Monday, November 23, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

“What do I mean if I say the author portrays her protagonist’s situation as unrelenting?” asks Miss Rain (Paula Patton), the Christlike teacher who saves Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), the teenage Job at the center of Precious.

Oh, Miz Rain! Miz Rain? Over here, Miz Rain! That one is just too easy.

Precious is based on Push, a well-received novel published in 1996. The story is set in 1987, and the costumes and sets invoke the period deftly, but the boom boxes and shoulder pads aren’t the only things that feel retro.

Precious is a product of the identity politics that was just finding its voice in the ‘80s, often shouting to be sure it was heard. Despite the extravagant splashes of color director Lee Daniels uses to illuminate Precious’ fantasies, this simplistic tale of victims and perpetrators, good guys and bad, darkness and light is essentially a black-and-white movie.

Darkness and light play out in terms of electrical wattage: Precious’ oppressive home is a cave, while blinding floods of light welcome her into Miss Rain’s classroom and into the fantasies she escapes into when reality gets too grim. They’re also at war in Precious’ painful awareness of her dark skin, which she experiences as a curse.

No doubt light skin plays better than dark in America -- and did even more so two decades ago -- but her melanin level is the least of Precious’s problems. Morbidly obese and functionally illiterate, she is 16 years old and pregnant with her second child by a father who seems to come home only to rape her. Her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, is being raised by her grandmother, and she rarely sees her either. So she basically lives alone with her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), a perpetually erupting volcano of physical and emotional abuse.

Daniels would like us to think that this is gritty realism. In fact, it’s more like a ghetto version of one of those post-WWII weepies in which an iron-jawed woman – often played by Joan Crawford or Bette Davis – endures a double-barrelled assault of hell and humiliation for 90 minutes, emerging with her dignity undented.

But those movies were aimed at earning the empathy of the women in the audience, who saw the protagonists as an idealized version of themselves. Crawford and her sisters suffered for the housewives of America, their travails and eventual triumphs making their fans feel better about their own unsung sacrifices.

Precious is more of an emotional safari, an invitation to the audience (mostly, I suspect, comfortably middle- and upper-middle-class white folks) to experience the self-flattering thrill of sympathizing with an exotic Other from the comfort of their padded seats. Precious’ troubles are piled on so relentlessly that the movie starts to feel like a parody of itself. Around the time I learned that, on top of everything else, her father had given her HIV, I half expected to see one of the Wayans brothers pop up in drag to whale on her with a rolling pin.

Sidibe, who has never acted in a movie before, is getting a lot of praise for her performance. She deserves it. She tells us how shut down Precious is by showing us nothing but her impassive face, determined gait, and tendency to turn on her tormentors and whomp them until they leave her alone. Precious doesn’t always act sympathetically – she’s mean to a young neighbor who just wants to be her friend – but Sidibe always has our sympathy, letting us see the pain behind the bad behavior. She also shows us glimpses of a deeply buried sense of play.

But the actress is limited by her script. The running voiceover, presumably taken from the journal Precious writes for Miss Rain’s class, gives us some insight into her thoughts, but they’re pretty crude – mostly, she just describes things we’ve already seen or voices the naïve fantasies that keep her hope alive. Precious morphs from an illiterate to an apparently gifted writer in Miss Rain’s class, winning a literary award along the way, which presumably means she also learned to think. That sounds like a thrilling journey. Too bad we never feel her mind expanding.

The movie’s also tainted by an air of self-righteousness. The novel’s author, Sapphire, wrote it after a stint as a teacher in Harlem. The beautiful, sensitive, just tough-enough Miss Rain, who always knows just what to do or say, is all but sanctified here, a good guy with a capital G.

So see Precious if it sounds appealing, but don’t go because you think you should. In spite of Oprah’s seal of approval, there’s no enlightenment to be found in this relentless parade of pain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

By Elise Nakhnikian

“We all are [different] – especially him,” Mr. Fox’s wife tells their son in Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson’s latest feature and his first to be shot in stop-motion animation. “But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”

Defiant yet defensive, slyly funny, and delivered by an actor at the top of her game (in this case, the great Meryl Streep), that’s a classic Anderson line. It also sums up the spirit that animates his world.

Like J.D. Salinger, Anderson always tells stories about sensitive, intelligent misfits with an adolescent combination of diffidence and arrogance. Think the sad-sack brothers and their truth-seeking mother in The Darjeeling Limited, or Rushmore’s Max Fisher and the faux family he finds at boarding school.

These are the kinds of people you either love or hate. I’ve swung both ways. I liked Steve Zissou’s spacey charm in The Life Aquatic, but I wanted to wipe the eyeliner off Gwyneth Paltrow’s face and tell her to get a job in The Royal Tenenbaums. And, though I enjoyed the ride for a while in Darjeeling, I eventually got bored by all the whining.

But even when his characters annoy me, there’s a lot to enjoy in Anderson’s movies. Like his deadpan humor, or the way he plays with color, like a kid with a new 64-piece box of Crayolas. Or the sights and sounds he creates, which can be as surreal and compelling as a recurring dream. And there’s the air of melancholy underlying it all, which bubbles up to the surface every so often to produce a moment of poetic pathos.

I can’t say I loved Mr. Fox – it’s a little too cool for me to get that fiercely attached – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first of Anderson’s movies that I’ve liked without reservation, maybe partly because it’s the first one he based on a story by somebody else – a less-known work by classic children’s book author Roald Dahl.

Dahl’s story was a lot shorter than the one told here. Anderson and his cowriter, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding) are very faithful to the tone and plot of the original, but they flesh it out with new characters and action scenes and a much more complicated relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Anderson also slipped in one of his patented tormented misfits, replacing the Foxes’ four nondescript kids with one runty malcontent, Ash (muttered by Jason Schwartzman).

But Ash isn’t the main character this time; he’s a comically miserable supporting character. This is the swashbuckling story of a jaunty, resourceful hero, the fantastic Mr. Fox (nicely voiced by George Clooney in cocky/suave, Ocean’s Eleven mode).

After Mr. Fox enrages a trio of farmers by stealing their poultry, they vow to take revenge. But just as they’re about to extinguish him, his family, and all the animals unlucky enough to live on the same hillside, Mr. Fox organizes a clever counter-offensive.

It’s a simple enough story, but it’s nicely told, with plenty of that wry, borderline absurdist Anderson humor (“Beagles love blueberries,” Mr. Fox explains as he dopes a guard dog with a berry laced with knockout drugs). It’s well paced, too, holding our interest by staying at just 87 minutes and cutting judiciously between domestic drama, action, and light nonsense, like Mr. Fox’s encounters with a drunken rat (Willem Dafoe).

Stop motion – that painstakingly handmade technique, in which puppets are moved through miniature sets, their every motion broken down into pieces and shot frame by frame – is a natural fit for Anderson. His strongly imagined but relatively one-dimensional characters turn out to make very good cartoon animals. After all, who could be slyer than a fox? The DIY look of stop-motion rhymes with his trendily retro sensibility, and building every inch of every set from scratch lets him indulge his famously obsessive penchant for controlling environments and salting backgrounds with entertaining details. What's more, the visual freedom of animation sets him free to create lovely bits, like the loopily frenetic sequences in which the animals tunnel through the earth at supersonic speeds.

Anderson augmented the tactile feel of his laboriously constructed sets by filming his actors in action, rather than shutting them up in sound booths to lay down tracks in isolation and then combining them in post-production, the way most animated movies do. When the characters were outdoors, the actors were shot out of doors, and when there's a group scene or a dialogue, the actors involved got together to shoot the scene.

The excellent cast, which includes Michael Gambon and Bill Murray, does wonderful voice work, individually and together. Their sometimes overlapping dialogue and the ambient sounds captured along with their dialogue help the movie breathe, banishing the airless feel of so much computer-generated animation.

As a result, the Foxes' world feels surprisingly real, even though every millimeter is made by hand and it doesn't look the least bit "realistic."

And there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

By Elise Nakhnikian

There are already a lot of documentaries and a handful of fiction films about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – everything from the artful angst of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure to the labored metaphors of John Cusack’s War Inc. and the formulaic melodrama of Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah. It’s enough to constitute a whole sub-genre of war movie – or antiwar movie.

The latest addition to the list, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is not a great movie by a long shot, but I liked it better than most of the others. A lighthearted comedy with a few dark edges, it has a deadpan irreverence that makes it fun to watch, thumbing its nose like an eight-year-old at the casual cruelty, misplaced machismo, and flat-out absurdity of war.

It may not be quite fair to call this a U.S. occupation movie, since it aims at a broader target than our current military mishegoss. Part buddy/road movie and part antiwar satire, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows a naïve reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), as he uncovers a lightly fictionalized version of the First Earth Battalion. The Army created First Earth in 1979 to train soldiers to develop their paranormal abilities for use in warfare. Bob stumbles across one of the fictionalized battalion’s graduates, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), as he’s about to embark on some shadowy mission in Iraq, and Lyn reluctantly agrees to let Bob tag along.

Clooney plays Lyn in his best earnest/cocky mode, staring up through half-moon eyes as he hammers home some urgent point like a snake oil salesman who believes his own pitch. He’s supposed to be some kind of psychic genius, the battalion’s star recruit, but Peter Straughan’s screenplay delights in undercutting him. Lyn is constantly messing up simple tasks, like the bit you may have seen in the trailer where he crashes his car on the only rock for miles around by the side of a deserted desert road.

When we’re not watching the boys venture into Iraq, we’re seeing the story Lyn tells Bob about the New Earth Army acted out in flashbacks. Jeff Bridges is fun to watch as the battalion’s creator and original leader, Bill Django, a magnetic hippie who never met a New Age trend he didn’t like. But things drag a bit when his nemesis, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a promising recruit turned bad, takes over.

Based on a nonfiction book of the same title by Jon Ronson, the story ranges from a Vietnam flashback to Iraq during the first year of the U.S. occupation, nearly all of it played as broad farce. When someone picks up a gun in this movie, it looks more ludicrous than scary, especially when a carload of Blackwater-style American mercenaries turns an Iraqi street into a shooting gallery, starting an accidental battle with a matching clutch of soldiers-for-hire from another contracting firm.

Django’s soldiers looks pretty silly too, so it’s interesting to learn that they’re doing a lot of things the Army’s “psychic soldiers” have actually experimented with, like attempting to walk through walls and the bizarre exercise the movie is named for: trying to stare down goats and other animals until they drop dead.

The tone shifts abruptly sometimes, which doesn’t always work. When Bob and Lyn go home with an Iraqi citizen and see how his life has gotten shredded in the crossfire, the sobriety of their response feels right, but the amped-up goofiness of the feel-good ending, which felt like a non-ironic version of the ecstatic hippie dance at the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, tried too hard to convince me.

There’s also too much of Bob’s back story and the odd-couple bickering between him and Lyn. I suspect those parts of the movie felt tired even to the filmmakers, since they use gimmicks try to liven up some of that backstory (even staged as a pantomime narrated by his ubiquitous voice-over, I could have done without seeing Bob’s breakup with his wife), and some of Bob’s and Lyn’s squabbles sound canned.

But the movie bubbles back to life when it’s spoofing the military, regaining a deftly edited comic rhythm.

The overexposed, desaturated palette reminds me of Three Kings, another antiwar satire about Americans in the Middle East that also starred George Clooney. For all its stylized sequences and heist-movie drama, though, Three Kings was far darker and more realistic than this one. It was also much denser, a near-great film with emotional and moral heft.

This movie is in a whole different weight class than that one. Still, there’s an art to using a light touch when dealing with a heavy subject, and except for a few minor missteps, The Men Who Stare at Goats remains entertaining without being disrespectful or flat-out inane. Like the men of its title, it’s an odd duck – offbeat but kind of endearing.

Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paris and New York, I Love You

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ever since Méliès took his trip to the moon more than 100 years ago, there’s been a market for magic carpet movies – films whose main purpose is to transport us to a faraway place. But now that we’re well into the second century of the moving picture, it takes more than a few lightly sketched characters against a picturesque background to hold our interest.

Paris, a pleasant fictional travelogue now showing on the IFC In Theaters channel on cable TV, is the French version of a minor Woody Allen movie, with Paris standing in for Manhattan: A feast of luscious eye candy and finely calibrated performances, it goes down easy, though it doesn’t have much nutritional value.

Writer/director Cédric Klapisch and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne make the city look so good you don’t just want to live there; you want to roll around in it, like a horse in clover. The background keeps becoming the focal point, as rows of yellow-leafed trees or urban vistas viewed from on high upstage the low-key drama simmering in the foreground.

The filmmakers like to make the background pop by blurring it, using shallow depth of field to set their actors against impressionistic canvases of color and light, which are almost always brightened with a splash of red. That effect is particularly dazzling when they shoot the Eiffel Tower at night, the soft focus making its lights vibrate until it dances, like a living thing coated with diamonds.

Every now and then the drama in Paris heats up enough to distract us from the scenery, thanks to electrically alive performances by Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris. Duris plays Pierre, a dancer whose terminal heart condition has kept him virtually captive for the past few weeks. Holed up in his cosily charming Parisian apartment, he watches his neighbors and daydreams about their lives, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Binoche is Pierre’s sister Elise, who moves into his apartment to take care of him until he can have the surgery that will either cure or kill him.

His illness has turned Pierre into a walking Seize the Day billboard, but Duris gives him a gentle intensity that makes the cliché work, even as Pierre urges family and friends to relish the good fortune of not just being alive, but living in the City of Light. Besides, it’s such a pleasure to watch Binoche’s hesitant Elise let down her guard and unleash a tsunami of warmth and joie de vivre that you don’t want to quibble about what made it happen.

Klapisch wants to give us a panoramic view of Paris through his story as well as his lens, so he crams the script with intersecting stories. But these generally fizzle out before they ever really get started, leaving us emotionally stranded. Some characters are barely on screen long enough to register as individuals, like a would-be Parisian from Cameroon who dies trying to emigrate illegally. Others – like a professor who falls for a student young enough to be his granddaughter – play out their thinly developed stories long enough to wear out their welcome.

In the end, you don’t really care about anything but Pierre, Elise, and the idealized city they love – and you don’t know them well enough to care very deeply. But they make good company for a couple of hours, and sometimes that’s all you want from a movie.

New York, I Love You makes Paris look profound. Like Paris, it spins several intersecting narratives at once, but this time there’s no core story to hold our interest. Instead, about a dozen directors each tell a separate and equally unengaging squiblet.

It sounds like a gimmick – and it is. This is part of a planned series of similar films set in different cities. The first one was Paris, je t’aime, which had some genuinely engaging segments though it still failed to gel into a compelling whole. This one is about as compelling as one of those circus performers who keep a bunch of plates spinning at once.

So slight they register more as notions than as narratives, the stories are cut into pieces that are interspersed with each other or reflected in even shorter transitions, an superficial attempt to create synergy that just makes them seem all the more artificial.

Only rarely do we get the feel of a real New York moment, like when Chris Cooper, playing an American businessman, surprises a Chinese drycleaner and his customer by greeting them in Cantonese after they’ve used it to joke around behind his back. The writers and directors, who are almost all from somewhere else, tend to set their stories in iconic places (cabs, Central Park, Chinatown, more cabs, Coney Island, again with Central Park …) instead of exploring less familiar parts of the city. The views are mostly unimaginative too, and the interactions are generally stagey and unconvincing, whether Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are fighting cute as a long-married couple in Brighton Beach or Julie Christie is having an incomprehensible encounter with a crippled bellhop overplayed by Shia LaBoeuf.

New York, I Love You is a magic carpet movie with no magic. It wastes an almost criminal amount of talent, but the real shame is how it reduces the grit, grandeur, and greatness of New York to an insipid formula.