Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan and The Fighter

Like two of director Darren Aronofsky’s other critical darlings, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Black Swan is about people – in this case, a driven diva struggling to master the part of the swan queen in a top-notch New York ballet company – who push their bodies to the limit in a search for transcendence. It’s also a horror-tinged melodrama, whose aural and visual head fakes and sometimes jittery handheld camera elicit visceral responses at regular intervals.

The Fighter is also about a man who uses his body as a path to transcendence. Until he broke free of the mother and brother who were mismanaging his career, Micky Ward was “a stepping stone,” someone other fighters walked over on their way to success, and he took some terrible beatings in the process. Aronofsky was preparing to direct The Fighter when he dropped out to make Black Swan, and you can bet this movie would have looked and felt very different if it had passed through his trippy lens. David O. Russell, who took over as The Fighter’s director, can do heart-pumping visuals with the best of them – I’d put Three Kings’ bullet’s-eye views of American soldiers getting shot in Iraq up against Requiem’s shooting-up montage any day. But Russell took his cue this time from his unshowily straight-arrow subject, mining The Fighter’s considerable drama primarily from the spectacle of Micky’s very large, very loud family, for whom fighting is the default mode (though the fight scenes can be brutal too).

Aronofsky’s movies feel as if they were made by an adolescent boy, with their naïve glorification of drug addicts and other outsiders, their simplified characters (especially the women) and plots, and their penchant for adrenaline-charged drama. In Black Swan, the company’s imperious impresario, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) seems to be speaking for Aronofsky when he announces that Swan Lake has been “done to death, I know, but not like this. We’ll strip it down, make it visceral and real!” While Natalie Portman’s Nina prepares for the role of her lifetime, rehearsing the moves and exploring her dark side like the good girl she is (one of Thomas’s homework assignments is to go home and masturbate), Aronofsky shows us more and more creepy or hallucinatory scenes that turn out to be inventions of Nina’s rapidly deteriorating mind. Apparently she is living out the story she is dancing: how very fashionably meta.

Aronofsky uses the ballet setting more voyeuristically (all those beautiful women in leotards or less) than artistically. He compensates for not having cast a professional dancer in his lead role by shooting almost all the dance from the waist up, with some close-ups of feet and legs thrown in (Nina’s more complicated moves are danced by two professionals). As a result, almost all the emotional power in the dance scenes come from Portman’s tormented facial expressions and fluttering arms, not from how the dancers’ bodies move through space or interact with one another.

But I could have done without great dancing – after all, this is a psychological horror movie set in the dance world, not really a dance movie – if the psychological part were not so tone-deaf. With its hamfisted attempts at profundity (“The only person standing in your way is you,” Thomas tells Nina) and voyeuristic attitude toward the main character, who the movie patronizes and typecasts as surely as her mother and her choreographer do, Black Swan is Showgirls in a tutu.

The women in The Fighter are also underdeveloped. Melissa Leo has gotten a lot of praise as Micky’s ferocious mother, but most people mention her heavily shellacked hairdo or omnipresent cigarette as part of their praise, and no wonder: Russell seems more interested in her wardrobe (one shot lingers on her high heels as she walks into her house) than her internal life. As a result, the film reduces her to a paper tiger, when I suspect she didn’t fold so easily in life. Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, gets a little more back story to go with her backbone, but even with Amy Adams to bring her to solidly fleshy life, she comes out pretty one-dimensional too. And Micky’s six sisters are played strictly for giggles, a comic Greek chorus whose members never emerge as individuals.

It can feel a little patronizing, as if Hollywood is giving the working-class Massachusetts neighborhood where Micky grew up the exotic treatment. But The Fighter finds its feet when it stays with its main story: the true tale of how Micky (Mark Wahlberg) became a world champion, first by firing his trainer and half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and then by letting him back in after Dicky had kicked the crack habit that was making him a walking disaster zone.

This is Dicky’s story as much as it is Micky’s, and the fast-talking, pop-eyed Bale nearly steals the film from Wahlberg, just as Dicky always stole the spotlight from his brother. A former boxer himself, Dicky is “the pride of Lowell,” as we often hear. The repetition doesn’t grate here as it does in Black Swan, though, since it’s done not to make sure we get a point but to tell us something important about the main characters. Dicky’s reputation is so big it permeates the neighborhood and the family, very nearly keeping Micky from making his own mark.

The actors are very good – when you see the real brothers at the end of the film, you appreciate the fact that Bale wasn’t overacting and see how well Wahlberg captured Micky’s quiet, self-effacing strength – and the story is moving, but I suspect some rough edges got sanded off to create what feels like a pretty predictable arc.

The Fighter didn’t quite knock me out, but it definitely got to me, its emotional acuity landing where Black Swan’s adolescent antics fell flat.

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Illusionist

Jacques Tati’s daughter (who was also the executor of his estate) sent her father’s unproduced script for The Illusionist to Sylvain Chomet after seeing some of the drawings that would grow into his 2003 masterpiece, The Triplets of Belleville. Good call. Chomet lends tender life to the script, which Tati considered too dark to develop for himself, doing justice to its slapstick humor and bemused affection for stupid human tricks while making sure that its wide streak of sentiment doesn’t degenerate into sentimentality.

Typical of both Tati and Chomet, The Illusionist is almost completely free of dialogue but alive with sound – naturalistic ambient sound, comically exaggerated sound effects, and aptly chosen music. Also typical is the funny business that’s often going on in the background and the animal that periodically bumps heads with the humans – and wins.

This time the alpha animal is a recalcitrant rabbit, the little white bunny the title character, an aging magician, pulls out of his top hat – assuming he’s managed to chase the thing down and stuff it in there to begin with. Their chases are one of the movie’s best sight gags, the rabbit always staying one hop ahead of the big, ungainly illusionist, who looks like Tati and moves like his Mr. Hulot, with his storklike walk, his self-effacing, slump-shouldered posture, and manic bursts of activity.

The magician is going nowhere fast when he lands on an island where, like Wendy Hiller’s character in I Know Where I’m Going! and Peter Riegert’s in Local Hero, he’s ambushed by a local resident who takes his life in a whole new direction. She’s a shy but headstrong servant who follows him off the island, adopting him as her surrogate father after becoming convinced that his magic is real. It’s not, of course, but she inspires him to pull off the impossible, giving her the girlhood she never had.

The backdrops are often only barely sketched in, the better to focus our attention on Chomet’s distinctive characters, with their richly expressive faces (those noses!) and body language. As in Belleville, his subject is partly the underbelly of show biz: faded vaudevillians (the story is set in the ‘50s or ‘60s) who band together in threadbare but homey surroundings. The boardinghouse where the illusionist and the girl wind up also houses a ventriloquist who looks way too much like his dummy and a cheery family of gymnasts, who cartwheel down the stairs every morning. What we glimpse of their private lives has the same poignantly comic tone as the illusionist’s tale.

Throughout it all, neon blinks on and off outside a window or the cold winter light hits a Scottish hillside as Chomet’s evocative use of light and sound condense time, place, and season into a concentrated essence.

Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My 10 Favorite Movies from 2010

It’s time to write those final holiday cards (if you still do those), get those last gifts, and plow through the latest crop of Top 10 lists. So here are my 10 favorite movies from 2010, in no particular order.

White Material
Everyone loses in this tragic tale by the great French filmmaker Claire Denis, who went back to Africa, her girlhood home and the site of her first feature, for this collaboration with the lionhearted Isabelle Huppert. Denis developed the scenario (the script is by Marie N’Diaye) for Huppert, whose ropy body and blazing light-blue eyes make her convincing as a French coffee grower convinced that her country’s obsession with skin color doesn’t apply to her, even though white skin is now almost as big a liability as black skin was in colonial times. Huppert’s Maria is a compellingly repellent character, so sure of her own righteousness that she can’t see anything or anybody else. You can’t help but admire her courage and grit -- and yet, in a damning repudiation of the blindness to white privilege and the ruinous effects of colonialism that make characters like Maria and movies like Mugabe and the White African so infuriating, Denis and D’Diaye make it clear that her fight is doomed, destructive, and more than a little unhinged.

Last Train Home
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan got amazing access to his subjects in this wrenching portrait of the human price of China’s rapid transition to a form of state-controlled capitalism. Focusing as crisply on the long view as the close-up, he hones in on one disrupted family without letting us forget the ocean of people that are in the same boat. Zhang Chanhua and Chen Suqin, a worn-out middle-aged couple from a rural area, support themselves and their family by doing factory work in the city of Guangzhou. But China’s migrants, who are treated like second-class citizens, are not allowed to bring their families with them to the overcrowded cities. The couple’s two children live in the country with their grandmother and see their parents only once a year, when they make the long trip home for the holidays. That distance inevitably turns into an emotional gulf filled with heartache and anger.

12th and Delaware
A report from inside a powerful campaign of domestic terrorism that may already have won, 12th and Delaware takes place almost entirely within or just outside two innocuous-looking one-story buildings on the sunny Florida street corner of the title. One is an abortion clinic and the other is a "pregnancy center" run by Christian foes of abortion, put there to confuse and divert the women who come to the clinic for abortions. Cutting back and forth between the two, this knockout documentary anatomizes anti-abortion zealots' relentless fight to end abortion by any means necessary. Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Freakonomics) switch back and forth between the two camps, penetrating equally deeply into both.

The Social Network
A 21st-century version of What Makes Sammy Run?, The Social Network is a portrait of a driven young man that’s interesting mainly because of what it implies about the rest of us. The movie doesn’t really get into how technology is degenerating our social networks: It's interested in Facebook as an idea Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) develops and a lot of other people fight about, not as a social phenomenon. But it opens the door to that idea by showing how we're making kings of people so socially inept that they actually believe an online "community" like Facebook is a way of "taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online," as the Zuckerberg character puts it. Director David Fincher creates a bracingly kinetic film about ideas, thanks in part to the fast talk that is the movie’s main engine. His cast does Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue justice, talking as if their tongues can barely keep up with the hard drives spinning away in their skulls.

The Kids Are All Right
If there were a cinematic equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Kids Are All Right would be a contender. Not that it's weighty or self-important (on the contrary, its self-aware humor is part of its charm), but it takes the temperature of family life in a particular place and time in American history as precisely as a John Updike novel. It is also – like all of director Lisa Cholodenko's films – an exploration of the blurry lines we try to draw around our sexuality but often fail to maintain. Cholodenko and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, make us fall half in love with an upper-middle-class California family whose only problem seems to be the inevitable tension between intimacy and autonomy. Then the two teenagers, whose lesbian mothers conceived them through artificial insemination, get in touch with their sperm donor “dad,” and his intrusion into the family circle brings some long-simmering conflicts to a boil.

Winter's Bone
Just about all the extras and some of the actors with speaking roles in this film are from the hardscrabble part of the Ozarks where it takes place, and it was filmed on location in some of the actors’ homes. That probably goes a long way toward explaining how director and co-writer Debra Granik made such an unpatronizingly authentic-feeling film of Daniel Woodrell’s novel. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stoic 17-year-old who takes care of her younger siblings and her mentally ill mother, her grit and quiet competence just barely keeping the ramshackle roof over their heads. When her father skips out on a bond, leaving the house as collateral, Ree heads out to find him and save their home. Her grim odyssey turns up some horrible secrets, but the real subject of this beautifully shot, fiercely acted movie is the merciless code of behavior that has endured for generations in that part of the Ozarks. It's also about the meth that makes men like Ree's daddy even more dangerous than they already were.

No One Knows About Persian Cats
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi specializes in documentary-style features, in which nonprofessional actors play themselves or people like themselves and the stories are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, "based on real events, locations, and people." But where his earlier films are about the struggles of rural Kurds, his latest is a thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran. Two young musicians, Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), are trying to get to London to perform. Getting the gig was the easy part. What’s hard is piecing together a band to replace musicians who have fled the country, getting black market visas or passports for everyone, and buying one of the musicians out of his obligation to serve in the army. It's all very dangerous, very expensive, and very precarious, and they never know who they can trust. Ghobadi takes us through beautiful old streets and into secret rehearsals and performance spaces, giving us a clandestine tour of the city and what amounts to a series of underground music videos as Negar and Ashkan audition a wide variety of musicians. As we see these gentle souls forced into becoming outlaws, songs urging people to get past "the fences around your mind" take on deeper meaning.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Layer upon layer unfolds in this “street art documentary” by street artist Banksy. The first is the dryly funny story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman who loves street art so much that he films it obsessively, following the artists with his omnipresent video camera. The second is a quick gloss on the art form with an emphasis on Banksy and Shepard Fairey, who play with iconic images to critique popular leftie targets like corporate control and consumer excess. The third is the commoditization of art and the hype-happy commercial art world, which is depicted as unable to distinguish between real art with a unique style and vision (like, well, Banksy’s stuff) and the derivative dreck Thierry hires minions to crank out when he puts down the camera to make his own street art. The fourth and deepest layer is the question that emerges about the story itself: Is Thierry for real or is he just another Banksy invention, dreamed up to tweak the status quo? By finding a new way to ask an old question – what is art? – this smart, funny film jolts us into thinking about what we’re looking at.

A fascinating trip down the rabbit hole of the human imagination that’s as carefully constructed as the 1/6-scale town it depicts, Marwencol is a portrait of an artist who doesn’t think of his work as art. In a way, it’s the flip side of Exit to the Gift Shop. Mark Hogancamp, this documentary’s subject, was beaten so badly in a bar fight that he was in a coma for days. Released from the hospital long before he was ready to function (his Medicaid payments ran out), he created his own form of physical and mental therapy, building a model town, Marwencol, that he populated with dolls representing himself and the people in his life. Like a real-life Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, Mark feels more comfortable with his dolls than with most of the humans around him, even bringing them along when he ventures out into the real world. Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg introduces Mark’s quirks gradually, letting us get to care about him as a person first, so they feel more like details than labels. Meanwhile, stop-motion photography and Mark’s own luminous photographs show us Marwencol as he sees it: irony-free and full of life. A photographer and editor who “discover” Mark get him a show in Greenwich village, 100 miles and several worlds away from his hometown of Kingston, New York, but he could care less about achieving fame or fortune as an artist. For him, his work is simply his lifeline, an essential part of “the process of finding out who I am.”

Please Give
Ever since her first feature dissected a pair of best friends who were pushing 30, writer/director Nicole Holofcener, now 50, has chronicled the internal lives of people like herself and her friends. With her latest comedy of bad manners, Please Give, she enters the sandwich generation, with an emphasis on Kate, a guiltily comfortable upper-middle-class Upper West Sider played by Holofcener muse Catherine Keener. Most movies with multigenerational casts favor one generation over the others, but Holofcener gives almost equal time to Kate's teenage daughter and two twenty-something sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), and their 91-year-old grandmother (Ann Morgan Guilbert). They're all alternately unreasonable, ridiculous, and surprisingly sympathetic.

In case that’s not enough, here are the others that made it into my top 20 for The L Magazine A Film Unfinished, Mother, Carlos, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, A Prophet, Let Me In, The Illusionist, The Strange Case of Angelica, and Winnebago Man.

Written for TimeOFF

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rabbit Hole

Nicole Kidman aims a blow torch at her ice queen image with this one, obliterating it as deftly as her character, Becca, glazes a perfect crème brulee. Kidman produced Rabbit Hole too – and not just by using her name to attract funding or attending a few meetings. She bought the film rights when Rabbit Hole was still playing on Broadway (where it wound up winning a Pulitzer), enlisted the playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, to adapt his script into a screenplay, and lined up director John Cameron Mitchell, the diva-director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another fiercely truthful tale about a character fighting for her emotional life. Along with costars Aaron Eckhart (who plays Becca’s husband, Howie) and Dianne Wiest (as her mother, Nat) and a uniformly excellent supporting cast, Kidman and her collaborators have created a tactfully but powerfully moving movie for grownups, which includes the best work the actress has done in years.

As a mother fighting to regain her emotional footing after the death of her four-year-old son, Kidman seems at first to be playing yet another too-tightly-buttoned control freak, making like Martha Stewart in an Architecture Digest-ready house on a hill overlooking the Hudson. But Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell pull you into Becca’s and Howie’s internal lives rather than pinning them under a magnifying glass and watching them squirm, as movies about tormented couples (Revolutionary Road, for example) so often do.

As we watch Becca go about her daily life, putting on her clothes like costumes and her expression like a mask, we start to see how hard she’s working just to get herself through the day – and how hard she’s trying to spare the people around her, even as her tightly suppressed grief and rage keeps leaking out, and, occasionally, exploding. The dialogue rarely feels like speechifying, and even when it does it sometimes works, as in a beautifully written monologue Nat delivers about how “the weight of it all” shifted over time as she learned to live with the death of her own son. Even that glazed, too-smooth look Kidman has acquired over the years works here, when Becca is hit by a wave of grief so unexpected it knocks down her defenses, leaving just that stunned, frozen face.

Lindsay-Abaire has a good feel for the rhythms of intimacy, both in Becca’s marriage and in her dealings with her mother and her rebellious younger sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard). There’s clearly a lot of love in all those relationships, but buttons can be pushed with frightening ease, so conversations and situations that start out quiet, even cosy, can blow up at a moment’s notice. Nobody is always right or always wrong, and people often fail to say the right thing even when they mean well. There’s also an inevitability that feels right in how everything always circles back to the hole left by the death of the boy, like water flowing down a drain.

Some of the plot devices feel a little too pat, like the conveniently created comic book that gives the movie its title and overarching metaphor, or the parallel secret relationships Becca and Howie develop, both of which come to a cathartic resolution on the same day in a breathlessly cross-cut scene. But there’s real life in this film and these characters, and real heartache and wit in the dialogue (when Howie denies that he’s trying to “rope” Becca into having sex, she stares at him stonily. “Al Green isn’t roping?” she says. “Al Green?”). And there’s enormous pent-up power in the acting, which lingers after the movie ends.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tiny Furniture

A 24-year-old triple threat (writer, director and actress) with a sharply honed sense of humor, Lena Dunham makes films that land like a flurry of darts. It’s fun to watch her puncture deserving targets, like hipster poseurs who love the idea of being artists more than they love making art. In the best of her work, there’s also a warmth and maturity, a bemused acceptance of her characters’ flaws and insecurities, that softens us up and makes those darts land even harder. Because, unlike the snark that so often passes for wit these days, Dunham’s social satires don’t just make us snicker, they make us wince in recognition too.

A product of the New York art scene (she went to Brooklyn’s arty St. Ann’s school, which she describes as a creative haven, “like Hogwarts, basically,” and her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a fine-art photographer), Dunham knows a thing or two about both real and wannabe artists. In Tight Shots and Delusional Downtown Divas, the Web series she started out with, and now in her films, Dunham seems to be creating a satiric version of her own life, playing characters who presumably share her ambitions and insecurities but have little or none of her self-awareness and talent.

Tiny Furniture, her breakthrough second feature, was voted best narrative feature at this year’s South by Southwest film festival. Made soon after her graduation from Oberlin, it’s the tale of a 23-year-old young woman adrift in what she calls “a post-graduate delirium.” Dunham was 23 herself when she shot the micro-budget but beautifully photographed film, which is set mostly in her mother’s light-filled Tribeca loft and co-stars her own mother and sister (both very good) as the mother and sister of her character, Aura.

Dumped by her boyfriend, Aura goes back home to New York only to find herself feeling like an intruder in her mother’s and younger sister’s apartment. She gets a part-time job, picks up a sort-of boyfriend who turns out to be a leech, clashes with her high school supernova sister, fights and bonds with her mom, and subjects herself to one masochistic situation or relationship after another while trying to figure out where she fits in the world.

An average-looking young woman whose rounded limbs and pasty complexion don’t fit the standard definition of beauty, Dunham shows herself in a bracingly unflattering light. Aura can be very pretty, but Dunham generally uses low camera angles and too-tight clothes to make her look slightly pudgy and awkward. That physical humiliation is brought to a head in the YouTube video that gave Aura a taste of fame. She’s proud of the video, kind of, since it’s her first attempt at public art and it earns her some attention. But she’s embarrassed too, since nearly all the attention consists of snide comments about her looks (she’s wearing a painfully unflattering bathing suit).

There’s nothing new about the brutality of the judgments young women face in adolescence — in public, in their closest relationships, and especially in the mirror — but Dunham shows us how it feels to run that gauntlet in the age of Internet, which exposes young people to mob-think on a global scale.

At first Aura seems like a natural loser in a callous, winner-take-all world, but Dunham’s slyly witty script soon fleshes out that first impression. Aura’s relationships with two former best friends — a high-maintenance friend from high school who she props up emotionally and a loyal friend from college who she left stranded when she moved to New York — show Aura’s own capacity for insensitivity and remind us of how quickly loyalties can shift in adolescent female friendships. At the same time, Dunham keeps her comedy of manners upbeat by showing us how Aura’s stubborn strength, her basic decency, and her complex but close relationship with her mother anchor her even as she flounders what is surely one of the least grounded points in her life. Like the TV theme song said, about another fictional young woman who set out to find herself after her boyfriend dumped her: She might just make it after all.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tell Them Anything You Want

A portrait of an artist by a group of fellow artists, Tell Them Anything You Want is an entertaining and inspirational documentary.

Film is an inherently collaborative medium, though you wouldn’t know that to listen to most big-name filmmakers or those who write about them, who tend to make it sound as if feature films spring full-blown from the head of a single man or woman. But not Spike Jonze, a joyful collaborator who has always found his creativity within the context of a clan of kindred spirits.

Jonze’s team for Where the Wild Things Are, a marvelous movie that captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book while taking the story in new directions, included screenwriter Dave Eggers and actress Catherine Keener, one of Jonze’s most frequent collaborators. While he was working on that film, Jonze enlisted the help of video documentarian Lance Bangs to shoot this 40-minute tribute to Sendak, a free spirit Jonze was getting to know and love while consulting with him about his book.

At a Q&A after a screening in New York City last February, moderator Mike Myers, a longtime friend of Jonze’s, noted that Jonze, Bangs, and Sendak are each “an odd combination of emotion, intellect, and imagination.” Was it that shared sensibility that attracted them to their subject? he asked.

“Maurice’s imagination is certainly inspiring, and that’s what initially drew me to him,” Jonze said. “But the thing that I find most deeply inspiring is his ferocious honesty and his fearlessness to be honest. He has no ability for small talk or chitchat. He is who he is and he doesn’t have the energy to pretend that he’s someone else.”

That winning directness infuses the film, which was shot over a couple of years, when Sendak was in his early 80s, in his Connecticut home. While Tony Kushner, Meryl Streep, and James Gandolfini – not exactly chopped liver – offer brief tributes to Sendak, what sticks in my memory these months later is Sendak’s impish presence and things he said to his friends Jonze, Bangs, and Keener, who we see now and then but who mostly stay off-camera.

Funny, frank, and charming, the self-described “spoiled brat” talks about his unhappy childhood, his obsession with death, and the “permanent dissatisfaction” that dogs him in a kind of running monologue that manages, like his books, to be profoundly life-affirming while acknowledging the scariest and worst life has to offer.

He speaks lovingly about his dog Herman, his live-in assistant, and Ursula Nordstrom, the great children’s book editor and writer who discovered him, but he barely mentions Eugene Glynn, his life partner of 50 years. That near-silence was Sendak’s choice, Jonze and Bangs explained in the Q&A—Glynn was dying while the film was being made, and Sendak wanted to keep that part of his life private. But he does recall the difficulty he had in coming to terms with being gay, and his need to keep his sexuality secret for years for fear that coming out would kill his career as a children’s book author.

He also talks about the seminal event of his life: the kidnapping and presumed killing of the Lindbergh baby. Sendak was just three years old when he saw the tabloid news photos and heard the talk, but they made an indelible impression, making him realize that even a child could die. All the elements that have obsessed him since were contained in that incident: death, the peril that lurks under the surface even of the most placid domestic environment, and the vulnerability and sensibilities of the very young. He thinks he may have gotten stuck in childhood, in a way, because of the intensity of that experience, which “certainly invested me in children forever.”

Even when he was a child himself, Sendak says, he always watched other kids and then retold their stories in the drawings he made. His close observation has taught him that children are a lot smarter and more observant than adults generally give them credit for. “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood,” he says. “I don’t believe in ‘You mustn’t tell them this, you mustn’t tell them that.’ I tell the truth. Tell them anything you want.”

Two Friends

Jane Campion’s first feature (it was made for Australian TV in 1986) and one of her best, Two Friends is a quietly observant, deeply felt, and expertly acted study of female friendship and the thin line that separates the winners of the world from the outcasts.

It starts at a wake for a dead teenage girl, where Janet (Kris McQuade) wonders if her daughter Louise (Emma Coles) or Louise’s friend Kelly (Kris Bidenko) could also be at risk. “They’re all at risk, aren’t they?” says Jim, Janet’s estranged or former husband. The rest of the film is an unpreachy object lesson in how right he is about that, showing how wrong things can go when a bright, loving girl doesn’t get the nurturing she needs.

Two Friends scrupulously avoids exposition, so we pick up a lot by context or inference, and some things are left a little unclear. But there’s no doubt about the important things, like the fact that, while Louise’s mum and dad are no longer a couple, they’re still friendly to each other and excellent parents to her.

Kelly isn’t so lucky. She’s saddled with an absent father, a disapproving stepfather, and a mother too cowed to stick up for her. The main thing she has going for her is her best friend, Louise – and she loses her in the end. Or, more precisely, the beginning, since the story of their friendship is told in reverse order.

That backward unspooling of time, which was not in Helen Garner’s excellent script but was added by Campion, makes Kelly’s decline feel as inevitable as a Greek tragedy. The final shot of the two girls celebrating at the height of their closeness and innocence, brimming with potential, would have seemed merely joyful if it had been shown in chronological order. Instead, coming as it does after Kelly has gone off the rails, it’s powerfully poignant.

Campion had only made three shorts before filming Two Friends, but this feels like the work of a savvy old vet. Each scene is a self-contained unit and the connections between them are not always clear at first, but in the end they snap together as surely as a pile of Legos. By almost always filming her characters in pairs or in groups, Campion reinforces the film’s message about the power of our primary relationships. By relying almost exclusively on medium and long shots rather than close-ups, she pulls us into her main characters’ environments and lets us get to know them, yet maintains enough distance that they retain some of their mystery. She does the same with minor characters and extras, like Kelly’s Billy Idol-looking boyfriend, who never speak. These people, most of them teens or younger children, are often unobtrusively observed in the background as they go about their business, providing a social context for the girls’ story.

We see Kelly and Louise in their homes, at school, and out in public, and every environment feels as authentic as their interactions. We also see a lot of Louise with her mother, a relationship that’s entirely free of cliché and always believable, with its intimate blend of unconditional love, annoyance (mostly on Louise’s part), hurt feelings (mostly Janet’s), and domestic routine. Janet’s comfortable, easy friendship with her upstairs neighbor is also nicely calibrated. Not only does that relationship give us a window into Janet’s thoughts (this is essentially Kelly’s story, but it’s filtered through Janet and Louise), but it serves as a reminder us that the volatile, fast-shifting allegiances of adolescent girls are often just training wheels. Once they drop off, the girls will be free to launch the rich and grounded female friendships they’ll rely on as adults.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, November 29, 2010


What a rare pleasure to see a big American corporation—a movie studio, no less—make a business decision so smart the whole company roars back from the brink of disaster. I’m talking about Walt Disney Animation Studios, which had the unusually good sense, back in 2006, not just to buy out Pixar but to put its brilliant chief executive, John Lasseter, in charge of all Disney animation. (As Fortune magazine wrote at the time, “It's as if Nemo swallowed the whale.”)

Since then, Lasseter has overseen the creation of WALL-E, Up, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story 3, and now Tangled for his new bosses. All with richly detailed backgrounds and dramatic lighting and simulated camera anglesm all heartfelt yet light on their feet, the new Disney animations are uninfected by the easy irony and crippling self-awareness that ruins so many children’s movies these days.

Tangled simply offers an updated—and refreshingly girl-power-infused—take on the classic tale of Rapunzel, a girl imprisoned for years in a tower by an enchantress who took her from her parents. The original tale ends with a rescue by a passing prince, but this version is narrated, in a laidback voiceover, by Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), an orphan turned thief who sweeps Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) off her feet—after she knocks him off his own two or three times, with the help of an iron skillet.

The business with the frying pan is part of a wide vein of slapstick humor that runs through the movie, most of it at the expense of the initially too-cocky Flynn. There is also plenty of subtler humor, like Rapunzel’s initial awkwardness when she first ventures out of the tower where she’s spent virtually her whole life.

Funny, action-packed, and as unpretentiously charming as its heroine, Tangled is packed with the Broadway-style songs that Disney used to excel at, which Lasseter brought back with The Princess and the Frog. One of them (“Mother Knows Best”) that would fit right into Gypsy.

The film also has some classic Disney-style funny-animal sidekicks—both Pascal, a chameleon who is Rapunzel’s only friend until she meets Flynn, and Maximus, a proud palace horse that first hounds and then befriends Flynn. More bloodhound than horse and more scornful big brother than either, Maximum doesn’t talk any more than Pascal does, but they both communicate loud and clear.

The relationship between Rapunzel and the “mother” who kidnapped her as an infant and keeps her locked up in the tower is unusually sophisticated for a Disney movie, which may be why Gothel (Donna Murphy), the false mother, announces heavily, on a couple occasions, that she’ll be the bad guy if that’s what Rapunzel wants…. Those asides are nicely handled, funny enough to entertain the adults and older kids and probably helpful to the little ones, who might otherwise get confused by how often Gothel hugs and kisses Rapunzel or says how much she loves her. Her displays of affection fool Rapunzel too, for a while, but they’re ultimately just part of a classic narcissist’s bid for total control.

That probably went right over the heads of the little kids who made up most of the audience I saw the movie with, like the floating lanterns they reached for when the magic of 3D made them seem to float right there—just in front of them and a little to the left. But if Rapunzel’s relationship with Gothel and the budding romance between Rapunzel and Flynn went over the little kids’ heads, neither kept them from getting lost in the movie, or from tumbling happily out of the theater afterward, still enfolded by invisible clouds of joy.

Tangled has the look and feel of Disney classics like Lady and the Tramp, thanks to its generally light, bright colors and the exaggerated, doll-like features and skin and physiques of its human and animal characters. I saw it in 3D, but I wouldn’t feel obligated to if I were you. Aside from those lanterns and one risky jump by Maximus, the added dimension was never essential—or even particularly important—to the enjoyment of the picture.

Tangled is pure, unadulterated, innocent fun, a return to the best of classic Disney--only better, since it’s free of the sexism and racism that you have to overlook in a lot of the old movies. No wonder these Disney animators did such a good job of showing us Rapunzel’s dizzy glee when she first got free of that tower: They must know just how she felt.

And now we just need to figure out what’s going on at Pixar. I mean, really guys: a sequel to Cars???

Written for TimeOFF

Fair Game

I’m glad Fair Game got made, and I’m glad I saw it, but I wish it were a better movie.

It’s easy to imagine why director Doug Liman might have wanted to make a film about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, pictured above with Plame) by her own government. Like a real-life version of the Angelina Jolie character in Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Plame was a beautiful, tough, ingenious spy masquerading as an ordinary working woman (The first half hour or so of the film shows Plame at work, offering an intriguing window into the world of an undercover CIA agent). In fact, Plame’s story may be even more incredible than the fictional Smith’s.

It all started, as Fair Game shows us, when Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), wrote a New York Times editorial challenging a story the Bush administration was telling about Iraq stockpiling supplies for building nukes. That claim had helped pave the way for the then-recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, so Wilson’s report challenged the entire premise for our presence there. To divert attention from his editorial, White House insiders set out to undermine Wilson’s credibility, claiming he was an unemployed hack the CIA had sent to investigate rumors about nuclear materials only because his wife, a CIA agent, arranged the trip to give him something to do. Someone in the White House fed that story to Robert Novak, and he told the world in a Washington Post column.

The leak blew Plame’s cover to smithereens, costing her her job, compromising every mission she was involved in, and endangering the lives of her informants. Along with the ad hominen attacks that went with it, it also exposed Wilson and Plame to a media mob, anonymous death threats, public denunciations, and snide character assassinations by TV talking heads.

Based on the books the two wrote about the episode (Wilson’s was The Politics of Truth; Plame’s was Fair Game), the film cleaves tightly to the couple’s perspective on the episode and its aftermath. That point of view winds up being both the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Sean Penn is well cast as the staunchly self-righteous Wilson, and Watts (pictured above, at right, with Plame) is excellent as the steely but sensitive Plame. Their household feels like a real home, their two young children always audible in the background and often popping up to demand attention. Their marriage feels lived-in too, full of authentic touches like Plame’s stiff posture as she stops on her way out the door for a quick fight about how estranged they’ve become (“All we’ve been doing is leaving Post-Its for each other,” Wilson tells her), or the look two exchange at a DC dinner party while other guests blow hard about the fictional nuclear materials.

But by putting the couple’s increasingly strained marriage at the heart of the story, Fair Game unintentionally trivializes its subject. It’s as if the worst thing about the Bush administration’s willingness to throw one of its own agents and her informants under the bus—not to mention its refusal to let facts get in the way of its pre-determined plan to invade Iraq, the philosophy behind its betrayal of Plame—was that it interfered with the happiness of the Plame-Wilson household.

Liman, who served as his own cinematographer, overuses the shaky handheld camera that gave his Bourne Identity so much of its nervous energy. It often seems annoyingly egregious here, especially in a meeting in Plame’s drab CIA office building, where dizzying blurred pans and low-angle shots strain to add drama to the sight of people sitting at a conference table.

But the biggest disappointment is the ending, a corny climax in which a canned-sounding speech Wilson delivers about the need to “defend your freedom” is intercut with heroic footage of Watts marching to testify at a Senate hearing on her case. As Liman cuts from Watts to Plame herself, showing us video of her actual testimony as the end credits roll, what should have been a stirring ending fizzles out to the sound of Plame’s stiff, sing-song speech.

Fair Game got me riled up all over again about what happened to Wilson and Plame, but it didn’t add anything to my understanding of what they accomplished. What did their battle mean, in the end—not to their marriage but to our democracy, our freedom of speech, and our national security? Maybe Liman just wanted to ask the question, but I would have liked the movie better if it had provided some answers.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Movie Roundup

All that time spent with relatives you don’t see all that often; all those year-end movies crowding into the theater in hopes of nabbing an Oscar nomination. No wonder Thanksgiving weekend draws some of the biggest movie crowds of the year. I’ve been thinking about what I might see with my out-of-towners, so I thought I’d tell you about some movies I’ve seen recently that your clan might enjoy.

127 Hours is an ideal movie to see with your family – as long it doesn’t include anyone too young or too squeamish. Director Danny Boyle’s trademark kinetic whoosh made being down and strung out in Glasgow feel as exhilaratingly perilous (Trainspotting) as running from voracious zombies (28 Days Later). He lost me with Slumdog Millionaire, which sentimentalized poverty and made it look too easily escaped, but the director found his perfect subject – and vice versa – in 127 Hours. Closely based on the story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who got pinned down by a boulder while alone in a Utah canyon and wound up amputating his own arm to escape, 127 Hours is a film about a man slowly dying in a narrow crevice that moves as thrillingly fast as Ralston (James Franco) does when he first hits the trail, pedaling his mountain bike as if his legs were pistons.

Franco’s blinding charisma, intelligence, and seemingly bottomless energy do a lot of the work in this movie, since he’s in almost every frame. But Boyle and his coscreenwriter Simon Beaufoy (they based the script on Ralston’s book) also keep the adrenaline pumping, pulling us out of that crevice or filling it up with a series of vivid flashbacks and visions. The stark beauty of the landscape and the near-hallucinogenic brightness of the sun add to the intensity, as does the tension of knowing what’s coming, which becomes almost unbearable when Franco enacts the drawn-out act of sawing through stubborn flesh and electric nerves with a dull pocket knife.

127 Hours is partly the story of a straightforward physics problem that was encountered, puzzled over for a time, and ultimately solved by an ingenious and unflappable engineer – a problem that just happened to involve his own body. But it gives you more than the shivery thrill of a rubbernecker passing a wreck because it also offers a window into the mind of a young man at a crucial turning point. Ralston didn’t just lose his right hand in that crevice; he shed his adolescent fantasy of immortality and realized what really mattered to him. Those flashbacks and hallucinations, and the tender goodbyes and confessions Ralston taped on his camcorder, some of which Franco reconstructs, show us how Ralston’s love for his family and friends saved his life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is also a kind of family story, since the Harry Potter series is in part about the families we create for ourselves when our families of origin fail us. Harry is an orphan who found his home in Hogwarts, in the comradeship of his best friends Hermione and Ron, and in the chaotic warmth of the Beasley household. In this film, Hermione becomes a kind of orphan too, making the heartbreaking decision to erase all memories of her from the minds of her Muggle parents, in order to keep them safe from Voldemort’s crusade against “mudblood” contamination of the wizard world.

The Harry Potter films started with two entries by director Chris Columbus, whose open-mouthed reaction shots, melodramatic soundtracks and sometimes hokey special effects drained the story of the wit, social awareness, and genuine sense of peril and wonder that infuse J.K. Rowling’s books. Then Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban restored the story’s subtleties and underlying seriousness to the screen, setting a tone that the films have more or less maintained ever since.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the beginning of the end of the series, is directed by David Yates. Yates also helmed The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, and he has the sense – and the very Harry-ish humility – to list Azkaban as his favorite of the series. As befits a cautionary tale about fascism in which the forces of evil are poised to take over the world, his latest installment is literally as well as figuratively dark, shot almost entirely at night or under operatically gloomy CGI thunderclouds. The wraiths, dark wizards, basilisks and other assorted riffraff that are spreading across the land to do Lord Voldemort’s bidding are appropriately chilling, and the emotions Harry and his friends wrestle with feel viscerally real as the three “go to ground,” leaving the no-longer-safe havens of Hogwarts and the Beasley’s house to devote themselves to defeating Voldemort.

As always, the three young actors who play the main parts are just the right age, since the nine years that have passed since the first film closely mirror the seven years that elapsed in the books. It’s been lovely to watch them grow up and grow into their roles – particularly Emma Watson, who used to be too stiff as Hermione. This time she really feels like the emotional glue at the center of Harry’s surrogate family.

If you have young kids to entertain, you might try Megamind. I’m out of space, so I’ll just say it’s a welcome twist on the superhero genre: self-aware enough to tweak what needs tweaking (starting with the notion that good guys are all good and bad guys all bad) but true enough to its audience to honor the conventions that count, making us care about the characters and giving them all happy endings. The animation is clever and often beautiful (I particularly loved a scene of Megamind welding), and Megamind’s overly complicated inventions, his endearingly clumsy attempts at bad-guy banter, and the bumbling protégé he turns into a nemesis by mistake are all pretty funny.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 15, 2010


The more I learned about the hell in store if the runaway train in Unstoppable hit the sharp curve it was barreling toward without slowing down, the more I feared for the good people of Stanton, Pennsylvania. This train weighs 10 million pounds and is going over 70 mph? It’s carrying 30,000 gallons of a toxic chemical so combustible the train’s essentially “a missile the size of the Chrysler building,” as Connie (Rosario Dawson), the righteous railyard operator, informs her greedhead boss? And the S curve it’s headed for is not only smack in the middle of Stanton but directly over a series of fuel tanks? Good God, people, run for your lives! Don’t you know you’re in a Tony Scott movie? There is no way he could resist setting off a fireball that awesome.

Few living directors whip up a frappe of things going really fast and things blowing up better than Scott. He makes the train look pretty fast (though rarely scarily so) mostly by showing it in a series of quick takes that are often shot from different angles and sometimes blurred. And he makes it feel huge and, well, unstoppable, by pounding away at our eardrums with a steady barrage of heavily amplified chugs and squeals and an operatic score by Hans Zimmer protégé Harry Gregson-Williams.

The actual runaway train that inspired the film barreled through Ohio in 2001 for more than two hours before being stopped by three engineers, who were sent by the company that owned the train. Unstoppable turns the company’s internal debate over how to stop it into that time-honored movie triangle: a clash between a heroic inside-the-system worker (Dawson’s Connie), an arrogant corporate bigwig (Connie’s boss Galvin, played by Kevin Dunn), and a Dirty Harry-style rogue operator (Denzel Washington’s Frank) who bonds with the heroic worker to Get the Job Done. Dawson and Washington are enormously appealing actors who know how to hold our attention, but their personal magnetism is trumped by the cliché-ridden script. The same goes for Chris Pine, who plays the rookie Frank is teaching and sparring with – until they learn about the runaway train and bond to save the day.

The film starts slowly, alternating elementary character development with the start of the train’s journey, but the pace picks up once the chase is on. Even when there’s nothing more dramatic going on than a phone call, the camera swirls around restlessly, circling like a hyperactive pup, and when the train finally hits that S curve, it careens like something out of Looney Tunes. Rapid cuts between scenes also keep the energy level high – and the characters underdeveloped.

Two near-collisions are so close they almost cross the line from dramatic to comic, including one with a train full of schoolkids on a field trip to learn about (oh, the irony) train safety. A failed attempt to stop the train, which we know from the start is doomed because it was cooked up by Connie’s boss, ends in the inevitable fireball. Meanwhile, we get the required dose of skin from Frank’s gorgeous daughters when we catch up with them at work – at Hooters, where they bend over compliantly for the camera before watching dad’s heroics on TV. (That TV coverage may be the most improbable part of the movie: Fox newscasters broadcast every fact accurately and practically instantly, apparently hearing what’s going on the minute the train company’s managers have figured it out.)

The second half of this movie kept reminding me of Buster Keaton’s The General, a brilliantly choreographed train chase movie that’s also much more. The stunts in The General aren’t there just to give you a visceral thrill, though they do that too. They also make you fear for a character you care about, and they make you laugh – at things as serious as war or as silly as Buster’s girlfriend’s inability to stoke the train’s steam engine.

Conveying the thrill of things going fast or exploding is an important part of the craft of making action movies, but the art is in the storytelling. Without a character we care about or a plot beyond the basic need to stop a runaway train, all the rushing around in Unstoppable is just so much commotion.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

I always want to like Aviva Kempner’s movies. For one thing, her stepfather and my dad were great friends when we were kids in Detroit. For another, she makes films about Jews in America, a topic that interests me. But I haven’t managed to fall for one of her movies since her first, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

In the DVD commentary for Yoo-Hoo, Kempner says her beat is “films about under-known Jewish heroes.” That description surely fits Greenberg, one of baseball’s few Jewish stars, but I wouldn’t call Senator Joseph Lieberman, the subject of her second short film, either under-known or a hero. As for the creative force behind Molly Goldberg, a fictional Jewish earth mother who was popular on radio and TV for nearly three decades, I might buy “under-known,” since Gertrude Berg’s fame has faded faster than that of contemporaries like Lucille Ball or Jack Benny. But a hero? Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg tries to canonize Berg as an inspirational proto-feminist, but the evidence it offers is thin and sometimes contradictory.

Kempner’s 20-minute 2002 short, Today I Vote for My Joey, implied that the worst thing about Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 presidential election was that it prevented Lieberman from becoming America’s first Jewish vice president. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg suffers from the same tunnel vision, too interested in whether Berg’s shows were good for the Jews to ask whether they were good, period. Was her show as groundbreaking as this film would have us believe? One of the talking heads, an author who wrote a biography of Berg, calls her show “the first successful television situation comedy,” and another implies that Berg invented the convention of people bursting through the door to juice up a fading storyline. But even if that convention was new to TV, it had been alive and kicking in theatrical farces for hundreds of years before Molly Goldberg was born.

Some of the shorter clips we see from the show – especially the ads Berg wrote and delivered in character as Molly – feel faux-folksy, and the longest and best excerpt is just a pleasant bit of pop pablum, though it’s taken from what the voiceover says is one of her best episodes. So the only thing that makes this forgotten show seem worth remembering is the case Kempner makes for giving Americans its first prototype of a warm, wise, halfway Americanized Jewish mother.

The film outlines Berg’s personal history as well, but that too is quickly glossed over reveal much. We learn almost nothing about the relationships she maintained with her real-life husband and children while working so hard to play the perfect mother (she was the sole writer as well as the star on a show that started out weekly and went daily for a while). There are a few hints at a Joan Crawford-like gap between Berg’s broadcast persona and her real self, including speculation that Molly was the mother Berg had always wished for, since her own mother was mentally unstable and wound up in an institution. Apparently she was a terrible cook, too, though she thought she was good – and even published a cookbook, under Molly’s name (her coauthor, cookbook writer Myra Waldo, may have done the real work).

Berg was obviously driven, but to do what exactly? The talking heads and Kempner’s voiceover laud her as a proto-feminist pioneer as well as a Jewish role model, but her sentimental show didn’t appear to be interested in launching any Roseanne-style assaults on cultural beachheads. Kempner stresses the courage it took Berg to stage a Seder at the Goldbergs’ and have someone throw a rock through their window after the horror of Kristallnacht, but she doesn’t mention how rarely Berg took stands like that. According to a 2000 editorial in the Dallas Morning News, Berg generally steered clear of "anything that will bother people ... unions, fund raising, Zionism, socialism, intergroup relations. ... I keep things average. I don't want to lose friends."

Kempner alternates between talking heads, clips from the show and from an interview Edward R. Murrow did with Berg, and generic archival footage, like the shot of Variety’s Wall Street Lays an Egg headline that clues us into the 1929 stock market crash that preceded Berg’s radio debut by two months. Berg’s biographer and a couple of her relatives provide some personal information while the rest of the talking heads, who include Susan Stamberg and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, talk about what the show meant to them and their families when they were young.

The best bits are from the Murrow interview, but none of it goes very deep and the contradictions that emerge in the narrative go unexplored. After all the talk about the show’s positive portrayal of a prototypical (if idealized) Jewish family, what are we to make of the African American journalist who says: “Listening to Molly Goldberg, you didn’t think about religion or ethnicity. You thought about family.” And was Berg’s set a warm and nurturing place, as one person says, or was she the mercurial and demanding tyrant others report on the job?

Looks like Gertrude Berg will have to remain under-known.

Written for TimeOFF 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Outside the Law

Outside the Law is the latest in a growing body of good to great movies that explore the causes and effects of terrorism. Like Terror’s Advocate, Paradise Now, Day Night Day Night, Munich, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Army of Shadows (which was made in 1969 but not released here until 2006), and, most recently, Carlos, Outside the Law is interested less in the victims of terrorist acts than in the people who commit them. What makes them turn to violence? How does it change them? And, above all, do their ends justify their means? (An interesting sidebar to this exchange was this year’s Mesrine, an overlong gangster story distinguished by an excellent cast and a nicely sardonic take on our fascination with terrorists. Its title character is a real-life two-bit sociopath who saw himself—and, for a while, got the starry-eyed media to portray him—as a revolutionary idealist committing acts of terror against the capitalist state, since that sounds so much cooler and more important than robbing banks for a living.)

Outside the Law writer-director Rachid Bouchareb wants us to see how blurry the line is between the acts we define as terrorism and the horrors committed by nation-states and accepted by most of us as an inevitable byproduct of the police actions and prison systems and wars and political maneuvers that prop up the status quo. Carlos does something similar, but where that movie explores the symbiotic relationship between the two, tracing the vast network of not-quite-officially warring nations that were eager to hire its subject to carry out their clandestine commands, Outside the Law’s unaffiliated terrorists are locked in mortal combat with the state-sponsored killers whose methods they have adopted.

Time and again, Bouchareb shows us the French committing brutal acts of repression while helpless Algerians watch in horror. The story begins in Algeria in 1925, with the theft of a family’s land by the French colonizers who were then seizing farms owned by Algerians and giving them to European settlers. ("May God punish them," says the father, a prayer that we sense will be answered.) The displaced family includes three brothers who stand for a range of Algerian reactions to French oppression: Said (Jamel Debbouze) just wants to live large and run the boxing gym that is "my real place," Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is a righteous Malcolm X figure devoted to avenging his people, and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a reluctant recruit who lets his brother pull him into the revolution because he believes in the cause, but is sickened by the killing he’s called on to do.

Outside the Law pointedly highlights tactics often associated with terrorists from Arab-speaking countries to show us their European roots. The only beheading we see is of an Algerian political prisoner, who is guillotined "in the name of the French republic" while a horrified Abdelkader looks on, and the unarmed civilians who are killed en masse are peaceful demonstrators slaughtered by colonial gunmen as they march for Algerian independence.

Bouchareb’s last movie was the excellent Days of Glory, another fact-based fiction that highlighted France’s shameful treatment, both during and after the war, of the Algerians who fought for France in WWII. This film is just as beautifully and intelligently shot as that one was, this time by cinematographer Christian Beaucame. Shallow depth of field, unobtrusively luscious lighting, and judiciously used close-ups intensify the focus on the three main characters and their internal torment, and the selective colorization Spielberg used to highlight the little girl in red in Schindler’s List is nicely used during that march for independence, a black-and-white scene in which only the flags are in color. Bouchareb also researched this story the same way he did Days of Glory, interviewing scores of people who lived through the events fictionalized in the film before writing the script. His three main characters even have the same names and are portrayed by the same excellent actors.

But the three are very different people this time, with different relationships to one another, and their story feels less startlingly fresh. Where Days of Glory felt as real as dirt, Outside the Law relies too much on crime-movie tropes like the predictable conflicts between the three brothers. Its coincidences—like the connections Messaoud makes during his stint as a POW in Vietnam—feel like a screenwriter’s lazy shortcut. Its dialogue too often preaches or tells us things we already know, or both, like when Abdelkader’s mother visits him in prison to say: "You’re not a criminal. You’re in prison for your ideas. You’re a man." And its tone is too relentlessly somber. A lovely but lonely little moment of lightness, in which Abdelkader and Messaoud argue about the merits of American pop music while waiting to transport a busload of weapons, lands like a sprinkling of rain on a desert.

But Bouchareb makes a convincing case about the European/colonial roots of terrorism and its persistence as a tool of state warfare. In one of the historically accurate scenes, he even shows Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancon), the former French resistance fighter turned cop who tried to shut down the Algerian resistance in France, deciding to fight terrorism with terrorism. Faivre commissioned a group of his men to off members of Abdelkadar’s group without the bother of arrests or trials, using the cover of a defunct guerilla organization.

As Bouchareb has Faivre acknowledge to Abdelkader’s martyred corpse in a typically overengineered ending, the Algerian terrorists won their battle. They did it in pretty short order, too, considering that the demonstration that starts the film took place in 1945 and the matching parade at the end, in which Algerians crowd the streets to celebrate their newly won freedom, came just 17 years later. So did the ends justify the means? Outside the Law votes yes.

Written for The L Magazine

Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival

Keeping nine of her ten children alive in a Congolese prison camp where they were beaten, raped, starved, and threatened with death for over a year by the soldiers who had killed her husband and more than five million of her compatriots, Rose Mapendo could easily have become hardened, bitter, or permanently traumatized – or simply given up the fight. Instead, as chronicled in Pushing the Elephant, this extraordinary woman became a kind of 21st-century messiah, speaking to and for the growing millions of international refugees seeking shelter from genocidal wars.

When she’s not on the road on behalf of Mapendo International or MNH New Horizons, nonprofit foundations that amplify her message and build on her work, she is in her new home in Phoenix, Arizona, raising her big brood of apparently healthy and happy children. The filmmakers, who keep the emotional pitch high by weaving in new revelations at deftly timed intervals, introduce Rose’s tenth child, Nangabire, just as we’re getting used to the rhythm of life for the other nine.

Nangabire was separated from her parents and siblings when the war broke out, and it took many years for Rose to find her. Directors Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel capture both sides of their deeply moving reunion, filming Nangabire as she leaves her tearful friends and grandparents in Kenya and heads apprehensively for the airport, then switch to Rose going to the airport in Phoenix while she fills us in on her daughter’s past and how sorry she is to have missed so much of it. We also see Rose searching for her daughter, then ululating joyfully before wrapping her in a hug so tight you can practically feel it.

It’s a moment of transformative joy, but it’s no happy ending: Nangabire has a lot of adjusting to do. She’s shocked at first by the “attitude” displayed by her independent, argumentative little sister and intimidated by her suburban high school, since she doesn’t know the language any better than she does the culture. But perhaps most importantly, she needs to get past the resentment and anger that are holding her back. Nangabire is understandably bitter about the years she lost with her parents and siblings, the education she missed out on when her grandparents took her out of her beloved school, and the harsh judgments she heard from other people when word got back to her community that her oldest sister was the concubine of one of the soldiers in the camp. Rose listens to her angst with her usual empathy, crying in private as she tells the camera how she grieves for the lost years she can never give back to her daughter. But she won’t let Nangabire wallow in her sorrow – for her own sake. Instead, she tells her about the importance of forgiving those who have wronged you, living in the present, and taking control of your destiny. “What I want to do is open the path of your life,” she says.

Like the Liberian women in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, who used their status as grieving mothers to help end that country’s bloody civil war, Rose gets her identity and her moral authority primarily from her role as one of the wives and mothers who, as she puts it, pay the greatest price in any war. Like a self-appointed mother to the whole wounded world, she reminds us that mothers are important because they give us the comfort and hope that keeps us alive, even when times are so desperate that they have nothing else to give.

Pushing the Elephant is one of six feature-length films and three shorts playing this weekend at the second annual Trenton Foreign Film Festival. That’s not a lot of films, but they cover a lot of turf, from the moody melodrama of the beautifully shot My Tehran for Sale to the energetic escapism of the equally gorgeous Besouro and the earnest idealism of 8th Wonderland.

My Tehran’s credits include a thank-you to Bahman Ghobadi, whose Nobody Knows About Persian Cats also follows a few young people in their travels around Tehran and showcases a lot of music, both traditional and modern, to convey both a sense of the frustrations experienced by artists oppressed by the fundamentalist regime and the cultural richness of the city’s underground. But where Ghobadi’s brilliant and feisty little film felt like a freshly served slice of life, My Tehran piles on too many tragic encounters and shots of soulful middle-distance stares and winds up feeling heavy-handed and unconvincing, despite a promising start.

Besouro is a classic revenge story hung on a strong hook – the fight waged by Brazilians of African descent to become free – that could have been a real powerhouse of a movie in the right hands. The characters and situations are so thinly developed and the dialogue so weak that the sumptuous visuals have to pull us in virtually unassisted, but they’re good enough to succeed. The title character, who really existed, worked on an early 20th century sugarcane plantation and was an early master of capoeira. That African-Brazilian mixture of fighting and dance is cinematic enough to begin with, but even it is hyped up here, turned into a mashup of classic capoeira, parkour, and Chinese-style wire fighting (Besouro supposedly got his fighting name, which means “beetle,” because he could fly when he did capoeira, and this movie shows him literally taking to the skies). The filmmakers fill the frame with gorgeous young actors, a fair amount of sex and nudity, tourist brochure-ready settings, and lots of whooshing, bug’s-eye-view dolly shots as our hero defeats his racist overlords, a pair of very, very bad guys in black hats, and inspires his people to fight on after his death. It works if you’re looking for a black-power revenge fantasy or a fable for kids – as long as they’re old enough for the sex.

The Shaft is another bad-news bulletin from fast-industrializing China, this time from a coal mining town so beautifully shot that even the coal dust is lovely, softening everything like an aging star shot through a vaselined lens. (There have been a lot of movies like this lately, most notably from the great Jia Zhangke, whose features document the enormous changes forced on ordinary people by the extraordinary changes upending the Chinese economy, and most recently from Lixin Fan, whose Last Train Home is a stunning debut.) But there’s little beauty in the lives of the people the film follows in three overlapping stories. Its deadpan camera makes us feel how trapped they are, observing depressed, mostly silent people from a fixed position as they sit in empty rooms, eat in front of a TV, ride down empty streets, or descend into the mine shaft that eventually swallows every man in town. It relies too much on expository dialogue and sometimes repeats images to the point of tedium (I suspect those repeating images are supposed to make me feel how stuck the characters are, but they just made me feel antsy instead), but there’s enough texture and information in all those near still-life shots to make it worth seeing.

8th Wonderland is a utopian French fantasy about a virtual nation formed online by a group of mostly young, universally good-looking, and demographically diverse people. Together, they debate what to do about things like the hypocrisy of the Vatican’s stance on AIDS, Chinese sweat shops that exploit children, nuclear energy, and uncaring multinational conglomerates whose products kill people, before putting their proposals to a vote and acting on them. Much of the movie is delivered in the form of international newscasts reporting on the group’s activities or the things they are reacting to, so there’s a lot of blunt satire of stupid newscasting tricks around the world, including a young woman who strips while delivering the news on a Japanese channel. Bare-bones sets, actors who look like adolescents playing at being sophisticates, and bad American accents give it all a DIY feel, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The amateurish vibe mirrors the feel of the online community and exemplifies the film’s touchingly sincere call for secular-humanist citizen activism. 8th Wonderland may gloss over the problems that would be arise if people formed a new global political entity online, but its vision of a world in which virtual communities are at least as important as the old-fashioned kind is already close to reality.

The 2010 Trenton Foreign Film Festival will take place November 5-7 at the corner of Front and Montgomery streets in Trenton. Tickets are $8 for individual films, $24 for 4 films, or $5 at the door for high school and college students who show a valid school ID.

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


American women have come a long way, baby, as that annoying cigarette ad used to say, so if something’s holding one of us back these days, it’s as likely to be an internalized barrier as an external one. But those internal barriers can be the hardest ones to get past. All that conditioning most of us get to put other people’s needs first and sublimate our own desires makes it hard to map out and stick to a path. As Kathryn Bigelow told 60 Minutes, when she was asked why there are still relatively few female directors making feature films: “I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is — politics, business, film — it's a long journey.”

So it’s no wonder a lot of people treated Barbara Loden the way Samuel Johnson did female preachers (“the marvel is not that it was done well, but that it was done at all”) when she released Wanda in 1970: After all, she was the first woman since Ida Lupino to direct a major American feature. But, as a lot of cinephiles now know, this still-obscure movie is actually done very well. An emotionally honest character study of a woman sleepwalking through her own life, Wanda looks at a type often encountered often in life but rarely seen in the movies.

Loden, who starred in the movie as well as writing and directing it, put a lot of herself in the title character, a rootless beauty who takes up with anyone who will have her. “I used to be a lot like that,” she told the Los Angeles Times the year after Wanda’s release. “I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become.”

The film starts out slow, and it takes a little while to get adjusted to the often muddy sound and the grainy look of 16mm blown up to 35. Loden shot it for just $100,000 with a crew of three, and you can almost feel them getting better as the movie progresses. At first, too many non-professional actors give labored line readings, and too many medium or long shots of people walking or driving go on for too long. But there’s a lot of information in those shots about Wanda’s hardscrabble coal-mining town: worn-out women toting crying babies, empty beer cans on linoleum counters, the constant hum of coal-mining machinery, the barren black strip-mined hillsides. So when the story kicks into gear, about half an hour in, you have a good sense of who Wanda is and where she comes from.

The tempo changes when Wanda bumps up against Mr. Dennis, a small-time crook with a hair-trigger temper (Michael Higgins, a professional actor who nails the part). They click instantly into a codependent relationship that’s at once highly unstable and the most stable thing in Wanda's life. Along for the ride, she seems to have no ambition and no illusions about being in control of her own life, and things spiral farther and farther downward as she starts out as his barely tolerated companion, then helps with the driving as they travel cross-country, then becomes his getaway driver and a full-fledged accomplice.

The shoot was partly improvised from Loden’s script, and it sometimes takes on a near-documentary feel as the two drive through the heart of late-60s America, stopping at places like a fundamentalist church built over catacombs whose grounds are bristling with hand-lettered calls to Jesus. And when Mr. Dennis gets drunk in a field where they’ve pulled off the road for a rest, waving a whiskey bottle and shouting at a fleet of model planes that buzz overhead, Loden finds a distinctive, dark vibe that’s part North by Northwest, part Easy Rider, and all her own.

Wanda’s relationship with Mr. Dennis is hardly equitable — for one thing, she calls him “Mr. Dennis” and he calls her “Wanda” — yet she’s not exactly a victim. She seems to expect abuse and accepts it without complaint, but she doesn’t cringe or collapse when it comes, standing her ground with a stubborn strength that may be an inchoate form of self-esteem.

The downbeat ending leaves little hope that Wanda will escape the trap she’s in, but Loden did, starting as a model and a showgirl and graduating to small parts in films. She met Elia Kazan when she auditioned for Wild River (she played small parts in that film and in Splendor in the Grass), becoming his mistress and eventually his wife and bearing him a son. He helped her in her acting career, but judging by Richard Schickel’s patronizing description of her in his biography of Kazan, he doesn’t seem to have taken her seriously as a director. “She was young, drop-dead gorgeous and basically from a poor-white-trash background—all passionate feeling, unmediated by any inkling of abstract ideas,” Schickel writes. “She was, of course, blonde.”

When Loden died of cancer at 48 in 1980, Wanda was still the only film she had directed. She was planning a shoot of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, though. That sounds about right.

Written for The L Magazine