Thursday, March 31, 2011

Certified Copy

A French expat living in Tuscany with her teenage son drops in on a lecture by an Englishman on a book tour. (He’s James Miller; she never gets a name, but since she’s played by the great Juliette Binoche, she hardly needs one.) She leaves him her card through his Italian translator, and he shows up the following Sunday for a visit that turns into a day-long date.

That sums up the action in Certified Copy, the latest offering from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the first he has ever shot outside his own country. But it doesn’t come close to conveying the playful charm, crafty intelligence, and emotional depth of this wholly original film. If I had to come up with a one-line Hollywood pitch for it, the closest I could come is to say it’s a bittersweet, Two for the Road-style road trip/romance that’s set in a hall of mirrors.

Kiarostami, who often works with nonprofessional actors, cast opera singer William Shimell as Miller. It’s a smart choice, since Shimell is highly photogenic, with his salt-and-pepper hair and carefully tended two-day stubble (the Binoche character has fun teasing him about that beard), but he comes off a little stiff and emotionally inaccessible, as amateur actors often do. And that combination works well for the character, an attractive but coldly analytical sort who tends to speak in academese. It also makes it easier for the camera to close in on Binoche, whose character’s febrile, fast-shifting emotions dominate the action, whether she’s speaking or just watching somebody else.

The feelings that flood her features, like clouds scudding across a windy sky, upstage Miller even at his lecture, where her furious signed argument with her son and whispered exchanges with the translator sitting next to her are always more compelling than whatever the unseen author is droning on about. But we hear enough to know that his subject is copies vs. originals in art, and that his premise has to do with well-done copies being valuable in themselves, in part because they lead us back to the originals.

I interviewed Binoche after Certified Copy screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, and she cautioned against making too much of the copy thing. “I think in the film the dilemma of copy/original is just to find a pretext to put those two [characters] together, so I don't think you have to hang onto it,” she said. She may be right – she has, after all, thought about this movie a lot more than most of us have – but one of the beauties of Certified Copy is how much it leaves open to the viewer’s imagination, as evidenced by critics’ widely varying interpretations of what’s going on between the two leads.

Early in their encounter, they seem to be just an author and a fan, as they meet up and she drives him to Lucignano, a postcard-picturesque town that’s a favorite destination for weddings, especially on a sunny Sunday. Maybe it’s just the influence of all those newly hatched couples, but as the two flirt, bicker, and fight about their (imaginary?) 15-year marriage, they start to feel like a real couple, cycling through years’ worth of tenderness and tension over the course of one afternoon and evening.

Nearly everyone they encounter amplifies this portrait of marriage with a capital M, starting with the bartender who offers Binoche’s character the bluntly pragmatic perspective of a long-married Italian woman. The couple’s interactions with other twosomes are woven in so deftly that you might not realize until you think about the movie afterward – and you will – how many there were, from the brides and grooms she is drawn to and he ignores to the ancient pair who walk slowly out of a church ahead of Miller, their arm-in-arm progress a silent rebuke to his stubborn independence.

So what’s their story? Are they strangers on a creative date who role-play on impulse? Are they actually married, and the role play was the part where they acted like strangers? Or is Kiarostami playing so much with shifts in perspective that, as Roger Ebert hypothesizes, they’re actually strangers in the first half of the movie and a long-married couple in the second?

I’ve seen Certified Copy twice now, once by myself and once with my husband (which was a lot more fun). Both times I was always entranced, sometimes baffled, and never bored. Both times I left the theater thinking about the people I’d just seen on the screen and their thoughts on marriage, love, and how art can catalyze or crystallize our feelings.

And isn’t that one of the main reasons we go to the movies – to see an imitation of life so artful that it tells us something about the real thing? Or, as James Miller might say, to gaze at a copy of real life, first for its own beauty and then because it leads us back to the original, helping us see it with fresh eyes?

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Directors New Films: Copacabana

A frothy fantasy dressed up as a quirky character study, Copacabana is a mishmash of mismatched parts that left me feel a little queasy.

Babou (Isabelle Huppert) is the kind of boho free spirit who coasts as far as she can on sheer charm and sex appeal. She’s still childlike in middle age, not just because Huppert gives her the wide-eyed, unbroken gaze of a curious toddler but because she operates on impulse, never stopping to consider the consequences of her actions.

As a result, her daughter Esme acts more like her mother, working at a restaurant to pay the rent the job-allergic Babou can’t be relied on to scrape together. But when Esme (Huppert’s real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah) announces that she’s getting married and doesn’t want her mother at the wedding to embarrass her, Babou decides it’s time to get a job and show her daughter that she can be responsible.

We learn all this in the first five or ten minutes of the movie, and if you think it’s enough to guess which of them will learn what about the other by the closing credits, you’re right. Which might be just fine if this were Auntie Mame and we were primed for a mythic main character, a comically exaggerated supporting cast, and an imperial ban on any form of buzz kill. But writer/director Marc Fitoussi wants this valentine to a charming narcissist to be a lot more realistic than that one, so all his heavily foreshadowed plot twists, miraculous last-minute reversals, and unearned reunions fall flat, blocking the flow of his narrative.

Grabbing the first job she hears of, Babou is soon beating the sidewalks of a drab seaside town in Belgium, reeling in prospective suckers to be sold timeshares in a “luxury” condo. The shady operators in charge of sales move her into one of the empty units, which she shares with an epically resentful coworker. Babou glides through this sterile, forbidding world like a baby in a stroller, watching everything as if from a great distance with those unblinking eyes.

Huppert is in almost every frame of the film, and she’s mesmerizing as always, creating a magnetic character out of what could have felt like a random collection of often irritating and thoughtless acts. She and her daughter, who looks like Kate Winslet from certain angles and radiates a similar vibe of earth-mother warmth and intelligence, have good chemistry together, and Aure Atika is wonderfully astringent as Babou’s hardbitten boss.

But even they can’t make up for an unfocused and often unbelievable script. We see too much about things that don’t much matter, like the local guy Babou sleeps with once or twice and the homeless couple she sneaks into one of the condo’s empty studios (once again, if you think you know where that’s going, you’re right). Meanwhile, the important relationships in her life – with the best friend who wants to be her lover, the sister who resents her lack of interest in her life, and, most importantly, her daughter – are woefully underdeveloped. It’s as if Fitoussi, like Babou, can only concentrate on whoever’s in front of his face.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Directors New Films: Microphone

On paper, Microphone sounds remarkably like Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, another documentary-style feature about a vibrant but endangered underground music scene. Both are set in Muslim countries with repressive governments, and both showcase young people who are trying to change an ancient city and culture. But Microphone, the second feature by director-writer Ahmad Abdalla, is to Persian Cats as the kiddie pool is to the deep end.

Persian Cats' story of two young musicians trying to get to a gig in Europe leaves no doubt about the power and potential fury of the Iranian state, but the only thing that comes into sharp focus in Microphone is Khaled, a lovestruck expat back home after a seven-year absence with just two goals in life: to get in touch with his homeland and to win back his old girlfriend.

The girlfriend is lost as the movie begins, on her way out of the country as Khaled coming back. Their banal hello-I-must-be-going reunion is played out in full, and an editing gimmick of reversing the chronology fails to add any real interest. Between flashbacks to their talk, we see Khaled (co-producer Khaled Abol Naga) wander the streets of Alexandria, befriending a loose-knit group of young artists (most of them real people playing themselves), who include musicians, a skateboarder, and a taciturn young graffiti artist and her sidekick. Meanwhile, a pair of shyly glamorous film students earnestly try to capture it all on video for their thesis project, while falling in and out of love.

The kids are all right, but none of them has the charisma or self-confidence to hijack the meandering narrative, so we're left to follow Khaled as he obsesses about what one of his coworkers calls his "fucked up depressing love stories." For a while he tries to get his new friends together to put on an underground concert, but the buildup to the event is so sporadic that the news that it won't happen after all feels anticlimactic. It's all played out in a style as endearingly dated as the rappers' rhymes, with way too much time lapse cinematography, too many montages, and too many unenlightening talking heads sequences where the main characters face the camera against a photogenic backdrop and say…nothing much.

What juice the film does have comes mostly from the amazing events that transpired in Egypt since Microphone's completion last year. These young, tech-savvy, gender-neutral Alexandria natives may not be the literal architects of Egypt's recent revolution; as they make clear in countless defensive references to Cairo, the capital city drives Egypt's cultural and political agenda. But it's easy to imagine people a lot like these sweetly defiant kids, with their American-accented idealizing of adolescent rebelliousness and individual freedom, following their Facebook friends to take Tahrir Square.

Written for The House Next Door

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Directors New Films: El Velador

“A film about violence without violence,” as the production notes put it, El Velador is deliberate, repetitive, and deceptively peaceful. Watching it feels at first as if you are eavesdropping on someone else’s daydream, as director/producer/DP/editor Natalia Almada captures the rhythms of daily and nightly life in a Sinaloa cemetery. But her quiet flow of images gains power with surprising speed, breaching the seawall of our preconceived notions to impress upon us the horror of the war being waged on civil society in Mexico by a handful of drug cartels.

Lining the central road through the cemetery and extending several rows back are a forest of elaborate mausoleums that look like high-end haciendas in miniature. A construction crew comes in every day to build more and Almada is there to document their work, her lingering close-ups of bare feet and deteriorating shoes clinging to precarious perches personifying the grace and resilience that are characteristic of Mexico’s campesinos.

At the same time, the static-y images and voices from TV and radio news that cut in at intervals to report on the progress of the drug wars (“the body of a young woman was found chopped in pieces,” one announces) and the wails of the bereaved that float up from the funerals below as the men work are a constant reminder of the ruthless violence that threatens their way of life.

Almada also films the cemetery’s nighttime caretaker (“el velador” means “the caretaker”) as he meticulously waters the main dirt road to hold down its dust or settles in for the evening with the two friendly but anxious dogs that live there. She shows us the beautiful young woman who cleans one of the mausoleums and the sidewalk in front of it, sometimes bringing her children to play among the gravestones while she works. She follows the coco vendor as he drives up to yet another funeral to serves fruits and juices to the mourners (one little girl is seen eating a mango almost as big as her head). We see most of these actions done over and over, but rather than seeming Sisyphean, they feel like the last vestiges of a functioning society. Ironically, this city of the dead appears to be one of the last places left in Sinoloa, one of the hardest-hit parts of Mexico, where ordinary people can go about their work without fear of death.

This is observational filmmaking, with almost no talking heads or title cards or interviews with the subjects to clue us in on people’s back stories or thoughts or feelings. (In one interesting exception, we hear the workers discuss the death of one of the biggest drug lords, El Jefe de Jefes. They’re obviously gladdened by the news, but wary of making too much of it, since they know he’ll only be replaced by someone else just as bad.)

That approach feels respectful for the most part, an acknowledgement of the chasm between our relatively safe lives and theirs, and having so little talk to distract us helps keep the focus on the actions that make up the life of the cemetery. But I could have done with a little more information, since some of the things I learned only by reading the production notes would have enriched my understanding of the film if I’d know them as I was watching. I wondered who could afford those mausoleums, for instance, and guessed that a lot of them might have been drug traffickers themselves. And it was interesting to read that the dead policeman whose mausoleum the young woman cleans was in the pocket of the drug lords, and that the young beauty is his widow.

But Almada seems to want us to focus on the dead merely as dead, letting their eyes catch the lens for long moments while zooming in too close to show the writing on their memorial posters. And maybe she has a point. After all, in a country – and a global economy – where the chasm between rich and poor keeps widening and where drug trafficking is one of few reliable ways to become rich, even the foot soldiers in the narco wars may be victims.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, March 25, 2011

New Directors New Films: Pariah

When she and writer/director Dee Rees were trying to turn their short film into a feature, says producer Nekisa Cooper in Pariah’s production notes, potential funders kept saying it was “a bit too ‘small and specific.” Specific? Sure. But there’s nothing small about this deeply felt coming-of–age story.

Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay and played with grave sensitivity by Adepero Oduye) is a Fort Greene teen who’s learning to trust her instincts and find her place in the world. Shy and often unsure of herself but rock-solid at her core, Oduye’s Alike is a 17-year-old searcher you can believe in. Her story is a classic adolescent quest, complicated by the fact that she’s gay in a world where a lot of people – including her tightly wound mother – think homosexuality is an abomination.

This is the kind of movie that lives or dies in the details, and Pariah gets nearly all of them right. The setup dialogue between Alike and her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) and overprotective mother (Wayans sister Kim) is a little too on the nose. The AP English teacher who urges Alike to “go deeper” is as off-puttingly idealized as the teacher in Precious, and the soul-baring writing read aloud in her class is almost as bluntly expository. And a subplot about Laura studying and passing her GED only to have the door slammed in her face when she goes to give her mother the news feels tacked-on and uncharacteristically didactic.

But when she lays back and lets her story unspool, Rees displays a winning intimacy with the world she portrays, a canny feel for her characters, and an eye and ear for little things that loom large, like the truncated speech that clues Alike in to Laura’s true feelings for her. It’s all good because, as Alike’s new friend says of one of her poems, it feels so real.

The bougie perfection of Alike’s family’s brownstone, the aggressively sexed-up music and pole dancers at the gay club where she goes on weekends, and the twisty course of her relationship with her new friend, a straight girl her mother sets her up with in hopes of separating her from Laura, are just some of the aspects we see of the often contradictory worlds Alike is learning to navigate. Her relationships with her parents and their relationship with each other are also realistically difficult, intensely loving but fraught with conflict and laced with an underlying tension that bubbles up into violence in an emotional scene between Alike and her mother.

We even follow her parents to work, where her stiff-necked mother’s foiled attempt to befriend a popular coworker provides one of the movie’s most poignant moments.

But this is Alike’s story, so the camera keeps seeking her out. Beautiful faces beautifully lit anchor Bradford Young’s sumptuous cinematography, and one of those faces is usually hers. His camera finds her as she tries to hide in plain sight, lingering on her expressive eyes and the lush curves of her face. And it captures her and her father in their climactic reconciliation on a Brooklyn rooftop at magic hour, bathing their gorgeous profiles in golden light. That sight makes their words all but irrelevant, carrying its own potent message of redemption and love.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Accidental Feminist: Interview with François Ozon

François Ozon’s penchant for switching between genres makes him feel like a throwback to Hollywood’s golden age, but his films all share a bemused acceptance of human frailty, a matter-of-fact approach to sex and sexuality, and an optimistic, life-affirming tone. I talked to him earlier this month when he was in town to flak Potiche, a big-hearted comedy about a patronized 70s housewife who comes into her own, starring Catherine Deneuve as the trophy wife of the title. The film opens here in New York tomorrow.

You’ve said you are a fish in water when you’re making films and you seem to be feel equally at home in all kinds of genres, from comedy to drama to melodrama to some mixture of the three. That makes it hard to typecast your work, and we live in an age of branding and one-sentence pitches. Do you think the diversity of your work has made it a little harder for you to find audiences or funding?
I think I understood very quickly when I began to make films that if you want to be free in your choice of films, to make the kind of films you want, you have to be close to the production, knowing the price of things. That’s why I am able to make a film a year, because I try to adapt each film to the size of the budget. My teacher at film school was Eric Rohmer, and Eric Rohmer was his own producer too, so I think I learned a lot about that. It’s pragmatic. I’m a pragmatic director.

David Thompson said some of your short films are “so piquant as narratives as to make one ask yet again — what happened to the short?” Is short film a format you particularly love? Would you still be making them if there were a commercial market for them—or if you weren’t so pragmatic?
I love short films. Jean-Luc Godard said it was a way to faire sa game—you know faire sa game? It’s good practice. You don’t have money when you do short films, so you have to find the best way to tell your story without money, to get to the idea—to get to the essence of things. Sometimes, in the cinema, we have too much money. But when you don’t have money you are obliged to make choices, to have a real point of view on things.

You mix different tones a lot in Potiche, as you often do in your movies. This one is both a farce and a classic triumph-of-the-underdog story. Did you have any particular kind of movie in mind when you were making it?
I had in mind the comedies of the 70s done in France. When I was a child I loved them, but when I did the work on the film, I saw again these films and I thought “Oh, I should not watch them again,” because they were not good. They were typically French comedies you never saw in America, in the spirit of the French bourgeoisie, quite theatrical and funny. So I stopped watching these movies and I worked with my memories of them—especially for the character of Robert [the heroine’s oppressive husband].

There was a huge star in France called Louis de Funès who was always doing the parts of the middle-aged boss who was mean with his wife, with his employees. The French loved him because it was like therapy to see someone who was so mean to everybody. So I asked Fabrice Luchini to have him in mind for his acting.

Catherine Deneuve had not done a lot of comedy, I think, when you cast her in 8 Women
She did many comedies in the 60s. She did the film with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Le sauvage. But, you know, doing a comedy doesn’t mean you are acting differently. Good actors of comedy are people who are very serious. Catherine is very honest in her way of acting.

And the good thing is now, at her age, she is afraid of nothing. I’m sure, with another actress, she would have said “I don’t want to wear this ridiculous suit,” but she was not afraid of that. Because she’s clever, she knows it’s good for the film because it’s the evolution of the character, and she was very involved in the film.

Even in ridiculous situations she’s very elegant. And I think she trusted me, because it’s the second time we worked together. Also, she was in love with the character of Suzanne Pujol. She had in mind someone she knew, I think, some friend of her mother or something. She wanted very much to perform this part.

You said she was very involved in making the film. How did you work with her before filming started?
Before beginning the adaptation I asked her, “Would you be my potiche?” and she said yes. If she had said no I wouldn’t have done the film. She read the different versions of my script and followed the evolution of the cast. She didn’t force me to take this one or not this one. She was just involved and happy to be in the mood of the film.
I think Catherine, as an actress, needs to be close to the mise en scene, to the director, to know exactly where he wants to go.

Your movies often seem to be about the importance of following your passion, becoming your true self. That’s true of Potiche, where Deneuve’s character comes into her own when she stops accepting the limitations other people put on her. Do you think there’s something about that storyline that attracts you, or do I just keep seeing it in your movies because I like those kinds of stories?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s true. It’s my optimistic side, to show that it’s possible to change, to discover something in yourself.

I love to show strong women. For me it’s important in film to begin with a character in a certain situation, at a certain moment, and at the end it’s another character, and you have followed the journey of this character during the film. Potiche is the story of a woman who says, at the beginning of the film, “Where is my place? My place is not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, not at the factory.” And at the end of the film, she finds her place. In a certain way, I realized, it’s a kind of a feminist movie because it shows that women have to find their place in society. When they are born, they don’t have everything. They have to fight for it.

So you didn’t think it was a feminist film while you were making it?
I didn’t ask these questions, you know. I knew it had to deal with feminist things: the fact that the daughter who pretends to be modern is more conservative than the mother, and the fact the secretary becomes a kind of suffragette—which was not in the play [the movie was based on], actually. But I don’t like usually to have messages in my films. I want to give people the opportunity to think on their own. I’m not a politician or anything. So I realized I did a political movie without wanting to.

But it’s a good thing, I think, to do politics in a comedy rather than in a drama, because in a drama it can become heavy and you have to agree with what you see. But a comedy, it’s light, it’s funny, but inside it can be strong. It can touch you deeply.

You don’t seem to be part of a trend of any sort. Is there a group of filmmakers you identify with?
I think I would have loved to have been a director in the 40s or 50s in Hollywood.

Yes! You remind me of some of the Hollywood directors of the time like George Cukor, maybe William Wyler, a little bit Douglas Sirk.
Yes. George Cukor especially. I would like to be able to do Westerns, to do a musical, a comedy, a family drama… I would love to be this kind of director. Who were not considered as auteurs at the time, but afterward we realized…

There’s that typecasting again—the tendency not to take people as seriously if they don’t do specialize in a certain kind of movie or have a very strong, consistent style. Do you think there’s less of a tendency to pigeonhole directors in France?
They do the same in France, but I think it’s easier because cinema is art first in France, before it’s industry. In America first it is industry, and then it can become art, but that’s not the important thing. You have to make money in America. When we speak about the box office in France, it’s in terms of admissions. It’s a big difference, and I think that means many things in terms of the difference in making movies in these two places.

Interviewed for The L Magazine

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Animation Roundup

Filmmaking stripped down to its essentials, animation is the art of transforming a blank piece of celluloid or a blank computer screen into a moving picture. Animation directors build their films from the ground up, limited only by their own imaginations, while live-action directors have to work with concrete materials, like locations, lights, props, cameras, and costumes, that can be manipulated only up to a point (though CGI is starting to blur that once-bright line).

Animation also frees directors from the tyranny of the star. By using just the voices of their actor, filmmakers sidestep the gravitational force that draws us toward real people onscreen, often making us remember a movie’s stars long after our other memories of it have fallen away.

But if there’s freedom for the right artists in the blank canvas of animation, there’s peril for cultural magpies who steal other people’s ideas rather than developing their own. The best animated films either distill something essential about the human condition or transcend it completely, creating a kinetic new way of seeing or being. The worst just recycle our pop-culture detritus and try to make it look new.

The main gimmick in Mars Needs Moms is motion capture technology, that thicket of sensors and wires that lets computers capture the expressions and movements of actors and transfer them to animated characters, which have a vaguely creepy, plastic-doll look. I liked this effect when it was used on Angelina Jolie in Beowulf, exaggerating her already superhuman qualities in a creepily compelling way, but it has never done much for mere mortals like Joan Cusack (the main Mom in Mars Needs Moms) and Seth Green (her son Milo). The behind-the-scenes shots over Mars Needs Moms’ end credits show us the actors at work in a cacophonous symphony of overacting. The combination of those exaggerated expressions and the characters' Botoxed-looking features that wound up onscreen falls just short of lifelike, and so does everything else in this manufactured-feeling movie.

There are some mildly funny interactions between Mom and Milo in the set-up, and there's one genuinely touching moment near the end, when Cusack’s awesome thespian powers prove strong enough to break through even the barriers of motion-capture animation and by-the-numbers scriptwriting. But Mars is mostly just frantic, often repetitive chase scenes and literal cliffhangers — so many that the sight of someone hanging onto the edge of something soon had me yawning as widely as the chasms below. There’s nothing innovative or beautiful about the look of the film either, so filmmakers resort to 3-D to try to generate some gasps, a ploy that seems particularly cynical in these tenuous economic times when the only thing it adds to the movie-going experience is another 5 bucks or so to the ticket price.

Gnomeo & Juliet is also filmed in unnecessary 3-D, but it has enough humor and energy to take some of the sting out of the price. Making garden gnomes and their stone, plaster, and plastic lawn-ornament buddies the protagonists was a smart move on the filmmakers’ part since — like the toys in the Toy Story franchise — the gnomes don’t need to look alive to seem lifelike. Those bunnies and pink flamingos and big-hatted gnomes look so animated in action that it’s fun to see them use the Toy Story trick of freezing into position whenever humans heave into view. And though I could have done without the cheap shots at the Bard, an impish adapter of other people’s stories who is portrayed as a stiff-necked snob who disapproves of this variation on his play, the writers did a nice job of making the revamped story feel fresh without losing its central thread.

Rango looks amazing, its beautifully rendered landscape and lighting just exaggerated enough to feel almost real while registering as a pungent distillation of nearly every Western scene you’ve ever seen onscreen. Its chameleon star looks great too, his versatile array of expressions and movements, convincingly textured scales and limpid eyes making him look fully alive (and it doesn’t hurt to have Johnny Depp doing his voice either). Too bad the story he’s stuck in is so lame and derivative.

Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) says Rango isn’t intended just for kids, which would explain all the jokes that sailed over the heads of the kids in the audience I saw it with, not to mention the fact that nearly every character and setup references some classic movie, or that the central mystery and villain come straight out of Chinatown. But the story is clearly aimed at the pre-school crowd, with its generously underlined and foreshadowed mystery, oft-repeated aspirational phrases, and one-note characters, so we’re left with a Frankenstein monster of a movie, a mish-mosh of references and homages that’s too simplistic for grown-ups and too obscure for kids.

But there is plenty of first-class animation being done these days too, both for kids and for grown-ups. To see some, track down last year’s The Illusionist, a delicate hand-drawn fairy tale that dances across a deep vein of sentiment without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality. Or watch Toy Story 3 (again?) for a master class in tapping the power of computers and corporations to serve a visually innovative, deeply humanistic vision.

Written for TimeOFF

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Radical Intellectuals: Tanya Hamilton on her Black Panther movie

I spoke to Tanya Hamilton, the director of Night Catches Us, by phone earlier this month. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Your movie seems to be partly about what you owe your immediate family versus what you owe your community. I’ve been thinking about this lately in light of Malcolm X’s family – the family feud over his estate that is dragging on, and the sad stuff about some of his daughters that it’s bringing to light. Malcolm left this huge legacy for the world, but for his own family, he may have been just another absentee father. Was this kind of mixed legacy something you were thinking about in making your movie?
Absolutely. In terms of the kid’s story and her arc, that’s a huge part of it. We want people we admire to be uncomplicated. The complicated parts are left out, because we like archetypes, especially in this society. But the reality is that people are layered.

The Iris character in my film has grown up in the shadows. She had these two parents who were the kind of people who exist like bright shining lights – people gravitate toward them. But the people who love them have to compete with that, and how can they possibly compete with adoring fans? I think Pat [Iris’s mother] gets a lot out of being needed. She gets more out of being needed by the people in the neighborhood than she does out of her own kid.

The movie also poses some pretty tough questions about the legacy left by the Panthers. You show their good works, and you have Pat say that they weren’t really about violence; they were about helping the community. But at the same time, there was this violence, which wound up killing her husband. Were you trying to make some comment about America in general, or the Panthers in particular, about how our infatuation with violence and militaristic imagery can wind up overshadowing the good things about us?
I don’t think I was necessarily making that comment on the Panther movement. I think the Panthers were incredibly savvy. They were intellectual guys, and they were forward-thinking. They were radicals in how they looked at the world and how they employed their visuals, and they knew how to manipulate and basically get a rise out of white people. They were grassroots advocates, and that combination was really wonderful and shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the time that it happened. Their message, I think, was pretty beautiful.

But I think they have been maligned in that same kind of simplified corporate way that we get information and ingest information. I wanted to try to find the truest pieces of what they were in that duality. They employed the violence that permeated the time. The ‘60s and the ‘70s were really emotionally raw and violent times. I think now people are being destroyed financially and emotionally, in much more sophisticated ways. There was an interesting kind of rawness to that time. People were just taken out.

You had a pretty amazing cast. Not only Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, who was great in this movie, but also Wendell Pierce Jamie Hector from The Wire.
I don’t think I was able to sit back and realize how nice a cast it is until well afterward. We had [another] cast attached for quite a while, and when we finally got the financing for the film, we ended up having to redo the whole cast And what seemed at the time to be the worst thing that could happen turned out to really be the best. The cast we had originally was extraordinary, but it would have been a very different film.

You said you had to cut your script way back in order to be able to afford to make the movie. How different would it have been if you’d been able to shoot the whole thing?
I don’t know. That’s a great question, actually. I think our first 15 minutes would have been better. We would have spent more time trying to make Jimmy a more full character. I think Affonso [Gonçalves], the editor, really did miracles with the little pieces of footage that we had. But when I look at the film, that dogs me still. I think Jimmy is the one line I kind of pulled away from, because I felt like I was using him partly as a teaching tool, which I really didn’t want to do. But also because he wasn’t a main character, and I had to get rid of something.

My intention was to craft the character of Jimmy as someone who means a lot of different things. He’s young, and [the Panthers] marked him indelibly at some point in his life and then they disappeared. What happens to a kid when someone comes into his life and makes such a mark? It could be a father, it could be a mother, it could be a community leader, whatever. They were there and then they weren’t. And he was at his most vulnerable place. He doesn’t have a safety net, because he’s part of the working poor. And he doesn’t have a family. I wanted him to be a reflection of what happened when the Panthers were destroyed – both when they destroyed themselves and when external governmental forces destroyed them.

Can you explain what the title means?
I’m Jamaican, and so there’s a thing in Jamaica, don’t let night catch you. I’d go out and my grandmother would always say, ‘Don’t come back after dark and don’t let night catch you.’ We were sitting around when we were about to wrap and thinking about it – cast and grips and everybody really chiming in – and my husband [Michael W. Pollock], who is a great fiction writer, came up with the title. Night is obviously a metaphor for one’s past, and the whole movie is about these people trying to run in all these directions, trying to escape their pasts, which is always going to catch up with you.

You were trained as a painter before you went to film school. How did that training inform your work as a filmmaker? And did you learn something from being a figurative painter about how to study people or how to create a character?
One of the things that I was taught as a painter — and I think in many ways it’s how my brain is set up — is that you have to deconstruct in order to reconstruct, in order to find your work. So when I’d do a painting, I’d step back and look at it and even my favorite parts I would rip apart. In fact, maybe especially my favorite parts, because you’re not allowed to have parts of the work that you fetishize. So everything I’ve done has gone through the same thing.

Same thing with writing. I can’t do outlines. I have no interest in them, in part because I just start writing and then I sort of discover what the thing is about. Well, that’s not a very efficient way. It doesn't make getting hired as a writer all that easy. They want to know what the message is.

I really put myself into directing this film. On the acting level, I had to learn how to work with people. But on a visual level, I knew what I wanted. I would say: ‘Let’s do this. I want that shot. I want that flower.’ And then in the editing room, I had to figure out where that flower went and why. I am interested in how I can place that flower in a way that speaks to the structure of the film but also is a metaphor for something else, and I can’t define what that metaphor is until I’ve pieced it together and ripped it apart.

You told Indiewire that shooting brought up a lot of things you hadn’t been aware of before about being a female filmmaker. Can you elaborate on that?
As a brown person in the U.S., being brown is always my priority. I just feel the world through that lens. But I, very foolishly, never thought of gender. I think white women can inhabit a more treacherous space as a woman. For instance, black women are often left out of advertising so, for instance, the need to weigh 90 pounds is not a pressure I feel, because it’s not geared toward me.

If somebody challenges me, as a brown person, I always think, what was the racial component of that? And sometimes there isn’t one. In the last year and a half, often I would find there wasn’t one and then realize, ‘Oh my, I think that moment was all about gender.’ And then I had to contemplate my reaction to it. Which was, at first, sort of wide-eyed. Because I am a little bit of a fool in that way. I live in a little bit of a bubble and kind of do my own thing.

But I have learned things about myself and about how society works, and about my Jamaican-ness. I learned about my own personal aggression, which is not something I was ever willing to take a look at. I think about my mom, who was the kindest, most gentle person in the world until you messed with her. I found my Jamaican, ‘Do not get in my face' attitude.

I think I really understood in the past year, year and a half how the world is really defined by gender – in ways that are I think are really wonderful and ways that I think suck. And I think I’m very capable of navigating it, not thinking of myself as a victim but just saying, ‘Don’t cross my line.’

You say race is the lens through which you look at the world, and it’s obviously a huge part of what this movie is about. Do you have a kind of grand plan for your filmmaking in terms of what you say about racism in America, the way, say, August Wilson executed this plan of doing a play about every decade in the 20th century?
That’s really cool, actually, what August Wilson did. But I think that, for better or worse, I’m just really interested in people. I’m interested in how and who people are, and I’m interested in worlds. Maybe I’m a little bit of a misanthrope, frankly. I’m not all that interested in hanging out with people. But I am interested in what motivates them, who they are. There’s just something very compelling about that.

When I painted, my paintings were always really huge and abstract, but they were always about people and they always had some kind of emotional narrative going on.

I don’t want to make movies about my own personal angst. I think that stuff’s cool, and it should exist. But for me, personally, I’d like to find a way to internalize my angst into something that’s a little more broad, a little more relevant to other people.

Can you talk a little about the look of the film? How did you talk to your cinematographer about what you wanted the film to do visually?
In a way, I think I wanted a little piece of my childhood from the ‘70s – the blues, the spots of red here and there, the yellow. I had a lot of photos from my house as a kid in the U.S., a specific light I didn’t want anything garish. I didn’t want it to be primary colors. I wanted the film to be very layered and subtle, about subtext, and I wanted the visuals to be the same way. I wanted to be able to capture what I remembered visually as a kid, which was these working people who lived in very modest homes were kind of saturated with layers that dulled the world a little bit.

Is filmmaking your medium now, or do you think of yourself as a painter, or both?
Even in undergrad, I made films –not with professional actors, but short avant-garde films, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I think I’ve always been a filmmaker as well as a painter. I don’t think that’s going to change. Both are things that I really need. And writing [screenplays], but that’s the odd man out part. Directing makes sense for me. It comes very naturally, and painting is easy for me too. Writing is the thing I’ve had to learn. It’s the thing that is a struggle and the thing I really love. I feel like I have to write and make myself a better writer and then better than that. I’m not even halfway there.

Being married to a fiction writer, what I’ve learned from him is that it’s the details, the small things and the small moments, that matter most.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Night Catches Us

Set in Philadelphia in 1976, Night Catches Us is an expertly acted, tensely emotional drama about a fascinating part of our recent past. “The ‘60s and the ‘70s were really emotionally raw and violent times,” said director Tanya Hamilton in a phone interview last week (read the full interview). “I think now people are being destroyed now financially and emotionally, in much more sophisticated ways. There was an interesting kind of rawness then. People were just taken out.”

The excellent and usually underutilized Anthony Mackie brings his guarded intelligence to the central role of Marcus, a former Black Panther who fled after the death of a beloved comrade and the demise of the group. Marcus learns that he can’t go home again after struggling to reunite with his family and friends – though he makes strong connections with the dead man’s widow, Patricia (Kerry Washington), and her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin).

Patricia is respected in her community as a charismatic widow and nurturing earth mother, but her backstory turns out to be even more tortuous than Marcus’. Revealing her characters’ complexity was high on Hamilton’s list of priorities as she worked on her screenplay, which was hatched in the Sundance Filmmakers Lab but then had a decade to evolve before she pulled together the funding to start filming. “I think there’s an ideal that we place on people that sort of defies their complexity, because we want people we admire to be uncomplicated,” she says. “We like archetypes. But the reality is that people are layered.”

She also wanted to do justice to the Panthers, acknowledging the violence that now dominates their image without shortchanging the community development and political savvy that was an even more important part of who they were. “They were really incredibly bright people,” she says. “I think they were radicals in how they looked at the world and how they employed their visuals. They were intellectual radicals, and they knew how to manipulate and basically get a rise out of white people. Their message, I think, was pretty beautiful, but I think they have been maligned in that simplified corporate way that we get information and ingest information. I wanted to try to find the truest pieces of what they were.”

The film is also about the pain people experienced when the Panthers disappeared, as shown in part through Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a parentless young man who gets swept up in his glamorized vision of the Panthers’ militancy. “He’s young, and they marked him indelibly at some point in his life and then they disappeared,” she says. “And he doesn’t have a safety net, because he’s part of the working poor and he doesn’t have a family. I wanted him to be a reflection of what happened when the Panthers were destroyed – both when they destroyed themselves and when external governmental forces destroyed them.”

Hamilton, who majored in art as an undergraduate and still does figurative painting, knew from the start how she wanted her movie to look. “I didn’t want anything garish. I didn’t want it to be primary colors. I wanted the film to be very layered and subtle, about subtext, and I wanted the visuals to be the same way.” But it took her a while – and the help of her husband – to find its name.

“I’m Jamaican, and there’s a saying in Jamaica, ‘Don’t let night catch you.’ I’d go out and my grandmother would always say, 'Don’t come back after dark – don’t let night catch you.' We were all sitting around when we were about to wrap [the film] and we were thinking about the title – cast and grips and everybody really chiming in. And my husband [Michael W. Pollock], who is a great fiction writer, came up with it.

“Night is a metaphor for one’s past. The whole movie is about these people trying to run in all these directions, trying to escape their pasts, which is obviously always going to catch up with you.”

Written for TimeOFF

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau takes off like a jet plane and sputters to a halt like an old golf cart.

A flurry of quick cuts and excited patter from big-time newsmakers like Jon Stewart pumps up the volume in the bright, noisy opener, establishing David Norris (Matt Damon) as a latter-day Kennedy, poised to stride into political office in New York City.

The first downshifts come just a few minutes in, when David’s campaign is derailed. This is also the first time the narrative falters, asking us to believe that a single photo of David mooning someone in college is enough to brand him as unstatesmanlike. (Hmm — tell that to George W. Bush.) But the film finds its feet again when David bumps into Elise (Emily Blunt), the love of his life, in what may be the ultimate 21st-century meet-cute scene, revealing The Adjustment Bureau’s true identity as an enormously appealing love story with an intermittently intriguing subplot.

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy devotes himself to looking for girl until he finds her. Nothing unusual there, except that this particular boy is shadowed by a squad of humorless men in ‘50s-style suits and fedoras (including a soulful but sorely underutilized Anthony Mackie, making the most of a one-note part). The men are supernatural messengers, presumably on a mission from God — though just who sent them is left unclear enough to leave room for speculation. Could it be Satan? Or, worse, Andy Cohen, fishing for another Bravo reality show?

They may look like Secret Service agents, but these cold bureaucrats aren’t here to protect David. Their mission is to make sure he fulfills his assigned fate, regardless of what it may cost him. And, in one of the twists that survive from the Philip K. Dick short story the movie is loosely based on, they can “adjust” his actions and the actions of the people around him to nudge things in the right direction. That notions is one of the film’s most original touches, and it may linger for a few days, letting you pretend that dropped a cell phone call or a spilled coffee is not a minor annoyance but a carefully executed piece of some grand master plan.

David’s G-man-like guardian angels are dogging him so closely because he’s destined for greatness — but only, they insist, if he forgets about Elise. She may look like a lissome modern dancer, but she’s really just a big boulder in his path.

But David refuses to believe that something that feels so right could be wrong. Evading the men from the bureau, first to find Elise and then to keep them from spiriting her away, Damon is constantly on the move, dodging, weaving, and flat-out running almost as much as he did in the Bourne movies.

We’re right there with him, since he and Blunt make a magnetic couple. Their brisk patter is nicely written, and so well delivered that the mock sparring between this evenly matched, mutually delighted pair sometimes approaches the fizzy perfection of a classic screwball comedy. Too bad we don’t get more of it. Instead, the last third or so of the movie turns into an extended chase scene, so the two wind up spending more time running for their emotional lives than they do basking in the pleasure of each other’s company.

At least the settings are nicely chosen, showing us rarely seen sides of this obsessively photographed city. And it’s fun to watch them fold into each other in unpredictable ways, as the men from the adjustment bureau wind their own way through Manhattan like the Pevensie kids entering Narnia, every door they open leading to a whole new neighborhood.

The settings also externalize the change in David’s life as he moves from the crowded world of politics to his intimate relationship with Elise. The two are always finding wide-open spaces in the middle of the city, including the majestic reading room of the main branch of the library, a deserted Yankee Stadium, and a dockside warehouse-turned-dance hall in Brooklyn.

An annoyingly intrusive soundtrack and too much Inception-style talk about the bureau’s rules and regulations, dressed up with some paper-thin philosophizing about free will and our brutality as a species, slow things down. Then comes that too-long chase, which culminates in an unlikely happy ending that brings the whole thing to a screeching halt.

Still, here’s more to enjoy in this uneven contraption than in just about any of the well-oiled machines rolling off the Hollywood assembly line this season.

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, March 7, 2011

Interview with Juliette Binoche

One of the best—and most beloved—actors of her generation, Juliette Binoche was at the Crosby Street Hotel last October to talk about Certified Copy, her latest film and the first made by Abbas Kiarostami outside Iran. If she ever tries directing, as she says she might, she'll draw on what she learned while working for world-class directors like Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Olivier Assayas, Michael Haneke, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Binoche, who had some interesting things to say about how Hou and Kiarostami work, came across in person as she does on screen: intelligent, engaged, self-confident, empathetically responsive to others, and prone to joyful bursts of laughter.

Elise Nakhnikian: You've talked about how different it was to work with Hou Hsiao-hsien, who likes to cede an enormous amount of control to his actors, than with Michael Haneke, who wants to control as much as possible in his movies. Where does Kiarostami fall on that scale of no control to total control, and what was it to work with him?

Juliette Binoche: With Abbas, the frame is so controlled. The frame is really his art form. I think, because he's a photographer, when he has the vision of the scene he has the scene. And after that he lets things happen. What he's really keen on is controlling the pace in between shots, so when he cuts to another scene, the pace has to be right on the money. We re-shot one piece just because I was walking too fast, coming from one room to the next one. He's very picky on those details because, for him, it really makes the movie. But the [internal] emotional world…I would say he really left me free.

There was one moment in the café scene, when the Italian bartender asks the man a question and then he turns to me and he says, "What shall I answer?" and I have a certain reaction. In this moment [in one of the takes] I lost control: I kind of laughed and cried [at the same time]. Abbas was taken aback by my reaction, and in the end, in the editing room, he took another [take]. It was so interesting for me, because we had an argument about it. I said, "Why don't you take this scene? Because that really is a moment that happens in life. It's not controlled at all. It's life taking over." He said, "Well, it's not believable…" I really felt like it was the same kind of dilemma that the two characters have, man and woman: the controlling of the man and the emotional, you know, claiming of the woman. So there was a sense of collaboration and freedom of discussing what needed to be done—or not.

But, you know, the woman is actually him [Kiarostami]. He raised his children on his own, because in Iran when a couple gets divorced, the man has the children, not the woman. So I didn't feel like he was on the other side of the river, not at all. He understood each point of view. But he can feel and see that men have a tendency of protecting themselves through, you know, logic and intellectual skills, as women take the risk of exposing themselves. And he says, at the end of the day they're right, because they take the risk of feeling more vulnerable, of feeling needy. Not protecting yourself.

EN: Did you improvise any of the dialogue, or was it very tightly scripted?

JB: Very scripted. Some moments [were improvised]. Like when I was driving—you bump into things you didn't expect.

EN: Like that woman in the street?

JB: Yeah [laughs].

EN: Your bio mentions a Spielberg part you were offered in Jurassic Park and had to turn down because you were committed to another film at the time. Would you like to work with Spielberg some day?

JB: Yeah, yeah, I would love to. But he's not that interested in women. He's not a feminine director, I think—as Abbas is, completely. I think [Kiarostami] is in need of understanding women, or getting close to them. Spielberg feels like he's more into action, more male-oriented—capturing the world, or thinking about the world, or political subjects.

EN: What do you think of James's theory [in the film] that copies can be as legitimate as originals? I was thinking, while watching the movie, about how that applies to movies themselves. Particularly to this one, since it's about two actors pretending to be people who are pretending to be a couple, yet emotionally it all feels very real, like scenes from a marriage. So first, how do you define what's real and what's a copy? And what does that mean in terms of this movie?

JB: I think in the film the dilemma of copy/original is just to find a pretext to put those two [characters] together, so I don't think you have to hang onto it. Of course, the theme is attractive, because as a director, between reality and fiction you always have those big questions.

For me, I prefer the word "recreating" rather than "copying." As an actress, I do one take, two takes, three takes, maybe more. Am I copying the first one? Am I copying the second one? You can talk that way. Or you can say, "I don't know anything about what happened. I want to recreate [each take anew] and see what happens, not knowing, like life." Like I'm with you now, I don't know what I'm going to say. I'm recreating. This question I've probably been asked before, but I don't know what I'm going to answer. Calligraphy is a very wonderful sort of parallel. They're copying, recopying the same thing, but the way they do it is to get chi so it's actually becoming an art form in itself.

EN: You said working with Hou Hsaio-hsien in The Flight of the Red Balloon brought out a new side in you as an actress, I think because of how you were asked to improvise on that set. Could you explain how that experience changed you?

JB: I think it really changed my life to work with Hou Hsaio-hsien. The fact of giving the entire freedom and responsibility to the actor to direct, write, edit is huge, you know? I found it so generous. When you get into a scene [with Hou], it's only description. You don't have dialogue. When you're free in a room, it's breathtaking, because you could do anything. A French writer I got to play in a film said the future actor will be the one who writes, directs, and acts together. She said this actor-creator has to have culture, be a complete artist. I felt like Hou Hsaio-hsien gave me that experience. After that, I wanted to do the dance, I wanted to do the painting—the exhibition, and travel around. It gave me freedom in a different way.

EN: Does it also change your acting in a tightly scripted movie like this one?

JB: Because I had been doing 100 shows of the dance and traveling in 11 different countries, the fact of being still in front of a camera for 10 minutes was kind of difficult—the stillness when you have to go through a lot inside. My tendency would be to express, to go for it, because that's what I had been doing in the dance thing. So, suddenly being so tight in a frame, I actually experienced that emotionally inside. There were takes when I felt: I've been roller coasting there. It's been a totally different experience acting-wise. Especially the scene in the café, where, after some takes, I felt like, wow, I've seen some landscapes [laughs] I've never seen before.

EN: Do you think that's why your emotions welled up so unexpectedly in that scene?

JB: The rhythm of the emotion, when you can somehow let it happen and ride it, it's orgasmic, I have to say, acting-wise.

Interview conducted for Slant Magazine

Friday, March 4, 2011

Keaton v. Chaplin v. Lloyd

You can guess a lot about a person if you know their favorite silent film star. People who pick Harold Lloyd probably don’t much care for messy emotion. Fans of Charlie Chaplin are all about emotion. And people who love Buster Keaton favor subtlety.

The three longtime rivals compete again at this Saturday’s Silent Clowns series, and for my money Buster still outshines the other two, even though the film being shown is his first and one of his least favorite.

Lloyd is the featured star this month, so two of his two-reelers are showing. Both are from 1920, during the time when he was playing the gangly, glasses-wearing 98-pound weakling you’ve probably seen on that famous clock picture. In High and Dizzy, he’s a newly minted doctor, which gives him an excuse to start off in the first of a series of classic vaudevillian settings (doctor’s office, hotel lobby…) and set-ups (getting chased by a cop; walking on a dizzyingly high ledge …). He’s a likeable loser, but the film feels more like a series of gags than a narrative and some of the gags are overly familiar, though they’re all nicely executed.

A coherent story with a more original set-up, Lloyd’s Number, Please is far more engaging. As Harold vies with a gigantic rival for the girl of his dreams, his frustration takes on real welcome emotional weight, and his protracted battle with that newfangled contraption, the telephone, contains some memorably spiky bits, like the sassy switchboard operator who snaps back when Harold complains about all the calls she misdirected.

Chaplin’s The Pawn Shop sidesteps the maudlin self-pity his duck-walking tramp sometimes displays, but it unfolds at a leisurely pace that slows to a painful crawl. This time, the tramp is a hapless clerk in a pawnshop. Ringing variations on just a handful of bits, Chaplin repeatedly sets up a situation and then plays it out to the nth degree. When the clerk holds his feather duster in front of a fan while it blows off all the feathers, making the room more of a mess than it was when he started to clean it, he seems more clueless than clumsy as he stands with his arm out, waiting – and waiting – for the gag to play out.

The film plays with contrasts, often shifting on a dime from the hectic slapstick of the clerk’s constant battles with his coworker to the calm they feign when the boss checks in on them. Chaplin’s love of contrasts and mining a gag converge in the film’s best bit, where a customer who cons the clerk by spinning a phony sob story is followed by an honest man with a clock to pawn and the newly wised-up clerk checks the clock out so thoroughly he ruins the thing.

Buster’s The High Sign was the first film he conceived and shot on his own, though he held off on releasing it for a while, convinced it was “ordinary,” according to biographer Marion Meade.

To which I can only say: In what universe? True, The High Sign is constructed from a lot of familiar parts – including an oceanside amusement park that looks just like the one in Number, Please – but the familiar bits are tossed off with deadpan understatement and the narrative is tidily constructed.

Buster plays a drifter thrown off a train who looks for a job and finds one—along with plenty of trouble. Each bit builds on the last, and every setup leads to a satisfying payoff – except when it doesn’t because our expectations are being subverted. Nods like that to the audience make his films feel very modern, as does the streamlined editing. Buster never lingers on a setup or underlines a point by mugging. He just shows us something funny and moves on, assuming that we got it.

The film finds some imaginative ways to convey information without resorting to title cards, including an ultimatum letter to the wealthy August Nickelnurser, who Buster’s boss and his gang are trying to blackmail (“Unless you come across today, the first of September will be the last of August,” they warn.) And he sets up a couple of the complicated extended sight gags he was so good at, including the beautifully timed blend of gymnastics and slapstick he uses to fend off the gangsters in Nickelnurser’s house. The cameras sometimes pulls back during that sequence to show all four rooms of the two-story house in dollhouse mode, the façade pulled off so we can watch Buster pour himself in and out of windows, up walls, and through transoms and trapdoors, gracefully knocking off the bad guys as he goes.

Written for The L Magazine

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Like the kids sitting near me in a crowded all-media screening of Rango, I came in hoping to be transported and left in stunned silence. Gore Verbinski is making much of how his first animated feature is different than anyone else's, but it feels like every other reflexively meta, smugly ironic, pop culture-studded cartoon movie with a cut-and-paste plot and a tediously hawked moral.

Rango is the first full-length feature done by Industrial Light and Magic, which turned out to be ready for its close-up. The landscape and lighting are beautifully rendered, just exaggerated enough to feel almost real (while registering as a pungent distillation of nearly every Western scene you've ever seen onscreen), and its dramatic simulated camerawork, like the "crane shot" that whooshes us skyward with a hawk, does its part to amp up the excitement. That hawk is good for some just-scary-enough yet slapstick chase scenes, and a gigantic rattlesnake pushes the scary up a notch or two, coiling itself into a scene almost as ominously as the basilisk in the latest Harry Potter movie. There are some nicely playful little touches, too, like when Rango—a chameleon who's just another frustrated actor/director until his terrarium falls out of the family car in the middle of the Mojave Desert and he finds himself starring in a real-life Western—comes right up to the screen and his breath fogs the lens of the imaginary camera we're looking through.

But Verbinski's penchant for piecing together movies from shards of pop culture clichés overshadows everything else. Rango gets its main theme ("Control the water and you control everything") and villain from Chinatown, its Greek-chorus musicians from Cat Ballou, and its subtlety from Three Amigos. Also in the mash-up are undigested lumps of classic Westerns-Sergio Leone's Man with No Name movies, Lawrence of Arabia, The Road Warrior, and High Noon, to name just a few—plus a couple of one-offs, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a nod to Johnny Depp, who does the voice for Rango).

Verbinski says he made the movie for "the child within," but Rango crams in too many homages and grown-up jokes (prostate exams? Really?) to keep the child without wholly entranced, while its toddler-level storyline is too obvious for adults. And a couple of overlong chase scenes are likely to tire people of any age, since they try too hard to mimic live action instead of making use of the blank screen animation offers to creative minds.

As in Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp is the biggest pearl in a rotten oyster. Rango's scaly skin makes him the most realistic-looking of the animals in the film, and Depp's walk-in closetful of voices inspire a wide range of expressions and postures that make the little green guy pretty endearing. The other actors do good voice work too, but the characters they play are more stereotypical: the cute female lizard Rango falls for on sight (Isla Fisher), the slinky bad girl who's literally a fox (Claudia Black), the Walter Huston-like old coot who plays spoons and speaks in homilies (Alex Manugian), etc. They're less expressive physically too, some suffering from that stuffed-animal look of the early Stars Wars characters.

But the worst thing about Rango is its cynicism. It's bad enough to smother our hope of seeing something truly new and imaginative, but do you really have to do it while flakking a generic "Keep hope alive" message?

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Brand Is Crisis

Just as the news about populist uprisings across the Arab world brings uncomfortable reminders of our government’s ties to the despots involved, a 2005 documentary shows us how American businesses can meddle in other country’s politics, gaming the democratic process in the name of democracy.

Our Brand is Crisis follows a K Street political consulting firm as it engineers Bolivia’s 2002 election, winning a second shot at the presidency for Goni (Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada), a U.S.-friendly businessman. As the film informs us, Goni privatized state-owned resources and welcomed foreign investors during his first term in office. That was a controversial move, and it became even more of a political lightning rod when his successor sold the rights to the country’s water to foreign companies, which then began charging exorbitant rates. When he ran again in 2002, Goni was part of a field of 11 candidates that included current president Evo Morales, a former coca farmer who was then consolidating power behind his promises to nationalize the country’s resources and redistribute some of the wealth to the poor.

Filmmaker Rachel Boynton opens with harrowing footage of the deadly rioting that broke out soon after Goni began his second term, after he announced plans to export Bolivian gas to the U.S. and Mexico despite a shortage within the country itself. Then she takes us back to the beginning of his campaign, showing how he won.

Goni’s consultants are Greenberg Carville Shrum (the Carville was Clinton war room general James Carville), a group of seasoned DC kingmakers who used expertise they’d gained in this country to run political campaigns abroad. As Jeremy Rosner, the firm’s main representative in Bolivia, puts it, GCS specializes in “progressive politics and foreign policy for profit…. We believe in a particular brand of democracy – market-based democracy.”

The group treats Goni like any other product in need of marketing. They run focus groups, probing for information on how people see the candidates and what they want from their leader. They create messages and taglines (the film’s title comes from the organizing principle they develop for the campaign). They choose a campaign color – pink, which is supposed to make their man seem warmer. And they come up with ways to undermine the competition.

The message from those focus groups is clear: most Bolivians see Goni as arrogant and out of touch, loyal not to them but to his wealthy peers in other countries. But if the candidate is arrogant, his consultants are no better, remaining stubbornly convinced that they know what’s best for Bolivia, regardless of what Bolivians may think.

Boynton shows both candidate and consultants insulated from reality in their swanky environments. She often films from a distance, to emphasize the locked iron gates, the long polished tables, and the uniformed servants silently toiling away in the background, but she can get surprisingly close when she wants to. She’s at the strategy meeting where one of the consultants tells Goni it’s time to go negative on his main opponent – but through an outside group, so they can deny any connection to the attack. She’s in the room when Goni’s campaign manager snipes at the consultants, blaming them for the candidate’s eroding numbers. And she gets a carelessly candid Carville to chortle about how clients think he has “some kind of silver bullet” – and explain how he capitalizes on that myth.

Asking keen questions from behind the camera in her soft, unthreatening voice, Boynton quietly builds a damning case against her subjects. GCS’s campaign can’t hide Goni’s sense of entitlement or his cavalier dismissal of popular concerns, which turn off so many voters that he just barely wins office in a runoff, then he flees a year later, defeated by death threats, strikes, and bloody showdowns in the streets.

In the end, the firm’s self-created mandate to export its favorite brand of democracy to other countries just looks like one more form of arrogant self-interest: imperialism in a “progressive” mask.

Written for TimeOFF