Monday, October 26, 2009

A Serious Man

By Elise Nakhnikian

Six years ago, I wrote about what makes the Coen brothers some of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. Even their worst movies burn images into your brain forever, and their best are minor masterpieces.

I also wrote about how their perpetually bemused tone and the Olympian distance from which they view their characters (these guys love crane shots) can be a liability. Some of their smart movies about dumb people, like O Brother Where Art Thou or Blood Simple, feel coldly condescending, scoring points at the expense of their characters.

But I’m beginning to wonder if that snarkiness was a phase they’ve outgrown. It doesn’t seem to have tainted any of the six features and two shorts they’ve directed since 2000’s O Brother (I’m hedging because I didn’t see Ladykillers, but seeing as how Tom Hanks is the lead character, I’m guessing it’s a snark-free zone.) And there’s no hint of cattiness in their latest movie, which could be their best yet.

A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last.

Larry’s cylindrical, helmet-haired wife (Sari Lennick) is cheating on him. A student at the high school where he teaches is trying to bribe him for a better grade, and it looks like he won’t get the tenure he’s up for. His shiftless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has set up camp on his couch, and his teenage son and daughter barely notice, let alone care, what Larry is going through. Even the Columbia Record Club has him on the ropes, insisting that he pay for a membership he never ordered. And that’s just the first 15 minutes or so of the movie.

Larry’s life could easily be played as a tragedy, but the brothers (I am, of course, talking about Joel and Ethan Coen, who cowrote, codirected, coedited and coproduced this one, as they do nearly all of their movies) are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper than straight tragedy.

As always, the Coens have set their story in a particular place and time, which they and their crew bring to riotous life. This time we’re in a Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s or early ‘70s – and, within that, in the close-knit Jewish community that lives there. The world they create is so tangible you can almost smell the pot and feel the disdain of its officious, aggressively unattractive secretaries (remember secretaries?) But it’s just exaggerated enough to nudge Larry’s story into the realm of fable.

A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish tale about a dyybuk (an evil spirit that possesses a dead man’s body), which puts us into that supernatural/surrealistic realm and introduces the movie’s central theme: You can’t always take things – or people – at face value. Or, as Larry puts it: “Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.”

Part of Larry’s problem is that he’s caught on the cusp of a cultural revolution. His son is listening to Jefferson Airplane when he’s supposed to be studying Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, the sexy woman down the street sunbathes in the nude, and they’re both getting high on a daily basis. The filmmakers keep showing us messy unrest beneath apparently placid surfaces, like the pan from the outside of Larry’s son’s Hebrew school bus to the sheltered kids swearing heroically inside.

Judaism is the sea the Gopniks swim in, always part of the story but never the story itself. The Coens cast generally unknown actors to make it easier for us to see that world and the people who live there on their own terms.

The acting is universally excellent. I particularly loved Lennick, who has never been in a movie before and who is wonderfully loathsome as Larry’s self-deluded wife, and Fred Malamed, who looks like Francis Ford Coppola, acts like Dr. Phil, and is hilariously sanctimonious as her lover. Amy Landecker is mesmerizing and slightly ridiculous as the sunbathing neighbor who, when Larry finally gets up the nerve to pay her a visit, drawls: “Do you partake of the new freedoms?” And Kind is wonderfully repellent as Arthur, nearly activating your gag reflex when he turns his turtle-like back to the camera to drain an enormous sebaceous cyst.

They’re tough acts to follow, but Stuhlbarg never cedes center stage, coming up with as many ways to look bewildered or beleaguered as Burger King has to make it your way.

Like modern-day Molieres, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness and societal silliness while celebrating human nature. In A Serious Man, they’re served up a tasty slice of the American experience, toasted to a nutty golden brown.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

By Elise Nakhnikian

Spike Jonze’s origin story is legendary wherever hipster artists congregate. One of the first of a generation of filmmakers who got to Hollywood via music videos and ads, he started out as a skateboarder who made wildly inventive, no-budget skate videos of his friends.

He’s about to turn 40 this week, but he’s never lost his youthful energy, originality, or fearlessness, cranking stuff out so fast the Museum of Modern Art called its recent retrospective of his work “Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years.” (Yes, Spike can even get MOMA to loosen up.) And he’s equally at home in the art house (he directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and played a touching young grunt in Three Kings), at the multiplex (he produced the Jackass movies), and on the Internet (check out his free online broadcast channel,, or the YouTube videos where he plays a wannabe b-boy who rocks out in public places.)

Where the Wild Things Are, his adaptation and expansion of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, is about as mainstream as anything he’s done. But it’s still a Spike Jonze Joint, an intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted creation as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.

A natural collaborator, Jones attracts other people as gifted and original as he is. For Malkovich and Adaptation he paired up with Charlie Kaufman, probably the most interesting screenwriter working in Hollywood. For Wild Things he enlisted the help of another brilliant youngish writer, Dave Eggers. Eggers hadn’t written any screenplays when Jonze approached him (his first feature, Away We Go, was released during Wild Thing’s long gestation period), but Jonze believed he could nail this one – and so he did.

The screenplay starts and ends at home with Max (Max Record), showing us a deceptively simple series of scenes. This part of the story is new, but it echoes the book’s poetically spare use of words. Shot with a handheld camera that follows Max so closely you share every outsized emotion, it economically conveys the anger and angst that causes Max to run away from home. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly masterful, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, yearning, and unadulterated love.

Watching Max play with ferocious abandon, listen to a scary lecture in science class, or gaze up at his mother from the floor beneath her desk, we see a well-loved but lonely kid with a vivid imagination, stranded in a family where everyone else is either absent (his parents are divorced) or too busy to give him the attention he needs.

Cinematographer Lance Acord, who shot all of Jonze’s features and many of his music videos, gives Max’s home a warm tone, switching to cool greys, blues and blacks and a lot of underexposed, murky shadows after Max runs away to the island where the wild things are. The island scenes are shot on location in southern Australia, where the filmmakers found deserts, seas, cliffs, and forest – primal sites with the dreamlike intensity of the pictures in Sendak’s book.

The wild things also look amazingly like the book’s illustrations. The Jim Henson Company created the creatures, constructing giant puppet suits that look like the characters in the book. These are worn by actors whose movements make their body language surprisingly eloquent. Shot to look nearly ten feet tall (they’re actually more like seven), with enormous heads and sharp teeth, they’re terrifying at times, but they can also be tender or vulnerable.

Essentially huge children, they’re quick to make friends, prone to magical thinking and impulsive actions, and brimming over with feeling. In short, they’re the greatest playmates in the world for Max – except when they threaten to eat him.

Whatever their moods, they’re as believable as the dirt clods they heave at each other. Computer animation helps make their faces and eyes amazingly expressive. Watching the grief-ravaged face of Carol, the wild thing Max is closest to, as Max sails away moved me almost as much as seeing the look on Keener’s face when he showed up at home.

I loved this movie’s lack of pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals (Max does learn some important things about how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, but those lessons emerge organically). I also love the fact that it’s not tied down by the standard narrative arc that constricts most kids’ movies.

Wild Things has a rhythm all its own, but it’s easy to flow with it. Instead of obeying the dictates of screenwriting 101, it follows the logic of human emotion, leaping from one big feeling to the next just like a kid – or a wild thing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

By Elise Nakhnikian

One of the best parts of Capitalism: A Love Story is the footage shot in a Chicago factory whose laid-off workers occupied it for several days last December. The workers filed out obediently when they were let go but then returned, barricading themselves inside to demand the vacation and severance pay that had been denied them.

Capitalism writer/director Michael Moore’s camera was the only one allowed inside the building, and it captures some inspirational moments as downtrodden workers stand up for themselves. We also hear from a quietly charismatic union organizer, who says the workers are starting to consider options – like running the plant themselves – that they never would have thought of before. There’s no telling where this new thinking will lead, she says, but questioning the status quo is a huge step in the right direction.

I think Moore wants this movie to spur audiences to take that same step. Capitalism is peppered with calls to the vast majority of Americans, urging us to rise up against the wealthiest 1% or so -- along with laments about how slow we are to wake up. Can't we see how the moneyed elite controls not just nearly all of our wealth but also the legislative and regulatory checks and balances that are supposed to keep the robber barons from stripping the rest of us down to our skivvies? Like Howard Beale, the mad prophet of Network, Moore wants us all to declare that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.

Moore doesn’t have any more ideas than Beale did about just what we should do, once we've awoken from our capitalism-induced coma. That doesn’t seem to bother him, though. Maybe he trusts us to figure it out.

As we all know, Moore has pretty much single-handedly invented an engaging form of cinema. I think of his movies as pop docs, with the "pop" standing for populist as well as popular.

Moore frames his pop docs as a personal quest to figure out something that’s been bugging him. That can seem annoyingly self-aggrandizing at times -- he puts more of himself in this one than he does of several subjects I wanted to hear more from -- but it's an effective way of hooking us in, eliciting some kind of emotion even if it's just irritation. And he always starts out with a good question. Bowling for Columbine wants to know what’s with all the guns in America. Sicko asks why we can’t we have a decent health care system, when so many other countries manage to. Roger and Me wonders how corporate executives can sleep at night when they make millions of dollars by laying off thousands of people. And Capitalism wants to know what it will take for America's poor and middle class majority to throw off an economic system that drives thousands more into desperate instability every day.

He may not be much on visuals – his films often look like YouTube videos – but Moore is a whiz with words, coming up with metaphors and phrases that memorably characterize or caricature a problem (In Capitalism, he calls Congress’s 2009 bailout of Wall Street “a financial coup d’etat.”) He knows the value of a strong anecdote, too, and he and his researchers always unearth some wrenching real-life stories.

Most of the people featured in Capitalism have lost their homes or their jobs to the recession brought on by the games Wall Street played with other people’s money. Moore outlines the financial shenanigans and dismantling of regulations that led to our economy's near-collapse, but he doesn't go into much depth. His aim is to launch a broad ideological -- and surprisingly religious -- attack on the organizing principles of capitalism, and to show its effects on working-class Americans.

As always, he keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming fast, in part by cramming his movie full of found footage that becomes wryly funny out of context. And he’s got plenty of glib gimmicks to entertain us, like showing up outside AIG with burlap bags “to get the money back for the American people.” But his thesis is so poorly defined that many of these bits, like a segment on the low salaries of regional airline pilots, feel random -- a splattering of BBs rather than a few well-aimed rifle shots.

I’m no great defender of capitalism, but Capitalism brings out the devil’s advocate in me. A sidebar on the so-called “dead peasant” life insurance policies that corporations often take out on their employees will enrage you, but what’s the culprit here: greed or capitalism? And is the lack of democracy within the workplace really a problem only in capitalist countries?

Moore’s nostalgia about the working-class paradise of his childhood undercuts his own argument, since the economic system that allowed his family to thrive was as capitalist as they come. Moore himself claims here that our economy was strong in the 1950s and ‘60s for a couple of reasons. First, so many of the world’s other industrial nations were still recovering from WWII that there wasn’t much competition for our manufactured goods. Second, a robust system of regulations and high taxes on the rich kept Wall Street in check and reduced the gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

So does that mean capitalism could work if we put the right regulations in place -- and found a way to deal with honest competition? Moore says no, but he never says why. “Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil,” he asserts in the voiceover that runs through the film. “You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that is good for all people. And that something is called democracy.”

Hold on. Isn’t capitalism an economic system and democracy a political system? So how can you replace one with the other? I’m confused.

Moore maintains his near-religious faith in unions as the best hope of the working class. He also exhibits a touching belief in the power of democracy and populist politicians.

One of Capitalism’s heroes is Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who urges her constituents to become “squatters in your own homes” if someone tries to evict them. Banks, she says, can rarely locate the mortgage on the properties they’re repossessing, because the financial deals behind them are so convoluted. And they can’t prove they own the house unless they can show you that paper.

It’s a galvanizing insight -- and a rare piece of pragmatic advice in a movie that’s rich in anecdotes but poor at analysis.

I used to know an organizer for the International Socialist Organization who told me Sicko was a great catalyst for organizing people around the need for health care reform. I can see how Moore’s movies would be useful tools for the ISO, or any other political group with a clear-cut agenda, and maybe that’s what Moore is aiming for.

But I got pulled far enough into Capitalism to be frustrated when I couldn’t go further, and that’s not the first time one of his movies has left me feeling that way. Like a lot of other Americans, I think there's something seriously wrong with our economic system, but I don’t know what to do about it. That puts me square in the middle of the audience Moore seems to be trying to reach here, yet I left the theater feeling all fired up with no place to go.

In a Q&A with Moore on the movie’s press site, a young woman -- she gave her name, but I'm not sure I heard it right -- describes the excitement she felt when she first saw Roger and Me. “I wanted to do something to make the tragedy that I’d see on the screen better,” she says. “And that’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve seen one of your movies.” She can feel that same excitement spread through the audiences she watches with, she adds, yet it never seems to translate into effective action once the movie is over.

Then she asks the question I can’t stop thinking about: “What do you think the disconnect is between the excitement, the desire for change, that we all feel together as an audience when we watch the movie and the actual change happening? And what can we do to bridge that gap?”

The young woman says she wants to make movies like Moore's. I'd love to see her make one that tackles that question.