Feb 3, 2016

The Club

Pablo Larrain, the Chilean poet laureate of cinematic discomfort, is back with a movie about the Catholic church that makes Spotlight seem like a stroll in Disneyland.
After the unusually lighthearted No, the final part of his political trilogy about Chile, Larrain sets his sights on a highly disturbing parable about the unyielding power of the Catholic church. The film takes place in a remote coastal town, in a house that shelters a group of ex-priests and one chillingly devoted nun. They seem good natured enough, almost sitcom material: the one who is devoted to his greyhound, the one who drinks too much, the one who may (conveniently) not have all his marbles in place, the nice, caring nun. Turns out they are basically living under Catholic house arrest. This house is where the church has put them out to pasture for their different sins, or, as we call them in civil society, crimes, all having to do with their abuse of power. As we learned in Spotlight, this is the church's M.O.: when it's not sending criminal priests to devastate unsuspecting parishes, it sequesters them in houses and pays their keep for life.
Life at "the club" is uneventful until people start showing up, as truth is wont to do. First, they have to welcome a new member, another priest, towards whose sins of pederasty they are not charitable. His arrival provokes the appearance of a drifter; a drunk, unhinged, miserable man, who stands outside their window and explains at the top of his lungs what the newbie did to him when he was a boy, sparing no detail. This compels the church to send another visitor, an enforcer priest, who comes to set the house in order.
And this is where things get gnarly. Because Larrain is not interested so much in morality, as in  the warped psychology of people who operate under the impression that they have a religious dispensation for their gross abuse of trust. He is interested in exploring a hermetic system so closed and alien to the laws and customs of normal people, that it has its own perverse logic. In this powerful chamber piece, this perverse logic takes the spiraling form of deep, complex, corrupt motivations. The only analogy I can think of, if you take out the loveliness, and replace it with the darkest dark, is the absurdity of Alice In Wonderland. This is a parallel world with its own crazy rules, and the deeper we fall into the rabbit hole, the more disturbing the illogic.
The fact that the priests drink and gamble, and have a firearm in the house, is nothing compared to the mental gymnastics they exercise to absolve themselves of their evil actions, from sexually abusing children to stealing babies from political prisoners (all stuff that happened in real life, in Chile and elsewhere). They may pray and reflect all they want, but they are not truly repentant because none of them really believe they did anything wrong.
It is amazing to witness how entitled and arrogant they are in their little prison of compulsory guilt. They feel they are doing enough penance by sharing a house in the boonies where their only entertainment is watching TV and taking the greyhound to dog races, with which they supplement their meager income. They are beyond salvation, beyond repair. And so is the drunk, who carries the hurt of his abuse like a crushing stone on his shoulders. His, like theirs, is a wasted life.
The young, modern priest who comes to clean house is an intellectual, but he is not what we expect. If you are hoping for someone with a solid sense of virtue, someone who will enlighten and purify the rancid atmosphere, you are in for a surprise. He represents the moral confusion of a church that is stubbornly behind the times and above the law, and that will still do anything to keep its power and stonewall the truth. Like his charges, he will do anything to maintain the status quo. But he finds an incredibly perverse solution to the house and its problems. It may keep you thinking for days.
Larrain's trademark is a merciless penchant for discomfort, scented with whiffs of human debasement as well as of the most corrosive humor. This is his best movie so far. His particular gifts have coalesced into a masterful command of tone and content. The Club is a very intelligent film, splendidly written, directed and acted, that reveals the bizarre illogic of religious malfeasance for the infinite spiral of rot that it is.  

Dec 29, 2015


Jennifer Lawrence is the Robert De Niro to David O. Russell's Martin Scorsese. A muse, a great collaborator, and a splendid actress, she is the main reason to see this unevenly textured comedy about business hardships. Written by Annie Mumolo and Russell, it chronicles the rise and fall and rise of a woman named Joy, loosely based on the real Joy Mangano, who invented a self-wringing mop.
Russell makes movies in which the funny coexists uneasily with the difficult, and what I liked best about Joy is that it dwells on the tribulations of a business venture. It's her family tribulations that feel forced. Joy lives in a small home with her two kids and her depressed mother (the hilariously lost Virginia Madsen), who spends years in bed watching soap operas. In the basement lives her estranged husband (Edgar Ramírez), whose dream in life is to be a crooner. Her difficult dad (Robert De Niro, at his boorish best) is left on her doorstep by his third wife, who doesn't want him any more. Why she endures them is anybody's guess. Even though the actors are all on their game, this feels like a bad underground sitcom.
An unnecessary voiceover narration provided by Diane Ladd, who plays Joy's grandmother, explains that Joy was always an inventor and a doer as a child, and so when she finds herself struggling as an adult, she wonders whatever happened to her that she did not fulfill her potential. Unfortunately, we don't get to see it, but we do get some hints: the dismissiveness of an insensitive father and the demands of motherhood and divorce. Basically, what women have to go through when they want to do more in life than load clothes into a washer. Joy attempts to be a satirical feminist fairy tale but it is too disheveled to be a satire and too undisciplined to be a fairy tale. This makes it interesting, even if it's not quite successful.
One day, as she's invited on the yacht of her dad's rich new girlfriend (Isabella Rosellini, having great fun as a villainness), a spill occurs that Joy has to clean up, and she has an epiphany that leads to the invention of her non-humiliating mop.
This is where the movie gets its thorns. Rarely do we see American movies that show the agonies of running a business. In fact, rarely do we see movies where women run a business. Here we see what Joy struggles against: jealousy, incomprehension, negativity, distrust, inexperience, contempt, shady people. A plague of reasons conspire against her as she tries to make her venture work. Her family is a hindrance, she is out of her league, but she is not a quitter. The dramatic ups and downs, many of them contrived and telegraphed too soon, require a focused and transparent actress, and Lawrence comes to the rescue. She is magnetic and totally genuine. The scene where she finally gets to peddle her product on QVC is Oscar material. Joy freezes in front of the TV cameras, but then she hits her stride and finds the conviction of someone who truly believes in her product with the energy and desperate need of a saleswoman. As in all her performances, Lawrence is capable of signaling vulnerability, backbone and maturity, and of making her arc -- her passage through time and experience -- feel completely real. Never a false note in her.
Bradley Cooper appears briefly as the boss from the channel that orders product from her, and they have such good chemistry that their scenes are the best in the movie. I liked the frustrations mounting on Joy simply because it is refreshing to see them. When she loses all hope, she tells her little daughter that it is not true that opportunity is there for the taking. That there are people and circumstances that make sure that opportunity is snatched away from you and crushed. It's a bitter pill to fail so transparently in front of your child. A clunky fairy tale with little sugarcoating, Joy is a movie about the frustration of not being able to do something creative that you know is good, where the system that keeps telling you that you can be and do whatever you aim for is the same system that is completely indifferent or even poisonous to your struggles when you try. Failure is what feels most real in this movie. Even if if the fairy tale conceit is not fully worked out, Russell once again summons a uniquely contrarian tone and energy to his prickly comedies. Joy is a feel good movie that is not a feel good movie at all, which is fine.

Dec 28, 2015

The Revenant

This might be the film I like best by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's a visceral and fantastic western that looks like a fevered dream thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's spectacular cinematography. The action sequences are framed in medium shots and close ups, getting us right in the middle of it. The camera gets fogged up by human breathing, and smeared with blood, it does not attempt to hide the reflection of the sun on the lens. Sequences of carnage are relieved by floating vistas of awe inspiring nature. It is an exciting movie and a visual feast.
For once, Iñárritu's boundless enthusiasm for raw feeling, which tends to be overbearing and borderline kitschy in most of his films, suits the story and the surroundings. Based on the novel of the same name and on real characters, it takes place in the breathtaking wilderness of Montana in 1823, where bands of American and French trappers fight over pelts, while they endure flying arrows and scalping from the Native American tribes whose land they have stolen and tarnished.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays captain Hugh Glass, a man who is travelling with his teenage son (by a Native American woman) with a group of trappers as they are attacked by a tribe. Glass is then seriously injured in an astounding mano a mano with a grizzly bear and left for dead by Fitzgerald (the excellent Tom Hardy) an insubordinate, conniving member of the party.
It is a story of survival and rebirth fuelled by revenge, with some magical realist elements, thankfully kept in check by the director. Like any classic western it is a story of morality. When survival is at stake, decency is hard to come by. The stakes in this movie are truly life or death, and the operating ethos is lawlessness, but there is always a moral compass in the love of a father and son, and in the precarious ethical behavior of a couple of men. Ethical behavior strikes humans randomly. Some men have it in them, some don't. The ubiquitous and excellent Domnhall Gleeson plays captain Andrew Henry, in charge of the expedition, who has to make a Solomonic decision about Glass' fate when he becomes a burden to the group. Between the upstanding (Glass), and the amoral (Fitzgerald), Henry represents half measures, the majority of us, who fall as short of heroism as we do of villainy. He's an interesting character: a bad manager who does the right thing halfway, going through the motions of authority while washing his hands of real responsibility.
As Glass painfully recuperates, trying to survive in the rough with almost superhuman effort, the humans persecute each other, forging vendettas and partnerships across a landscape almost as cruel as they are.
The Revenant provides a glimpse into the foundational myth that shows how brutally this country was born. The elements for violence and strife are there from the beginning. In the pristine forests and majestic mountains blood is spilled for pelts and money, Native American villages are burned and pillaged, racism is as natural as the landscape, people endure untold misery, men seem only a step removed from beasts.
It's literally the wild west, where the greatest motivation is lucre and, when violence intervenes, revenge. It's easy to dismiss revenge as futile and barbaric, but it is one of those basic human feelings that boil up despite our every attempt at civilization. Revenge is informed by a sense of justice, but is it moral? Is it useful? All westerns are about the tension between the vigilantism of revenge and the civilizing, yet precarious influence of the law. In The Revenant, in the middle of the vast forest, revenge is the only law.
Iñárritu stages thrilling action sequences and he is a good director of dramatic action. DiCaprio rises to the occasion in a virtually wordless performance of heroic stature, but as the icily calculating, swaggering Fitzgerald, it is Tom Hardy who absconds with the picture. An impressive Will Poulter plays the young Bridger, a kid with a conscience who gets pummeled by Fitzgerald's cunning.
Even if it is pointless, revenge is a powerful, visceral motivation. We root for the good guy and we still thirst for him to set things right. Intellectually, we may look down upon revenge as brutal and uncivilized, but we gorge on it emotionally, until we ask: to what end?

Where To Invade Next

Yes, he can be obvious and a tad overbearing, but Michael Moore returns to form in his latest passionate outburst of unabashed liberalism. The concept is a bit cheesy: he goes to "invade" different countries in Europe and take with him their best social policy ideas to bring back home. Sounds like hard medicine to swallow for even the most hemorrhaging hearts, but Moore actually creates a bitterly hilarious film as he explores other industrialized countries, less powerful than ours, where people live better and common sense still reigns.
Like him or not, he has mastered the form of the satirical documentary. This film is among his funniest. I can't really go into details so as not to spoil the laughs for you, but he talks to people in Italy about paid vacation, France about school lunches, Slovenia about college debt, Norway about their prison system, and Iceland about how they dealt with their financial collapse. He milks the comparisons with the American way of doing things for laughs. It works. Compared to Europe, we look like a brutish, callous culture. It's very funny if it weren't so tragic.
As usual, he omits the problems in Europe that don't suit his crusading spirit, and is not interested in engaging in debate. His willful naiveté can be annoying, but by showing us the existence and possibility of a better system, he bares the cruel and sad dysfunction of our predatory brand of capitalism. His passionate outrage gives strength to his premise. Laughter is plentiful but it hurts, as well it should. We have become an absurd country.

Dec 22, 2015

2015 Movies: Best And Worst And Everything In Between

As is customary every year, here's a list of the movies we saw this year in order of admiration.
My feeling as the year ends is that 2015 was not spectacular, although it did yield some lovely movies at the top of the list.

About Elly (not from this year, but in theaters this year) 
Jafar Panahi's Taxi
The End Of The Tour
The Tribe
The Big Short
The Wonders
White God
What We Do In The Shadows
The Fool
The Measure of A Man
Among The Believers

Very Good
The Revenant
99 Homes
Steve Jobs
The Gift
Where To Invade Next
Love And Mercy
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
The New Girlfriend
Mountains May Depart
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Son Of Saul
McFarland USA
Maps To The Stars
Manos Sucias
Thought Crimes
Far From Men
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Treasure
Everything Is Copy
Dior and I

Fantastic But I Fell Asleep
Cemetery Of Splendour
The Assassin

Les Cowboys
Mia Madre
James White
The Stanford Prison Experiment
While We're Young
Pawn Sacrifice
Learning To Drive
Hungry Hearts
Far From The Madding Crowd
Mad Max: Fury Road
Going Clear: Scientology or The Prison of Belief
The Overnight
Slow West
The Wolfpack
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Human Capital

Cesar Chavez
The Princess of France
Welcome To Me
Madame Bovary
Beloved Sisters

Not As Bad As Everyone Says
Black Mass
Magic Mike XXL
Entourage: The Movie
Good Kill
50 Shades Of Grey
The Humbling

Not As Good As Everyone Says
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It Follows
Still Alice
Listen To Me, Marlon
The Duke Of Burgundy

The Lobster
Bridge Of Spies
The Martian
Goodnight Mommy
Danny Collins
Don't Blink - Robert Frank
My Golden Days
She's Funny That Way

Mistress America
Sleeping With Other People

Pretentious and Terrible
Heaven Knows What
Queen Of Earth
Time Out Of Mind

The Danish Girl
Dark Places
The Age Of Adaline
La Sapienza
Ballet 422

San Andreas
Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Crimson Peak
A La Mala