Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Movie Roundup

By Elise Nakhnikian

Will Smith is MIA this month, but who’s had time to miss him? Hollywood has already rolled out enough would-be blockbusters this summer to feed a whole decade’s worth of Independence Day weekends.

I thought Brüno was disappointing, though it had its moments. But there are plenty of other summer movies still playing that are worth checking out.

My favorite is Public Enemies, director and cowriter Michael Mann’s take on the last few days of John Dillinger. Like the main character of Mann’s first feature, Thief, Dillinger is a professional thief recently sprung from a long prison term and hungry to make up for lost time. “What do you want?” asks the girl Dillinger woos with his usual hooded intensity. “Everything – right now,” he tells her.

Shooting with digital video and handheld cameras and saturating the soundtrack with the same heavy, gorgeous chords he used in Last of the Mohicans, Mann imbues the beautifully shot story with its main character’s sense of urgency: everything feels as if it’s happening right now.

Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is an honorable thief. He seems not only, as he puts it, tougher, smarter, and faster than just about anyone else but also more loyal and somehow more authentic. Mann has always been fascinated by American crime – the cops as well as the criminals. As in Heat and Miami Vice, he spends time here on both sides of the law, developing subplots about the rise of the FBI under Herbert Hoover (a stiff Billy Crudup) and the hunting of Dillinger by Agent Melvin Purvis (the always intense Christian Bale). The last shot of the movie belongs to a laconic agent who helped hunt Dillinger down, and whose words to Dillinger’s girlfriend reveal him to be a man of principle and a worthy foe.

Mann’s vision of male honor and virility may be a little anachronistic – a daydream from a time gone by – but he makes his romanticized vision feel as real as your morning coffee.

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's clear-eyed portrait of an Army sergeant who disarms bombs in Iraq, is another excellent movie about a tough guy who chooses to put himself in harm’s way. Bigelow knows how to shoot a violent confrontation or a standoff to maximize the suspense. But this movie’s real power flows from the courage and grit of the people involved, and the way we get to know and care about them. (I have to believe Bigelow deserves the props for that, since writer Mark Boal’s only other credit is for the preachy and lugubrious In the Valley of Elah.)

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t talk much, but by the end of this movie, you know what makes him tick and you sincerely admire his skill and commitment. You also get to know the other men in his squad, and when James comes back to the States and wanders the aisles of a grocery store, the mellow Muzak and row upon row of cereals looking and sounding almost as alien to us as they must to him, you realize how well Bigelow has recreated the feel of a guerilla war zone. The Hurt Locker isn’t overtly political, but its quiet realism speaks clearly, reminding us not to forget the people who risk their lives every day in our names in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Hurt Locker should be required viewing for anyone who has seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This relentlessly militaristic sequel is just another cog in the war machine that’s gobbling up most of our national resources and far too many of our young men and women. Kind of like one of the rampaging transformers from the movie, come to think of it – the one that constructs itself by sucking in every other machine in sight.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a big pop culture lollipop for little kids and their parents. An animated valentine to family values, it’s full of cute baby animals and doting parents, including Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano) and his mate Ellie (Queen Latifah). They’re followed by the usual motley crew of sidekicks – including Scrat, the squirrel whose desperate pursuit of an elusive nut is woven through the plot like a comic ballet. The animation is beautifully done, and 3-D makes it pop even more. During the end credits at the screening I went to, several kids sidled right up to the screen like magnets to a refrigerator, drawn to the cheery, childlike drawings that seemed to float in front of it.

If Ice Age is family entertainment candy, Pixar’s Up is a layer cake from a very good bakery: lighter and more complex, but still with that mass-produced sheen. It starts out beautifully, with an interesting setup, likeable characters, and a masterful montage of a couple’s lifelong love story. But, as in last year’s WALL-E, Pixar’s scriptwriters seem to run out of creative steam in the second half of the movie, reverting to a much more conventional, less engaging story. It’s definitely worth seeing, though. The visuals are always arresting, kids love the talking dogs, and mom and dad shouldn’t miss that marriage montage.

For bigger kids, there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The Harry Potter movies could never quite reproduce the intensity of J.K. Rowling’s prose or the density of detail that brought Harry’s world so vividly to life – not to mention Rowling’s sly sense of humor. They got much better and less sanitized after director Chris Columbus was replaced, but the later installments lean a little too far in the other direction, often feeling too solemn or self-important. It doesn’t help that Daniel Radcliffe in the title role and Emma Watson in the key supporting role of Hermione have too little range to pull you in – though the adult cast is always a delight, and Rupert Grint is a treat as Harry’s other best friend, Ron.

Director David Yates makes The Half-Blood Prince as good as any of the Potter movies yet, with truly menacing bad guys and teenage love pangs that will make you tear up one minute and laugh the next. But too many sequences feel too long and somber, and the meticulous art direction and CGI effects keep upstaging the actors, making the film lose that grip on the everyday that is the bedrock of Rowling’s series. Get that right and Harry’s world is truly amazing. Leave it out and all you’ve got is another special effects movie – a better than average one, granted, but nothing magical.

If you’re looking for a purely entertaining action movie, try The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a fast-paced, well-acted update of the story of a hijacked subway train featuring John Travolta as a convincingly psychotic bad guy and Denzel Washington as a flawed hero.

And if it’s a date movie you want, The Proposal or (500) Days of Summer are both perfectly adequate. I actually liked The Proposal a little better, though it’s more formulaic. It’s hard not to root for Sandra Bullock or Ryan Reynolds, even if there’s hardly a surprise or a genuine moment to be found in the movie.

Summer’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty irresistible too, but the object of his character’s unrequited obsession, Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, is so underdeveloped that the movie feels repetitive at just 95 minutes. What’s more, some of the “interesting” stuff thrown in by director Mark Webb, whose background is in music videos, just distracts from Tom’s feelings rather than illuminating them.

I’m out of room, so let me just add that The Hangover, an imaginative and funny road movie about a bachelor party gone awry, has been a breakout hit this summer and deserves it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

By Elise Nakhnikian

What is a painting worth?

Whatever someone will pay for it.

Like a Zen koan, the more you think about that answer, the harder it is to understand. How can a piece of art be worthless if it’s by an unknown artist but priceless if it was painted by an anointed master? Who does that anointing, anyhow? Does the price of a painting have any relation at all to how good it is?

The growing chasm between the ultra-rich and the rest of us has made the relationship between the price of a painting and its artistic merit more tenuous than ever. Using art to invest – and flaunt – their money, the superrich have driven prices for name-brand works into the stratosphere over the past few years. So the time is right for Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006), the true story of a bullheaded, dumpster-diving, 70-something truck driver named Teri Horton and the splatter-painted canvas she bought for $5 at a thrift shop.

Horton got the unsigned painting as a kind of joke to cheer up a depressed friend. “It was ugly,” she says. “There was nothing to it – it was just all these different colors all over a canvas.”

Her friend didn’t want it either, so Horton tried to sell it – until a local art teacher told her it might be a Pollock. “Who the fuck Is Jackson Pollock?” Horton asked. When she learned that his paintings sold for millions, she tried to find someone to tell her if hers was the real thing.

But the art dealers she contacted were so certain that a Pollock could not have eluded the grasp of collectors for half a century and then fall into the callused hands of a thrift store shopper with an eighth-grade education that they froze her out without even looking at the painting.

Outraged by their disrespect, Horton vowed to get her answer. “I thought, who in the hell do these people think they are?” she says. “What if this thing is really real? It became a challenge for me.”

Writer-director Harry Moses tries to remain neutral on the question of whether the painting is a knock-off, but his sympathies clearly lie with Horton. Shooting her in the cab of her truck, at home in her trailer park, or drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with her friends at a scruffy VFW bar, he portrays her as a plain-spoken working-class heroine taking on an art-world elite.

Some of the art experts he interviews are open-minded and appealingly humble, but others seem to wield “artistic integrity” as a sword to protect their turf and keep the hoi polloi at bay. Thomas Hoving, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, comes off worst. Blinded by a patrician sense of entitlement, he insists that Horton has no right to feel bitter about her treatment by the art world. “She knows nothing,” he sniffs. “I’m an expert.” Moses and cinematographer William Cassara feed our alienation from Hoving by letting us watch him contort himself like a flamingo as he examines the painting, then shooting him from close up with a wide-angle lens that exaggerates his florid hand movements.

Facing off against the art elite is Paul Biro, the equally smug forensic scientist Horton eventually hires to authenticate her painting. Biro prides himself on working like a detective, and a partial fingerprint he found on the back of the canvas forms the bedrock of his claim that the painting is a Pollock. But the art world is suspicious of his methods, convinced that the best way to judge a painting’s authorship is by assessing its aesthetic merits and technique, not analyzing fingerprints or paint chips.

We see just enough of the rich clients who buy multi-million-dollar art – mostly unprepossessing-looking men with heavily Botoxed and bejeweled wives and girlfriends – to get a sense of what drives their decisions. Hearing a potential “investor” from Bear Stearns patiently explain that you can’t expect people to pay millions of dollars for a painting unless it comes with the right paperwork gives you a new appreciation for Hoving, who at least talks about a painting’s soul rather than its pedigree.

Ironically, the director’s own voice-over commentary can be almost as off-putting as Hoving’s pompous pronouncements (he sounds a lot like John Lithgow.) But that’s mostly counterbalanced by Terence Blanchard’s energetic soundtrack and by the often engrossing interviews that make up most of the movie’s 114-minute running time.

Moses has a knack for getting his subjects to open up on camera. The stories they tell and the opinions they express are entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, and the moral is clear: Question authority, no matter how cocksure it may be.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Brüno is the third of social satirist Sacha Baron Cohen’s clueless characters to get his own movie after debuting in Baron Cohen’s brilliant TV sketch comedy, Da Ali G Show. Ali G was the standout on TV, but Baron Cohen’s aggressively awkward, prejudice-ridden Kazakh reporter, Borat Sagdiyev, translated best to film. In the explosively funny Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), Borat conducted his own personal shock and awe campaign, focusing the world’s attention on the British comedian and his inventions.

Brüno is following in his big brother’s footsteps, making an estimated $42 million on his opening weekend, but if this had been the first of the three movies to open, I don’t think it would have done very well. Like the first in Baron Cohen’s series, Ali G Indahouse, Brüno has some laugh-out-loud moments, but it feels like a series of sketches stitched together with very thin thread. After starting out strong, it gets progressively weaker, feeling slow or repetitive in spots and ending with more of a whimper than a bang.

Like all three Marx Brothers rolled into one, Baron Cohen combines physical slapstick, sophisticated wordplay, a healthy disrespect for the status quo, funny accents, and inspired moments of pure comic anarchy to throw prejudice and arbitrary social mores into sharp relief – and to provide some intensely satisfying, “oh-no-he-didn’t” belly laughs. This time around he’s targeting homophobia, and he lands a few good jabs.

Brüno is a witless, narcissistic stereotype of a gay fashionista, a man as campily effeminate and fame-starved as Zsa Zsa Gabor. Baron Cohen also makes him “Austrian,” the way he made Borat “Kazakh,” as another entrance through which to mine our stereotypes and fears.

Soon after the movie begins, Brüno is “schwartzlisted” from Austrian TV for an unfortunate incident involving an all-Velcro suit he wears to a fashion show. (His mishap with the suit is a classic piece of physical comedy—which you can see it in the trailer on YouTube, along with almost all of the movie’s other best moments. )

So he heads to Hollywood, his adoring personal assistant in tow. Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) stick to their winning formula for Borat here, boomeranging Brüno from L.A. to the deep South and back again as he does increasingly outlandish things in his search for fame.

But where Borat’s best encounters were memorable because of the bad behavior they brought out in other people, the humor in Brüno comes mostly from seeing Brüno himself do outrageous things. This movie’s biggest shock for me was the anal bleaching salon he goes to (who knew?), though some people may be bothered by how often he puts his naked penis on display.

A lot of Brüno’s targets are too-easy marks: a barrel-scraping agent desperate enough to sign Brüno despite his glaring lack of talent, a psychic who pretends to contact one of Brüno’s lost loves and then gets visibly uncomfortable as Brüno mimes graphic sex with the dear departed; a pair of vacuous PR twins who can’t pronounce “Darfur.”

Now and then, one of Baron Cohen’s satirical arrows hits home. Paula Abdul, who has admitted that she was lured to Brüno’s unfurnished house by the promise of a fictional award, burbles on about how helping people is her whole life – while sitting on one of the Mexican gardeners Brüno has enlisted to serve as “chairs.” A bit where a series of stage moms agree to submit their children to all kinds of dangers and abuses in hopes of getting them into a video is also horrifyingly hilarious.

But Brüno’s so obnoxious himself that I sometimes sympathized with the people he ambushed. When three good ol’ boys take him hunting in Alabama and he tries repeatedly to climb into one guy’s tent in the middle of the night, or when he tries to seduce former presidential candidate Ron Paul in the middle of an interview, I can’t blame them for getting mad. True, the intensity of their rage is a little scary, but is that homophobia or just anger at being come onto so aggressively after making it clear that you aren’t interested?

If you’re looking for a light summer movie that will give you some laughs, Brüno may be just the ticket. But for a transgressive social satire – something that makes you think as well as chortle – you need to take my man Borat out of retirement.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, July 6, 2009

Whatever Works

By Elise Nakhnikian

A friend of mine once told me he always goes to see Woody Allen’s movies, even when they’re getting bad reviews. “I just want to make sure Woody’s okay,” he said.

I knew just what he meant, since I’ve hardly ever missed one of Woody’s movies myself. But trust me; you can take a pass on this one.

Whatever Works feels like a rough draft of a parody of one of Woody’s thinner efforts. Just thinking about it makes me as cranky as its tiresomely misanthropic lead. Do I really have to tell you what’s wrong with this thing? Can’t I just give it a thumbs down and be done with it? And what’s wrong with me, anyway? Why am I whining about doing something I usually feel lucky to get paid for?

Woody wrote this anemic script more than 30 years ago. Then he had the sense to put it in a drawer – until he needed something to shoot during the recent writers' strike.

It starts with a setup he could probably write in his sleep: A neurotic Jewish New Yorker on the downhill side of middle age hooks up with a lovely young shiksa. They eventually drift apart. Meanwhile, the New Yorker (who we think of as Woody, regardless of whether Allen is playing the character or how much he denies the similarities) tosses off a lot of sardonic asides and a few observations about the meaning of life.

Woody’s great or near-great movies of this ilk – Annie Hall, Play It Again, Sam, Manhattan – pair laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags with all the elements of great film drama, including magnetic actors, resonant relationships, beautiful cinematography, high emotional stakes, expert editing, and subtly evocative soundtracks. They pull me in every time I see them – even if I’m profoundly uncomfortable with parts of the story, as I am with the romance between a middle-aged man and a high school student that anchors Manhattan.

But almost all the elements that make the others click are missing from Whatever Works. Even the great acting Woody is usually so good at marshalling is missing from its center, though there’s plenty of it around the edges. As Boris Yellnikoff, the dyspeptic “Woody” character, Larry David windmills his arms and declaims his lines like a nervous ninth-grader in a school play. "I called him and said, 'Are ya nuts? I don't think I can do this,'" David says he told Woody when he realized he was being asked to play the lead. Too bad Woody didn’t listen.

Watching the rest of the cast concentrate its formidable skills and charisma on bringing their characters to some semblance of life is a lot like watching Dr. Frankenstein labor to reanimate a corpse: you sincerely admire the effort, but you cringe at the result.

Each of the supporting characters is a walking stereotype, with one defining characteristic that keeps getting harped on. At first you think Boris’s child bride, the angelically innocent Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), is the most fictional figment of Woody’s imagination you could ever hope to meet, with her jailbait ponytails, her bottomless naivete, and her broadly generic Southern accent.

Then Melodie’s repressed Southern-belle mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) shows up to praise Jesus and flutter about in color-coordinated outfits, actually fainting dead away at one point - until Manhattan’s art world declares her to be a brilliant “primitive” photographer and she starts swanning about in black leotards and silk scarves, living with two men in what she calls a “may-nage ay twa.”

And then, just as you’ve readjusted your credulity meter, in comes Melodie’s busting-out-of-the-closet father John, (Ed Begley Jr.) and you have to crank it up to 11.

Speaking of going to 11, Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean also shows up – too briefly – as one of Boris’s three closest friends, who pop up every now and then to provide transitions between sketch-like scenes.

Woody did the same thing in Broadway Danny Rose, and it worked. But that’s because the guys in that Greek chorus were just the kind of third- and fourth-tier acts Danny Rose represented. The tales they told, the language and gestures they used, and the deli where they met were all an integral part of the story. Whatever Works’ underwritten, barely differentiated trio adds nothing but the narrative glue Woody was presumably too lazy to introduce more organically.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like in Whatever Works. I enjoyed its view of New York as a kind of Emerald City, where everyone finds his or her true self. I also appreciated the fact that, this time around, Woody is not idealizing the creepy dynamic of an anhedonic old fart pairing up with a girl literally young enough to be his granddaughter.

At least, I don’t think he is. But then, I can’t be sure that any of what I got from this joyless romp is what Woody intended.

Whatever Works doesn’t.