Sep 6, 2017

The Teacher

A suspenseful, maddening exploration of the effects corruption and abuse of power have on society, this mordant, uncannily relevant fable directed by Jan Hrebejk and superbly written by Peter Jarchovsky is about a school teacher (the fantastic Zuzana Maurery) in communist Czechoslovakia and how she uses her position as head of the communist party at school to demand favors from her pupils' parents. It is a detailed and accurately observed psychological portrait of a corrupt, petty functionary with a little power and how she grows it into a cancer from which no one is immune.
You know something is not right when she arrives the first day of class and asks the children to introduce themselves and tell her what their parents do for a living. She writes all the info in a little notebook.
Soon she is getting free haircuts from a mother in exchange for letting her daughter know the answers for exams in advance, demanding that parents do illegal things for her, and generally treating the children like her own personal serfs.  It starts with little favors (smuggling cake into the Soviet Union, for instance) and ends with not so veiled threats and actual psychological harm to the children. One plump person representing a small franchise of state power is capable of fraying the fabric of society.
I couldn't help but think of Trump, who exhibits similar traits to the teacher (although she is much more adroit): both are desperately needy of universal attention, both are phonies, ruthless and completely immoral, only serving their own interests; both are cruel, petty, vindictive, needy, and pathetic. The movie demonstrates how the bad example of someone in a position of authority is enough to empower the worst in people. The teacher mercilessly mocks one of the students (whose parents won't give in to her demands) and next thing we know her classmates start bullying her, just like Trump with his alt-right groupies.
Watching this teacher whine incessantly about how hard and lonely it is to be a widow, I had a realization that sentimentality is evil. Tyrants use sentimentality to manipulate people into abdicating their integrity. All totalitarians are great sentimentalists: they destroy by humiliation and perform their phony pieties with great drama. Kitschy displays of patriotism, such as national prayer days, are examples of insidious sentiment. Just look at Trump, a sadist who whines about unfairness and demonizes those who "persecute" him, like the media.
Maurery plays the teacher with a combination of patronizing sweetness and ruthless cunning. She acts like everyone's idea of a teacher, warm, caring and inexhaustibly didactic. However, she doesn't really teach squat. Propaganda, in the form of a hilariously inappropriate bodice ripping fantasy about a soldier, is what comes out of her mouth in class.
The movie goes back and forth between the situation in the classroom to an extraordinary meeting between the parents and the director of the school (who looks like a deer caught in the headlights, scared of her own authority). That's where we see who is made of what: the collaborationists, the apologists, those who don't want to rock the boat, the privileged judge who tries to intimidate the handful of outraged parents to drop the investigation.  In the end, all parents want what's best for their children, and in the case of this communist society, having good grades means being catapulted to a better position in life (just as having a wife who defects to the West gets you demoted from scientist to window cleaner).
The movie feeds our outrage slowly but sharply, with many bitter, ironic twists and a faux happy ending. People can win small victories against corruption at great personal cost, but abuse of power is indestructible.

Jul 2, 2017

The Beguiled

I saw the original Don Siegel movie with Clint Eastwood when I was in my teens and I was deeply disturbed by Geraldine Page's Miss Martha, headmistress of a boarding school for girls during the American Civil War. I'm pretty sure I didn't understand squat, but I could still sense that beneath her steely demeanor there was something very perverse going on. I have yet to see it again, but in the meantime, I cannot fathom why Sofia Coppola was given the best director prize at Cannes for her remake this year, unless for shameless tokenism.
I guess that Coppola wanted to retell this bizarre sexual cat and mice tale through the female gaze, an idea with enormous potential. I can imagine what a gritty, ruthless filmmaker like Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga) could do with this material.
Alas, Coppola's effete version is neither atmospheric, nor claustrophobic, nor creepy, nor disturbing, nor suspenseful, nor horrific, nor particularly interesting. It takes a lot of pointless effort to strip a Southern Gothic of camp and charisma, but that's what happens. Her actresses went to great lengths to perfect their genteel Southern accents, but none of them seem to have any concept of what it felt like to be from the South, and what that war meant to their world of cotillions and slaves. There is no real sense of loss, or humiliation, not even after Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, miscast and misdirected) explains that her school once used to be a grand old antebellum mansion. No effort is made to impress on the audience what it meant for a woman alone to take on that job: much-diminished circumstances. There is no hunger for the world, no desperation. Instead, it all looks and feels like a Laura Ashley catalog. Coppola is not invested in psychological motivation, or in ambiguity. Hence, the reaction of the women at the arrival of a handsome wounded Yankee soldier is completely superficial. It's desire lite.
Now, if a wounded enemy soldier (the vulnerable, wounded male, an object of female fantasies since time immemorial) shows up at a secluded boarding school for girls in bloom and this soldier happens to be Clint Eastwood, people of all genders will understand how this could wreak havoc in all those straitlaced young bosoms. Had it been Michael Fassbender, that school would have exploded in a ball of fire the moment he crawled through the door. But Coppola makes the mistake of giving the honors to Colin Farrell, who is simply not worth the trouble. To be fair to him and to the rest of the good actors in this movie, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst (excellent), Elle Fanning and a gaggle of solid young actresses, it's not their fault. They have only been instructed to play the top note, and this story is all about the murky notes at the bottom, what oozes beneath those stuffy crinolines, what really flutters in the women's wildest hearts.

Wonder Woman

Deftly directed by Patty Jenkins, this DC Comics installment could use at least half an hour less of fights and a little more feminism. Having said this, and considering it's a superhero franchise, it's quite enjoyable. It is the rare movie with a good second act, and that is because we get to see Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (the wondrous Gal Gadot) swoon over pilot Steve Trevor (the very game Chris Pine) and be flummoxed by the ways of humans at the turn of the 20th century.
All I could think was that if Gadot and Pine were to have a child, it would be the most beautiful baby in the world. I also wanted to see them make that baby right then and there. No such luck. All we get is a hasty kiss, but there is plenty of witty flirty repartee, like in the classic Hollywood films of yore, and it works.
This movie, the first female-led superhero film in more than a decade, and the first one ever directed by a woman, was still written by three guys, and it makes charming, yet not enough fun of old-fashioned (read Edwardian) male attitudes about women, which haven't changed all that much. The joke is that Diana, who is an Amazon and grew up with fierce women warriors, is innocent of the ways of men, but so much less constrained and prudish than her human counterparts. But the script misses many opportunities to explore our gender issues. Perhaps the guys were afraid of focusing on what guys would focus, which is that she is physically spectacular (believe me, girls focus just as much - that's what superheroes in tight costumes are for). An invading army of Germans suddenly confronts a bunch of flying women in gladiator-wear and none of them even blink. They just keep shooting. Diana flies over enemy territory and the enemy treats her like another piece of ordnance. This makes no sense.
Gadot is very good in her quiet moments, when she doesn't understand why women wear corsets that are not armor, or why generals send millions to their deaths from the comfort of their chairs instead of going to battle. She is less convincing in more dramatic scenes, but she and Pine have great chemistry, without which this movie would be a total waste.
Her mother, played by Connie Nielsen, and aunt, played by Robin Wright, have accents as if they just got off the boat from a shtetl somewhere, and I assume that this was done perhaps to blend in with Gadot's negligible Israeli accent. Or perhaps the screenwriters decided that the Amazons were Ashkenazi Jews, which is perfectly fine by me. Who better to give the Germans grief?
At this point, it's clear that barring Steven Spielberg or John Woo, no one can stage coherent, let alone thrilling, action sequences anymore. There are so many digital effects that one cannot find one's bearings in the frame. Add to that an epically horrid music score (by Rupert Gregson-Williams, but could be anyone else) and super loud sound effects, and by the end, you feel you've been run over by a train. Jenkins fares well with one sequence where Diana braves the trenches in WWI. But all this over the top mayhem made me pine for truly riveting action such as the chases in The French Connection, with two cars in Queens and two guys in the subway.
Still, it's fun to see the Amazons leaping on air and kicking ass, and I loved that Diana uses her lasso and her chunky bracelets as weapons. Men being men, they use ammo.
I also loved seeing a woman with superhuman strength. I was thrilled when she picked up a tank and hurled it as if it were yesterday's undies into the hamper. One of my chief complaints about comic book movies that have female protagonists is that the women basically behave like men. At least here, Diana is a woman. She thinks and fights like a woman (that is, if we had wonder bracelets and iridescent lassos and krav maga experts for our relatives). She loves babies, cares for people and, in one of the best scenes, swoons over ice cream.
However, if someone steals the show, it's the wonderful Lucy Davis, as Etta, Steve's secretary. She nails the comic relief with great charm. I was also happy to see Danny Huston and David Thewlis not phone it in, like many great thespians could be tempted to do when acting against a green screen. Huston rather hams it up. Thewlis just brings it.
I was bored to death by the parts designed to please the guys, and very happy with the love story, the banter, the jokes and the quiet moments. Does this make me a chick?

Mar 31, 2017

Get Out

Or now you know how black people really feel about white people. This very funny and quite scary movie written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele is a feat of tonality. It can't be easy to make a scary movie funny, and a funny movie scary, but Peele achieves both. Even more admirable than funny and scary is how disturbing and polemical the movie aims to be.
The plot, which has no holes -- rare for a horror movie -- is simple: Rose, a white girl (the very game Allison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents (the great Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), somewhere deep in leafy, tranquil suburbia. Peele's hypothesis, which is shared by Chris's trepidation but not by Rose's enthusiasm, is that nothing good can come of that.
If you happen to be black, merely walking through the most bucolic white suburb can be fraught with menace. Rose talks back to a police officer in a way that could get her boyfriend tasered, beaten to a pulp, shot, or all of the above, and the officer just lets her go. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.
And then you have the well-meaning white people. They, and this is one of the movie's sharpest jabs, are the ones to worry about. Because Black people know where you stand if you are a wearer of white sheets. But if you are a hippyish wealthy liberal who insists on hugging you and saying "my man" every three words, they may not be so sure.
I once went to a Christmas brunch in a wealthy town in upstate New York and the white people there made the party guests in Get Out seem like a bunch of hippies. I have never felt more out of place anywhere, but that's another story. Peele gets it right, from their terrible Talbots outfits to their clueless, condescending bonhomie which includes an unhealthy obsession about Black male athletic and sexual prowess. Worse, the two Black people employed by Rose's parents (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson, both great) are docile, polite servants, incapable of opinion or volition, let alone rebellion. There is something weird about them. It is later on that we realize with horror what that is.
Peele brilliantly translates racial issues into the tropes of a horror film. Horror films are about our deepest subconscious fears. This begs the question as to why nobody has explored the subject of American racism through horror before. Does it hit too close to home? Get Out certainly does, and that's what makes it so successful. Its multiple layers of satire work in parallel with the racial terror.
If the first part of the movie is about the frisson of social racial discomfort, the second part leaps into the horror scenario. This is symbolic, psychological territory that posits that Black lives may not matter to white people who continue to see black people as expendable property, regardless of how liberal they pretend to be. It's inflammatory, and I would say, timely and necessary stuff, which Peele leavens with a hilarious subplot involving a T.S.A. agent (the magnificent LilRel Howery).
To Peele's credit, the plot has no groaners. A big chunk of exposition explains why bad things happen to Chris, and there's a convenient coincidence, but everything is deftly handled through humor and solid plotting, and it works dramatically. Everything that is set up at the beginning is paid off neatly at the end. And you do not see the twists coming.
But what stays with you is the feeling of something deeply awry, of being all alone and out of place, of not really connecting with anybody, of having to decode and let pass all the crazy, uncomfortable stuff people say to you. Have you ever been in a house in the middle of nowhere in which you cannot connect, nor have anything in common with the people in it? That in itself is a horror. Is this a metaphor for how it feels like to live in America when you're Black? This movie is full of such potent, accurate metaphors.
There have been complaints that the movie is anti-white, but people need to get a hold of themselves. It's a broad satire that doesn't pull any punches. Get Out is a funny but seriously provocative polemic about race relations in America, cleverly disguised as entertainment.

Feb 3, 2017

The Salesman

The new movie by the extraordinary Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi is nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar and won the Best Screenplay and Best Actor prizes at Cannes.
Farhadi's movies are about middle-class Iranians and how they go about navigating their lives in a country that seems to be stifled by state-imposed traditional values. In A Separation, a couples' divorce drama unleashes a ripple effect that seems to destabilize everyone around them.
In the masterful About Elly, a woman tells a little white lie that leads to tragedy. In The Salesman, something more violent is at work, but Farhadi's preoccupation is the same: how an oppressed society handles the pressure. Somehow he manages to get past the censors; except for a judge in A Separation, he never shows the authorities. He doesn't need to. He shows what happens when people have to live by their rules. People exercise self-censorship, talk in euphemisms, lie and omit things constantly. It's the only way to steer clear of absolute judgment.
Farhadi is a great writer of suspense, but his movies are not about criminals and detectives. They are about family and society. Going into his stories is like unraveling a thread in a very complicated maze. We become detectives. Like the characters, we find out things because of telling details, off-hand remarks, neighbors' gossip. That's because anyone rarely says anything directly.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini, excellent) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, who should have won Best Actress), are married actors who are starring in a modest production of Arthur Miller's "Death of A Salesman". That is, they are sophisticated and cultured. One day, Rana is attacked in her own home. She refuses to go to the police. In this, she may be no different from any victim of sexual assault in this country who fears that she will be treated like the instigator. But the sense of shame pervades everything and everyone. Even her own husband, who is a beloved teacher and who loves her, lords patriarchally over her, is so ashamed himself, that he can't even bear to ask her directly, as she can't bear to answer. The words "rape", or "assault", are never uttered. The fact that she left her door open -- an innocent, terrible mistake, can be misconstrued not only by the police and the courts but by family and friends as some sort of personal depravity on her part. So Emad takes things into his own hands and for the most part of the movie we watch as this couple cannot bring themselves to confront what happened head on. He's full of controlled rage, she is traumatized, and their inability to come together in truth threatens to dissolve their marriage.
Farhadi posits that in such a culture everything is a mystery, and since people go to great lengths to avoid the law (not because they did something wrong but because they fear its intransigence) they get into terrible moral dilemmas. They are on their own. What the state seems to demand from citizens, unattainable personal virtue, becomes a show, an intricate performance rife with euphemistic codes of conduct that people must interpret constantly. And we're talking about perfectly decent people. In order to appear virtuous, mainstream citizens have to lie. Because human relationships are messy and human beings are fallible, everyone is somehow suspect.
The opening scene takes place in an apartment building that is being evacuated. It is on the brink of collapse. Are we at war? Has there been an earthquake? Farhadi pans almost demurely to a bulldozer next door, ripping the earth out from under the escaping citizens. If that is not a concentrated metaphor for man-made hubris, I don't know what is.
Then for the next two hours, as Emad and Rana find a new apartment through the benefaction of an actor friend (beware of people who volunteer favors), we are immersed in a moral whodunnit of which the revelation is a complete shocker.  Once we get past the shock, there is more in store for us; two or three astounding moral twists that make us question our own capacity for judgment, mercy and retribution. They are truly shocking, for they are truly human.