Beyond the Multiplex

What's Naomi Watts doing in a micro-indie like "Ellie Parker"? Plus: A dreamy, captivating Italian thriller and a terrifying look at Colombia's gang wars.

Published November 10, 2005 9:50AM (EST)

When is a Hollywood star not a Hollywood star? And what is a movie starring Naomi Watts doing over here at Beyond the Multiplex world headquarters, where our normal realm of expertise is slow-motion films in Serbo-Croatian and documentaries about the Paraguayan cement industry?

People, I can tell you this: Scott Coffey's "Ellie Parker" is an indie film if ever there was one, Naomi or no. Coffey was an aspiring actor, writer and director who befriended Watts when she was pretty much the character she plays in this film, a young Australian émigré bouncing across the City of Angels from one audition to the next, one drama-school accent to the next, one bad-news boyfriend to the next. In fact, Coffey's short film, also called "Ellie Parker," attracted some attention at Sundance four or five years ago -- and then his undiscovered star locked limbs with Laura Elena Harring in "Mulholland Drive" and was visited by a little girl from hell in "The Ring" and became, you know, Naomi Watts.

Watts could have just quit taking Coffey's calls after that (no, your first guess is wrong: they're not lovers), but this is an up-with-people story with an ending to match. Instead, she signed on as his producer, and one presumes he didn't test her friendship too severely, since "Ellie Parker" is one of the most proudly and genuinely low-budget features I've seen in a long time. It's shot vérité-style on real locations with an off-the-shelf digital camcorder, and Coffey turns out to be one of those filmmakers who can turn these restrictions into advantages. Watts gives a funny, brave, self-mocking performance, and even if the movie is partly about the fact that acting, by definition, involves not being yourself, her fans will be fascinated by this up-close-and-personal all-Naomi access. (Sorry, lads, the rumors that this movie involves frontal nudity are not correct -- but we do see Watts change from pants to a miniskirt while driving a car, which is even more impressive.)

Otherwise, it's the same old refrain this week: Another list of excellent movies -- which most of you outside the big coastal cities won't be able to see, at least not until they show up on Netflix in six or seven months. Believe me, folks, I resent the Manhattan-centric nature of this column as much as anybody -- and I actually live in Manhattan. I'm in no way convinced that relying on the perpetually overworked and distracted movie-going populations of New York and (to a lesser extent) Los Angeles is a good way to winnow out which small films should and shouldn't reach other Americans in other places, but at the moment it's all we've got. The question of how distribution patterns are changing, how badly indie movies are tanking, and whether DVDs and video on demand are the answer is a big 'un, but let's set it aside for another time.

For now, we've got good stuff! Catch it if and when you can: a fine film about the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of Italian politician Aldo Moro, told more as an expressionistic mystery than a thriller; a lovely and sad French period piece, starring the incomparable Emmanuelle Devos as a mistreated 1930s wife; and a terrifying and surprising documentary made amid the long-running gang wars of Medellín, Colombia.

"Ellie Parker": A star is born -- but not necessarily overnight
When aspiring Hollywood thespian Ellie Parker (Naomi Watts) is sitting in her agent's office lamenting her languishing career -- the agent is an almost unrecognizable Chevy Chase -- we see a movie poster on the guy's wall. It's for "Living in Oblivion," the semilegendary 1995 Hollywood satire that made director Tom DiCillo a hero to an entire generation of film-industry misfits. "Ellie Parker" is a completely different movie, but like "Living in Oblivion" it was made by someone who has survived the ridiculous Hollywood wars with his essential faculties intact. Not only that, the subtle note of homage made me feel, even more than I did already, that Scott Coffey, the director, writer and costar of "Ellie Parker," is a stand-up guy.

At first, "Ellie Parker" seems artless and chaotic. As I wrote above, Coffey shot it with an ordinary, consumer-level video camera, and for most of the film there's no crew, just him and Naomi Watts (or him, Watts and a cameraman, if Coffey is acting in the scene). So the visual vocabulary mainly consists of the close-up, the extreme close-up and -- every once in a while -- the medium shot containing two or three people, which in this context looks like a vast, wide-screen vista. As Coffey is aware, the film looks like reality TV, so it takes you a while to figure out that it isn't improvised or unscripted or a quasi-documentary about Watts' life.

It isn't any of those things. Instead, it's a tightly structured comedy about a plucky, likable young actress trying to make it in the perverse wonderland of Hollywood, without receiving any clear signals that she's going to. Ellie's neither a dumb-ass nor exceptionally bright; she's talented, but has a mile-wide hambone streak; and like most of us she vacillates wildly from confidence to rampant insecurity, from determination to self-pity, from tough-minded decisions about her life to reckless and stupid ones.

What makes this movie work, both as satire and as pathos, is the obvious intimacy and trust between director and actor. Watts gives a big and fearless performance, showing us Ellie weeping copiously through a mouthful of glazed doughnut, barfing up a bunch of blue-green sherbet after discovering her doofus guitar-hero boyfriend in bed with one of her so-called friends; indulging in splashy bathtub activities with the same doofus boyfriend; and, later, lying in bed with another guy who announces, right after they have sex, "Well, I'm definitely gay."

Ellie also has to change her clothes, apply makeup and practice her Brooklyn accent ("Yeah, I sucked his cawk. I sucked it good! I sucked them all!") while driving from an audition for some trashy Southern gothic to another for an even trashier Noo Yawk scunge-fest. The director of the film is named Smash, looks and dresses slavishly like Jim Jarmusch, and has one of those transatlantic accents you can't quite place. Is he German? Estonian? From Ohio, and faking it? The director of the scunge-fest is "in Vancouver," and Ellie has to do her scene into a video camera, with a 50-year-old woman reading the part of the dude whose cawk she has presumably sucked good.

All of this, along with the acting class where the students have to "practice their animals" while the hard-ass instructor in a poofy sweat suit disappears into the bathroom to do some blow, is pretty funny. But to anyone who has spent even a little time amid the dingy lives and corrupted dreams of the Los Angeles waitron population, it's also disturbingly accurate. I wonder if the secret to successful satire is to pile up the details but never make any individual detail less than convincing. Coffey's script doesn't spare Ellie, either (or himself, as her maybe-schizo, maybe-gay second-string boyfriend): When Ellie and her Aussie pal Sam (Rebecca Rigg) engage in a bitchy acting contest in the car to see who can cry the most "honest" tears -- and then break it off at the sight of a cool secondhand store -- you see that the second-rateness and self-indulgence of the whole enterprise have gotten inside them like a virus.

Does it ruin "Ellie Parker" that in fact its star -- a relative unknown when she began working with Coffey in 2000 -- defied the odds and became the success story that Ellie Parker never will? I don't think so; that's just a functional paradox that allowed the film to be finished and distributed. "Ellie Parker" is the sharpest, most authentic portrait of Hollywood life made in the last several years. (As a movie about contemporary Los Angeles, it's approximately 617 percent better than the monumentally bogus "Shopgirl.") If Scott Coffey now gets to make a movie with a budget larger than what he can find in the dryers at the Silverlake Boulevard laundromat, he better not forget how he got there.

"Ellie Parker" opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle; Nov. 18 in San Jose, Calif.; Dec. 2 in Dallas, Houston and Washington; and Dec. 9 in Austin, Texas, Boston, Chicago and Miami, with more cities to follow.

"Good Morning, Night": The killing that shaped modern Italy
I'm not sure any non-Italian can make sense of Marco Bellocchio's "Good Morning, Night" without a bit of a history lecture ahead of time, which is probably why (like almost all of Bellocchio's 22 previous films) this won't reach much of a foreign audience. Even if you do know something about Aldo Moro, and why a homegrown Italian terrorist group called the Red Brigades kidnapped and then murdered him in 1978, Bellocchio's film is a challenging and eerie work, possessed of a resonance for contemporary Italian viewers that outsiders, me included, can only make guesses about.

Unlike, say, Bruno Barreto's excellent "Four Days in September," which tells the story of the kidnapping of the American ambassador by Brazilian radicals in more or less linear, thriller fashion, "Good Morning, Night" is an expressionist portrait, blending archival news footage with naturalistic but enigmatic scenes and fanciful dream sequences. It isn't much constrained by the actual history of the Moro kidnapping -- and indeed, as Bellocchio has pointed out, the actual history of the event is none too clear. Was Moro's killing just the result of deranged revolutionary fervor (which was indeed endemic to the '70s European left), or were other forces involved: Italian neo-fascists, the CIA, the Vatican, the Masons? Bellocchio doesn't support any of these borderline-crackpot theories, but he doesn't quite rule them out.

Moro was the leader of the Christian Democrats, a conservative Roman Catholic who was nonetheless instrumental in forging a historic compromise in postwar Italian politics: In 1978, his party was prepared to form a national government that would include the Communist Party for the first time. But on his way to a crucial legislative meeting, Moro was attacked by a small group of heavily armed guerrillas who killed his five police bodyguards, packed him in a moving crate and spirited him away. The Red Brigades' attempts to negotiate a prisoner exchange went nowhere, and so did police attempts to rescue him. After 55 days of imprisonment in a Rome safe house, Moro was shot dead and dumped in a car, midway between the Christian Democrat and Communist headquarters.

As presented in "Good Morning, Night," the tiny group of ideologues holding Moro captive do indeed believe that their action might incite a revolution, or a fascist coup, or something to destroy the unstable status quo. But all the political drama presented in this movie -- the stone-faced public officials in newsreel footage; Pope Paul VI, looking three-quarters dead himself; fascists giving each other the stiff-arm salute in a restaurant; communist workers boarding a bus with red flags -- is basically background for the story of Chiara (Maya Sansa), a young, dowdy-looking librarian who is in fact the only female member of the inner Red Brigades circle.

Although Chiara is a committed Brigatista, or at least starts out that way, we never really learn why. The pieces of her story come together only gradually; at first all we know is that she has rented the apartment where Moro is stashed, posing with a fellow guerrilla as an ordinary young married couple. In a funny-scary early scene, a neighbor dashes by to drop off her baby for a couple of minutes; Chiara looks at the little creature with mingled fear and disgust, but it's the sort of routine favor no young Italian woman is supposed to refuse. She stashes the baby on the sofa, handling him as if he were a ticking bomb -- and then her compadres come lurching through the room, carrying the former prime minister in a packing crate.

Some of what we see is what is really happening, in the film's universe; the Brigades pester the doleful Moro (a wonderful performance by Roberto Herlitzka, who's the spitting image) to grind out letters to his family, his political allies and the pope, while it gradually dawns on the guerrillas that they're going to have to either kill him or let him go. But increasingly, "Good Morning, Night" is dominated by elements of Chiara's other life, and by her fantasies and dreams. She has an office romance with an appealing guy -- who, mysteriously, is the author of a screenplay Moro is carrying when kidnapped. She dreams about her childhood, about World War II and her dead father's past as an anti-fascist resistance fighter. She forms a father-daughter bond with Moro, falls in love with him a little, dislikes his formality and humility. (Almost all of that is in her head, although Moro, who never sees his captors' faces, asks at one point: "Is there a woman among you? I can tell by the way my socks are folded.")

If you just want to know what happened and get a reasonable guess as to why, I'm told that the book "The Moro Affair," by Leonardo Sciascia, is the way to go. Marco Bellocchio is performing an act of something like Jungian therapy on his nation, unpacking the most traumatic event of its recent history as a concatenation of dream symbols, and also as an allegorical way of addressing the tortured state the Western world, beset by terrorists both real and imaginary, finds itself in today. It's a strange and murky movie, at times a frustrating one, but I also found it profoundly moving in a way no regular thriller ever is.

"Good Morning, Night" opens Friday at the Cinema Village in New York. Other cities may follow.

Fast forward: A French wife wages war for her man; a Colombian neighborhood run by boys with guns
In meticulously re-creating both the style and the subject matter of a bygone era of French cinema, Frédéric Fonteyne's "Gilles' Wife" might be mistaken at first for an exercise in nostalgia. It's the story of a working-class housewife named Elisa (the fabulous Emmanuelle Devos), somewhere on the northern fringes of rural France in the late 1930s, who is forced to do battle with her lithe younger sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), for the love of her own husband, the eponymous Gilles (Clovis Cornillac). You can't imagine a soapier setup, but "Gilles' Wife" taken on its own terms is a spectacular achievement, a heartbreaking cinematic work that finely balances melodrama, family love story and devastating tragedy.

Fonteyne is yet another of the fine French directors with little or no U.S. audience. (His best-known work is the 1999 "Une Liaison Pornographique," which isn't pornographic at all -- its video-store title is "An Affair of Love.") Devos is something else again. After her breathtaking performances in Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" and Jacques Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," I can't believe she won't be abducted by American filmmakers at some point. Then again, she is actually 41 years old (an amazing and wonderful fact in itself), and her brand of sleepy-eyed, broad-cheekboned, womanly beauty -- halfway between Botticelli and 1920s erotic art -- seems positively decadent by perky, gym-toned American standards.

Sure, I'm smitten. But my incredulity over the role she's asked to play here -- like, what man married to this woman would be a big enough ass to cheat on her with anyone, let alone her own sister -- eventually gave way to total conviction. As in "Kings and Queen," Devos can sometimes look bedraggled and ordinary, and at other moments like the most beautiful opium vision the most heavily stoned pre-Raphaelite ever experienced. And as for the unfortunate Gilles and his desperate jones for the girly-cute Victorine -- well, gentlemen, let's just admit it: There is no male sexual behavior quite so asinine or self-destructive as to be unbelievable.

Fonteyne controls the many moods of this picture expertly, as it moves from a bucolic idyll (Gilles really does love his wife, and their exquisitely adorable children) into a kind of nightmare. To keep Gilles and preserve their family, Elisa proves willing to do literally anything, including spying on Victorine at his behest and giving him advice on how to win her back when she moves on to an actual single man. Don't let the gorgeous cinematography (by Virginie Saint-Martin) fool you: The lovingly depicted world of "Gilles' Wife" is one in which men face few consequences for infidelity and domestic violence, and women are demanded to perform heroic sacrifices that will ultimately destroy them. (Opens Nov. 16 at the IFC Center in New York; other engagements may follow.)

In the amazing documentary "La Sierra," filmmakers Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez penetrate the world of a group of paramilitary gang members defending a hilltop barrio in the Colombian city of Medellín, one of the most anarchic places in that almost ungovernable nation. Colombia's civil war gives us ample reason to be ashamed -- 35,000 people have died in the last decade, in a conflict the U.S. media has barely noticed -- but Dalton and Martinez provide something bigger and far more important than a current-events lecture.

By capturing the members of Bloque Metro -- essentially an armed street gang affiliated with one of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups -- as human beings with ordinary dreams, desires and relationships, "La Sierra" removes these young people from the realm of fear and fantasy they inhabit in our imaginations. Edison, the slender 22-year-old who commands Bloque Metro, turns out to be a sensitive young man who dreams of attending college to learn civil engineering. He sees himself as the de facto mayor or councilman for a neighborhood that the government has abandoned, and that the police never enter unless they're coming to kill people like him. Edison also has six kids by six different mothers, and while the film doesn't ask you to approve of that, it makes clear how irrelevant conventional morality seems in La Sierra.

Cielo, a 17-year-old girl we also meet, was left alone with a baby at age 15 when her first boyfriend was gunned down by "left-wing" guerrillas from a rival gang. (Political affiliations in Medellín seem entirely notional; it's like supporting one soccer team instead of another.) Her current boyfriend, an ugly, angry-looking skinhead who's about 30, is in jail, and boy, does that look like a fun place. Jesús, a 19-year-old lieutenant in Edison's posse, is a handsome boy with an oddly scarred face, a bad cocaine habit and a wandering eye; almost casually he reveals that he was nearly killed when a homemade grenade he was preparing exploded and that he keeps his right sleeve pulled extra long to make it less obvious that he has no hand. He doesn't much like to talk about the future or the past, but when Martinez presses him, asking him whether he thinks he'll die young, he just shrugs: "Claro." (That's clear.)

The story of how La Sierra moves from a seemingly pointless war to an unexpected peace is a thrilling one, although the impact of seeing what becomes of these three kids is devastating. The larger news story is that Colombia is slowly moving through a peace process that may (or may not) integrate former paramilitaries and guerrillas and result in a functioning civil society. But "La Sierra" reminds us that we're all implicated in a big international chess match whose desired end result is simply political and economic stability; it values the lives of Edison, Cielo, Jesús and most of the rest of us at nearly zero. (Opens Thursday at the Pioneer Theater in New York, and will play numerous short engagements in coming months, including Nov. 14 in Huntington, N.Y., Nov. 15 in Grantham's Landing, B.C., Canada, Nov. 16 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 18-20 in Ithaca, N.Y., Nov. 22 in Pleasantville, N.Y., Dec. 3 in Miami, Dec. 8-11 in Boston, Dec. 19 in Stamford, Conn., and Dec. 21 in Philadelphia.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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