Beyond the Multiplex

Is "The Kite Runner" worthy of all the fuss? Plus: What's Woody Harrelson doing in an upsetting, innovative and decidedly Oscar-worthy documentary about WWII?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published December 13, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

When it comes to holiday-season cognitive dissonance, the Grinch, out there on his lonely mountaintop just north of Whoville, has got nothing on Hollywood. Are those traditional Yuletide carols I hear? Well, almost -- it's the traditional Yuletide bitching and moaning of insiders after a prized "tentpole" production with a Pentagon-scale budget (in this case, "The Golden Compass") has yielded a vast pile o'cash that was slightly smaller than desired and expected. As some spokesbot told the press, yeah, the results are disappointing but we'll still make money overseas, because our cyborg slaves all over the globe will slurp up whatever crap we dish out to them. OK, that's a paraphrase, not a direct quote.

It appears these people do not understand such basic concepts as economies of scale. You don't have to look far to find movies that will make money relative to their production costs: Jason Reitman's "Juno" had a smashing opening weekend, grossing more than a half-million bucks on just seven screens, while "Atonement" opened on 32 screens and garnered almost $800,000. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "The Savages," both only available in a few big cities, are also being carefully nursed toward indie-hit status, while "No Country for Old Men" is just a flat-out hit, likely to become the largest-grossing film of the Coen brothers' career. (It's now at $28.7 million, while their all-time champ, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" made $45.5 million in 2000-01.)

Whether or not you think any of those movies measures up to the greatest work of Welles and Bergman, they were all made with grown-up viewers in mind and avoid gratuitous insults to the audience's intelligence. They're going to be racking up critical and industry awards from here to the vernal equinox, and will be eagerly Netflixed by intelligent people a year from now, while the animatronic polar bears of "The Golden Compass" sleep the big sleep among the other deceased behemoths of Hollywood history.

Here, in fact, is your Oscar scorecard to date: With "No Country for Old Men" winning the New York and Washington critics' awards, and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (to be released Dec. 26) winning in Los Angeles, we've got two surefire best-picture nominees. Throw in "Atonement," probably Tim Burton's forthcoming "Sweeney Todd" and a dark-horse candidate ("Diving Bell" or "Juno" or "Into the Wild"), and the category's full to bursting.

Shall we digress from my so-called main point into random Oscar gossip? Yes, let's. Grab your cuppa cocoa and pull up a chair. It looks very much as if the Coens, Anderson and Julian Schnabel ("Diving Bell") will fill three of the five best-director slots. You can count on best-actor nominations for George Clooney ("Michael Clayton"), Frank Langella ("Starting Out in the Evening") and Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), with the latter far and away in the lead. Julie Christie ("Away From Her") has pretty much lapped the field for best actress, although French actress Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") will also get a nod. Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone") and Javier Bardem ("No Country") are the front-runners in the supporting categories, where you can expect to see several wild-card nominations from smaller films. (Cate Blanchett for "I'm Not There"? Hal Holbrook for "Into the Wild"? Vlad Ivanov for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"?)

I have no analysis to offer here beyond the dunderheadedly obvious: Big Hollywood studios have largely outsourced the production and distribution of Oscar-worthy, adult-oriented pictures to their specialty divisions and to independent producers. To a large extent, this was a conscious decision, and even a business strategy. But instead of doing what they allegedly do well (i.e., create grand spectacles for kids, teens and young-adult daters) better and better, the studios are getting worse at it all the time. As I frequently complain, there are too many indie releases, week in and week out, and the really special ones often don't get enough time or space to build an audience. But the real problem with the film bidness is not the strugglers and stragglers on the bottom rungs, most of them (believe it or not) talented and honest people who want to make a living by making good movies. As is customary in biology, politics and capitalism, the organism is rotting from the head down.

On the subject of things that don't quite work out, I'm going to dispense pretty briefly with Marc Forster's no-doubt-well-intentioned attempt to turn Khaled Hosseini's bestseller "The Kite Runner" into Oscar fodder. All the day-and-night cranking of Paramount's publicity machine can't transform this earnest, leaden picture from a news footnote into a viable work of art or entertainment. At the other end of the spectrum, we find the likely best-documentary nominee "Nanking," an upsetting, riveting and innovative chronicle of one of World War II's worst atrocities, and the peculiar grab bag of Western observers who tried to stop it.

If you're eager for a perverse little bulge in your Christmas stocking, let me recommend Adam Rifkin's thoroughly sleazy surveillance-camera ensemble drama "Look," which plays like a dirtier and more mean-spirited version of "Crash." (Which is to say I enjoyed it immensely.) We close with two seductive little documentaries, one about the "singing revolution" that led to Estonia's independence -- I know, it sounds like a joke, but it's very moving -- and another about a former lover and collaborator of Andy Warhol's who disappeared both from art history and from the world of the living.

"The Kite Runner": Harry Potter vs. the Taliban, with a ululating soundtrack
There are moments here and there in Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" (adapted from Hosseini's novel by David Benioff) when the film relaxes into something like transparency and actually shows us aspects of the world we might not know about, which feels real down to the details. As a re-creation of the lost world of middle-class, Westernized Afghanistan in the 1970s, complete with disco parties, American muscle cars and Steve McQueen movies, "The Kite Runner" is often sad and charming.

When that world is transported to America after the Soviet invasion, and the protagonist Amir's dignified father (marvelously played by Homayoun Ershadi) is reduced to working in a convenience store and selling knickknacks at a flea market in suburban California, the film abounds with small visual ironies. When Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is courting a fellow Afghan immigrant named Soraya (Atossa Leoni), they go for a walk with her mother trailing behind as a chaperone, old-world style. But they walk through tract houses with aluminum siding, cyclone fencing and Pontiacs in the driveway, rather than through the alleys and marketplaces of old Kabul.

Such details are also wistfully evident in Hosseini's novel, but always filtered through Amir's backward-looking consciousness, increasingly aware as he grows older that he is guilty of a personal, intimate betrayal that somehow mirrors the cruel fate of his country. Forster and Benioff have imported all the book's sentimentality, along with a melodramatic plot relying on an interlocking set of coincidences that would embarrass Dickens, while jettisoning the self-awareness and the lyrical flourishes that made it readable. What results is a patchy, uncertain motion picture, full of incidents and images but fundamentally unfocused and superficial. It's only slightly unfair to summarize the movie's uplifting message this way: You got raped by the Taliban, kid? And your whole country is fucked beyond repair? Fly a kite and you'll feel better!

Sure, Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, the kids who play Amir and his friend and/or servant Hassan as children, make a lovable pair. (These are two of the three child actors who have reportedly left Afghanistan, along with their families, in response to local consternation about the film's rape scene.) But the movie around them does them no favors. You can find adorable moppets not quite playing believable characters, plus an intrusive, quasi-ethnic drums 'n' wailing soundtrack that cues your emotions through every single scene, in AT&T or UPS commercials about how your business can thrive in the era of globalization.

What with the geographic and chronological hopscotching from Afghanistan to America and the seemingly endless and totally irrelevant CGI kite-flying sequences -- as if we're suddenly in a Harry Potter movie playing Squiddick, or whatever it's called -- "The Kite Runner" never settles on a single character or central theme. Abdalla and Leoni are such wooden performers, laboring to avoid "Middle Eastern" clichés by playing the young couple as the blandest and most faceless Americans you can imagine, that Amir's noble and tormented dad, so beautifully rendered by Ershadi, becomes the most magnetic character. But the story isn't supposed to be about him; it's supposed to be about how Amir long ago betrayed and abandoned the painfully loyal Hassan, and now, from his perch of American affluence, must find a way to make amends.

I must not be the first person to notice that "The Kite Runner" and Joe Wright's film version of "Atonement" have exactly the same plot: Rich kid destroys life of privileged underling, becomes writer due to ensuing deep thinking, does literary penance too little and too late. I think "Atonement" is a mixed bag too, but it was made by someone who thinks cinematically, who knows when to move the camera (and when not to). There is scarcely a shot in "The Kite Runner" longer than five seconds; two people will be holding a quiet conversation, and Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer jump around the room on pogo sticks, pointlessly changing angles on every comma, every pause. Moments that should provoke quiet contemplation are needlessly exhausting.

Yes, the rape of a child is depicted in "The Kite Runner," although with entirely PG-rated imagery, and the rape of another child is implied and discussed. In both cases, the intention of author and filmmaker are clear: The shame falls upon those who allow such crimes to happen, not on those who endure them. Of course these scenes are heart-rending, and of course you will long to see these children rescued and some shred of redemption claimed from the awful situation. That's only human decency, and at least this maudlin, implausible and dull movie has that going for it.

"The Kite Runner" opens Dec. 14 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wide national release to follow.

"Nanking": How a doctor, a Nazi and a few Bible-thumpers saved hundreds of thousands of lives
At first, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's documentary "Nanking" (recently short-listed for Oscar consideration) might sound like a hopelessly blinkered approach to one of World War II's worst atrocities. The Japanese military's infamous "rape of Nanking" in 1937 -- which included the massacre of 200,000 civilians and the rape of at least 20,000 women -- is told mostly by actors reading the testimony of a handful of Westerners who remained in China's then-capital when it fell to the invaders.

We also hear devastating first-person accounts from both Chinese and Japanese survivors, but they exist in the film largely to buttress the words delivered by Woody Harrelson ("playing" the real-life American surgeon Bob Wilson), Mariel Hemingway (missionary schoolmistress Minnie Vautrin), Jürgen Prochnow (German businessman John Rabe) and other actors, as they address the camera in a sort of staged reading. There are bits and pieces of other evidence, including the famous newsreel footage of the atrocities shot by an American missionary named John Magee and smuggled out by George Fitch, head of the Nanking YMCA. But even more than most historical documentaries, "Nanking" must try to establish the visceral reality of events we can't see.

I can't quite explain why it works, but by God, it does. Although Harrelson, Hemingway and the other actors are not doing full-on performances -- they're sitting in chairs, wearing neutral, formal clothes that suggest the period without quite being costumes -- they make the horrified witnesses come alive as people who decided for personal or spiritual reasons to take their chances in what was about to become the worst place on the planet. Furthermore, as unlikely and white-man's-burden-ish as it may seem, Wilson, Vautrin, Rabe and Fitch were among the war's greatest heroes (and are remembered as such by the people of Nanking).

These Westerners believed that the Japanese, at least at that point, were anxious to avoid dragging foreign powers into the war, and hence were unlikely to attack neutral outsiders. Rabe, in fact, was no neutral -- he was a Nazi Party member who represented imperial Japan's most powerful ally, and sported his swastika armband prominently. Armed with nothing more than bluster, this motley crew established a special sanctuary zone in the heart of Nanking, where they reportedly housed more than 200,000 of the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents. While the Japanese military never officially recognized the zone and raided it occasionally, they avoided the kind of wholesale slaughter and pillage they inflicted on the rest of the city, and left the Westerners unmolested. Many thousands of people survived who would otherwise have been killed.

Little glory came to these people for their efforts, and they were all but destroyed by what they had seen. Minnie Vautrin, who saved countless Nanking women from being raped and murdered, committed suicide after returning to the United States. John Rabe became an outcast in Nazi Germany for his outspokenness and later a Soviet prisoner and a pauper. (The people of Nanking sent him money.) Wilson and Fitch simply faded gratefully into obscure private lives. But "Nanking" both calls attention to a horrifying set of war crimes that remains little known in the West and crafts an impossible-but-true hymn to the power of the individual conscience.

"Nanking" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with national release to begin Jan. 11.

Fast forward: Best parkour-style convenience-store dance number in movie history! Plus Estonia's "Singing Revolution" and Andy Warhol's missing boyfriend.
In the very first scene of Adam Rifkin's "Look," we watch (supposedly via surveillance camera) as two nubile teenage girls strip down to their thongs in a clothing-store dressing room, compare butt-jiggles, pretend to make out, discuss whether or not to get, um, a certain anatomical area bleached, and then "forget" to take off the stuff they were trying out when they put their own clothes back on. If you think that sounds like thoroughly disreputable grade-C trash, well, you'd be right. But it's well-made trash, a rare commodity these days. And it's also the beginning of a funny, filthy, dark-hearted ensemble drama that's something like "Crash" with no conscience and really evil drugs in its system. I liked it a hell of a lot.

OK, granted, there are some plausibility issues with a whole movie that pretends to consist entirely of surveillance images. Like the fact that, for the most part, surveillance cameras don't record sound. Doh! So when we watch one of the aforementioned mall hotties, Sherri (Spencer Redford), trying to seduce her upstanding, married-with-a-pregnant-wife English teacher (Jamie McShane) by slithering out of her underthings in the high school parking lot, we shouldn't really be hearing her nasty come-ons too, should we? Details, details.

While Sherri seeks to bag the wavering Mr. Krebbs, other stuff is going on in this grainy-cam view of west Los Angeles. A Kevin Smith-style pair of convenience-store doofuses argue about girlfriends and perform an awesome parkour-style dance number to a dance-metal song called "Electrocuted." ("I'm gonna be elec-tro-cute-ed / 'Cause I killed my whole fam-i-lee.") But aren't those friendly guys buying a carton of Parliaments and pints of brandy actually the Candid Camera Killers, who've been on a three-day carjacking spree and just shot a cop in full view of his own dashboard-cam? How awesome.

In and out of these people's lives also come a department-store Lothario with a truly impressive record of luring female co-workers into the storeroom, a high-priced defense lawyer with a new baby, a gorgeous wife and a hunky African-American male lover, and a hopeless workplace dweeb who has become the butt of endless, humiliating practical jokes. Just wait for the bad-taste male-stripper gag at the end of the movie that rubs your face in the miserable state of humanity! You'll love it!

No, seriously -- I recognize that praising this pseudo-experimental indie made by the guy who directed "Detroit Rock City" (and, what is far worse, wrote "Underdog") is close to embracing perversity for its own sake. But frankly, I'd rather see this assemblage of good-humored overactors delivering a quasi-comical, profoundly misanthropic essay on why life is Totally Fucked than sit through another earnest indie drama about people and their pain. Watch what happens to Mr. Krebbs after he gets into the front seat of that Nissan with the conniving nymphet! Now that's some human suffering. (Opens Dec. 14 in New York and Los Angeles and Dec. 21 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.)

I imagine that Jim and Maureen Tusty's documentary "The Singing Revolution" will mainly be of interest to Estonian immigrants, their families and other people from the former Eastern bloc, but it's actually a wonderful exploration of that still little-understood period, from the mid-1980s through 1991, when the empire of Soviet communism rapidly collapsed. Viewing that collapse from the perspective of a tiny, intensely patriotic country (total population: 1 million) whose principal nationalist expression is choral singing -- well, that makes it all the more improbable and delightful.

Repeatedly overrun by larger neighbors, and occupied by the Soviets since the end of World War II, Estonia nearly had its idiosyncratic culture and language wiped off the map. But as the Tustys' interviewees explain it, the choral tradition literally kept the nation alive, and the result was that in 1991 Estonia had a democratic revolution in which no guns were fired and no one was killed, even in a bitter standoff between the country's Estonian majority and a large and belligerent Russophile minority. This movie was supported extensively by the Estonian government, and as such is very much the official version of events. It does not explore the problems that have afflicted all of Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era. But still: Estonia, Baltic land of beautiful forests, incipient democracy and weird, cool singing! What's not to love? (Now playing in Los Angeles. Opens Dec. 14 in New York, with more cities to follow.)

When making the documentary "A Walk Into the Sea," director Esther Robinson tried to track down people in Andy Warhol's former inner circle who remembered her uncle, Danny Williams. An aspiring filmmaker who was apparently Warhol's lover and collaborator before being driven out of that notoriously catty clique, Williams disappeared off a Massachusetts beach one night in 1966 -- presumably either a suicide or an accidental drowning victim -- and also disappeared from official histories of the Warhol "Factory."

There's an appealing emotion, not to say naiveté, in Robinson's quest to rescue her uncle's reputation from one of the most difficult and vicious artistic scenes in cultural history, but such veteran Warholians as filmmaker Paul Morrissey, actress Brigid Berlin, photographer Billy Name and Velvet Underground member John Cale can give her only drug-addled fragments of memory. (Cale is the only one of these people who does not appear to have had his immortal soul eaten by Andy Warhol.) Like her uncle, Robinson seems like a sweet, talented person flummoxed by the riddles of the Warhol world, such as whether that atmosphere of ultimate nastiness and self-destruction somehow enabled an explosion of creativity. As far as it goes, her movie is a lovely, dreamlike concoction. (Opens Dec. 14 at Cinema Village in New York.)

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Documentaries Movies