Oct 27, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

I enjoyed Sidney Lumet's 44th movie for its moxie and its cantankerousness, but it seems to me a very uneven film.
What is thoroughly enjoyable is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be the only main character in the film who steadfastly refuses to ham it up. The whole thing is very acty, but he is excellent as a ruthless, cold bastard with major emotional issues. Now, I have, as always, a major issue with the reviewers in this country who have to tell you what the plot is about, thereby giving away its most important surprises. This really drives me nuts. Isn't it enough to say, "it's about a heist gone horribly wrong" and leave it at that. No, they have to spell everything out for you. Please, spare us the details. That way, when the twists come, we will not be expecting them already. But I digress. For the sake of the couple of readers who are presently living in a cave, it will suffice me to say that this film is about a heist gone wrong, and more to the point, about a bunch of utter fuckups. This movie, if anything, is a glorious exploration, well written by Kelly Masterson, of the human capacity for totally fucking up. Everybody in it is a world-class fuckup, or a loser, or deeply corrupt, and I am a sucker for misanthropy.
The other thing I really loved, is that it is an ornery movie. Sidney Lumet, bless him, still believes in the inherent rudeness of New Yorkers, even when the behavior in this town nowadays (at least during shopping hours) seems more suitable, alas, to Des Moines.
In his movie, however, receptionists are still salt of the earth, opinionated broads, and people behind desks ask customers to "pipe down", or "stick their neck" into a hospital room when they inquire for a patient. Service is of one of two types: rude or condescending, whether from a heroin dealer or the police department: nobody cares. Such curdled joie de vivre is exhilarating. As also is the use of great New York character actors. Brian F O'Byrne is hilariously Noo Yawk as one of the criminals, and interesting people like Lee Wilkof, Alice Spivak and Michael Shannon pepper up the screen. There is a wonderful scene between Ethan Hawke and his embittered ex-wife, (Amy Ryan), that just shows the nasty aftermath of a failed marriage. The bile and the hatred are as thick as molasses. Even Hawke's young daughter berates him. Such are the joys of this film. It holds as its central philosophy something that is dear to my heart: the world is a cesspool, stop dreaming.
Much of this movie is darkly funny, and it could almost be a nasty, dark little comedy if it wasn't for the overthetopness of it all. The chewing of the scenery doesn't correspond with the nature of the story. Less emoting may have made it both more chilling and more funny. Hawke is absolutely out of control as Hoffman's baby brother. His mugging is so extreme, it really distracts you from buying into the story, which is already a bit of a stretch to begin with. Marisa Tomei is sadly overused in a seemingly underwritten part. Amy Ryan is very good as a bitter ex-wife, and Albert Finney, well, he is a ham, but, like Mr. Ex-Enchilada used to say, he's a Westphalian Ham, (as opposed to an Oscar Mayer ham).
I found the ending super strained and hard to believe, over the top but without real weight.
Still, I raise my glass to Mr. Lumet, who drums up such raw energy with enviable vigor and zest.


The movie is gorgeously shot in black and white, with a keen eye on composition, since Anton Corbijn, the director, is a famous still photographer, who has mainly photographed rock bands like U2. His eye for the detail of the unglamorous part of rock bands is refreshing. Control is an engrossing movie, with a haunting central performance by the very talented Sam Riley, strongly supported by an excellent cast that includes the formidable Samantha Morton and Alexandra Maria Lara, last seen as Hitler's secretary in Downfall, and most memorably, the very funny Toby Kebbell, who plays the band's manager.
Ian Curtis's life came to a tragic end when he was impossibly young, and my main problem with this movie, is that to judge from it the way it is portrayed, his problems with epilepsy and women simply do not seem tragic or insurmountable enough to warrant suicide. One gathers he was probably deeply depressive and emotionally disturbed, but not from anything the movie really makes clear, so he comes across as a monumentally self-involved prick. I am all for the de-mythification of legends, but the movie robs its central character of much tragic depth by ignoring his emotional context. You can spell these problems out without turning the film into a tear jerker, which seems what the filmmakers were justifiably trying to avoid. But dramatically it doesn't work and instead of feeling a deep sense of loss, one thinks: what an idiot.
Control made me think of Sid and Nancy, the magnificent film by Alex Cox, about the terrible demise of Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. That film was awash in context, not with cheap psychobabble, but with the background of coming of age in Britain in the Eighties. It is such a riot of anarchy, it manages to exhilarate and appall at the same time. Obviously, the willfully detached lads of Joy Division were not like the unleashed beasts of the Sex Pistols, but Control seems too polished to deal with basic personal stuff that would have given more meaning to Mr. Curtis's untimely death.
It turns out I'm not the only one who feels this way. I am deeply grateful to the fabulous Mimosa, reporting from Paris, who always sends me truly interesting, intelligent and thought-provoking links through the internets.

Oct 25, 2007

We Own The Night

A very satisfying, hardboiled, soulful police drama with the increasingly fantastic Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg (who just doesn't do it for me) and Robert Duvall. Very well written and directed by James Gray, We Own the Night is a police family drama (yep) that is gripping and drips atmosphere. It's about two brothers, the cop, played (barely) by Wahlberg and the black sheep, Phoenix, in an amazing performance, who are the sons of a police bigwig. It is by all appearances a relatively conventional story, but in fact it is far more interesting than it lets on at the beginning. Phoenix is stuck in a sort of Hamletian dilemma. His father and brother want him to become an informant because he manages a disco where the Russian Mob is involved. Like Hamlet, first thing out of his mouth is, and what's it to me? Doesn't want to deal. But circumstances make him take action, unlike Hamlet who kvetches for over three hours and a half and finally has someone else put on a play.
It turns out that the antihero has more mettle and more balls and more principle than his straight- laced, self-important brother cop. In the end, it is a film about family bonds, about the family you are born into and the families you choose later in life, but it is dark and brooding and hard edged and that is why I loved it.
I also loved the music in this film. The Eighties' tunes are all cool and nostalgic, but I'm talking about the music by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, which is super moody and minimal and disconcerting and has an Eastern European air without ever sounding like Ochi Chornia. Speaking of Russians, Mr. Gray, being the resident expert because his parents are Russian immigrants, peoples his movie with extraordinarily convincing Russians and also great character actors as hardened NY cops, Danny Hoch, super good as a lightweight, cowardly dealer, and Eva Mendes, who is not only sexy, but damn fine as an actress.
New York in the Eighties (that is Queens and Coney Island -- I love that there is no Manhattan anywhere in this film) feels gritty and has as much character as the characters in the film. Looking at the bleak Coney Island landscapes in winter, I thought, boy is this the most charismatic city for movies, or what. No other city has the character, the pockmarks, the grit, of New York. Gray pays homage to the iconic car chase scene of the French Connection but has the balls to do it during a torrential downpour. It's fantastic.
It kind of gives me hope, having seen Michael Clayton as well, that there are still good films being made in the USA, with solid, bankable actors, good writing and great craftsmanship.

Oct 23, 2007

On DVD: Dreamgirls and Venus

I haven't written in a couple of days because I have some sort of nasty sore throat that is making me feel very bad. I look at the beautiful, unseasonable weather outside my window, and cannot enjoy it because I feel lousy. I look at the news and it all seems to be the same. Iraq is still there, there are fires in California, which always happens, so what else is new?
I resort to my Netflix. I have seen Dreamgirls, and didn't like it. The music is a terrible pastiche of actually great black music. The extraordinarily talented cast (Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson) are all wasted singing bad songs and mouthing even worse dialogue.
The movie looks great but it bored me to tears. And as much as Eddie Murphy rocked, it looks like half of his performance was edited out of the film. A very frustrating movie. Quite terrible, somehow.
I also saw Venus, with Peter O'Toole, written by the great Hanif Kureishi (I confess: I fell in love with him when he came to the Pen writer's conference in NY like two years ago. I fell in love with his bile.)
I was surprised that Venus was so much better than I imagined. Directed with great sensitivity by Roger Michell and stupendously acted by O'Toole and the rest of the cast. It's a movie that sometimes tries to be spunkily comedic like those newfangled cookie cutter British comedies, but because it is written by Kureishi, it is much more poignant and darker and smarter than that.

Oct 21, 2007

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is a smart, talky movie about icky lawyers. Almost old-fashioned in its penchant for words, it is a tight thriller about a "fixer", played by George Clooney, who is always cleaning up sticky messes for his all-powerful law firm. It soehow feels old fashioned, as it is a proper movie, with proper dialogue and a proper plot, and lots of good material for the actors. In fact, the greatest treat are the actors, a stellar dream cast. The cinematography and the music are great, and everything works like clockwork.
It is a joy to watch Sydney Pollack in the role of the likeable boss of an unlikeable law firm. The man should act more often. The formidable Tom Wilkinson plays a lawyer who apparently has lost his marbles and decides to join the other side in a class action case. Everything he says and does seems like madness, but he is of course, the great seer of truth. It is an incredibly balanced performance in which the crazy shtick never seems like shtick. Tilda Swinton, an actress I've never really liked, gives an unbelievable performance as the chief counsel for a very evil company. She is mesmerizing (and in my view, deserves Oscar). And then there are a bunch of great New York stage actors who shine in their small roles, most memorably Denis O'Hare as a smarmy Connecticut man involved in a hit and run. Cloooooooney is fantastic as the tired, troubled anti-hero of the movie. He's kind of a loser, a sellout, and he's had it. He is very economical with his feelings but you can feel the rot and the disgust and the anger and the shame. It's a quiet but powerful performance. He is a wonderful movie star and a smart actor and we looooove him.
The film is a fantastic first directing gig for Tony Gilroy, writer of the Bourne movies. He seems to possess a natural gift for directing actors, and he gives them wonderful dramatic scenes to sink their teeth into, so that confrontations between Clooney and O'Hare, Clooney and Swinton, and Clooney and Wilkinson are little marvels of dramatic writing, and extremely choice morsels for the actors. It's all very satisfying, with a very complex plot and many characters that keep you very busy thinking, which is good. The movie is an ethical drama about corruption and cover ups, and at the end one wonders if it's going to go the extra mile and just drip with human ickiness.
I will not disclose. Go find out.
I'm surprised it is number 4 at the box office. The opening of it is a fantastic, longish voiceover rant by Tom Wilkinson and if that has not scared the Resident Alien audiences away, maybe there is still hope for mankind. I bet this movie has a loyal female audience and it also caters to guys who like to wrap their minds around interesting plots. During the endless previews, we were shown like 3 chick flicks who all seemed to have been created by the creators of The Devil Wears Prada and each lame comedy seemed more forced, unfunny and embarrasing than the next. You want to give us chick flicks? Put Clooney in a smart, rewarding film like Michael Clayton, and stop thinking we're all a bunch of airheads.
We'll pay to see him and to have his babies (or at least try!).

Oct 17, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

I liked it more than I thought I would.
It is DROLL with a capital D, but at least Wes Anderson has his own style, and that's more that you can say about a lot of other people making movies these days (particularly formulaic indy movies and insufferable shit like mumblecore). Anderson milks the droll deadpan for everything it's got, but I found this movie to have a bit more substance than his last forays into whimsy.
Three brothers go on a spiritual journey in India that doesn't become spiritual because they will it to be, but because life happens to them. It's very sweet, sometimes arch; it elicits knowing smiles, but no more, and I'm sure it does not mean to be a laugh riot. The Wes Anderson quirky tone is firmly in place.
The music is the best thing in the movie. A winning combination of songs by the Kinks and the gorgeous music of the films of Sajyajit Ray, it really lifts it up. It's inspired.
It's rather touching to see Owen Wilson with his head covered in bandages deliver a better performance than that of his brothers Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman. And Angelica Huston is imposing and wonderful as their mom. I found the movie very enjoyable. It made me want to take the Darjeeling Limited, if indeed there is such a lovely train.

Oct 15, 2007

Blade Runner at The Ziegfield

Blade Runner, the Final Cut at the Ziegfield: oh, the joy of a bigass theater and a big screen. The luxury! The Ziegfield also boasts an enterprising usher that greets you with a booming, theatrical voice. Even the popcorn tastes better. Now, it is worth revisiting Blade Runner just because it is so visually stunning. I remember the first time I saw it, I was blown away by the noodle stands in perpetual night and rain, and by the floating geishas. The movie still gets the future right: dark, damp, cluttered and dirty -- it is magnificent. Ridley Scott did have a bit of an obsession with ceiling fans and window shades, and fog coming in through the slats at all times. But the set design and the whole visual concept of the movie are so unique and atmospheric and disturbing, it is gorgeous. Harrison Ford is totally wooden as Deckerd, the Blade Runner. He is more robotic than the replicants, but that may just be the point. How do you trust anyone in a world where robots are so human looking? I'm not a huge fan of science fiction but the premise of this movie is very cool. Sean Young wears huge shoulder pads and Daryl Hannah looks suitably punkish and Rutger Hauer is still very scary and Eddie Olmos wears blue contact lenses. I don't remember the original in much detail, but this cut seems much more atmospheric, the pace more stately, more ruminative. Also, there is an eye gouging a la King Lear that I don't remember from the original. Very violent but effective. And the original end, if I remember correctly, Sean and Harrison escaped into some lush green mountains that had nothing to do with the world he had just witnessed. No longer. The ending is much subtler and better now.

NYFF: Don Rickles: Mr. Warmth

I made the midnight show of the new John Landis documentary Mr. Warmth, about the one and only Don Rickles, who at 81 years old is still busy insulting people and making them howl with laughter, God bless his punim.
The film is a delightful hoot because mostly it has lots of Don Rickles in concert. And the man is priceless. His humor is so ancient that it is almost quaint, the jokes about drunk Irish catholics, and toothy Japanese and Nazi Germans and sleepy Mexicans deserves to be in a museum, but the funny thing is that it works. The man is truly hilarious. The genius is in the delivery. The improvisation, the mercurial comebacks, the sharpest sense of timing... and that face. The face of a puckish pug. The face of a mamzer. And I say this with gushing admiration.
But the movie is also about a world that is lost. Everybody in it (Steve Lawrence, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Newhart and other ancient wonders of the world) waxes poetic about how cool Vegas was when the Mafia ran it. It was a classy joint, not the podunk amusement park it is today. People dressed up, drank and gambled seriously: there was glamour, goddammit.
As someone says in the movie, Don Rickles shows up with his orchestra and a mike and there are no albino tigers and people hanging from ropes and laser beams and firecrackers. And for your money, he is still the best show in town.
Glamour is utterly dead and buried. There is simply no such thing as glamour anymore. Please do not confuse the stars parading borrowed gowns and jewelry for glamour. Do not think because you cover yourself in logos that you bought in Chinatown, you are glamorous. Glamour is something else. And it is gone from the face of Earth, which saddens me to no end. Instead of glamour, we have marketing, which is the death of everything.
Now, to talk about glamour and Don Rickles in the same sentence is strange, but there is a connection. He belongs to a time where you had to dress up to see him, just as he still puts on his tux and his patent leather shoes to entertain you.
I once saw an open mike night at the Laugh Factory in LA and the pathetic losers on stage were not funny, so they started to abuse the audience with really crass, vulgar and witless comments. The difference between Rickles and them is that he is not a bitter loser. He is a talented performer who enjoys commanding a room. He is a performance artist and I love him to death. The doc will show on HBO. See it.

Oct 12, 2007

New York Film Festival: Redacted

As I got ready today to write my review of Redacted, the Brian De Palma Iraq war film shown last night at the New York Film Festival, I came across an interesting piece of news. Apparently, at the press conference there was a huge discrepancy between the director's claims that his own film has been "redacted" by Magnolia Pictures, the distributor; and the producers, who claim this isn't so. In order to explain this funny business, you have to know that the film uses actual photographs of Iraqi war victims, whose faces have been masked with what looks like a sharpie, because there is no clearance to use them for commercial use, which is the category that this movie belongs in. The debate on fair use and clearances is one for the lawyers. Although I must say only in America would executives be so concerned that the families of poor Iraqis blown to pieces are going to sue them for using a picture that has already appeared in the press. And if they are so concerned at respecting their dignity and their privacy, perhaps they should not show them at all, much less with an inkblot covering their faces.
In any case, the more interesting issues raised by this film are those of authenticity.
Redacted is sort of Casualties of War redux, except in Iraq and in the age of video and internet. Every single image in the movie is supposed to be shot by a witness holding a video camera, or by a security camera, or by a news network, or by documentarians. Certainly such immediacy is disturbing and endlessly interesting, since it makes witnesses or voyeurs of us all, as opposed to simply an audience looking for entertainment. HOWEVER, with a capital H, the movie happens to be a fictional dramatization of a true incident that happened in Samarra, where American soldiers raped, killed and burned a 15 year-old girl and massacred her family. So all the supposedly realistic footage is painstakingly designed to look real but it is performed (mostly hammily) by actors. The internet sites are recreated, fake newschannels invented, etc. The stylistic choice supposedly makes the audience confront reality without the safety blanket of "this is only a movie". But unfortunately, it also imposes certain limitations on the plot, which result in contrivances that defy belief. For instance, one of the soldiers is shooting everything he sees in his camcorder so he can submit his film to film school. To this end, he wears a tiny camera that records the rampage on the night in question, and nobody knows. Like we say in Spanish, now tell me a cowboy story. There is no authority around to censor him. It may be true that American kids are running around Iraq with no semblance of a squad leader telling them what they can or cannot do. But if Redacted is to be believed, the soldiers are not only sorely lacking in supervision, but they display an alarming degree of naivete about the danger of their surroundings. They act as if they were at Summer camp half the time, and they seem totally unsupervised. When the shit hits the fan, and the plotting of it is recorded by a security camera that seems to have stereo speakers, it is almost beyond belief that nobody has the power or authority to stop it. One could think this is a perfect metaphor for the kind of moral degradation we are going through as a result of this war, but my point is that it would have worked much better as a metaphor had it not tried so hard to look real, had it been shot in a more conventional way. The paradox is: the more realistic you try to make it, the more fake it looks, because the audience expects everything to be more real. In fictional conventional narratives we are able to forgive and accept certain conventions expecting that we will be rewarded with true insight. Art can achive more genuine results through artifice. (See: Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Paths of Glory). But when you try to have it both ways, it doesn't seem to work, or it smacks of exploitation. I'm of the camp that viewers need to know exactly what it is they are watching. I was not a fan of The Blair Witch Project because I don't buy the fake reality, and the same happened to me with Redacted, as well made and undeniably intense as it is. Or perhaps it's De Palma, who has the subtlety of an axe murderer and a tin ear for real reality. Even the way the kids talk to military investigators seems farfetched. I find it hard to believe that two soldiers that are in hot water for committing rape and murder, would be so disrespectful and so blasé. It doesn't help that the guys have nary a shred of real dimensionality to them. There is the decent college kid, the aspiring Latino filmmaker, the tough talking Black sargeant, and the two trailer trash from hell, which Sean Penn did by himself much more convincingly in Casualties of War. The young, talented actors give it their all. Had they been in the hands of someone with more psychological acuity, they would not seem like walking clichés.
So plenty of instances ring false. Which is exactly why the movie fails, for all its brutality, for all its intentions to make Americans confront the evil we have unleashed. Its manipulations are more transparent, and less emotionally effective.
Brian de Palma is a very proficient filmmaker and some of the sequences in this film have incredible tension and power. They are chillingly effective, particularly one where a car runs through a checkpoint, seen from the point of view of the passenger in the car. In fact, part of the film is quite entertaining: most of the soldiers are likeable and they speak the army macho patois with much conviction. We seem to have a tradition in American war movies of goofy camaraderie and potty mouthed repartee that we all come to expect. Though it may be very real, it's a cliché. But then things get ugly, and the plot is blatantly contrived in order to get someone to actually record the evil deeds with a camera. De Palma really goes to town with the violence, although it could have been more disturbing to learn of the incident without actually seeing it, through its consequences. I'm not advocating for prudishness. Redacted is a war film and war should not be sanitized. The entire point of the film seems to be that the war has been pre-sanitized for us by the government and the self-censored media, and had we access to the obscene brutality that goes on every day, as we did during Vietnam, perhaps we'd be more inflamed against the war. Still, the premise that the crime is recorded for posterity with a video camera makes the whole thing rather forced.
In the end, I was not moved nor outraged, but exhausted and underwhelmed.
The photographs of bloodied, maimed civilians at the end of the film are horrifying. That their faces are further desecrated by a black blot makes their tragic anonymity even more obscene. They are the only thing that is actually real in the movie. What is the point in obscuring their faces? Surely they are already unrecognizable, charred, maimed, blown to shreds. Is it only for legal protection? Is it for sensationalism? In either case, it is an appalling, disrespectful use of them. If the purpose is to shock American audiences into recognizing that we are at war, then why obscure the faces? These are human beings, and viewing them like this may provoke shock and outrage, but it does not afford them or us any dignity. It's war porn.

Oct 8, 2007

Werner Herzog In Person

Encounters at the End of The World, a film and conversation with Werner Herzog.
Man, for the grief he gets into on every film he makes, Werner Herzog looks fantastically youthful. He is full of life and vim and many opinions. In his latest, wonderful documentary, Herzog goes to the South Pole and points his boundless curiosity at everything. What seems at first like a classic Discovery Channel documentary about scientists in the South Pole, turns out to be a highly idiosyncratic film. (NOTE: Everybody needs to see Grizzly Man).
Herzog brings his camera and adjusts his interests to whatever happens to cross his way. There seems to be no overarching structure but that of living in the moment and seizing opportunities, finding unexpected things and people in unexpected places, and yet the film is hugely entertaining. Herzog is fascinated by the motley bunch of eccentric explorers and scientists who have seemingly fallen to the bottom of the Earth and who share a desire to leave the world behind. His narration has a wonderful sense of humor and irony. None of that stentorian, heroic voice a la Morgan Freeman, waxing poetic about the wonders of nature. He has great comic timing, the freshness of a child running around with a camera and the sophistication of a mature artist. Herzog knows that the breadth of human experience in the natural world is painful and complex, and he refuses to fall into cliches. His choices are always fascinating. There is a marvelous business with emergency training for snow storms where people run around Antartica with their heads inside buckets (to simulate zero visibility conditions) and he lingers lovingly, bemusedly in the cartoony hilarity of something that would be horribly tragic if it actually came to pass. When he gets to cover the penguins, he asks a taciturn penguin watcher if penguins can go crazy and then happens to find one who apparently does. As he emphatically explained in conversation, he has little patience for people who think the universe is in harmony. He says it is a violent, disturbing place, but still he finds grace and wonder, both in humans and in nature. He is refleshingly wary of tree huggers and animal lovers who whine about global warming but don't care about the death of human languages. He is a true eclectic with a mischievous streak, announcing gleefully to the audience that he staged some of the scenes of the film, albeit with the purpose of getting to a deeper truth. He has a very poetic way with images. Everything with him feeds into a sense of wonder, and that is what he communicates. Fortunately, he is not a sentimentalist and has no patience for manipulative drivel on the order of March of the Penguins (which I find as repulsive as he does in its shameless antropomorphism).

Oct 5, 2007

To Make A Long Story Long

This is my year of sloooooooooooooooooooow movies.
Silent Light, by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas is our auteur, our artiste, which means his movies are heavily pretentious. I was not a fan of Japon, and because of that, I didn't see Battle in Heaven, but Silent Light did very well at Cannes so I ventured out to the New York Film Festival.
For a while, Reygadas got his reputation by staging sex scenes with very ugly, old or fat people. He must have understood that this kind of novelty quickly wears off, even for masochistic cineastes.
The movie is the story of a love triangle among members of the Mennonite community in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Reygadas used all non professional members of the Mennonite community (some of whom he had to cast in Canada and Germany) and the actors are mostly wooden, as most unprofessional non-actors are. I have never understood the predilection of certain filmmakers for non professional actors. In my book, when dealing with dramatic narrative, actors are always better than real people. In this case it makes sense to use real Mennonites, because otherwise you'd have a pretentious version of Witness, and that is something nobody needs.
The movie starts with a sunrise in almost real time, so you know that you are in for excruciating slowness and you adjust your expectations accordingly.
Watching a sunrise in real time in real life is a miraculous experience. Watching it on a screen is a bore, regardless of how beautiful the sky and how chirpy the crickets. This is an important difference between cinema and real life. In cinema we cut to the chase and we can still get to experience the wonder. Call me a philistine, but I fail to see the point of a sunrise in real time in a movie. Nowadays I get less upset at these kinds of artistic overindulgence. After sitting through the 8-hour Bela Tarr extravaganza Satantango, I am almost inured to slow films.
Yet, even with its pretentiousness, I actually found Silent Light very absorbing and quite moving. It was interesting to observe the Mennonites, who are deeply religious, but apparently not as prudish as one would think, in their secluded life in Mexico, where nobody seems to bother them. Reygadas chose beautiful people for his film and he coaxed some authentic emotion here and there from his actors. It is obvious that this film does not pretend to be something realistic, because the authenticity of the peole makles the story seem very artificial, imposed on them. My question is, does the director get off on manipulating people who are not trained for the physical and emotional rigors of acting? This is an aspect of his movies that disturbs me. Am I the only one who smells the faint whiff of exploitation? Abbas Kiarostami also prefers non professional actors but I think he is careful not to cross certain boundaries, and somehow, because of his far superior writing, he gets something much more interestingly human in return (but also very slow).
I liked the movie better before I saw the director in the Q&A session. I objected to two things. 1. He was dressed as if he had just woken up and went to the corner for a bagel. There is nothing more studied than such willful, seemingly careless disregard for the appropriate attire, and I find that obnoxious. 2. He mentioned the word "Bressonian". Pre-ten-tious.
The Man from London, from Hungarian Bela Tarr, the granddaddy of slowness.
This movie is based on a story by Georges Simenon. Again, a relatively conventional, deeply ironic story about a man who steals a briefcase with stolen money, told in the stately sytle of Bela Tarr, in gray and gray, with endless travelling shots; every shot a composition like a painting and almost as motionless, strange locales and quirky characters. Except that this film is entirely humorless, except for the typical little dancing session at the bar between drunks, and kind of pointless. It's hard to feel any kind of emotion for the main characters because the staging is so artificial, the acting so exaggerated. Bela Tarr has a fondness for shooting some of his actors from behind so you only see the nape of the neck for like two hours. Then he stays on a distraught face for more hours. Satantango at 8 hours was less boring and less plodding than this film and it had far more life. You will excuse the sacrilege but Bela Tarr makes me want to take his movies and chop them off to humanly bearable rhythms. I'd bet they'd be even better if they were shorter and faster.
I appreciate the filmmakers that insist in bringing the moving image to a standstill, but for the love of God, I don't quite see why.

Oct 2, 2007

Short Review Of A Longwinded Movie

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Richard Ford is a movie even more pretentious and ponderous than its title, which is a pity because it is based on the fascinating story of the poor schmuck who killed the legendary criminal, thinking the world would thank him for it and got nothing but contempt in return. It's a great subject for a film but it is unfortunately bogged down by a cloak of pretentious, incompetent artiness that squeezes any hint of life out of it. The only person who looks alive in it is Sam Shepard, who plays Frank James. He seems to be the only one who actually belongs in that world.
The incredibly exquisite cinematography is by the masterful Roger Deakins, yet it's a testament to the preciousness of the movie that even the stunning beauty of every single shot begins to rub you the wrong way after the two hour mark. The film plods with no rhyme or reason for the sake of its own poetry. It's a real shame.
This movie would have worked if someone had the cold blood to chop off all the solemn fluff, and if someone had had a clearer idea of how to tell a story. A good cast is wasted, twisting their tongues around the authentic patois of the period, which was mostly unintelligible to me because it was mostly mumbled. Brad Pitt is fine, but no more than serviceable, as Jesse James.
I was happy to see James Carville, aka Serpenthead, play the governor of Missouri. He's a damn fine actor.
I don't get Casey Affleck's performance. Is he queer? Is he just weird for the sake of being weird? Was he born mysterious? He does gets better as the movie inches slowly along but one never gets a clear understanding of his character. After all, the movie is really about him, but the director is too busy being an artist to give his main character emotional coherence. A fine mess.

Oct 1, 2007

Eastern Promises or Oh, Viggo!

Viggo, Viggo, Viggo, Viggo.
Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes my review of Eastern Promises, the new David Cronenberg film.
Okay. Not so fast.
I like David Cronenberg because of his unwavering commitment to exploring the problem of human evil, which he knows is infinite and endless and which he doesn't ever shirk away from. He rather revels in the voluptuousness of violence. Critics have complained about the excessive violence in this movie. It is a bit much, but I think it serves a purpose, as opposed to the retarded violence which is the rule in most Hollywood blockbusters. In Eastern Promises all violence is accomplished with sharp instruments, and it is brutal.
And Cronenberg wants you to look. He wants you to admit there is a place in the human heart where evil and savagery reside. He is fascinated by our dual nature, and has found in Viggo Mortensen a magnificent, precisely calibrated instrument for his investigations.
I have to tell you that I knew everything that was going to happen in the movie because the reviews I read made sure to tell it to me. I feel like suing the bastards. Even so, I was completely transfixed with it. As stories go, Eastern Promises relies a bit too much on some strategically placed coincidences. It seems for instance, that everybody in London is a Russian or has a Russian uncle. But that's nitpicking. Cronenberg is a wonderful storyteller and he has a way with images. He is one of the few current filmmakers whose imagery remains in your memory long after you've seen the film, and not necessarily the most violent imagery. After Dead Ringers, you'll never look at your gynecologist and his instruments the same way again. The same goes for cars and their accidents, with the original Crash, a wonderfully perverse movie. My favorite scene in Eastern Promises involves Vincent Cassel, who plays Kyril, a mean mess of a mob guy, inflating balloons for a birthday party.
Cronenberg used to be more of a meat and potatoes horror guy; now he is making more conventional moral stories. There is a new preoccupation with redemption in his films, and that's where he loses me a little, but I don't fault him for trying not to be so damn dark.
Eastern Promises is very rewarding because it is a good story, if you suspend your disbelief a couple of times, with wonderful actors in it. Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai, a Russian mob driver, and he is a marvel of powerful understatement. He is even better than in A History of Violence. He drives the boss' son, Vincent Cassel, a chaotic mess of flamboyantly reprehensible behavior. Cassel chomps the scenery with great gusto (and great humanity), and they both play off each other beautifully, like a Russian mob odd couple. Viggo is the smart clean up guy and Vincent is the total fuck up. He is quite a monster, but the filmmakers give him a backstory of closeted gayness and impotence, and I think the impotence would have been enough, but I guess it helps to fuel his self hatred and the disgust of his disapproving, ruthless father, played, with an aura of benevolence by Armin Mueller Stahl.
Naomi Watts shows up as a good girl both attracted and repelled by these evil people (and who wouldn't be attracted to Viggo?) and Sinead Cusack is her mother and everybody is great.
The plot is a little confusing and full of revelations and betrayals that are a little hard to keep track of, but that keep us happily busy. I enjoyed much more its few subtleties than its obvious turns.
But there is a lot there to please: there is Viggo and Vincent and Viggo naked and tattooed, and if you can stomach it, a lot of gruesome, messy life.