May 12, 2016

A Bigger Splash

A bigger cast could not have made me happier: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes, stuck in an arid and steamy Italian island having rich white famous people problems. Apparently, fame is a bitch, so they are morose, ex-suicidal, bored out of their wits, or manically orchestrating fun.
I was not a fan of director Luca Guadagnino's stylish melodrama I Am Love, also with La Swinton, but this one I found more delectable, in the way that sea urchin is delectable: salty, sweaty, messy, sexy, with the longueur of an interminable hot summer afternoon in crumbling Europe. Decadence is so much fun, yet it is rarely found on movie screens nowadays. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, mostly for this reason, and because the four stars are such pros, it's a joy to watch them bask like lizards in the sun, all rotting inside, each one in their own way.
Tilda Swinton plays a rock star called Marianne, who is recovering from her lost voice with Paul, her beau and minder (Matthias Schoenaerts, the man who makes my knees, my heart and my soul quiver).  They make love, he takes care of her. It's Edenic, except that it is also sexy. All is good until her old flame shows up in the shape of Ralph Fiennes as Harry Hawkes, a devilish music producer, a manic louche with energy long past his impending expiration date, and his stunner of a newfound daughter Penelope, the sexy Dakota Johnson (who saved Fifty Shades Of Gray with her sense of humor).
Guadagnino is really good with atmosphere, and in particular, with the texture of the lives of spoiled people. You can tell his actors know this feeling in their bones. They lounge and laze about, colonizing the traditional island with their obnoxious fabulosity, Marianne wearing elegant nun-like clothes by Dior, Harry commandeering a little bar with karaoke, all of them appropriating the space around them with their extraordinary privilege.
I have seen most of Ralph Fiennes's movies, except for the ghastly Harry Potter series. He has never played a character like this before. He may not have been the first candidate to come to mind (I'm thinking Gary Oldman, less elegant; more rock & roll), but he makes up for it with an unsettling combination of desperate mischief and an equally desperate darkness that blossoms in Harry's rare moments of stillness. He is a middle-aged imp and the nonchalant way in which he disrupts people is careless, needy, and selfish. Yet, in the few moments where he settles down, he looks lost and devastated. He is utterly superficial, but he causes deep trouble. He is also not as bad as he could be. Penelope is worse. A quiet, lethal monster of self-involvement.
The whole thing is an unsavory menage a quatre, made particularly icky by Harry's inappropriate ways around Penelope. A backstory about how Harry basically ceded Marianne to Paul as if she were property to inherit compounds the incestuousness of it all.
At first, we think the movie is about Marianne, then we think it is about Harry. The four get a flimsy chance to show whatever ails them, but the movie is really about the obliviousness, the clubbiness and the sharp instinct for self-preservation of those who have it all.
Guadagnino spends three-fourths of the movie leisurely setting up the characters and their relationships, and one just sits there in the blazing sun waiting for things to disintegrate, which I found delightful. He subtly involves Italy around the edges with tales of immigrants dying to arrive at its shores; old-school, sleepy, provincial, Catholic Italy dealing with a harsh world by digging in its heels by tradition and exclusion. At the very end, bad things happen, not always credibly, but somehow powerfully.  Dark fun in the sun.

May 11, 2016

The Lobster

I am a big fan of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Before he made the more expensive The Lobster, Lanthimos delivered elegant, deeply unsettling high-concept movies with very modest budgets (Dogtooth, Alps). You could not stop thinking about these movies. They are like a punch in the gut.
Now that he has a stab at more resources and an English-speaking cast, I'm sad to report the result is disappointing. It's not that he has sold out. The Lobster is still too hermetic and independent to be commercial, but it lacks the sharp brilliance of his other two films.
Still, it is far more original than most movies. Set in a dystopian world in which people who are not part of a couple are persecuted, it follows David, a chubby, miserable architect, (Colin Farrell) who after being dumped by his wife, ends up at a hotel where people go to find a significant other. If they don't succeed, they are relegated to a bizarre fate. Whereas Dogtooth and Alps were fables in which we discovered an alternate reality at odds with people's commonplace surroundings, The Lobster takes place in the near future. Here we are squarely in a sci-fi fantasy world. The shocking contrast between what looks like reality in people's minds and the surreal is lost.
In essence, The Lobster is a one-joke movie that repeats itself way past the punchline. Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filipou, imagine the rules of this society in great detail, but the movie remains an intellectual, conceptual game, rather than an emotionally compelling story.
The screenwriters observe how bizarrely we act when we are in love, and take the absurd demands we place on the objects of our affection (or affliction) and they exaggerate our misguided expectations ad absurdum. They magnify our obsession with perfect compatibility to darkly comic results. The problem is that they get stuck defining the myriad rules of this universe and are hamstrung by their constraints. They are so busy setting up this world, and articulating the rules, they lack the imagination to liberate their story from them. And so, if the first third of the movie is exhilarating in its originality, the rest is explanation and repetition. Some of the rules seem arbitrary, some are forgotten along the way, and some seem unnecessary. Lanthimos has always had a knack for shocking, controlled violence, but here he uses it more liberally, and the shock is more vulgar. The movie is heavy-handed and literal and the late onset love story which is supposed to move us seems trite and puny.
The Lobster is strangely lifeless. Still, it is gorgeously shot, it has a powerful classical music soundtrack, and it has the wonderful Rachel Weisz and Lanthimos' usual collaborator Ariane Labed, who bring as much life as they can to the forced tableaux. Colin Farrell does his best to disappear but brings no nuance to his role. Ben Whishaw is sharper, and the great John C. Reilly is wasted. The movie has flashes of beauty and brilliance, and a cool ending which neatly ties up the giant metaphor we've been watching for two long hours. But is this what happens when money comes knocking?
Say it isn't so.

Apr 26, 2016

Movie Bites

So many movies, so little time. Here are some mini-reviews of things I' ve seen recently:

The Measure of A Man

I recommend this small, powerful film in which the hero (the great Vincent Lindon) is a guy who loses his job and is willing to do anything to have one, until his conscience says "enough". It takes place mostly in a kind of French WalMart. Director Stephane Brizé wrests nail-biting suspense from a conversation with the guy in the unemployment bureau, from confrontations between security guys in the store and people whom they catch stealing. No swelling string section when the hero stops at nothing to do the heroic thing. Just the relentless fight of every man, every day, for dignity.


A heroic fuck up, Krisha, the title character of this strange and powerful movie, is a larger than life walking disaster, played with ferocious, self-destructive panache by Krisha Fairchild. Director Trey Edward Shults, who wrote, directed, produced and acts as Krisha's son, uses his family members and recombines them to tell the story of a Thanksgiving dinner from hell thanks to the arrival of this middle-aged woman whom the family views with condescension and very little patience. And for good reason. She abandoned her son, she's a drunk, and she is way too long in the tooth for her aimless, needy, self-indulgent antics. Her fragility belies an almost industrial-grade energy for self-sabotage. You know that when a humongous turkey is introduced, and she is in charge of it, things are going to go very, very wrong. Shults weaves this tale with equal doses of dark humor (not that the other family members are that sane), family horror, and true heartbreak. It's all somehow wonderfully cathartic.

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is fantastic as Miles Davis in this quirky, invented episode in the great trumpeter's life, which Cheadle himself directed and co-wrote. While I understand Cheadle's resistance to make this a conventional biopic, and his aim to capture Davis' unruly spirit (which he nails, here and there), the plot is too silly and it conspires against Cheadle's push to show Davis's anarchic side. Still, after this year's Oscars so white brouhaha, here's a very deserving performance.


Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's genre exercise in horror makes absolutely no sense and wastes an interesting premise (a touring rock band falls prey to a skinhead militia), in this tepid, arty slaughterhouse flick. There is no suspense, just dull spurts of mangled flesh. It's nicely shot and is peppered with dry humor but nothing is believable, much less the elegant Patrick Stewart, sporting his usual plummy British accent as the urbane leader of the neo-nazis.

The Invitation

A truly disquieting and unnerving movie that is undone by a mostly amateurish cast, The Invitation is a dark little tale of cultish obsession that takes place in the Hollywood Hills, a perfect little metaphor for the obsessive LA self-improvement culture. A couple is invited to dinner with old friends whom they haven't seen since a terrible loss happened. The evening turns out to be more than an innocent dinner party. Director Karyn Kusama displays a very good hand at making this evening as creepy and uncomfortable as possible. She is aided by the great John Carroll Lynch as a guest with a quietly menacing air, and by convincing performances by Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard and Lindsay Burdge as the hippie chick from hell. It's really too bad that the rest of the photogenic cast cannot muster the chops to make it feel like they've actually known each other for years. Still, the overall icky feeling and a fantastic twist at the end make it an interesting option among horror films.

Apr 6, 2016

Chus Lampreave: Spain's National Treasure.

Spain has given the world many wonderful things, among them Serrano ham, cañitas (the Spanish are the only people on Earth who know how to serve beer, in an ice-cold small glass), some soccer teams (I won't get into which), churros, paella, Picasso, tapas, Javier Bardem, Gaudí, etc.
But none is greater than the wonderful Chus Lampreave, a character actress and national treasure who appeared in many Spanish films, most notably Pedro Almodovar's, and who died recently at the age of 85.
Chus always looked like a little old lady and, for the most part, she played the part of the mom or the grandma: the traditional Spanish señora; in her incarnation, a folsky, no-nonsense everywoman. Almodovar gave her the most hilarious lines, and I can't imagine anyone delivering them better.
Her trademark is a mix of the oblivious and the stubbornly commonsensical.  She has no malice but she is never a pushover. It helps that she really looks like a sweet little old lady but then it turns out that she is very much in a league of her own, traditional but unsentimental, and completely true to herself. She has an unshakable, principled internal compass that makes complete sense, if mostly only to her.
There is a wonderful scene in What Have I Done to Deserve This where she is helping her grandson with his homework to identify who of the 19th-century authors on the kid's list is a romantic and who is a realist. She proceeds to tell him all the wrong answers, with the absolute conviction that she can just make shit up and no one will notice. At no point does she waver or give any inclination that she is winging it. She closes with a confident "See how easy it is?" Genius.

Her comic timing was more than impeccable. Sad for her loss, I turned to You Tube for clips of her performances. I think part of her hilarity comes from her uncanny ability to turn on a dime and completely change her mood without missing a beat  in a sentence, let alone in a scene. She goes from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond.
In The Flower Of My Secret, she fights with one of her daughters (Rossy De Palma, whom she hates) and then she turns to the other daughter (Marisa Paredes, whom she loves) and in the same breath talks to her with the utmost tenderness. This being Almodovar, they are having an argument about skinheads.
Chus: "I don't know what I did to the skinheads, you should see how they look at me".

She was a natural because she never intended to be an actress.  Yet she was one of the most memorable comedic character actors in film.
I always thought that she deserved a monument, a fountain in the middle of Madrid, her effigy in a postage stamp, a resplendent statue. She was adored and she will be missed.

Mar 19, 2016

The Clan

To paraphrase Tolstoi, all Latin American governments are corrupt, but each one is corrupt in its own way. And there is something particularly cold and cruel about the Argentinian moral rot as evidenced in this thoroughly disturbing film. This is one incredible and terrible true story.
This movie hinges on one central revelation and has a couple of surprising turns, so you may want to read the rest of this review after you see the film.
Arquímedes Puccio (the astounding Guillermo Francella) is a shady character who seems to have worked for the military in the days of the disappearances of thousands of innocent Argentinian civilians. When democracy is installed, he's out of a job, or needs to keep a low profile, so he finds a profitable occupation, which is to kidnap rich people for ransom.
But this is no mere criminal enterprise. He and his accomplices are aided, abetted and protected by a higher up in uniform that goes by the name of the Commodore. Trapero takes this lurid story and makes it into a potent fable about the unfathomable corruption that infects every aspect of his country. In this movie, except for one character, who eventually also chooses to look the other way, no one is blameless. As is typical of corruption, it's all about connections, favors owed and even blood ties. Everyone is enmeshed in filth.
I noticed that the characters invoked the word "patria" - fatherland - in the movie several times. This is no coincidence. The Clan is a story of toxic fatherhood. Mr. Puccio is not only a deadly father to his children, but he is the embodiment of the poisonous fatherland. The clan is not only his family; the clan is the vast network of people who collude with lawlessness. It's the social unit that greases the wheels of society. As in other Latin American films like Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero, the implication is that if you quietly assent, if you look the other way to maintain the status quo, you are not far from guilty.
In his rationalizations, Puccio represents the mentality of the Argentinian military fascists and their supporters, who truly believed they were protecting their country from communists, atheists, and radicals. He truly believes that the masterful manipulation and co-opting of his entire family (a wife, two daughters, and three young sons) to help him with his dirty job is for their benefit. Anyone who is not with him is an ungrateful traitor. He is the personalization of dictatorship.
Trapero dramatizes the conflict between his son Alex (Peter Lanzani), a gifted rugby player who is just starting his own life, and Puccio's designs, who like any sociopath, needs to spread his tentacles and coerce accomplices to be effective.
Puccio is cold and ruthless, and as attentive to his daughters as he is harsh and contemptous with his sons. He is a master of psychological abuse and manipulation. He is indifferent to Alex's triumphs and worse, he berates him and blames him when things go wrong. He is incapable of admitting weakness or error. He is undaunted in his arrogance. He seems to detest the kid but to make sure he doesn't lose his grip on his son, he gives him a ton of ransom money so he can open his own business. Once Alex accepts the reward, he has no choice but to keep participating. Puccio has absolute power. No one dares stand up to him. This is how corruption and amorality work.
I can't think of anything more despicable than collecting a ransom and murdering the victims anyway. But that is Puccio's M.O. He is a heartless liar. Because he is middle class and has sent his kids to tony schools and rugby clubs, he knows that no one will ever suspect him or his perfect family. He seems to relish making his extortion calls in broad daylight from very public phones. He kidnaps people he knows. He has no compunctions. But despite his extraordinary arrogance, there is one scene in which we realize he is a small fish in a big pond, and that there are bigger sharks to whom he owes everything. Like all such abusers of power, he is a nobody.
He seems to hate young people. He hates his son's youth and sense of possibility, the idea that he might have a different life from his deeply compromised existence. And in this, he reminds me of the dictatorship, which went after young Argentinians with a vengeance, because they had long hair, or listened to rock, because they were vulnerable to ideas of social justice or thought that they had a right to personal freedom. He seems to loathe what his son might become if he manages to get out from under his thumb and he does everything in his power to prevent this.
Francella gives the performance of a lifetime. He may very well be the worst father in the history of movies. He makes Darth Vader look like Bambi.
Trapero is best at exhibiting the psychology of this tyrant, who seems as acutely attuned to how to bend his family to his will as he is unaware of or unconcerned with the trauma he causes them. The rest of the characters are harder to understand. Perhaps this is deliberate. We still don't understand how ordinary Germans acquiesced to Hitler's raving hatred. Still, while I respect Trapero for not falling into the easy choice of making Alex into a rebel (that would be the American version), placing Alex as Puccio's direct antagonist begs for a more equal contest. Alex could be heroically passive aggresive or pathologically subservient. As is, he is weak and afraid and his father swallows him whole. By the time Alex reacts, it is shockingly late.
The script avoids exposition, letting the audience find out creepy details with subtle hints. For instance, Mrs. Puccio is a good housewife and apparently excellent cook who happens to be a schoolteacher. A schoolteacher! How perverted are things when the woman you entrust your children to is a willing accomplice to a kidnapper and a murderer? She is completely immoral. The hypocrisy of saying grace before a family meal when they have a victim screaming in the basement is one of the many ways in which Trapero shows the warped ideology of the far right.
The story is unbelievable. The aftermath to the story, told in titles in the closing credits, is as harrowing as the movie itself. The cast is excellent and the sense of moral gangrene is powerful.
But Trapero displays a heavy hand, particularly with a rock music soundtrack that distracts the audience from the lurid immediacy of the story. I understand that Trapero uses these songs to ground us in the period and provide some irony, but he should have trusted that the most bitter ironies are in the story. I also find it interesting that we go in expecting a thriller and we are faced with a very disturbing political fable, which in a way, is better.  But I wish that Trapero would have used a little more of the rigor and discipline of a thriller and less overwrought stylistic flourishes. Still, the horror is not in the suspense, but in the mindset of this Puccio monster and of the society that allows him to happen.