Nov 29, 2006


I scan the headlines and I see the usual: Bush insists the civil war in Iraq is not a civil war, as if by sheer force of stubborness and idiocy, reality would actually change to suit him and his petrified brain. It's a civil war, stupid. Ask the relatives of the thousands of Iraqis who've been blown to bits, murdered, kidnapped, etc.

Then, a tiny item in the Theater section of the NYT:
A group of men stormed the stage during a performance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of “Wasati Bila Wasatiya” (“A Moderate Without Moderation”), a play critical of religious conservatives, Reuters reported, citing Saudi newspapers and Web sites.
As the play began at a cultural festival at Al-Yamamah College in Riyadh, the men, described as Islamic extremists, ran to the stage in an attempt to halt the performance. Police fired shots into the air to break up a violent brawl that followed, as the Islamists, students and actors threw chairs and attacked one another with sticks. Seventeen men were arrested.
There are no public theaters or movie houses in Saudi Arabia.
The boldface is mine. And these are friends of the United States. Geez.

Yesterday on the plane they showed the movie Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, with Will Ferrell. It amused me greatly. I have been much misunderstood by my affection for movies such as this one and the 40-Year-Old Virgin (and Old School, and Zoolander and most of the Farrelly Brothers' oeuvre). I have to say: they make me laugh. There is something in these comedies that celebrates stupidity in a generously infectious way. Had I paid eleven bucks for Ricky Bobby, I may not have been so thrilled, but if you are stuck on an airplane at 40,000 feet, it's quite delightful.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays a French race car driver called Jean Gerard, who drinks espresso and reads existential books while he drives laps in NASCAR with his helmet on.

"Why did I come to America?", he asks Ricky Bobby.
"Because of the public schools and the health care system and the water parks?"

Will Ferrell is wonderful at being clueless but with great conviction, sort of like Bush, but funny. The movie also boasts the wonderful John C. Reilly, a master of enthusiastic naiveté, and the excellent Gary Cole, who is as good in serious roles in TV shows as he is doing seriously funny bits for film comedies, like Dodgeball and Office Space.
Ricky Bobby pokes fun at the NASCAR culture, at people who thank Jesus for everything, at white trash culture, at celebrity endorsements, at product placement. It is designed to attract the very people who fit the demographic it is making fun of, yet it is not abrasive. Sort of a gentle satire. I loved it.
And when it was over, I went back to my Marcel Proust (who, when he is not describing the effects of asparagus on his memory and the consequent smell of his pee, among other endless digressions, can also be quite hilarious himself).

Nov 28, 2006

Movie Magic

Hello, my darlings! Have you missed me? Probably not. I'm still here in Mexico City, a good place to have excellent tacos de carnitas (photo coming soon) and to go to movies you wouldn't dream of spending eleven bucks in the States but here you pay about five bucks. So I see stuff that I otherwise wait for it to come out on Netflix. I saw The Departed at the great Palacio Chino, our very own version of Grauman's Chinese Theater. It used to be, in the old days, when movie palaces still existed, a fantastically decorated Chinese temple, but around the eighties, like every other wonderful Mexican movie palace (the Variedades, the Chapultepec, the Metropolitan and others), it went to the dogs, showing cheap soft porn films, etc. Now, since the nineties, we finally have good cineplexes in Mexico, with mostly bad Hollywood movies but clean restrooms, good sound, good seats. The new Palacio Chino is one such cineplex: utterly generic, except for the fact that they chinafied the facade with bright neon lights and, a touch I love, the names of the movies are written in sort of Chinese typeface. Cute.
That´s where I saw The Departed.
Now: Martin Scorsese and his wonderful editor Thelma Schoonmaker, certainly know how to open a film. The degree of visual energy and panache in the first twenty minutes of The Departed is absolutely glorious, beautifully thrilling. I wish I could say the same of the rest of the movie, which, while enormously entertaining, has so many twists and turns, and is so long that after a while one would like to get off the fun ride. It is extremely violent and as happens with all movies that depend on intrincate plots, at a certain point one asks very logical questions of things that are not happening but should. Such as how is it possible that the Irish mafiosi controlled by a fun, over the top Jack Nicholson haven´t figured out by now who the rat is?
The Departed is delightful because everybody in it is a pro: Nicholson goes to town hamming it up, but his relish is contagious and he is wonderful. Matt Damon is extremely fine as a cold, professional, ruthless villain. I´m glad he was cast against type. Di Caprio is quite good as his counterpart, a mole in the mafia. And the rest are adorable pros: my beloved Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and even Mark Wahlberg, trying real hard to come up with the goods and aqcuitting himself nicely. The Departed touches upon recurrent themes in Scorsese´s work: true morality, human hipocrisy, the corruption of the soul, how easy it is for evil to run rampant in this world, how very fucked up is human nature. The movie, as entertaining as it is, has substance, and is the best thing Scorsese has done in years.
The one weak link I found was the subplot with the female shrink, played, not too convincingly in my opinion, by Vera Farmiga. She falls in love with both Damon and DiCaprio and to me that´s already gilding the lily. Still, if you want to see what a master of movie making can do, run to The Departed and enjoy the mayhem.
One big nitpick: too much rock and roll music in every scene.

I also saw The Prestige, by Christopher Nolan, he of Memento and Batman Begins. I enjoyed it immensely for I was in a foul mood and in urgent need of escapism, and The Prestige delivers this with class. What is not to like about a contest of wills between two magicians played by Hugh Jackman (yum) and the always magnificent Christian Bale, (megayum to the nth degree), plus the always welcome Michael Caine, doing his benevolent shtick real well? For the males in the audience there is the scrumptious eye candy of Scarlett Johanssen, who has a face made for the camera, a decent British accent, but who, no matter how many times she appears in period pieces, always seems to me to be very much a girl of today.
The Prestige is also extremely entertaining, very smart, with the kind of cool plot twists that Nolan and his brother (who writes his screenplays) love. It is a story of obsessive rivalry between two magicians, the kind of behavior that is very typically male and that makes this one of the few period movies that males will enjoy: a Victorian ¨can you top this¨? I had a ball while I watched it, but it left me kind of cold at the end. Same reaction I had with Memento. Lots of neat tricks of the mind, very little in the way of insight. Still, Nolan is a gifted director, as good a showman as his two protagonists. The Prestige is a cool film. And it doesn't make you ask logical questions. It keeps you guessing right to the end. That´s a neat trick.

Nov 20, 2006


Yesterday the movie club had one of its frequent outings. We had every intention of checking out Scorsese's The Departed but it sold out because Bond (I told you about Daniel Craig) sold out too.
Tip for moviegoers: the only reasonable time in NY to go to a movie without drama is Monday thru Wednesday. Or if you are unemployed, the 4 pm shows. The rest is a pain in the ass.
In any case, we ended up at the lovely Cinema Village and rushed in to see Cautiva, an Argentinian movie we knew nothing about. I like not to know anything about what I am about to watch. Cautiva (Captive) is a small, low budget movie about one of the evil corollaries of the Argentinian Dirty War in the 70's when a despicable Military Junta ruled Argentina through terror and it "disappeared" around 30,000 citizens, all accused of subversion or communism, most of them young people with long hair and antifascist leanings.
Cautiva starts out with real footage of the goal that Argentina scored in its home turf against Holland to win the Soccer World Cup in 1978. The joy of that goal immediately sours and turns sinister as the camera pans to General Videla and other members of the Junta and their friend Henry Kissinger, who never met a fascist dictator he didn't like. Now, it was known around the world that the Junta had an atrocious human rights record but it is shocking today to see how they literally got away with murder and were able to host the World Cup with total brazeness. But I guess if Hitler could host the Olympics in 1936 and China, a country with an abysmal human rights record, is hosting the next ones, anything goes.
The military junta in Argentina committed terrible atrocities against its own citizens. They read the handbook by the nazis and tried their best to improve upon the torture methods, and the regime of terror and murder. They had clandestine prisons and torture chambers in the middle of Buenos Aires. One of the things they did, like the Nazis, was to deliver the newborn babies of imprisoned pregnant women and give them for adoption to families in the military or the police. Cautiva is the story of a teenager raised by a family who stole her from her imprisoned mother. It is a powerful, blunt film, with such a harrowing story that it wisely just tells it, without much embellishment or editorializing.
At the beginning the acting seemed a bit stilted, and I was afraid that the movie would turn into a tango. (Those of us who are not Argentines, use the word tango to denote a tantrum or a huge melodrama). But the film gained in intensity as the teenager is forced to confront the truth about her loving family. Cautiva explores the wounds, still open, that the disappearance of 30,000 souls has left in Argentina's psyche, and the deep ideological rifts and the hatred between the extreme right and the left. At the end, the movie says that over 70 children have been found out to have been "appropriated" illegally by others. Also, most of the police and military who committed the atrocities are under house arrest, at the very worst, or free to come and go as they please, because they were granted a general amnesty after the demise of the Junta. I remember Argentinian friends of mine in the 80's talking about the "Ley de Obediencia Debida", something that translates loosely as Law of Due Obedience, which basically exonerated many criminals on the grounds that they were obeying orders from above.

Nov 16, 2006


It's been years since I liked a Pedro Almodóvar movie. I admired his very first movies: Law of Desire, What Have I Done to Deserve This, Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But in recent times I found his movies to be pretentious and overwrought without the freshness and verve of his earlier work. I liked Bad Education as an interesting failure, was not that thrilled with Talk to Her (I really hated its cinematic namedropping -- pretentious musical numbers by Pina Bausch, Caetano Veloso and Chavela Vargas really rubbed me the wrong way) and I had no patience for the sordid melodramas of The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother. They seemed no better or sharper than the common variety Mexican telenovela.
I am so happy to report that with Volver, Almodóvar is back in style. Volver boasts a magnificent ensemble cast of phenomenal actresses, led by Penélope Cruz and with the miraculous return of the long departed Carmen Maura, who is a national treasure of Spain and one of the most formidable actresses of all time, in my humble opinion. She apparently had a feud with Almodóvar which is why she didn't grace any of his movies for many years. But now they have kissed and made up. Fittingly, she plays someone whose return is quite unexpected, thus making it a doubly delightful surprise.
The buzz out there is that Penélope Cruz is most certainly going to be nominated for an Oscar. She has always been a very good actress. She is a true movie star: gorgeous, alive, hypnotic, endlessly charismatic. And in this movie she is a stunner. I defy any American actress to muster her pep and vim and sexiness and soulfulness. However, the Oscar nomination, if there is justice in the world, should go to Carmen Maura. She is a great tragic comedienne. It is impossible not to be touched by her. One look of hers tells entire volumes. And how refreshing to see her without an ounce of botox or plastic surgery, all the wisdom and pain of her age reflected in her face. There is a scene where someone is watching a movie on TV with Anna Magnani and the homage is fitting. Volver is Almodóvar's paean to the strength of women, and La Magnani and La Maura are in the same league: genuine divas, larger than life.
Chus Lampreave, (who I've been campaigning for the Spanish government to erect a statue in her honor, or at least give her a postage stamp), always plays slightly eccentric, slightly mad Spanish women whose view of the world is entirely logical only to them. She is hilarious. Here, she sadly appears for a very short time, but a two-word line comes out of her mouth with so much comic baggage, it's miraculous. And Blanca Portillo, as a youngish lonely woman, most probably a lesbian, stuck in an old provincial town, is also something to behold.
The ensemble deserves the acting prize the won at Cannes. They all rock.
Volver is classic Almodóvar: a comic melodrama that both skewers and pays homage to deep Spanish culture, and also an anthem to the pluckiness and the courage of women. It will remind viewers of his comic masterpiece, Women on the Verge, but Volver has a more poignant, calmer, profound quality. Volver is about the need for forgiveness and the need to set things straight. It's about the buried pain behind the human mistakes brought on by love. The title is taken from a famous tango, I believe, by Carlos Gardel. Volver is a tender, human and extremely enjoyable film. Even when it hits the heights of melodrama, it tempers it with smart dialogue and gentle irony. Calamities pile themselves on top of one another, but the tone is breezy and warmhearted. I wish the American audiences could enjoy the flavorful language. The characters speak with the most delightful Iberian mix of insolence and innocence. Almodóvar is a master in mimicking the most banal conversations, the most feminine gossip. He is a great observer of the quotidian. This beautiful, elegant, rounded screenplay is very well written, in contrast to some of his recent work.
Volver is beautifully shot by Jose Luis Alcaine, a longtime collaborator of the director, in rich tones, colorful but not as tacky as the usual; with deep blood red as a recurring visual motif. There are scenes with modern windmills in La Mancha, the place where Don Quixote and the director both hail from. In Almodóvar's vision of Spain the old traditions coexist uneasily with the new and it is a little crazymaking. You can tell how fond he is of what makes Spain, Spain: the food, the superstitions, the little old ladies and their excessive reliance on prayer and gossip; and yet the narrowmindedness exasperates him. He also comments on the appalling incidence of spousal abuse, the kind of provincial attitudes towards foreigners, or anybody slightly different, the self-same superstitions, and the idiotization of the masses by what he calls TVBasura, Trash TV. As in the best of his movies, Volver is a portrait of Spain through its women, resourceful, chaotic, emotional, bighearted, wise and courageous. His mastery of the tragicomic reminds me of Chekhov. Volver is this good.