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.

The 2009 New York Film Festival needs Prozac

I agree with A.O. Scott that this year's selection for the Festival has been the most dismal in years. I didn't buy as many tickets because the list of movies was scary. I usually buy for films that don't seem to have distribution, or films that are cinematic events, like The White Ribbon. My tastes are decidedly middlebrow. I run away from the overintellectual, but refuse to see crappy schlock. This year, the selection was overwhelmingly European and obscure, the American movies chosen not exactly a barrel of laughs, but more than that, it was made as if by depression.
I am an enthusiastic misanthrope, but that doesn't mean that I tolerate endless gloom in movies. But what is even sadder is that, except for the sold-out Haneke film, every screening we've been to has been plagued with empty seats. I could tell something was wrong when I ordered the tickets and I promptly got excellent orchestra seats. This meant that people were not in a buying frenzy. And who can blame them? We can ascribe this to a tightening of the belt with our economic situation. Quite frankly, many of the films, you can see a couple of months later for $8 less. But I'm sure the unappealing roster is to blame. Who needs three French film makers with a marked tendency for the insufferable (Resnais, Breillat and Denis)?
The festival is an event, the renewed theater is lovely, the projection quality magnificent, and people should feel excitement to see movies, not dread. Last year at the Ziegfield the energy was great. Movies like Gomorrah and Hunger gave the festival great buzz. This year, there is no buzz. The opening night selection may be wonderful, but it is a French film by octogenarian Alain Resnais (not my cup of tea), not the most electrifying choice in the world. And closing night is the new flick by Almodovar, which perhaps should have been opening night. I saw it France and didn't like it (stale and self-referential, like most of his movies before Volver), but at least it is gorgeous to look at and has Penélope Cruz in it. Wattage.
One cannot accuse a film festival of elitism. The point of this kind of festival is precisely to show films that are below the radar, or that challenge the sad state of affairs that is our national film industry, which makes increasingly stupid movies. But it is also to create excitement, anticipation and passion for films.  This year, there's plenty of sordidness, or intellectual European filmmakers, or obscure stuff that is not very appealing.
Having said this, so far, the movies we've seen have all been excellent: the intense Israeli film Lebanon, Sweet Rush, a lovely film by Andzrej Wajda, a very interesting German movie called Everyone Else and the Haneke movie. 
I hope they learn their lesson and next year give us, not more lowbrow stuff, but more excitement.

Oct 8, 2009

So Excited about Michael Haneke Tonight!

I loved Anthony Lane's article on him, splendidly titled "Happy Haneke". And I can't wait to hear Haneke talk, hopefully about why he is such an elegant, disturbing little sadist. And then I can't wait to see The White Ribbon, the movie that won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year, and according to Lane, Haneke's best film.
Here are my favorite Haneke movies:


The Piano Teacher. I will never forget Ice Goddess Isabelle Huppert putting crushed glass in the pocket of an aspiring piano student. Never.

Code Unknown

I could not sit through the original Funny Games, one of the few films that have personally offended me. I do not wish to be a filmmaker's guinea pig, that's all. I find Funny Games feels superior to its audience and that bothers me.