Monday, February 22, 2010

Oscar-nominated shorts

By Elise Nakhnikian

Watching a well edited set of short movies is like having tapas for dinner. You get to sample a wide range of styles and stories, including some you might not come across much in your regular movie viewing. And the ones you don’t like so much don’t last long enough to leave a bad taste, while the ones you love leave you wanting more.

You’d think that would be the ideal form of movie watching for our ADD age – after all, what is YouTube but a free online video store that stocks nothing but shorts? – but Hollywood has trained us to ignore short movies. With a few exceptions, like the Pixar short that always precedes a Pixar feature, pretty much the only way you can see a short in a theater is to go to a film festival – and even there, they’re kicked to the curb while features hog all the attention.

Ironically, only the run-up to the Oscars, that orgy of self-celebration created to hawk Hollywood's most commercial products, can get regular theaters to showcase short movies. Two sets of Oscar-nominated shorts are now showing near you, one animated and one live-actions. The 13 films (the 5 nominees in each category plus three animated shorts that didn't quite make the cut) are distinctive, generally memorable, and always intense. They come from 11 nations and represent even more, since several are not set in their country of origin.

Logorama, an animated short directed by France’s H5 – Franςois Alaux, Hervé de Crécy, and Ludovic Houplain – is a sharp-eyed spoof of American culture and consumerism. Set in a Lego-like version of LA whose primary colors and aqua sky exaggerate that city’s bright eternal Now, Logorama is a sea of logos peopled by characters from ad campaigns. The plot, such as it is, is also very Hollywood: A pair of tough-guy Michelin Man cops chase down a rogue Ronald MacDonald, spraying gunfire, obscenities, and curt catch phrases (“the clown’s all mine”) as they go and dodging natural as well as manmade disasters.

The New Tenants is from Denmark, but it’s set in New York. A series of people, each more terrifying than the last, knock at the door of a gay couple who have moved into an apartment. A wannabe Tarantino movie in miniature, director Joachim Back’s short comes off a bit too much like an acting exercise. Still, it’s bleakly funny and well paced until the too-long ending, yo-yoing nicely between suspense and irritated banter.

A Matter of Loaf and Death, the latest Wallace and Grommit movie, is a not-so-short (30-minute) comic gem from England’s Nick Park and Bob Baker. This time around the sweet but hapless Wallace and his solemn, all-knowing dog, Grommit, are shook up by the news of a killer who’s targeting bakers – like them. With 12 dead so far, you have to wonder, this being a Wallace and Grommit movie: Who will make it a baker’s dozen? Filming Claymation figures in stop-motion doesn’t deprive the filmmakers of any emotional range – the characters’ faces are amazingly expressive, and the voice acting is terrific – but it allows them to include wonderful sight gags, like a bomb with the world’s slowest fuse or the Rube Goldbergian contraption Grommit uses to dress Wallace and bake bread in the morning. There’s also plenty of word play, as always. And one of our heroes finds true love, though I won’t spoil it by telling you which.

I also laughed a lot at Irish director Nicky Phelan’s Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty and Instead of Abracadabra, a Swedish answer to comedies about self-deluding misfits like Flight of the Concords, The Office, and Napoleon Dynamite.

Granny O’Grimm is a one-joke story beautifully told. The whole thing takes place in the bedroom of a cow-eyed little girl who can’t sleep. Things only gets worse when her Granny, a terrifying sight with her huge breasts and belly, towering hair, and enormous eyes behind magnifying lenses, insists on telling her a bedtime story, putting her own bitter twist on the tale of Sleeping Beauty.

Director Patrik Eklund marinates Instead of Abracadabra in that Swedish combination of humanism and black humor that made Let the Right One In and Together work so well. Its “hero” is Tomas, a 25-year-old dweeb still living with mom and dad. Tomas is a not-very-good magician who’s convinced that his brand of “up-close, Goth, death and mayhem” hoodoo is sexy and impressive. His endless capacity for self-deception and the reactions of his onlookers, which range from terminally bored to terrified, are almost painfully funny.

All that and an abortive romance too may sound like a lot to pack into just 22 minutes, but it works. And why not? After all, a good short film contains a whole world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Wolfman

By Elise Nakhnikian

I guess the people who make movies have to pay their rent, just like the rest of us.

Or maybe the trouble started when director Mark Romanek and his cinematographer left The Wolfman due to “creative differences” with the producers. That’s usually a sign of a production in trouble. So is a delayed opening, and The Wolfman’s was delayed several times.

Whatever the reason, this clumsy remake resurrects an old film nobody was clamoring to see -- and it does a bad job of it. The Wolfman feels more like a story by a man who keeps losing control than a story about one.

Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III) specializes in retelling stories so familiar they almost feel like part of our genetic makeup. Sometimes it works – Hidalgo was a likeably cartoonish Western crossed with a Rudolph Valentino movie – but The Wolfman begs for a new twist it never gets.

When Mike Nichols made a werewolf movie in 1994, he juiced it up in part by letting Jack Nicholson scarf down the scenery as a put-upon man who discovers his inner alpha dog after he becomes a werewolf. Nichols and his screenwriters also added some zing to Wolf by landing a few jabs at the publishing industry and ruthlessly competitive yuppie types.

But The Wolfman doesn’t update its story or use it to explore any ideas, other than the notion that there’s a beast inside us all. It just tries to recreate Lon Chaney’s 1941 The Wolf Man with better makeup and special effects and a less sound-stagey feel. Only somewhere along the way, it loses its soul.

Set in Victorian England, the movie takes place largely inside one of those neglected old mansions so decrepit you wonder if anyone has ever taken a broom to the place. The camera, which likes to hug the ground and prowl about, presumably to give us a wolf’s-eye view, zeroes in early and often on the snarling heads of dead animals mounted on the walls, lest we miss the point – you know, savagery in the midst of civilization and all that.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to this happy home first to mourn, then to investigate, and finally to avenge his brother’s death. He was summoned by the brother’s fiancée, Gwen (a criminally underused Emily Blunt), and I don’t think it’s spoiling any surprises to add that they soon fall in love – or that Lawrence finds out that his brother was killed by a werewolf whose gory rampages are terrorizing the village. Lawrence gets bitten and turns werewolf himself, cutting a bloody swath through the village whenever the moon is full.

This is all pretty standard stuff to anyone who’s ever seen a werewolf story, so what do the filmmakers do to make it worth watching? A few abortive attempts to be stylish, like a shot of Lawrence chasing Gwen along a ridge, the two silhouetted against the night sky, stick out like lumps in the porridge of this trendily desaturated palette. Danny Elfman’s score is surprisingly intrusive too, pushing itself to the forefront to broadcast a near-ceaseless SOS.

The dank gloom enveloping the village seems to have crept into the hearts of the actors. Nearly all of them look numbed-out and miserable, though Geraldine Chaplin is arrestingly beautiful and weird as a wise old Gypsy, and Hugo Weaving, who played the multiplying agent in The Matrix, oozes a similar blend of bureaucratic malevolence as the detective sent to stop the killer.

You’d think Anthony Hopkins would have fun as Lawrence’s creepy father, an icy-hearted autocrat given to pronouncements like “Never look back. The past is a wilderness of horror.” But he sleepwalks through the movie, frozen midway between campy and catatonic. “Look into my eyes. You see that I am quite dead,” he intones at one point. No kidding, dude.

But the real disappointment is Del Toro. With his sleepily watchful intensity, obvious intelligence, and narrow, hooded eyes, he could surely get seriously lupine, given half a chance. But the movie doesn’t give him much to do once he’s gone wild, other than howl in pain as he goes through the transformation and make like a paper shredder with his neighbors once it’s complete.

The actors were transformed into werewolves by old-school makeup guru Rick Baker, who created game-changing non-computer-generated special effects in Star Wars, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and Men in Black II – not to mention Wolf, An American Werewolf in London, and the TV series Werewolf.

His foam, fur, and dentures are augmented here by some computer-generated effects, but the two don’t meld well. The actors in werewolf makeup look and act vulnerable. A long fight between two werewolves at the end felt downright clumsy at times, more supermarket parking lot than supernatural. In contrast, the computer-generated beasts seem to recognize no physical limitations – including the laws of gravity.

The movie ends with another character about to become a werewolf. I sure hope that doesn’t mean they’re planning a sequel.

Monday, February 8, 2010

No Business Like Snow Business

By Elise Nakhnikian

Ah, winter. Some people head out in the snow to ski or snowboard or climb a mountain. And some of us go to the theater and watch movies about those crazies out there in the cold.

This month, we’ve got two Xtreme Winter movies to choose between. The art house version is North Face, a heavily fictionalized but often harrowingly realistic telling of a true story. The popcorn one is Frozen, the latest from director Adam Green (Hatchet), who aspires to nothing more – or less – than pure genre entertainment.

North Face is about two childhood friends – Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) – from a small town in Germany. Lifelong climbers, they headed to the Eiger in the summer of 1936, where mountaineers from around the world were competing to be the first to climb its notorious north face.

It’s also the story of a fictional character, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), Andi and Toni’s lifelong friend and Toni’s kind-of girlfriend. An aspiring photojournalist, Luise gets her big break when her editor, Henry Arau (the excellent Ulrich Tukur, wasted here), brings her to Switzerland to photograph the event. A subplot about two Austrian climbers who glom onto Toni and Andi, ruining their chances of getting to the top, is also fictionalized: Kurz and Hinterstoisser planned from the start to climb with the Austrians.

The movie does some things very well. Watching Andi and Toni stride through a town after scaling the mountain that towers over it, their ropes and other relatively crude tools slung over their backs, you can guess how tame and overcivilized their surroundings must appear to them now. Kolja Brandt’s cinematography establishes the Eiger as a beautiful but merciless antagonist. Footage of the climbers from a distance remind us just how puny they are in comparison, and shots of them asleep on a narrow ledge or lowering an injured comrade down a steep slope almost gave me vertigo.

Fürmann is convincing as a reluctant action hero. Wiry and intense, his cheekbones and abs as chiseled as the mountain he scales, he could be the love child of Roy Scheider and Buster Keaton. As Luise, the luminously open Wokalek mediates between him and the audience, letting us can feel some of the emotions Toni is too stoic – or frostbitten – to convey.

But the movie gets in trouble whenever it gets horizontal. The frequent references to the Nazis who were then ruling Germany have a “protesting too much” feel. The filmmakers imply that the evil was confined to the big cities, and they idealize small-town Germans almost as much as Hitler did.

Other things, like the frequent cuts between mountaineers roughing it at base camp and the fat cats watching them from a luxurious lodge, feel overdone or amateurish, a child’s rendering of adult life. And why are we spending so much time with Arau and Luise? I don’t care what’s going on in the lodge; show me what’s happening on that mountain.

Which brings us to Frozen. This one starts strong as three good-looking American kids – Dan (Kevin Zegers), Joe (Shawn Ashmore), and Parker (Emma Bell) – bribe their way onto a ski lift, sparring all the way (Joe is jealous of Dan’s girlfriend Parker, who is coming between the two old friends.) Then the ski lift gets turned off and the resort’s staff goes home for the week, unaware that the three were left hanging, yards up in the air.

That sounds like a decent set-up for a “what would I do?” movie, one of those cathartically scary stories about more or less regular people stuck in nightmarish scenarios. But Frozen commits the same mistake as Open Water, focusing too much on the bickering and bonding between characters who just aren't that interesting.

Apparently they loved this one at Sundance, but then Sundance audiences often go crazy for something that leaves the rest of us (wait for it) cold. The serious setbacks these three experience at regular intervals play out like a series of set pieces, most of which seem to leave no lingering side effects.

It was bad enough when both Parker and Joe had horrible things happen to their hands but didn’t seem to feel any lasting pain or lose any noticeable functioning ability as a result. But they really lost me after (spoiler alert – skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happened) Dan got horribly injured and then died. Maybe we’re supposed to think he went into shock – he did say he lost all feeling in the injured parts. But he seemed way too alert and pain-free for someone who had just suffered such a gross trauma, making the scene feel cartoonish even before his over-the-top death.

Like a narcoleptic struggling to stay awake, I kept losing touch with the physical and mental agony those kids were going through as they seesawed from sobs to small talk -- and those insights and chills are the whole point of a movie like this. We armchair mountaineers may not want to risk our lives, but we do want to know how it might feel if we did.

North Face scratches that itch better than Frozen, but you can do a lot better than either one – and you don’t even need to leave home. To burrow deep inside the minds of a couple of men fighting for their lives on a merciless mountain, just pour a cup of your favorite beverage, break out the chenille throw, and pop in a DVD of Touching the Void.