Sunday, August 30, 2009

Passing Strange: A Spike Lee Joint Venture

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of America’s best living filmmakers, Spike Lee is also one of its most versatile, equally comfortable making fiction films, documentaries, shorts, and TV movies. And every now and then, he puts his talent and production team to work in the service of someone else’s vision, creating a film that’s more document than documentary.

He did that in Freak, a film of John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show of the same name. And he’s done it again with Passing Strange. “Don't fuck it up -- that was really the motto,” Lee says in an IFC interview about his latest movie, which records a rock musical that closed this year. “My nightmare was they'd say, ‘I saw it at the Public, I saw it on Broadway, but that shit Spike did was fucked up!’"
Read the rest on The House Next Door

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

By Elise Nakhnikian

As a German officer who refused to betray his troops was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by a gloating American soldier, the audience at my screening of Inglorious Basterds hooted and cheered.

Did writer/director Quentin Tarantino expect that reaction? And if so, did he want it to make us feel queasy?

I hate to say it, but I think the answer is yes and no.

I’ve loved every other movie Tarantino directed. I never get tired of watching him extract gold from the genre movies he grew up on: the adrenaline-fueled kung fu death battles and the spaghetti-Western bleached landscapes and no-name heroine of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the charismatic cool of antiheroes like Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, the soulful soundtrack of Jackie Brown. I enjoy hanging out with his flawed characters almost as much as he clearly does. And I love how, for all the artfully choreographed violence, his movies are ultimately more talk than action.

But I don’t like this one.

The genre this time is the Nazi movie. Tarantino’s twist is to imagine an alternate reality in Vichy France, where Jews are the tormentors and Nazis the victims. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a taciturn Tennessean, is in charge of a special unit of American Jews, the “basterds” of the title (Tarantino mangled the spelling to distinguish it from an Enzo Castellari WWII movie he bought rights to and meant to adapt, though he wound up creating something entirely new.)

The basterds have been recruited to terrorize the Nazis by killing German soldiers as brutally as possible. Raine, who‘s “part Injun,” demands that his men scalp each of their kills. He also carves swastikas into the foreheads of the Nazis he releases, in an eerie echo of the stars of David Nazis often carved into the chests of rabbis before killing them.

The cruelty of those acts, and the cold efficiency or glee with which they’re carried out, made me profoundly uncomfortable. Worse yet was watching a roomful of people trapped in a burning building trample one another to scrabble at a locked door. That scene in particular mirrors the horrific fate of countless Jews in Nazi Germany – but the victims are here Nazi leaders and their associates, and the trap is set by a Jew.

If I thought Tarantino wants us to squirm at this, thinking about how revenge can dehumanize its subjects, turning victim into perpetrator, I’d be fine with a little discomfort. But I think we’re just supposed to cheer when the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers get what they “deserve.”

I get that Tarantino is looking at the Holocaust less as a historical fact than as a movie genre, but I expect him to know better. After all, the way movies can affect our view of the world is one of the main themes of Inglourious Basterds, whose plot revolves around the fateful premiere of a war-porn movie produced by Hitler’s favorite propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

For a little while recently, it looked as if Nazi movies were finally growing up, ending a long line of films that were black and white in more ways than one. A recent crop from Europe, including The Pianist (2002), Downfall (2004), Black Book (2006), and The Counterfeiter (2007), told tales about Jews who survived the war by any means necessary or Germans so devoted to Hitler that they followed him right into his bunker. The Jews in these movies weren’t just passive victims – some even collaborated with the Nazis to save their own skins. And the Germans weren’t cardboard villains; in fact, some were quite sympathetic, good people caught up in a bad system. That system was also given its due, giving you a sense of how tightly the Nazi regime and its collaborators clamped down on all aspects of public life and how perilous it was to oppose them.

Not that Inglourious Basterds ignores the risk of defying the Nazis. On the contrary, it revels in it, most notably in its tense opening sequence of a French farmer facing off against the movie’s deliciously evil villain, the suavely Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz); in its long (too long, I thought) showcase showdown in an underground bar, (a “fight in a basement,” as Raine sums it up); and in a charged chat over strudel between Landa and the woman who later sets off that deadly inferno, a Jew hiding in plain sight as a Christian.

But these are movie showdowns: charged cat and mouse games between two empowered parties, which the good guys usually win. Aside from Landa and the sharp-eyed lookout in that cellar bar, the Nazis of Inglorious Basterds – starting with Hitler himself —- are cartoonish or clueless. That makes them -- and the system they represent -- seem as easy to outsmart and defeat as the buffoon Nazis of Hogan’s Heroes.

In this upside-down world, it’s the Jews, not the Nazis, who mutilate and torture their prisoners, muddying a historical record that desperately needs to be clear.

But the most unsettling part of this sadistic schoolboy revenge fantasy is its message. Tarantino and his heroes seem to think torture’s just dandy, as long as you consider the victim to be beneath contempt.

Isn’t that just what the Nazis believed?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Paper Heart

By Elise Nakhnikian

Paper Heart’s Charlyne Yi, the gawky stoner girlfriend from Knocked Up, is an odd duck. So tomboyish her best friend/producer calls her “Chuck” and so guilelessly geeky I can’t watch her without wondering if she has Asperger Syndrome, she’s hardly what you’d expect from the cowriter and star of a self-described “documentary about love.” But then, that’s kind of the point of this raggedly charming little movie.

Paper Heart hints at the variety and mystery of romance by letting regular people describe how they found love – or lost it. To get those stories, Yi zigzagged across the country with her cowriter and director Nicholas Jasenovec, a small crew, and two handheld cameras, stopping to interview a series of refreshingly direct, unglamorous people.

That’s just the outer layer of this thoughtfully constructed little film.

Excerpts from those interviews are folded into a fictional story about Yi herself – or, rather, a character played by Yi who shares her name and a lot of her characteristics. After declaring that she has never been in love and doesn’t think she ever will be, Yi decides to make a movie – the documentary we’re watching – with her best friend Jasenovec. If she talks to enough people about love, she figures, maybe she can find out what it is and why she hasn’t been able to experience it.

Shot with handheld cameras, natural-looking lighting, naturalistic acting, and impromptu-sounding dialogue, Paper Heart is a fiction film posing as a documentary. Jasenovec isn’t even Jasenovic: He’s played by actor Jake Johnson. The filmmakers are coy about what else isn’t real, but I’m pretty sure everything aside from the interviews was scripted. They have fun making us guess, though, throwing in fistfuls of red herrings like the party scene where actor Michael Cera asks “Will this be in the movie?” and is told “Probably not.”

Their movie within the movie also lets us watch a romance unfold instead of just hearing the process described, when Yi and Cera (who is playing himself, or someone a lot like himself) fall in love (or something a lot like love).

Hesitantly charming as always, Cera fakes sincerity and spontaneity so well you almost believe their romance, especially since gossip magazines have been speculating for years that Cera and Yi are in fact a couple. The two definitely have some kind of chemistry, with their rhyming sweatpants and hoodies. You root for them when they make a run for it, trying to escape the prying camera when the fictional Jasenovec documents their affair obsessively, insisting that it’s part of the story. And when they play music in a wordless montage, you can almost buy them as a nerdy version of the lovers in Once. Yi and Cera even composed songs for the soundtrack.

In the end, though, their affair feels about as hot as a Girl Scout picnic. The whole thing gets a little too self-consciously meta sometimes too, like when “Jasenovec” sends Yi to a psychic, to ask about her stalled affair with Cera, or when the director and his star go to Paris for what’s supposed to be her romantic ending with the leading man – and Cera doesn’t show up.

All those wheels within wheels would be spinning away without creating any friction, as distanced from love as Yi herself claims to be, if it weren’t for those disarmingly revealing real people. In one interview, a self-contained-looking divorcĂ© mourns the loss of what he suspects was his one true love, showing himself to be unexpectedly vulnerable. In another, two elderly high school sweethearts ooze mutual appreciation decades after they met. A dryly funny family court judge and the lawyer he fell for when she argued cases in his court tag-team their story with great comic timing, and a gay man who was just looking for sex when he met his long-time partner talks about having found more than he bargained for.

The interviews are often staged in interesting settings – the divorcĂ© is shooting pool in his basement – but Jasenovec and Yi don’t confine themselves to that footage. Instead, Yi often acts out the stories as people talk, using childishly crude puppets that she and her father made in their garage.

Like the rest of the movie, the puppets are deceptively sophisticated and sweetly entertaining. And every so often, they surprise you with a genuinely moving moment.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia

By Elise Nakhnikian

Meryl Streep has played some amazing women in her time, but none more gallant than Julia Child, the gentle giant who demystified French cooking for Americans. A great soul in an ungainly body who refused to let other people define or deter her, Child was a pioneer in pearls, a reassuring, empowering, eternally cheerful emissary to the intimidating world of haute cuisine. “No excuses,” she declares in Julie and Julia. “Never apologize. No explanations!”

Until Child marched through the doors of the Cordon Bleu’s professional-level cooking classes, propping them open behind her with her cookbook and her long-lived PBS cooking show, the activity her book identified as “the art of French cooking” was off-limits to American housewives. Not that Child herself ever used the word “housewife,” which was already weighed down by layers of condescension and negative connotations by the early ‘60s, when her first cookbook was published. Instead, she identified her target audience as “servantless American cooks.”

Streep performs another of her astonishing acts of alchemy to become the captivatingly friendly, life-loving prodigy, whooping and warbling her adoration for her devoted husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), her adopted hometown of Paris, her friends, and the food that changes her life. Photos of the actress in character barely hint at how fully she inhabits the part, since so much of the magic is in her voice, her slump-shouldered posture, and the sheer wattage of the joy she projects.

If Streep's part of the movie was all there were of Julie and Julia, it would be the best of Nora Ephron’s feel-good chick flicks (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail). Julia’s full-throated enthusiasms make her excellent company, and her long and happy marriage provides us with the rare treat of a mutually adoring, apparently lusty, almost ordinary-looking middle-aged couple on film.

A foodie from way back, Ephron finds drama in the writing and publication of the seminal book Child cowrote with two Frenchwomen – well, mostly with one, as we learn in dishy detail. And the writer/director's light and sure touch with the emotional rhythms of female bonding (remember Meg Ryan’s friendship with Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle? Or Streep’s with Cher in Silkwood?) does justice to Julia’s rich relationships with other women, including her sister Dorothy, another jolly giant brought memorably to life by the always zesty Jane Lynch.

Watching Julie and Julia, it’s easy to imagine how someone might be so drawn to Julia’s inclusive spirit and rich recipes that she’d want to spend a whole year with her first book. That’s just what the movie’s Julie, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), did, cooking all 524 recipes in 365 days while blogging about the experience. Unfortunately, her story isn’t anywhere near as engaging as Julia’s.

That wouldn’t matter if Julie and Julia didn’t divide its time so evenly between the two. Ephron keeps drawing parallels between them, starting Julia’s part of the story when she’s roughly Julie’s age, a housewife searching for “something to DOOO.” But the often strained comparisons only emphasize how different the anxious, self-involved blogger is from the “great big good fairy,” as Julie describes her idol.

Adams is a charming, emotionally transparent actress, and she works hard to make her character sympathetic, but it's a hopelessly steep slog. Julia’s greatness makes Julie’s concerns seem petty and narcissistic, just as Streep’s sacred monster in The Devil Wears Prada made mincemeat of the aspirations and frustrations of the young woman whose story that movie was supposed to be. Even the cinematographer makes Adams' job harder, bathing Julia in golden rays while confining Julie mostly to her fluorescent-lit cubicle or her dark, overcrowded apartment.

Julia’s main goal was to make a great cuisine accessible to a whole new continent; Julie’s main goals were to beat a friend she didn’t even like at blogging and to prove that she could stick to something for a whole year. Julia has deep friendships and brings out the best in nearly everyone; Julie mostly has frenemies. Julia forges a whole new path to create her brilliant career; Julie works so hard at emulating her role model that she sometimes seems to be trying to become her.

Or to become her best friend, in a creepy, Single White Female kind of way. In a recent New York Times essay, Lucinda Rosenfeld writes about how Facebook and other online social networking are increasingly taking the place of actual conversation. “I understand that the chick flick of the summer is poised to be Julie and Julia, a postmodern biopic/romantic comedy about Julia Child and a modern-day aspiring female chef who worships her,” she says. “Moral of the story: A girl's best friend may be the one she's never met?”

When Streep is on the screen, Julie and Julia is rich with relationships – between Julia and her husband, her friends, her Paris, her food, and the world in general. In Julie’s part of the story, we leave that expansive world for a chilly little planet where a neurotic writer frets about her imaginary friend.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In the Loop

By Elise Nakhnikian

I never could abide The West Wing, though it was impossible to avoid for a while. A lot of people embraced it as a kind of escapist fantasy during the Bush years, but its sanctimonious tone – all those photogenic, high-minded people striding down floodlit hallways and jabbering about Important Issues – just made me itch.

For me, In the Loop is a balm for that allergy. It’s not an either-or choice for everyone: I know some West Wing fans who loved In the Loop too. But the two couldn’t be much farther apart in their take on how the sausages are made in D.C. and other global power centers.

If West Wing indulges in the self-flattery of a waning empire clinging to its own myths, In the Loop, a mordantly funny British satire based on a BBC-TV series called The Thick of It, eyes politics from the perspective of a nation grown used to watching power plays from the sidelines. The joke’s on Britain in a running gag about “room meat” – aides and low-level bureaucrats invited to meetings as human props to acknowledge the importance of a occasion or signal the support of a regime. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the only British politician we see, is nothing but room meat to the Americans who invite him to join their war games. Worse yet, he’s too inept to know it at first.

Foster captures the world’s attention when he makes an impolitic statement in a radio interview, implying that the rumors of a coming war between the U.S. and some unnamed Middle Eastern country are true. Foster doesn’t actually know anything about it, but he can’t resist talking when reporters ask questions, jamming his foot a little further into his mouth every time he opens it.

Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), a savvy U.S. State Department official doing her best to avert the war, decides Foster will be a useful pawn in her game and invites him to D.C. Bumbling their way from the halls of Congress to the U.N., the minister and his newly minted aide, Toby (Chris Addison), another well-meaning incompetent playing way above his pay grade, are as starstruck as a couple of teens at a Miley Cyrus concert.

Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a Donald Rumsfeld-style American hawk, coolly maneuvers his country into the war he’s decided it needs, swatting aside any facts that don’t support his case. “We have all the facts we need,” he announces. “In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king.”

The deal-making takes place in resolutely plebeian settings, including a lot of public bathrooms and fluorescent-lit offices. At one point, Clark and a U.S. general (James Gandolfini) who shares her aversion for war are reduced to meeting in a child’s bedroom at a party, where they use a toy computer to bang out some numbers.

Clark is just one of several flawed but relatable characters – including Foster – who you can’t help but empathize with, even as they ruthlessly bully and manipulate each other. The most entertaining is ferret-faced Scottish spinmeister Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), whose tongue is even sharper than his nose. Tucker swears his way through the corridors of power with rare artistry and zeal.

It’s all very funny, and it feels alarmingly plausible – office politics with a capital P, exaggerated just a little for comic effect. This Washington, D.C. is a life-sized world full of life-like people. Most are motivated by self-interest, more interested in salvaging or furthering their careers than in winning the fight over going to war. Very young aides do nearly all the work, trading game-changing information behind the scenes. (“It’s like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns,” says one of the British spin doctors.) But in the end, Barwick’s ruthless manipulation of people and records wins the day.

The camerawork is as smart as the dialogue, capturing layers of simultaneous action in glass-walled offices or zooming in on telling expressions without drawing attention to itself. Director/co-writer Armando Iannucci, who was one of the writer/producers of The Thick of It, shot the movie as he did the TV show: “fast and free and slightly improvised … having two cameras on the go all the time," he says in an interview on the IFC website. He also likes to give his actors their lines only minutes before he starts filming, to keep them off-balance and ramp up the near-desperate intensity of the exchanges.

It’s deeply disturbing to think that this may be how such important decisions get made in our capitol, but the paradox of In the Loop is how much fun it is to watch all those Machiavellian machinations. It’s partly all the brilliant one-liners, of course. But there’s also something exhilarating about a portrayal of politicians in action that doesn’t lionize or demonize them but just seems to get them right.

“The disarming thing is when you talk to these people and realize they're just like you and me,” Iannucci told IFC. “They're all fallible, and, in fact, what drives their day are these petty little worries and stresses.”