Nov 22, 2009


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
clinical depression
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.