Dec 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button



It's not a good thing when a movie reminds one of Forrest Gump, which is on my list of execrable films of all time.
Once again, we sat through three hours of pointless vanity. The idea of growing young, starting old and becoming a baby, is totally fascinating. However, it is totally wasted in this empty film which decides to be instead about a mythical love story from childhood between Brad Pitt, not acting enough, and Cate Blanchett, acting way too much.
Somebody like Charlie Kaufman could have done marvels playing mind games with this concept. Unfortunately, David Fincher just goes through the motions. All the energy of the movie seems to have been channeled into digital effects and the result is utterly lifeless.
I am not a huge fan of Fincher's movies, not of Seven, or of Fight Club or of Zodiac. His penchant for yellow exhausts me, but I would have welcomed some of the nasty edge of his other movies.
This is just pointless, empty fakeness.
If you must sit through it, the one kick you will get is watching Tilda Swinton breathe life and intelligence into the film. She rules.

Dec 25, 2008

On DVD: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice


I wanted to see for myself what this notorious 70's movie was about.
It's fantastic. It is a biting satire, a little clunky, very brutal, slyly funny and also charming and endearing and incredible. How did films like this get made? Now everything feels like product.
1.
I am utterly, desperately, tragically in love with Elliott Gould as he appears in this movie. The hottest, smartest, cutest Jew ever. And what an actor. There is an amazing, brutal scene between him and the fantastic Dian Cannon, who plays Alice, his wife, in which he wants to have sex and she doesn't. It is probably the truest scene of perverse marriage dynamics in the history of film and it is flawlessly executed. So after a give and take of almost Ionesquian proportions, she finally relents and tells him to give her the contraceptive pills. The look of boyish triumph in Elliot Gould's face encapsulates what volumes could be written about male sexuality in a single smile. I think it should be sent to outer space in one of those capsules they send trying to explain the human race to aliens.
This is a guy who never ever looked like he was acting. The most charming, effortless being in front of a camera. Ever. How cute was he. I can't bear it.
2.
Natalie Wood was not only extraordinarily beautiful, she was charming and lovely and fantastic and she carries the movie with poise and grace and intelligence.
3.
It's funny that in those days people were already into the new agey mumbo jumbo that has become a multimillion dollar industry these days but in those days you had to go to Esalen to practice tai chi and get into horrifying group hugs with total fucked up strangers .
The human body in the seventies was in great shape, but men did not look ripped and women did not look muscular and emaciated at the same time. They had lovely violin curves and great, toned legs that didn't look like they belong to the Terminator.
One misses the seventies, where people were far more passionate about everything. They demonstrated against Nixon, they did a lot of drugs, they wore ridiculous clothes with great panache, they were out there. Now it's like we're living in Stepford. We have been lobotomized.

Dec 21, 2008

Best and Worst Films of 2008: The Return

It's that time of year again when we remember the countless hours we spent rapturously at the movies. I may add to this list as the Holiday break affords me more time to go to the movies.

Best of the Best


The Class by Laurent Cantet
Hunger by Steve McQueen
Happy Go Lucky by Mike Leigh
The Headless Woman by Lucrecia Martel
Let The Right One In
Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman
Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog
Rififi! by Jules Dassin
Man on Wire

Good Films

Gomorrah
The Wrestler
Milk
A Christmas Tale

Decent Films

W.
I've Loved You so Long
Let It Rain by Agnes Jaoui
Stepbrothers
Jellyfish

Better than Expected

The Duchess
Vicky Christina Barcelona
(no great shakes, though)
Doubt
La Zona

Films I wish I liked more


Revolutionary Road
Religulous
Appaloosa
24 City
Tony Manero
Wendy and Lucy

Way Overhyped

Rachel Getting Married
Tell No One
Nick and ... Excellent Playlist (a total waste of time)

Meh

Burn After Reading

Pretentious Bores


Che
Synecdoche NY
Bullet in the Head

Dreck mit Kabebe

Slumdog Millionaire
I'm Going to Explode
Righteous Kill (De Niro and Pacino in a dud)
Un Mundo Maravilloso
Bullet in the Head

Didn't Bother

The Dark Knight
Anything with or by Clint Eastwood
Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Dec 16, 2008

Che: or Guerilla Warfare is a Pain in the Ass


Mr. Ex-Enchilada used to hate movies that made him waste his time. Once, I saw him leave a movie before the opening credits were over. I never understood how a movie wasted your time. Even if it is awful, there is always something to learn. Thus, I can tolerate a lot of time-wasting crap.
And so I stayed for the 4.5 hours of excruciating, unforgivable boredom that is Che, the revolutionary vanity project from Benicio del Toro and Steven Soderbergh, both of whom should have their heads examined. I freaking stayed for the closing credits only to find that there aren't any. This is the only time in my moviegoing history where I've felt I irretrievably lost almost five hours of precious life. I'm still mourning them. I will never forgive myself.
Three days later, I'm still wondering what's the point. For this is not a film. It is a history lesson in the life of a saint. And what could be more mindnumbingly boring than that? This Che is a virtuous, solemn character who has no other personal traits than unwavering virtue and a soft spot for the downtrodden. Every single time he opens his mouth he spews out revolutionary slogans.
Somebody asks him "How is Cuba?" and he answers: "progressing". Not gorgeous, not infuriatingly sui generis, not lovely and lush and fucked up. Virtue is so boring. And boredom in film is an unforgivable, cardinal sin.
I wanted Che to fart, laugh at a joke, lose his temper with Fidel (a wonderfully cartoony turn by Demián Bichir), be a womanizer, have moral doubts, burp once in a while, but no. There he is crossing the Sierra Maestra for two hours and a half, choking with asthma, and then he's stuck in the Bolivian forest for another two hours and a half, in the idiotic revolutionary misadventure that cost him his life and the lives of those who followed him into it. And during the course of this time nothing changes in him. He ministers to the sick and the poor like St. Francis of Assisi. He teaches his soldiers math and reading. He is like a benevolent father, a human god who metes out fair military justice. He reads books in the shade while the Cubans joke around. He shakes every single peasants' hand. He is not of this world. Apparently, he indeed was a singleminded virtuous guy, but then this is not the stuff of drama. It's the stuff of t-shirts.
There are many battles but there is no suspense. According to this movie guerrilla warfare is a hurry up and wait kind of gig. In Cuba, it is not clear how Fidel and his mangy band of soldiers won that war, although the movie makes clear that Fidel was the military strategist (and cabrón extraordinaire). Actually, a collateral damage of this film is that you end up loathing Che and admiring Fidel. At least, he's still there, the invincibly shrewd motherfucker. He got rid of all the competition (this is not something you learn from the film). He sent romantic Che to Bolivia, and he offed the charismatic Camilo Cienfuegos, who is actually the best thing in the movie. I'm actually going into imdb right now to find out who is the actor who plays him. He was the only thing that brought the film to life. Just found out: Venezuelan heartthrob Santiago Cabrera, in a star making turn.
The audience, who clapped at the sight of the Cuban map as the movie began, and who clapped at the end of the film, laps it all up. It's like nuns at an audience with the Pope. For Che is one engorged human legend who can bring out the faithful. And what is more naive and sentimental and basic and pathetic (and boring) than unquestioning worship, particularly of the political kind? I have always had tremendous distaste (and seething contempt) for the cloying, sentimental, inhuman kitsch of the far left. I think it is disgraceful that this movie takes that route.
Steven Soderbergh is an extremely competent filmmaker. The movie was shot with the RED camera and it looks gorgeous. He is his own DP. His framing is exquisite. But where is the writing? Where is the internal conflict? Where are the antagonists? The only antagonist is American Imperialism, who is a rather wooden actor, if you ask me. Because of this lack of drama, I don't know if trimming the film to half of its length could even work.
But the worst feeling is that of still not knowing what the hell is this movie about or what is its purpose? Other than getting methody Benicio, sporting an untraceable accent, but speaking more clearly than ever, a nomination, beats me.

Dec 14, 2008

Rachel Getting Married


I found this much hyped film quite a disappointment. Some people are saying it's among the best movies of the year. If that is the case, we really have lowered our expectations way too much. It gets brownie points for presenting a very unsympathetic central character, Kym, (a solid performance by Anne Hathaway) and a new American film family that is prescient about the recent relaxation of our racial prejudices. And most of all, for bringing back Debra Winger, who is amazing and looks amazing (no surgery) after all these years. However, its sins are greater than its virtues.
For a much more satisfying dysfunctional family circus you should check out Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. Much more bite, much more intelligence and much less artificially stacking up the deck. Rachel Getting Married is one of those movies that thinks the audience needs to be hit over the head with a fondue set in order to wring emotion out of us. It's DRAMAH, overwrought and undignified, like Americans like it.
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married and her sister Kym is leaving rehab to attend the three day liberal P.C. orgy that makes one want to decamp to Alaska and start pallin' around with Sarah Palin. I would like to think that this self-satisfied, self-indulgent wedding affair (bridesmaids wearing saris, a folksy wedding band from hell) are screenwriter Jenny Lumet's secret fantasy to tear on the absurdity of weddings and the insufferability of certain enlightened liberals. To Jonathan Demme's credit, the entire wedding megillah is as excrutiating to sit through as the real thing. The bride is one of those people who want to be really special, so she makes sure everything about her wedding is not like any other wedding on Earth. Homey, folksy, new agey, world musicky (stop if you are feeling nauseous). She is marrying a saintly Black musician. While the sisters in the brides' camp bicker and fight and every skeleton comes out of the closet of their white, coddled dysfunctional nest, the only thing missing from the groom's side are halos and angel wings. Not that we want to see The Sharks v. The Jets, but I find such blanket movie stereotypes very disturbing. It would not have killed anyone to add a little bit of complicated humanity or bite to these nice, sweet people. A little bit of slight racial tension. It would have been more true to life.
The writing is extremely heavy handed. It just so happens that Rachel is studying psychology so she can better dissect her sister's problems. There is no need to stack the deck like that, with her actually opening a textbook to harangue her sister. Everyone knows that in every single family everybody else is always a certified closet shrink.
The people in this movie are so self absorbed and unlikeable, particularly the bride, that I really was praying for rain on the wedding day. It doesn't help that the father who spawned these two girls is the soppy and sappy and totally miscast Bill Irwin.
There is a scene about a dishwasher loading contest between the father of the bride and the groom, which is one of the most cringe inducing things I've ever seen. It's hard to decide whether the filmmakers intended this as sarcasm about these insufferably corny liberals, as it's followed by Bill Irwin dissolving into grief at the sight of a melamine plate belonging to his dead son. How did someone as sharp and hot as Debra Winger get married to him? Certainly, the two self-involved girls would have benefited from some tough love. As it is, apparently they've grown up to be high-maintenance selfish brats, (each one in her own way). The rivarly and the strain between the sisters is believable. The toast that Kym gives at the rehearsal dinner is not. Even a fucked up person like that, particularly a sober one, would know when to shut her trap, all the while trying to contain the damage. But the movie is unrestrained in its efforts to make it all as emotionally harrowing as possible and it all ends sounding like a dramatization of a Dr. Phil episode.
I'm starting to realize, too late perhaps, that subtlety has never been a virtue in much demand in American films.
Meanwhile, this movie made me think back of Catherine Deneuve coolly smoking one cigarette after another as she is informed of having a devastating and rare form of cancer. She coolly tells her fucked up son, the great Mathieu Amalric, that she never really loved him and she doesn't now. They exchange pointed postprandial poisons as each one takes a drag of their respective fags. No one raises their voice, yet this scene is so chilling, I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. In contrast, in Rachel Getting Married we get a scene of mother and daughter actually decking each other, screaming and crying and tearing their hair out in a most unseemly way. Instead of working on our hearts, with its cheap psychology of guilt, it works on our last nerve.

On DVD: Inland Empire


I'm not a fan of David Lynch, but I admire some of the ways in which he is talented.
Whether one likes his films or not, the guy has created a very influential visual style that is uniquely his own. He is our arty purveyor of American Gothic. I can't think of another filmmaker who is capable of filming the imagery of dreams and nightmares as uncannily and realistically as Lynch. His movies are like dreamscapes and some of his imagery is extremely powerful, almost totemic, and deeply disturbing, as it does not come from a rational, logical place, but from primitive, scary places in the soul. The downside of this unique vision is that his movies are almost parodies of themselves, and none so much and so infuriatingly as Inland Empire.
I loathe video. Video looks like shit, I don't care what anybody says. For video not to look like shit, you need a genius DoP and lots of lighting.
Lynch shot Inland Empire on video and it looks like crap. He claims to love it, no doubt because it gave him economic freedom; it's much less unwieldy than film. Some of his most disturbing images also benefit from the crappiness of video. However, if you want to watch this film at home, you better have a good TV. The movie is dark, horribly lit, everyone looks flat.
Gone are the gorgeous palettes of films like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Alas.
I saw this movie over the course of four nights. I would fall asleep, wake up, rewind to the last point I remembered and fall asleep again in the same place. The movie follows no lineal chronology or temporal logic that I could surmise. It is basically like Alice (Laura Dern, a fearless actress) falling down the rabbit hole for mentally disturbed grown ups. It also seems to have something to do with acting and with Hollywood, but beats me trying to figure it out. This topic is not as approachable as in Mulholland Drive, a movie I really like.
I totally respect Lynch's commitment to experimentation. Yet I don't understand why this film needs to last three hours. Why are people speaking in Polish? Who are the young girls? Why are people wearing Rabbit heads? Why are the actors so wooden? Why ask why?
I loved some of the weird imagery. Lynch is a master of the bizarre, disturbing atmosphere. Plus anything that boasts of Harry Dean Stanton, who delivers the speech of a Hollywood schnorrer that should make the hair on your neck stand up, is worth seeing in my book. But the movie seems pointless, longwinded, boring, pretentious and gratuitous. As always there is violence and vulgarity and perverted sex (although you don't really see it, it's there).
My mom would say that Lynch is "enfermo de talento". Sick with talent. And even though I strive to be more charitable and openminded, in this case, I think she'd be right on.

Dec 7, 2008

The Duchess


In short: a fabulous feminist bodice ripper, if you can imagine such a thing. I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, 'cause I didn't expect much. But Keira Knightley gives a spirited performance as Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, married to a very obtuse Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, an actor never afraid of playing unsympathetic characters quite unsympathetically. And even so, his Duke is not a mustache twirling villain, but a dull, blunt, inarticulate, boorish man who is used to his way or the highway. Yet Fiennes finds some pained sympathy in the brute. La Knightley rises to the challenge with surprising skill. She is so much better in this movie than in Atonement; she is turning into a resourceful actress. It also helps she has the face of a movie star, gorgeous, but not always perfectly perfect. The camera loves her. The costumes are divine, the movie feels like being inside a luscious wedding cake, and it is a classic, smart chick flick with unrequited passions and a good female character and heartbreaking pain. I must confess I cried (and was so surprised the movie got to me, I immediately started looking for reasons, was it pms, was I ovulating, or was it the lovely music by Rachel Portman?).
Apparently, this celebrated woman, who was a wit and a proto-feminist, is an ancestor of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. The movie has the infinite good taste not to mention this, though some of the particulars of both women's loveless marriages resonate nicely. However, it seems Georgianna was a far more interesting, independent creature than the vulgar modern version we got.
The Duke marries Georgianna so he can have a male heir. She gives him 2 daughters and two stillborn boys and he keeps blaming her for the mistake. Of course, through her endless pregnancies Keira Knightley mantains her hourglass figure and her elfin beauty intact, and I would have wished that they showed what it meant for this woman to give birth in those days (not necessarily with the cliche of a woman screaming at childbirth, just a bit less glamour).
In those days they didn't know about chromosomes and men kept women down, down, down with their idiotic notions of honor and virtue, which were nothing but means to control and oppress women. As is still the case in way too many places on Earth.

Dec 6, 2008

Beaufort


This impressive Israeli film by Joseph Cedar is a fine war movie and I think a strong indictment of the status quo in Israel, where everybody is a soldier and the State seems to think there is an endless supply of young people willing to sacrifice for their country, no matter what. Except that in some situations, like the recent Lebanon invasion, it's not clear what they are doing it for, or if it is worth it. This is the first time I see Israeli soldiers complaining that they are treated like cannon fodder. After all, Everybody, men and women, is a soldier in Israel and Israel needs an Army to defend itself from its neighbors, not from distant enemies. It has not seen peace since it was born, so to see soldiers questioning their raison d'etre is extremely powerful.
There is an amazing speech in the movie, given on TV by the father of a dead soldier, in which he says he doesn't hold the Army responsible for the death of his son. He feels responsible because as a father, he should not have let the boy out of his sight. He should have protected his children. In essence, this is one of the most moving, powerful indictments of Israel's defense predicament I have seen. The country is putting its children in harm's way and it is not clear anymore that there is a good reason for it.
Beaufort is not a conventional war movie in that there are really no battles, there is little violence, but when it comes, it's brutal. A group of Israeli soldiers is stuck on top of a mountain in Lebanon with an ancient fort from the time of the Crusades. They have built their own state of the art fort next door, and keep adding cement to protet themselves. They are getting shelled by mortars and missiles from Hezbollah, trapped by so many mines they can't get out. Holding the fort, literally. They are in some sort of limbo, waiting for the government to give the order to evacuate southern Lebanon, after intense pressure by public opinion. And we see their days of waiting, their bittersweet camaraderie, their huge stretches of boredom punctuated by explosions they are almost blasé about until they really start striking the targets and some of them are killed. They feel isolated and forgotten, and they are.
Some of them bristle and revolt, others are gripped by fear. It is a claustrophobic, intense film, but told with a certain philosophical gentleness, and with flashes of cinematic poetry, of the dry, unadorned kind, yet it is very suspenseful. Their young commander, Liraz, (an amazing performance by Oshri Cohen), seems arrogant and distant from his men. He is brash and almost reckless and in the course of events, he behaves both heroically and cowardly. Human, flawed and the lives of his men depend on him. He makes mistakes that cost people's lives. But he is relentless. He doesn't want to retreat and abandon Beaufort, even as his soldiers are relieved and happy about going home. He is a proud and stubborn fighter and he doesn't always make sense. I'm still trying to figure him out.
At the end of the film, we see him crossing the border into Israel. He starts peeling away all the military gear that covers him and protects him, making him some sort of superman. He takes layer after layer off, like an onion, until in his fatigues he suddenly looks much smaller and frailer. And then he falls on his knees and cries his heart out.
The whole movie is like an extended metaphor for Israel's situation. Holding the fort, using might, making enormous human sacrifices, cut off from the rest of the world. The fight seems futile, tired and absurd. The film does not show the enemy or Israel's treatment of it. Its revolt is quiet but deep. It goes deep into motives, and into the question of the state's existence. Is this how Israel is going to live always? Isolated from a normal life, always fighting, always eating its young?
I am haunted by this film.

Dec 5, 2008

Reviews of Previews and of Movies I Refuse to See

Doubt
This preview is probably better than the movie. The movie, to judge from the preview, looks much better than the play, which I thought was a conventional piece in no way deserving of all the prizes, despite some terrific acting from Cherry Jones and Bryan F. O'Byrne. The preview of Doubt shows La Streep in all her icy glory, it has a nice taut pace and it gives you a hint of the moral dilemma. And it makes you want to watch the movie, but mostly because it happens to have Meryl Streep playing a nasty nun. Streep v. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I bet she kicks his ass.
I have been watching this preview for so long that I swear the first time I saw it, the footage had not been color corrected. The color of the walls was like Pepsodent. Now they have a nice, dark green. Go Roger Deakins!

Revolutionary Road
In contrast, this much hyped film by Sam Mendes, whom I adore, with his wife Kate Winslet and Leo Di Caprio, has probably one of the worst previews in history. It looks like the climax of a Mexican telenovela but with blond people. There are just too many scenes with people crying their eyes out, and almost tearing their hair out. La Winslet keeps looking better and better, more alluring, mature and sexy. Di Caprio, sorry to say, still looks like a kid. He is a very resourceful actor but I wish he lost the baby face. My friend Katya says the pic is good, despite the preview.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
You know how I feel about Holocaust movies that are made expressly to win Oscars. They should be illegal. We are meant to believe that a little Nazi spawn and a Jewish kid on the other side of the barbed wire become friends over a game of chess. Not even David Thewlis can dignify this crap.

The New Movie with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts
I was so busy staring at these two and their charming chemistry in the preview, I didn't catch the name of the movie, except it was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, he of Michael Clayton, and it looks like a more fun version of that film. The two stars seem to be having fun (Clive Owen always does, bless his soul). Bonafide movie stars having a ball. I would see it.

Reviews of Movies I Won't See.

Zack and Miri make a Porno.
I don't get Kevin Smith. I don't get why people think he is such a genius and I particularly don't get that everybody is saying that Judd Apatow owes him his very existence in a Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence kind of way. Like without Clerks there would be no Superbad. Whatevs. Apatow, in my view, is much more talented and sophisticated than this lazy slacker with his lazy slacker films. I saw Smith talk at the IFP project last Summer and he is very funny, but his movies suck.

Australia
I didn't love Moulin Rouge. Absolutely nothing in it made any sense or had any meaning beyond decoration. I found it extremely vulgar. Over the top extravanganzas of kitsch are not for me. So this extended commercial for Down Under, with its two most handsome exports, I have absolutely no interest in seeing. I hear it is terrible too.

Quantum of Solace
A title that sounds like a metaphysical treaty. And we love our Daniel Craig, the long suffering, humorless spy who looks like a million bucks in swim trunks and tuxedos. But endless explosions bore me to tears and not even Matthieu Amalric as the meanie makes me want to bother.

Dec 3, 2008

Got Milk



I can't decide whether Gus Van Sant's choice of a traditional biopic for his Harvey Milk movie is radical or exactly the opposite, although I am veering towards the radical. This is a far cry from My Own Private Idaho. It is a classic, epic Hollywood biopic that happens to be about a gay hero. There is no need to bathe it in outsider style. The man was an American hero and should be celebrated as such. A radical notion.
What is very interesting is that the movie comes out right after the pathetic disaster of Prop 8 in California and makes it even more pathetic. The movie chronicles the gay rights fight and it looks like it's been 30 years and some has changed, but not enough. This movie alone should make the entire state of California ashamed. On the other hand, it is frightening to see that this fight seems to move forward in extraordinarily slow increments. The fact that there was even a prop 8 in this day and age in California is totally disheartening.
As for the movie itself, the one thing that redeems it from being an entirely conventional biopic, radical or not, is the gorgeous, generous performance of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. There are other wonderful performances in the movie, most notably James Franco and Emile Hirsch, and as always, Josh Brolin (this guy is GOOD). And the always fantastic Dennis O'Hare playing a hateful right wing senator from California as a total closeted queen. But Penn is amazing and not because he goes gay or kisses guys in the mouth, but because he channels with every inch of his macho being the warmth and passion and spirit and charm of the original. When Penn flirts with Franco and looks in his eyes (in a subway station), the desire and the longing, the flirtatiousness are all there. One look at footage of the real Harvey Milk beaming is enough to know that Penn does not possess half of his charm or benign charisma (I would have thought Hank Azaria a dead ringer, if Hollywood was a fair place). But Penn finds it and bestows it generously: humor, gentleness, determination, passion, charm. Charm! Some of his best scenes are the ones with James Franco (gay and straight can agree on this: he is one cute, talented mofo), for they both have a wonderful chemistry together. I was very moved by this chemistry. There was more chemistry and tenderness between these two male actors than in hundreds of movies about men and women, and for that, I salute them.
The movie is framed by Milk recounting his story, leaving it on tape in case somebody kills him, and on those quiet moments of reflection, Penn is as intense and committed as when he is rallying the crowds or having intimate moments with other characters. He is a great actor not only because of the physical affectations and the undeniable showmanship, but of his total emotional commitment. It is a lovely, towering performance.
He will be nominated for an Oscar and he should win only to add further shame and disgrace to the state of California and the rest of the Union.
This being a conventional film, Van Sant smartly decides to show love and relationships instead of wild sex. For the most part, these gays behave in an almost saintly manner. There is none of their fabled, debauched ways. It is a film designed to enlighten the masses (good luck!), not to preach to the choir.
Yet to watch Penn and Franco kissing passionately, and with meaning, is not only enough but right.
The film, is as entertaining and predictable as all biopics. Van Sant uses a lot of real footage and distresses some of his new footage to look old. The actors all do a splendid job. I have one nit and that concerns my charming, talented and brave compatriot Diego Luna, who plays Milk's Latino unhinged lover. Luna is very sweet and funny and mercurial, and it is entirely possible that the actual character was a needy Latin drama queen. They exist indeed. But there was something really stereotypical about him that bothered me. He makes enchiladas and he watches soaps. Not the actor's fault, but the writer's.
I was wondering if this film ever reaches Mexico 1) what the title is going to be, because it can't be Leche. 2) what are my benighted countrymen going to think of their national acting treasure portraying such a committed fairy. I had horrid arguments with some "intellectuals" who vociferously complained about and made fun of the homoeroticism of Y tu mamá también so I don't expect much has changed.
David Denby says Penn is brave. I say all the actors in this film are brave, and isn't it tragic that they should be considered brave for portraying gay people, but among the very brave is Diego Luna.

Nov 30, 2008

Sicko


It just so happens that I'm in the middle of drama involving the farkakte new insurance from the Freelancers Union, which I use. These people decided to create an insurance company with new plans that are more expensive than the ones they had before but they are selling them as if they were cheaper and better, which they are not. They gave no warning, they consulted none of the members and now everyone is in an uproar and with good reason.
This and Michael Moore's excellent Sicko, which I saw yesterday, put me in a homicidal mind re the state of health coverage in this country.
Just to have to make sense of the freaking legal language, of what is a deductible and a coiunsurance and a copayment and what is covered and not covered is enough to give anyone a permanent migraine, if not a brain tumor. And still, evil forces beyond human comprehension still deny the American people universal health care. It is unfathomable to me what the American people have to suffer and to pay to get decent medical treatment. It is unfathomable that we are still not storming the barricades and asking for the execution (I'm a regular Robespierre) of those who think that socialized medicine is akin to communism and that we are going to lose our choice. What fucking choice? I will be paying $500 a month this year for insurance which requires me to pay $30 or $40 copays for medical appointments, and hospital deductibles and shit. And God forbid I get hit with a serious illness, because that is when the insurance companies start playing rough.
I'm not a huge fan of Michael Moore. I find his selfrighteousness off putting, but I do like his movies and I do thank him for making them and for putting it out there that things are not what they should be. In Sicko he shows case after case of perfectly regular people who have had to fight insurance companies to the death only to lose their children, their husbands, their homes, because the company would not approve treatment. He then does something fabulously provocative. He takes some 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo, which has wonderful free health care for all the detainees. When in Guantanamo no one opens the doors, he takes the Americans to Havana, to get medical care.
He shows you impressive hospitals with computers that seem to be working. An inhaler that costs a rescue worker $120 a piece here in the US, costs 3 Cuban pesos, or five American cents.
I'm not a fan of Castro and of his free P.R. courtesy of Michael Moore, but the point is that it is not possible that even Cuba has a better healthcare system than ours. Moore also visits Canada and England and France, where healthcare is universal and the standard of health and living much higher than ours (and the medical costs believe it or not, less). He makes it sound too good to be true, but even knowing that the system may be frayed around the edges, I'd rather have that than the miserable, expensive, unjust torture we have here. By this point everybody in America knows that our health system is not only not working, but it is a travesty and an insult and armed robbery. But where is the political will to change it? Moore shows what lobbyists from the health industry spend buying politicians. Like this, nothing is ever going to change. People will just have to endure tragedy so that insurance and drug companies can profit. That is the American way. It is repulsive.

Classics: The Shining


This is the third time I see this magnificent movie and I think this is the time that it scared me the most.
It made me miss Kubrick so much. I miss him like you miss a long lost friend. Like you miss someone you love. I want him back.
The Shining is from 1980. Nobody makes movies like it anymore. Fiercely intelligent, and so beautiful it makes you want to cry.
This time I realized that The Shining is about the resentment of the American male, the fear of emasculation, embodied with over the top rightness by Jack Nicholson. His Jack Torrance is arrogant, smug, tyrannical, childish, needy, selfish. In short, a bastard, and all this before he even goes crazy. The terror of this movie is that the father wants to annihilate his family. He hates Wendy, his mousy wife, and he hates his son, who has replaced him as first in line for the mother's affections. So he takes the child out of school to live in utter isolation. He takes his family to a remote hotel, not even asking whether they like the idea or not, so he can write. So he can be a man. It turns out he feels emasculated by her. It turns out that he was a drinker and he was violent to the kid and she made him stop drinking, which he will not forgive. He blames her for all his failures and now her and the kid are going to have to pay the price. This has nothing to do with ghosts or murders past. This is who he is.
Shelley Duvall, an inspired piece of casting, as Wendy, is the virtual opposite of Jack. She is mild tempered, and extremely selfless and compliant. You keep waiting for her to put her foot down, to have some lip, but she stands by her man, coddling the artist in him, supporting him (which makes him angrier) until she feels threatened by him. And then she fights tooth and nail to save the child. It turns out that Jack's rage is warranted: his wife is indeed stronger and more capable than him.
A lot of very creepy wonderful things happen to this happy family that have become the stuff of cinematic history, as is always the case in the indelible images created by Stanley Kubrick. Creepy dead twins, and elevators oozing blood and the most gorgeous steadicam and dolly work in the history of film, but it is the psychological accuracy of the family portrait that makes The Shining such a fantastic movie.
Looking at Nicholson's performance now, I think that he made the absolute right choice (or was made to by Kubrick; in a documentary he says that he wanted to be more realistic and Kubrick said that realistic was "real but it's not interesting") to go out of his mind in such a loud, histrionic way. What nails the performance is 1) that he is truly on a major meltdown, no need to be shy about it and 2) it is darkly funny. He's very funny in a very scary way. Technically, it is the work of a very accomplished actor. Take a look again at the way he uses his voice: it seems that every word is charged with a different feeling. It is astonishingly precise. And his energy, his male dominance, his arrogance, are just right. He is a major asshole, and you couldn't find someone more American. It's sad that Nicholson tried to replicate it in the movies he made after and became a parody of himself. But the performance is right for the movie. Nobody can hear the words "Heeeere's Johnny" the same way ever again.
And who doesn't love that child swishing down the immense hotel corridors with his hot wheels? The muffled sound on the carpet, the rough sound on the wood. The creepy music by 20th Century composers like Ligeti and Penderecki. Bartok.
What amazing beauty.

Nov 27, 2008

Classics: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

No, it's not what we wish to do to Bush when he finally steps down. Then again...

I had never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie. I was a snob about it. And I was wrong.
This is an essential movie in the canon of horror movies. It is wonderful. (I know I am getting excited about something you already know, but please bear with me).
Before I saw this mother of all slasher films, I had already sat through and thoroughly disliked its more commercial spawn: Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc. But this is a film of great purity. Everything that happens in it makes total sense. Never once is one forced to ask, "why don't you call the police or why are you alone in the house when you could happily be at the Dairy Queen and out of harm's way?"
Now, does it make total sense that a bunch of teenagers run into three generations of depraved males with a penchant for human butchery and blood? Well, yeah. It's Texas, after all. (Just kidding).
Of course, the house on the hill with the nice porch is the one in which the most unspeakable evil lives. This is America. And America has some deeply mad dark places there, like my friend Sarah Palin, a scary construct herself, would say.
There are many things I love about this film. The teenagers are horrid. There is one fat guy on a wheelchair who is really a pest and it is clear that he is a burden no one wants do deal with, including his sister, who resents having to lug him around. Nowadays "fatty guy on wheelchair" means practically an angel, but in the glorious, drug-addled seventies it meant a pest. Because he is chair bound, fat, ugly and insufferable, he is the only one who seems to be aware of the darkness around him. The rest have the insouciance, the golden sheen and buffed bodies of youth, and you know they are going to be punished for it. What they run into in a sunny Summer day in Texas is just sheer, crazy evil.
I love that there is absolutely no attempt to psychoanalyze it or explain it. It just is and it happens to serve barbecue. Me being me, I thought the sight of a BBQ sign was a sure omen of refuge and civilization. I was wrong.
Now, I'm not a fan of gore or slasher films. I don't find tons of blood and human flesh that scary.
I like my scares more on the either supernatural or the psychological variety, but as long as the movie scares me, I consider it a wild success. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is most scary between the action, as is true of all great scary movies. Just the unbearable amount of knowledge that terrible stuff will happen is enough. Also, most of the murders happen quite soon into the movie, and quite quickly. And then you wonder what's going to happen for the next hour.
The stuff that happens is terrible, but Tobe Hooper, the director, just shows a bit of it. He knows that a taste is enough for imagination to go wild. It's more the grotesquerie of the evil men, with their dessicated human flesh masks and their literal rottenness of body and soul, that makes it really out there. The use of sound is also very effective. It's so over the top, it is completely disorienting.
There is a fantastic scene where one of the girls wakes up in this room full of chicken feathers (always a ghastly sight) and she is numb and lost and disoriented and the camera takes her point of view as she discovers all the crazy stuff in that room and then it takes a while for her to come to her senses and she is so paralyzed by fear, she can't get up. It's like those nightmares when one tries to scream and no sound comes out. Lovely and terrifying.
I love the nonchalance of the unsuspecting teens. They roam about this crazy world in total innocence of danger. Their first encounter with a young, extraordinarily creepy hitchhiker leaves most of them unruffled, despite the fact that the guy looks like a ghoul and slashes himself and fatty with a very scary razor, and despite the fact that he shows them some horrid polaroids. Why would they pick someone like that up? Because they're young and it's the seventies and it was cool to be cool to other young people like you.
They run out of gas and go into an old gas station and BBQ joint that happens to have NO GAS. What place in America has no gas? But it's the seventies, so it is feasible. They should have filled up the tank at the nice Gulf station near the cemetery, but no, because they are young and, unlike me, never worry about running out of gas.
The owner of the gas station has a moronic hunchback attendant who insists on lathering the windshield, which should give everybody pause and perhaps the thought to call it a day and go home, and the owner himself has more than a passing resemblance to the hitchhiker, but these guys are still oblivious to creepiness.
They die senselessly and except for one resilient girl, without putting up much of a fight. There are no heroes to come and save them.
This movie reminded me of another movie of Beware of the Hillbillies variety. It reminded me of Deliverance. Also from the seventies, no?
Very disturbing. The end is fabulous too. I don't think they were cynically trying to exploit the return of Leatherface, but the fact that he is seen dancing wildly with a chubby Mexican running for his life nearby does not bode well. And then one thinks about the victim who escaped and her trauma and the movie leaves an endless unresolved chill, as all scary movies should.

Nov 23, 2008

Holocaust Kitsch

This weekend in the New York Times, A.O. Scott discreetly explores the dilemma of the Holocaust movie. As far as I'm concerned, there are extremely few movies dealing with this topic that are any good. Most of the time, a huge cringe factor is involved when watching the fictionalization and recreation of something so grotesquely evil that people have a hard time believing it actually happened. I stay away from most Holocaust movies because I find them, even when cloaked in the best intentions, indecent. I think my favorite Holocaust movie of all time is Downfall (or as a friend calls it, "The Poor Hitler Movie"). For one, there is not a concentration camp in sight. There is not one Jew in sight. But this examination of the last days of Hitler is a powerful, chilling depiction of the psychology of depraved power and of a depraved national ideology. This is not a movie that looks to open the wellsprings of sentimentality, but a movie that asks how could an entire nation believe and follow and agree with this man (short answer: because they were much like him). Some people objected to the fact that the movie "humanizes" Hitler, as if he belonged to another species altogether. It doesn't. It really shows him for the human monster that he was. Here you will not see the pornographic obscenities that the Nazis perpetrated by stripping off the humanity of millions of people (and which you can and should see in the Holocaust museums of the world), but you will see one of the most disturbing scenes of all time, when Mrs. Goebbels proceeds to poison each and every one of her six young children, right before the fall of Berlin. In a way, this scene helps underscore the depth of the Nazi horror more than the pictures of naked, emaciated bodies of Jews. However, I must admit that, being a Jew, I have been exposed to gruesome Holocaust paraphernalia from a very early age, so after a while, it starts losing its potency. It works great on young minds -- the outrage and repulsion it engenders is long lasting and very useful. Never forget, indeed. My close second favorite movie is the amazing Mr. Death, the documentary by Errol Morris about the American creator of the lethal injection who also happens to be a Holocaust denier. As is customary with the brilliant Mr. Morris, this strange, unsettling, thought provoking film takes us straight into the stupidity of evil.Just one look at the preview for the new movie, The Boy With the Striped Pajamas, makes me want to vomit. Number one, the title is probably the worst movie title ever. Two, the image of a bald little punk sitting all by himself next to the barbed wire and having all the time and freedom in the world to play chess with a healthy little German on the other side of the wire with no attending Nazi to bash his head against a wall, already fills me with disgust. As A. O Scott observes, we are in Life is Beautiful territory; that is, Holocaust corn, and it just so happens that we have the Weinstein brothers to blame for both of these obscenities. Memo to Harvey Weinstein: please stop torturing people with indecent sap about the Holocaust. There are surely more dignified ways to win Oscars. As I was watching said preview, I also had an epiphany: I bet actors love to wear the Nazi uniform. You know, those full length shiny leather trench coats favored by the SS, the spiffy uniforms with the insignia, the great color coordination, and the stiff, shiny black boots. It's all very fetishistic, and one must admit that the fucking Nazis had a great sense of style. This may be why, I once met a Black girl who told me she had seen Schindler's List 6 times because she fell in love with the Nazi (played with great panache by Ralph Fiennes). And who could blame her? But do actors like to lose 50 pounds, shave their heads and wear soiled striped pajamas? I'm not so sure. Movies about the Holocaust exist not only because the topic is inherently dramatic, or because it's Oscar season, but because there is something inherently morbid and obscene and pornographic about the visual record of depravity and destruction left by the Nazis and people just can't get enough of it. One of my posts in this blog was a link to the recently unearthed pictures of Auschwitz commanders found carousing on weekends near the camp, having jolly picnics and playing the accordion. I titled the post "Shocking Nazi Photos" and for a while it was immensely popular. It still spikes up once in a while.

Nov 18, 2008

The Height of Nerve: Hollywood Execs Blame the Audience.

All of a sudden, they are whining about the demise of "story". Peter Guber pines for the days when movies had stories.
Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” concurred.
If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they’re going to tell you they’re disappointed,” Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture (I CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE CHEKHOVIAN STORYTELLING IN THIS ONE), and said he missed complex stories like that of “The Graduate.”
This makes my blood boil. Consumers don't get what they want. They get what Hollywood serves them. And when you ask them what they would like you to serve them and you get shit as a result, don't blame the audience for having asked them. They are not writers or directors or producers. They're not the ones who should be telling you how to make a movie.
Bobby Farrelly, if you don't want the audience to be disappointed, don't fucking ask them. Have the balls to stick to your artistic principles and tell the story you want to tell.
I've seen the audience questionnaires for movie research. The questions are absurd. I cannot fathom how anybody can get any coherence from whatever inanities the audience opines about a certain scene in a film. "What do you like/dislike about the ending?" The audience deserves no such power.
But I can see Hollywood tabulating the responses, and what comes out is that stale, unoriginal, formulaic, utterly stupid mess that is most Hollywood films. Focus groups are the end of story. And they are not commissioned by the audience.
Stop focus grouping movies and you'll see how soon story waltzes right back into your lives, you spineless cowards.

Nov 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire


Or: Review of a movie I hate because everyone seems to love it.

To judge from the sold out crowds at the Angelika, you'd think this new film by Danny Boyle is the second coming of cinema. I went with great expectations, having read some enthusiastic reviews and having seen the crowds (which, note to self, should never ever be a reason to see anything).
I really wanted to like this movie because I like some of the films of Danny Boyle, but I guess I happen to like the ones that are diametrically opposed in tone and spirit to this saccharine fantasy. That is, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later.
I'm wondering if, because I am a jaundiced Mexican, I have zero tolerance for sentimental cheese. I do not find the Third World's infatuation with love-conquers-all stories endearing (call me a verbissener, I think the media in these countries conspires to keep the poor ignorant through these kinds of basic, corny stories), so I may just not be the audience for this film. Movies that attempt to manipulate my feelings with every heavy handed trick in the book, earn my eternal enmity. I am the only person I know who hates Amelie (which at least tries to look like a fantasy). And don't get me started on that obscene, disgusting film called Life is Beautiful.
Slumdog Millionaire audaciously tries it to have it both ways. It gives us a pretty dreary, Dickensian view of the terrible lot of slum children in India, while at the same time it engages in a romantic fantasy, with absolutely implausible, unrealistic plot turns, all toward a happy ending (the end credit sequence -- very cute, but too little, too late). I understand that the movie tries to pay homage to Indian movies, but I have seen Indian movies, also about the downtrodden, also about their dignity and resourcefulness, that have far more subtlety and grace and humanity (Vanaja is a good example). And as per Bollywood, there is more levity and humor and feisty good nature in any Bollywood movie than in this contrived tale.
In my view, horrible violence and corny romance do not mix well. The movie tries very hard to be bittersweet but even its ironies are so obvious they hit you over the head with a hammer. Forget about subtlety, which it utterly lacks, just one true feeling, one real, dimensional human behavior, would have been welcome.
The story of a slum child in Mumbai who survives absolute horror to be the winner of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for his one true love, could have been far more touching, truer and deeper, had anybody bothered writing something other than clichés. Ambitiously, through the adventures of Jamal and his brother Salim, the movie tries to depict India in a nutshell, from the orphan slum dwellers of Mumbai, to the telemarketing middle class kids of the new India, even with a necessary, picture postcard detour at the Taj Mahal.
Boyle has the good fortune to have found two gorgeously spirited urchins to play the brothers when they're young children, and their charming sidekick Latika, the love interest. The rest of the cast is nowhere near as charming or believable (except for the always magnificent Irfan Khan, the only person in the whole enterprise who acts like a human being).
The camera is super dynamic, the shots and the color and the editing are great, but the back and forth structure of the movie soon becomes repetitive. The movie soon starts looking like a pretentious, if beautifully shot, commercial. The flashback structure between an entire episode of the show (with its contrived, fabricated suspense) and the childhood of hero Jamal, makes it for very slow going, regardless of how many adventures he and Salim go through.
The high concept of the movie is what bothers me most: that Jamal knows the answer to the questions because they were present at a certain juncture in his eventful life. Sheer fantasy, piled on without remorse or discretion. I do not object to see movies about flying elephants, but if we are knee deep in reality, if there are graphic scenes of terrible cruelty to children, why can't there be psychological realism? You can have all the fantasy and happy endings and romance you want with human insight. Look at the films of one Charles Chaplin.
In the end, even with all the good faith in the world, the sentiment of this film is wielded so mercilessly and is so contrived, why should we believe it? Why should we believe that indeed an impoverished slum child can rise above the most terrible circumstances to greatness if nothing in his story rings true? I think spectacles like this are a slap in the face of the poor, while those who can afford a movie ticket can celebrate cozily the ridiculous notion that love conquers all.
I realize I hate movies about fate. Fate, like religion, allows for all kinds of illogic and leaves little room for doubt. I prefer movies that raise questions about the human condition, not movies that think there is only one answer and treat you like you are too dumb to ask.

Nov 10, 2008

Synecdoche, NY


Charlie Kaufman has taken it upon himself to write quirky, original screenplays that bring metaphysics to movies, for which he should be commended. I really liked Adaptation, I loved Being John Malkovich, and I started getting a little restless with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I admire Kaufman's originality but Synecdoche, NY, his first directorial foray, is very disappointing. I went along for the ride for about the first hour, but by the end of the movie I had the nagging feeling that Kaufman was enmeshed in a knot not even he knew how to get out of. The movie got me to thinking about two guys who do metaphysics really well: Kafka and Borges (and Shakespeare* too). They take extremely complex metaphysical concepts and they execute them with brilliant simplicity. They polish and they burnish anything that is extraneous to the central metaphor, so in the end you are left with a hard, beautiful diamond that blows your mind. In my view, the problem with this movie is exactly the opposite: it feels we're stuck with Kaufman in the carbon mine, grasping for diamonds, and never quite finding anything but dark, shapeless soot. It's too complicated.
The movie takes several thoughts (carpe diem, all the world's a stage, the paradox of wanting to portray total truth in art while living a lie) and proceeds to illustrate them with growing confusion and incoherence. For a very lucid take on it, read Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker. Totally on the money.
My good faith was severely tested in this film. For one, I wish an editor had told Kaufman he could safely cut at least a half an hour of it, because it is looong and repetitive. It seems very complex, but as far as I could tell, the final message of the movie is almost fit for a Hallmark card: you only have one life and one chance to make it work.
If the audience loses patience with the hero, because the hero is just too oblivious, no amount of metaphysical fireworks can save the movie. If the amazing Samantha Morton is hitting on you while your terrible shrew of a wife (poor Catherine Keener, always excellent as The Bitch on Wheels) humiliates the shit out of you, you may want to abandon your miserable fog and surrender to life and love.
I find it objectionable when hugely talented actors are wasted on one-dimensional bullshit. It is interesting that someone as resourceful as Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a totally one note, humorless, stunted performance. Why should we care about such a miserable moper? Even antiheroes need charm, or a sense of humor, or malice -- dimension. Luckily, at least we can enjoy the formidable Tom Noonan, who together with Samantha Morton are the only people who seem alive in this film.
In the end, this movie feels extremely self-indulgent and so bent on being brainy that it is strangely disconnected emotionally. Charmless, depressive, suffocating, ugly. I'm not asking for every movie to be Mary Poppins, but too much self-indulgent moping is the kiss of death.

*I thought of the end of The Tempest, when Prospero breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience to release him from his bonds with applause. This is the simplicity I'm thinking about. That little speech sends your mind reeling with the relationship between theater and reality, between illusion and truth for hours.

Oct 28, 2008

NY Film Festival: 24 City


I have seen three films by Jia Zhangke. Still Life, The World and now 24 City. In all of them Jia is worried sick about the devastating effects of the rapid transformation of China from everything it was before (an agricultural economy, an ancient culture, a Communist country) into what it is today: a steamroller of unbridled development, greed and corruption and diminishing values.
In Still Life a poor laborer comes back from the big city looking for the family he left behind only to find that his neighborhood is now drowned under the waters of the Three Gorges Dam, one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters on Earth. The World shows the surrealistic parallel reality of a Chinese sort of Epcot Center in Beijing, where the outside world is rendered in simplistic stereotypes (just like Epcot Center) which ordinary Chinese people can visit (if they can afford it) and forget about ever actually seeing the real thing. In 24 City he chronicles, in a mix of documentary and fictionalization, the demise of an old armament factory and its transformation into a cluster of expensive condos in the ever growing city of Chengdu.
I imagined Jia to be a sober, meditative man in his sixties, so melancholy and mature are his movies. It turns out he is only 39 years old.
Jia pulls you in with human stories told with the greatest restrain and discretion, with touching grace and with all the time in the world. The stately pace of his movies seems a deliberate comment on the rush of the Chinese government to change everything now, no matter what the consequences. "You are not stopping and looking at the people you are trampling", he seems to say, "so I'm going to show you". Stoic people, bewildered people, people used to injustice and penury, incredibly resourceful and spirited.
24 City is a series of interviews with former factory workers. They go chronologically from the oldest members of the factory to their children or grandchildren today. Through these interviews emerges a deep portrait of Chinese culture in flux. The older people reminisce about the golden years of the factory when they were making arms for the Korean war or the Vietnam war, they remember the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution, where they were protected from Mao's raving cruelty and from famine by their very important military jobs. They remember the aftermath of Mao, in the eighties, when their weap0ns became irrelevant and the factory downsized and became a factory of other things. Through these memories what emerges is a portrait of individuals who until very recently could only think of themselves as part of a bigger context: their families, their factory, their country. It would be unthinkable for a Chinese person born in 1958 to go against their parents wishes and look for opportunities outside the factory, whereas the younger generations are wired completely differently. They want to make money, they want to study, they want to move to another city, they want to shop.
That the elderly in China feel nostalgia for the days of orthodox Communism is very poignant. The Chinese value authority and respect and a community framework. Family is the social unit, not the individual. For the elderly, this sense of community has been lost. I don't think that Jia is glorifying Communism. Through the words of the people he interviews emerge portraits of harrowing personal sacrifice. He admires and respects the ordinary people who sacrificed but not those who controlled them.
Interestingly, Jia intersperses real factory workers with actors playing factory workers. As he said in the interview yesterday at the end of the film, he felt he needed to supplement the real with fictional material, but to him all of them are real. This new trend in movies to blur the line between fiction and reality is very interesting, particularly when exercised by serious, talented filmmakers like Jia and Laurent Cantet.
Jia's films are set in ugly urban areas, in decaying factories, in dirty alleyways. The new China is an eyesore, buy there is not one single frame in his movies that is ugly. His compositions are serene and beautiful, almost hypnotic. And it's not because he art directs or beautifies, but because he finds symmetry everywhere. His films are an amazing window into the soul of China today.

I messed with the Zohan


I had not seen this movie, because like Borat, I wasn't sure I wanted to. I saw it yesterday on a Blueray dvd (it's freezing in DF and I had no intention of going anywhere) and I'm glad I did. It was about high time that someone skewered that ridiculous area of the world known as the Middle East. The place is absurd and despite its insistence in wallowing in blood and revenge, it is ripe for comedy. So leave it to the trio of Adam Sandler, Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow to make a silly, very funny comedy about an Israeli super agent (Adam Sandler, fabulous) who is tired of all the violence and all he wants to do is be a hair stylist. Throughout the entire film I wondered how this movie was received in Israel. I haven't been back to the Land of Milk and Honey since 1988, and I'm pretty sure that the source of endless merriment at the expense of the Israelis must come from the writers' experience of Israel circa the 80's. I believe the advent of the internet has finally allowed Israelis to connect with Planet Earth. When I was there, the world seemed light years away.
The Israelis the movie lovingly skewers (at least 10 years behind the fashion of the times, obsessed with disco, unwilling to wear closed shoes or long pants, and deeply tacky) are exactly like they were when I was there.  The movie gets the arrogance, the chutzpah and the warmth totally right. The film reminded me that I spent three years in Israel either mostly aggravated or laughing my head off at the national idiosyncracies with my non-Israeli friends. 
The movie is extremely raunchy (Israeli men are sex machines, don't you know), but the fun part is in the concept. The concept of a Jewish superman, a fighting sex maniac, a terrorist and lady killer, is great. The gross exaggeration of the Zohan character is not far from the ideal of the founding fathers of the Jewish State for the post-pogrom-ghetto-Holocaust Jew: not a helpless wimp by any stretch of the imagination. 
This is a very Jewish movie with very Jewish humor. Most of it is silly, but hilarious. Hummus is an all-purpose super food. The Zohan brushes his teeth with hummus and eats hummus chocolates, while his dad (Larry David's dad in Curb your Enthusiasm), uses hummus to sweeten his coffee. There is a marvelous bit about the Israelis who run electronics stores in NY (one store is called Going Out of Business and the other one, Everything Must Go).  The writers make up dirty words in Hebrew that sound like someone with lots of phlegm and there is a yellow soft drink called Fizzy Bubbelech, loved by Jews and Arabs alike.  The humor owes a lot to the humor of Mel Brooks, silly, light, Jewish, funny.  I laughed plenty. 
The politics are in the right place and the movie is not mean-spirited. The Middle East, with its endless cycle of hate and revenge, needs fixing, while in the same block in NY Jews and Arabs coexist without a scratch. The movie's theory, which I adhere to, is that the Israelis and their neighbors are more similar than not. Equally macho, equally nuts and equally tacky, at the very least. 
The Zohan, pretending his thick guttural accent is Australian-Tibetan, falls in love with a Palestinian girl (while shtupping everything that moves) and in the end Israelis and Arabs coexist happily ever after -- in New York. 
 I can hear the humorless whining about the Jewish cabal in Hollywood and the victims and the oppressors.  And precisely because of that, I salute even more the chutzpah of the writers to make a movie like this.  
I realize that I watch many more Hollywood comedies than I watch any other kinds of films that come from that craven town. For the most part they are far more interesting than the rest of the Hollywood product and they tend to be dismissed and underrated because they are funny, and nobody takes them seriously but in many instances they are the better, smarter American films today. 

Oct 27, 2008

Grande Enchilada: Auteure

Greetings from Mexico City, darlings, where I am shepherding my little short at the 6th International Jewish Film Festival. It is great to see the audience's reaction, which is very different than in the States. There, people laugh out loud, whereas here they just titter. Mr. Ex-Enchilada thinks it's because sexual innuendo and harrassment are way too common here. Perhaps.
I got a huge kick of showing the short at the Cineteca Nacional; the audience there was very appreciative and engaged. One guy gave me three optional endings, one of which struck me as quintessentially Mexican, as it involved the services of a lady of the night.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a woman demanded to know what my short and the other movie showing were about. Go in and find out, lady. Am I the only person who finds it annoying when people expect others to do all the work for them? War and Peace, what's it about?
I was pissed off, as in the second screening on the other side of town, the projectionist screwed up and showed my film with the wrong aspect ratio so everything looked scrunched and ugly. I raised hell but Mexico is the land of excuses (instead of solutions, for instance) and one just capitulates after too many of those. I participated in a very interesting talk with other Mexican Jewish filmmakers that soon turned into a polemic about the misperceptions between Mexicans and Mexican Jews, that had little to do with cinema. Such are the vagaries of living in a country that, tolerant and generous as it is, is not a melting pot. This is endlessly interesting and fodder for a lenghtier post.
In the meantime, I'm trying to organize my eating strategies so I can cram the most Mexican food in without going overboard (good luck to me).
All I know is I can't wait til Wednesday when I'm eating my tacos de carnitas right across from where the short is screening. Nana, buche and cuerito, here I come.

Films on a Plane


First I saw Get Smart, the movie version with Steve Carell. It was very sad, since even though Carell may be the only person right enough to fit in the great Don Adams' shoes, the movie is a sad barrage of special effects with only few and far between good jokes. It is a sorry sign of how much times have changed for the worse that the relationship between Max and 99 is now adversarial and competitive. In the magnificent TV series, Barbara Feldon's 99 was always much more capable than Max, but she loved him and had this lovely, infinite patience with him. They had a beautiful relationship. She didn't have to prove she was better, she just was. Anne Hathaway is lovely and game, but the problem is that Hollywood has taken feminism and turned it into a male fantasy in which women are too strong to be approachable and the poor males are left stranded and hurting. I cannot tell you how tired I am of this fallacy. And I was sad to see it made its way into this film too.
Of course, few things can be more delightful to the soul than watching Alan Arkin play Boss. Few things are more delightful than watching Alan Arkin, period. I love his boss because he is so not ornery. He is just this sweet guy. There are a few good jokes involving having crucial access to the Vice President of the US and Steve Carell is very funny but it pains my heart that things
come into this film, such as trying to pander to every fucking demographic, that have little to do with the genius of the original concept.
The one thing that is worth the price of admission is to see and hear the one and only Terrence Stamp utter the words "Mr. Shpilkes". I could run a loop for all eternity.


Then I saw Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder and it is very interesting to compare the Mel Brooksian humor with the Stillerian humor. I'm in the camp of Mel. I really wanted to like this movie. I really wanted to appreciate the darkness into which Ben Stiller is willing to go to in the realm of comedy that makes you uncomfortable (like his Cable Guy), but the problem is that it is not funny. It is loud and obnoxious and except for the amazing Robert Downey Jr., deeply unfunny. It is so unfunny that it takes a comic genius like Steve Coogan and makes him unfunny (worse, it kills him five minutes into the film).
Robert Downey plays a parody of Russell Crowe, in a perfect impersonation of his pompous Aussie self, who gets into character to play a black actor and never comes out. He is unbelievable, but the film is so leaden and so mean spirited not even Downey Jr. could make me want to keep watching.

Oct 23, 2008

Let The Right One In



Let the right one in is one of the most impressive films I have seen in a long time. A masterful, sweet, horrific, funny, taut, amazingly poised mashup of genres. It's a romantic vampire movie with kids.
But because it is Swedish, it is excellent and not the moronic thing you are imagining.
I can see someone already buying the rights to make a stupid remake here with Myley Cyrus or whatever her name is, which would be an insult and would have none of the fierce intelligence, the wonderful humor and the endless wisdom of this film. If it is playing anywhere near you, run to see it.

Oct 21, 2008

W.


The movie doesn't work, which is a huge pity, not only because it could have been a fitting last rebuke to the Worst President Ever, but because Josh Brolin's wonderful performance gets a little lost in the generally schematic presentation.
Brolin is turning out to be one of the best young actors today. Check him out as an evil cop in American Gangster, and of course in No Country for Old Men. He is capable of wrapping himself around character with lots of confidence and very little artifice. You cannot really see the sweat behind the work. Anybody can imitate George W. Bush. Just squint hard enough and laugh like a moron and you are halfway there, but behind Brolin's solid imitation there is a wonderfully nuanced performance. It is evident that he took to heart the actors' maxim that you have to like the characters you play, even if they are terrible people. He makes W. quite likable in his ignorant fratboy way; cocky and dim but seemingly sincere. A hard partier, a world class shirker in his youth; his born again status is presented as a combination of political opportunism and a yearning for a compassionate father. And who could be more compassionate than Jesus H. Christ? For someone so directionless, and so unmotivated by challenge, religion seems to have provided structure and relief from all that aimlessness. Once he is in power, being president affords him the luxury of little power trips, like making his entire cabinet take a walk in the killer Crawford sun. In his inner sanctum, he watches football and chokes on pretzels. Forget all the Judd Apatow movies: here is the overgrown kid extraordinaire. He's the Decider.
But Stone makes sure we don't forget he is also a bully. He credits Bushie with the infamous Willie Horton campaign that supposedly won his father the presidency. W. is not too uncomfortable with Cheney's plans for torture. A blessed fool, he ain't.
Stone has concentrated on the conflict between Bush Pére and his son to explain W.'s misadventures with power. I understand there are several books about the Bush dynasty that deal with this issue. However, I am a little tired of this trope of American male directors, the obsession of the son with the father who is too hard to please. It can't possibly be the single explanation for everything that goes wrong in America.
Apparently, in the case of W., the father issue is fatally compounded with a case of terminal and dangerous shallowness. W. became relentless in his wish to be taken seriously by his Poppy. According to the movie, he would have been content in the world of baseball, but his father frowned on it. We should have been so lucky.
Critics are saying that Oliver Stone is too soft on Dubya. I don't think that this is the problem with this movie. The movie shows plenty enough the lazy, coddled, childish, immature, simplistic bully who became this country's president twice. It's more that the movie feels rushed and unfocused and too busy trying to present some sort of Greek tragedy instead of really going for the jugular. The film plods along, oscillating between a few sharp, pithy scenes and mostly heavy handed stuff, wavering between characters that seem like animatronics, and actors giving fully realized performances. It's always a problem with biopics, especially those of people who are still around. James Cromwell as G.H. Bush is excellent, but Richard Dreyfuss is totally underused and disappointing as Satan himself, Dick Cheney. I would have liked to see more of Bush's relationship with Dick than with his Dad. In the end, all we want to know is who is really calling the shots. There is one scene where Cheney tries to sell Bush on the Iraqi nuclear weapons scam by asking him if he would eat the lettuce on his sandwich if he knew it could be poisoned. He talks to him in a language he can understand, but except from a ridiculous scene a la Dr. Evil in which Cheney looks at a map of Iraq and Iran and swoons about the oil reserves, his responsibility is given short shrift.
The father-son conflict gives Stone the leeway to take on the corruption underlying our democracy and that is one of the few interesting points the movie makes. It shows Bush Pére always pulling strings (reluctantly) on behalf of the son: to get him out of jail in college, to get him into Harvard, and, as he himself says in the movie, to get his his ass safely out and victorious in the infamous Florida recount, to which he sent James Baker to save the day and ruin this country forever. The people in Dubya's cabinet are mostly old friends of Poppy. It does make you wonder, do we live in a fiefdom or is this a democracy?
James Cromwell plays Bush Pére without relying on easy imitation. He is gangly and soft spoken but his contempt for his son oozes out of his every pore. It's a great performance about a man who has a son who keeps embarrassing him and with whom he does not connect at all.
The rest looks like a pageant out of Epcot center. The always fabulous Jeffrey Wright looks too small for Colin Powell, and Scott Glenn seems too wholesome for Rummy (a way over the top Clooney would have been my choice). My adored Toby Jones plays Karl Rove as a little impish, enthusiastic sidekick. Rove and Cheney, the two people who could have benefited from a little more machiavellian oomph, seem rather pedestrian. Is that the point? The banality of evil? If this is the case: bo-ring.
You will be relieved to know that that gorgeous woman, Thandie Newton, is wearing a fantastic prothesis and suitable helmet hair and she looks and talks just like Condi Rice. However, I never understood her motivations. Is Stone saying she is just a yes girl? I also never understood if Colin Powell is the only person in the movie who vehemently opposes the path these people are taking on Iraq, why does he cave in? Stone doesn't even try to venture a guess and it feels sloppy. It is never entirely understood, except for the possible culpability of pheromones, what exactly did Laura Bush see in her husband (he is charming but always talks with his mouth full). And as much as I love Eileen Burstyn, and as good as she is, I would have loved to see Margo Martindale as Barbara Bush. It would have been spooky. The female characters are all underwritten, the movie is as subtle as a zetz in the head with a frying pan, and the end result is mystifyingly boring.
However, it is worth sitting through. I respect Stone for not wanting to do another easy satire. But this film needed much more political punch, and smarter writing. Someone like Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) would possibly have written a much more focused, pithy script.

Oct 18, 2008

Happy Go Lucky


Wow. I love this film. Sally Hawkins gives a spectacular, miraculous performance as Poppy, a 30 year old woman who is always cheerful. She is always smiling, always finding everything hilarious, always trying to connect with people in a breezy, spontaneous way. Some people may interpret her bubbliness as unwelcome weirdness, or a desperate need for attention, but the good thing is, she doesn't care. She is a genuinely upbeat, joyful person, a bit on the childish side, but not an innocent.
There isn't one single moment in which her character is saddled with comic clichés. Director Mike Leigh is a wise and deeply empathetic observer of character and I feel that this movie is actually more subversive than it seems. For starters, who is writing movies with a strong female character like this? No one.
Poppy forces you to look at yourself through the prism of her character. While you and me and probably everyone else would be throwing a fit of anger over our stolen bike, Poppy is like "Dang! We never got to say a proper goodbye". And just like that, she brushes it off. A surly bookstore clerk is rude to her, she brushes it off, neutralizing him with a wink and a smile. She seems genuinely incapable of anger. It makes one wonder what is it like to live without anger. What is it like to truly love your life. For some people, anger and kvetching are like oxygen, their absence is inconceivable. But even lower back pain can't make Poppy's spirit flag. She laughs through the ordeal...
The miracle in the performance is that she is totally believable. Hawkins inhabits her from the inside. This woman has a lot of inner light and it shines through all the time. Her fashion sense is also incredible. It's so refreshing to see a paradigm of brilliant acting that is not dependent on the tearing out of hair and the crying of rivers. I wonder if Hawkins' feat is not so much more difficult than the dramatic emoting that usually garners actors awards. It seems impossible to fake happiness such as hers. Pure, sincere joy is not an easy feeling to sustain all the time for humans, let alone for an actor, and true empathy, true sincerity, all of Poppy's core virtues feel right and true. She is very funny and quirky and though she is not malicious, she is not dumb, she likes to provoke gently. What a concept: she is truly happy with her life. The brilliance of this film is that it is not calculated to be cute (like for instance Amelie, a movie I loathe). Leigh is a much more serious artist than that. He consistently defies our expectations of what constitutes comedy and even drama. The movie is totally fresh and original and devoid of clichés and it has the flow of life.
Of course, one wonders how can you chirp around in a world with so much darkness? But Poppy does not turn a blind eye, nor does she live in a fantasy world. She sees hurt and pain and tries to do something about it. She is deeply empathetic. There is a scene in which she wanders at night into a blighted, desolate area and she runs into a crazy homeless guy. We brace for horror and violence but the scene turns out to be something out of Beckett. It seems deliberately theatrical. The guy mumbles almost incoherently about "she" and "he" and "them" and Poppy listens and understands exactly what he means. And you know she is not faking, as most of us would do to try to get out of harm's way. She means it. She is also cognizant of the risks she is taking. She knows where she is, but it seems like she can't help connecting. She does naturally the opposite of what we also do naturally, which is to turn away and disconnect.
The core of the film are Poppy's encounters with Scott, her driving teacher, in an equally incredible performance by Eddie Marsan, who is exactly her diametrical opposite. This is a man that has forbidden joy to enter his life. He is an angry, bitter, upset guy, a misanthrope with absurd rules, conspiracy theories and prejudices. For him to come into contact with Poppy is a shock to his system. As Abbas Kiarostami has said, a car is the smallest intimate space where you can have the maximum of conflict between two people. Here you have it in a nutshell, two completely different ways of looking at life clashing over the steering wheel. Their driving lesson scenes are a hoot. Scott tries to quash Poppy's bubbliness with his exaggerated concerns for safety. He is deeply offended by her insistence on wearing high heel boots in the car. A classic control freak. She laughs it off, but she never relents. She may be happy, but she is no pushover. Poppy is like an extreme version of killing with kindness.
What transpires, with enormous grace and subtlety, is that Scott is somehow attracted to Poppy very much despite himself, a lovely and intelligent example of "opposites attract". He cannot bring himself to admit it, much less communicate it, and Poppy is slow to realize it. The entire film one waits for something horrible to shock Poppy out of her happiness, and her confrontation with Scott is it. But she is much stronger than him, his hate is a mark of weakness, whereas her compassion is a shield of strength.
Some people, when confronted with Poppy's happiness, mistake it as an accusation or as some sort of rubbing it in, or even as cruel flirtation. It doesn't seem possible to them that she would be so quirky and happy without an agenda. These instances of misinterpretation cause her deep hurt, because it would never cross her mind to wield her joy to hurt someone. It's heartbreaking that people should misunderstand joy as a ploy. But it is so rare, who can blame them?
Leigh gives his actors time to develop their themes and the scenes have a beautiful rhythm to them. The movie meanders with a sweet, gentle flow. Leigh is a master at creating extraordinary intimacy between people. He gives actors plenty of space to be totally human and they take it. It must be the highest blessing for an actor to work with him.
It is incredibly moving to come across a good character who is not self-conscious or preachy about her decency, who just is. And she is happy to be.