putting it in their own poem and going on from there.” In this case, the beat he and Azimi picked up was from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, the story of an older man who wants to commit suicide and the young man whose help he enlists, and who tries to convince him to change his mind.

The older man in Goodbye, Solo is William (Red West), a cantankerous hill country codger with disappointment carved deep into the crevasses of his face. The young man is a sunny Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane). When William reserves Solo’s time for a one-way trip to Blowing Rock, an outcropping in the Smoky Mountains famous for its intense winds, the cabbie sees what he’s up to and launches a tenacious campaign to talk him out of it. Planting himself in William’s way again and again, armed with a smile and a story, Solo wins the old man’s grudging friendship while trying to solve the mystery behind the his disillusionment and depression.

Meanwhile, we see enough of Solo’s home life to know he’s in danger of losing his own family – his very pregnant wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and his beloved stepdaughter Alex (a very strong Diana Franco Galindo).

Set in Bahrani’s hometown of Winston-Salem and based on a cab driver he met at a pickup soccer game while visiting his brother, Goodbye, Solo is the third in a series of Bahrani films about immigrants hustling to eke out a living in American cities. Man Push Cart (2005) centered on a Pakistani working a mobile food cart in Manhattan. Chop Shop (2007) was about a teenage brother and sister from the Dominican Republic who live and work amid a bleak row of chop shops in Willets Point, Queens.

His latest starts in the middle of a conversation between the two men in Solo’s cab, Solo’s radiant face and William’s battered mask looming large against the black backdrop of the night. For most of the movie, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who also shot Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, stays tight on those faces, scouring them like a miner hunting for gold. In fact, the camera homes in so close on Solo that you often don’t even see the people he’s talking to.

Then Solo’s cab climbs through a dense mist into the awesome beauty of the mountains, and the camera pulls back. Rather than studying their faces, we see both men – and Alex, who Solo brings along in a last-ditch effort to woo William back from the brink – at a distance, vulnerable little figures that keep literally disappearing into the fog or the forest.

Like the end of Chop Shop, in which a flock of pigeons rises into the air in front of one of the car repair shops, Goodbye, Solo’s ending resonates deeply, heavy with mystery and an inchoate sense of hope.

Bahrani invests months in getting to know the real-life models for his characters – he spent three or four months with the cab driver who was the inspiration for Solo before starting work on this script. Then he takes almost as long to cast just the right mix of professional and non-professional actors and get them comfortable with their roles. The 12-year-old schoolboy who played the lead in Chop Shop got so good at priming and painting cars that he wound up getting paid for doing his character’s work. And Savane, who couldn’t drive when Bahrani cast him, got his license and spent several weeks before shooting began working for the real-life cab company that Solo drives for.

That attention to detail pays off in Bahrani’s movies, which just keep getting richer. In Goodbye Solo, you feel an artist coming into his own, painting a portrait of two memorable men and their prickly friendship with a mastery that makes it look easy.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

The word "inspirational" is so overused that I generally try to leave it alone for some much-needed rest, but I have to pull it out to describe the movie I saw last Friday.

When my friend Laura invited me to a screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell at an ABA mediation and arbitration conference she was attending, I jumped at the chance, since I'd heard great things about it. What I didn't know was that its producer would be there -- and that her comments afterward would be almost as interesting as the movie itself.

Pray the Devil is a documentary about an group of women in Liberia who, sick of the senseless civil war that had been tearing apart their country for nearly a generation, started a peace movement. The idea came to a woman named Leymah Gbowee in a dream. She took it to the women of her church, who became the core of a group that eventually numbered in the thousands.

Going up against the bloodthirsty President Charles Taylor and the rebel warlords who set hordes of boys and young men on the rampage, terrorizing the country, took the kind of guts few of us have. The women made themselves as unthreatening as possible, calling themselves the Christian Women's Peace Initiative (although, as the movie stresses, they included many Muslim women), dressing all in white, and invoking their children as their motivation.

As Gbowee says in the movie: "Liberia had been at war so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives." To shame the president and warlords who were profiting from that chaos and despair, the women just kept showing up where they knew the men would be. Holding up signs, singing songs, and presenting petitions, they served as a living reminder of all the people who wanted peace now.

Their refusal to be intimidated into hiding or going along with the status quo helped drive Taylor into exile. They also shamed the participants in the country's sham peace talks into actually hammering out an agreement and putting a transitional government in place.

And they didn't stop there. Politicized by the process and too smart to trust the warlords who had appointed themselves to key positions in the transitional government, the women stayed together after the war was over. They helped convince the warlords' troops to hand in their arms, and they were instrumental in instituting a democratic process that wound up electing the first female president in all of Africa.

It's an extraordinary story -- and it might have been lost forever if it weren't for another admirable woman, producer Abigail Disney.

In her talk after the movie ended, Disney said she went to Liberia after hearing about the women to see if there was a story there worth filming. Though this was only a couple years after they had finished their work, and though all kinds of major news media had been covering the war and elections in Liberia, Disney says she could only find bits and pieces of the story, almost all anecdotal. And while she saw hundreds of hours of footage of "boys shooting at each other, boys with AK-47s, people eating human hearts -- horrible, horrible things," she could find almost no shots of the women who had been on the scene every day for months.

One pivotal scene, of the women in a hallway outside the sham peace process, linking arms and refusing to let the men inside come out until they reach an agreement, was salvaged from a video shot by a non-journalist who happened to be there. The videotape had been used to prop open a window, so only 18 seconds of that segment was usable.

"It came to me, this is what erasure looks like," says Disney, who said she has a long-standing interest in bringing to light stories about women that have been left out of the official histories. "News reporters and photographer are writing the first draft of history, and they didn't even get into that first draft."

While she was making the movie, she says, the head of a major nonprofit human rights organization told her: "Why are you making a movie about those women? I was there. They were pathetic." For Disney, that comment summed up the arrogance and assumptions about power that make it so hard for women like the Christian Women's Peace Initiative to be heard -- and so important that we pay attention when they speak up despite all the obstacles.

If we never hear the stories of brave peacemakers like these, we're more likely to be passive ourselves if we're faced with a similar situation, Disney says. "If we go into the next war having misunderstood these women as objects rather than subjects, we're doomed to accept as inevitable the stories we've seen before about war."

Feeling that sense of hopelessness challenged is what makes it so thrilling to watch the unarmed women in Pray the Devil not just stand up to a brutal war machine but help shut it down.

It's downright inspirational.

Monday, April 20, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

There are no guns or glitzy plot twists in Sugar. The second feature by husband-wife writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), who fly their indie freak flag high, this is the story of a charismatic young man who uses baseball as his way out of poverty in the Dominican Republic.

It’s a great idea for a movie – in fact, much the same story was masterfully told in The New Americans, a multi-part documentary that aired on PBS in 2004 and is now available through Netflix. But by observing their main character instead of getting inside his head, the filmmakers made me feel almost as uninvolved in his storyas in Cal's.

When we first meet Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), he’s at a U.S. baseball camp in the Dominican Republic, drilling hard every day in hopes of becoming a pro. Then he gets his big break, a chance to play in the States. “Life gives you many opportunities. Baseball, only one,” his mentor tells him. That may be the theme of this meandering movie, which follows Sugar into the minor leagues and beyond.

Soto, who went to baseball camp in the DR before giving up on becoming a ballplayer, has charisma to burn, and Sugar is an upstanding young man, so Fleck and Boden have our sympathy from the start. But they don’t do much to build on that goodwill.

The story is badly paced, spending too much time on the details of a baseball career that turns out to be just a stepping stone. It also telegraphs some important plot points, so Sugar’s decline as a ballplayer seems anticlimactic even while it’s happening. But it’s the distance the filmmakers maintain between us and Sugar that lost me.

Too many of Sugar’s actions and thoughts are opaque, and Soto plays too many scenes with the same hangdog sadness. It didn’t help that a shower scene and some shots of Soto shirtless felt gratuitous, objectifying the actor.

That distance reminded me of Half Nelson, an unconvincing story about a teenager in an urban high school who befriends her teacher, helping him kick an addiction to drugs. Shareeka Epps and Ryan Gosling were each mesmerizing on their own, but I never bought the relationship between their characters or felt like I knew what made either one tick.

I don’t doubt that Fleck and Boden mean well, and they choose interesting stories to tell. I just wish they knew their characters a little better.

State of Play

By Elise Nakhnikian

I love a good newspaper movie. By that I mean a smart, fast-moving story with lots of moving parts, like The Paper (1994), The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), or His Girl Friday (1940). Movies that capture that odd mix of cynicism and idealism that fuels a healthy newspaper, not to mention the verbal jousting, the friendly and not-so-friendly competition, and the sense that getting the story right really matters.

But those movies have something else in common: The most recent one is 15 years old. When this century’s 24-hour news cycle ended the reign of newsprint, newspaper movies became old news— and that’s one of the problems with State of Play.

The filmmakers try hard to make their story relevant. They pair Cal (Russell Crowe), the old-school reporter on the print side of a powerful Washington, D.C. newspaper, with Della (Rachel McAdams), a young woman who blogs for the paper, so the two can exchange some superficial banter about old media vs. new. They also link the death Cal and Della are investigating to a private military contractor whose goal is “the privatization of homeland security.” But you’ve seen everything here done before – and probably better.

Director Kevin MacDonald knows how to make a story compelling. Touching the Void, his 2003 documentary about two mountain climbers who narrowly avoid death in the Peruvian Andes, made skillful use of recreations to dramatize the survivors’ stories, and The Last King of Scotland, a fictionalized tale about Idi Amin, was suffused with a mounting sense of dread. But he’s lost his mojo here.

The score is so intrusive and ineffective that Ben Affleck joked about when he plugged the movie on The Daily Show. The dialogue feels recycled, and the closest we get to character development is watching scruffy, puffy Cal scarf down junk food while cranking up an Irish drinking song in his old Saab.

Maybe because it’s based on a British miniseries with more time to spin the story, the movie is stuffed with underdeveloped plot twists. Not only is Cal reporting on the death of a congressman’s assistant, but he’s protecting the congressman, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who happens to be an old roommate. What’s more, Cal once slept with Collins’ wife, and Collins was having an affair with the dead assistant. Then there are killings related to the case, that defense contractor, and dirty dealings as Congress caters to corporate interests.

Rather than being pulled into the action as Cal and Della race to piece it all together, I just wanted to get out of the way while the kitchen sink hurtled past.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sin Nombre

By Elise Nakhnikian

Traditionally, immigrants in our movies have stayed in the background while native-born Americans took center stage, in much the same way that African-American characters used to play supporting roles in stories about white people. But the drama inherent in leaving home for a strange land where you don’t even speak the language – especially when you add the risks involved in emigrating illegally – makes those background stories tilt a lot of movies off their axes.

The two women smuggling immigrants for cash in Frozen River were desperate, but how much worse off were the people huddled in their trunk? The middle-aged professor in The Visitor was depressed, but the troubles of the young illegal immigrant who befriends him put his into perspective. And of all the stories twisted together in Fast Food Nation to illustrate the evils of our beef processing business, the one that stuck with me is the tale of Raul, a hopeful young man who makes it across the Mexican border only to get caught in the jaws of a slaughterhouse grinder.

Maybe that’s why more immigrant stories are finally making their way to the forefront. Or maybe it’s because new residents are pouring into 21st-century America, especially from south of the Mexican border, at a rate not seen since the turn of the last century. Whatever the reason, a new genre of immigration movie seems to be emerging, and the latest example is Sin Nombre.

Like Maria Full of Grace (2004), the story of a Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule and winds up in New York, and Trade (2007), the story of a Mexican girl who’s kidnapped by sex traffickers and brought to New Jersey, Sin Nombre spices up the story of a good-looking young emigrant or two by mixing in something more sensationalistic. This time around, the extra something is a gang called the Mara Salvatrucha.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga stumbled onto his subject while studying film at New York University. Victoria Para Chino (2004), a short film he made about a group of immigrants left for dead in the back of a truck, which was inspired by a story he read in the New York Times, won him a lot of attention and an opportunity to workshop a feature-length script at Sundance.

“It is what every film student dreams for, the proverbial jackpot,” he told Indiewire. “And because of that, something about it all felt wrong. I didn’t think this was my story to tell.” So he went to work researching his story, riding the trains that his characters ride toward the border, interviewing gang members in prison, and visiting the shelters emigrants stop at along the way.

You have to give the guy an A for effort. Trouble is, you feel every bit of that effort in this beautifully shot but overdetermined assemblage of scenes.

I could easily believe that the look of Sin Nombre’s sets and setups, as well as a lot of the individual actions, were rooted in research. The perils of riding north on the top of a fast-moving train? Check. The sudden panic of running from La Migra? Check. The unpredictable reactions of the people you pass, some of whom throw up packets of food and some of whom hurl insults and stones? Check.

But – aside from two or three vivid characters, who seemed to step out from an alternate universe – none of Fukunaga’s people feel real, and the melodramatic action and thinly developed relationships (dialogue is not Fukunaga’s strong point) kept me at arm’s length from the story.

This is the kind of movie where a gang doesn’t just kill a rival gang member but feeds him to its dogs, and a young gangster’s protégé must become his killer. There are a lot of gunfights and deaths, and almost every one feels stagey, more shocking than tragic or terrifying.

The best thing going for Sin Nombre is the beauty of its languid landscapes. Fukunaga’s model was the cinematography in Terence Malick’s movies, and the saturated blues and greens and reds of his widescreen compositions come close to achieving it.

That’s an impressive achievement for a first-time filmmaker – yet there’s something unsettling about it too. When a filmmaker uses that kind of beauty to tell a grim story and can’t match it with an equally powerful narrative, he runs the risk of creating an ugly kind of armchair tourism.

“I get frustrated with certain filmmakers who stand under a banner of altruism with their sociopolitical stories that I think sometimes border on the exploitative,” Fukunaga told Indiewire. “I guess I feel that the filmmakers had to sacrifice little to make it, and once done, never again revisit the subject but reap all the benefits from others’ misery.”

Exactly, dude.

Monday, April 6, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

Whoever marketed Adventureland owes Greg Mottola an apology. The trailer leans heavily on laughs and gross-out humor to appeal to fans of Superbad, the last movie Mottola directed. That may have pulled people into theaters on opening weekend, but it also spurred a lot of backlash from Superbad fans who complain that Adventureland is no Superbad.

They’re right: It’s much better.

Superbad’s a sweet movie, but it’s thin: a wish-fulfillment fantasy by and for adolescent boys (Seth Rogan and his best friend wrote the first draft while they were still in high school.) Mottola based Adventureland on a summer he spent working at an amusement park, and it shows: The world he creates has the immediacy and unpredictability of real life.

What’s more, Mottola is looking back at adolescence from the perspective of adulthood. That gives this movie a wry humor and a contemplative tone that make it a lot more moving – and more memorable – than Superbad’s hyped-up hijinks.

In fact, Adventureland is good enough to join the ranks of great American coming-of-age movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Graffiti. Like them, it faithfully recreates the look and feel of a certain place and time, but its real subject is that emotionally charged yet inherently comic condition known as American adolescence.

This time around, we’re in an amusement park outside Pittsburgh, and it’s 1987. Yes, that means there are lots of bright and shiny color-coordinated outfits, and lots of big hair, big earrings, and David Bowie posters. But the set dressing stays in the background, and the clothes never wear the people.

Instead, you focus on James (Jesse Eisenberg), a newly minted college graduate trying to save up for grad school, and the people he meets at Adventureland, the amusement park where he’s working for the summer. Eisenberg plays essentially the same painfully sensitive soul he played in Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, and The Education of Charlie Banks – an overeducated naïf who tries to get a cashier job by telling his interviewer that he got 770 on his math SAT.

At first, he’s downright annoying. Then Eisenberg shows us the nice kid under the façade, and his attempts to seem sophisticated start to look touchingly awkward – and funny. When James’ crush, Em (Kristen Stewart) first drives him home from work, we feel the potent mix of excitement and embarrassment that pulses through James as he sits next to her, thrilled to be there but too self-conscious to do more than grin and crank up the radio.

I was about to give up on Stewart after Twilight, in which her character seemed every bit as dead as her vampire boyfriend. But she regains the charm and cool-girl cred she displayed in Into the Wild with this well-directed performance.

James and Em aren’t the only people who grow close over the summer. The two hang out with the perpetually depressed Joel (a scene-stealing Martin Starr), whose mournful gaze makes his loneliness palpable even in the middle of a crowd. They also develop surprisingly close relationships with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a full-fledged adult who works at the park every summer. A married man who preys on a new crop of gullible girls each year, you might expect Connell to be a bad guy or a figure of fun, and he is a little of each. But Reynolds and Mottola make sure we also see his appeal – and his vulnerability.

The same goes for Lisa P. (Margarita Leveiva), the Madonna wannabe who is Adventureland’s universal object of desire. Refreshingly, she’s treated without the egregious ogling or spurned-suitor venom male filmmakers tend to revert to when portraying girls like this. Instead, James gets close enough to discover that she’s a perfectly nice girl whose looks are the most interesting thing about her.

We also get a sense of daily life in the park, including the scams the employees play to keep the customers from winning. We get a very funny Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s owner/manager and his girlfriend; an excellent soundtrack that reminded me how much ‘80s music I actually liked; and at least one line that deserves to become a catchphrase: “Don’t ever eat the corn dogs.”

And then there are those potent moments that crystallize the characters’ feelings, which are the best part of a pretty great movie. Watching James and Joel drink beers and talk on a hillside at dusk while another friend runs around in the background, shouting and shooting off Roman candles, tells you all you need to know about the agitated state of suspended animation that is adolescence, American-style.