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.

Jan 24, 2017

Academy Awards: The Annual Kvetch Fest

It's that time of year again where we parse the nominations. As you can see below, this was not a great year for American movies. The best picture nominees are a mixed bag, with some movies that don't belong in there by any stretch of the imagination (Arrival, I'm talking to you).
As usual, better independent movies are ignored in favor of big, corny spectacles.
I am not doing the technical categories or shorts because in many cases I have not seen the films.
Below, my rants and raves. Predicted winners in red. Who I think should win, in blue.


I seem to be the only person in the world who absolutely adored Jackie. In my view, it is better than any of the films below. La La Land, the probable winner, is very polarizing, but I think that even though it strikes people as conventional, it is the most audacious movie of the bunch. In contrast, Moonlight, which has been hailed as audacious because of its subject matter, seemed to me utterly trite. The fight is between those two.

ARRIVAL - The most boring movie about aliens ever made.
FENCES - Good, but it's a stiffly filmed stage play, not Best Picture material.
HACKSAW RIDGE - I have trouble seeing movies by antisemites.
HELL OR HIGH WATER - Preposterous but entertaining modern Western.
HIDDEN FIGURES - Conventional but effective and winning.
LA LA LAND - For sheer moxie and audaciousness. A love letter to long-suffering artists.
LION - I hear it's a five-hankie weepie. I just can't stand Dev Patel.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA - There is nothing wrong with this movie, but it leaves me cold.
MOONLIGHT - Vastly overrated. 

SNUBBED: Jackie, Loving, Elle, Captain Fantastic, Hail, Caesar! Indignation.

CASEY AFFLECK. An effective one-note performance.
Manchester by the Sea
ANDREW GARFIELD. Haven't seen it. But I've never understood why directors like him.
Hacksaw Ridge
RYAN GOSLING. He is wonderful.
La La Land
VIGGO MORTENSEN So glad he's here. A subtle and committed performance.
Captain Fantastic

MAHERSHALA ALI. I love him in everything, but I don't get why he is here.
JEFF BRIDGES. He's fantastic.
Hell or High Water
LUCAS HEDGES. I hated him, but maybe that was his job.
Manchester by the Sea
MICHAEL SHANNON. Absolutely righteous nomination. The best of the bunch.
Nocturnal Animals

Tracy Letts in Indignation
Ralph Fiennes in Hail, Caesar! or A Bigger Splash. 
Simon Helberg and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins. 

ISABELLE HUPPERT. Killer, as usual.
RUTH NEGGA. Wonderful.
NATALIE PORTMAN. Frighteningly good.
EMMA STONE. Excellent.
La La Land
MERYL STREEP.  Sure, but enough already!
Florence Foster Jenkins

SNUBBED: Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Amy Adams (Arrival)

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE  A lackluster category this year.
VIOLA DAVIS. She's fine. I have an issue with the snot.
NAOMIE HARRIS. She was fine, considering the cliched role.
NICOLE KIDMAN. Didn't see it.
OCTAVIA SPENCER. She was good, but no better than her colleagues.
Hidden Figures
Manchester by the Sea

SNUBBED: Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Linda Emond, Indignation.

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM - I haven't seen any of these films but I'm judging from the trailers.

Bradford Young
Linus Sandgren
Greig Fraser
James Laxton

Rodrigo Prieto

SNUBBED: JACKIE, Stephane Fontaine
                     HAIL CAESAR!, Roger Deakins
                     THE HANDMAIDEN Chung-hoon Chung

Joanna Johnston
Colleen Atwood
Consolata Boyle
Madeline Fontaine

Mary Zophres

SNUBBED: Zophres for Hail, Caesar! 

ARRIVAL - Humorless, leaden: no.
Denis Villeneuve
Mel Gibson
Damien Chazelle
Kenneth Lonergan
Barry Jenkins

SNUBBED: Paul Verhoeven, Elle. Pablo Larrain, Jackie. 

FIRE AT SEA - Haven't seen it.
Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO - So glad this is here. Excellent. 
Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck
LIFE, ANIMATED - Haven't seen it.
Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA - One of the best movies of the year. Period. 
Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow
13TH - Excellent.
Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish

THE SALESMAN - Farhadi is one of the best filmmakers in the world today so I root for him.
TONI ERDMANN - Super overrated.

SNUBBED: THE HANDMAIDEN. One of the best movies of the year in any language. 
THE CLUB by Pablo Larrain, Chile. 

JACKIE - If this hadn't been nominated I would have thrown a symphonic tantrum. Spectacular.
Mica Levi
LA LA LAND - Not memorable music, but a lot of it.
Justin Hurwitz
Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka
MOONLIGHT - Distracting and pretentious.
Nicholas Britell
Thomas Newman

SNUBBED: Nocturnal Animals. 

from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Trolls; Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Jim: The James Foley Story; Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
from Moana; Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

SNUBBED: Pharrell Williams' excellent songs for Hidden Figures. 

ARRIVAL - The only good thing in this film, plus Amy Adams.
HAIL, CAESAR! Love, love, love. 
LA LA LAND - Technicolor without the style.

Eric Heisserer
August Wilson
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Luke Davies
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney

SNUBBED: Elle by Philippe Djian. Indignation by James Schamus.

HELL OR HIGH WATER - Entertaining but I didn't buy it.
Taylor Sheridan
LA LA LAND - Bittersweet and smart. 
Damien Chazelle
THE LOBSTER  Their weakest script yet.
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA - Very good writing.
Kenneth Lonergan
Mike Mills

SNUBBED: Noah Oppenheim, Jackie. 

Dec 29, 2016

O.J: Made In America

I saw this epic documentary by Ezra Edelman on a big screen at one seating, 11 am to 7 pm, and it took my breath away. It has the scope of a Shakespearean tragedy and the feel of a spiraling, prismatic nightmare. It is crammed with information and raises a thousand questions for every answer it seeks to shed light on. It has a colorful, entertaining and deeply revelatory cast of characters, from best friends, managers, former attorneys, jury members, prosecutors, police officers, and a particularly fabulous helicopter pilot. Some of them, like Marcia Clark, O.J.'s manager, and Mark Fuhrman leave you wanting answers. It is an absolutely riveting and thoroughly depressing film: eight hours of much that is wrong with this country through the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson.

You may remember the murders, the white Bronco and the trial and the surreal circus we witnessed for 8 months in the mid-nineties. This movie puts it all into context. From Simpson's street smart childhood in the San Francisco projects to his astounding feats as a college football hero and adored celebrity, to his ignominious fall, the portrait that emerges is the exact opposite of a hero.
This country has an unhealthy obsession with heroes and it slaps the term on all kinds of undeserving people quite lightly. This tends to happen particularly in sports. I have never fathomed why people think that someone as evidently rank as Michael Phelps is a hero. Look what happened to Lance Armstrong, who abused the privilege. And then there is O.J. Simpson, who took his own glorification to new highs and lows.
He was extremely good looking, a gifted athlete, and according to many people in the film, an irresistible charmer. He had an amazing rags-to-riches story and all the talent, fame, money and public adoration someone could possibly wish for. But soon a jarring note is introduced. The young college football player refused to participate in the Civil Rights movement when Mohammed Ali was gathering the biggest black athletes in America to join in the protest, a decision that cost many of them dearly. We learn through the course of the film that Simpson's indifference, which you could ascribe to youthful ambition was only one manifestation of a deeply narcissistic, manipulative personality. The personality that emerges is that of a coward and an egomaniac with deep reserves of unfathomable anger: driven, controlling, manipulative, paranoid and deeply self-hating, to the point that he did not consider himself Black. His tragedy is that his undeniable talent and consequent celebrity amplified an already damaged ego.
Hand in hand with the exploration into Simpson's personality, Edelman weaves a compelling look into the country he was born into; a country that still refuses to fully acknowledge and heal the disastrous and ongoing ramifications of slavery and racism.
The Los Angeles where O.J. moved after he retired from playing for Buffalo was a sunny haven for people with money but a hell of a segregated town with a police department that was notoriously abusive of the Black community. By the time his saga happened, L.A. had witnessed the Rodney King beating and story after story of police brutality against African-Americans.
Hindsight is truly 20-20. At the time of the trial, I made a $100 bet that O.J. would be found guilty. The evidence, after all, was overwhelming. Perhaps I was too new to the U.S. and was unaware of the enormous gulf between blacks and whites and the racial tensions bubbling under the surface. After watching this film, the competing black and white perspectives are clearly laid bare. The insurmountable differences in the perception of Simpson: to white people, a cold-blooded liar and murderer; to the black community, just another black man framed by racist police, dramatically divided the country thanks to years of mutual distrust and prejudice and to blatant manipulation by the defense and the prosecution alike. Any white person who does not understand how the not-guilty verdict was arrived at will have a much clearer understanding.

This movie covers many layers of the American experience. The first one, which I had forgotten about and which shocked me, and perhaps the only one which is truly universal, is domestic violence. Nicole Brown would routinely call 911 from the couple's home in Brentwood fearing for her life. Quite simply, she was a battered wife. Celebrity or not, her case is yet another statistic of spousal abuse that ends in murder, when victims don't leave and abusers are not arrested and locked up. Poor Ronald Goldman, a waiter who came by to deliver a pair of glasses, was caught in the maniacal rage of a wife beater. The documentary shows the gruesome pictures of the crime scene that were left out of the newscasts and the newspapers at the time. They are so extreme, they were not fit to be seen by the public at large.

The heady, highly toxic and very American cocktail of money and celebrity allows people to get away with murder; in this case, literally. Because Simpson was a celebrity (which turned him virtually into a demigod) and lived in a tony white neighborhood, a policeman shows up after one of Nicole's frightened calls and finds her hiding in the bushes, bruised and scared out of her wits, but instead of cuffing O.J. and putting him in the car, he lets him get dressed, and next thing he knows, O.J. is escaping in his Bentley. Then, as she did time and again, she declines to press charges. It could be out of love, codependency, fear, the fact that he was a meal ticket for her entire family, or possibly all of the above. Certainly his money and status played a part.
The two almost comically incompetent detectives that arrested Simpson after the chase make every effort to allow him to acquit himself in their interrogation. Hell, consider that surreal chase in which a squad of patrol cars basically accompanies him as if at a procession. Edelman shows aerial footage of what happens to any regular idiot who uses his car to flee the long arm of the LAPD. They don't get a parade like O.J. They get totaled.
I don't have to tell you about the distortion of reality that this insane American cult of cash and celebrity brings: we are about to inaugurate a demented orange baboon as President of the United States because of money and fame. In fact, the parallels with Trump are inevitable. In both cases, there are reams of incontrovertible evidence as to the toxicity of both celebrities' characters. They are both pathologically narcissistic.

When it comes to the trial itself, and the justice system that allowed such an unseemly spectacle is where you tear out your hair in despair. Justice for all... that $50,000 a day in lawyer fees can buy. An incompetent and self-serving District Attorney and a beleaguered prosecution team which in hindsight made terrible, but almost inevitable, tactical mistakes, all due to the racial makeup of the story, including the location of the jury trial, the jury selection and the choice of judge, among many others. As the trial laid bare at the time, the American justice system is designed to work only for those who can afford it.

Which brings us back to the "race card". It is a disgrace, but a fact and at the core of this story, that this is how Simpson's legal fate was going to be played out. The most exquisite and painful irony is that, until he became a murderer, O.J. Simpson wanted nothing to do with black people. Except for his childhood friends, all his friends were white. He had always been out for himself; never had a shred of conscience, racial or otherwise. But the minute it was time to elicit sympathy, he suddenly found his roots. He had people like Johnny Cochran fashion a racial narrative for him, complete with a racist cop supposedly planting evidence. Yet Simpson and his Dream Team were not alone in making it about race. The prosecution made it about race when it changed the location of the trial, when it introduced Christopher Darden, and when it chose eight black women as jurors. According to Marcia Clark, it turned out that they had no sympathy for Nicole Brown: the white interloper wife of a Black man.
Race is the poison that feeds this terrible story from inception, and Edelman is not shy to explore its worst aspects - Simpson as the unthreatening negro, the Uncle Tom-ish Hertz spokesman, the guy who had to get the white woman, who wondered what were "all those niggers" doing in his neighborhood, welcoming him home after the chase. Charitably, his loyal friends insist that all he wanted was to transcend race. He had a point, to a point. He wanted to be equal, in his own selfish way. However, his behavior was far from an appeal to equality and brotherly love. He was indifferent to his community and became a sad minstrel sideshow for the mainstream media. He lacked what true heroes have: dignity.

Dec 28, 2016

2016: The Year In Movies. Best, Worst and Everything in Between

Perhaps not as horribilis as it was in real life, but 2016 was a crap year in movies, for the most part.

The Handmaiden
O.J. Made In America
The Club
Hail Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Wailing

Very Good
The Witch
A Bigger Splash
The Clan
Southwest of Salem
La La Land
The Witness: Kitty Genovese
The Mermaid

Manchester By The Sea
20th Century Women
Hidden Figures
In The Heart Of The Sea
Captain Fantastic
Love and Friendship
The Conjuring 2
Things To Come

Absolutely Bizarre

Café Society
Maggie's Plan 
Don't Think Twice
Live By Night

Interesting But Flawed
Miles Ahead
The Invitation
Miss Sloane
The Fits

Toni Erdmann
Hell or High Water

Florence Foster Jenkins
The Family Fang

Nocturnal Animals
Green Room
The Lobster
Don't Breathe

American Pastoral
A Tale Of Love And Darkness

Pretentious and Bad 
Knight of Cups
The Neon Demon
Heart of a Dog


Haven't Seen Yet:
I, Daniel Blake

You'd Have To Pay Me To See:
Rogue One
Hacksaw Ridge
Collateral Beauty