Jul 25, 2009

Agnostics rejoice!

You and we atheists have a new poster boy! And he is rather cute.
I'm not a huge fan of his, but I commend him for saying so publicly. We need more atheist, agnostic celebrities out there.

Jul 23, 2009

A Woman in Berlin

A Woman In Berlin is an adaptation of the anonymous diary of a German woman during the fall of Berlin in 1945. It's a good film, but it does not have the bitterness and the starkly brutal tone of the book. The book could be an apocryphal German version of the diary of Anne Frank, except that it was written by a journalist and the voice is that of a pretty decent writer. She has nothing but bitterness and scorn for the German men who were nowhere to be found when Berlin needed defending, while that stupid Führer of theirs was hiding in the bunker like a coward. I must confess that watching German citizens of that era suffer for 2 hours gives me a slightly pleasurable frisson of schadenfraude. A small little sense of revenge that nurtures the soul. The movie is conceived to do the opposite. But here are these people, good upstanding citizens of the Nazi regime, devastated by their own government. They believed in it, hook, line and sinker. So there. They deserved that and much more as far as I'm concerned.
Considering what the Nazis did to the Soviets, I think the Russians were relatively restrained. Basically, the Russian army had orders to rape every German woman, if possible. As we know, rape is a horrible strategy used to vanquish and humiliate the defeated. The Russian army raped more than 100,000 German women. So much for purity of race.
When the book came out in 1953, Germans were outraged because they saw it as staining the honor of German women (which were basically trying to survive), and no German man wanted to see himself in the mirror as an impotent (in every sense of the word) loser; so the author, duly enraged at this unbelievable but not unsurprising reception, forbid its publication until after her death. I recommend the book much more than the film.

Jul 20, 2009

Harry Potter and The Palace of Indifference

Or, in a nutshell, I don't give a flying fuck about Harry Potter. I have never read the books and have never seen the movies. Even on airplanes I can't muster the attention to follow the capes and the brooms and the forced British gloom for more than two seconds. Can we call it a day with him, please?

Jul 14, 2009


I laughed much more with Borat, perhaps because it was the shock of the new, but also because Borat is a sweet boor, whereas Brüno is a clueless vapid idiot. He is Teutonic. Heavy.
The movie follows the same formula as Borat, except it feels a little more tightly constructed. That is, it's on a steady escalation of comedic horror. In Borat I laughed liberally (I almost cried, my tummy hurt from laughing); here the laughter stuck in my throat. As it sometimes happens to me with Curb your Enthusiasm, I found the comedy much funnier in retrospect. One is too appalled to laugh in the moment, but then it tickles your funny bone a day later. In fact, I'm still gaping in amazement at some of the stunts. Brüno is bitter funny, and much more satirically funny than it is silly funny.
This is funny with a vengeance.
Sasha Baron Cohen's aims are clear. He makes fun of three major themes. The vapid idiocy of fashion; the vapid, dangerously idiotic hunger for celebrity; and the idiotic homophobic obsession. If he can factor in some outrageous anti-pc stuff, why not?

(MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! I think you can read this and it won't affect your enjoyment, but if you really want to be surprised, you may want to stop here. See the movie and then come back to this page).

Critics say that Baron Cohen picks easy targets, which is true, but really, most of them deserve to be made fun of and in Brüno he is careful to pick not so easy targets. Everything is extremely heavy handed, but I found the bit with Ron Paul to be the only one that was unfair. To his credit, he offsets the easiness of the targets by putting himself on the line of danger like no comedian ever has. Hell, picking an actual terrorist leader from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade is not exactly an easy target. And the humor stings with brilliant irony. Brüno asks this guy to kidnap him because he wants to become famous. The terrorist is appalled. He says he doesn't like this. But the other kind of kidnapping and terror are okay? So if someone asks for a kidnapping, it's suddenly not kosher? What is terrorist kidnapping if not celebrity for terrorists? Way too smart.
In his search for fame, Brüno goes to the Middle East, or as he calls it, Middle Earth, to try to broker peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At one point as he sits between one Israeli ex-Mossad agent and a Palestinian leader, he says he doesn't have all day and would the Egyptians please give the Jews their pyramids back. He confuses Hamas with Hummus. He sashays around an ultra-orthodox part of Jerusalem wearing Hassidic cut offs (all the costumes are hilarious), and almost starts a riot against him. By the same token, he sits in the middle of an Arab café making goo goo eyes at a very macho, mustachioed Arab. Equal opportunity mayhem.
Baron Cohen is a master of metaphor. Using Mexican laborers as furniture in California is devastating shorthand for the commonplace and hypocritical abuse of the illegal workforce in this country. As he sits on top of a Mexican he has devised as a human bench, and has Paula Abdul sit on top of another, he interviews her about her humanitarian concerns. And she answers!
Sasha Baron Cohen is utilizing comedy as it was intended: to seriously upend the existing order, to unmask human folly. He has the mischief of a giant, out of control, Puck.
As for the homosexual part, well, people are grossed out about sex between men, so he proceeds to show absolutely everything that is possible for two men to do with their anal orifices as a total slapstick routine. It is outrageous, but by putting it, so to speak, on the table, he is divesting it of its powerful mystique. Not only that, I think he is making fun of what straight people think that gay people do all day, which is to have orgiastic sex at all times. There is a fantastic bit where he goes to see a medium and asks about his former lover Mili, "von Mili und Vanilli", who he hopes is "on the VIP section in Heaven". The charlatan he consults tells him Mili is in a place with green trees so Brüno asks if he can kiss Mili and he proceeds to mime, with the precision of Marcel Marceau, an entire and very inventive sexual act between males that includes everything that you can possibly imagine, and if you didn't know about it, you will learn. But what is he really making fun of? Gay sex, or the conman who makes money by telling people he's talking to the dead?
It would have been fun if he interacted with some actual gay people, but by this omission, and instead by going hunting with deep woods rednecks and showing gay converters (clergymen who will cure your gayness), he makes the point much more powerfully. Think of anybody gay you know and they are the model of urbanity and good citizenship, compared to these appalling people. We are clearly hating the wrong side.
With Baron Cohen everything has to be a piece de resistance. In Borat it was his naked wrestling sequence. Here he ups the ante so that almost every sequence feels like that, but there is one sequence in an extreme fighting arena which is as gutsy and righteous as when Borat goes to the rodeo and speaks of Bush. Baron Cohen likes to whip rednecks into a frenzy with their own passionately held convictions and then yank the rug from right under them. And so he does this time, again in a marvel of concentrated metaphor. Protected yet separated by a cage, he starts a fight with his ex-lover Lutz which ends with them actually French kissing and making love in front of a frenzied crowd of homophobes, who start hurling abuse and beers and chairs at the cage.
I can't think of a more suitable image for the absurdity and the ferocity of gay hatred in this country.

Jul 11, 2009

Food, Inc.

See it and barf.
It doesn't really tell you something you don't know, but it does so cogently and convincingly.
That 1 in every 4 children now has diabetes. 1 in 2 or 3 if the child is poor.
That 3 or 4 companies control all the "food" we eat.
That farming has become hell for animals and humans.
That the "regulators" who work at the FDA are former lobbyists for the food industry.
That everything you eat and even stuff you don't has corn in it.
That a lot of what you eat has stuff it shouldn't have in it.
That the reason for the massive e-coli outbreaks is that cows are fed corn instead of grass.
That basically when we are eating beef, we are eating cow manure (I find the disclaimers of food companies to cook the meat to within an inch of charred, the height of cynicism. They are the ones who should not be providing us with extra ingredients like e-coli. It should not be our responsibility to kill those germs).
That those angelic companies like Tom's of Maine that you think are righteous are actually owned by Colgate, like Ben and Jerry's is owned by Unilever.
But I learned that the reason why junk food is cheap and broccoli isn't is because the government subsidizes corn and soybeans, but not other crops.
I also learned that all those Mexicans y'all hate so much are here working in subhuman conditions in meatpacking plants and other industrial hellholes because they used to be corn farmers back in Mexico who stopped making a living after NAFTA dumped cheap American corn on Mexico. I know that it is the workers that get arrested and deported, not the businesses that hire them illegally. But then Food, Inc is a cornucopia of outrage and it is important that you see it at your local multiplex. Ha.
I read a review of Methland in the New York Times, a book that explores the life of an agricultural town in Iowa that has been devastated by the meth epidemic. Why? Because its citizens are now working for industrial farms, and their labor is so dehumanizing, they'd rather cook up meth in their kitchens and set fire to themselves in a drug induced haze. I wish this connection had been made in the movie.
This is an activist movie, so it's interactive, if you so desire.

The height of marketing chutzpah:
Some house guests of mine bought a two liter bottle of Canada Dry Ginger Ale with Green Tea and Antioxidants. This is an unintended corollary of the good work of people like Michael Pollan, who are trying to teach Americans how to eat healthily and ethically. The corporations steal his nutritional mantras and apply them to their crap. So now you can guzzle Ginger Ale that may cause your teeth to rot and your kids to have diabetes and delude yourself that you are getting nutrition out of it.

By the way, I'm writing a letter to Coke asking (as a consumer, I'm sure they will listen) them to make Coke with sugar cane, as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. It's tastier and it is a little better for you. Mexican Coke is made with sugar and it is less cloying and much better than the local one. As far as I could tell from the labels of Coke in France, they use sugar cane too. I'm sure it is because both Mexico and France are trying to protect their agricultural interests. You can try Mexican Coke it if you live near any Mexican bodega.

Jul 10, 2009


I haven't seen Brüno but neither Anthony Lane or A.O. Scott were too amused. I'm seeing it anyway. I do have problems with Sacha B. C. picking easy targets but I think he is a comic genius and deserves to be watched.
In any case, let's praise the guy who designs the clothes for Brüno and for Sacha Baron Cohen's characters. He is a genius too.

ps: I'm loving the ümlaüt thing.

Jul 4, 2009

Public Enemies

Some American film critics love to love two film directors that I find grossly overrated. One is Clint Eastwood and the other one is Michael Mann. Of the latter, who is much better than Eastwood, I have liked Manhunter, which was the first Hannibal Lecter movie, Ali, which is underrated as biopics go, The Insider, a decent conventional film, and Collateral, which was a stylish, entertaining, modern noir. I like his movies grudgingly; I always find them dry and unsatisfying. And I hated Heat.
To judge from Mnaohla Dargis's review in the New York Times, you'd think Mann's latest movie, Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp, is an American masterpiece. I was very disappointed: lots of slick style; not enough substance.  
Public Enemies is a gangster biopic about the legendary John Dillinger. It doesn't work as a biopic (not enough bio) and it doesn't work as a gangster film (not enough thrills).
I think there are two reasons for this. One, as much as I like Johnny Depp, this is not the role for him. It is impossible to believe for a minute, despite his honest and restrained (and maddeningly mumbling) performance, that this man with the most perfect face in the history of the movies is the daredevil sociopath that Dillinger was. The casting of Christian Bale as his FBI nemesis does not help matters. I am still trying to figure out his accent, which sounds like a mix between Louisiana and Romania. But I don't blame the actors. They seem to have been directed to be no one in particular. So much more could have been made out of Dillinger's crazy narcissism, yet it is hard to understand why he does what he does. The only sign of life in this film is a brilliant turn by Peter Gerety as Dillinger's lawyer, in a courtroom scene where he chews the scenery and resucitates the movie.
Two, the source material is fascinating, but somehow, the way it is written, it is not interesting enough. The dialog is forgettable. The actors are ciphers. The love story is none too credible. Everything seems too cold and composed and bloodless. There are plenty of cinematic acrobatics, but no real flair, no panache, no pizzazz. Compare this leaden, joyless film with Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, not to mention Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfathers or the Gangster films of yore. It is dead on arrival.
Now, that is not to say that it doesn't have its moments. I was trying to understand what the point of it was in this day and age. Sure, Dillinger is the great anti-hero that we need to cheer us up now that the robbers ARE the banks. In this movie the bad guys are no worse than the good guys, whose leader is none other than J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), standing in for Dick Cheney, with Christian Bale standing in for George Bush.
There are two instances of torture in this film. Both are shocking and both are committed by federal agents. One is against a wounded person in a hospital and the other one is against a woman. Quite plainly, they are instances of what our government today euphemistically calls enhanced interrogation. This gives the film a raison d'etre.
Dillinger is shown almost as a historical curiosity in his own time, strangely enough, as a man of certain principle, of a quaint individualism. At one point, even the mafia refuses to have anything to do with him (provide him with shelter, arms, whores, etc) because he's bad for business. What he makes in one very dangerous day, they make every day over the phone with gambling rackets. So, he is a heroic sociopath, fighting against both legal and illegal institutions, all alone.
Dillinger loved the movies. He loved that the movies were about him. So he goes to see a gangster flick with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with this movie: they don't make them like they used to.

Jul 2, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a great war movie and probably the first serious action war movie ever. There have been many action war movies, most of them ridiculous male revenge fantasies, like The Dirty Dozen or the Rambo saga. There are also American war movies that trumpet their anti-war indignation by portraying war as a surreal hell, like Jarhead or Apocalypse Now. The Hurt Locker (I love the title) is the first existential action war movie and if this scares you off, it shouldn't. It is a tense, suspenseful and unconventional film, as American war movies go. It presents the taut realities of war without sermonizing, yet it summons the bewilderment and rage of the best antiwar films by basically portraying the reality of this particular war as it is. It's probably one of the best written recent American movies I've seen, with a realistic, non formulaic screenplay by Mark Boal. Immediately one notices that even though the soldiers use soldierly jargon, this movie is discreet with the cartoony macho posturing of war movie dialog. These soldiers need to use language as precisely as possible, because language is their best tool for staying alive. They only engage in making it fancy, either before they are about to possibly blow up to pieces, or at the end of the day, when they come back to headquarters, exhausted but alive. Everything else is the minimum needed to communicate and survive. For this only, this movie deserves a medal, or more likely, an Oscar nomination for writing.
The Hurt Locker follows a trio of bomb diffusers in Iraq as they go about a dangerous and relentless routine of contending with lethal explosives hidden in all kinds of increasingly bizarre sources. The battlefield, except for one amazing sequence in the desert, is the city, full of menacing garbage, antsy children, families, cars, alleyways and buildings where danger lurks. From the start, it's clear that the soldiers have not been trained for this kind of combat nor do they have the right equipment for what amounts to urban guerrilla warfare. Subtitles make clear the amount of days left in this particular tour of duty in hell, and we know it's not going to be the last one. The young specialist, the excellent Brian Geraghty, indignant with fear and despondency, says, "What are the tanks for? To wait for the Russians?" Tanks are useless in a place where, as he says, you can be sitting in your (windowless) Hummer and blow up to pieces. This movie doesn't broadcast its complaints about the absurdity and injustice of this war with grand, sweeping gestures or speeches; the reality of the action and the place is enough to foster a growing sense of disbelief and despair, not only in the soldiers, seemingly left to their own devices by a gung-ho and abusive military (represented briefly by one asshole general nailed, as always, by the great David Morse), but in the audience too. As the excruciating routine of bomb diffusing continues day by day, over and over, the movie forces us to wonder, as I'm sure the soldiers wonder, simply, what the fuck are we doing here? Why are we here? That's enough to bring us back straight to the culprits of this misadventure, who instead of impeachment, deserve to be thrown into the action in Iraq and left to fend for themselves.
I will avoid repeating the general amazement at the fact that the person at the helm of this action packed, suspenseful, very male movie is a woman. But I will say that I am amazed by the way she keeps sentimentality, or many of the dangerous pitfalls of war movie clichés away from her film. There are moments in the script that could fall into that trap, but she and her main actor, the incredible Jeremy Renner, refuse to give themselves to cheap manipulation, and together they fashion one of the most fascinating American action heroes, let alone characters, to ever grace the screen. Renner is a bracing antithesis to any other male actor you have ever seen in a heroic role. The greatness of his performance lies in that he avoids being the cliché. His character is one: a reckless, genius bomb diffuser, who loves the excitement and the adrenaline rush of his job. You can already imagine what this would be like in the hands of any movie star. But Renner is a character actor, and so he is all character. It is important that nobody has really seen him before (he's been in many good movies and he once played Jeffrey Dahmer, quite well). The casting of the three leads (Anthony Mackie, also excellent, is the third) is right, for more "name" actors would destroy the illusion of realism of the film.
In fact, I have only two pet peeves with the film and one is its use of recognizable stars in minor roles. The other is a very good looking explosion in exquisite detail in slow motion. It is gorgeous, but it detracts from the illusion of realism and "you are there" that Bigelow sustains for the rest of the film (even though I can imagine that life seems in slow motion when you witness a comrade blow up to pieces).
Renner doesn't act like a soldier in a war movie, he is a soldier in Iraq. The difference is at once subtle yet too enormous to comprehend. It's an acting achievement. He is cocky, relaxed and likable, yet he never abuses these qualities for amusement. At first, he seems just reckless and arrogant, but he evolves into a complicated human. This is the first war movie I see where characters are not preceded by their moral choices, but they are made of instinct, reasoning and emotion. Most of the time they don't know why they act like they do. They don't think about it. They just are. Mackie is the soldier that likes to go by the book. He is exasperated to the point of despair with Renner's antics, but in the end, in a haunting, magnificent shoot out in the desert, he and Renner calmly, professionally, collaborate to stay alive. I can't stop thinking about this scene. Everything is honed to the most elemental, to a beautiful minimalism in which every action is poignant not because it is a character flourish, but because it is character. And it is deeply, quietly moving. This is a great, brave, fantastic film. People should see it.