Dec 29, 2009

Phrase of the Day

I don't always agree with A.O. Scott (his love affair with Clint Eastwood puzzles me, to say the least). But I love him when he gets ornery. He should do it more often.
On the New Sherlock Holmes movie:
as Holmes and his pal Watson... scramble to unravel a conspiracy so diabolical that it fails to be interesting.
 Love that phrase.

Dec 28, 2009

Trailer Music

Can we declare a moratorium on overwrought, fake operatic, Carmina Burana rip offs for every single movie trailer on Earth?
It doesn't matter if it is a fantasy, or an action film or yet another dumbass movie with Nicholas Cage and a bad wig, they all have the same ponderous operatic shit going on.
Very disturbing.
And what's with that interminable National Guard ad at the movies that uses the longest version of an overwrought, fake operatic, Carmina Burana rip off? Zip it already.
Thank you.

He's No Sherlock


What a waste of money and talent, this Sherlock Holmes film.
A lot of busy flair but no finesse, no panache, no elegance, not much wit, no suspense. Just another bloated entertainment that confuses action with cramming the frame with every Victorian knickknack available (this is entertaining for about half an hour).
The movie starts well enough but it soon squanders our good will with sloppy action sequences and bad direction.
I love RDJ, but I'm getting tired of his shtick. Unfortunately, like most American actors, he is incapable of doing an accent. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes, the most articulate of men, spends half the movie mumbling. The other half, he spends looking like a deer caught in the headlights, trying to look intelligent. I was thinking of Clive Owen. He, at least, would have had the right accent, and the right demeanor. The problem with Downey, besides the accent, is that he is about as British as a surfer dude. He is a natural American ham, so he doesn't have the restraint, the repression, the sangfroid that the character requires. I did not get a lot of chemistry between him and his adored Watson, played, as if the film's exertions were exhausting him, by Jude Law.  
There was potential to this movie. It is about superstition versus reason, or what I think is the actual topic, religious fanaticism, versus reason. But instead of you-know- which religious fanatics, we have some sort of idiotic demonic society with a lot of Hebrew lettering (and me wondering if this is revenge on the Kabbalistic ex-wife of the director, aka Esther) and a plot, that is "so diabolical that it fails to be interesting", as A. O Scott said so adroity.
The whole point of the character of Sherlock Holmes is that he solves the cases by his wits, not with his fists. This Sherlock Holmes always enters fighting. Don't men get ever tired of going to blows? Why is this interesting?  What's worse, there is no sense of discovery, or aha, which is why one likes detective stories. The movie is a concatenation of useless set pieces but no real sleuthing.
Had the movie been directed by someone like Steven Spielberg or John Woo, people who are geniuses at devising action sequences that are both witty, over the top and nailbiting, it could have been an interesting franchise, but it was directed by the wrecking ball that is Guy Ritchie, a guy with the storytelling abilities and the attention span of a music video. So the bag of music video tricks from the 90's gets old very fast. The action sequences are neither fun nor suspenseful and the movie becomes extremely tedious. Yet, it is cynical enough to keep a sequel in mind, with another arch-nemesis. This time, instead of superstition, the enemy will be a professor (intellectuals are always suspect in mindless entertainments).
Hopefully next time they get someone better at the helm.

Dec 23, 2009

2009 Thespians and Directors

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Matt Damon, The Informant!
Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Colin Firth, A Single Man

Great Job
Ben Foster, The Messenger
Tobey Maguire, Brothers
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Alan Arkin, The private lives of Pippa Lee

Best Actress
Kim Hye Ja, Mother
Catalina Saavedra, The Maid
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Abby Cornish, Bright Star
I'm tired of saying this, but Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia. 
I didn't see Mo'nique but I'm sure she rocks. 

Great Job
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Joon Ho-Bong, Mother
Spike Jonze, Where The Wild Things Are
Sebastián Silva, The Maid

Dec 21, 2009

Marketing is the Death of Movies

Today I had an epiphany.
I realize that I keep expecting Hollywood to give us better movies. This is like expecting McDonald's to serve filet mignon with truffles. It ain't gonna happen. So why not go with the flow. Why not accept, finally, that what Hollywood does is roll out product, in the same way as Procter & Gamble rolls out a new and improved detergent or Hasbro a new toy. With marketing and focus groups and certain approved ingredients. Same thing rehashed over and over, not much deviation, just a brutal hunger for dominance of shelf space.
This was brought about by this maddening article in the NY Times Magazine by Daphne Merkin (behaving like a wide eyed innocent in LaLa Land) about Nancy Meyers and the movies she makes for women.
Merkin is amazed that Nancy Meyers, who is a reliable hack, is about the only woman that gets final cut for her films. The reason is simple: her bland, unrealistic, embarrassing, formulaic movies about "empowered" middle aged women, come with studio pre-approval already factored in. There is nothing creative to fight about.
The only movie of hers I like (and was surprised to find it was by her and her ex, Charles Shyer) is Private Benjamin. That is a great comedy (or so I remember it). But why should there be movies for women? I am a woman. I watch movies. Period. I don't watch movies that are expressly designed for me, like sanitary pads. Same goes for chick lit. It's offensive. Yes, there are film genres that women like better, but on the whole I think women are far more amenable than men to watch a variety of experience, from romantic comedies, to dramas to gangster films to whatever.
However, the industry itself has conditioned the audience to behave like this, to box themselves into marketing categories. This is understandable for detergent (are you a scent seeker, or a clean freak?), but it's tragic for filmmaking. It debases the art form. I saw The Bicycle Thief yesterday. I'm still recovering from the devastation to my heart (for the third time). Made in 1947, it is as true and real and timeless and miraculous today as it was then. I bet Vittorio De Sica did not run around like a headless chicken wondering if his movie was going to appeal to women and the 15-24 demographic.
He made a movie about poverty, desperation and human dignity, about the loss of innocence, about a society without compassion. Who is the demographic for that? Everybody, that's who.
But here in the US, people are obsessed with genre and demographics. Every time there is a Q&A with a foreign filmmaker, invariably somebody asks in puzzled bewilderment "Who is the audience for this movie? Is this a comedy? Is this a thriller?"
Does it really matter that much? We should all be able to enjoy good stories well told, regardless of their genre or the sex and age of their protagonists. I understand the film industry is a business. It should be a successful business. But it looks like in Hollywood the business side has run out of control.
Somehow, Pedro Almodovar makes kitschy gay movies for everybody. He is wildly successful. Lucrecia Martel, one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today, makes great movies, not movies for women. Here, Judd Apatow smartly invented the bromantic comedy (we need to classify it somehow), only to find it quickly cheapened by endless repetition and bad imitations. Hollywood raids other people's stories and steamrolls them until they are inhuman and unrecognizable (sort of like processed foods). Most of the time, you see a Hollywood extravaganza of marketing-induced fakeness, and you may be entertained for a little while but you always get a funky aftertaste, a hole in the pit of your brain, the opposite of satiety, a dreadful feeling of wasted time and of being patronized, disrespected.
There is no escaping the fucking marketing.
The only way out is to ignore it. To continue watching deeply nourishing and satisfying films that are not made like detergent.

Dec 20, 2009

The Year In Movies

Best Movies of the Year
The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke
Mother, Joon Ho-Bong
Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
Lebanon, Shmuel Maoz
Bright Star, Jane Campion
The Maid, Sebastián Silva

Best American Movies
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow
Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze
The Informant! Steven Soderbergh
Adventureland, Greg Mottola
The Messenger, Oren Moverman
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson

Good Small Movies
Still Walking
The Damned United
Summer Hours
Ponyo
A Single Man
Crazy Heart  
Adam
Two Lovers
Cold Souls
Paranormal Activity

Disappointments
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Brothers
Duplicity
Funny People
Julie and Julia
The Soloist
Public Enemies
Moon
An Education
Brüno

Bad Movies
Beeswax
The Limits of Control
Public Enemies
Drag Me To Hell
Away We Go
Shrink

Hollywood Dreck
Invictus
The Hangover
Brothers
Up in The Air
Public Enemies

Best Docs of the Year
Anvil, The Story of Anvil.
Food, Inc.
American Casino
Tyson
Valentino, The Last Emperor

Disappointing Docs
Capitalism, A Love Story. 
La Danse

Bad Docs
This is It
Every Little Step

Infommercial Docs 
The September Issue
It Might Get Loud

Self Indulgent Auteurs
Antichrist, Lars Von Trier
Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodóvar
The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch
Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz

Best Old Movies Seen in Theatres
The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed
Small Change, François Truffaut
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston
The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio de Sica

Avatar: Review of a Movie I Haven't Seen

The trailer made it look and sound utterly stupid. But now my curiosity is piqued, mainly because critics are showing it some love. However, what I'm hearing is not reassuring.

• It's like when Star Wars came out:
I was 14 when that happened, stood in the sweltering Mexico City sun for two hours to be able to get in and HATED every single minute of the movie except for the cantina scene with the funky extraterrestrials having drinks at the bar.

• It's like Dances With Wolves but with blue people:
Dances with Wolves is not, in my book, an admirable movie. If you are going to steal a story, that is rather low on the totem pole.

• The CGI is a game changer:
Sounds like a theme park ride rather than a movie. If I approach it like this, well maybe. I'll pay 15 bucks to go on a rollercoaster and save myself the whiplash (but apparently not the nausea).
Movies have become stories about merchandise and video games. That people are not horrified by this is beyond me.
I blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for creating the blockbusters that ruined the small movie and created the Hollywood we have today. Spielberg did some nifty things; Lucas, I am not a fan. We have them to thank for the bloated, morally suspect extravaganzas that destroy everything else in sight (2012, for instance). I fear that this may happen with Avatar. Now we can expect a barrage of stupid, expensive motion capture 3D theme park rides with terrible writing. If indeed it does well. So far, more than $200 million dollars worldwide this weekend; $73 million stateside with half the country buried in snow. It cost like $500 000 000.
I'm tempted to see it because I suspect that it will be easy to tear it a new one in terms of its own hypocrisy (it's supposed to have an ecofriendly message).
I'm just glad I saw The Bicycle Thief again today.

• The music includes pan flutes:
And this, my friends, is all we need to know.

Dec 18, 2009

The Dude Abides


I don't think the Oscars have ever broken my heart more (in a long history of absurd expectations from my part) than when Jeff Bridges was not even nominated for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of the most magnificent comedic performances of all time.  Now it's time for redress.

Jeff Bridges is quintessentially American. You could not confuse him for anything but. He could be the living embodiment of the state of California. But in movies like The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and now Crazy Heart, he is the American who fails at being American. He fails at success. But he has also played, equally well, Americans who succeed (or at least try, like in Tucker), or in Seabiscuit. He has also, magnificently, played an alien, in Starman. Whether he is a magnate or a bum or from outer space, he is always totally believable. And this is because he is one of the most psychologically intelligent actors we have. Plus, he has charisma and sexiness to no end.
Jeff Bridges is, like Gene Hackman, one of those actors in whom you cannot see the acting wheels turning (as opposed to other great actors like De Niro, Pacino and Sean Penn). He's not showy, does not call attention to himself with big dramatic gestures. He just is. Whatever it is he does, he invests the characters with a strong and psychologically sound core.
In Crazy Heart he plays Bad Blake, an aging, disillusioned Country music star who has just given up. He is broke, playing dumps and drunk. We've all seen that one before. But there is a character in this man. He is pathetic but there is no self pity in him. There is rather an ornery pride in keeping life from intruding on his self-destruction, which he indulges with wonderful panache. Bridges is the absolute master of the who gives a fuck attitude. In this case, he is not a benign fuck up, like The Dude. He is a proud, yet insolvent, drunk. He looks like shit and feels like shit and is so down on himself that he shows no respect for the audience anymore, he can't see why they like him.
Bridges so totally owns the performance that you forget he is acting. He is not a convincing drunk. He is a drunk. Alcoholics are showpieces for actors, but I think they are very hard to fake. This man here is a full blown, fighting alcoholic. He refuses to be pathetic, he is just proud and extremely out of touch with life. That's the drunk part. Then there is the Country singer part.  His singing voice is not big, but it is fine and it has heart. He plays guitar well too, but what amazed me was how he behaved on stage: like a man who has played music in front of people for ages.
The movie is a big cliché. It's not a bad cliché, and it has some great moments, but also some groaners. Bad has not spoken to his son since the kid was four, he has made mistakes, etc. In less capable hands, it could have been painful, but Bridges refuses to let Bad down easy. He barely registers hurt, yet, you can feel it swimming in liquor somewhere down there, bubbling up to the surface quiety, devastatingly, as yet another awful disappointment.
And then there is that speaking Bridges voice of honey and whisky and ash. There is a wonderful scene where he gets to play a big venue and he has a pissing match with the sound engineer. Bad is not about to become all meek and cooperative just because someone is giving him a chance. Half the scene is played with the camera behind him, but everything is in the voice: tired, knowing, ironic, proud, stubborn, insistent. "I'm an old man", he says in the end, "humor me."
There is a lot of wonderful talent at the service of a movie that were it not for it, could be quite pedestrian. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very good (though in some scenes, annoyingly mannered) as Bad's love interest. They have a wonderful chemistry, and real intimacy. Robert Duvall plays Bad's old friend. The two of them together are a wonder to behold. The music by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton is excellent.
But there are misses. Colin Farrell shows his lack of chops, playing a Billy Ray Cyrus kind of country star. Next to Bridges, he doesn't quite cut the mustard. The little kid that plays Gyllenhaal's son is annoying and hammy. These are problems of direction.
Then there are problems of writing. If an alcoholic decides to quit the booze, this is as heroic as it gets. There is no further need to redeem himself. But the movie ends with a really corny coda that is totally unnecessary and strained. Had it ended with Bad playing his new song quietly in his porch, it would have been more true to the authenticity and the generosity of so much talent.

Dec 13, 2009

A Single Man


A Single Man is based on a story by Christopher Isherwood. It's a gay movie. It is a mainstream gay movie. I was thinking, when did this happen? Since when do we have a mainstream movie with bona fide actors about the personal story of a gay man? Okay, since Brokeback Mountain, but somehow this one feels more authentic. This one  has no big heroics or politics or didactics or speechifying, or trying to make the audience feel guilty or outraged or good about itself. It's not something like last year's Milk, the Gandhi of gays, which cunningly couched the gayness in the all-American tropes of heroism and individual glory, and got some well deserved prizes along the way.  
A Single Man is private and devastating. Considering that it is fashion designer Tom Ford's first film, it is pretty impressive. He successfully creates an atmosphere, not so much of a time where objects were so much more beautiful, the early sixties, but rather of the stifling, utterly sad funk of having to live a perfectly dignified life in hiding.
And for that, you need an actor like Colin Firth, with a fierce intelligence, utter control and an ocean of feeling underneath. He is perfect as college professor George Falconer, a fastidious, closeted gay man (gay and British: doubly repressed) who loses his lover of 16 years (Matthew Goode) and is devastated. The loss is devastating in itself, but is compounded by the tragedy of living a secret life when you have done nothing to deserve the shame.
Falconer must keep his grief mostly to himself, as he is not able to share it openly. He is kept in the dark about the loss until a disembodied male voice over a telephone has the charitable gallantry of informing him there's been an accident, several days after the fact. He is not invited to the funeral. Of his partner of 16 years. Yet the movie does not express outrage. It creates the emotional atmosphere of shattering loss without pity or sentimentality.  
For the role, Firth lost some girth and he looks better than ever, unbearably stylish, sporting immaculate clothes, a fabulous haircut and big black rimmed glasses (you want to ravish him). To watch him with Julianne Moore, who plays his best friend Charlotte, is to see the contrasting styles of British and American acting of the highest caliber.  Moore is terrific as an old friend and British boozer who is in love with him, a lonely, hysterical woman grasping at straws. Feeling oozes through her pores, loose and frightening. With him is the opposite. It's all bottled up. They are both fabulous together.
Colin Firth is not particularly handsome, but he has that which makes women melt: there is warmth and vulnerability underneath the icy smartness, and we all want to coax it out of him. Like all good British thespians, he acts with his voice. He infuses a line like, "Nobody else calls me before 8 in the morning, Charlotte" with so much personal history, it is almost shocking, funny and heartbreaking. He is magnificent.
Everything looks beautifully art directed, as one might expect from a fashion designer. The movie made me horribly nostalgic for the beauty of solid state objects when I was growing up: the rotary phones, the gleaming vending machines, the fabulous sixties furniture, things made of metal and wood, things made to last. Ford has chosen a style that tries to convey the claustrophobic, suffocating anxiety of Falconer's grief, as he zeroes in on the details, which is I suppose how gay men in those days were able to make sense of who were friends and foes in the world. It's also how things feel when you are dying of grief. The focus changes to the trees instead of the forest, so you can survive the day. Sometimes the stylishness seems to get a little in the way, but the respect for the emotions and their authenticity never wavers. It's an adult, mature movie, which is very generous and moves me deeply. I really appreciate it, someone in America making such a film.
Also, all that sexual repression is terribly sexy. Sexual tension is all about delayed gratification, and in this movie there is no obvious gratification. The gratification comes from small, furtive gestures, sometimes it seems only from surprising gratitude at finding a fellow traveler. When a male student shows interest in him, even at his lowest point of desperation, Falconer knows better than to yield, even though he is immensely touched by the attention. He does not act on that unbearable frisson of passion under the surface, yet it's all there. The tension between his desire and his experience is palpable. This is very sexy.
I don't know about straight men or gay men, but women are going to swoon.

Invictus


I sneaked in, because I'll be damned if I pay to see a Clint Eastwood movie, and I want my money back. I want my time back. I want him to apologize to me for thinking that we the audience are a bunch of morons who will swallow this pompous, boring absurdity, that takes its plot from reality but has absolutely nothing to do with it.
Then, it is just a marvel of cognitive dissonance to read A.O. Scott's review. In the interest of time, will reproduce here what I wrote today in the comments section of the Times:

I fail to understand Mr. Scott's love affair (and the rest of American film critics) with the hack work of Clint Eastwood. The movie is boring, written as if by a schoolteacher talking to 7 year olds, the excellent Mr. Damon is wasted, and except for Morgan Freeman and Damon there is not one ounce of true, complex feeling in the entire thing. The dialogue is obvious and cringe inducing, the bit actors hammy and terrible, the whole thing directed with no subtlety, ugly photography, the pace excruciatingly repetitive and boring, the cheesy music, faux African and overwrought, the entire thing manages to be a disaster.
Had this same film been made by any other filmmaker, I bet Mr. Scott would be tearing it apart for the mediocre garbage it is.
I don't get it. I don't understand the blind spot, the adulation of this terrible hack.

Dec 9, 2009

It's Implausible


I woke up thinking about Up in The Air. The more I think about this movie, the less I like it.
But let me digress a little: I am currently attempting to write the second draft of a screenplay. It's like giving birth to a cactus. I read a couple of books; mostly they made me feel suicidal. They tell you what has to happen on page 30, on page 60 and on page 90 if you want to succeed as a screenwriter. There have to be plot points and plot turns and turns within the turns, with exacting precision, as if you were building a time bomb. One ghastly book by Syd Field holds the script of Titanic to be the gold standard in movie writing (cue me tearing my hair out in despair). The other screenwriting bible, Story, is slightly more useful but beats me if I remember anything this annoying, pretentious man commands me to do. You can get the book for $30 or take the 3 day course for $700 and they are word by word exactly the same. You tell me.
To judge from some Hollywood movies I've seen lately, screenwriters take this advice to heart. In a good movie, the turns happen organically, they shake you up emotionally, but you don't see them coming round the bend, and you can't stick a flag in them and yell PLOT POINT!
Up in the Air is a good example of a movie where you can actually pinpoint the plot turns, they are so forced.  If you suspend your disbelief for a fraction of a second, nothing that happens is believable. The more I think about it, the more I feel duped.
How come a movie like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon has total plot, but does not feel contrived? It feels like a mystery. The characters are coherent in themselves (crazy as bats, but coherent). Or the Dardennes' L'Enfant. A young, reckless father wants to sell his baby boy for money. Extreme, but nothing that happens in this movie is not believable.
Meanwhile, stateside, the absurdities pile on, with no regard to the intelligence of the audience. Why are we so fake in America?
If you intend to see Up in the Air, I'm warning you, here comes my list of absurdities, aka major spoiler alert:
1. Clooney lives in Omaha and works for a corporation. This is a stretch, 'cause Everyman he ain't. He has been good as a dutiful worker in movies like Syriana and Michael Clayton, but there he was CIA spy and New York lawyer, not schmo from Omaha.
2. He fires people for a living. These kinds of corporations better exist in real life.
3. He is also a motivational speaker. This could be a satyrical point if the movie had bothered to set it up as such. As it is, I never understood what he motivates people about. He seems to be telling them to dispossess themselves from all their relationships. This is not believable.
4. This is a man who'd rather endure the torture of modern flying than be at home in Omaha. Granted, it's Omaha, and he flies business and gets all the preferential shortcuts, but still, the movie never mentions the unease of flying, the fear of death. I know a lot of people fly without it (how, it's beyond me) but there is something too perfect about his complacency at living in airport and hotel Genericland, which, as far as I'm concerned, is Hell. I find it hard to believe that it is not horrifying to him, even for a second. 
5. As he waits in an executive lounge, Clooney meets Vera Farmiga, another million mile traveler. I lost heart with the film in this scene. The dialogue is supposed to ricochet like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant's in His Girl Friday, but it is actually a leaden pissing match about car rental companies and frequent flyer programs. It could be funnier if the characters were allowed to show nuance. But it seems that in American films everything is so streamlined and efficient that there is no time for gesture anymore. Everything is broad strokes (see Brothers).
5. A young tyro, played by Sarah Kendrick, is hired to streamline the firing process, by doing it via teleconference. This girl is going to change the ways of an entire company just because Jason Bateman took a shine to her. Right.
Clooney's character balks, because that means he will have to stay home. He is horrified by the inhumanity of the new process. Hence, Bateman decides that Clooney needs to show Kendrick the ropes and take her with him on his travels. This is a typical premise of romantic comedy. Fine.
6. But then she shows up at the airport with a huge, cumbersome bag, looking ridiculous. Hell, nowadays everybody and their mother, no matter how unhip, understands and enjoys (and actually has no choice, given the airline restrictions) the glories of compact roller bags. But this is a pretext for a silly scene where Clooney buys her a bag in the airport and throws her pillow and her neck pillow in the trash.
7. Kendrick gets on Clooney's case about his stubborn bachelordom. They just met. They are uneasy colleagues. Yet she butts in too much. She gets too personal, and she is supposed to be a bit of a cold fish. Doesn't make sense.
8. Clooney falls in love (yay!) with Farmiga. He starts warming up to the joys of human company. He invites her to his sister's wedding, where of course the groom gets to have cold feet the day of, and Clooney must save the day. BS.
The movie takes a spin into the redemption of Clooney in which crazy shit starts happening just because he needs to redeem himself. He writes a letter of recommendation for Kendrick and I'll be damned if I know how he knew where to send it.
9. Then, any movie that casts Sam Elliott as an American Airlines pilot has got to be kidding me. I'm never flying American again.
10. Clooney goes looking for Farmiga only to find out the awful truth, that she has been playing by the rules of the road, like a man. At first I actually liked this turn, because it really felt shocking. But thinking about it, this woman, who seemed no nonsense and honest, and never showed any intimation of being anything but solid and mature, has been lying to him the entire time and did not at any point say to him, listen pal, I have a life back in Chicago but I am lonely on the road, let's have a fabulous affair while it lasts. She is a horrible liar. Why?

The Best Movies of 2009...

...and everything in between according to moi, coming soon.

I still need to see several that are playing at my local multiplex.
In the meantime, let me tell you: the prospect of seeing certain films gives me colic like when I had junior high school math at 8 am on Monday mornings and did not want to go to school. 

1. There is always a new pompously virtuous Clint Eastwood movie that I refuse to see.  I don't think that I can bear the stoic selfrighteousness of the entire enterprise, despite the presence of Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, both of whom I like intensely. I love to hate Clint Eastwood movies. For those of you who have not been in these pages before, I believe he is the most unfairly overrated director in America.

2. Precious sounds like very hard to swallow medicine. I'm quite curious about Mo'nique and Mariah and that new girl with the fantastic name, but the movie not only sounds like it's hard going, but like it is schmaltzy hard going, in which case I may not go at all.

3. The Road. Another barrel of laughs. Even the presence of scrumptious Viggo Mortensen does not make me want to run into the theater and fret about apocalyptic cannibals in the bleak near future.

4. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. I would not ordinarily miss anything with Alan Arkin in it, but this movie, like every other Rebecca Miller movie, sounds like a pill.

5. The Last Station. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer chewing the scenery as Mr and Mrs. Leo Tolstoy. I love her, never liked him. So sue me.
A.O hated it, Denby loved it. Sounds painful.

6. Gigante. Another bleak Uruguayan film. For the record, I am not a fan of Whiskey.
I know I should love Gigante in advance, but I don't. It will go to my Netflix list.

Where's that movie with Jeff Bridges for which he will finally get his Oscar? Is that playing somewhere already? I want to see that. Jeff Bridges I adore, love and worship.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my homework to bring you (not that you asked for it) the list of the bestest, best better, bland, and bad movies of this dismal year.

Stay tuned.

Dec 8, 2009

Up In The Air

 
I had high hopes for this film, since some people are touting it the best of the year.
Not even close. This is one strange film, with some right things in place and others that are just not believable, starting with George Clooney as a corporate hack from Omaha.
There is no way that this suave, glamorous man hails, lives, works or is found anywhere near Omaha. Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; that's someone who is from Omaha. Even if Clooney is good, in his Clooneyesque familiar way, he is too slick for the job.
Vera Farmiga is very good as a fellow million miles traveler and romantic interest, and so is Anna Kendrick, as a perky, uptight corporate girl, but even though the spirit of the movie is in the right place, this being probably the only fictional film from Hollywood that actually depicts our crumbling state of affairs (joblessness, foreclosures, wars), something about it doesn't quite convince. Everything feels forced.
Some of the dialogue is meant to sound like sharp one liners, except that it's something said by people who live in a movie, not in real life. For a film about reality in America, this creates dissonance. There are some scenes with people who have just been told they are fired which feel totally authentic. The rest, not at all.
The tone of this film is hard to sustain. It's a brittle/humane salad, an uneasy mix of dark and uplifting, and frankly, unless you are Billy Wilder and his writers (or Alexander Payne, the only true heir to Wilder, as far as I'm concerned), stuff like this is hard to nail. Jason Reitman did a good job with Juno, but here the brittle part feels too forced and the uplifting part too sappy, everything too contrived.
The movie never really explains cogently why Clooney's character, being just another employee at a terrible company that makes money by firing people from other companies, is also a motivational speaker. If this is meant as satire, it doesn't feel that way.
There are some good moments, as in a sequence where the characters crash into a tech convention party in Miami, which feels as dissociated from reality as those things actually are.  And there is also a fantastic twist involving Farmiga that has Clooney suffering from role reversal. To see someone like him on the other end of the dating stick is a vindication for women everywhere, and Farmiga's character, playing by the rules of men, is tough as nails, bless her.

Dec 5, 2009

The Brothers Carambazov



I just saw the original Danish film Brothers on Netflix to confirm what I felt after watching the American version yesterday: it suffers, like all American remakes, from terminal stupidization. It's as if subtlety were an infectious disease to be avoided at all costs.
Suzanne Bier's film is subtle, intimate and emotionally coherent, true to actual people, not movie clichés. The rewriting and the direction of the remake are so broad and heavy handed that all that big drama simply falls flat, despite the valiant efforts of the actors, which bring a dignity and humanity to the film that the rest of the team seems to have left at the door. A story that should have been handled with delicacy and care seems to have been written and directed by a tractor, and edited by a Brontosaurus.
There is one scene in the original film, where the entire family is celebrating the birthdays of one of the girls (in both movies, the kids are spectacular).
The Danish grandparents sit there, pretending to be happy, but when the kids leave the room they just crumple into their own exhausting grief. It is a miraculous moment that in a couple of seconds tells you more about pain than any grandiose speeches. Nothing of the sort ever happens in the American version.The main problem is the writing. There are many missed opportunities to create character and nuance. Everything is a cliché. Sam Shepard is the father, a sullen, uncommunicative Vietnam Vet and war hero who drinks on the side. How many times have you seen that in a movie? 

Why oh why this American obsession with heroics? It is inane and infantile and FUCKING BORING ALREADY. I can't take it anymore.
Or take Natalie Portman, an actress I don't particularly like. She is very good in this film, and cries convincingly every time she is required to. But who is she? What's she like, other than beautiful and a total cipher? In the original, Connie Nielsen shows character 1 minute into the film. She is a no nonsense, strong woman, not a long suffering angel with no personality.
The American movie makes stupid choices. Why does Sam Shepard have a new wife, instead of the mother of the two brothers? What good does this do?
There is a stupid business with a letter, the classic cliché of someone who gets a letter and refuses to open it. How many times have you seen that in a film?
The scenes in Afghanistan are painfully bogus and mostly unnecessary. The main terrorist wears thin rimmed glasses of the latest fashion and seems to be reading in the middle of hellhole, who knows why. Evil is intelectual?
Everything is milked for cheap sentiment, but then the characters never have moments to reveal themselves with gestures, the writer prefers to have them recriminating each other by having screaming matches.  Paradoxically, the more difficult emotional nuances of the original have been toned down, because every single American needs to be a freaking boy scout. It is revolting.
The movie is shot like a Hallmark movie of the week, with both too much coverage and quick cutting to reactions, which makes it feel totally fake, and yet there's a weird rhythm to many scenes, which seem to go on for way too long. The use of music is offensive.
The entire thing is mangled, except for the poor actors.
Tobey McGuire, losing weight for Oscar night, is very impressive as the soldier brother. His character is written like a walking cliché, but he finds the truth in the horror of his war experience. He loses it, not only spectacularly, but truly, to unspeakable guilt and anguish, even if he is saddled with a ridiculous, contrived suicidal scene.
Jake Gyllenhaal just does not have enough edge as the fuck up brother. He has been better in other movies, like Jarhead or even Zodiac. He is adorable, but not right for this role. He and Tobey look the same age, which is a problem. His relationship with his brother's wife is incomprehensible and I blame the writer and the director for that, although an actor with a more independent, imaginative streak perhaps would have found more complexity in the role.
Actually, the only one bearing the brunt of the complexity is Tobey McGuire and he acquits himself with flying colors.
Watching the Danish film, i realized that besides the family drama, the movie posits that our fight against barbarism is turning us into barbarians. The fear of the West is that we are being forced to stoop down to worse than Neanderthal level (with apologies to Neanderthals). The American film is too busy trying to be marketable to make these kinds of connections. It's one redeeming virtue is that it brings out the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and of the human consequences of our wars in those places. For a much more honest depiction of this, I recommend The Messenger.
And certainly, the Danish original movie, Brothers.

Nov 22, 2009

Antichrist


I found it amusing that in the end credits, if I remember correctly, there were researchers consulted on psychology, misogyny, mythology, satanism, horror movies, etc. If only Von Trier had shared some of this bounteous knowledge, perhaps we'd be able to make sense of this incoherent film.
Lars Von Trier is a fabulist. His movies are parables. Some of them are more grounded in reality than others. On one end of the reality spectrum is Breaking The Waves, to me, his best film. At the other end there are Dogville, or Antichrist, movies that increasingly seem to leave reality behind. Breaking the Waves is a very symbolic film, but it takes place in a very specific reality: a community of strict Calvinists somewhere in the north seas. The film is highly symbolic of the Christian idea of love as the ultimate sacrifice: always forgiving, and totally insane, like the love of Jesus Christ, but its emotions are real and devastating. It also happens to have Emily Watson giving one of the most heartbreaking performances of a woman in love ever committed to film.
Antichrist, on the contrary, is supposed to be some sort of psychological parable where the only characters are named He and She and they have a cabin in the woods called, not too subtly, Eden. This is another fable, and here you may want to hazard a guess on what exactly about:
the hatred between men and women
the evil inherent in nature
satanists
superstition
clinical depression
666
all of the above.
However, even though the events in Antichrist are tragic, wildly violent, and the emotions, extreme, the movie is strangely emotionally detached. Except for Charlotte Gainsbourg's deeply moving howls of grief at the beginning, I did not believe one thing that was happening in the movie. It makes no emotional sense, although it tries to explain grief and madness with cheap psychology and ridiculous dialogue that could not possibly come out of real people. Poor Willem Dafoe (I adore him) is saddled with stiff, silly lines that seem made of cardboard. So is Gainsbourg, who is a solid, and after this, demonstrably fearless actress, but I've always found her deeply unappealing. To her credit, she does not look for sympathy. She is trapped in the selfishness of her grief.  If this is a married couple, no amount of fucking on screen (plenty) is going to make them look, feel or sound like one. They seem like strangers. This may be intentional, but I guess the actors are too terrified going through the house of horrors Von Trier has designed for them, to invest their characters with emotional or psychological truth.
For Antichrist, Von Trier abandons the Dogma doctrine of no embellishments and goes the opposite way. Stunningly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), the movie is a visual cabinet of wonders. A lot of it makes you drop your jaw, it is so gorgeous and strange. Von Trier might be certifiably insane, but he is not a hack.
Yet all the intellectual and emotional rigor he has displayed in his best work is totally absent in this film. I find the movie psychologically incoherent, and don't tell me that it's because that's the way grief and hatred are. Au contraire, there is an impeccable logic to human madness, and this movie is an attempt, among other things, to chart its course, but it does not succeed. It is a salad of theories, like Freudianism and Satanism, and perhaps even Feminist studies, all jumbled together and sloppily explained. If the film was intended to be a horror movie, and its premise could certainly make for a good one, it doesn't work. There is horror, but no terror; violence, but no suspense.
Think of The Shining, another movie that combines the supernatural with a family story. But in The Shining the terror is that a man who hates his family has gone bonkers in a big, isolated place. His feelings and his madness are real and terrifying.
Here, She is a poster girl for psychoanalytic theory, a human thesis. This is one of those hermetic movies that are all in the head of their creator. There is no attempt for human connection beyond the exercising of his private demons and his cheesy theories, if you can figure out what they are exactly.

Broken Embraces


It's going to be extremely hard for Pedro Almodovar to top the miracle that is Volver. I stopped liking his movies long ago. He seemed to be ripping himself off and becoming his own tiresome cliché. Volver changed all that. It is a tender and magnificent film. His latest movie is a mixed bag that doesn't come close, but it is entertaining. Broken Embraces is his love letter to the movies and it is kitschy, self-referential, and wildly uneven. It is full of references, from Hitchcock to Douglas Sirk. It's a campy melodrama about a film director, who uses the pseudonym Harry Caine (Amodovar's own nom de plume when he wrote Women on the Verge...) who loses his eyesight because of his affair with an aspiring actress. This actress happens to be the formidable Penelope Cruz, who is getting better and somehow more gorgeous by the minute. She is a splendid actress and she drenches the screen with beauty and charisma. I was scouring my brains trying to find an American actress with the sexiness of some of the most memorable European actresses: Anna Magnani, Melina Mercouri, Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, La Cruz. There are very powerful females in American film history: Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Frances McDormand, Glenn Close, etc. They all can be fabulous bitches on wheels. But sexy? Earthy? Goddesslike? I'm afraid none. That seems to have stopped with Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cancino, to you) and Marilyn Monroe. La Jolie was almost a candidate, but she has become an anorexic adoption machine and it is impossible to watch her and not think about the circus of her life. She has lost all semblance of sexiness. So the only one in my book who qualifies is Marisa Tomei -- an heiress to the tradition of strong and sexy Italian film actresses.
And then there is Penelope Cruz. And thank God for her, because just as women are Almodovar's strong suit, the men in his movies are a bunch of palurdos (loose translation: loxes). They are boring and uninteresting and, except for Bardem and Banderas, who alas, are not in this movie, sexless pieces of wood. Almodovar brings back some of the cast of Women on the Verge, because Harry Caine is directing a movie very similar to that. It's a treat to see Chus Lampreave (I'm still rooting for her as Spain's national monument), and the Picassoesque Rossy de Palma and the hilarious Carmen Machi and Lola Dueñas. Penelope Cruz plays the role created by Carmen Maura. It's all very complicated; long and slightly tedious in parts, and moving and funny in others. It's a self-homage and an homage to the movies and a bit of a hodgepodge. I was stunned to learn that the magnificent camerawork is by Rodrigo Prieto, who makes La Cruz look more beautiful than ever and who makes the Almodovar palette look more gorgeous than ever. I enjoyed the funny parts, but I do not care for the cheesy, over the top melodrama. I have no patience for campiness. And you have to have balls to pay homage to yourself.
This movie made me want to run out and see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again. And Matador. Those movies were really fun, bracing, and original. They are what made Almodovar a star.

Nov 16, 2009

If These Are The Most Important Films of the Decade...

... We Are In Trouble.

I used to like A.O Scott until he wrote this silly, pompous screed about what he thinks are the most influential movies of the decade.
For one, I think it's too soon. We still have 2010 coming down the pike.
Secondly, how stupefyingly conventional. How horrifyingly bourgeois. It feels like really lazy work by someone who lives in a Norman Rockwell painting and shops at Wal-Mart and reads Reader's Digest.

Scott divides his magisterial canon in two, the most influential commercial movies (meaning dreck of pop cultural importance, movies that for the most part made oodles of money) and movies of quality. I think he is out to lunch on both counts.
First, the dreck of importance:

• Zodiac (David Fincher). I don't get it. Long, plodding, mostly unexciting and literally yellow. So it uses digital effects that you can't actually see. So what? This movie was ignored by everyone for a reason.

• The Passion of The Christ (Mel Gibson). Of course I didn't see it. Not interested in religious porn. It's on the list because according to Scott, it showed that religious movies could have a mass audience, but I don't see many more instances of this trend. The Annunciation? The Burning Bush?  The Mountain Goes to Mohammad? It ain't happening. The movie was big because it was gruesome and made by a movie star crackpot.

Farenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore). Peut etre. The $100 million grossing documentary.
No great shakes artistically speaking. However, it's true that Moore's success helped bring the documentary genre back to life; or rather, documentaries can now make some loose change.

The Lord of The Rings (Peter Jackson). This trilogy, writes Scott, "was a milestone in the geek ascendancy". Well, as Sam Goldwyn used to say, include me out.
Despite the presence of Viggo Mortensen, I couldn't be bothered. This is strictly my personal taste. I despise Middle Earth fantasies (and fantasies in general). So we have Peter Jackson to thank for horrid hybrids like the Harry Potters and the upcoming Avatar and 2012 and all this bloated crap. If the influences are noxious, what is there to celebrate?

Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski). Don't get me started on Mumblecore.
Mostly irrelevant and for good reason.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow). I totally agree. A sweet and riotous romantic comedy, equally appealing to males and females, plus, there is a new adjective: Apatovian.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee). A stunningly beautiful movie about nothing much. What really is the transcendence of this film? "China’s emergence as a pop-culture superpower". Puhleeze.
"An example of the crossover potential of local genres in a global marketplace", I think it's the opposite, a foreign movie financed, calculated, written and conceived to appeal to our local tastes (which is why it sucked. It's Star Wars in Chinese). I don't know if Scott is being naive or he just likes the sound of his own bombast.

Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu).  We have this movie to thank for ballbreaking puzzle movies like Syriana, Babel and Crash. Granted, it's a film of great moxie and power, but it spawned an obnoxious genre of preachy plot pyrotechnics and underwritten characters.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I haven't seen any of Tyler Perry's movies so I really can't opine. But they seem to be circumscribed to the African American audience, unlike some of the work of Spike Lee, which was intended to cross over and make a fuss, which it did.
"Perry is, with Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, one face of a new black-power structure that has become part of the American establishment". "A new black power structure"? Really? This sounds like grandiose bullshit to me, but I bet the token inclusion of Latino, Asian and Black movies must make Scott feel like a p.c. boy scout.

Shrek. The more I read this list, the more offensive I find it. Of all the animated movies that have swarmed us since the advent of Pixar, why choose the one that took a fantastic character from a fantastic writer and turned it into a vulgar, formulaic franchise? Okay, I get it now. This should not be the list of the most influential movies of the decade, but of the movies that easily become merchandise.

Movies of Quality in Podunk

Let's move to the equally painful movies of quality, according to A.O Scott:

• Wall-E (Andrew Stanton). Excellent in parts, but every single Pixar movie is the same formula. This one just happens to take place in a dumpster.

• Yiyi (Edward Yang) and The World (Jia Zangke). Have not seen Yiyi, and The World is a wonderful film, like all of Jia's movies. But I would choose Still Life, which is much more powerful.

• Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood).
"Late masterpieces from the last great classical American filmmaker". Wow. Cue the  trumpets. The first one is unconscionable here. A female Rocky, maudlin, boring, and with Morgan Freeman sweeping the floor of a gym, playing the good negro.
I can't abide Clint Eastwood and his solemn hackery. I never believe anything that happens in his movies. It's all fake sentiment.
Letters from Iwo Jima is the best thing Eastwood has ever done, which in my book is not saying much, but I admit it impressed me.

Great American quality films of this decade?  
A History of Violence, There Will be Blood, Michael Clayton, The Departed, The Wrestler, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Borat, The Hurt Locker, Juno, Jarhead, Little Miss Sunshine, The Darjeeling Limited, Rescue Dawn, 3:10 to Yuma, Children of Men, Eastern Promises, We Own The Night, Catch Me If You Can, O Brother Where Art Thou, even No Country for Old Men, which I dislike.  

• 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu), and L'Enfant (The Fréres Dardenne). This is like pairing Velveeta with foie gras. The Romanian movie is an exercise in crass audience manipulation, stacking the deck to extreme, exploitative levels.  L'Enfant is truly a masterpiece of cinema; almost literary in its moral complexity. How you can put them together is beyond me.

Great foreign films of the last decade?  
The ClassLet the Right One InCacheThe White RibbonDownfall, Hunger, Il Divo, Read my Lips (or anything by Jacques Audiard)anything by Lucrecia Martel, anything by Joon-Ho Bong, the director of The Host and Mother, Persepolis, anything by Miyazaki, Secret Sunshine, the new Israeli cinema (Beaufort, Or, Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir, Jellyfish, The Band's Visit), Ten by Abbas Kiarostami, etc.

• Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro) and Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze).
WTWTA is a thing of beauty. Smart, poignant and sophisticated. The other one is not only cheesy, but it banalizes the Spanish Civil War.

• I didn't see either of the documentaries, which I'm sure are great.

• The Best of Youth (Marco Tulio Giordano) is a TV mini series that tries to cram all of Italy's postwar history in six hours. It's spellbinding yet a little hokey by the end.

• Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) and Talk To Her (Pedro Almodóvar). I would have said Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, really) and Volver, which is far superior to Talk To Her, in my book. These two movies have nothing to do with each other, except perhaps in the overly simplistic concept behind this list, that both use surreal sequences.

• The 25th Hour and When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee). The first one is the best Spike Lee has done in years, except for Inside Man, which is better. The second one is incredibly powerful, and deserved to be screened in theaters, not only on HBO.

• Gosford Park (Robert Altman) and Moolaade (Ousmane Sembène): R.I.P."
Moolade, I haven't seen. Gosford Park, no. It's fine but it is nothing special and not among the best of Robert Altman's films.

Really this list is like a mayo sandwich on white bread. It feels like it was written by the film critic of The Podunk Times. It is not the job of a critic to appease and conform to the middle-lowbrow. It is to shed attention on the extraordinary (high and low) and to enlighten and encourage the public to seek and enjoy and appreciate artistic value in film.

Nov 12, 2009

Hannibal Lecter: "I'm having an old friend for dinner"



I love that joke.
I have been doing some homework as I attempt to write my way into the second draft of my first feature-length script, which means, as I'm never tired of explaining to horrified people, that writing it feels like giving birth to a cactus.
But the homework has been fun. It consists on watching thrillers, suspense movies, horror movies and serial killer movies. This is the kind of homework we are more than happy to do.
So far, we've studied some gems like Laura (the dialog is priceless), Strangers on a Train (something important happens every 2 minutes, almost on the dot), the fantastically brazen Blood Simple, and some fun new clunkers like Paranormal Activity and The House of the Devil. This last one may be the only movie I've ever seen that has terrible first and third acts framing a second act that scared the hell out of me. It also has Tom Noonan, which is always a good thing.
I saw Zodiac again, and again I didn't like it (what's with all the yellow?), but it has one excellent sequence (the killing of the couple in the car). I'm not a David Fincher fan, but Seven is also on the list.
Yesterday I saw The Silence of the Lambs. It had greatly impressed me on the big screen in Mexico. I remember it as being utterly sordid, Victorian and disturbing, and a lot of it stuck in my head after many years.
Well, it is not holding up too well. Some of the twists are too pat for such a supposedly smart film. But what makes the movie is Anthony Hopkins. It's a magnificent performance that still sells creepy Halloween masks after all these years.
I can see why Little Enchilada developed a crush on Dr. Lecter. He just breaks your heart. Hopkins pinches his voice, speaks like an angel, does not blink and has a very sexy sense of smell. Dr. Lecter's main problem is that he's so smart, he can't abide the humiliation of living in a stupid world. Why that translates into cannibalism, I've never understood. Would someone so smart be eating such stupid people? Even with white wine and fava beans? I don't buy it. But I do buy Hopkins' take on it. His rage at the vulgarity and stupidity of the world (dare I say Americans) knows no bounds. He makes you feel it. You understand him. He is totally coherent psychologically.
So is Clarice Starling, which I think is why the movie works. Otherwise no one would give a fuck about horrid Ted Levine (excellent, poor man) and his one size fits all American madness (he is gay, he is a transsexual, he has swastikas in his bedspread, he loves French Poodles, he sows, his kitchen is a mess). I was struck by Jodie Foster's rich, layered performance. She is a perfect partner for Hopkins. They have chemistry together. It's a wonderful love story. But I think Thomas Harris' fake, over the top American Gothic is not very convincing.

I must confess that every time I see the letters F.B.I, I want to work there. But do I have to run in the woods? That part, I don't like.

Nov 2, 2009

This Is It, or Review Of A Movie I Refused To See but Ended Seeing Anyway.


Oh, well. Who could refuse an offer to play hooky and go to a midday movie? Even if it was about poor Michael Jackson, a subject that has us on the brink of exhaustion?
I realize that I don't really have anything much against MJ. I'm rather baffled, saddened and disturbed by his bizarre life of pain. I wish he had spent more time growing as an artist than lying under the knife. I wish he'd been less unhappy, less ill-equipped to deal with his prodigious talent and the fame and wealth that came with it and seemed to have undone him somehow.
What drives me crazy are the stupid, sentimental fans who think he is the Messiah (not that he didn't play the sensitive, misunderstood saint, like his hero, Princess Diana).
I resent his fetish status. I think it's not healthy. There are rabid fans of The Boss, and fans of The Beatles, and fans of U2 and The Stones, but none are as unstable and immature as Michael Jackson fans (even when he was alive). They creep me out more than him.
The documentary goes on forever and it's not very good footage of his rehearsal for the show that never was. It could have been a much better film if it didn't look like it was slapped on together as fast as possible and if it had showed more candor, less control of MJ's image, but it is unrealistic to expect anything but hagiography at this point. Apparently, the cameras were originally there so he could have the footage privately, which may explain the sloppiness of the footage.
The film starts with the show's dancers crying just because they are so happy to have been chosen. These talented people work their asses off, but there was no need to start the film with such a sentimental gesture.
But director Kenny Ortega is not Frederick Wiseman, who would know it is enough to hear the music, listen to MJ sing soulfully with that otherworldly voice of his, and bust his famous moves. It is enough to see the dedication to the work.
The first song is Gotta Be Starting Something. Every time I hear it, I marvel at how brilliant it is. And he had several great, great songs. Brilliant, not pop, as everybody claims, brilliant Black music. Brilliant soul-funk-dance music.
He is probably one of the greatest American dancers ever, right there with Fred Astaire. He has gorgeous, precise elegance. Perfect style. Even when riddled by grotesque surgery and God knows what else, the man has swing and funk in spades. The choreography for Thriller has not lost an ounce of freshness; it is a classic.
It is amazing to watch the guy dance.
Now, it is not true that the movie stays away from his ravaged face. There are several moments with close ups that are, to me, horribly disturbing. He barely has a nose, his lips look unreal, his hair sucks. He doesn't look human. He looks very lean, and seems in shape (his trainer: Lou Ferrigno, aka The Incredible Hulk). But he conserves energy and tries to conserve his voice. He has huge hands, too big for such a lithe body. I love watching how his feet tap to the rhythm, syncopating, like a tap dancer.
In this footage he is a quiet, benevolent diva with a reedy voice. He says "God bless you" way too much. He seems to be in another plane of existence; people hover around him. I wonder if he knew the dancers' names. There is an interesting moment when he wants the keyboardist to slow down and he says "as if you were dragging yourself out of bed". To the untrained ear, the difference is imperceptible. The pianist had trouble nailing it. Very exacting, and quite right.
The live music sounds almost exactly like the recorded versions. MJ says he wants the music to sound like the fans hear it. No need to futz around with what works.
The show seems to have been designed as a retrospective of his greatest hits, including some unfortunate, syrupy ballads, not his strong suit, and an awkward detour into the Jackson 5 hits, without his brothers.
Looks like it was going to be a great show. Spectacular, tacky and very generous.
He was a great talent and a great entertainer. That much is clear. He spent way too much time self-destroying in a completely unique way. Since he doesn't look half bad in the footage, one wonders what the hell drug cocktail was he on that he lost his life so suddenly, so carelessly.
I felt really bad for the dancers, who worshipped him and worked so hard. I felt bad for Zaldy, the talented designer in charge of MJ's costumes, and for all the people for whom this really seemed to be a labor of love and would have made such a difference in their lives.
MJ would have enjoyed the adoration at the fifty sold out concerts. Perhaps, at the age of 50, that would have made him feel a little better about himself.

Nov 1, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are


I went in with low expectations after reading some negative reviews. This movie blew me away. It moved me deeply. It is certainly one of the most original, unpredictable, unformulaic, gorgeous movies to come out of Hollywood in years.
I find it almost miraculous that Spike Jonze was able to deliver his vision in such a truthful, seemingly uncompromised way. Chapeau, chapeau, chapeau to him.
He and Dave Eggers expanded on the book by Maurice Sendak by giving characters to the Wild Things. It's a story about raw feelings. About feelings so painful, so intense, that they cannot be articulated except through wild actions, like monster tantrums. Hurt, jealousy, loneliness, pain, joy. How does a child deal with these feelings? How do adults cope? One may grow up, but the feelings are the same.
Although people complain that not much happens, I think a lot happens emotionally. Jonze's achievement is his masterful control of tone. There is gorgeous, insane energy in the wild actions of Max, a child bewildered by a broken home (not in the original source). And then there is a lovely, melancholy but mischievous feel to the place where the Wild Things are. I find it a fascinating interpretation true to the core of the Sendak story. Nothing sounds canned or clichéd.
When Max first finds them, The Wild Things are utterly bewildered, Big guy Carol is running around destroying things without quite knowing why (it's because of unrequited love). Max brings them a sense of purpose, some order and some lost joy. He does that by becoming their king and soon he learns that this degree of control requires responsibility and honesty.
Maurice Sendak made up one of the most brilliant and durable metaphors in children's literature. Our feelings are volatile creatures that behave in wild ways. But what fantastic creatures they are! They all sound reassuringly like neurotic New Yorkers and were made by the Jim Henson people with great fidelity to the original Sendak drawings. This is the opposite, for instance, of what happened to poor William Steig's Shrek, who was defanged of all his charm and transformed into plastic merchandising by a big studio.
The faces of the Wild Things are extraordinarily expressive, but what works like a charm are the actors who lend them their voices. I loved James Gandolfini as Carol. He has the voice of a lovable lug (one of the reasons he was so sexy in The Sopranos), and as Carol he brings out the sweetness and vulnerability in that warm, teddy bear voice of his. He was the only one I recognized off the bat, but the rest of the acting is extraordinary. Everybody's tone is just right, slightly off-kilter but emotionally true. Catherine O'Hara is a hoot as Judith (a shrew and a self described "downer"), Paul Dano, quietly tender as Alexander, who no one ever listens to; Chris Cooper, softly authoritative as Douglas, and Forest Whitaker, as Ira, a wild thing deeply in love with Judith, and even Lauren Ambrose as KW is spirited and lovely.
This is not a film for young children. It may be a film for children the same age as Max, the protagonist, who at the beginning seemed to me a little long in the tooth for such tantrums. But as he goes to where the wild things are, he becomes more like a child, more vulnerable and more powerful and he is more delightful. The kid is put through the wringer, like kids are when they feel any of those terrible things that Max feels, and the tone is dark but playful. I can totally understand Sendak's impatience with parents who complain about the movie's darkness. The story, and the film are about the hard truths of childhood. They are not a fantasy land for blissful escape. However, thinking of my young nephews, I'm not sure that they would not be scared by the chaotic strangeness inflicted on Max. I'm so curious to hear what Mini Enchiladito Number One would have to say about it (he is seven years old and crazy about movies).
But it is a wonderful film for adults, if you allow it to take you into its extraordinary realm of metaphorical feeling. It is more magical than anything I've seen in a long time.
The one thing that got on my nerves was the hipsterish music by Karen O. The score by Carter Burwell (this man can do no wrong in my book) is fine, but all those cloying, cutesy songs were a little bit too much for me, particularly when inserted into scenes where the characters were talking. The cinematography by Lance Acord is amazing, the landscapes and the creatures are amazing.
It is a deeply beautiful film.

Oct 29, 2009

Dead of Night

I love this movie. 
Happy Halloween!

Review of a Movie I Refuse To See


To me, the whole Michael Jackson saga is like watching an endless car crash. Painful, disturbing and none too comforting. So the idea of watching him posthumously as he rehearsed the show that never was is really creepy. Apparently, the film had a very weak opening of $20.2 million worldwide. That's because they scheduled it for last Tuesday, instead of for tomorrow night.
Why? It's a perfect Halloween film. It should be marketed like a cult thing, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and shown at midnight, with people wearing MJ costumes. Those around Mr. Jackson should stop pretending he was some sort of saint. If they are going to milk him for everything he had, they might as well milk him to the best of their ability and his. He was ghoulish. He did Thriller. He deserves to be the King of Halloween.

Oct 24, 2009

A Serious Man


Immediately after watching this new Coen Bros. film, I went home, dusted off my Bible and looked up the Book of Job (which I am still reading; it's long and amazing).
I was trying to understand the point of this frustrating movie. Giving the Coens the benefit of the doubt, I'm guessing it's some sort of modern day biblical parable, and it echoes Job. It's about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college professor in Minnessota in the late 1960's who gets hit with a relentless series of tribulations that test his decency. He tries looking for answers with the Rabbis in his community, who can't or won't help. The movie starts, amazingly, with a little parable that takes place in a shtetl, in Yiddish. I was so happy to hear entire lines of dialogue beautifully spoken in this language. The parable was in itself maddening, about the point of doing good, or of thinking evil; an illustration of moral ambiguity. The scene seems an homage to the days when films and theater thrived in Yiddish, and even more, to the millennial Jewish culture of storytelling, of teaching through narrative. But to judge from what follows, it's hard to understand why it's there.
The result is disappointing at almost every level.
For one, the Coens have lost sight (ever since O Brother Where Art Thou, it seems) of their funny bone. Their attempts at humor have been leaden (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, etc.). To misplace your funny bone in a movie about Jews that attempts humor is a particularly terrible sin. The movie is totally missing warmth and mischief, things that made masterpieces of Fargo, Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski. It has chutzpah, but it feels stifling and stifled. It has no verve.
One of the main problems of the film is that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, a resourceful actor stuck in a thankless role) is such a total pushover. He has absolutely no edge. The point about Jewish genius nerds (see Woody Allen, Larry David, Seinfeld, etc.) is that they may be nerdy, but they have rapier wit, or deep neurosis or a fantastically funny, warped way of seeing the world. Larry Gopnik has none of this. He is a decent, boring, literal man with endless tolerance for abuse. Thus, he is extremely unlikable. You can't root for a man that doesn't root for himself.
I kept thinking of Gene Wilder, who could be as meek as a sheep but had this hilarious undercurrent of hysteria. Something like this would have helped the audience not to lose heart with Larry Gopnik.
The Coens have also become intellectually lazy. You can't have an argument with religion, which is what I think this movie is, if you are not going to look sharp. I hate religion, but I respect it as a formidable adversary.
A Serious Man seems made by Jewish atheists duking it out with their religion. Is this a parable of Jewish suffering, of an unduly punishing God? Is it a modern retelling of the Book of Job, just like O Brother is a modern retelling of the Odyssey? Unfortunately, it's hard to tell because the movie refuses to probe deeper into Gopnik's crisis of faith or confidence.
I totally identify with the Coens' criticism of rabbis who speak in platitudes about parking lots or who answer everything with unintelligible parables, but what the movie seems to be saying, which is disturbing me, is that the Jewish oral and written tradition is useless in the face of cruelty. By corollary, so is all storytelling. Why bother telling a story if there is nothing to learn, nothing to be done?
What is the point of the movie? That you can't go to religion to solve your moral and existential dilemmas? Perhaps organized religion is indeed useless, but the source material is not, just read the awesome Book of Job, probably the first existential text about human despair ever written. It would have been interesting if Larry Gopnik realized he had to help himself and decided to turn things around, whether the outcome was good or bad, funny or tragic. But he just keeps flailing and the world is more and more cruel to him. He keeps claiming he didn't do anything. And that is the problem.
I also have a feeling that the Coens, like many modern Jews, including me, are conflicted about their heritage and the ambivalence is palpable. Whatever they are trying to say, it's very confusing. Their portrayal of their Jewish milieu is slightly disturbing. Everybody is a cartoon, and because of this, most characters are unsympathetic. And here, let me bring the example of Larry David, perhaps the most unsympathetic Jewish character that ever walked the Earth. Somebody said in facebook the other day that he is the reason why people hate Jews, (a bit de trop, nes't pas?) that's how polarizing he is. However, Larry David serves a purpose. He is cathartic. He relentlessly explores the fraught relationship of his monstrous inner self with the world at large, and by doing so, he sheds light on all of our interactions, Jewish or not. Dissertations could and should be written about Larry David. I happen to believe not that he is the reason why everybody hates Jews (I wish!) but that überaggressive Jews like him and the deliberately horrid, fearless Sarah Silverman, are actually good for the Jews these days. Onedimensional cartoons in a dramatic film is a different story. Those are actually trickier.
There are some tender and inspired moments, as in the relationship of Larry with his crazy brother Arthur (Richard Kind), and intermittent Coen funniness like a Bar Mitzvah boy stoned out of his gourd, and the always deeply gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins, but in all A Serious Man feels disturbingly dessicated and aloof, as if they were trying to do a thesis about storytelling and they forgot to connect with their own hearts.

Oct 23, 2009

Paranormal Activity


Any movie that manages to scare me, no matter how low budget, how ridiculous in terms or plot logic or how badly acted, is a success. I am an easy target. I relinquish myself exquisitely to every door that sways menacingly, every window that slams by itself, every floorboard that creaks. Paranormal Activity did not scare me as much as The Orphanage, but it creeped me out quite deliciously, despite its many flaws.
In the homemade, "true story" vein of Blair Witch Project, (the hype scared away the scares for me in that one) Paranormal Activity is about a young couple who live in a butt-ugly generic house in San Diego, where things go bump in the night. Willing to find out what's making the strange noises, the guy (there are no credits in the movie), a classic immature American alpha nerd, trains his video camera on the house and leaves it on all the time. I enjoyed the two actors, particularly the girl, who exhibits the wise, warm patience of females towards maturity-challenged boyfriends. The actors had an easy, realistic intimacy that is seldom seen in the genre. I wish the writer-director Oren Peli had not wasted the opportunity to show more of the strains in the relationship, which would have added extra tension and made it even worse. I wish he had given more psychological nuance and drama to the couple.
Most of the time the movie just waits for the malevolence to appear. Part of its success is that it builds up the tension really slowly. Of course, five minutes into the creepiness, the first thought in one's mind is "Get your ass to the nearest Holiday Inn, you idiots", but the script establishes that even if they sleep elsewhere, the malevolence will follow. Neat and stupid, but it kind of works. That's what happens when you deal with demons, they can break the rules of logic.
The flat, creepy monotone of the video camera captures the malevolent presence by its stealthiness. Most of it you can't see, but you can see its effects. This is scary.  Watching it through the video somehow heightens the creepiness, even though more than once the audience has to watch the footage twice, as its being recorded, and as the couple checks it in the morning. Since we are watching footage of what happened during the night, we are put in the position of the protagonists, who go to sleep at night (I don't understand how they manage to do this) and wait until morning to check what the camera recorded.  There is a lot of dead time that seems to serve no purpose, but because of the premise the movie is forced to work with this constraint. There are some very creepy moments, and some well delivered bolts, classic of the genre, which are absolutely delightful. The audience jumps and screams and then laughs at itself. The night I saw it at Lincoln Center, the teenager sitting in front of me kept protecting himself from the movie with his hoodie, which was worth the price of admission. There are a couple of beautifully rendered scares and I loved the creepy non-credit sequence in the end. What is very likable about this movie is that it's made with a very low budget but lots of ingenuity, a great imaginative resourcefulness that does not depend on expensive CGI or special effect toys to make its scary point. It is still amazing that a simple door ajar or some unexplained footprints or some inexplicable noises can make the hair in the back of your neck stand on end.

Oct 20, 2009

I Am Afraid...

...of Antichrist.  Do I want to be held hostage for a couple of hours by a megalomaniac bipolar director?
I loved Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. The rest of Von Trier's oeuvre seems to be getting more and more out of hand as time goes by.
But here's a well written review by Anthony Lane.
I'm probably going, I just don't know if I can take it.

Oct 17, 2009

A Day At The Movies

To give myself a reward for a job well done, I spent the entire afternoon at the movies yesterday and I saw three very good films. Coincidentally, all three are based on real life stories and none of them have anything to do with one another. I had a splendid time.


1. The Damned United
Peter Morgan writes about the vulnerability of characters to power. This is the story of Brian Clough, a gifted soccer coach whose life mission was to try to humiliate Don Revie, the coach of national champion Leeds and then of the British national team. The movie is a powerful look at the hubris of  wounded pride and ambition. The paradox here is that Clough is right, except for his own overblown ego, which ruins everything. He wants Leeds (a terribly dirty team) to win fairly, he is talented and charismatic and yet he self-destroys because of an exaggerated sense of grievance. It's a wonderfully written script (that jumps around back and forth in time a bit much) that would have been better served by a better director.
The super saturated and contrasted color scheme was the work of a cinematographer trying too hard to be cool. That stuff may work for music videos, but not for a dramatic film. Still, Michael Sheen gives an unflinching, energetic performance. He is a very good actor who is always short of hamming. There is something exaggerated about him that works very well for characters such as this one and David Frost, which he played in Frost Nixon (he was so much better in the movie than in the play). He really sinks his teeth into the role and makes you feel the humiliation and the hubris of this man. It's deeply painful, and therefore wonderful. Colm Meaney, excellent as usual, plays the English coach. Meaney doesn't do much but he does it chillingly well. He has an easy aura of power about him, of enormous confidence,  and understated arrogance. I love him. Plus, the great, great, great Timothy Spall as Clough's, smart, loyal, unsung partner and the great Jim Broadbent.  British Acting Feast!


2. Bright Star.
This is my favorite movie by Jane Campion, who has gone all romantic (real romantic, as in the romantic poets) to tell the tragic love story between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The movie is gorgeous, the cinematography beautiful and Abbie Cornish is a revelation as Brawne, a smart, beautiful, independent woman in a time when it was very hard to be smart and independent. She falls in love with the ethereal Keats (Ben Whishaw) and it is a short, but intense romance. The movie is about love and loss, and about the ecstasies and miseries of loving. It is also about the constraints of silly societal rules about the honor and usefulness of women, and about poverty. The couple cannot be together because Keats doesn't have a pot to piss on, and in those days women were not supposed to work. Fanny is a gifted seamstress, rather a designer, but she can't do anything for herself with her gifts. She is unfortunately, a modern woman stuck in the 19th century.
The wonderful Kerry Fox plays Brawne's mother and everybody in the cast is excellent, except for the odd choice of Paul Schneider as Keats' best friend, Mr. Brown. Why ask a thoroughly modern American actor, who seems misplaced from California to trip himself with an Irish accent (or Scottish, hard to tell)? Aren't there Australian or British actors who could play the role? But that is a small nitpick on an incredibly beautiful, powerful film.


3. The Informant!
I think Matt Damon gives the performance of his life so far as Mark Whitacre, a bioengineer working for Archer Daniels Midland who decides to blow the whistle on the corrupt practices of his company. As whistleblower movies go, this one's a hoot. Turns out that the turncoat is a handful himself -- crazy as a loon and not exactly driven by the pursuit of justice. Damon creates a totally believable character, funny as hell, and eerily realistic as a person with a crazy head on his shoulders. He is astounding, and not only because he gained many pounds, but because he thoroughly inhabits this poor schmo. He deserves a nomination for this one. The movie is drily funny though it has a rich, broadwayesque score by Marvin Hamlisch, which overpowers the hilarity, as if Steven Soderbergh didn't have enough confidence in the dryness of his humor.  I like that it is a satirical poke at the culture of hypocrisy and lying which is business as usual in our corporations and our politicians. A movie where the FBI is too credulous and touchy feely doesn't come around very often.

Box Office Wild Things

Nikki Finke reports that Warner Brothers didn't know what to expect from Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are. I don't know in what world WB lives, but in my world I knew it was going to be annoyingly sold out the moment I saw the first still of it and learned it is helmed by Jonze, the hero of hipsters everywhere. Anybody who saw the posters and has any taste wants to see this movie.
I'm waiting for the crowds to subside.

Oct 10, 2009

New York Film Festival: The White Ribbon


On the way to Lincoln Center to see Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, I was surprised to read the opening of Kafka's Metamorphosis on a poster, a fitting prelude to the movie I was about to see. Not because The White Ribbon is a surrealist tale (nothing could be more terrifyingly real). But because, like Metamorphosis, The White Ribbon is a fable.
As I sat in the darkness looking at the stunning black & white images, my expectations were deflated. I had read the gushing piece by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, and attended a talk by Haneke before the movie, where Darren Aronofsky asked him questions about the film. At times the movie felt long, a little heavy handed, and manipulative (this is always the case with Haneke), and I missed the horrible feeling of dread that his movies provoke (it was there, but not as intensely as I expected).
However, I wake up today and this movie is slapping me full force in the face. I realize that yesterday I may have been resisting its impact. I can't get this film out of my mind. The more I think of it; the more I think of it.
Usually, movies about evil deal mostly with individual agents. There is a bad seed that for very specific reasons inflicts harm on the community. This one bad apple gets destroyed (or in the case of franchises, keeps coming back), but it is just one evil entity, which allows us to go home at night and summon sleep. When evil multiplies, it's usually in the form of armies of zombies, or hostile aliens or ghosts; nothing to really worry about. Michael Haneke's films deal with real human evil, not our cathartic, cartoony fantasies of it, but the comparison is apt because The White Ribbon is a highly evolved version of what could be called The Bad Spawn. In this particular case, German children living in a bucolic village on the eve of WWI.
When confronted with the probing intelligence of this film, one must resist the urge to find simplistic explanations. Audiences tear their hair out with films like this or Cache. They interpret the masterful, unsustainable tension and dread as genre, and they demand unequivocal conclusions and neatly tied endings. This, Haneke refuses to give. One, he is more interested in the why and the how of who did it. And two, he refuses to let our consciences rest. With Haneke you can never say "it's only a movie". With him it's "I will show you what we are made of. Ignore at your own risk".
At the talk, Aronofsky kept pressing the director for clues, which of course, he never disclosed. After seeing the movie I can tell you that I know with absolute certainty who committed the disturbing, increasingly violent crimes that unsettle this regimented little village. In fact, the clues are there from the first shot. But if you are expecting to single out someone in particular, you are missing the point of the film. And from here on, I am issuing a humongous SPOILER ALERT.

Here's a microcosm of German society, but also of human society. Male figures of authority anchor this town. There is a baron landowner, for which most peasants work, there's a doctor, who tends to the people, there is a schoolteacher, and there is a pastor, who is the de facto moral authority of the town. Women are wives, childbearers, caretakers, they feed and love the children. The children are a motley crew of angelical looking little Germans, some very young and some reaching puberty. They go to school, they sing in the choir at church, they amble around town in their free time, a gaggle, a gang.
At first sight, this town is the epitome of peaceful social order. It is a rigid order, and as always, unfair, but nobody challenges their station in life. However, when someone eventually protests perceived injustice, his family is ostracized.
The pastor, who has two preteen kids and a bunch of little ones, is a rigid and unforgiving man. His wife seems warm and nice, but she has abdicated all authority to her husband. The pastor lives and rules by the oversimplified, manichean convictions of his faith. His use of human psychology is nil. He uses dogma, not reason, nor common sense, nor pity, nor his own eyes and ears to mete out judgment. His pronouncements seem dictated from above, and since they are limited to impossible moral absolutes, they are unjust and blind, and utterly damaging.
His children take it on the chin. How could they fight back?
Yet, unsettling things start to happen. First a dangerous prank makes the doctor's horse trip, sending the doctor to the hospital for weeks. Then, leisurely, more signs appear of increasing cruelty and violence.
Meanwhile, the schoolteacher, whose aged voice recounts the strange events years later, falls in love with a lovely young woman and courts her.
I cried once in the film, and it was in a tender scene between the two. Who knew Michael Haneke was capable of such tenderness and delicateness?
To say it bluntly, the lovers represent reason and decency, which hand in hand make civilization, a construct that needs no orders from above. However, even them, whose love is pure and right, are curtailed by her father, who with good intentions, but rather arbitrarily, sets a distance of a year to allow his daughter to marry her suitor. By the time the year has passed, the teacher is conscripted to the coming war. This is a repressive social order that insists on hindering love.
Then, when the doctor comes back from his convalescence, he turns out to be a monstrous human being.
And the innocents suffer, not knowing how to protect their fragile psyches from the total abuse of power, repression, and attempts at mind control; and next, they take their myriad humiliations out on those who are even weaker than them. Whoever is committing the horrible acts, there are certainly others that are complicit with silence and fear. The violence, of which only the aftermath is seen on screen, is brutal and unspeakable. The torch of cruelty and abuse is passed seamlessly from the adults to the children.
At first, I was annoyed by what seemed like a lame excuse for malfeasance, the kind you hear from Dr. Phil: poor Germans, they had a horrid childhood. But this is not the point of the film.
In an American movie, perhaps the kids would have banded together in the name of justice and freedom led by a fearless and handsome little hero, and shown the adults their comeuppance in a way that would have filled our hearts with pride for the human race.
But this is Mr. Haneke, and this is a parable of the psychology of totalitarianism, and of how evil blossoms, not individually, but communally, poisoning society in its entirety. In this case, it happens in Germany, aided by the confluence of a rigid mindset, a stern, pitiless religion, and an unfortunate national fetish with authority. I remembered Downfall, the movie about the last days of Hitler, and how those loyal to him, and the Nazi propaganda machine, saw him as the Father of the nation, a father who lords over every detail of his children's lives like an insane god. All totalitarian rulers act imperiously and randomly, like unpredictable fathers, countenancing dissent from no one (see Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, Ceaucescu, the Ayatollahs...).
Thus, it is no small matter that the divide between men and women in this film is so extreme. The doctor abuses the women in his life, the baron thinks he holds total control over his wife. The women are relegated to unquestioning obedience. Nobody thinks they are worth anything or they have anything of import to say. This oppression of women is a sign of barbarism.
However, the most disturbing aspect of the film is the children. There are instances of otherworldly, heartbreaking innocence in some of the younger kids. Of course, Haneke sets it up so that you spend your time dreading the harm that may come to these children. The psychology of children in this movie is one of the most accurate and realistic ever committed to film, and because of it, very disturbing. I could write paragraphs about the questions it raises on the concept of innocence alone. Can children be innocent and commit unspeakable acts? What constitutes innocence and when and how and why exactly is it lost?
The final scene of the movie is perhaps the most chilling thing I've ever seen.
It takes place in the church; a frontal, flat shot, as in an old photograph. The farmers and the community sit in the pews below. The pastor takes his place among them. Hovering above the congregation are the children, lined up for the choir. War is about to start. These kids who are now literally on top, are about to be further humiliated by the ravages of war, and when they blossom into adulthood by the 1930's, they will be eating, breathing and, given their brutal pasts, most likely perpetrating Nazism.