Sep 30, 2008

NY Film Festival: Hunger

Hunger, a film by British visual artist Steve McQueen, and winner of this year's Camera D'Or at Cannes, is probably the hardest film I've ever watched. It is also one of the most powerful and unforgettable. Literally, a work of art.
Hunger is about the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army in the infamous Maze prison in 1981. If you are expecting heroic melodrama a la In The Name of the Father, you are in for a rude and powerful awakening. Hunger strips the situation to the most elemental and extreme. It starts, not with Sands, who is introduced quite late into the film, but with the image of bloodied knuckles under cold water, a prison guard in pain. This man is then seen in flashback, ready to leave his house in a gripping sequence in which the basic act of getting into his car may mean his death. McQueen first shows you only the aftermath of the violence inflicted by this man in his own body. His uniform is stained with blood, he has cuts and bruises in his face and his knuckles are raw. There is a scene in which he goes out for a smoke in the snow and a flake falls in his bloody hand, turning into a droplet on contact with his skin, still hot from beating someone else. Every scene in this film is like that, intensely real, intensely beautiful, and intensely meaningful.
is an extremely violent movie, and the violence is disturbingly real. There are no guns. Bodies fight in body to body combat. The guards have shoes and clothes and batons and things that hurt, like metal doors and walls against which they hurl the prisoners, who always resist. The prisoners have nothing. In fact, a lot of the violence in Hunger is inflicted on the prisoners by themselves, as they are revolting against the British government's refusal to acknowledge their crimes as political. The Thatcher government insists on treating them like common criminals, and the IRA prisoners then refuse to wear prison uniforms and to take baths. This means they live naked, in absolute filth, making murals in the walls with their own shit. The scenes inside the cells are indeed a vision of hell. But they are a vision of hell made by an artist, and they have a terrible beauty that recalls Goya's dark paintings. Since they have nothing else, the prisoners also use the cavities (all of them) in their bodies like conduits for messages with the outside world. As you can expect, the guards violate those cavities regularly as well. The violence is savage and uncoreographed and totally unlike the cartoony, fake violence we routinely see in films.
Most of the prisoners actually look like Jesus Christ, with long hair and beards and lean bodies covered only by a loincloth. In one scene, which I don't think I will ever forget, the prisoners, a roomful of Jesus Christs, are taking mass. But instead of listening to the poor priest, they are busy talking to themselves. After years in solitary confinement, they need to talk more than they need prayer.
On one level, the movie transcends politics to show an extreme, relentless test of wills between the prisoners and the guards. The prisoners are obviously fanatical and totally defiant. What they do to themselves is beyond reason. The British cruelly exploit the situation by letting the prisoners rot in their own shit. They also actively humiliate them and abuse them. The stance of the guards is eerily echoed by the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher (never a reassuring one) in actual declarations she made about her refusal to bow down to the prisoners' demands. There is almost no dialog, there is no communication except for visceral provocations and retaliations. Things have broken down to utter madness.
The film is divided in three stages. First is the prisoners' revolt. Then, after Bobby Sands (the amazing Michael Fassbender) is introduced, there is a long scene, shot with a fixed camera in real time, in which Sands talks to a priest and announces his decision to start a hunger strike. Sands argues that it's been four years and nothing has been gained. The priest argues against mass suicide. The conversation takes a theological, philosophical, moral turn. The lull in the violence is not only a huge relief, but it is actually shocking to hear people talk in intelligent terms, using language with humor and wit. The debate between Sands and the priest explores the core of the conflict beyond just an endless series of brutal revenges. Sands feels the prisoners have been abandoned by the IRA. The priest cannot condone mass suicide. He even posits that Sands is sending people to their death. It is the first time that Sands hears a case against his own righteousness, and coming from a priest, you can see the devastation in his eyes. But he does not alter his course.
So then follows Sands' hunger strike, an exhaustive exploration of Christ-like sacrifice. McQueen does not shirk from this painstaking portrait of human suffering. When we see Sands in a clean bed with pristine white sheets in a clean cell, one thinks the hunger strike was not such a bad idea. We are quickly disabused of this notion. A doctor informs his parents of the laundry list of organ failures that happen at the second week of not eating (Sands lasted 66 days). There is a sequence where you see the plates of food they bring him and he steadfastly ignores. One can only imagine the added torture of smelling eggs with bacon and toast, smelling tea and jam, meat and potatoes. Sands is totally emaciated, covered in sores, gradually unable to stand or speak or hear. As in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a lot of this is shot from his point of view; blurred vision, blurred hearing, hallucinations. Total, basic, pared down, elemental suffering.
At the end, we are informed that 9 dead hunger strikers later, the government gave in to most of the demands, but it never admitted the political nature of the prisoners' crimes.
Every single scene in Hunger is powerful. Every frame is stunning, even when it is horrifying. It is a movie with the integrity and the committed vision of an artist, and its images resonate in the mind for days.

NY Film Festival: I'm Going to Explode

We had a pretty good run with the first three movies we saw: The Class, Hunger and 24 City. These were films made by solid, talented, mature filmmakers. These are films that open your eyes to the world, that expand your horizons. Then came this appalling mediocrity from Mexico.
I guess that the selection committee was somehow charmed by the gall of a young filmmaker trying to do his own little version of Godard (Pierrot Le Fou, to be exact). There is nothing wrong with paying homage to your house gods of cinema, but if you are, you better have the decency to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, I'm Going to Explode is a puerile, intellectually lazy, badly written, horribly cast, utter waste of time.
L'amour fou capers with two rebellious lovers have been done with far more panache, by Godard himself (Breathless), or in movies like Bonnie and Clyde. It is a small genre in itself. The irrational plays a big part in it. However, in this iteration, the irrational is also accompanied by the ludicrous and the stupid, to a point of insulting the intelligence of the audience with lazy, manipulative choices. For instance, one night the kids are found out in their hideout but the woman who finds them says nothing. Why? Who knows. There is no reason, except to keep the silly story going. In another awful scene, a bystander asks a horribly hemorrhaging character "what is wrong with you?" over and over. Does the filmmaker think that Mexicans are that stupid or does he not know how to write dialog? Or both?
One of the main problems of the film is that the two teenagers that play the lovers are utterly insufferable and vapid. So instead of rooting for them you want them to die; the quicker, the better. They are not given any intelligent or witty dialog nor are they resourceful enough actors to make any kind of mark. They not only have zero chemistry together. I actually think they have anti-chemistry. The more you see them, the more you loathe them. Their escapade, the most original part of which is that they are literally too close to home, seems more like an idiotic spoiled brat tantrum than something grounded on psychological reality. The kid is the son of a, guess what, corrupt right wing politico, and he is a little snotty sociopath. To our endless misfortune, Jean Paul Belmondo he ain't. He is a cipher, and totally incapable of charm. His consort is a girl with a grating tone of voice (she speaks like an entitled Mexico City rich girl, even though she is supposed to be from the colonial town of Guanajuato). They are both totally underwritten characters. There is no arc, there is no subtext, there is no motive, no nuance. The movie is at the level of a sketch. It plays like a first draft. It is all a pointless exercise in style.
I wonder what is happening in Mexico that consistently prevents Mexican cinema from maturing and breaking out. There have been several good movies (Amores perros, Y tu mamá también, which already happened a while ago, Temporada de patos, La zona), but unlike the push that quality cinema is having in other similarly economically challenged countries (Argentina, Korea, Israel), Mexican cinema cannot get out of its rut.
I think its a bigger problem than lack of funds or a total drought of good screenwriters. It's the nature of the place itself, where the upper middle class are so spoiled and sheltered from reality that they never grow up, and for the most part, these are the movies they make.

NY Film Festival: Tony Manero

This relentlessly dark film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain is tough going, but it is a very original, bitter film, with a very strong point of view. It takes place during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, when Chile was under military law. The main character, a psychopath called Raúl, has an obsession. He wants to be the best Tony Manero impersonator (remember John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever?) in Chile. He watches the film over and over, he repeats the dialog like a parrot, and he busts those famous moves (in probably the most humorless, cringe inducing dance scenes ever committed to film). He also happens to be a thief and a cold blooded murderer, and the film chronicles his quest to be Tony Manero as he brazenly ignores everything else that happens around him.
The film is an extended metaphor of what happened in Chile in those days. One could see Raúl as an embodiment of the majority of Chileans, who turned a blind eye to Pinochet's abuses of power and went for easy escapism instead, provided by stupid television shows or the Hollywood dream factory. But the fact that Raúl is such a vile character, such a terrible bastard, points to a parallel with the dictator himself, killing and vanishing people with total impunity.
The violence in this film is brutal, swift and merciless. Raúl kills people with his bare hands. At the beginning he seems like a meek dreamer, but soon you realize he is full of rage. Several women find him irresistible, even as he debases them, and even as he is impotent. Maybe this too is symbolic of some people's acceptance of the Pinochet regime. There are intimations of a deeply divided society, of a racist streak through this society, and ultimately of a society disgusted with itself.
The movie is claustrophobic. It never leaves the poor working class slums where he lives. The colors are washed out, the camera is handheld all the time. The dark, bleak humor dries in your throat, the sex is brutal. Tony Manero is a nasty piece of work, but it recreates a nasty, evil time in Chilean history, and it doesn't let anybody off easy.

Sep 29, 2008

Gods of Cinema: Paul Newman

Not to be a contrarian but I don't think Paul Newman was that great.
Before you start lobbying for my execution, let me explain. I admire his politics, I admire his social commitment and I think he was one of the handsomest men in the history of the world. As a movie star, yes, total charisma. Deserves to be in the pantheon of the Gods of Cinema. But I really liked him better as an actor as he aged. I loved him in The Road To Perdition, a very underrated movie. He was great chomping the scenery in The Verdict, but he wasn't always great when he was younger. He was very acty. Actor's studio acty. Please don't all kill me for saying this. Thank you.

Sep 27, 2008

NY Film Festival: The Class

It is perfectly understandable why The Class won the Palme D'Or this year at Cannes. It is a magnificent directorial feat by Laurent Cantet. Cantet's movies are preoccupied with the politics of French society. And The Class, even though it takes place in a public high school in Paris, is not only about teenagers and their discontents, but about what is always a theme in his films: the breaking point tension that exists between those with power (economic, intellectual, cultural, professional), and those without.
The Class is fascinating because it explores the incredibly frustrating exercise in educating disadvantaged kids, many from cultures very different from French culture. In the US there is an entire genre of sappy movies about the hero teacher and his reluctant but finally inspired students. The Class puts all of these films to shame.
The teachers, the students and the parents all play themselves. However, The Class is not a documentary. It is a taut, fictionalized reenactment of reality, based on a book written by the teacher François Bégaudeau, who plays himself as Mr. Marin. Cantet has achieved a degree of dramatic tension and spontaneity that is miraculous.
The movie avoids simplistic generalizations. The frustration of the educational system goes both ways, and both sides, teachers and students, have reason to be exasperated. As for the teachers, we all know that teenagers are incomprehensible and uncomprehending mutants, in every corner of the world. There are entire stretches of film that are devoted to show the absolute impossibility of communication between students and teachers. The exploration of the breakdown of a common logic and a common language is one of the most fascinating, almost anthropological, aspects of the film.
The Class
makes you feel what it is like to be a solitary individual facing an amorphous group of willfully defiant, antagonistic students. If it was me, I'd strangle and thrown most of them out the window two minutes into the class. Their real life teacher, Mr. Marin, who is heroic and dogged in his efforts, is a very cunning, sly educator. Against the onslaught of apathy he chooses to engage the students in a pretty nimble, relaxed confrontational manner. It seems he will do anything to achieve their engagement, and every time he succeeds it feels like a momentous victory. He is very sharp, funny and entertaining (how I wish he had been my French teacher), but he is up against a f0rmidable enemy, against which, the French language, with its complicated rules and formality, does not help him. It is not only that the students balk at learning the formal French they consider "medieval" because no one talks like that. They intuitively reject (even if they don't know what the word "intuition" means) something inherent in their compulsory acceptance of French, which is that the French the school wants them to master is a vaguely insulting, superior, contemptuous symbol of colonialist oppression to them. They could not articulate this if their life depended on it but they feel it in their gut. And they are not wrong. They can't conjugate it (who can?) and they don't feel that they own it. They own the slang of the streets, filled with contractions and words that come from their own languages, and that is not what l'etat is teaching them. They resent that l'etat considers that their French is not worthy of respect. So they question it, and they resist it. Their mistake is not understanding that Mr. Marin is giving it to them to use it as a rope with which to climb out of the bottom.
The Class
, of course, is all about class.
But it is also about the sonorous clash of French culture against the other cultures that now live in its midst. This encompasses not only the language (which is culture, after all) but the logical processes, the mentality, the ingrained social customs. The most engrossing parts of the film consist in watching how Mr. Marin resorts to impeccable Cartesian logic when he can't make heads or tails of whatever the students are saying to him, or when he tries to get them to articulate their thoughts. He deconstructs their meaning like a regular Derrida, he tries using reason and intellect. If that is not the epitome of French thinking, God knows what is. Sometimes he succeeds with this method, sometimes he crashes into a a wall. Most of the time, it is very funny and gripping to watch.
The cast of real life kids is a treasure trove of every single person that ever sat with you in class in junior high, even if they come from Mali, Morocco, France, China, the Caribbean. There is Wei, the extremely gifted, sweet, polite Chinese young man who is appalled at the lack of respect of kids to one another. There is a magnificent girl, who I can't remember her beautiful African name, a born political agitator. She thinks Marin is picking on her because he asks her to read aloud. You want to shout at the screen, he is not picking on you, he is picking you because you are smart. But this is the wonderful thing about this film. You want to scream at the screen, at the students, at the teachers, at the parents all the time.
There is the charming playboy, Boubacar, who is very smart but just hasn't come around to putting his intelligence to good use; there is the astonishing, fierce Esmeralda, a royal queen of sass, who spends her time brazenly sparring with with Mr. Marin (and you can see he enjoys it). She is a riot. There is lost, distant Henriette, who apparently finds it more entertaining to repeatedly smack the blunt end of a pair of scissors into the palm of her hand than anything that is going on in class. There is Souleyman, who I personally would have strangled since day one. He sits at the back of the class, every day having "forgotten" his books, pens, etc, in a most supreme attitude of lazy, ignorant arrogance that of course, drives teachers crazy. But Marin is endlessly convinced he can draw out a spark of creativity in this guy, and both pay a hard price for painting themselves into their respective corners.
For all their insupportable behavior, the kids ultimately command respect because they demand it. They resent being condescended to, and Marin, who is not a saint, sometimes condescends to them in a way that's beneath him, since there seems to be no fiercer champion of these kids than him. For most of the film he tries to remain fair and evenhanded, patient and empathetic, but the students gang up on him and he starts losing it, reverting to a dissing contest between him and the students that leaves him smarting terribly.
The Class also explores the fabled, byzantine French bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, to judge from the educational system presented in the film, is now liberally festooned with well meaning political correctness, which sometimes creates patently self-defeating situations. For instance, having two student representatives sit on the meeting where the teachers and the principal decide on the merits and the demerits of the students. Who in their right mind would give two teenagers the power to participate in such decisions? The result is that everything is misunderstood. And so it may be in a greater context in France today. This is not to say that Cantet has an ax to grind against PC. He just puts the situation out there for you to rack your brains on how the hell you would solve these problems, how the French are trying to solve these problems. He does not come with an easy, reassuring answer, just with a glimpse of reality and truth. And for this, we love him.
What a delight to be engaged so totally in something so intelligent, human and complex; triumphant and heartbreaking as The Class.

Sep 25, 2008

NY Film Festival: Silent Light

Or, I beg to differ. 

I see that Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane, two critics I respect and admire, are both very taken by Silent Light, the movie by Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. Reygadas is our auteur, our artiste, which means his movies are heavily pretentious. I was not a fan of Japón, and because of that, I didn't see Battle in Heaven, but Silent Light did very well at Cannes so I saw it at the 2007 New York Film Festival.
For a while, Reygadas earned 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.
Silent Light 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 non-actors are. I have never understood the predilection of certain filmmakers for non professional actors. In my book, when dealing with fictional 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. Some of his austere staging reminded me of the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. It is obvious that this film does not pretend to be something realistic, because paradoxically, the authenticity of the people makes 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.

Sep 22, 2008


I read a good review of this Western by Ed Harris and there I go, looking forward to see him and Viggo Mortensen (good guys) and Jeremy Irons (bad guy) duke it out in the Wild West. The movie is mildly entertaining, for the most part because Harris and Mortensen are great together. They are two sheriffs for hire who act like an old married couple and their intimacy and rapport are palpable. They are both excellent. Ed Harris is very convincing dealing with the bad guys and he also shows a sweet comedic streak as a guy who is ruthless with the meanies but clueless with women. Mortensen is his patient, silent, smarter sidekick and he gives a lovely, quiet performance. The few words he speaks, however, I had trouble understanding, maybe because he mumbles or because in general the sound was bad. They show the previews at ear splitting sound and then the movie you can barely hear.
Both Ed and Viggo were made to be in Westerns. They are handsome and rugged and totally believable. Jeremy Irons is too, looking tan and trim, but I thought he was either unfocussed (his American accent no great shakes), or underused.
Renee Zellwegger shows up as a charming but almost predatory woman, who is not a paragon of virtue. It is an interesting female role, not the usual virtuous frontier woman, but a widow that needs male protection and she gets it by sleeping around with whomever may be the best candidate to give it to her. She is a good foil to Harris' unblemished goodness, kind of a nice femme fatale. Zellwegger is a very good comedienne, but there is something unlikable about her. It seems like she had been to the plastic surgeon too recently, because her cheeks are so inflated, her eyes look like little slits. It is heartbreaking to see actresses fuck up their faces like that. It is also distracting.
Although it feels rambling and uneven, Appaloosa is enjoyable fluff, which is interesting for a Western. This would be more refreshing if the comedy was not so broad and if the movie made its points with more rigor, more conviction.
Pet peeve:
They go to this Mexican town and it's almost like a cartoon. The jail has a sign that says "La Cárcel". It should be just "Cárcel", just like in English it wouldn't say "The Jail". It would just say "Jail". The church has a sign that says "Iglesia de Nuestra Señora", which means Church of Our Lady. Our Lady of What? Guadalupe? Lourdes? Tamales? At this point, with so many Spanish speaking professionals in the United States, these things continue happening (in advertising, in publishing, in movies).
I get a feeling they're all asking advice from the same janitor. It drives me crazy.

We got some focus grouping sheets of paper to fill out at the end of the movie.
You have to write down the three scenes you liked the most. I wonder what is this useful for? Do they get an average and based on that they take away scenes? I think focus groups are satanic, but I dutifully answered all the questions except that one, where I asked them to stop focus grouping movies.

Sep 16, 2008

Independent, Indeshmendent

I've been spending the past two days (and will spend the next two) attending a most depressing Independent Filmmaker Conference. To judge from the grayness and dullness of the proceedings, the state of independent film is moribund, if not dead, decomposed and decaying.
Just to give you an idea, the celebrity keynote speaker was Kevin Smith, from Clerks and Mallrats fame.
He is a very funny (and deeply raunchy) man in conversation but jeez, if he is the role model of my peers, we are all in deep fucking trouble.
I have made a short film myself, so I should not be saying this, but now everybody and their bubbe is making films. This is not a good thing, no matter what the harbingers of tomorrow try to get you excited about. The technological conditions are there for virtually every man, woman and child in this planet to become an auteur and show their oeuvre in You Tube. This is not a good thing. Remember when films where the exclusive province of the proficient? Not everybody could be a John Ford or an Alfred Hitchcock. Nobody is. But now everybody tries. The glut, the noise, the irrelevance, the needless anxiety. It's like screaming in a wind tunnel.
And when things couldn't possible get scarier, you start hearing about rights and lawyers and deals and rapacious behavior from one and all.
Movies are dying; young people don't care for watching a film on a big screen in the dark in the company of an audience when they can see it directly from their contact lens. Now everybody talks about "content" for mobile phones, computers, screens the size of dust mites. I cannot begin to tell you how truly demoralizing and depressing this is to me. The word "content" offends me. Movies are not content. They are an art form. Stories. Entertainment. Content is what's inside a can of peas.
Paradoxically, this lilliputian trend is just as noxious as the proliferation of the costly humongous obscenities made in Hollywood. The middle ground, where the potential remains for the preservation of film as an art form is getting massacred.
Art should be enjoyed by all, not made by all. So I'm a snob, and proud of it. So sue me.
There was this filmmaker today who sounded more like a corporate marketing manager than an artist, and he was expounding about finding your audience through the web and having the audience collaborate with you on your projects. I don't know if that means having your audience give you cash for your films or what, but I in no way, shape or form want the audience to collaborate with me in the making of a movie. You might as well send me to hell and throw away the key. The audience can feel free to collaborate when they buy their ticket and wait for the lights to go down. Or when they turn on their computer and eventually find my little film on their screens.
There are scores of demented independent filmmakers scrambling to find financing for their projects.
I look at them and I think no way in hell am I going to be running around like a headless chicken looking for someone to give me money for my "project". My fantasy is I write a decent script and hopefully I sell it. Then I write another one. Then one day, someone lets me direct one of my scripts.
I have already financed my short on my own and whatever happens to me next in the wonderful world of filmmaking, somebody better be paying me to do it. That's how I see it, and if it ain't possible, then I can kiss my Wellesian dreams goodbye.

Righteous Kill

Not even a giant caliber hack like Jon Avnet doing his best to fuck it up, can take away the intermittent pleasure of watching the two giants of American acting, Pacino and De Niro together, even if they are old and wrinkled and one pines for their days of youthful, electric genius. Righteous Kills is a mess of a high concept flick that makes little sense and it is shoddily made in every department. Except De Niro and Pacino have their moments. It's good to see them together, sort of like Felix and Oscar but way underwritten, wasted in a bad script. I would have loved instead to see Travis Bickle meet with the guy from Dog Day Afternoon. Or Jake La Motta talking to Frank Serpico. Let me dream. Time has taken its toll on both actors but it's good to see the marks of time instead of botox.
Pacino gives a very seductive and relatively understated (for him) performance. He is warm and funny and kind of sexy. De Niro is his usual intensely controlled self. It is hard to believe he is fucking the brains out of Carla Gugino because there is not a split atom of sexuality in his performance. But he can still deliver moments of truth and grace. It is a pity that the director is such a terrible hack he doesn't even know to give them the right space in the frame. He trains unnecessarily extreme close ups on actors that don't need them. He squanders moments, the movie makes no sense, and still it is a testament to the actors that they try to imbue it with some semblance of reality. It is really a shame they spend their time and effort in this dud, instead of lending themselves to something more dignified, but both of them abandoned that trail years ago.

Sep 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

With an enormous amount of good will, and even after reading the bad reviews, I went to see the latest Coen brothers movie because I am a fan. Or I used to be. I used to love them because they would come up with stuff so original, that even if it was too quirky for its own good, it was fresh and unique and could not have been done by anyone else. This has not been the case since Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which was the last great Coen Brothers film in my book. I am not a fan of No Country For Old Men, as competent a movie as it is.
It is always a treat to see how well the Coens can put a film together. The editing is gorgeous, and so is the photography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie looks great. It has a very brisk, satisfying rhythm, accompanied as always by Carter Burwell's menacing tones (and in this case, by his earnest pastiches of Phillip Glass and heroic Hollywood movie scores as well). Burn After Reading is quite entertaining while you watch it, but the good feelings fizzle out the moment the movie is over. Actually, they fizzle out at the abrupt and sloppy end.
The script is a trifle and it doesn't seem to have been fleshed out. It is irrelevant and schematic, even if delivered with great pizazz. All you need to know is that it takes place in Washington, where Linda Litzky (Frances McDormand), a woman who works in a gym, wants to pay for plastic surgery but can't. She and her stupid sidekick Chad, (Brad Pitt) find a CD with what they think is classified information and they try to extract a reward. A comedy of errors ensues.
Unfortunately, a formidable cast of top notch actors have been directed to perform as if they belong in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. The quality of mercy is not strained, Shakespeare said, and so it is with comedy. Strain is not funny. And here you have Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, the increasingly iconic John Malkovich, working way too hard to be funny.
I was thinking how someone like Will Ferrell, a master of idiotic self-aggrandizement, can play stupidity and incompetence without ever straining. It just flows out of him as naturally, and as lightly as a bubbling spring, and that is why he is so funny. He is just supremely at ease with stupidity.
The thespians in Burn After Reading, however, are not. I wish their antics had been modulated down a notch or three. Or their characters had some sort of shading. Because they are all capable of comedy. Clooney has done it with far more restrain and panache before. Here he works too hard and he looks uncomfortable. Brad Pitt is very funny the first two or three scenes, but then all they give him to do is to repeat the silliness unaccompanied by any nuance. So what is funny for two minutes, becomes embarrassing as the movie progresses.
John Malkovich, even as he hams it up terrifyingly, is mesmerizing. Physically, he reminds me of Brando in his Colonel Kurtz period. He is more scary than funny, and he runs with it. Frances McDormand is a naturally funny actress but also way over the top and not tempered by sweetness or any other facet except a single minded determination to get plastic surgery and go on dates. This is a far cry from her character in Fargo, who was funny and endearing because she was too smart for her small town, and wisely played dumb. She was decent and tender and wily. Here she is just like a mechanical windup doll, and as gifted as she is, there is nothing to cheer her on about. About Tilda Swinton, the less said, the better. She is badly miscast.
The only guys who redeem themselves with huge amounts of class are the character actors. The fantastic J.K. Simmons, playing a very expedient, yet clueless CIA boss and the great Richard Jenkins, playing the gym manager and sad sack who is silently in love with McDormand. His love for her is almost heartbreaking, and yet quietly funny. They do their job without self-consciousness. One wishes the rest of the actors would follow their lead.
The movie is relevant to our times only inasmuch as it skewers the cluelessness of the CIA, who seem incapable of understanding anything that happens with crazy fitness addicts in a gym, much less controlling the security of this country. This is funny but treated in a way too oblique to really make a point. It is not a political satire. It is a movie about stupidity and venality and not much else. In their great comedies, Raising Arizona and Fargo (to me, their masterpiece), the Coens summoned a much more human quality. As here, there were crazy antics, and violence and absurdity, but there was also tenderness, and decency and human complexity. This is absent in Burn After Reading.
This is going to sound crazy, but I was thinking that maybe the Coens are cursed by the Gods of Cinema. The Gods of Cinema are those immortals who have left their great movies on Earth as they passed on to their Dream Factory in the Sky. They get angry when filmmakers insist on remaking and screwing up perfect works of cinematic art (in the Coens' case, inexplicably and unforgivably, The Ladykillers). The arrogance of thinking that Tom Hanks can better Alec Guiness or that the light charm of that comedy can be improved. The moronic gall of somebody reshooting Psycho frame by frame. This brings down their ire. So filmmakers atone for their sins by making duds by themselves. A fitting punishment. Too bad the audience has to suffer it as well.

Sep 6, 2008

Shoot the Piano Player

Yesterday night I needed a fix of beauty and lightness and French.
So there was Truffaut's lovely little noir to do the trick.
Shoot the Piano Player is an adorable, quirky little film noir. Which is its greatest virtue. When has anybody described this genre as adorable and quirky? Shoot the Piano Player, with the unflappable, lovely, melancholy, Charles Aznavour, is a little gem of a film, a deeply romantic, sweet, very funny, wistful film noir.
It is totally original and very daring in an unpretentious way. Which is why I love Truffaut.
It reminded me of some of the work of the Coen brothers, who also do genre mashups. It reminded me of Raising Arizona, where there is plenty of slapstick but a very moving story propelling the plot. I also thought of Y Tu Mamá También, by Alfonso Cuarón, in which there is a lovely balance of sex farce, road movie and drama, suffused with heartbreaking melancholy. I wondered if these younger filmmakers had ever seen Shoot the Piano Player and were inspired by it.
Truffaut was the master of the light touch. His films are light and breezy, utterly tender and soulful, with a precocious wisdom about the world.
I was thinking that the difference between the antics of Godard and the antics of Truffaut is that Truffaut has a deeply empathetic sensibility. He's all feeling, whereas Godard is mostly brain. Truffaut's playfulness is sweet, his whimsy unforced, authentic and delightful. When Godard decides to get playful, like in Pierrot le Fou, it feels to me like a spoiled brat clamoring for attention. In some cases, like Breathless or A Band Apart, a genius spoiled brat, but still.
I'm firmly in the camp of Truffaut.

Sep 1, 2008

Reviews of Previews

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.
I was so busy staring at Clive Owen and Julia Roberts and their charming chemistry in the preview, I originally 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.
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.

Gods of Cinema: Deborah Kerr

I feel sad at the passing of the great Deborah Kerr. She was a wonderful, naturally elegant actress, with a distinguished list of movies to her credit and 6 Academy Award nominations. She won a honorary Oscar in the nineties.
Here are some great movies of her, so you can see what used to be called class, which is nowhere in evidence today:

The Innocents - by Jack Clayton, a wonderfully eerie adaptation of A Turn of The Screw, by Henry James. Did you see The Others with Nicole Kidman? Well, it's a total ripoff of this movie. A great subtly scary movie and Deborah Kerr is great as the governess of two very creepy children.

The King and I, with Yul Brynner. Just totally lovely and amazing.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is not a great movie but it has Robert Mitchum in it. Both together are a treat.

I've never seen From Here to Eternity, but you probably have seen the famous shot of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling around in the waves. Super racy at the time.

The Night of the Iguana. Kerr and Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. What's not to like?

I always liked her.