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.

Mar 11, 2016

Knight Of Cups

Oh, brother.
You know how they say that people who have everything are deeply unhappy? One, I'm afraid that's a ploy by the rich to elicit our sympathy and prevent us from throwing them all off a cliff. Two, who cares?
I rarely feel a movie is a waste of my time. Even the worst movies have teachable moments. But after the first hour of Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous yet Dramamine-requiring images, I started to feel like time was inexorably oozing out of my life with Terrence Malick's phony ode to rich white people's problems.
Now I know that I can happily sit and watch Christian Bale pace wordlessly around Los Angeles for the better part of an hour. But then a thought comes to mind. Why hire one of the greatest actors in the world if you are not going to give him anything to do or say? And why would anyone care about such a character? We know he works in Hollywood because he insists on wearing fancy suits to everything, including the sea, and the two inches of water in the Los Angeles River. This is that kind of movie, in which characters just stand in the middle of that fabled ditch as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
This is a movie in which rich white people show their joie de vivre by jumping fully clothed into swimming pools and/or the sea, as if ruining perfectly expensive clothes and the dry cleaning bill are of no concern to them. The women, all thin and beautiful, when not naked, wear gauzy long skirts to the beaches of L.A. And then they go into the sea with them. Not to die, which at least would be interesting. Just to carouse.
Does Christian Bale play a Hollywood agent? A movie star? An executive? The only reason that I know he plays a screenwriter is because I read it in another review. Do we see him slave away in front of a blank screen? Never.  It looks like he hasn't worked a day in his life. However, his glamorous ex-wife, (Cate Blanchett) seems to have absconded with their beautiful house but then we learn that she is a caring nurse in some godforsaken clinic in the bowels of L.A. Blanchett could be believable as the Great Wall Of China, but seeing her in expensive clothes and then wearing scrubs and touching lepers is a bit of a stretch.
Bale (I don't know the character's name; no one has a name in this movie) has an angry father (Brian Dennehy) and an even angrier brother (Wes Bentley) and he himself is haunted and morose most of the time. One wonders why these people are so aggrieved. They are white, rich, good looking and they live in sunny L.A.
Bale parties hard, fucks all the beautiful women, cruises around L.A. in a magnificent old convertible. What the hell is his problem? His problem is Terrence Malick, who instead of telling a story, paints a tone poem. Alas, there already exists a pretty nifty tone poem about L.A. It's called Mulholland Drive.
Now, there have been some great movies about Hollywood that ooze bile at the industry and what it does to writers, like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and the Coens' Barton Fink, or Robert Altman's The Player and David Lynch's aforementioned nightmare. Knight Of Cups is not in this hallowed group.
It is too aimless and generic. Yes, the industry is full of greedy bastards and the glitz of entertainment hides unfathomable depths of depravity. Yes, rampant capitalism is decadent and unfair, but, a) tell us something we don't know and b) if you find it so distasteful, why give it so much taste? Knight of Cups is like the In Style magazine version of a Hollywood apocalypse. People party but there is not a drug in sight, they fuck with their clothes on. Their biggest sin is vapidity.
This is Malick's L.A. movie, and once in a while the camera sweeps into the vast, manicured emptiness, the lights of Sunset Boulevard, or down to skid row, where Bale and his brother go slumming for no apparent reason. L.A. looks great but there have been sharper, better L.A. movies. One look at the L.A. River and one really pines for Chinatown.
To make matters more ridiculous, the narrative structure is based on tarot cards, with each card representing a facet of the life of this guy, a rather sophomoric concept. Kudos go to the three editors who not only did a beautiful job with Chivo's swaying camera moves, but who also managed to weave a more or less coherent narrative. In The Tree Of Life Malick was somehow able to marry his spiritual ideas to a simple story of a beautiful family with an angry, distant dad. But this time the conceit feels shoehorned to the milieu. Judging Hollywood or the entertainment industry calls for articulation, irony, preciseness. This movie has no sense of humor, no wit, it's nothing but pretentious mystical bullshit, like a dead serious version of Entourage -- something no one wants to see.
And it goes on forever.
It most resembles a mystical Lifestyles of The Rich And Famous, or, if you are into interior decorating, a catalog of premium real estate properties in Los Angeles. Either way, it's an utter waste of time. And what's with the Jewish music?

Feb 28, 2016

The Witch

With the words "A New England Folktale", director-writer Robert Eggers sends us into a world of potent archetypal imagery that slowly and effectively creeps under our skin. A devout man (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a community of Puritan settlers and they move to the edge of ominously looming woods. Soon weird things start happening. But they are not the sort of weird things we're used to in horror movies. This is not about ghosts or haunted houses. It's about the ancient iconography of evil and in particular of witches, which were all the rage in 17th century New England.
The family is vulnerable to evil for several reasons. Although concrete reasons are not given, the father is expelled from the community because of the sin of pride. Apparently, he feels these people are not pious enough. He looks like a dead ringer for Jesus Christ, which is no accident. He may be devout but it turns out that, as most people, he is human and prone to deception. More dangerously, he has a lovely young daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is becoming a woman, and so she is vulnerable to be a conduit for evil. She is the very image of purity and does nothing remotely inculpating, yet horrible things happen around her. The movie lays bare the raw symbolism of the idea of witches, which has to do with the fear of female power, from virginal purity, to ripe seduction and wrinkled old age.
I kept thinking, "these are the people who founded this country": inordinately righteous, and superstitious, prone to mass hysteria on account of their obsession with the devil. They are not too different from the speaking in tongues evangelicals who try to impose their judgmental worldview on everybody else today. But this is not really a movie about politics. The most original aspect of The Witch is that it is about a system of beliefs and a set of myths and symbols that we have almost forgotten, but that took hold of people's consciences, imaginations, and their subconscious minds for centuries. Nowadays, the powerful images of folk tales trickle down to us in watered down and almost comical horror movie tropes, or have been defanged by the likes of Walt Disney, who stripped them of their powerful sexual and psychological connotations and rendered them in pastel colors. Eggers brings back the originals with a vengeance.
Is Thomasine a witch or not? She protests her innocence at every turn, but she also exudes a quality of mischief and sensuality that could well be a sign of perfidy. She has lustful, or at least, troubled dreams and in a pivotal scene, she acts rather seductively towards Caleb, her younger brother (the excellent Harvey Scrimshaw). She is not ashamed of her beauty and her growing power, and these may be subtle but undeniable signs of her corruption. According to Christian beliefs, the way the devil works is by shifting shapes and taking the appearance of goodness. We don't really know because Eggers sticks to the ambiguity of whether she is a witch who orchestrates chaos, or she is a pure, innocent creature who is the victim of very bad mojo.
If the movie takes its time establishing the daily life of the family, the moment bad things happen, they increase gradually to a bizarre pitch. But nothing is predictable and shocks do not come at set intervals, which is wonderfully unnerving. One of the most unsettling, if not downright scary scenes, involves a possession that makes the one in The Exorcist look like a cheesy Vegas extravaganza.
And the use of metaphor is beautiful. As he writhes in demonic possession, Caleb vomits, not day-glo green bile but a fully formed apple, an ancient symbol of sin.
If you know your iconography of evil, the sight of Black Philip, a horned goat, is a dead giveaway that the devil has made itself at home. Because it is a folk tale, everything is metaphor: the woods, Thomasin, a rabbit, an apple, the father. But because it is a movie, it feels real and it plays with our sense of reality. Are supernatural things happening, or are these the visions and dreams of an impressionable Thomasine? Is the family in the clutches of mass hysteria?
In most horror movies, at the end of the scare fest order is restored, goodness wins the day, or the door is left open for a sequel. This is one of the few horror movies that doesn't end with a return to normalcy. This is very unsettling, not only because evil is triumphant, but because it makes us notice how inured we are to overused storytelling clichés.
The Witch is subtlely creepy. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is beautiful, with only candlelight or natural light throughout, and the use of ominous camera pans works its scary magic.
If I have qualms, they are that perhaps Eggers is a little too obsessed with authenticity and that the characters speak with accents that are hard to understand. Although the music by Mark Korven is applied mostly effectively, there is a moment at the beginning where it stacks the deck unnecesarily. And some of the motivational cogs of the plot were not clear to me. But Eggers has a firm grasp on creating powerful, disturbing imagery. He understands that this archetypal imagery is very basic, but that's where its power lies. I was very impressed with the costume design, with the coarseness and cut of the clothes, and it turns out that prior to this, he was a costume and production designer. This is a very solid debut feature.