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


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.

Oct 13, 2008

NY Film Festival: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is a classic fighter movie and it is a conventional melodrama full of clichés. However, there is something so painfully vibrant about it, that it transcends its very conventional story in ways that particularly resonate today.I see it as a metaphor of the decline of the American empire, no less. It is very telling that even a classic movie like this could not get funding in its own country. (The French had to come to the rescue. Increasingly, it looks to me that the French are the only people interested in keeping movies -- not Hollywood product -- alive today. They may be the real superheroes saving cinema for us. Merci!)
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy the Ram, played gloriously and with utter guts by Mickey Rourke, in an astonishing performance. Randy is a has-been wrestler, traveling a humble wrestling circuit in New Jersey (the WWF, this ain't). He is plagued by the injuries sustained during years of being smashed and battered in the ring. He lives alone in a mobile home, or in his truck, when he can't pay the rent. He wears his hair long and dyed peroxide blond. He also wears an earpiece. For all the fakery of the spectacle, the damage to his body is real. He is Christlike in the amount of stigmata he bears, and I guess it is no coincidence he is the Ram and not the Boar or the Bull (sacrificial lamb, anyone?). He is the all-American hero of the crazy spectacle of wrestling, with its theatrical, prearranged victories. But now he is old, battered and broke and heartbreakingly sad. He is also a magnificent, royal fuck-up. It is a beautiful character; a sweet natured person lost in total loss. The loss of his body, the loss of an income, the loss of a family. As a metaphor for our state of being today, we can include the loss of his powers, of his prodigious reputation, of his pride, of his standing in the world.
Now, the meta factor in the casting of Mickey Rourke makes this movie even more devastating. There isn't any other actor who could have played this part. To look at Rourke's destroyed face is heartbreaking. I can't get over it. His face is so swollen and bizarre that one can barely see his eyes, and still through the mask of surgeries and crushed bones, the character comes alive, and Rourke is killer. There will be an Oscar nomination for him. There should be.
As the Magnificent Arepa notes, The Wrestler doesn't tell you anything that Raging Bull, for instance, has not said better, but the choice of the goofy, weird, almost transcendent universe of wrestling, with its simplistic pageantry of good vs. evil, is what makes this movie unique.
I also loved the fact that this movie takes place in the underground of American life, at the bottom of the barrel, which is fast becoming the norm: the world of Americans without money, without education, without options. Everybody in this movie is struggling, nobody is remotely middle class (the highest status person is a snotty supermarket manager who likes feeling superior to Randy, who works there to supplement his meager income). The main characters are pulling themselves by the bootstraps to be wrestlers or strippers, and of course they are barely making it. The fabled American prosperity is not in evidence anywhere in this film.
Talking about strippers, let us all now praise Marisa Tomei. She plays Pam, a mercurial stripper the Ram is in love with. Number one, this woman looks better than the $700 billion bailout. Her body, to quote that awful song, is a wonderland, but her face has not been ravaged yet by the epidemic of plastic surgery in vogue in Hollywood (or if it has, she has a really good surgeon). Tomei owns her age and bless her for it. I defy any pole dancer in reality to be as stunningly erotic as this woman.
Number 2, to Tomei's immense credit, she is not the stripper with the heart of gold, but rather with the heart of rust. She, like the Ram, is trying hard to make a living and she is afraid of mixing business with love. Tomei's face registers different feelings faster than a car that goes from 0 to 60. She is sexy, fake, genuinely concerned and cold as ice in less that it takes me to write this sentence. Total Oscar bait.
The storyline of the movie is a tearjerker (wrestler loves stripper, stripper rebuffs him; wrestler looks for long lost daughter who hates him, etc). I have to say that the worn melodrama made my enthusiasm flag a couple of times. There is a subplot involving Randy's long lost daughter (the annoyingly overestimated Evan Rachel Wood) that seems right out of Mildred Pierce, but Aronofsky's love and curiosity for the world of z-rate wrestling is so compelling that he almost saves the movie from total maudlin corn.
There is sweet humor in the film, and to be given a pass to the backstage camaraderie of wrestlers is touching and delightful. The movie is openhearted and generous, but Aronofsky balances it with a healthy dose of brutal reality. The humiliations of the Ram are legion and they are lovingly detailed. The movie has a great vitality, thanks no doubt to the excellent cinematography by Maryse Alberti; a lot of handheld camera, the fight scenes shot from very up close, the daylight gray and wintry and the interiors bright and tawdry. Oscar for her too!
As befits our new reality, The Wrestler ain't no song of triumph over adversity a la Rocky. Quite the contrary, it seems that adversity has trumped triumph. This is a story of relentless, useless sacrifice. And so it seems with America today. Those who are sacrificing find it is all for nought, for the wrong values and the wrong outcomes.
The Ram's dogged pursuit of everything that eludes him has a certain valiant, misguided nobility to it, but beleaguered and alone, his pride hurt, he loses his instinct for self-preservation and there is no happy ending.

NY Film Festival: Bullet in the Head

That is what watching this movie felt like, you were pining for a bullet in the head to get you out of your misery. I have never seen so many people decamp at a screening. I had an extra ticket that went unclaimed by several friends and I was thanking the Gods of Cinema I didn't have to put any of my friends through this ordeal. I stayed on, mostly because I had nothing better to do. I was waiting for the Q&A to see if Jaime Rosales, the director, could elucidate what in the name of God was he thinking. The Q&A was very helpful. It helped me to understand that there was a huge gap between what the director wanted to achieve in his mind and the actual results.
Call me a philistine, but when directors mention that their influences are Godard, Antonioni, Passolini, Tarkovksy and Ozu, it's time to run for the hills. To me, this shorthand means that the director, who probably does not possess the same amount of talent of his heroes, is a pretentious bore.
In the case of Jaime Rosales, the movie is a great concept for a short. Had it taken 15 minutes, it would have been a masterpiece. Basically, it is a movie where people talk all the time, but you can't hear them. You can hear all the noises around them, curiously enough, traffic, cutlery, the hubbub of modern city life, but you can't hear a word they are saying. In small doses, this can create a disquieting feeling of somebody being spied on (see Michael Haneke's excellent film Cache). If it happens for more than an hour, though, it can make you want to tear your hair out, especially if all you see people doing is chatting at cafés and drinking beers with friends, and going to the park. Not much happens.
But then there is one violent action that immediately reveals who these banal, normal looking people are. They are Basque terrorists. Believe me, this is an instance where you may thank me for the spoiler. If you see the movie, you will want to wait for the eternity it takes to get to this part. It may make it more exciting.
Rosales was saying that he wanted to strip the movie of the ideology surrounding terrorism, so that dealing with it could change the terms in the real world. I think ideology is not the right word; discourse is more like it. Because there seems to be an ideology at work in presenting terrorists as normal people who live in the same world we do. This does not justify them, but it is an ideology. However, Rosales has stripped the movie of the discourse we are used to when dealing with this topic, that of the terrorists being crazy, extreme people who live apart from us, as well as the dramatic discourse we expect from cinema. There is no language in this film but the language of passive observation and even this is artificial. You know it is not meant to be an instance of point of view, in which the camera is acting as another character, because the camera's placement is totally artificial. It does not behave like a human observer. I felt manipulated, subjected to an experiment in which the director wants to conduct an intellectual exercise and cares little for the audience's suffering. He makes us feel that our pining for conventional drama or dialogue is an aesthetic weakness. I hate movies that feel superior to their audiences (Haneke's Funny Games is a good example). And if you are going to play around with the conventions of cinematic language, which is totally valid, then the end result should be as bracing as that impulse for experimentation, not a pompous bore.
Everything Rosales said after the film made sense, but the problem is the movie should work without the lengthy explanation. Rosales contradicted himself, at one point saying that there was a fierce political controversy in Spain over the movie, and that he was surprised because it is only a movie. But you can't say in the same breath that you want to change the world through films and then say it's only a movie. Which one is it?

Oct 6, 2008

The NY Film Festival: Gomorrah

This is the movie I most wanted to see in the NY Film Festival. It is a mafia movie based on the book by Roberto Saviano about the Camorra, the powerful mafia syndicates in Naples.
If you think you are going to sit through an epic parade of endearing glorified goons like those Italian-American mafiosi we're so fond of in the States, you are in for a surprise. Gomorrah is almost documentary-like in its realism. The people in it make Tony Soprano look like a cross between Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale.
For starters, you see a side of Italy that you never see, nor would you wish to, mainly horrid housing projects where the camorra rules, dispensing drugs, arms, and paying people off for their compliance and complicity. The movie is claustrophobic; it never leaves the dreary places where the camorra operates. The police only show up after someone's been shot. There are no police heroes trying to stop these people. They seem to operate unimpeded. The basest corruption spreads like an incurable disease. Only a few regular people with a smattering of conscience try to live in it without soiling themselves. It is virtually impossible. Everything is ruined and wasted by the mob. These people taint and pollute and turn to refuse everything they touch, not only in Italy, but all over the world.
The movie builds its case slowly by following different characters who are all interconnected. This episodic structure, which has proven so forced and inorganic in movies like Syriana or Babel, really works here, allowing it to show with plenty of detail and sharp observation how the mafia controls and co-opts absolutely every single aspect of life.
Don Ciro, for instance, is the guy who makes the payoffs at the projects, handing money to families to keep them in line. A mousy man, he looks like an accountant, the opposite of a rent collector. Quite mistakenly, he believes he is somehow not connected to the money he hands out or the people who employ him.
All the young kids work for the different gangs. Nobody seems to go to school. Toto, a beautiful child of about 12, gets enlisted, like all the kids his age, to become part of a faction. Kids are used as sentries, drug runners and betrayers. His mother is trying to keep him honest, but she is powerless. Toto is loyal to the thugs. Very subtly you see his transformation from a normal child to a kid with the arrogant swagger of a criminal. His story is heartbreaking.
There are two young morons who like to imitate Al Pacino in Scarface and who think they can take on the syndicates by stealing a cache of arms and stealing drugs from some Africans. They are beyond stupid, uneducated brutes, enamored of a myth of power and violence that is reinforced by movies, and surrounds them much more crudely, in reality. Older adults have no problem wasting them, even knowing that they are mostly harmless. It's an animal world of very base instincts and sheer revenge.
Pasquale is a gifted tailor, employed by a mafia guy to make haute couture knockoffs. Some Chinese entrepeneurs, who for some reason have a factory in Naples, pay him good money secretly to teach them how to make gorgeous dresses. Pasquale has a crumbling atelier with a handful of seamstresses. The Chinese have a gleaming factory, with respectful workers that admire him. There are many subtle ironies like this, which show how none of this illicit business actually helps anybody progress. Pasquale forges a friendship with his Chinese counterpart, but it doesn't matter because one knows it's all going to come down to destruction. He symbolizes the corruption of the soul of Italy, of its best people.
And then there is the toxic waste dumping, which would be funny if it weren't so dreadful. An affable man in an elegant linen suit, looking the part of a legitimate business man, arranges to dump the most poisonous toxic waste in quarries near Naples. It's huge business. What goes on in this episode is almost surreal in the absolute lack of conscience or responsibility. It will make your jaw drop in astonishment.
The response of this elegant mafia don to the complaint of his protegé, who finally balks at the most shameless malfeasance, is "this is how things are". This is how it works. The apex of cynicism.
At the end of the film a title says that the amount of barrels of toxic waste dumped in Sicily is twice as high as Mount Everest and that cancer has increased exponentially in the area. Not that the camorra would give a shit.
Gomorrah has many wonderfully observed details that add up to a sustained outrage. It is about the particularities of the Italian mob, but it is also about the total devastation caused by human corruption. It gains in impact the more you think about it.

Oct 5, 2008


I am happy to report that the Angelika had this film going on three screens at the same time. Good.
I am also happy to report that yesterday, as I took some out-of-towners on a tour of Manhattan, I saw a booth of the NY City Atheists in front of the Time Warner Center. I had no time to stop and chat, but I was happy to see them conversing with a curious young man. They even have literature now, they are evangelizing. Weird, but whatever works.
Anyway, in my fantasy world, even though it seems that this country is going to the gods (Bush, Palin, people who don't believe in evolution, etc), at the same time there seems to be a healthy counter-reaction to all this nonsense. Bill Maher, bless him, is one guy who really has a hair up his ass about religion and has decided to do something about it. Good for him.
I was looking forward to this movie like some people expect the Second Coming of Christ. I am sorry to say I was underwhelmed.
The movie is funny, but I think it is intellectually dishonest. I know it's supposed to be comic and that is why Maher skewers the silliest, most outrageous representatives of some of the religions. He finds mostly easy targets. I think you can make a point about some of the most ridiculous aspects of organized religion without going to the most extreme nutcases. For instance, he interviews this ultra-ultraorthodox putz rabbi who is against the existence of the State of Israel. Yes, the one who wears the Palestinian flag on his lapel and who is best friends with Ahmadinejad. The one who went to Iran for the Holocaust denial conference. That one. This guy and the three idiots who follow him are really the fringe lunatics of the lunatic fringe. I can understand that he is a good example of how faith can distort everything to extremes, but I like much better Maher's visit to the place in Israel where they invent contraptions so that Jews can dial a phone on the Sabbath. That is also as loony, but it is much more mainstream. Religion needs to be challenged in what is commonplace, not in the fringe.
But my main beef with Maher's point of view is that it is very simplistic. He ridicules faith as being illogical and impossible and absurd, which is exactly what it is. Faith is by nature the opposite of fact or science. Theologians know it. Nobody denies it. That is it's raison d'etre, to believe in something more powerful, more miraculous, more ineffable than what reason or the eye can see. The nature of faith is precisely a belief not grounded on evidence, but on belief itself. Making fun of faith is useless. There is nothing wrong with having faith, as long as you don't confuse it with fact.
Maher makes fun of the Bible and the Koran, and he does not allow himself to think that there is anything of value in these books. I strongly disagree. I think the Old Testament is a fundamentally civilizing book, let alone a major work of literature, law and ethics. I'm sure there is plenty of that in the Koran as well. There may be a lot in these books that does not make sense in this day and age, and a lot that is the product of ancient mindsets, but I think that it behooves Maher to separate the merit of the books from the people who interpret them literally. It is not Genesis' fault that people like Sarah Palin think the world was made in seven days. Genesis is an amazing interpretation of the origins and the nature of man, it's not just a story about a snake that talks, like Maher puts it. Not acknowledging the symbolic, ethical, literary power of the Bible seems unfair and limited to me. Even worse is his comparing the tenets of Scientology to the Bible. Scientology is a cult. Nothing in it has anything of literary, cultural or ethical merit or value. It's like a ponzi scheme. To compare the ridiculousness of Scientology myths to that of the Bible is a gross oversimplification and it is spurious.
Maher tries to prove to evangelical Christians that the story of Jesus is not original. There are many prophetic myths in ancient cultures that resemble the Jesus myth. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that many creation myths echo across cultures, and the fact that the Egyptian god Horus is a forerunner of Jesus doesn't make faith in Jesus any less relevant to those who believe in him. So what?
As for Islam, it is really the weakest part of the film. I heard a member of the audience, one who I assume by her accent may have been Muslim, complaining that Maher's portrayal of Islam as a violent religion is totally unfair. Again, I don't know enough about Islam to agree or disagree, but I do know that not all Muslims can be equated with fundamentalist Muslims, as not all Jews are ultra-orthodox.
Where I do agree with Maher is on the abuse of religion by the people who rule it and even by those who follow it. Had he made a clear distinction between organized religion and faith, he'd have made a more convincing argument for our need to separate religion from politics and from public life. Faith and religion should be deeply private choices that nobody should try to impose on other people, much less through political coercion.
The best parts of the movie are those in which he bemoans what is happening in America today. Mainly, that the religious right is dangerously dumbing down this country. He reminds us that many of the Founding Fathers (John Adams, Jefferson, Ben Franklin) were fiercely anti-religious. He says that 16% of Americans are not affiliated with any religion. I think the number is much higher if you include secular catholics, protestants and Jews; people who are in touch with their religious background but don't really practice religion. I agree with Maher that it is time that Americans demand total separation of church and state.
But if you are going to fight religion, you need better arguments.