Feb 28, 2007

So naive!

I just had a revelation. How could I have been so stupid?
I read this headline: "Viewer Numbers Increase a Bit for Oscar Show" and I hit an eureka! moment.
And this is it: The Academy, in all its overstuffed, greedy glory, saw that Latinos are hot this year and that Latinos are many this year and it saw Ugly Betty and saw that it was good. And so it decided to put a bunch of Latinos up in competition for the simple reason of increasing ratings. Just like it does with other ethnic groups once in a while. With Black artists it is finally learning the lesson that you don't put them all in the same year and then forget about them, but that you continue acknowledging their talent every year. With Latinos we're not there yet. It took the Blacks how long? So don't hold your breath.
This revelation also explains to me why none of the nominated Latinos won anything of import (except Guillermo Navarro's cinematography and 2 other Oscars for Pan's Labyrinth and Santaolalla's underwhelming music for Babel). Because it is all marketed. This year was not only the year of the Latinos, it was the global year. And the year of global warming, and the year of lesbians. I am all for it, but I wonder what our fates will be next year. If they're not careful they may run out of lame p.c. causes for the show. And then what?
This also explains to me the otherwise unfathomable indifference (some call it conspiracy) against Children of Men, a movie good enough, strong enough, entertaining enough and political enough to deserve a best movie of the year award.
But it was not to be, uno, because it's rather dreary, even with a sort of happy ending tacked at the end, and dos, because even though it was directed by my esteemed compadre Alfonso Cuarón, who is a Mexican, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, ditto and edited by Cuaron and Alex Rodriguez, another Mexican, the movie does not have a recognizable Latino bone in its body, like the movies of the other Two Amigos do. So, therefore, it doesn't count.
Now I see it. And that's it for the stupid Oscars until next year.

My Sentiments Exactly

I do not always agree with David Denby, film critic of the New Yorker. I sometimes think he nails it, and sometimes his taste is a bit conventional for my taste. But in this week's issue he writes the most cogent, thoughtful and articulate essay against the new ensemble cast, multistory, fragmented narrative kind of movie that is getting nominated left and right, but that makes you pine for one story well told. These movies, the bogus, awful Crash and Syriana, the pretentious Babel, are the reason why I loved movies like The Queen and United 93 and Children of Men. One story, told chronologically and far more profoundly devastating, illuminating, human and real than the crazy antics of 546 people, running around all over fragmented time frames, giving the audience a headache.
Read the Denby article. It is very illuminating.
His analysis of the Arriaga-Gonzalez Iñarritu oeuvre is flawless. Some golden nuggets:

• The Mexican housekeeper, having taken the children across the border, gets into trouble when returning to the United States. After that, damned if she doesn’t lose the children in the desert, at which point I lost all faith in the movie. “Life is like that,” I heard people in the audience say. Actually, a certain kind of pseudo-serious bad fiction is like that. ...“Babel” feels like the first example of a new genre—the highbrow globalist tearjerker.
I actually lost faith in the movie almost from the first scene, when Brad Pitt calls the housekeeper and asks her not to go to her son's wedding because there is absolutely nobody in the whole of San Diego except her who can take care of the kids. Not a neighbor, not a friend, not a relative. GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK.
• “L’Avventura” was an open form; it didn’t play around with time sequences, but it altered our sense of how life works. The Arriaga-Iñárritu films, for all their structural innovations, are closed, even overdetermined, forms—puzzle boxes. All the pieces are there to be put together in our heads, but the rich ambivalence of art somehow slips away...

• Experience can’t be random and also structured like a cage.

• Godard once said that he wanted to make films with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. “21 Grams” moves sideways and turns itself inside out, but in no order... But why? Since none of the characters are part of any reality that makes sense to us, we can’t say, as we did at “Amores Perros,” that a social malaise has made the normal sequencing of the story irrelevant. On the contrary, we may wonder if Iñárritu and his editor didn’t scissor the movie into fragments in order to give soap-opera dismalness the appearance of radical art.
The same suspicion of pretentious fatalism and structural willfulness shadowed my response to “Babel.”
Hear, hear, Denby.

Feb 26, 2007

No Surprises

This is so boring I don't even know why I'm posting it. But we're glad they are over. The Oscars. Ellen DeGeneres was charming and enjoyable and entertaining but toothless. I have to say though that the ceremony seemed better, much less cloyingly, alarmingly corny than in other years. The Pilobolus stuff was cute, the musical numbers were kept to a minimum. Beyonce rocks.
One thing that surprised me was that except for best director and best movie, I believe, you couldn't really tell from the presenters who was going to win. Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway presented the costume award but it went to the great Milena Canonero for Marie Antoinette, and not for their own movie. That was refreshing. Maybe the fact that the Europeans Daniel Craig and Eva Green announced the foreign film meant it was going to Germany. Maybe. But when we all saw Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola announce the best director, of course it was going to Scorsese. Obvious.
Very happy for Alan Arkin and for Martin Scorsese. Although the best picture of the year for me was either The Queen or United 93.
The Mexican contingent got technical awards for Guillermo del Toro but nothing else. I wonder if my countrymen on the other side of the border are feeling totally deflated, but then again, if they are, they are used to it.
That The Inconvenient Truth won best documentary is no surprise. Global warming is the designated cause celebre of the moment and this prize is a tacky exercise in Hollywood self-congratulation. The film is a lecture and it's not even good. Iraq in Fragments should have won. But except for one person who gave a speech, nobody seemed to remember that there is a war going on with Americans in it.
I can't believe cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) lost for the fourth time, this time to a compatriot, Guillermo Navarro. Rodrigo Prieto should have been nominated for Babel, but then that would really be too many Mexicans in one category. Babel got best music as consolation prize, which sucks because as much as I like and admire Gustavo Santaolalla, his score for Babel is not that different from his score for Brokeback. I'm afraid he may have the Ennio Morricone (what a pompous bore, that man) syndrome, who rips himself off generously. Of all the music nominees, I thought Babel was the weakest. And speaking of Babel, much ado about nothing: seven nominations and only one prize. Next time perhaps people may want to nominate only those categories that deserve it. In Babel's case in my view Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, the editors and Rodrigo Prieto deserved a mention. That's it.
I think the Three Amigos appearing everywhere together is starting to get a little old and makes me slightly queasy. The three of them are distinctly talented people, they don't really need to bunch up and repeat the same old tired joke about Alejandro G.I. being the most handsome of the three. They don't need to market themselves as if Mexicans only came in trios, unless they are plotting something.
I knew Little Miss Sunshine was going to get best original screenplay because it was not going to get best movie. Is it better than the perfect screenplay for The Queen, by Peter Morgan? No, but I was happy for the movie and the writer. I thought Borat would get a prize for good box office in the best adapted screenplay, but that went to William Monaghan for The Departed. Fair enough.
There was justice in that the German film The Lives of Others won for foreign film. I am partial to Indigenes, but the German film is certainly a much better movie than Pan's Labyrinth.
The best acting prizes were totally predictable. It would have been great if Meryl Streep upset Helen Mirren, but Mirren deserved it. The problem with the proliferation of pre-Oscar awards is that by the time the Oscars come around everybody already knows the outcome and the awardees have way too many statuettes in their closets. So Mirren and Whittaker winning were no surprise for anyone. I was just glad to see Peter O'Toole lose (for the 8th time!). I don't know why I dislike him intensely. Always have.
We had Oscar night at the movie club, which was well attended and great fun, even though I noticed that everybody talked all through the show and was eerily quiet during the commercial breaks.
The dresses:
Everybody pretty much looked gorgeous except for three people:
• Cameron Diaz looked like a napkin with badly applied self tanner. Hideous hair, hideous hair color, hideous tan, hideous dress.
• Nicole Kidman wants to be Amanda Lepore when she grows up, which is not only scary, but horribly sad. Her cheeks and lips looked like plastic balloons, her face was puffed up, she looked frightening. It didn't help that she was next to Naomi Watts, who was, as always, very pretty.
• Jennifer Lopez. Horrid Mexican mother-in-law hair, horrid dress.
Actually we should thank them for providing something to talk about, because nowadays everyone is so polished and so perfect, there are no idiosyncratic choices anymore. It makes you miss Cher, or Bjork.
Gorgeous dresses: Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhall, Gwyneth.
The guys, they all look good in a tux.

Feb 20, 2007


One of the best movies of the year is Mafioso, actually an Italian film from 1962, directed by Alberto Lattuada and starring the one and only Alberto Sordi as a Sicilian engineer who works in Milan and who goes back to his one horse town in Sicily on vacation with his wife and daughters. Like all the great Italian social comedies, this one is a dark and very funny look at the local customs of a town where Don Vittorio, capo di tutti capi, rules like a God, deciding who lives, who dies, who kills and who is ostracized. It's all about the culture clash between the liberal, civilized, industrialized Italy from the continent, and the impoverished and backward islanders.
The joy is in the details: the gargantuan meals (I'm booking my trip right now), the hirsute sister, complete with moustache, beard and sideburns, who has never heard of waxing, the forbidding mamma, the sexually frustrated machos who make sand sculptures of naked females on the beach, the wrinkly relatives without teeth. Through it all, the divine Alberto Sordi displays an infectious amount of joie de vivre; the most endearing form of denial ever seen on a screen. However, even he, who has left Sicily to become a modern man, is still beholden to Don Vittorio and he needs to repay the favor.
There is no brutality and only one act of violence in the film. All you see are the consequences of the social system. The Catholic church turns a blind eye and prays on the superstitious and ignorant people, almost every house sports a plaque commemorating a dead son or a daughter, people know what you are going to do long before you know it yourself, and even your own father is willing to put you in harm's way because he owes everything to Don Vittorio. Anything you get from his supposed magnanimity will come back to haunt you later. As is customary in this great Italian genre, you laugh until you stop laughing. At the end, a happy, cheerful man is reversed into an animal, tainted, alienated from his family, forever corrupted, his eyes drained of all joy. Mafioso is somehow more brutal and more incisive than many of the movies of the genre that followed its trailblazing path with tons of blood and gunfire. It does not, like The Godfather or The Sopranos, mythologize the Mafia, it exposes it for the social rot it is. A fantastic film.

Feb 13, 2007

The Lives of Others

I congratulate myself on not having read Anthony Lane's unforgiveably garrolous review of the German movie The Lives of Others, because if had, there would have been no need to stand in the infernal lines at the Angelika and watch the film. Mr. Lane manages to tell us the entire movie, and successfully excises the considerable suspense of the film. If you want to see the film, do not read that review. You have been warned. I think Lane is losing it lately:
If there is any justice, this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film will go to "The Lives of Others" a movie about a world in which there is no justice.
I disagree. If there is any justice, which in the case of the Oscars the answer is always nisht, the award will go to the Moroccan war movie Indigenes, horridly translated as "Days of Glory", also about a world in which there is no justice. And if Pan's Labrynth wins, which will most likely be the case, then guess what? Apparently there is no justice in the world. Who knew?

The Lives of Others is a wonderfully taut film for about 3/4ths of its length. It is fascinating, gripping, compelling and extraordinarily acted, particularly by its very reluctant hero, the amazing Ulrich Muhe. This man deserves many, many acting prizes. The movie is worth seeing for his performance alone.
But there was something about the plot that I found rather contrived. I found the film to be rather obvious in its symbolism and I found that its didactic, albeit noble, purpose, detracted in the end from the horrifying truth it portrays of East Germany under the Stasi.
Eastern European communism was a hellish enterprise in every country it managed to rot, but leave it to the Germans to keep secret, surely extraordinarily meticulous, files for almost every citizen. They had invented a more outlandish system of humiliation and depersonalization only some years before, and now Communism afforded them to continue their sinister work. It may not have been that diabolical and bloody and over the top, but it was equally heartless and cruel. Now, they turned it against their own citizens, for which I must confess a delicious frisson of schadenfraude. So sue me.
After you watch this movie, you wonder if there is a part of the German psyche that enjoys living in hell.
What I liked about the movie is how well it handled the suspense that comes from the audience knowing something the characters don't. And how powerfully it recreates the atmosphere of daily dread in such a repressed country. The movie sustains the complex plot twists with assured elegance. It's only at the end, where they keep saying "one year later", "three years later", etc, that I thought it lost its structural cool. It became a little schmaltzy fantasy about the Good German who did the right thing. Still, it is a movie to be seen, just try to not know everything about it beforehand. If you survive the satanic disorganization that is the Angelika, you will feel doubly rewarded.

Feb 6, 2007

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Did I tell you that I went to Radio City Music Hall to hear Ennio Morricone in concert? Why, you ask, would I do such a thing? For starters, because I had never been to Radio City before (like I haven't been to the Empire State Bldg or the Statue of Liberty). And I wanted to see Radio City before I die or it dies.
I love art deco. That's why. I'm glad I saw it. It is very swanky. Although it seems blasphemous to me that they project the name of corporate sponsors on the walls of the concert hall. How crass.
I must convey to the managers of the place, who are the same people who own Madison Square Garden, which is a total dump, that I do not appreciate to be treated almost like a prisoner in Guantanamo when I'm out for an expensive night of live music. The troglodytes that ask you to show your tickets and open your bag at Radio City are extremely rude and I've had it, HAD IT, with security being a pretext for rude, arrogant and mean behavior. I am neither a terrorist nor a criminal and I do not deserve to be treated as a prisoner in a penal colony; much less if I'm attending a civilized event like a musical concert.
I am up to my imaginary balls with rude security agents at this country's airports, and rude security people in general. That most of them have probably never made it beyond the sixth grade but are now allowed to feel powerful and behave like goons with a badge is something that we have tolerated for way too long, and it is about time we stopped. They should all be trained in basic human courtesy, because as we say in Spanish, lo cortés no quita lo valiente. Being courteous will not make you less courageous. Assholes.
Now, back to Ennio. It was quite thrilling to hear some of this prolific composer's amazingly effective music for the screen. He opened with his theme for The Untouchables, which is fantastic. Then he played too many of his schmaltzy tunes, some of which are very beautiful, like his score for Cinema Paradiso or Malena, but most of which sounds like the same song.
I would have liked him to play his amazing music for The Battle of Algiers. Instead he played a really interesting score from Quemada, the Brazilian film. I didn't feel that the concert was short, like Stephen Holden did, but I did feel the selection was odd. There should have been more diverse scores. And because the venue is so huge, the orchestra had to be miked, and though we could hear pretty well in the nosebleed section, it was a shame that it was distorted and flattened by amplification.
In general, the concert was one of those vulgar affairs with extravagant ticket prices and a horribly designed program by some misguided graphic designer who I have a feeling must be the cousin of the producer. Mr. Morricone's demeanor, although correct and rather icy, was very awkward; he's probably not used to perform in public. And there is nothing tackier than someone using the PA system in a voice straight from the Soprano's hood in Jersey to introduce the producer of the event first, one of those impressarios who are responsible for abominations like The Three Tenors, and then the maestro. We all know what we're there for, so why announce it like you're in Grand Central? The chorus didn't know when to sit down or when to stand up, and the oboe soloist who had just played a beautiful solo from The Mission got up in the middle of the proceedings, like he needed to use the toilet, or his wife was giving birth, and he never came back to take a bow. Weird. There was an encore and then the orchestra sat on the stage for a long time and I didn't understand what was happening, and most probably neither did they.
Of course, we were there to hear the fun scores for the Sergio Leone films. And hearing live the classic theme from The Good, The Bad, etc, was very thrilling. It is clear that Morricone influenced film music tremendously and his scores are lush, dynamic and highly emotional. My favorite is still the one and only Nino Rota, who I find to be much less schmaltzy and much more genuine than Morricone, but there is no doubt that Ennio wrote some nifty scores.

Feb 2, 2007

Golden Globe Moral Outrage

I just realized:

Where is Christian Bale's nomination as best actor for Rescue Dawn? WHERE?
No justice. No peace.