Nov 28, 2016

Nocturnal Animals


A stylish mess. Amy Adams is wasted in a rudderless role in this modern noir by Tom Ford about a wealthy woman who has everything and is deeply unhappy. She lives in a modernist box in the Hollywood Hills, has a penchant for terrible performance art, has a handsome, unconcerned husband (Armie Hammer) and gets a manuscript in the mail from her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a poor sap) in which he has novelized what she did to him before she married the millionaire.
As she reads the book, we go back and forth from her slick, empty existence to a garish American Gothic tale of violence. The elements of the plot of this film have far more promise than Ford knows what to do with and what could be a satisfying blackhearted noir about revenge with a strong femme fatale is a clumsy study in empty artificiality. Perhaps the structure is what dooms the film. If everything important happens either in the past or in a book, there's no momentum and no suspense. A femme fatale who mopes and reads is not necessarily the most compelling plot device. Compounding the problem, the pulpy novel doesn't seem to be very good. Its opening scenes are patently absurd, but it gets better as it goes along. In fact, it gets immeasurably better the moment Michael Shannon shows up as the sheriff of a sleepy dump in Texas where Edward, the protagonist of the novel (also Gyllenhaal) and his family get singled out for abuse by evil local yokels that look like runway models in a Tom Ford fashion show. The main meanie is played by a dramatically miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who despite his best mugging is completely unconvincing as evil in cowboy boots.
Shannon is by far the best thing this film has going for it. The movie feels like a mannequin challenge that comes alive only when Shannon is in the frame. He inhabits his character as cozily as someone wears a pair of faded jeans. He also looks like the only one who's having fun. Everything else is stiff and ersatz and more than mildly ridiculous.
The second best thing is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, which makes Los Angeles dark and brackish and lights the flats of Texas with its own dramatic sunlight. You can enjoy this film for the way it looks and sounds (fabulous fashions, a lush noirish score by Abel Korzeniowsky), but it desperately needs more.
It's hard to waste and misdirect an actress of Adams's caliber, but Ford doesn't give her character dimension, so Adams flounders, still finding some good moments, but unable to bring into focus the person she plays. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal is saddled with the thankless role of playing someone who doesn't fight back. His moment of glory comes offscreen. The ending is also about the best part of the movie and saves it from being completely absurd.

Nov 17, 2016

Elle


I'm curious about the response this provocative film on rape by Paul Verhoeven could generate on American university campuses. Would it be studied or banned? No trigger warning or safe space may be enough to handle this movie, which unlike other movies about rape, resists the pull of moralizing, educating, or representing victimization with well-worn tropes.
Elle is a curious, well-made psychological thriller that aims to provoke discussion by teasing out the twisted psychology of its characters. It's a rape revenge fantasy only in the most literal sense of the word; it also happens to be a rape fantasy of sorts. It's a movie about trauma and its consequences, which has at its center a most unlikely anti-heroine.
In this story, which takes place among the well-heeled in Paris, rape is a trauma that becomes some sort of a game. After all, trauma and games both involve degrees of ritualistic repetition. Michele, (Isabelle Huppert) a rich, successful woman, has some gnarly psychological issues related to parental abuse when she was young. She is a victim that has empowered herself to survive and triumph in a terrible world, which in a way it's its own revenge. We discover through her contradictory behavior that she may still be reenacting her traumas. Michele has survived a horrific past and when violence returns to her life, she falls into its spell once again.
It stands to reason that if a character is played by Isabelle Huppert, no one should expect a fragile wallflower. She is an expert on women who piss ice water. It's not a coincidence that Michele happens to own a video game company where young men create violent, misogynistic videos. She is harsh to her mother, to her son, to her employees, even to her best friend and business partner (Anne Consigny). She exerts control by keeping everyone at bay, but she is also curiously compliant - she balances such behavioral extremes with ovaries of steel.
Somehow, La Huppert manages to make Michele sympathetic, not only because we see her survive a violent attack and, as the story unspools, we are made aware of her past, but because she makes bold choices and her unflinching honesty is both chilling and funny. She is an alluring enigma, wielding power while oozing contempt in some situations, and acting like a docile child in others. Her idea of love is writing checks to family members as she berates them with snark, being irrationally jealous of her ex-husband's younger girlfriend, and punishing her lover by acquiescing to bad sex. Michele has a dark sense of humor and takes to her own recovery from old and new traumas with methodical, steely resolve. She refuses to be a victim. She is in fact, what some males call a strong, powerful woman: the personification of the C-word. Her contradictions make her a fascinating anti-hero.
I can't think of any other movie where a female rape victim is not a conventional heroine or a martyr. Elle presents an alternative narrative to our culture's discourse around rape. It brings out in the open perverse stuff that probably only gets discussed in the sanctity of the therapist's office. Getting off on rape is not the response we are conditioned to expect from victims. It is a huge taboo.
Some people may find this movie objectionable, but I would counsel them to keep an open mind. Michele's story is unique to her and her behavior is as singular as her fingerprints (although she is probably not the only person in the world with these issues). Elle is based on a novel by Phillipe Djiann, and it presents the many compartments of Michele's world: her home life, work, French society, the media, the internet. The Catholic Church lurks heavily in the sidelines, its hypocrisy shrouding and abetting some tortured souls. We even get to imagine the motivations of her rapist. A peek into Michele's predicament is like falling down the rabbit-hole of respectability and finding a bottomless pit where human pain and desire swirl in a repetitive cycle of violence.

Watching the staccato pacing, the well-crafted editing, the spryness, scope and deftly handled development of the story (from an excellent screenplay by David Birke), I was reminded that Verhoeven was once a talented, competent director who made the original Robocop (a good movie) and Total Recall (not bad), but then went on to make trashy movies like Basic Instinct and legendary clunkers like Showgirls and Starship Troopers. That this is his most mature film is an understatement. Though he still gets off on violence, and stages it well, he seems to be better at orchestrating complex chamber pieces with many moving parts, like this one, than bombastic, digitally enhanced spectacles. Elle is an extremely engaging, even entertaining film that grapples with a thorny sexual theme without giving the audience any definite, let alone comforting, answers.

Nov 7, 2016

Moonlight


Watching the first scene of this movie by Barry Jenkins, where Chiron, a scrawny black kid, runs from a bunch of bullies and hides in an abandoned property, panting in despair, I realized that there are no movies that feature black children as protagonists (except for the last version of Annie). This means that black kids never see themselves on the big screen, and not all that much on TV either.
If you are not white, you may grow up without ever seeing yourself onscreen. A gay black friend told me that this is the first time he saw himself represented. No movie until now had ever reflected his reality. This is tragic.
In this respect, Moonlight is important and remarkable, as it tells the story of the painful blossoming of Chiron, also nicknamed "Little", into a young gay black man, in three chapters: as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man. The critical and popular success of this movie will hopefully open doors for similar untold stories.
As is true of other movies with homosexual themes aimed at mainstream audiences, like Brokeback Mountain or Carol, Moonlight portrays Chiron's sexual awakening tastefully and tenderly. Jenkins has a fine cast, including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and André Holland, who are all excellent, and displays a sensitive, empathetic touch.
However, his self-conscious style gets in the way. He tries to elevate material that doesn't need elevating by using too many long and pregnant pauses every time characters speak, and camera work that calls attention to itself instead of deepening our understanding of the characters and their world. The script is rather thin and the characters are not detailed enough. The pacing is slow (not in a good way) and the film lacks detail and texture.
In "Little", the best part of the movie, Chiron gets rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and the boy refuses to go back home, adopting Juan as his father figure. So it is a surprise when we see that his home situation is not as hellish as what we imagined (aided no doubt by a cinematic diet of nightmarish inner city tropes). Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris) seems to keep it together at first, but then at some point she loses her way, and it is never clear exactly why. We can surmise that it's because her life is hard, but a lot of black women go through similarly hard lives and they don't all fall through the cracks. What happened to her in particular? Why is Juan such a wise and tolerant drug dealer? Since the characters are drawn in very broad strokes, these choices feel arbitrary.
At the center of this film is a shy and withdrawn character and, except when played as a child by the intense Alex R. Hibbert, Jenkins does not know how to make him compelling, besides the fact that poor Chiron is having a hard time being who he is. Except for a couple of strong moments where Chiron shows quiet, determined agency as a boy and as a teen, his character feels like a big void in the middle of the movie.
Spike Lee has made highly stylized movies that actually bring the world he portrays to life. Jenkins' self-conscious aesthetic approach feels forced and a tad self-indulgent.
How can a filmmaker portray the real lives of African-Americans in tough neighborhoods without it feeling like we've seen it a million times before? The drug dealers in the corner, the ravaged crackheads, they may all be true to life, but they have also become clichés. The only way to make them authentic is by filling in the context with specificity of character.
Am I the only person that feels that the erotic element could have been stronger? Jenkins handled the sex scene extremely well because it is moving, almost heartbreaking, and erotic how repressed these young men are. But then the thought crossed my mind that since black male sexuality is such a charged topic in American culture, and gay sex is off the charts, let alone black gay sex, he could have made more daring choices. This is how Moonlight reminds me of films like Carol and Brokeback Mountain, which opt for exquisite tastefulness in their quest to find and reassure as wide an audience as possible. Nothing wrong with this, and I don't blame Jenkins, as sex in general is literally absent from American movies, but it's food for thought.
Is Moonlight the year's best movie, as A.O Scott asks in his review? Not in my view. It is an uneven film that bounces from superficial, clichéd tropes to truly memorable and powerful moments in an underdeveloped screenplay.
Is it an important and necessary film that may open the doors to the stories of people who have been ignored by American movies for far too long? Absolutely.


Oct 26, 2016

American Pastoral


I find Ewan McGregor utterly charming and I was rooting for his first directing foray, of American Pastoral, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Alas, pretty much everything goes awry: bad casting, a stiff script, and an equally stiff directorial job.
McGregor plays Seymour "The Swede" Levov, a Jewish Wunderman: a legendary athlete, blond, and blue-eyed all-American Jew in the fifties. He marries a non-Jewish beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and seems to have an idyllic life. His daughter Merry (a very good Dakota Fanning) has a stutter and soon reveals a subversive streak. As her therapist intimates in the movie, being the spawn of perfection (athlete + beauty queen) must be hard. She is a teenager in the late 60s, outraged by the war in Vietnam and seduced by revolutionaries. She bombs a post office and destroys her parents' lives.
It's a great story, but in the translation to film much has been lost, mainly sharpness of observation, and other details that make the characters complicated. Philip Roth revels in human contradiction, to say the least, but this movie is too prim.
As with Natalie Portman's directorial debut and other movies by actors, being a good actor has nothing to do with being a good director. Directors bring scripts to life and make them look real and authentic. This is very hard to do. The scenes in American Pastoral feel lifeless, even though the actors are all doing their utmost. The pace is not glacial; there's no pace. It's dispiriting since it is obviously a serious effort.
People of color complain of whitewashing in movies. I think Jews can be added to the mix. You don't necessarily have to be Jewish to play a Jew, but it adds authenticity. McGregor is a good actor but he ain't Jewish or from Newark, no matter how blond his hair or blue his eyes. Liev Schreiber could be a better fit for the role. David Strathairn is too virtuous for the role of Nathan Zuckerman, narrator and Roth's alter ego. Except for the great Peter Riegert as The Swede's dad, the whole thing feels ersatz. Stories where people age dramatically are tricky, and the makeup job here is unconvincing. There's a scene at the beginning of the movie between Strathairn and an actor who is obviously a much younger man caked with old man makeup. It's hard to get invested in the story with such distractions.
However, one scene packs a punch. A young, arrogant revolutionary brat called Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) tells Levov that she knows where Merry is hiding. Rita screams at Seymour all the terrible things she assumes he is: a bourgeois pig, an all-star bully, his wife a vapid beauty queen; his family of glove makers, exploiters of the workers. None of it is remotely true. The ease with which ideology paints people with a wide brush comes alive in this exchange. It's good shorthand for the awful combination of youthful arrogance and dogmatism, for the simplistic zeal of revolutionaries, and for a chasm of incomprehension between generations that has not been as keenly felt at any other time in American history as it was in that turbulent period.
American Pastoral, is, among other things, about the tension between the desire to be generic (Jews who yearned to assimilate seamlessly into the American dream when that dream erupted in flames) and their impossibility to be generic. This film version is a generic movie that defeats its own purpose.

Oct 24, 2016

The Handmaiden



Sumptuous, perverse and exquisite, The Handmaiden, by Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), is one of my favorite movies this year -- a big, bold tale, the story of an epic swindle, a Chinese box of plot twists and a refreshingly compelling erotic story with a feminist streak.  
Holding such disparate strands together is an heroic if not an impossible task, but director Park tells the intricate story with humor, suspense, feeling, and finesse. 
The excellent screenplay is by Park and Seo-Kyung Chung, based on a novel by Sarah Waters, which has been transposed from Victorian England to Japan-occupied Korea. 
In 1930's Korea, a con man pretends to be a Japanese count in order to woo a beautiful, rich Japanese woman into marriage and then abscond with her money. For that purpose, he plants a young swindler to be the lady's servant and convince her fall for him. That nothing goes as planned is an understatement. As the story unspools amid ravishing beauty, we learn that nothing is what it seems. 
This is the story of a major con, told in three parts, from the point of view of each of the main characters. The second chapter is a retelling of the first but from the point of view of a different character. Watching the same scenes from a different point of view adds enormous richness and amusement to our understanding of the story.
But it is also the story of strong women controlled by a male-dominated system. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is the niece of a cruel and perverse man who is obsessed with books (it turns out that his obsession is not as healthy as it seems), and her handmaiden Tamako is also controlled by a crook. The women seem to be pawns in the designs of these men, but they are strong and willful and they can see which way the wind blows. They are the main characters and they imagine a different narrative for their destinies. 
What makes the movie delicious are the revelations that Park keeps coming at the audience, which for the most part, are truly surprising. At almost two hours and a half, the film is enormously entertaining and holds you in its spell. The entire movie is an elaborate tease. I usually have no patience for movies that tease the audience, but The Handmaiden is as much about keeping the audience on our toes as it is about revealing deeper insights. What is more precious than money? What is true knowledge? Can you really control someone else? Best laid plans can be crushed by the unpredictable forces of love and desire. At the same time, I am grateful for a film that does not have a moral agenda or an important message to impart, but for the satisfying delight of a good yarn, well told. 
Nowadays, it's rare to find a decent film that has a powerful erotic element. But in The Handmaiden the sex works. In contrast to a movie like Blue Is The Warmest Color, where the sex scenes became porno tableaus disembodied from the rest of the story, here the lovers bring their characters to the erotic action. What we know about them helps make the scenes a necessary part of the story, casting light or shadows on the characters, depending on whose point of view we are looking at. 
Park is known for his notoriously violent movies like Oldboy, and he can't restrain himself from showing a bit of grisly torture towards the end. However, he has a prodigious visual imagination and the movie is not only gorgeous in its cinematography and production design, but in how confidently Park tells the story with images.