Dec 31, 2005

Munich: or Spielberg Grows Up, Kind Of

I have to respect a movie that has managed to piss off both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian mishegoss. Some Palestinians are complaining that Munich's sympathies are more with the Israelis (what did they expect?); on the other hand, some formerly ultra-secret Mossad agents, even more secret than Maxwell Smart, have argued that the movie fudges the facts and that's not the way they did things (pray tell: just how do you do things at the Mossad?). All the carping is a fitting tribute to a movie that tries too hard to appease everybody. Good luck with that one, Steve-o!
Munich is a really interesting mishmash. On the one hand, it has the directorial powers of one Steven Spielberg, a prodigy at filmmaking, who could not stop being entertaining and just plain freaking dazzling if a court order asked him to. On the other hand, the film was written by Tony Kushner, a playwright who likes to whip himself into a frenzy about big, hairy moral issues, and Eric Roth, the man responsible for serious-minded Hollywood spectacles like The Insider (Russell Crowe vs. Big Tobacco), Ali and the inexcusable Forrest Gump. This means that Munich is weirder than a mole enchilada with hummous and whipped cream on top.
The Spielbergian magic is there in all its gripping glory, with sequences so beautifully staged, so tight with tension that they are not only a marvel, but, as in Spielberg's best work, they refuse to leave your mind long after you've left the theater. Sometimes he gets carried away and Munich feels like a spunkier, nastier version of a James Bond flick. Give him four guys with explosives and guns and watch him unleash spectacularly controlled mayhem. Yet true to form, he cannot ever let a movie happen without a completely gratuitous subplot about a father and son (it's his Rosebud), and he certainly cannot have a movie without heaping amounts of schmaltz.
Still, Munich has the best writing ever seen in a Spielberg film. The movie illustrates with many intelligent twists the utter pointlessness of avenging murder with murder. As the plot unfolds, there is always a TV set tuned to another terrorist act, making it clear that the bloodbath is neither cleansing nor bringing closure to anyone.
The writers give the audience a crash course on the long list of grievances of the Jewish people, and they insert the equally grievous list of the Palestinians, doing both with clunky dialogue that hits the audience in the head like a ball of hardened falafel. There are several ridiculous scenes where checking your disbelief at the door is required, like one preposterous scene set up to facilitate an exchange between the Mossad leader Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana, gorgeous and fantastic) and one of the Palestinian terrorists. In it, Kaufman is extremely harsh and contemptuous of the Palestinians while the Palestinian makes his case for a homeland strongly and compellingly. The writing is sharp in a Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 101 kind of way, but the situation is absurd.
Thus, I beg to differ with those who complain that all the sympathies lie on the Israeli side. Quite the contrary: you can hear the writers and the director spinning like the Tazmanian Devil on acid as they grapple with the kvetching of one side and the other (both of which I am sick of, if you must know).
So even with all the cheese inside this blintz, my hat (kippah? kefiyeh?) off to Spielberg and Kushner and Roth for making sure we remember that Jews have a historical moral obligation not to behave like savages and that revenge is an eternal nightmare that turns people into murderers and the world into hell.

Yet Another List of Bests and Worsts of 2005

This is still work in progress because my neurons are so damaged from so much use (what did you think?) that I can't remember what movies I saw this year. I don't think it was that great a year, frankly, and that is why it's all a blur to me. But I couldn't wait one more day to post it.
Enjoy, agree; even better, disagree, and let me know if you do.

The Forty-Year-Old Virgin: The best AMERICAN movie of the year.
Downfall: Probably the most terrifying film about the Nazis ever made. And there is not a Jew in sight.
The Beat My Heart Skipped: The great director Jacques Audiard (Read my Lips) takes a crappy American movie (Fingers, by that overgrown baby, James Toback) and remakes it into a class act. It's the revenge of the French, who must be tired of Americans taking their good films and turning them into instant crap.
Look at Me: A great, dark comedy from Agnes Jaoui
The Holy Girl: The second film from amazing Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. The first, La Ciénaga, is even better.
Good Night and Good Luck: Clooney shows class.
King Kong: Long, spectacular and moving.
Caché: Another splash of frigid water from Michael Haneke

A History of Violence
Brokeback Mountain
40 shades of Blue
The Best of Youth
Friday Night Lights

Breakfast on Pluto
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Squid and the Whale

My Summer of Love
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Match Point

March of the Penguins
Harry Potter IV
The Producers
Wallace and Gromit
Anything with Jennifer Aniston
Aeon Flux
North Country
Cinderella Man

Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall
Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line
Tommy Lee Jones in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Rip Torn in 40 Shades of Blue
Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote
Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence
Peter Sarsgaard in Jarhead
Romain Durys in The Beat My Heart Skipped
George Clooney in Syriana
Paul Rudd in the 40 Year Old Virgin

Roberta Maxwell in Brokeback Mountain
Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain
Maria Bello in a History of Violence
Catherine Keener in Capote
Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line
Juliette Binoche in Caché

Dec 29, 2005

He Should Have Asked Them To Can Tom Hanks Instead

Apparently Jacques Chirac, the decidedly uncool, increasingly irrelevant and glue-haired President of France, asked Ron Howard, the man responsible for the utter disgrace that the film version of The Da Vinci Code promises to be, to consider a friend of the family for the role that Audrey Tautou landed. He also asked for a raise for Jean Reno. He didn't get either, confirming what we already knew: that Hollywood is more powerful than France, and rightly so.
Monsieur Chirac asked the wrong question, bien sur. If he wanted to be a hero to the world again (at least in his view), he should have asked them to can Tom Hanks, who increasingly looks (and acts) like a stuffed enchilada himself.

Dec 26, 2005

I survived Xmas and the gay cowboy movie almost intact!

I am happy to report, dear readers, that your Big Enchilada here, who is getting plumper by the minute, spent a weekend of Xmas carolling, stuffing turkey (into her mouth) and drooling over Jake and Heath and is none the worse for wear.
In fact, I went to the 11:30 am showing of Brokeback Mountain on Christmas day and after spending two hours home on the range with such beautiful company, instead of the traditional breakfast prescribed on this day by the Lord to all Jews living within reach of good Chinese food, I was hankering for some down home chow instead. But then I've always been a heretic at heart.
However, it is also my duty to report that I have mixed feelings about the Mountain.
I was ecstatic to see that the man responsible for the stunning, sensitive cinematography is my incredibly talented countryman Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto has worked on Amores Perros, Eight Mile and many other splendidly lit movies. In Brokeback Mountain he reins in his spectacular color effects and lights this film in a beautiful, tender, unobtrusive way. The same can be said for Ang Lee's sensitive, graceful, touching direction. He has a wonderful way with actors and all of them are quite terrific. The mood is elegiac and tragic and beautiful and managed to move me deeply. But I kept wishing for a number of things:
1. That they would not keep cutting away to a full moon, as if we were watching a documentary on the life of the wild coyote.
2. That Jake Gyllenhall, who is a subtle, delightful actor on whom I have had an enormous crush since Donnie Darko, would get his cowboy accent straighter. And that I would believe more that he is actually a cowboy.
My dream casting for the film would probably have been Joaquin Phoenix and Peter Sarsgaard, both of which radiate something more mysterious and elusive and who I love to death in everything.
3. I wish I liked Heath Ledger, who is wonderful in the film, more than I did. Hype is evil. (How come the Aussies and the English always nail the US regional accents better than the homegrown talent?)
4. Like my friend Marta says, it would have been nice to see the cowboys rough it out a little more. I woudn't have lasted a day and a half eating beans in the great outdoors, but for instance, when they decide to kill for lunch, instead of a demure cut to them already enjoying their dinner, I would have liked to see a little bit more of how they got to extract the meat.
5. I wish that the writers did not have to resort to intimations of terrible violence against homosexuals in order to make the point, which they already make beautifully, that the prejudice against homosexuality is terribly pointless and stupid and tragic. Just the fact that two people go through such self-denial, destruction, deception and sadness because of social prejudice is enough to drive home the point. However, I understand that I may get it, but others less enlightened may not.
Still, Brokeback Mountain is a movie worth pondering. The women in it are wonderful, particularly Michelle Williams, as Heath Ledger's wife and the amazing Roberta Maxwell, who steals the film in one scene as Jake's mom.
I hope that audiences in multiplexes all over the homophobic world will approach this movie with the grace and thoughtfulness it deserves. Since I have no faith in mankind, I seriously doubt it.

Dec 16, 2005

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Yesterday I saw a non gay western (hey, there's a concept!), and one well worth checking out at the Sunshine, (where they believe that their name is enough to provide heating for the freezing patrons):
The movie is The 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and written by my compatriot, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who is responsible for Amores Perros and the very clunky 21 Grams.
Well, this time Mr. Arriaga has written an existential allegory of justice and redemption about the Border, (the one south of here, if you have to ask) which is no small feat. To sound less pretentious, he has written sort of a pretentious western, but he gets lots of Brownie points for ambition and sheer moxie.
Good for him for writing a western about the border.
Good for him for finally writing an actual human character that is not a symbolic representation of a big preachy notion.
Good for him for imagining a border crossing in reverse. *For more info on this, go see the movie.
Mr. Arriaga, true to his Mexican roots, has a morbid, sentimental temperament. He also has an original mind, a dark sense of humor and a great sense for structure. Unfortunately, subtlety is not his forte. He doesn't trust that the audience can get it without being hit over the head with a tortilla press. Although the dialogue in this film is much more fluid than the one in 21 grams, Arriaga is inconsistent; he writes good zingers and then some pretty stilted dialogue, to be fair, both in Spanish and in English.
Still, this is a real western, which is lovely, and I would say, daring. There are magnificent landscapes, there are horses and cowboys and cattle. The movie does not depict the industrial wasteland of maquiladoras and ugly shantytowns that make up much of the actual border. The majestic Big Bend National Park is the backdrop for a more dreamlike crossing. Here, however, very real Mexicans risk their lives to cross over, where the equally real Border Patrol lies in wait to send them back.
Barry Pepper, the American Klaus Kinski, plays a transplanted Cincinattian who has just moved to this nowhere land with his pretty prom queen wife. He is a violent, insensitive border patrolman who handles the "wetbacks" and his wife with an utter lack of finesse. Yet by the end of the film he goes through so much punishment that I was hoping he got part of the domestic gross, at least. He represents the ultimate Mexican revenge fantasy --Kick the Gringo's Ass. It's between funny and appalling, until Arriaga bestows the character with redemption and everything turns to mush.
Tommy Lee Jones directs himself into an amazing performance as Pete, a wizened ranchhand who befriends the Melquiades Estrada of the title. Mr. Jones' face looks like Big Bend itself. Deeply lined and pockmarked, it is a compact landscape of human experience. His gaze is sad, and his magnificent voice quite mellow, but he is a strong and stubborn man, quick and efficient with violence, set in his lonesome ways. It is a great character and Mr. Jones smartly imbues Pete with a quirky, dry authenticity. He is the best thing in the movie.
My very excellent movie companions commented that this movie was so intense, so bloody and graphic, that it could not have been written by a gringo. It's a good point, because the violence is, unlike most American film violence, feral, intimate and messy, not choreographed. Guillermo Arriaga likes big, dramatic gestures; he has a penchant for the grotesque which is quite Mexican in sensibility. Although there are some very smart twists to the story, it is quite baroque, or, like the Mexican baroque, Churrigueresque. The tone of the film oscillates between dark humor and philosophical musing, and then it turns into an almost surreal optimistic fable about the power of redemption. Even the music gets schmaltzy at the end.
Still, the Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an enigmatic, entertaining film and on the topic of the border, one of the most interesting so far.
Can't wait for the one with none other than J.Lo investigating the deaths of Mexican women in Juarez (!!).

Dec 14, 2005

Syriana Sucks!

People insist that Syriana is a complicated movie, but I found it a gross oversimplification of, in a nutshell, why we are fucked by our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
The one interesting subversive point it makes -- PLEASE TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW -- i.e, that the government of the USA, in cohoots with oil companies, is only willing to protect its dependence and profit from oil without caring one whit for the improvement of conditions in the region, gets completely lost among the jumping around between unnecessary characters and their jerky, globetrotting ways.
Stephen Gaghan's insistence on writing a puzzle instead of a coherent, eloquent script does not serve the movie well. The moviegoer is supposed to fill in for all the huge gaps in believability and coherence and in the end, everything is so farfetched that nothing in the movie is remotely credible.
A great cast is mostly squandered on underwritten, schematic parts. There are a few cringe-inducing speeches, particularly the reformist young sheik's, who sounds like the neocons wet dream: oh, all he wants is to democratize society, give women the vote (!) and create an oil exchange... puhleeze! Or Tim Blake Nelson's impassioned, completely fake defense of corruption. This stuff is so obvious that it offends the intelligence of the audience.
The movie is filled with clichés. The oilmen, most of them sporting thick Texas drawls, are evil incarnate. How about an oilman with a heart of gold, for a change?
Also, can we agree that two men playing sweaty squash as a metaphor for "power game" is quite old hat?
George Clooney is the best reason to watch this film. He looks suitably worldweary as a CIA agent. It is a great, understated performance that does wonders with very little. The otherwise very talented Jeffrey Wright seems to be at a loss as to what exactly his character is supposed to be doing, and why he has a father who is a drunk. Is it because he is the only black character in the film?
A much more satisfying, eloquent and elegant movie about our current disgruntlement with the status quo is Clooney's own Good Night and Good Luck. It is a small, effective, chilling fable about how the media has abandoned its independence and has forsaken content altogether. It has less pyrotechnics and much more backbone than Syriana.