Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Food, Inc.

By Elise Nakhnikian

Food, Inc. ought to come with a warning label: This movie may change your life.

Michael Pollan, one of the main talking heads and sources for this brisk documentary, changed mine 10 years ago. His vivid, detailed descriptions of the mechanistic, inhumane, and ecologically unsound ways in which we raise, slaughter, and process cows and chickens made a vegetarian of me after the New York Times Magazine published excerpts from The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Much as I love movies, they are not my favorite way to get this kind of information. I’d rather absorb the facts in depth than watch the highlights, especially when some of those border on torture porn, animal-style. And I prefer movies that are more subtle or entertaining than Food, Inc., whose title cards and well-polished speeches feel at times like a Power Point lecture by a tag team of college professors.

Granted, these are the kinds of professors I would have loved to have had in college. Pollan and Eric Schlossberg, the film’s other principal source, are investigative reporters with a mission. Both are gifted at illuminating industrial processes and the political systems behind them. They’re also great at explaining what’s wrong with our food chain in a clear, compelling way that makes you want to do something about it. Food, Inc. is studded with memorable statistics, quotes, stories, and guest lecturers, like Joel Salatin of the idyllic-looking Polyface Farms, whose rap about the need to go back to agricultural basics has been honed to a fine edge.

Like any adaptation, though, Food, Inc. has to leave a lot out. And though its streamlined running time feels right – you can only sit so long in a lecture hall – just over 90 minutes isn’t much to cover the nine meaty issues the film touches on.

Director Robert Kenner and editor Kim Roberts rarely take time to explain anything in depth. They don’t even always stop to explain why something matters in the first place. We’re never really told, for instance, why Stonyfield yogurt, whose self-satisfied owner gets a lot of air time, is better for us or for the environment than any of its competitors.

We never hear why we should fear the genetically modified foods the film warns against, either, though it would have been easy enough to have listed the suspected risks. But we do get a good look at the dark cloud spread over the American family farm by Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans.

One of the more poignant stories in Food, Inc. is that of Moe Parr, a mild-mannered man who made a modest living cleaning seeds for farmers, so they could plant what they salvaged from last year’s plants rather than investing in a whole field’s worth at the start of each season. Farmers have been doing this for generations – Parr’s seed-cleaning machine was over 100 years old – but Monsanto forbade the practice, asserting that planting seeds would be property theft, since the compay owns the patent on the seed strain. The conglomerate went on the warpath, blacklisting many of Parr’s customers (and lifelong friends) and suing him until he ran out of money, driving him out of work.

That lawsuit could never have happened, the movie points out, if the U.S. Supreme Court had not made it legal to patent life forms in the 1980s. That’s a connection the movie keeps making, as it weaves in two closely intertwined threads: the power of a handful of conglomerates over what we eat and how our government helps them amass that power.

Perhaps the main culprit is the federal subsidy of corn, which has made it the nation’s most popular crop. Artificially cheap corn has changed what we consume, as manufacturers find ways to use this adaptable plant in everything from peanut butter to diapers – not to mention the high fructose corn syrup that sweetens far too much of what we eat and drink. Most of our foods, the movie says, are just “a clever rearrangement of corn.”

Subsidized corn makes fast food like sodas, chips, and hamburgers much cheaper than fruits and vegetables, making it impossible for low-income families to eat well and difficult for everyone to resist snacking on empty calories. And that leads straight to our skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes.

But I’m beginning to sound like a professor myself.

If you want to know more about how we’re choking ourselves with our own fouled-up food chain, I’d recommend reading Pollan’s and Schlossberg’s books. But if you just want the Cliff Notes version, go see Food, Inc. Maybe it will whet your appetite to learn more – or to rage against the machine.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farewell, Farrah. Do Blondes Really Have More Fun?

By Elise Nakhnikian

I'm not usually moved by by celebrity deaths, but the news of Farrah Fawcett's passing stabbed me with a shard of that sorrow and pity you feel when someone dies before they had a chance to fulfill their potential.

Strange way to think about someone who got so much more than her share of fame and attention, I know: That poster of her with the corkscrew curls and piano-key grin apparently sold several hundred thousand copies a month at the peak of her popularity. But I think the attention she got for her looks was like the poison in Sleeping Beauty's apple, freezing her in time and keeping her from developing her potential as an artist.

I say "artist" because I think that's how Farrah saw herself, at least when she was young. She studied art at UT in Austin before getting snatched up by the clanking maw of the entertainment machine, which promptly spat her out as the international symbol for California Girl and the original blonde on Charlie's Angels.

Amazingly, she was only on that show for one season, but she was identified with it and with that poster for the rest of her life, assumed to be a not-quite-real, none-too-bright has-been whose only claim to fame were a fortuitous combination of hair, teeth, and bone structure.

I met her in the early '80s. It must have been six or seven years after she'd escaped from the show, but she was still really prickly about it. I was living in her home town of Corpus Christi at the time, working for Corpus Christi Magazine, which sent me to interview her in New York where she was starring in an off-Broadway version of Extremities, a fairly simplistic but hard-hitting story of a woman who turns the tables on a rapist. Fawcett was really good in the part, much to everyone's surprise -- not that that helped her get many good parts afterward.

That wasn't the only thing about her that suprised me. She was smaller than I'd expected, as stars usually are, but she was also much stronger. Muscular and wiry, with ropy veins in her arms, she came off as an athlete, not a beauty queen.

She was clearly smart and funny, though she and I didn't laugh much. She was too busy countering the stereotypes everyone held about her. The article I wrote is in some box deep in my storage space and doesn't seem worth digging out at the moment, but I remember that one of the first things she said to me, maybe the first, was the phrase: "In my defense..." That was before I'd said a word, but I didn't need to: she knew what I was thinking.

People who knew I was going to interview her loved to show me how clever they were by asking things like "Find out who her dentist is." When I got back home and wrote an article that talked about how good she was in the play, another editor at the magazine added a snarky lead about how "Of course she'll never win a Tony." I fought to get that out of there, but they wouldn't let me eliminate that snide tone altogether. I won a journalism award for that piece, but I always felt like it was tainted by that faint undertone.

But hey, sneering at Farrah was just one of those things the smart set did back then: It proved you were in the know.

Lord knows I did it myself, when I was an alienated young hippie type and you couldn't escape that poster of hers. Aaron Spelling's now-ubiquitious brand of plasticine cheesecake was new then, so Charlie's Angels made a handy target for my friends and me, when we were bemoaning the death of the handmade and the heartfelt and all that other, less manufactured stuff we were so pleased with ourselves for appreciating.

I didn't learn much about Farrah when we met -- she'd had years by then to fill in the chinks in her armor -- but she gave me a lot to chew on afterward. You don't get looks like that without working at it, so some part of her must have enjoyed the attention her beauty earned her. But how frustrating it must have been to have dealt with all those stereotypes and sneers over the years. And what a shame that hardly anyone in the industry ever seemed to see what she was capable of as an actress.

Good on Robert Duvall for giving her that juicy part in the Apostle. She played the hell out of it, too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Year One

By Elise Nakhnikian

I don’t get the backlash against Year One. Are people just getting tired of Jack Black and Michael Cera playing the same characters? Is Year One’s glib, good-natured vibe too retro – and not retro in a cool way, but in a Hope-Crosby road movie kind of way? Or is it just that humor’s a subjective thing and lots of people didn’t find it funny?

All I know is, I hate to see all the hating that’s being done on this amiable little goof of a buddy movie.

Year One is set in the same alphabet soup of ancient history that spawned Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. Its bumbling buddies are Zed and Oh, a failed would-be hunter and a suspiciously girly gatherer who start out in a tiny Stone Age village and wind up in Sodom, the ultimate city.

Zed is played by Black and Oh by Cera, so you know who these guys are from the moment you see them. The two work well with each other and with the movie’s Fractured Fairy Tales-ish settings, maybe because both actors have honed their personas to such a fine point that they feel almost like animated characters.

Zed’s another of Black’s demonically cheery Ritalin babies, a bouncing ball of id who lives to break the rules. Oh is one of Cera’s patented beta males, a sad-eyed, sweet-natured innocent who just wants to stay out of trouble and land the girl of his dreams.

When Zed gets kicked out of their village for breaking its one unbreakable rule, Oh tags mournfully along, seemingly against his own will. They amble out into a whole world of trouble, most of which lands on Oh’s hunched shoulders.

Director and cowriter Harold Ramis sends the two ping-ponging from one mythical tableau to the next, like extras wandering through a series of soundstages. The scenes they bumble into are generally either spoofs of costume dramas about prehistoric times or retellings of Old Testament tales by way of the Borscht Belt.

Before they wind up in Sodom – which the script keeps comparing to Vegas – Oh and Zed come across Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd) just as Cain is trying to kill his brother. They also round a corner on Abraham (a bug-eyed Hank Azaria) as he’s about to kill his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad’s McLovin) – though he doesn’t see it that way. “I wasn’t going to kill him,” Abraham insists. “I was going to sacrifice him. There’s a tremendous difference.”

“Not to him, I’m guessing,” Oh responds.

At each new setting, the two do a little shtick, fall into mortal danger, and wriggle free. Sometimes they also reconnect, in a cursory sort of way, with their obligatory love interests, two girls from their village who wind up on a compulsory road trip of their own.

There’s a lot of Mel Brooks in Year One, which likes its humor broad and liberally laced with gay jokes, fart jokes, and physical humor. There’s some Woody Allen in its tossed-off one-liners (“We are the Hebrews – righteous people, but not very good at sports,” Abraham tells Oh and Zed as he shows them around his village) and its loving spoofs of movie clichés, like the flawless 21st-century hair and makeup on Oh’s and Zed’s otherwise primitive mates.

There’s even a little Monty Python in its potshots at arbitrary religious customs – but only a little. Ramis and his co-writers, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (The Office), are going for a less conceptual, more potty-mouthed humor than the Pythons, so where Life of Brian spoofed things like the religious splinter groups that sprang up around the birth of Christianity, Year One doesn’t ponder anything much deeper than the pain of circumcision.

The best parts of Year One are pure shtick, like Cain’s protracted murder of his surprisingly resilient brother, or the long list of crimes ending in “-try,” (idolatry, etc.) for which Zed and Oh are condemned to death – including puppetry and punditry. I also loved the bit where Zed and Oh first enter Sodom and a woman tries to arouse their interest by fellating a banana. “She’s really making that banana last,” Oh remarks .

Some of the jokes about the religious dogma reminded me of Bill Maher’s Religulous, and comparing this silly business to that self-righteous lecture made me like Year One that much more.

Year One doesn’t take anything all that seriously – including itself. It may try to tack on a moral at the end about thinking for yourself, but it’s not fooling anyone: all it really wants to do is make you laugh. I was smiling when I left the theater, and what’s not to like about that?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Away We Go

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the images in Away We Go pretty well sums up the whole movie: Embarking on a road trip to figure out where and how to raise the baby they’re about to have, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) stand on an airport’s moving sidewalk. Filmed head-on through a long lens, they appear to be standing still while everyone else scurries about in the background.

Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, the thirty-something couple at the heart of the McSweeney’s/Believer publishing fiefdom, based the screenplay on things they’d experienced or read during Vida’s first pregnancy. Their sympathies are clearly with Verona and Burt, but the other characters are mostly caricatures, flitting by just to provide comic relief, life lessons, or both. So whether you like the movie has a lot to do with what you think of its main characters.

I enjoyed Burt and Verona’s teasing rapport and the ease of their intimacy, a long-established, day-to-day kind of love you don’t see much at the movies. I also liked the idea of the search they were on. So they had me at hello – yet they kept losing me. Watching this movie felt like going on a date with someone I was attracted to but had to work too hard to connect with.

My problem wasn’t with Burt and Verona, who wield that ironic/self-deprecating Gen X thing like a force field, deflecting any criticism I might have otherwise had. I found them believable ad charming, both individually and as a couple. Rudolph’s Verona exudes a steady, sometimes cranky honesty and kindness that make her the sanest person in any room. Krasinski’s Burt, who bounds about like an oversized puppy, seems significantly younger and less mature, but the two clearly delight in each other and you can see how they might balance each other out.

The problem is the grossly oversimplified people they encounter on their journey – and the smugness with which most of them are presented. I don’t know where that came from, but I suspect director Sam Mendes.

An Englishman with a lot of cachet in Hollywood, Mendes seems determined to make Significant Statements about American life in his art-house genre movies. Unfortunately, his messages are about as fresh as the Morse Code. American Beauty and Revolutionary Road delivered the news that life in the suburbs can be, like, conformist and soul-killing, man. Road to Perdition was a 40’s-style noir gangster movie that wanted to say something deep about fathers and sons, but its story got swallowed up by its art direction. And Jarhead took a politically savvy, impassioned book about Marines in Iraq and leached out all its nuance and angry eloquence.

Away We Go’s Burt and Verona do a lifestyle tour of the United States, and what they find isn’t pretty. Searching for their home with a capital H, they check in with friends and relatives in a series of cities, observing their wildly varied childrearing methods. In the first half of the movie, everybody they visit is self-involved to the point of cruelty, their behavior and beliefs so broadly sketched that they play almost like farce.

The worst offender is an old family friend of Burt’s, a self-satisfied, New Age-y professor whose home life is practically cultlike. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks like she’s having fun with the part, speaking in hushed tones about the joys of exposing children to parental lovemaking or reacting to a stroller as if it were made of toxic waste, but it’s not much fun to watch Mendes and company torch this straw woman.

The people in the second half of the film are more sympathetically portrayed. That’s a welcome shift, but the mood turns too suddenly somber as Burt and Verona feel not just their own pain but other people’s too. The indie-folkie score by singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch can get pretty annoying too, and none of the encounters go deep enough to provide any real insight.

An All-Star cast and crew polishes the intentionally scruffy script to a high gloss. There are no small parts when minor roles are played by actors like Allison Janney and Catherine O’Hara. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras works unobtrusively to mirror the couple’s perspective, using a lot of deadpan pans and providing such loving close-ups of Burt and Verona that I’ve memorized the mole on Rudolph’s eyebrow. Kuras also captures the movie’s undercurrent of quirk by occasionally showing us something slightly askew, like a reflection of an airplane in a wall of glass that makes it look like a school of leaping dolphins.

But no amount of skill can bring those other people to life. In the end, Verona and Burt stand out from their surroundings as starkly as the detective in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, lone human figures silhouetted against a cartoonish backdrop.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Summer Hours

By Elise Nakhnikian

At the New York Film Festival premiere of Summer Hours, writer/director Olivier Assayas called it his Cherry Orchard. That’s a bold analogy, but it holds up. By mining the emotions of a haute-bourgeois clan as its adult children sell the family estate, this elegiac work of art captures the ebb and flow of a family’s life across generations – and the decommissioning of an aging empire and its ruling class.

Summer Hours was conceived as part of a series of short films the Musée d’Orsay planned to sponsor for its 20th anniversary. “The notes that I was scribbling initially were about how an artwork has a life cycle,” Assayas told viewers at the film festival. “It lives its life among individuals in households and at some point it ends up buried in a museum.”

The museum abandoned the project, but not until Assayas had created a back story for his imaginary objects. In explaining what they’d meant to people over the years and how they wound up in a museum, he created a whole family, including three adult children who represent different aspects of himself, and he wanted to tell their story.

We first meet the family at its estate, a beautiful French country house with a rambling yard. Cinematographer Eric Gautier’s fluid camera follows kids and dogs as they swarm through the house and grounds, pausing to take note of the live-in housekeeper, Éloise (Isabelle Sadoyan). Also there is the kids’ elegant, strong-willed grandmother, Hélène (Edith Scob), who lives there, plus her three grown children, and their spouses, who have gathered to celebrate Hélène’s birthday.

Six months later, the family is back for Hélène’s funeral. Between mourning their mother and speculating about her life, the adult “kids” – Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier, a favorite of the masterful Dardenne brothers), and Frédéric (Charles Berling) – decide what to do with the house and its treasures, some of which are so special that a world-class museum wants to acquire them.

The economical yet realistic dialogue and the excellent cast, which includes some of the best naturalistic actors working today, capture the emotional ebb and flow of a family: the jokes and shared memories that keep these adult children together, their differences in temperament; the obligations and interests that pull them apart.

Assayas, an early aficionado of Asian film (he was once married to actress Maggie Cheung, who starred in two of his movies) has long been attuned to how globalization is changing life in his native France. He carries that theme into Summer Hours, which looks at how the global economy is, as he put it, “basically tearing apart families and transforming ancient, traditional cultures.”

Adrienne lives in New York and works as an in-house designer for a high-end Japanese department store. Jérémie works the other end of the global economy, managing a factory in China that makes cheap sneakers. Frédéric, the oldest son, is the only one who stayed close to home, working as an economist at a university near his mother’s estate.

Frédéric loves the house and everything in it and wants to keep it in the family. But Adrienne, who seems to have inherited her mother’s bluntness, has no use for the house or its furnishings. “France neither,” she tosses off nonchalantly. And Jérémie is less interested in the house and its contents than he is in the money they could bring, which he needs to support his growing family.

While we watch them go through the process of selling the estate and go about some of the other business of their lives, the movie’s unhurried pace lets us mull over the other things it touches on – things like what’s lost when someone dies, or how a thing can seem so alive when it’s being used and so lifeless in a museum.

There’s also an eloquent subplot involving Éloise, who the camera persistently and quietly seeks out. We learn about the intimacy and power inequity of her relationship with her employer without ever hearing it discussed, just by watching how she and the family react to her loss. After all, she lost not just her closest companion but her home and her livelihood too, though Frédéric is the only one of Hélène’s children who seems to notice.

The movie ends as it began, with a river of children flowing through the old house and yard for one last party before it’s sold. They’re beautiful kids, full of energy, yet something is off: Dressed in jeans and Converse All-Stars, listening to rap, and riding skateboards, they’re aiming for an American style of cool that they can’t quite attain.

“Like everyone else, they’re into America,” one of the adults said earlier. With their grandmother’s house no longer available to come home to, we feel, they could wind up anywhere. And without a direct link to their rich ancestral history, they would be changed and somehow diminished, like those family furnishings turned museum pieces.