Monday, September 28, 2009

Bright Star

Writer-director Jane Campion came up with the idea for Bright Star while sitting with “a ragtag group of horses I used to like to sit with and read,” she told the audience after a September 14 screening at the Director’s Guild Theater. When one of the horses delicately opened Campion’s bag with her hoof and sniffed it, Campion says: “I thought, that’s what I like, that kind of tenderness and gentleness. I wanted to make a story about that.”

Mission accomplished. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story is infused with a closely observed specificity that ushers us into the world of the great English Romantic poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and the woman he loved.

Campion’s screenplay animates the story of Keats and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a stylish and strongminded young woman. It begins in 1818, when Keats is 23 and Fanny just 16. Keats’ poetry has been mostly badly reviewed and brings in almost no money, so he lives in genteel poverty, dependent on the patronage of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider.) As a result, he can’t marry Fanny after they fall in love, since he is too honorable to marry a woman he cannot support. Instead, the two embark on a passionate, deeply tender, but sexless
affair, which lasts until Keats' death of consumption at age 25.

Like Keats' love poems, Bright Star is an intimate story that contains a whole world. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the spring and summer. The yellow-white sunlight, the wind rustling through the leaves, and the shock of nature’s beauty are near-hallucinogenic at times.

Campion makes you feel the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations feel as compelling as our own – if not more so.

To create that sense of intimacy, Campion spent most of the rehearsal time getting the actors to stop acting. “I really wanted to have a sense of just being from the actors,” she said at the screening. “Whenever people were relaxed and the work was coming from that place, that’s when it felt right.”

To help the actors get past their own neuroses to that state of grace, she talked to them about “Keats’s concept of negative capability – a capacity to stay with the mystery of life, without having to create any answers.”

Keats’ own poetry was one route to that mystery, but Campion knew that a movie about poetry would be a hard sell. “People are allergic to poetry, kind of,” she said. “And they don’t just dislike it; they’re really aggressive about it.” By weaving excerpts from Keats’ letters and poems and talk about poetry organically into the script (“poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery,” he tells Fanny), Campion makes poetry part of the action, using it to deepen the intensity of the characters’ emotions.

Another “important talisman” for the cast was Fanny’s much-younger sister, Toots. Edie Martin, the gravely graceful little sprite who plays her, doesn’t have many lines yet plays a significant role, attracting the camera like a magnet. Campion said the young actress “embodied that quality of delicacy, just naturally. From the start, she had what the others were striving for, and they saw it.”

And now and then, the camera seeks out the Brawne family’s cat, a pacific black-and-white beauty that is, like all cats, a master of the art of living in the moment.

Bright Star’s impassioned but unconsummated love affair is a switch from the eroticism of Campion movies like The Piano and In the Cut, but the film falls in line with Campion’s others in one important way: There's a strong, free-thinking woman at its center.

In her own day and for decades after her death, Fanny was painted as shallow and insincere, a selfish flirt incapable of matching Keats’ depth of feeling or appreciating his genius. More recently, she has often been put on a pedestal, idealized as a sort of human muse. Campion rescues her from both forms of erasure, creating her most self-assured heroine yet.

The Fanny imagined by Campion and embodied by Cornish is self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. Hollywood rarely gives us female leads with that kind of strength and solidity, and that’s a shame. Because it’s those traits that make Fanny a fit mate for a soulful poet, and that pairing of great-hearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.

Are you listening, Sandra Bullock?

Monday, September 21, 2009

An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the few unexamined aspects of the bureaucratic bungling that made such a disaster of Hurricane Katrina is what happened to the pets refugees were forced to leave behind. That’s the subject of An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!

Producer/director/narrator Tom McPhee went to New Orleans a few days after the storm to help. He wound up photographing rescued animals at a central holding area, as part of an effort to reunite pets with their owners. McPhee brought along a video camera too, and the footage he shot at the processing facility became part of An American Opera.

The greatest strength of this sometimes overwrought piece of citizen journalism is its often emotional immediacy. We see people rescuing dogs or breaking into houses to find them dead. We meet some of the volunteers who do the bulk of the rescuing, including a couple who came all the way from Canada. And then there are the animals.

Sad or scared, friendly or reserved, and almost always touchingly compliant, the dogs – the movie never gives us statistics on which species were rescued, but it looks as if nearly all of them were dogs— gaze into the lens and straight though to our hearts. Like their owners a few days before, they’re rounded up, processed, and herded onto planes, confused and alone in a strange new world.

The lack of a coherent plan makes it impossible to rescue all the animals people had to leave when they were evacuated. Volunteers provide much-needed help, but they also add to the confusion. That chaos is compounded – as it was for Katrina’s human victims – by fear, firearms, and a bureaucratic focus on controlling than on helping the victims. It’s chilling to hear the head of the Louisiana SPCA talk about the abandoned animals they’re “trapping.”

McPhee does a good job of retracing the infighting between officials and volunteers in the weeks after the storm, as differing aims and philosophies lead to friction and finger-pointing – not to mention the suffering and deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals.

He avoids showing that suffering in too-graphic detail, for the most part, though young children and the especially tenderhearted should probably steer clear of this movie. The hardest parts to watch involve two mass killings of dogs by law enforcement officers.

One of these stories is narrated by Christopher Acosta, an admirable young man who has clearly earned the right to his School of Hard Knocks T-shirt. Acosta rescued his own dogs, then commandeered boats to save scores of his neighbors before he was evacuated and forced to leave his own surviving dog behind. After all that, he returned to the school where his dog had been left with many others, only to find they'd all had been shot by the law enforcement officers in charge. His telling of that story, and McPhee’s footage of its aftermath, are powerfully matter-of-fact.

But the strength of those moments is diluted by the haphazard structure of this inchoate movie, which sometimes feels as chaotic as the situation it describes.

I kept wondering just what McPhee was trying to achieve. A challenge at the end indicates that he wants to mobilize people to action. But if so, what does he want us to do?

Does he just want us know what a great guy he is? Unfortunately, there’s enough self-promotion in here to beg that question – especially early on, when he keeps breaking into the story with his breathless voiceover to say things like: “If I ever had a time in my life to do something really important and unique and to help out, this was it.”

Or is he trying to use this story as a metaphor for something larger? In the first of several endings, McPhee dwells on the costumed dogs at a Barkus festival in New Orleans, which seems to be a kind of canine Mardi Gras. He says that event proved to him that the city would survive, but it’s never clear to me just what Barkus is or why he finds it so significant.

He also highlights a statement by a photographer who says you can measure a society by how it treats its animals. True enough, but the thing about Katrina is, you don’t need to show what happened to its animals to get to our failure as a society. All you need to do is look at how the people were treated.

The abandonment and botched rescue of Louisiana’s animals after Katrina was, as one of the movie’s subjects puts it, “a disaster within a disaster.” A shame and a tragedy on its own terms, it doesn’t need to be compared to anything else. That’s why what stays with you after watching An American Opera is not the hyberbole or the rebel rock or the garbled calls to action. It’s the quiet dignity of all those stranded dogs and cats.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

By Elise Nakhnikian

To turn the children’s picture book it’s based on it into a full-length animated feature, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs puts a lot of meat on its bones. And I do mean meat: This is no veggie tale.

It’s not what you’d call subtle, either. I had never read the book until after watching the movie, so I took the movie on its own terms, but I wonder whether its fans will accept the changes writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made to Judi Barrett’s story, or the way they’ve amped up its energy level and dumped the book’s subdued cross-hatched drawings for a candy-colored explosion of action. The book treats its story as a fable, a tale told by a grandfather around a family dinner table. The movie explains it all to us – in Imax 3-D, no less.

Yet the two feel related, like siblings from a family with a strong shared sensibility. They’re both an appealing blend of whimsy and homespun wisdom. And they both center around an imaginative concept: a town where food rains down from the sky.

We are not talking manna, whatever that is. This is America, by god, so we’re talking REAL food. Hamburgers. Steaks. Spaghetti and meatballs.

Lord and Miller create a back story to explain the book’s central mystery: Where did all that food come from? They also dream up a whole new set of characters, starting with boy inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), an upbeat misfit and the creator of a machine that turns water into food.

Flint’s best friend is a monkey named Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) who wears a contraption of Flint’s invention that translates his thoughts into English. It’s the same idea as the dog collars in Pixar’s Up, but it’s done better: Steve is all id and idiocy, which makes for some nice comic relief.

Our hero eventually gets a human sidekick too (she’s also his love interest, but that part of their relationship is strictly PG). Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is a smart girl who hides her brains, acting “cute and super-perky,” as another character puts it, so she won’t get picked on. As depressing as it is to be reminded that girls still have to do that in 21st-century America (does the fact that brainy boys can get picked on too make it better or worse?), it’s a treat to see a female lead whose arc is about learning not to play dumb.

The minor characters are sketched broadly enough so little kids can get the picture, yet they don’t feel overly familiar. My favorites were an underemployed, understated Guatemalan immigrant (Benjamin Bratt) with hidden talent to burn and Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan, doing some surprisingly tender, melancholy voice work). A refrigerator-shaped slab of a man with two enormous eyebrows where his eyes ought to be, Tim is a nurturing dad who feels things deeply but can’t articulate what’s in his heart. The speech he makes when Sam gives him Steve’s translating device should resonate with every kid who feels estranged from a parent who doesn’t do well at expressing his or her support.

There are plenty of funny lines, sight gags, and humorous situations, like when the fate of the world depends on Flint being able to walk his tech-averse father through e-mailing him a file via cell phone. Tim’s interpretation of “drag it off the desktop” made me laugh out loud.

But the best part of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is Flint’s elaborate lab and the inventions that emerge from it. Animation frees the filmmakers to create some magical sequences, like the giant Jello mold pictured in the book, which materializes here as a love offering from Flint to Sam. The two slip through its rubbery rind into a hollowed-out interior, playing on its wobbly surface or diving into the translucent core in a courtship scene as transcendent as WALL-E and Eva’s dance in outer space.

Cloudy doesn’t talk down to its audience. In fact, it probably sails right over the heads of very young kids much of the time, spoofing targets like appearance-obsessed newscasters and hypocritical politicians. A running joke about the town’s slowness to wean itself from its longtime dependence on an outmoded business rings so true it almost qualifies as social commentary.

But we’re back to pure spoof when a pompous new anchor (Al Roker) reports on the huge entrees that are raining down around the world, landing first on famous landmarks like Times Square and the Eiffel tower. “It looks like the foodstorm is falling in an unusual pattern,” he remarks.

Next time I see a disaster movie that falls back on that tired trick, I hope I’ll remember that line.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

World’s Greatest Dad and Extract

By Elise Nakhnikian

Four decades into the age of identity politics, are middle-class white men finally just another beleaguered minority? That seems to be the message behind Extract and World’s Greatest Dad, dark comedies about men whose bland exteriors mask some pretty big problems.

Extract isn’t just dark; it’s downright dour. I used to think writer/director Mike Judge was an amiable social satirist, tossing foam-tipped darts at late-capitalist consumerism from a La-Z-Boy somewhere in middle America. Just look at Office Space, his 1991 debut and one of the best comedies ever made about the drudgery and daily humiliation of low-wage work in America.

Granted, Judge always liked to lampoon stupidity too. 2006’s Idiocracy may have aimed mostly at deserving targets like cable news networks and show-biz politicians, but it started with the elitist premise that the USA of the future has devolved into a failed circus-state because smart people stopped having babies while dumb people kept having lots, so over the years we just got too dumb to function. Beavis and Butt-head were a preliterate pair of stoners so dumb they could barely breathe, and none of the Hills in King of the Hill are exactly the brightest bulbs in the box.

But I always thought Judge loved even the dimmest of his characters – I know I do – so I was surprised by the snarky misanthropy of his latest movie. Our hero this time around is Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a small factory that makes food-flavoring extracts. Joel radiates disapproval of everyone around him, like the character Bateman played on Arrested Development. He may be as selfish and shortsighted as anyone else, but he thinks he’s smarter, more rational, and just all-around better. In short, he’s a self-righteous prig, though Bateman projects a tattered goodwill beneath the exasperation that makes you empathize with Joel even when you don’t like him.

Extract consists of two parallel stories, both of which putter along with the occasional burst of energy before petering out. In the first, Joel struggles to resist, then outwit Cindy (Mila Kunis), a gorgeous but predatory young woman. Cindy insinuates herself onto the floor of Joel’s factory and into his erotic dreams – which isn’t hard, since he’s obsessed with the sex he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) aren’t having.

The other half of the movie is about Joel’s factory. The eternally self-pitying Joel surveys his employees from an office perched over the assembly line or smiles tightly as his manager, Brian (J.K. Simmons) rolls his eyes about the incompetence of some “dinkus.” Whether they’re trying to make the factory run smoothly or trying to sell it, the two keep running up against the absurdly exaggerated idiocy of their employees, nearly every one of whom is lazy, incompetent, laughably grandiose, or all three at once. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but I just found the whole thing cynical and depressing.

There are a lot of stupid human tricks on display in World’s Greatest Dad too, but there’s also plenty of decency. Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), is a genuinely nice guy, though most of the other people he has to deal with are anything but – starting with his own son.

Writer/director Bob Goldthwait isn’t interested in straight realism here any more than he was in the standup routines that made him semi-famous in the ‘80s (he was that sloppy-looking guy with a high voice that kept cracking, as if he was stuck in eternal puberty). But this loose-limbed, oddly life-affirming story has some pretty funny things to say about the platitudes and false piety we tend to revert to when we talk about the dead.

Lance is a sweet but schlubby high school English teacher, who works at the school his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) attends. He’s also a frustrated novelist who gets his first break as a writer in a way he never imagined. When Kyle dies in a potentially embarrassing accident, Lance tries to protect his boy’s reputation by making it look like an intentional hanging and leaving a suicide note.

The note gets printed in the school paper and becomes hugely popular, and a cult springs up around Kyle. Goldthwait has fun with the deification of a nasty loner. The students soon start sporting Kyle tattoos and WWKD tee shirts, and the faculty talk about how “sweet” and “kind” he was.

There’s also a nicely developed subplot about Lance’s sickeningly sweet girlfriend and fellow teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) and their perfect colleague Mike (Henry Simmons), a touching one involving Kyle’s forlorn only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), and some funny bits about an Oprah-like talk show host, a high school “grief counselor,” a literary agent, and Bruce Hornsby (don’t ask).

But the heart of the movie is Williams, whose mercifully understated, affecting performance makes us care about a mousy man who finds the courage to follow his heart.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cold Souls

By Elise Nakhnikian

“People come here and they all want to know if the soul is immortal, and how it functions – and we haven’t a clue,” says Cold Souls’ Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn).

It’s a funny line, but it’s also a bit of a cheat. And that pretty well sums up this moderately entertaining art-house film, which skims the surface of a lot of interesting ideas without ever diving in.

Cold Souls isn’t really about souls, any more than Hitchcock’s thrillers were about the MacGuffins he threw in to set the plots in motion. In the end, it's a dryly funny commentary on the marketing and black marketing of quickie “cures” for 21st-century angst and alienation – which are, of course, caused in no small part by our overreliance on quickie cures.

The main character is Paul Giamatti, an actor played by Paul Giamatti. A comically exaggerated version of the whiny nerds Giamatti often plays, the movie's Paul comes off like an agitated muppet, or maybe one of David Schwimmer’s less charming characters, minus the looks.

Paul is suffering through an existential crisis, but, as Cold Souls points out with atypical literal-mindedness, he refuses to search his own soul to see what the matter might be. Instead, he visits a soul extraction clinic on Roosevelt Island, where the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dr. Flintstein easily persuades him that he’ll feel much better if he just takes the pesky thing out and stores it in one of their vaults.

That cures his blues, but it creates a whole new problem: He starts to feel "empty" and his acting suffers. He's rehearsing the lead for Uncle Vanya, so he borrows a Russian soul, which gets him back on track. Then he decides he wants his own back -- but it's missing.

Here the two main parts of the plot-heavy story intersect, as a group of Russian soul smugglers we've been getting to know gets hold of Paul's soul for the boss’s wife, Sveta (Katheryn Winnick, who looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson), a soap opera actress so vapid she actually wants an American soul. Paul heads to St. Petersburg to reclaim his soul, guided by Nina (Dina Korzun), a stony-faced Russian soul mule who turns out to be every bit as alienated and depressed as he is (or is she just Russian?).

The first feature by writer/director Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls maintains a strong and consistent tone. Cinematographer/producer Andrij Parekh, who collaborated with Barthes on a couple of short films before this one, bathes the scenes in a soft, clear light, working in a palette heavy on silvery grays and blues. The moody music also helps set the tone without intruding.

Paul's New York City is a luxe, Woody Allen-esque Manhattan of actors, pricey restaurants, and spacious apartments lined with bookshelves, though he also spends a fair amount of time floating above the city on the Roosevelt Island tram or haunting the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, where the Russian underground stay when they're in town. It's a lushly beautiful but cold city. It's also oddly empty: in shot after shot, Paul broods alone in some public place.

Cold Souls implies that the soul functions as a kind of supergo, keeping our narcissism in check and generating empathy. Giamatti has some fun with his brief period of soullessness, playing the title role in Uncle Vanya like a Hun on steroids (“I don’t think he should always be so passive, so hopeless,” he tells his director). But after installing the Russian soul, he behaves pretty much the way he did before only without the black moods, and the woman who takes in his soul doesn't change her behavior a bit.

That makes you wonder: Are those things in storage really souls? Does something other than our souls determine who we are? And just what is a soul, anyhow? But don't speculate too long or you'll lose track of this shaggy dog of a movie, which is meandering on, uninterested in exploring anything so esoteric.

If Cold Souls fails to deliver on the big ideas, it’s often good with the small stuff, including a absurdist bits like Nina repeating ridiculous phrases from a taped English lesson as she drives a silent Paul around St. Petersburg.

The movie gets in its sharpest digs in its depiction of the extraction process and the black market that grows around smuggling souls. The clinic, a sparsely furnished site dotted with midcentury-modern furnishings, borrows authority by assuming a medical mien. And the real cold souls are not so much the little lumps chilling in the clinic's storage unit as the people who take advantage of the economically or emotionally vulnerable to traffic in those souls. Among them is a smooth-talking, amoral hedge fund partner who’s bankrolling the business. More chilling than Sveta's gangster husband, he's a real modern villain.