Monday, January 25, 2010

Escape to Planet Hollywood

By Elise Nakhnikian

So many movies, so little time.

I see about three new releases in an average week. That may sound like a lot, but it almost never feels like enough. I’m forever triaging the titles on my list. The first to go are the big, glossy Hollywood movies, the ones so formulaic you can practically hear the pitch as you watch the trailer.

But sometimes I don’t want to be to be challenged or enlightened; I just want to be entertained. Last weekend was one of those times, so I caught up on three big releases I’d missed when they came out: a romance, a post-apocalyptic Western, and a heartwarming true story. I was hoping for a solid trifecta of escapist entertainment, and that’s pretty much what I got.

It’s Complicated is wish fulfillment for middle-aged women, a less broadly played, more upscale Mamma Mia without the Abba music. You know it’s got to be a fantasy when the 50-something woman’s boyfriend earnestly tells her: “Your age is one of my favorite things about you.”

As in Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep plays the heroine and looks like she’s having the time of her life – and few things are more joyful than Streep having fun. Once again, she plays a vibrant woman with loving kids, a loyal coterie of good-time girlfriends, and a hyperactive love life. This time there are just two men vying for her affections – her ex-husband (a comically raffish Alec Baldwin) and her architect (Steve Martin, as boyishly bashful as ever). But hey, that’s pretty good for a post-menopausal divorcee.

Director Nancy Meyers’ romantic comedies are not about verbal jousting or witty subterfuge. Her characters wear their hearts on their stylish sleeves, and they tend to revert when they fall in love, acting like hormone-addled teenagers. But nobody can run the gamut of human emotions better than Streep, and Meyers gives her a pretty wide range to explore. There may not be any musical numbers in It’s Complicated, but Streep makes it sing.

The Book of Eli takes place in one of those post-apocalyptic wastelands that’s become a genre in itself since Mad Max. Denzel Washington is the righteous avenger this time around. Striding through the barren landscape like Clint Eastwood’s darker brother, he’s literally on a mission from God.

The movie is competently directed by those nice Armenian boys, the Hughes Brothers (You may think of them as African-American like their dad, but their mom’s Armenian, so they’re homeboys to me), who choose their influences well. I saw The Road, The Road Warrior, Children of Men, and more in its picturesquely floodlit, desaturated palette; its smoggy brown air and ruined landscapes; the ragged post-apocalyptic chic of its costumes; and its fantastic twist ending. Some of the cast seems recycled too, with Tom Waits playing the proprietor of a ramshackle store and Gary Oldman, who sometimes appearing to be parodying Pat Robertson, playing a town’s psychopathic overlord. But The Book of Eli is satisfying in spite of being so derivative. Or is that why it works?

What’s not to like about Sandra Bullock? Even when she breaks out a self-conscious accent and some mighty tight pantsuits in The Blind Side, playing a titanium-tough Southern belle in a Memphis McMansion, Bullock holds us close, making us see the mensch beneath the pancake makeup. And when her Leigh Ann Tuohy invites a sad-eyed homeless teenager to sleep on her $10,000 couch, eventually moving him into his own bedroom and then becoming his legal guardian – well, you’d better have brought your Kleenex.

Quinton Aaron plays the boy, Michael Oher, who became a football player under the Tuohys’ tutelage. The script doesn’t let on much about what he thinks, but Aaron makes his feelings clear, and it’s moving to see the glum, guarded boy lighten up as he settles into a life of luxury, emotional stability, and family love.

This is based on a true story (Michael Lewis wrote a book about it, which John Lee Hancock based his script on), which may explain why Leigh Ann and her family aren’t perfect. To its credit, the movie tackles their biggest blunder – the fact that they, like everyone at Michael’s otherwise-white school, assumed he would play football just because he was big and black.

When Leigh Ann finally asks Michael: “Do you even want to play football? Do you even like it?” he answers that he’s good at it. It’s a poignant response, making you wonder what else he might have found out he was good at if he’d landed somewhere else. But then the movie reminds you that that’s how families work: kids often follow in their parents’ footsteps, and our interests and priorities are always shaped by the people who raised us.

Shadings like that give The Blind Side a little depth, which was a pleasant surprise. But on the whole, it was just the cheerful, uncomplicated feel-good story I expected –and wanted – it to be.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Crazy Heart

By Elise Nakhnikian

Accepting the Best Actor Golden Globe last weekend, Jeff Bridges thanked his dad for having convinced him to go into the family business. “He said, come on, it’s fun!” he recalled.

A lot of actors wouldn’t have found much fun in playing a soul as tattered as Bad Blake, the train wreck of a country singer Bridges plays in Crazy Heart. Fifty-seven going on seventy, he scratches out a living playing seedy little joints. When he’s not onstage or on the road, chances are he’s in one of a series of even seedier motel rooms, drinking until he passes out. If he has any company, it’s an equally drunken fan who’s probably got as many miles on her as he does. In other words, to quote Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman who shows up to interview him and falls in love, Blake is “dying a slow death.”

But Bridges locates the joy in the good ol’ boy too. Peering up from under heavy eyelids to take Jean’s measure or beguiling her little boy like a ragged Pied Piper, his Blake is a trenchant observer who hasn’t had much to look at for a long time.

Pauline Kael said Bridges might be “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.” In Crazy Heart, he’s found a script as truthful and authentic as his acting. This intelligent, quietly nuanced, often heartbreaking performance reminds me of the work Bridges did in American Heart, another brutally honest story about a deadbeat dad whose drinking has him just about beat.

Gyllenhaal, who did her own brilliantly wrenching turn as an addict hitting rock bottom in the excellent Sherrybaby, plays a stable single mother who falls for Blake in spite of herself, offering him an unexpected last chance at love. Their wary delight in each other and his interactions with her son feel as real as dirt, making you root for their relationship even when you know you shouldn’t.

Blake has at least one other thing going for him, besides his abundant talent: his best friend back home in Houston is played by Robert Duvall. Duvall gives Wayne just the right heft and heart as the kind of guy who picks his friend up from the bathroom door and takes him fishing. He also brings with him the ghost of Mac Sledge, the drunken country singer he played in Tender Mercies, and the memory of that movie’s artfully sanded edges made me appreciate Crazy Heart’s raw emotions and tough-minded realism all the more.

Blake pays a higher price for his irresponsibility than Sledge did, but his story has notes of hope, a cautiously upbeat ending, and those moments of joy that Bridges picks up on with such gusto. This is not one of those voyeuristic parades of pain, like The Wrestler, whose whole purpose seems to be to wallow in its main character’s humiliation and self-destruction.

Bridges gives a vanity-free performance, letting himself go flabby in the middle and often leaving his mouth a little agape, as if he can’t be bothered to close it. He still looks a lot like Kris Kristofferson, but he acts more like Townes Van Zandt, a brilliant but self-destructive singer-songwriter with a fatal attraction to booze (one of Townes' hauntingly sad songs is on the excellent soundtrack.)

Bridges has said he would not have done this movie if his friend T Bone Burnett weren’t writing Bad Blake’s songs, and he’s right about how crucial Burnett’s contribution is. Blake’s songs are beautiful and sad, a little bit Leonard Cohen and a little bit Robert Earl Keene, and lyrics like “I used to be somebody/Now I am somebody else” and “Funny how falling feels like flying for a little while” fit him like an old pair of boots. Bridges does all his own singing, as he did in The Fabulous Baker Boys, in a soulful voice that’s both rueful and defiant.

There’s some nice, authentically Texan-sounding dialogue, laced through with the black humor of a smart country boy, in Scott Cooper’s script, which is based on a novel by Thomas Cobb. And the contrast between Blake’s way-below-the-radar “tour” and the great glossy production that is the traveling show of Tommy Sweet, his former backup musician made good, shows us just how far Blake has fallen from the commercial heart of country music.

Colin Farrell, who seems to be settling comfortably into supporting roles after failing to become the new Gen X star he was set up to be, is very good as Tommy, even rocking a believable Southern accent and singing a credible duet with Bridges. It’s an uncharacteristically restrained role for the notorious bad boy, but he plays it with subtle sensitivity, making Tommy as life-sized and real as everything else in this perfectly scaled production.

Extraordinary Measures

By Elise Nakhnikian

“When I look back on those five years that inspired this film, never once did I sit back in a chair late at night with a glass of wine or a beer and think, ‘Wow, this will make an amazing film,’” says Princeton resident John Crowley with a laugh. “I was just trying to get through the next day and not get fired.”

Crowley is talking about Extraordinary Measures, Hollywood’s version of the amazing journey on which he led his family after two of his three children, Megan and Patrick, were diagnosed with a rare illness in 1998. A genetic disorder in which deficient enzyme causes glycogen to build up in the body, Pompe disease weakens and eventually paralyzes muscles throughout the body, including the heart. When the children were diagnosed, there was no treatment for the disease, and the longest anyone had lived with it was to age eight or nine.

Crowley refused to accept that death sentence. He quit the job that supported his family, leaving behind the health insurance that paid for hundreds of thousands in medical care for his kids every year, to start a biotech company to develop a replacement enzyme. Raising millions of dollars, he mobilized dozens of scientists in a desperate race against time. And he succeeded, developing a treatment that halts the progression of the disease.

“The enzyme that we helped to discover, which they’ve taken now for seven years, every other week, reversed the damage done to their hearts by the disease, and that’s given them enormous quality of life, and hopefully great quantity,” he says of his kids. But the treatment has reversed all the damage it can and is now just keeping the disease from getting any worse. "We don’t talk any more about how long they’re going to live – we don’t know,” Crowley says. “We try to live each day at a time.”

All three of the Crowley kids go to public school in Princeton. Patrick is in 6th grade, Megan in 7th, and their older brother John in 8th “They’re incredibly smart,” says their father. “Megan’s a straight A student. And they’re happy, more than anything.”

The love Crowley and his wife Aileen feel for their kids and the extent to which they have managed to give them a joyful, active, normal family life is the most moving part of the movie – and, Crowley says, the most accurate.

“It’s not a docudrama,” he says. “It’s entertainment. It is inspired by true events, but it’s not a day-to-day accounting of our lives. But it captures 100% of our family’s spirit and dynamics. Virtually every event portrayed with respect to our family is completely accurate, even down to to the medical equipment, the environments we lived in, and the things that happened.

“Other things were changed. The goals is, how do you, in an hour and 45 minutes, tell a fairly complex story in a way that people can enjoy it and understand it? It took me a while to understand that. You’ve got to composite characters. You’ve got to condense timelines – that’s about 5 or 6 years of work condensed to 18 months.

The biggest change made to the Crowley’s story may have been the addition of Dr. Robert Stonehill, the character played by Harrison Ford. It was Ford who got the movie made, approaching a producer after reading a 2003 Wall Street Journal article about the Crowleys, and Stonehill feels like the kind of character you might invent to massage the ego of an aging movie star.

The most brilliant of the scientists Crowell consults, a cranky, craggy loner in blue jeans and cowboy boots who’s forever blasting classic rock, Stonehill is like one of the characters Clint Eastwood’s been playing lately, a crusty old coot with a heart as gooey as a ripe camembert. The way he manages to always be at the center of the action, sulking as John Crowley cuts him out of a research team or smiling as the kids get their first transfusion, feels tiresomely formulaic too.

But on the whole, Extraordinary Measures is as engaging as its subjects, a briskly paced, emotionally gripping story with an upbeat vibe. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, and though he’s looking a little bloated and bug-eyed these days, his natural charm and lightness of spirit comes through, along with a warmth and solidity that feel right for the part. Keri Russell is equally solid as Aileen Crowley, who manages a house full of wheelchairs, ventilators, and home care workers without ever letting it feel like a hospital ward. And Meredith Droeger is a pistol as Megan, apparently channeling the real Megan’s quick tongue and dry sense of humor.

“Megan has a T shirt that says Local Celebrity,” Crowley says. “I told her, pretty soon she can take the ‘Local’ off of it.

“We’ve always tried to be pretty selective about who we talk to and when we talk to them in the media,” he adds. “It’s a balancing act. You want to get the word out to help your family and other people’s families, but you also want to keep up some measure of privacy. Though I think that may have been effectively blown in the last few weeks. When they portray your love life in a movie – and then they gave it a PG rating! Man, I could at least get a PG-13.”

Crowley is currently president and CEO of Amicus Therapeutics in Cranbury, which is looking for a next-generation treatment for Pompe disease, pills that could boost the power of the defective enzymes. But he’s had to take more time off than usual this month, promoting not only the movie but the book he cowrote about his family’s journey.

Chasing Miracles, which Crowley calls “an inspirational memoir,” tells the family’s story through its own eyes, “What we think, our perspective, what we’ve learned,” says Crowley. “It’s as much through our children’s eyes as anybody’s. We’ve learned more about life and love from our kids than we’ve ever taught them.”

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones and Youth in Revolt

By Elise Nakhnikian

Two movies in theaters now, The Lovely Bones and Youth in Revolt, have something to say about the perils and pleasures of being a teenager in America. One aims straight at its target and misses, while the other lands close to the bull’s eye by going for laughs.

The Lovely Bones is a saccharine ode to suburban bliss mashed up with a Gothic tale about the murderer next door. Its abiding image is Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) staring at or past the camera with a look of wounded innocence, her eerie blue eyes piercing through to our world from the limbo she’s stuck in.

Susie’s in limbo because she was murdered by a serial killer who lives across the street from her perfect family, and she can’t rest until – well, it’s not clear what. Until she can “let go” of life? Face the details of her own death? Both?

Like the novel it’s based on, the movie is narrated by Susie from beyond the grave, making the fact of her murder one of the first things we learn about her. That makes the murder itself seem less awful, since she is now in a peaceful place, her own “perfect world.” (It also helps that the killing, when it comes, is handled with merciful restraint, though scary details are flashed at intervals later.)

Susie’s death is mainly a device used to add intensity to every detail of her foreshortened life – and of her family’s life after she’s gone (the title refers to the relationships created or strengthened between people she has left behind). It works well enough at first to keep me from being too bothered by how trite most of those details are, as Susie watches her devoted father (Mark Wahlberg) unfurl a ship in a bottle, exchanges shy looks with a dreamy boy (Reece Ritchie), and fondles a snow globe, feeling sorry for the snowman inside because he’s trapped there, alone in (yup) “a perfect world.”

But when Susie and her relatives failed to ripen into anything more than archetypes, I started to feel not so much shielded from the pain of her murder as deadened to it. If a character doesn’t feel real, her death doesn’t matter much.

The killing really counts in Heavenly Creatures (1994), another movie about teenage girls and murder by Lovely Bones director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, who cowrote both scripts. The central characters in Creatures are fierce, their relationship is intense and vivid, and the world they conjure up together feels original and primal. Jackson and Walsh may just have picked the wrong source material this time – Heavenly Creatures was based on a real case, not a melodramatic novel – but even the imagery in The Lovely Bones often seems hackneyed.

Youth in Revolt was also based on a novel, but C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp is as smart, ironic, and casually profane as The Lovely Bones is earnest and sentimental.

Our hero is played by Michael Cera, so needless to say he’s endearingly awkward, soulful, and smart. He’s also a 16-year-old virgin, obsessed with sex in general – and with one girl in particular, the equally smart, self-aware Sheeni (Portia Doubleday). When the two are separated after a summer romance, Nick invents a ruthless alter ego and morphs from nice boy to reluctant juvenile delinquent, committing a series of increasingly devious acts to get Sheeni back.

Nick describes Sheeni as smart and mischievous, and that’s a good description for this movie, which keeps finding new ways to amuse us. Nick and his friends speak in a clipped, semi-formal shorthand that sounds like something Nick Hornsby might have written (“Like John Muir, I enter the wilderness with nothing more than my journal and a childlike sense of wonder,” Nick assures Sheeni when she expresses doubt that he’s dressed for a hike.)

Director Miguel Arteta throws in some sly comic commentary in visual form, like when he cuts from Nick falling in love at first sight to his face in the shower, water droplets falling in extreme slow motion as sappy music swells. Arteta and his editors also have a knack for ending a scene at the height of its absurdity.

The parents in this movie are as caricatured as the ones in The Lovely Bones are idealized, and their romantic partners are even worse. Making the most of the adults’ flagrant flaws is an excellent cast of comic actors, which includes Jean Smart as Nick’s narcissistic mother, Ray Liotta as a sociopathic cop who briefly dates her, and Fred Willard as a softhearted and softheaded neighbor.

But what gives this movie its heart is Cera’s gobsmacked reaction to all the egregiously bad behavior – including his own. Nick is like Harold and Kumar rolled into one, doing something outrageous while scolding himself from the sidelines.

I guess being a nice guy with an irresponsible alter ego is a pretty good metaphor for how it feels to thrash your way through the terrifying and exhilarating, frustrating and freeing emotional mosh pit of American adolescence.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

By Elise Nakhnikian

How you feel about this movie, which might as well be called The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam, will depend entirely on how you feel about its writer-director.

Personally, I like him best when he’s part of a team but not out in front. I loved how Monty Python used Gilliam’s creaky-looking, distinctly handmade, Victorian-flavored collages to punctuate the troupe’s live-action sketches, transitioning between skits with a jerkily animated cartoon of, say, a giant, disembodied foot dropping out of the sky to crush something. And Gilliam co-directed (with fellow Python Terry Jones) two of my favorite Python movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life.

But he loses me when he goes solo as a director, particularly when he’s working from one of his own scripts.

Dystopian, disjointed fantasies like Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen don’t feel like stories to me; they feel like tours through the cluttered attic of Gilliam’s mind. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is his most solipsistic work yet, touring not only Gilliam’s mind but his other movies as well. As he told a Museum of the Moving Image interviewer, he initially conceived of the movie as “a compendium of things I’ve done and things I’ve been interested in.”

Like everyone else, Gilliam stores bits of flotsam from other people’s productions in his mental attic too. I saw shards of Lost Horizon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Men in Black, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Titanic in his latest movie, making it feel that much less original.

Its title character, a glamorously tattered, cannily self-contained Christopher Plummer, is an ancient sage or huckster or both who claims to be immortal. He clatters through the streets of modern-day London in a rickety double-decker horse-drawn cart that doubles as his home and his stage.

Parnassus is accompanied by his beautiful teenage daughter, Valentina (the porcelain-doll-faced Lily Cole), a young assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield of Boy A), and a dwarf named Percy (Mini-Me Verne Troyer), who serves as the troupe’s voice of reason. The four are soon joined by a mysterious stranger, the charismatic but untrustworthy Tony (Heath Ledger, in his last performance).

They’re all selling an illusion that appears to be real: Step behind the onstage curtain and, through some magical interplay between Parnassus’ imagination and your own, you enter a real-life version of your sweetest daydream.

Meanwhile, Dr. Parnassus keeps making side bets with the devil (Tom Waits), to add a little spice to his interminable life and a little tension to the story, but the plot is never the point in Gilliam’s movies. An art director’s paradise, Dr. Parnassus is more about the sets than the setup. Sometimes images advance the story, like when a doomed romance is remembered as an idyllic outing in a rowboat, which ends abruptly when the boat runs up against a cow’s bloated carcass. But more often, the story feels secondary to the images.

This movie pulls you in almost exclusively through the eyes, cramming as much detail as possible into each frame and often shooting through one of Gilliam’s favored wide-angle lenses to give you plenty to look at.

The actors mesmerize us too, pulling us past the thinly developed script and into their eyes through sheer force of character, just as their characters lure audience members through Dr. Parnassus’ curtain. Ledger and the three actors who finished his part, splitting it between them after his death, have been getting most of the attention, and they deserve every bit of the praise. Ledger makes Tony’s lazy charm look deceptively simple, and his replacements – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell -- all follow suit, Depp in particular channeling Ledger’s crooked grin and sly seductiveness. Plummer, Cole, and Garfield also do excellent work, and Troyer redeems himself from punchline status.

But a movie that keeps preaching “the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives,” as Dr. Parnassus puts it, needs to do more than just feed us eye candy. Making Parnassus clearly exercised its creator’s imagination, but it didn’t do much for mine.

With all those quotes about the importance of storytelling and imagination, not to mention Dr. Parnassus’s amazing and almost entirely ignored imaginarium, Gilliam seems to want to make a point about the difficulty of capturing people’s attention in these overmediated days.

It’s a valid complaint, but it rings a little hollow from a guy who attracts as much media attention, as much funding, and as many fans as Gilliam does for doing exactly as he pleases.

I just hope he doesn’t include himself in the ranks of the unfairly neglected.