Dec 27, 2010


This is a movie...

...about a hollow man (Stephen Dorff)...

...who lives at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and does nothing all day.
He is rich and miserable. It's hard to be a movie star.

One day, his daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to see him.
They do nothing all day together.

He continues doing nothing and feeling nothing until she cries and he does too.
The End.

There are ways of conveying boredom and hollowness that are insightful and interesting (and fun). Somewhere, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is perfunctory, boring, hollow and annoyingly uninteresting. If you want to see something much more real and extremely disturbing about poor, miserable movie stars, I recommend Casey Affleck's and Joaquin Phoenix's faux documentary I'm Still Here, which is like Entourage in Hell.

Dec 25, 2010

True Grit

I never saw the John Wayne film, as I am not a John Wayne fan, but as far as I'm concerned, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn has to be a major improvement over The Duke. Nobody does weary and weathered better than Jeff Bridges. He is an expert on  moral dissipation but not of the totally depraved kind. His Rooster Cogburn is a man who tends to state the obvious, who sounds like his saliva is 90 proof and he's happily chewing on burning coals, and who despite the laziness, the love of drink, and the moral ambivalence, harbors a ruthlessness that he conveys with an icy glare of his one visible blue eye.
The Coen Brothers' True Grit is not one of their usual genre mashups, but a bona fide Western, based not on the previous film but on the novel by Charles Portis, and they approach the genre without reverence, but with lovely symbolic weight (volumes can and probably will be written about this aspect of the film. It is very literary). True Grit is fun and action packed, but it is also a fable about death and revenge, and it is, like all Westerns worth their salt, a very enlightening take on the character of this country, which has always been held by the tension between violent anarchy and the law; between the law and actual morality; between self-righteously quoting the Bible and actually behaving according to it.
The Coens lately seem to be preoccupied with the Bible (see A Serious Man). The movie starts with a very relevant quote from Proverbs: "The wicked flee when no one pursues...", which as far as I'm concerned, relates not only to Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin), the villain of this story, but to a more recent Cheney and other contemporary evildoers who are not being pursued for their crimes. But True Grit does not advocate revenge as much as it questions it. Revenge biblical style, it turns out, is complicated. There are no easy answers.
In the true spirit of a Christmas Scrooge, I am not as wild about the talented Hailee Steinfeld as everyone is going to be. Mattie Ross is a hard role to play, a headstrong, supremely articulate 14-year old who is looking to revenge her father's murder. This girl witnesses pretty traumatic violence (a la Coen brothers' style, to boot), yet she barely breaks a sweat. True, she thinks she is going on a big adventure, she is innocent about the implications of her simplistic revenge scheme, but it would have been more convincing to see more fear or vulnerability underneath her bluster throughout the movie and not only in individual scenes. She is a fascinating character, a precociously smart girl who has had to take the reins of her family, who has an obsession with the law and thinks she can bluff her way all over the Wild West by merely mentioning it (and this place is so wild that nobody seems to even notice that she's tooling around all by herself). She instinctively knows that with no strength of her own, except for her brilliance, the threat of the law is the only big stick she can carry.
Mattie is accompanied by Bridges, who is enormously entertaining, and by Matt Damon, playing LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, with his usual understated panache. He gets to twirl around what sounds to me like a very convincing Texas accent, with and without a speech impediment. Westerns are usually teeming with brooding, silent men. Not this one. This may be the most garrulous (and comical) serious Western ever written. Everybody here talks a blue streak, each character not only with a different accent but with different vocabularies, as befits a Coen Brothers production. As I was watching, I wanted to get my hands on the script just to read their amazing turns of phrase (and also to elucidate some of what Cogburn was saying, because Bridges mumbles). Bless their souls, they insist on unfurling language with as much flourish as possible at a time when it is becoming more and more impoverished. And while in some of their movies this linguistic excess sometimes feels too clever by half, in True Grit it works really well, because it shows how people came together from different backgrounds to try to coalesce into a functioning society, and that they lived at a time when their speech was influenced by a strong oral tradition and by reading, not by watching TV, texting or twittering. The only people who are not allowed to speak and are silenced quite literally in the film are Native Americans and Blacks. So that nobody confuses this movie (and by extension, this nation) with Little House on the Prairie, they are treated horribly: with disturbing funny horrible slapstick, as is the Coen Brothers way.
The bulk of the story takes the pursuit of Cheney by Cogburn, Mattie, and LeBoeuf: a rite of passage into a wilderness of murder and lawlessness. A lot happens, none of it predictable, sentimental or clichéd. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is gorgeous, and so is the music by Carter Burwell. All the character actors are perfect.
But the movie jelled for me until the final act, a beautiful, meaningful turn about the consequences of believing that revenge is simple. Mattie pays dearly, and hopefully learns a lesson, for thinking so gingerly about killing.
From its origins, this country has been under the grip of the same mentality: trigger happy, too revenge oriented, shortsighted about far-reaching consequences. An eye for an eye is an ancient law that begs for evolution. An evolved law is what civilized countries should have.

Dec 24, 2010

Secret Sunshine

This is the best movie I saw at the NY Film Festival in 2007, but it has just been released in the US, so I have revised my Best Film of 2010 list and included it there, together with director's Chang Dong Lee newer movie, Poetry, which is also stunning.
The lead actress of Secret Sunshine, Do-yon Jeon, won the best actress prize at Cannes for her totally true to life portrayal of a woman shaken by grief. The film is both funny and scary and serious and deep and it is an exploration of the need for comfort that doesn't necessarily comes from faith.
Against my rules, I will tell you the plot. Major spoiler alerts.
A young widow is a piano teacher in Seoul. After the death of her husband in an accident, she is so unmoored by grief, she decides to move to the little town where he grew up and start a new life with her young, cute son. Her car breaks down near the town, and she is helped by a mechanic (the same actor who was the hilarious narcoleptic in The Host), who is in his late thirties and an incurable bachelor. This in Korea, is abnormal. He is a poster boy, alas, for guileless decency, and he falls in love with her. She, being a city snob, doesn't even acknowledge him.
For a good while the movie establishes the uneasy balance this sophisticated woman is trying to achieve in this small-minded town and the film is sunny and funny and full of hope.
Then she loses her son. And the world collapses around her. On top of her grief there is a new terrible one. She becomes wild with pain, and hers is truly as true a manifestation of grief as you are ever going to witness from an actor. She looks for some sort of solace, ignoring the man that is always there for her, and ends up in an evangelical church. The loving support of the cheerful members soothe her in a way that nothing else can. She abandons herself to God and seems slightly dazed and numbed by the endless love that God showers on her. Then she decides she wants to go to jail and forgive the man who killed her son. People try to convince her to forgive him in her heart, but she insists. She is big with forgiveness. She will triumph over him by allowing her forgiveness to descend upon his wretched life. But guess what? With utter sincerity, the murderer tells her that he has also found God, that God has forgiven him already and he is at peace with himself.
My jaw dropped and I think it's still down there, when I think of this scene. Talk about a reversal.
She is destroyed. And then she turns against the very God and the very church that comforted her.
She says: How dare God forgive this man before I do?
She sets out to show God who is who, again with a combination of humor, anger and defiance, with a richness of human experience that is seldom seen in film, at least nowadays.
This is a great film. If it never comes to your cineplex, get it in Netflix. Even if you know the plot, you will find it astounding and rewarding.

Dec 22, 2010

Best and Worst of 2010

What is it with the proliferation of Ten Best Lists? It is impossible for me to think of only ten movies in the course of a year. Reality is much richer than that. So let's cut to the chase:


Carlos -- Olivier Assayas
Mother -- Joon-Ho Bong
A Prophet -- Jacques Audiard
Secret Sunshine (2007) -- Chang Dong Lee. 
Poetry -- Chang Dong Lee
The Robber -- Benjamin Heisenberg
Vincere -- Marco Bellocchio
True Grit -- Joel and Ethan Coen
Old Cats -- Sebastian Silva/Pedro Peirano
Tuesday After Christmas -- Radu Muntean
Aurora (especially when they release the shorter version) -- Cristi Puiu
Dogtooth -- Giorgios Lanthimos
Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work -- Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg
Lebanon -- Samuel Maoz


Black Swan -- Darren Aronofsky
The Fighter -- David O. Russell
Another Year -- Mike Leigh
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives -- Apitchapong Weeraseethakul
The Social Network -- David Fincher
I Love You, Phillip Morris -- Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Four Lions -- Chris Morris
Fish Tank -- Andrea Arnold
Everyone Else -- Maren Ade
Exit Through the Gift Shop -- Banksy


The King's Speech -- Tom Hooper
I Am Love -- Luca Guadagnino
Agora -- Alejandro Amenabar
Iron Man 2 -- Jon Favreau
Restrepo -- Tim Heatherington/Sebastian Junger
Inside Job -- Charles Ferguson
Fair Game -- Doug Liman
Client 9 -- Alex Gibney
Get Low -- Aaron Schneider
Brooklyn's Finest -- Antoine Fuqua
The Town -- Ben Affleck
City Island -- Raymond De Felitta
The Square -- Nash Edgerton
Shrek The Third -- Chris Miller/Raman Hui
White Material -- Claire Denis
127 Hours -- Danny Boyle


Revolución -- 10 Mexican directors
All Good Things -- Andrew Jarecki
Casino Jack -- George Hickenlooper
Please Give -- Nicole Holofcener
Shutter Island -- Martin Scorsese
Wasteland -- Lucy Walker
Splice -- Vincenzo Natali
The Ghost Writer -- Roman Polanski

Way Overrated

Winter's Bone -- Debra Granik
Life During Wartime -- Todd Solondz
Somewhere -- Sophia Coppola
The Kids Are All Right --Lisa Cholodenko
Certified Copy -- Abbas Kiarostami
Greenberg -- Noah Baumbach
Animal Kingdom -- David Michod

Super Bad

Love And Other Drugs -- Ed Zwick
Inception -- Christopher Nolan
The Tempest -- Julie Taymor
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger -- Woody Allen
Black Venus -- Abdellatif Kechiche
Entre Nos -- Gloria La Morte/Paola Mendoza
We Are What We Are/Somos lo que hay -- Jorge Michel Grau
Salt -- Phillip Noyce

Haven't Seen Yet

Toy Story 3

Did Not See

Eat Pray Love
Sex and The City 2

Dec 20, 2010

Free Jafar Panahi

The putrid and malevolent Iranian government has decided to persecute filmmaker Jafar Panahi because he does not agree with it.
He "was arrested in February and accused of working on an “anti-regime” film. He was sentenced to six years in prison on Saturday in Tehran... he had expressed support for Iran’s opposition green movement during post-election protests in 2009, he has also been banned from making films, writing any kind of scripts, traveling abroad and talking to local and foreign media for 20 years".
Why don't they just shoot him? They want to humiliate him and make him into a cautionary tale. Will the outrage of the world sway them? Probably not. They are beyond reason, their stupid, reptilian obscurantism is thoroughly evil.
In doing this, they seek to destroy Panahi's life but they are creating a cause celebre. Here is what Panahi said in his own defense to the Iranian court:

Your Honor, I would like to present my defense in two parts.
Part 1: What they say.
In the past few days I have been watching my favorite films again, though I did not have access to some of them, which are among the greatest films of the history of cinema. My house was raided on the night of March 1, 2010 while my colleague Mr. Rasoulof and I were in the process of shooting what we intended to be a socially conscious art-house film. The people, who identified themselves as agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, arrested us along with other crew members without presenting any warrants. They confiscated my collection of films as well and never returned them to me. Subsequently, the only reference made to those films was by the prosecutor in charge of my case, who asked me: “What are these obscene films you’re collecting?”
I have learned how to make films inspired by those outstanding films that the prosecutor deemed obscene. Believe me I have just as much difficulty understanding how they could be called obscene as I do comprehending how the activity for which I was arrested could be seen as a crime. My case is a perfect example of being punished before committing a crime. You are putting me on trial for making a film that, at the time of our arrest, was only thirty percent shot. You must have heard that the famous creed, “There is no god, except Allah,” turns into blasphemy if you only say the first part and omit the second part. In the same vein, how can you establish that a crime has been committed by looking at 30 percent of the rushes for a film that has not been edited yet?
I do not comprehend the charge of obscenity directed at the classics of film history, nor do I understand the crime I am accused of. If these charges are true, you are putting not only us on trial but the socially conscious, humanistic, and artistic Iranian cinema as well, a cinema which tries to stay beyond good and evil, a cinema that does not judge or surrender to power or money but tries to honestly reflect a realistic image of the society.
One of the charges against me is attempting to encourage demonstrations and incite protests with this film. All through my career I have emphasized that I am a socially committed filmmaker not a political one. My main concerns are social issues; therefore my films are social dramas not political statements. I never wanted to act as a judge or a prosecutor. I am not a filmmaker who judges but one who invites other to see. I don’t get to decide for others or to write any kind of manual for anybody; please allow me to repeat my [intention] to place my cinema beyond good and evil. This kind of belief has caused my colleagues and myself a lot of trouble; many of my films have been banned, along with the films of other filmmakers like me. But it is unprecedented in Iranian cinema to arrest and imprison a filmmaker for making a film, and harass his family while he is in prison. This is a new development in the history of Iranian cinema that will be remembered for a long time.
I have been accused of participating in demonstrations. No Iranian filmmaker was allowed to use his camera to capture the events but you can not forbid an artist to observe! As an artist it is my responsibility to observes in order to get inspired and create. I was an observer, and it was my right to observe.
I have been accused of making a film without permission. Is it really necessary to point out here that no law has been passed by the parliament regarding the need for a permit to make a film? There are only some internal memos which are going through changes each time the deputy minister is changed.
I have been accused of not giving a script to the actors. In our filmmaking genre where we work mostly with non-professional actors, this is a very routine way of filmmaking practiced by myself and many of my colleagues; the cast mostly consists of non-actors. Therefore, the director does not find it necessary to give them a script. This accusation sounds more like a joke that has no place in the judiciary system.
I have been accused of having signed a declaration. I have signed one: an open letter signed by 37 prominent film makers, in order to express their concern about the turn of events in the country. I was one of them. Unfortunately, instead of listening to the concerns, we were accused of treachery. However, these filmmakers are the very same people who have expressed their concerns in the past about injustices around the world. How can you expect them to remain indifferent to the fate of their own country?
I have been accused of organizing demonstrations  at the opening of Montreal Film Festival. At least some truth and fairness should back up any accusations. I was the chair of the jury in Montreal and arrived only a few hours before the opening. How could I have organized a demonstration in a place where I hardly knew anyone? Let’s not forget that in those days the Iranian Diaspora would gather at any relevant event around the world to voice their demands.
I have been accused of giving interviews to Persian-speaking media abroad. I know for fact that there are no laws forbidding us from giving interviews.
Part 2: What I say.
History testifies that an artist’s mind is the analytical mind of his society. By learning about the culture and history of his country, by observing the events that occur in his surroundings, he sees, analyzes and presents issues of the day through his art form to the society.
How can anyone be accused of any crime because of his mind and what passes through the mind?
The assassination of ideas and sterilizing artists of a society has only one result: killing the roots of art and creativity. Arresting my colleagues and I while shooting an unfinished film is nothing but an attack by those in power on all the artists of this land. It drives this crystal clear however sad message home: “You will repent if you don’t think like us.”
I would like to remind the court of yet an other ironic fact about my imprisonment: the space given to Jafar Panahi’s festival awards in Tehran’s Museum of Cinema is much larger than his cell in prison.
All said, despite all the injustice done to me, I, Jafar Panahi, declare once again that I am an Iranian, I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country. I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary. I have yet another declaration to add to the first one. As shown in my films, I declare that I believe in the right of “the other” to be different, I believe in mutual understanding and respect, as well as in tolerance; the tolerance that forbid me from judgment and hatred. I don’t hate anybody, not even my interrogators.
I recognize my responsibilities toward the future generations that will inherit this country from us.
History is patient. Insignificant stories happen without even acknowledging their insignificance. I, myself, am worried about the future generations.
Our country is quite vulnerable; it is only through the [guarantee] of the state of law for all, regardless of any ethnic, religious or political consideration, that we can avoid the very real danger of a chaotic and fatal future. I truly believe that tolerance represents the only realistic and honorable solution to this imminent danger.
Jafar Panahi
An Iranian filmmaker 
Well, for these brave words, they have made his life a prison. I hope he has the fortitude to hang in there. 

Dec 19, 2010

Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey is always a lot of fun to watch, but I don't think he was the right actor to play Jewish disgrace Jack Abramoff in this tonally confused movie. For one, he's doing his fabulous Kevin Spacey shtick all over again, and while it is good, nasty fun, one never feels that you are watching a character -- it's all Spacey, all the time. Still, few actors are as good as conveying snaky ruthlessness as he is, an actor of almost mathematical precision.  At first, I thought he did not convince me as a Jew, and not because Jews need to look Jewy (a broad stereotype I hate), but because he's just too cold a fish. Then I saw a picture of the real Abramoff, and he is handsome in a very waspy way, which goes to show that stereotypes are for shit. In terms of physical resemblance, Bill Pullman would have been closest, but he's not half as interesting. I also thought Hank Azaria, because I love him and it pains me he is underutilized. I don't believe that actors need to look exactly like the people they play, but Spacey is way off the mark both physically and I suspect in terms of temperament. One thing he doesn't get is what I venture to guess was Abramoff's ability to justify his shenanigans by truly believing that by giving to charities and building religious schools he was both doing the right thing and would be divinely absolved in case God was watching. The material is in the script, but Spacey simply does not convey piety convincingly, and so there is something off kilter at the center of the character. Dramatically, it would be more interesting and human to show that his belief was heartfelt and authentic, all the more reason to offer a jarring ethical disconnect as he embezzled millions from Indian tribes.
What is also way off is the tone of the movie. At its core lies a very interesting story that sheds light on how our government really works: by entrenched, institutionalized corruption in the form of lobbyists for special interests. The movie attempts to be a satire (otherwise why hire Spacey?), but the direction is unsure and heavy handed and things are not helped by a zippy and annoying soundtrack that tries to add levity to scenes that don't need more of it. The music works against the spirit of the movie. I kept trying to imagine the same scenes without that score, or with a different one. It would have worked better if director George Hickenlooper (who died at the age of 47 right before the opening of the movie) let it be a dark, little fable about Washington corruption, but you can't be bitter and sunny at the same time.
The cast does not seem to jell at all. Spacey is actually funny in the same super dry, disturbing way he was in Swimming with Sharks. There is plenty of comic relief in the shape of Jon Lovitz, playing another sleazebag, but he is too broad a character, whereas Spacey seems to be acting in a different movie altogether. And Barry Pepper (the American Klaus Kinski) is reaching for the cheap seats as if Spacey were not standing two inches away from him. The result is that the movie feels leaden and belabored. The best thing in the film is the amazing Maury Chaykin playing an old Italian mafioso for no more than 5 minutes (I was sad to learn he passed away this year. He better be in the Oscar obit section or I'm gonna be pissed). Chaykin just rips through his two scenes with such generous gusto, with such quirky comic timing and charisma that he blows everyone away. In contrast, Kelly Preston as Abramoff's wife is wildly uneven; good in some scenes and amateurish in others, the minor character actors are ciphers. It's a bit of a mess.
The movie should elicit more outrage at the corrupt insittution of lobbyism, and the congresspeople who eat from their hands, but it is too busy not knowing how it wants to be, to be effective.

The King's Speech

I am a total sucker for British thespians with exquisitely plummy enunciation and enormous reserves of repressed emotion. Not so much a sucker for transparently formulaic, crowdpleasing movies, but when peopled by excellent actors that make them rise above the formula, I am as happy as a clam. And so it is with The King's Speech, a movie that if it weren't for the flawless performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and a cast of wonderful British and Australian actors, it would be far less elegant than it is. As it is, it is quite enjoyable. I was in perfect diction heaven listening to Helena Bonham Carter speak a royal English that, according to something I read, is different, and definitely sounds different to the aristocratic accent of today. Had a virtual aural rapture listening to Michael Gambon, who plays George V, father of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the stammerer in question. When I die, I hope it is the luxurious voice of Mr. Gambon that I hear announcing my upcoming membership in Hell. Derek Jacobi is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Timothy Spall is Winston Churchill, Anthony Andrews is Prime Minister Baldwin and Claire Bloom is the King's Mother, plus a bunch of wonderful child actors with the most delicious accents.  Even poor Bertie stammers in style. More than the diction, its the musicality that seduces. It is actually a sensual pleasure to hear these people talk. So I'm a snob. Can't help it.
The movie is based on a great true story. Prince Albert was relieved at not having to be king because of his serious speech impediment, but he ends up having to take the job, right in time for the Second World War to boot, because his stupid older brother and Nazi sympathizer King Edward VIII, abdicates to spend his days with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.
I always have the nagging feeling that in movies about the British Royal Family, the protagonists are given far more intelligence than they actually have. It may be an entirely unfair assumption, but from my limited vantage point they seem like a rather dull lot. And yet it is not possible for Colin Firth or Helena Bonham Carter or Michael Gambon (or Helen Mirren and Judi Dench) to be dull or unintelligent.
Firth's performance could easily be showoffy, but he also kills when he is restrained. He undertakes the precise technical work to be a convincing stutterer with an almost offhand competence, but he also creates a very human character: proud, fearful, pained by shame, prone to outbursts. Firth is a master at playing an upper lip so stiff that it feels like it could crack any minute, yet he amplifies the enormous tension between his outward detachment and the storms that roil inside him without ever seeming hammy. He is utterly compelling. Geoffrey Rush is blessedly restrained and very charming and convincing as Lionel Logue, a sympathetic Australian speech therapist with unorthodox methods that ends up helping Bertie conquer his stammer.  
The King's Speech is a feel good period piece a la Chariots of Fire, a tastefully appointed movie that does the job. My 4 pm audience of mostly senior citizens and female Firth fans clapped at the end. I must confess I cried. I'm not expecting my period so I have been investigating the causes of this outpouring in a movie that has several moments that overplay the feel good formula to the point of vulgarity, among others, a ridiculous scene in which the tables are turned and Bertie urges Logue to man up and confront his wife. Way too obvious in a movie where actors are doing everything they can to be anything but.
I think that what made me cry was the cumulative release of hearing a man conquer fear like other men climb mountains, with enormous effort. I was also deeply moved by the growing rapport between Logue and Bertie, accomplished by two actors that really play to each other as in a chamber piece, bringing out beautiful work from each other.
I blame Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which the director Tom Hooper uses in the climax of the film. It is humanly impossible not to feel emotion at the sounds of him. And I blame Firth, because he gets to you. His vulnerability, his determination, his wit and his passion get to you. His final scene is a master class on acting, not only by the real actor, but by the character who is called upon to sound like a king and relies on acting technique to communicate, not only without stammering, but with emotional impact. Aspiring thespians, watch, listen and learn. And learn from Geoffrey Rush too, playing a thwarted actor, delicately but confidently guiding his charge through the treacherous waters of a nine minute speech. I may have even been moved by the speech itself and by the fact that the British sensibly decided not to be pals with Hitler at the last minute.
My heart sank, however, when Firth begins his speech and we hear the notes of lush strings in the background. At least they have the good sense to use Beethoven (hiring the great Alexandre Desplat to provide an effective but forgettable film score), but I wish Hooper had allowed the audience to hear the speech like the citizens of the British empire heard it, in its raw bareness, without the added strings. Yes, it is a device that takes the audience into the character's inner world, but it's disappointing that the filmmakers could not trust that the words and Firth's incredible delivery of them would be eloquent and stirring on their own. Why should all that poor man's effort compete with Beethoven? The movie weakens its own point. Moments like this, that tip the scales in an shamelessly crowdpleasing way, prevent this movie from being a really solid film.

Dec 16, 2010

Cahiers Du Cinema Ideal Cinematheque

These kinds of lists are meant to be discussed passionately. I agree with many of the 100 movies and disagree with more. For instance, under no circumstances would Godard's insufferable Pierrot Le Fou make the list, and I would add more Billy Wilder to the canon, among others, but this is a good a compendium to brush up on your classic cinema. Please disregard the stupidest, most unimaginative yet pretentious use of music ever.

La cinémathèque idéal selon Les Cahiers du cinéma
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Blake Edwards

I happen to think that his best work are The Pink Panther movies. I used to watch those with my dad and they always cracked us up. They had a wonderfully zany energy, both deadpan and slapsticky and contagious. Peter Sellers was genius.
I'm not a huge fan of his other work, but The Pink Panther movies gave me many hours of joy and laughter.
I love this bit. It reminds me of the TSA.

Dec 15, 2010

I Love You, Phillip Morris

This biting little satire by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the creators of Bad Santa, is a dark romantic comedy that is truly romantic and truly subversive. For the two people in love are two men, played with gusto and conviction by Jim Carrey and the darling Ewan McGregor.
Carrey must be thinking, "I'm loaded and I'm bored and I'm pushing 50 so I can't be making gazillion dollar crap comedies for much longer, let me see what I can sink my chompers into. What's the worst that could happen?" McGregor, being a European actor, is probably not as burdened by these considerations. Good for both of them. They display balls.
Carrey plays Steven Russell, a married southern police officer who discovers that he is "gay, gay, gay" and also that his calling in life is to be the best con man he can possibly be. He spends more than he has in pursuit of gay fabulousness and has to resort to a life of crime to keep up with it. Since he has never known who he really is, he has no problem becoming someone else, and embezzling everyone in sight. An irredeemable sociopath that lies and disguises himself as a lawyer and a chief financial officer, he falls in love with fellow jail inmate Phillip Morris, (McGregor) a sweet and charming southern queen. 
This is an incredibly bizarre true life story. Ficarra and Requa go both for the strangeness of the criminality as well as the normalcy of the romance, and they achieve a zippy, funny, yet disturbing film. The zinger is that the fact that the two guys are gay is the most normal thing that happens in the movie. It seems that in America, if you walk into a room wearing a suit and tie and a briefcase and you claim you are a lawyer, everyone believes you. True, Russell forged documents, but in a culture that prizes ambition above all, a fake resumé may be all it takes to become the CFO of a company. Americans are gullible. After all, we continue to be swindled by the conmen of Wall Street (and most of us seem to take this a lot more in stride than giving equal rights to gay people, which still gives people apoplexy. Go figure). In fact, Russell breezily lies his way through the top, and he instinctively knows he can't be out as gay if he wants to be there. In a nutshell, we are a culture that encourages liars.
Russell went to bizarre and genius lengths to execute his lies, a true con artist. One wonders, in his case and Wall Street's, if all that amazing talent couldn't have been put to better use. It's so much effort to lie and to steal and to cheat.
While McGregor is sweet and charming and very convincing as a man of certain principle in love, Carrey is courageous but not as likable. He is a gifted comedian, but when he is called to do more serious acting, he is not very attractive. Still, he finds the core of a hollow man trapped by appearances and he gives a big, unabashed performance. His Russell pushes Morris into love, as he pushes himself into the most unlikely situations and finds a way to finagle himself out of them. Their affair is very romantic. They write each other letters in jail, and Russell looks out for Morris by lying and cheating. They are genuinely taken by each other and they have a nice chemistry, which is more than you can say about 99% of the couples in any run of the mill Hollywood romantic comedy of today.
This movie's command of tone is assured and brisk. The directors don't have a light touch, but they do have a feisty comic swagger and a sharp sense of satire. It's the actors that bring tenderness, particularly McGregor, and humanity to a movie that is caustic and funny, but a little blunt.
It is worth comparing this romantic comedy, though, with a giant turd like Love and Other Drugs, if only to point out that both are based on true stories but couldn't have more different sensibilities and intentions. Despite the second one having been manufactured with all the supposedly requisite components of a romantic "dramedy", it's a hollow, offensive exercise in Hollywood fakeness, whereas I Love You Phillip Morris is sweetly taken by its improbable couple, and genuinely about love conquers all.

The Fighter

A friend of mine says that Christian Bale is a bad actor that picks good roles. In my view, that alone makes him half a good actor. She is impatient with Bale's physical transformations, the emaciations, etc, but like Robert De Niro, Daniel Day Lewis and Sean Penn before him, Bale delivers tremendous performances underneath all that method. In The Fighter, based on a true story, Bale plays Dicky Eklund, a crackhead and boxing trainer of his half-brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). I don't know how he manages to have a solid body and an emaciated face; but from the very first scene of the movie one is unsure if one will be able to endure such intense showboating. By the time the movie ends, however, Bale has given a performance of enormous emotional hunger, tenderness and grace, rooted in an incredibly sympathetic understanding of what it takes to be a total fuck up. Bale usually does not play men with outsize personalities and he goes at Dicky with such ferocious gusto that it borders on the hammy. However, in every scene it is completely clear what makes him tick. It is a wonderful character. A man who squanders his talent and potential, a weak man with a huge need for attention. A man who feels both an intense joie de vivre and unendurable shame. Bale took my breath away in the moments where feeling seeps through Dicky's boisterous personality. At the very least, he deserves an Oscar nomination, and so far, he's my front runner.
One look at his mother Alice, also ferociously played by Melissa Leo, is enough to understand why Dicky and his brother are champion losers. I'm happy to see that Leo is fast becoming our own Judi Dench or Helen Mirren. Let her swipe the red carpet with awards. As with Bale, her characterization seems too broad at the beginning, but she also finds a way inside her character. It is a testament to her enormous talent that at one point all I wanted was for someone to punch her in the face. At first she seems pushy and conniving, living off the talents of Micky, since those of Dicky have been  wasted, but by the end one comes around to her point of view. She loves her nine kids (seven of whom are a bunch of women with the scariest hair since Chewbacca) fiercely, possessively and so much that they can't get away from her chokehold.
One of the producers of this movie, directed by David O. Russell, is Darren Aronofsky.  While Aronofsky never shies away from the over the top and the ridiculous, he is much more subtle than Russell with his actors. Russell is not a director of such finesse. In The Fighter everything is huge and extra amplified and it takes the audience a while to get used to the characters, and for the actors to disappear behind the strong accents and the wigs and the ridiculous 80s costumes and find the actual meat in their roles. Still, if he is unsubtle with actors, he's good with the anarchic energy of his cast of working class Irish characters from Lowell, Massachusetts.
As boxing movies go, The Fighter is a boxing movie for boxing fans, not a feel good movie that happens to be about boxing. The fights are extremely well staged and they are narrated by what sounds like the actual sportscasters, so they are very exciting and suspenseful, which is no small feat. This is not the stylized operatic ballet of Raging Bull. There are no scenes of blood spurting or fists crunching a jaw in slow motion. Wahlberg seems to be valiantly taking and landing every punch. Both Walhberg and Bale seem to have acquired the grace and the speed of actual boxers, and they are very convincing (at least to my eyes).
What makes The Fighter better than any against all odds sports movie, is that in this case the boxer is fighting not to be destroyed by his own family. This movie can be described with the immortal words of Phillip Larkin: "Family. They fuck you up".
Micky Ward is not fighting against a corrupt system, or his own lack of faith in himself, or all that inspiring crap. He is fighting against a toxic mother and a brother who confuse family loyalty with a meal check, who abuse this poor schmo even if they truly love him, who invest all their wrongness into Micky making everything right. They think, benightedly, "who better to train and manage you than your own blood?". And they are spectacular screw-ups. Champions in lack of self-awareness, infuriatingly irrational, they keep him down in the ghetto while sincerely thinking they are doing the best for him.
The movie has too many scenes of the family torturing this guy, and by extension the audience. He wants to break away from their spell over and over but he just can't. Wahlberg is perfectly suited to a role like this. An actor of not only limited range, but almost no expression, he still has a core of quiet determination and authenticity that serves his character well. I am thrilled that someone gave Amy Adams a role where she could be something other than a cherub. She holds her own as a tough as nails bartender who falls in love with Micky and fights his chaotic family with both smarts and physical violence. In this movie and this milieu, everyone's a fighter.
A subtler directorial hand and better writing could have improved The Fighter. I could have done with much less of the distracting soundtrack and several cliches (do we need yet another detox scene in jail?) But it is a strange movie that starts unconvincingly and gets better as it goes along. By the end you can't shake off these incredible people and the talented performers that make them come alive. The movie is still growing on me as we speak.

Dec 13, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

A comedy by Ed Zwick: Five words that should make you run for the hills. Zwick, purveyor of massively important epic spectacles, brings his sledgehammer touch to this cliché-ridden groaner that is supposed to be about Viagra but ends up being about Parkinson's disease. Zwick is a director who wouldn't know a light touch if a feather tickled his ass, so it is not surprising that everything in this film feels strained and belabored to the point of collapse. The two poor leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, are forced to ham up every single scene. A director with a lighter hand would have told Gyllenhaal that active listening doesn't have to mean exercising your eyebrows and widening those beautiful blues as if they were taking an extreme aerobics class. Gyllenhaal is not a very interesting actor, but he has a really sweet presence and it takes an heroic effort to turn him into something almost unwatchable. As for Hathaway, I hope that after the equally horrid Rachel at The Wedding, she does not become an expert on brittle and insufferable female sufferers who insist on shunning love, because the girl is straining under the weight of all that fake defiance that doesn't seem to come naturally to her. Maggie, the character she plays, not only has the onset of Parkinson's, as befits any disease movie of the week she seems to have absolutely no friends or relatives and nothing in this world but a pair of distressed overalls, and that's because she is an artist. And artists in movies must wear overalls even though nobody in real life has worn an overall in the past 40 years and all she does as an artist (who lives in an arty loft) is cut and paste photos with Elmer's Glue into a scrapbook. I also would like to declare a moratorium on romantic comedy characters eating Chinese food with chopsticks from the containers. It may have worked in Annie Hall, but once is enough.
Poor Anne Hathaway thinks she is acting up a storm, but her character as written and directed is enormously charmless and one wonders why  anyone would want to put up with such a pill. She is a strange beauty, with eyes the size of saucers and an enormous mouth, so restraint must be used, otherwise her features seem like something out of the funhouse at Asbury Park. But one cannot ask restraint from Ed Zwick, a director who thinks everything must be expressed to death. (The only movie of his I've ever liked, much to my surprise, is Defiance).
I feel sorry for the two leads. I think they were duped into taking all their clothes off, (a first in American movies apparently since the 70s) in the hope that they were making something edgy, with artistic dignity. I'm sure they took the gamble dreaming of awards season but their director (with his two co-writers!) failed them. Every situation is a worn cliché, every scene is contrived and ridiculous.
The only moments of respite in this movie come from Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria, two charming and gifted actors that can make everything that is horrible watchable and enjoyable. Josh Gad provides comic relief as Gyllenhaal's fat slob of a brother even as he is a walking cliche.
Besides Zwick, the movie has a big marketing problem. It is adapted from a book by a pharma rep, which to me is the main reason why it should not have been made in the first place. Who believes a pharma rep? Had I been in the pitch meeting about the Viagra rep who finds love in a victim of Parkinson's, I would have groaned right then and there. But there is no end to the attraction for the phony in Hollywood, and this is the result, a transparently phony film about a man who finally finds he has a heart, leaves ambition for the woman he loves, and all that vomit.
The movie is being sold like it is a comedy about a Viagra rep, not as a hankie wringer, so at the beginning we think we are watching a comedy and then it turns out that we are watching some kind of tearjerker. It's not that the twain shall never meet. Please see any great Italian comedy of the 50s and the 60s to see how you can gloriously mix laughter with pathos. Please see Nights of Cabiria, or Billy Wilder's The Apartment. But in Love and Other Drugs, the comedy is so grating, so unsure of itself, so unfunny, that I was actually praying for the tearjerking to start. I was hoping that the tearjerking would at least relieve us from the embarrassment, but unfortunately it is as fake as the rest of the film.

Dec 12, 2010

All Good Things

I'm still trying to figure out why this movie by Andrew Jarecki (director of the great documentary Capturing the Friedmans) doesn't work. It's a great story with a stellar cast, and it feels like a total washout. Based on conjectures about the life and mischief of real estate heir Robert Durst, it curiously shies away from its own protagonist, here called David Marks, and played by Ryan Gosling well, but without much impact. Durst/Marks wife disappeared and was never found again and years later a couple more murders were related to him. Apparently, a jury in Texas absolved him of killing a man, he claimed on self-defense (even though he was seen throwing the hacked body in a river). He's still out there selling real estate in Florida. If the filmmakers have any compelling evidence that Durst was involved in the murder of three people, they don't know how to show it convincingly. Not that all psychopath's eyes have to bug out of their skulls, but this guy is such a hollow enigma that it is hard to understand him dramatically. We are told and shown he was traumatized by his mother's suicide and by a domineering father but this is not enough. His actions are not quite intelligible. Everything is set up dramatically and yet the character feels absent from his own movie. I hate seeing Ryan Gosling wasted in a role. It befuddles me.

The rest of the cast is game. Kirsten Dunst is far more compelling than Gosling as his wife. For a good while the movie seems to pay more attention to her. She has never made a big impression on me, but in this movie she holds her own. And the great Frank Langella is excellent as Marks' dad, a thoroughly disagreeable millionaire. Langella affects a raspy, New York Jewish inflected voice, but he doesn't ham it up. His silky, authoritative arrogance is amazing to watch. The most shocking scene in the movie takes place at a restaurant, where he refuses to invite the newlyweds and the bride's mother for lunch, making them split the bill instead. His businesslike pettiness is truly horrifying. He is fantastic. Lily Rabe also stands out, if a bit much, playing Marks' best friend, who also ended up disappearing years later. And one is always happy to see and hear Phillip Baker Hall, here playing a total schmo.
The filmmakers create a whole set of circumstances and conjectures but not a real character for David Marks. So many of his actions are inexplicable and his weirdness does not cohere.  This movie is like when someone tells you a really juicy piece of gossip really badly.

Dec 10, 2010

The Tempest

This year marks the 400 anniversary of this beautiful and last play by William Shakespeare. There have been a couple of film versions of it, most notably Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway, and Tempest, a fun modern adaptation by Paul Mazursky. The latest one, by Julie Taymor, is, literally and in the worst possible sense, the Disney version. An appalling mess.
The Tempest is a strange and lovely play about the magical powers of creativity, about the illusion of art, which contains truth in it. When you see it on a stage, the illusion is created by the words and by the clunky sets. You have to imagine a ship capsizing in a storm, you have to imagine you are on an island with a magician, his daughter and a sprite that flies around creating mischief. The concrete limitations of the physical stage force your imagination to take flight. The magic is in the words and in whatever the staging conjures up to help you see that Ariel can fly and Caliban is a strange creature.

Now that we have CGI and 3D and whatnot, the temptation to literalize the magic is irrestistible. Well, it should be resisted. Or at least, imitating Prospero, its magic should be used strategically, judiciously and to immense effect. Taymor's version of The Tempest is drowned, overwhelmed and weakened by special effects. Most of them are very well made but horribly cheesy and heavy handed. My heart sank from the very first scene of the play, a literal rendering of the ship in the storm, where people scream unintelligibly at each other. Doesn't bode well not to understand a word at the beginning of a Shakespeare play.

As I was watching this movie, not only was I pining for a stage with clunky ropes and cardboard ships and creaking floors, I thought of Dogville, by Lars Von Trier. He does the opposite. You walk in thinking you were going to see a movie, but he creates a town somewhere in the United States on what looks like a stage. The entire movie takes place in this stage and if at first you are bewildered and want your money back, soon you get used to the artifice and the illusion works. The setting makes the story harsher and more discomfiting. Julie Taymor totally misses Shakespeare's point: that art and imagination render illusion concrete in our minds, and if we are fully engaged, they become true and real and make us feel wonder and sadness and joy: they transform us. Here, the effects work to undermine the magic. When the magic becomes literal, the play loses its transformative power. It doesn't help that they are a hodgepodge, used without restraint. Some motion graphics sequences are very pretty, some scenes are beautiful, as when the shipwrecks emerge from the sea fully perfect and dry, while other stuff looks like it was borrowed from The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the recent Disney dud with Nicholas Cage. It is horrible.
Shakespeare isn't a sacred text that has to be read to the Elizabethan letter. That is why Richard III can be set in totalitarian 20th Century times, and Hamlet in every age since it was written, and it allows for all kinds of explorations of the text that resonate with the contemporary audience. This time, Taymor decided to change Prospero's gender to a female. However, there should be a good reason, something that adds depth to our understanding of the play, other than the director is a woman and identifies with Prospero, which seems to me like an ego trip. Helen Mirren, who could fart in iambic pentameter and do it majestically, is perfectly suited to play any role ever written, for man, woman or child, but in my view, the changing of the gender dilutes the power of the drama, for it is not the same thing for a banished king to raise a daughter in barren exile, than for a queen. It is much harder for a man, and this adds enormous depth and tension to Prospero's relationship with his daughter Miranda. Shakespeare was a Freudian and he knew what he was talking about. Miranda is a teenage girl who only knows two males: her father and Caliban, who tried to rape her.  Can you imagine the parental angst of Prospero? The male/female dynamic provides important contrast. If Prospero is a mother instead of a father, a lot of that rich, subconscious subtext is lost. But that is not the worst, since at least we get to see Helen Mirren do justice to the text. I will reserve the worst for last.
The cast is annoyingly uneven. Tom Conti and Alfred Molina and to a slightly lesser extent, Alan Cumming (wonderful silent, hammy when he speaks) are wonderful as Gonzalo and Trinculo. David Strathairn is his usual melancholy self, and Chris Cooper, that quintessentially American dude, whether he is an FBI agent, or a redneck or a cowboy, just does not make sense to me in here. Ariel is played by Ben Whishaw, who I am sure was born reciting Shakespeare, but he lacks the playfulness and the lightness of spirit that Ariel should have. I imagine Ariel's character something like ice skater Johnny Weir, with that kind of androgynous, mischievous sparkle. Caliban is played by Djimon Hounsou, and as marvelous as he is to look at, he lacks the menace, he lacks the resentment, he lacks the imperious childish malice that Caliban should have. Caliban has some great lines, and Hounsou muddles them. I'm a snob and I believe that very few non-British actors can deliver Shakespeare well. Not all the Brits can do it either, but those who do it well make it sound like music and like normal language at the same time. The very worst person in the cast is Russell Brand, playing Trinculo, a comic character. Here is a man who can only be funny when he plays the Russell Brand character, which is basically a pompous asshole. Playing Trinculo as an extension of himself, he is asked to mug and do slapsticky stuff, which is not his forte and he is excruciatingly unfunny. The comic scenes which should be delightful are just painful, and not even Alfred Molina can deliver them from the heavyhandedness of the director.  The two young lovers at the center of the play are so unexciting, so boringly innocent one can barely care about their wondrous love (one can be innocent without being cloying and boring. Look at Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky).
The Magnificent Arepa hated the movie so much that she decided to concentrate on the good aspects, so she focused on the costumes by the incredible Sandy Powell (I'm betting Oscar on this one). Some of the music, by Taymor's husband Elliot Goldenthal, is very cool, particularly the melodies of Ariel's songs, but like the rest of the movie, some of it is bombastic and overwrought. The entire movie swings wildly between a few great creative choices, like the location in Hawaii, Sandy Powell's costumes, some of the photography, some of the songs; and astounding indelicacy and cheesy vulgarity.
But the absolute worst is the absconding with the epilogue of the play, which is one of the most beautiful, most moving things ever written for the stage. At the end of the play, after order is restored, when Miranda is married off to that loksh*, when Ariel is finally released, Prospero breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, releasing us from his spell, as Shakespeare is from his, and asking us to release him (the magician, the author and the actor) with our applause. I don't even know how to articulate the amazing trick between reality and illusion that Shakespeare performs here. It is a total coup de theatre. If in the theater this doesn't give you a shiver or move you to tears, either you have no soul, or whoever is in charge has no clue. Well, in the movie part of this speech is delivered by Mirren and the other is rendered in song. Having bet the entire project on making the magic literal, now they can't take it back and say it was all magic, because that would be redundant. Hence, this entire movie misses the point of the play. It does nothing to break the spell that has not being cast upon us.
I despair.
Exeunt omnes.


Dec 8, 2010

Tis the Season...

When they cram all the best movies of the year right at the end, and we have to scramble to see everything so we can do our best and worst lists.  I resent the pressure.

Black Swan

What I love about Darren Aronofsky is that he is not afraid of emotion. He immerses the audience in as much a subjective, emotional experience as he can.  As in The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream and now Black Swan, he aims to get under the skin of his main characters, see what they see, hear, smell what they feel. They are people who live in strange milieus and do obsessive things with their lives. Whether it's junkies in Coney Island or second rate wrestlers in Jersey or frazzled ballerinas, their feelings are humongous and Aronofsky makes sure he rips their hearts apart, so we can see inside.
I saw The Social Network again this week and it is interesting to compare these two films. The Social Network is all brains. It comes from the head and stays there, a cold, flinty movie, all surface, since it is about surfaces. Black Swan is a weird ballet horror film. It's all guts, genitals, blood, heart, feelings, and chaos. It's about the deep end.
It takes a filmmaker with balls to pull off something like this.
Black Swan swings wildly, yet with unflappable confidence, between the truly scary and the ridiculous. It is rooted in cliché after cliché but transcends every commonplace with its visceral power. One could say that Black Swan is The Wrestler in a tutu. There are many parallels: main characters that are obsessed with their own performances, sacrificial figures that give their lives to the only thing they know how to do well. But whereas The Wrestler deals with an underworld of downtrodden Americans that are rarely portrayed on screen, and is a movie about the humbling of America in the world, Black Swan is more directly about art, obsession and madness. It is about the artist's obsession with perfection, which, since it is inhuman, it can kill. It's about the maddeningly impossible equilibrium between discipline and passion in an artist, a balance that if it's nurtured the wrong way (by twisted stage mothers, manipulative choreographers, and punishing exercise accompanied by virtual starvation) can easily become a tug of war between sanity and madness.
You can strive to be technically perfect but if you don't let go, if you don't feel passion, you are not an artist. This seems to be what informs Aronofsky's movies. He is much more invested in passion than in perfection. This makes him a highly unique American filmmaker.
In the end, Black Swan is also about the power of story. People keep going to the ballet, the opera, the theater and the movies to be told highly stylized symbolic stories. Balletomanes and opera buffs cheer and boo performances as if the world was coming to an end. They are there to abandon themselves to overwhelming feeling. And they do so vicariously through the sacrifice of the artist on the stage. If the artist doesn't feel it, the audience doesn't either. In the case of Nina Sayers, a sensitive, impressionable and highly unbalanced young ballerina, two things happen: she quests for perfection and the story takes complete hold of her mind and deranges her.
Black Swan is an enormously entertaining exploration of madness. Nina has horrific hallucinations so realistic that, like her, we don't know if they are real or not.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses a hand held camera that is on purpose at odds with the perfect symmetries of ballet. Except for Nina's anachronistically childish room, there is no fluffy cuteness in this film. Ballet is hard, surfaces are hard. Everything is shot from Nina's point of view, or actually from the point of view of her displaced personality, so that when she is on stage, we see the lights and the blurs, and the pit of darkness that is the audience and her partner, but not much of her dancing.

Nina is played with fearless and passionate abandon by Natalie Portman, an actress I disliked until now (always felt she was forcing it), and who I predict is going to win an Oscar. She will be rewarded by her training and sacrifice, but from the first moment we see her, the camera latched on to her in close up for most of the film, she is so alive with self doubt, vulnerability and anxiety, that she seems like she is about to break, and she sustains this intensity throughout the entire movie. Despite her innocence, which is not benign, but the result of stunted emotional development, she fanatically nurtures a core of punishing discipline. Portman is totally believable and very moving.
Her mother, played by the great, long missed Barbara Hershey, is a former ballerina who adores and smothers, envies, and resents her. In a fantastic scene, she buys a cake to celebrate Nina's getting the role, a gesture which in the precarious life of a ballerina, is akin to giving her poison. Nina's life is fraught with such perils. There is the jealously competitive hierarchy of the corps de ballet, with its inbuilt histrionics, and the manipulative and abusive head of the company, played with characteristic insouciance by my adored Vincent Cassel. I thought he was good, but he seemed stilted, as if the rarefied world of ballet stiffened him a little. Mila Kunis is very good as a naughty rival ballerina, the actual opposite of Nina.
Aronofsky seems to enjoy putting actors in roles that overlap with their broken careers and create stirring echoes between real life and the movies. As with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, the casting of Hershey is totally inspired. She's been out of sight for years and she looks properly ravaged. But she is an actress of great integrity and while she and Aronofsky do not go for the campy, they enjoy toeing the line. Same with Winona Ryder, cast as a spent prima ballerina, and looking like a train wreck. She has never been a good actress and her appearance is nothing but camp, but the resonance works.

Nov 22, 2010

White Material

Here's David Denby on White Material, the reason that I was afraid to see this movie: 
Dreadful, in an aimless, intentionally disjointed way that some people have mistaken for art. We’re in an unnamed African country at some unnamed time during a meaningless civil war between “rebels” and “militia,” and the members of a white family living on a worthless coffee plantation can’t pull themselves together enough to leave or even to have a coherent conversation. The shots are slung together with purposeful discontinuity even when continuity is absolutely called for if a given sequence is to make any sense. There are striking images, but the director, Claire Denis, leaves them isolated from one another; the movie offers mere postcards of despair. Isabelle Huppert stars as the plantation manager, a woman who refuses to acknowledge literally dozens of signs that death—hers and her family’s—is imminent. The movie is an attack on white postcolonial arrogance and stupidity, but none of the African characters are more than a handsome face.
I should have been more afraid of David Denby. What's up with his contempt for this film? I agree with him that this movie would have benefited from more internal coherence between the characters, but White Material is by no means a sloppy or meaningless movie. I thought it was a rather fascinating exploration of colonialism through a very personal lens. Denis' chooses to depict the escalating danger of a country in civil war, not by connecting the dots and spelling everything out for the audience, but by directly immersing us in the point of view of her coffee grower protagonist, Maria Vial, a stubborn Isabelle Huppert, who, as one of her workers says, doesn't want to be separated from what she owns. There is more than that. Yes, living in an exotic land with indentured servants may make some people slothful and it may distort their sense of place in society, but she is single-minded and hardworking in her desire to yield just one more crop of coffee, to stay in the place that gives challenge and purpose to her life. This is where her son was born, and where she feels she belongs. After all, she seems to be the only white person in the movie who actually breaks a sweat working. She is in total denial and even blasé about the danger of a country in insurrection, and one that predictably looks for scapegoats in the white colonialists, justifiably and not. To her, the current chaos is like been there, done that, this too shall pass.  
Meanwihle Denis shows the resentment of the Africans towards white people with a totally authentic mix of deference and distance, cooperation and contempt, and utter distrust. It did not bother me that Denis does not explain what specific African country it is. It seems to be a combo of all civil wars that ravage Africa, with child armies, and bands of rebels and government militias almost indistinguishable from one another. This is still, after all, the view from outside. The end result, however, is very concrete mayhem that is depicted in a very palpable way. There is nothing more terrifying than young children bearing real guns and machetes. And Denis fixes the camera on their chaotic, brutal, fearsome yet disturbingly beautiful anarchy. She does not make easy anti-colonialist pronouncements. She just shows the consequences. It is a complex situation of dysfunction, codependency and unfairness, of both plundering and progress, between the colonialists and the colonized that finally coalesces in the sheer evil that allows children to be dehumanized to such a degree. I welcome a movie that shows the entanglement and the deep intertwining of cross-purposes, rather than insultingly simplistic dreck like Invictus.
I disagree with Denby that the African characters are merely handsome ciphers. The mayor of the village, who lives in relative ostentation, has a definite character and a clear purpose in the film. There are workers and servants and people with different degrees of empathy towards Maria, but they are subservient because that is what they are in her world. The least worked out of the characters is a mysterious rebel leader called The Boxer, played by Isaach de Bankolé. Is he good or evil, we don't know. He seems to be a hero to the people, but then some of those people are 9 year-olds with spears and machetes. He hides at the plantation, nursing a bullet wound that should have killed him after days of ignoring it. Huppert lets him stay, stubbornly oblivious that this gesture may be considered a dangerous provocation. For her, who later learns who he really is, he is the nephew of one of her workers and thus, he can stay. Her dealings with the locals are matriarchal and guided by human relationships. A stern and demanding, but not evidently cruel mother, she knows who is whose son, cousin or daughter. These poor people have no choice but to need her salary, but they resent her mothering, which they did not invite. Arrogantly, patronizingly, she pays no mind to factions or politics and she pays an awful price for that. Instead of the classic paternalist, evil plantation owner, we get a woman surrounded by ineffectual men. A  father in law that is now sick and unable to help, an ex-husband who has a son by one of the servants and when the going gets tough, sensibly, if flakily, wants out, and a monster of a way past teenage son, she dotes on like a helpless child and who, for unexplained reasons, becomes the symbol of white people at their worst in Africa. He doesn't go about raping and pillaging. He just stays in bed all day, unwilling to help and nursing a sick mind. I thought it was interesting that his mother was at once  disappointed in him and still overly protective. Her enormous blind spot regarding him sheds light on her enormous blind spot about the country she lives in and her place in it. She chooses to be an innocent, and suffers the consequences. Yes, sometimes the characters do things that don't make much sense and there could have been more than a tenuous connection between her character and the relatives that live in the house. But I really liked the impressionistic point of view. It takes the safe distance away from the viewer, and makes it a much more visceral experience.

Nov 21, 2010

A Weekend at the Movies

Today's Special
This romantic comedy written by Asif Maandvi is kind of conventional and predictable but very sweet, moving and enjoyable. It's intimate, beautifully shot, with lovely music, and the Indian food looks delish. And pretty much any movie with Kevin Corrigan automatically gets my love.

aka Clueless and Pointless. This movie is as bad and as ridiculous as The Room, but with a bigger budget and inexplicably good actors, like the inimitable Eddie Marsan, who is the best thing in the entire movie, and the great Ruth Sheen and Timothy Spall. The most mystifying thing about it is why it got made. The devil must have financed it.

Why is Clemence Poesy in every movie? Is she France's second national export after Camembert? Who is she fucking? I dislike her intensely.

On our way to see White Material. I hear wildly diverging opinions... I'm very afraid.
If there is something I can't stand, it's pretentious French movies. I'll let you know!

Nov 20, 2010

127 Hours

...or Danny Boyle's Disco Adventure. The only thing that keeps this movie honest is James Franco's committed, sincere and extraordinary performance as Aron Ralston, the guy who got trapped in a canyon for 5 days. 
I think my prior knowledge of the plot diminished the impact the movie should have had on me. But that is not the only reason why 127 Hours feels unsatisfying.
Don't get me wrong; 127 Hours is very entertaining, breezy and fun. The cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak) is at times breathtaking, Danny Boyle's signature style brims with energy and panache, and some of his visual ideas are inspired, but at the same time it gets in the way and doesn't do justice to a simple story that hinges very basically on the conflict between a man and a rock. There is too much music by A.R. Rahman, there is too much pizazz, and the hyperkinetic style seems to be at odds with the story. Survival is the opposite of glamour. And yet Boyle chooses to tell a story of survival by engulfing it in cinematic razzledazzle.
The movie seems underwritten (by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy). Either that or Aron Ralston is not interesting enough as a character.  I liked the fact that they never cut away to the people in his life searching for him or going about their business unaware that he was in danger. There is no search party, he is alone and we are alone with him. In flashbacks, he thinks of family, of a former girlfriend, of all the people he knows and loves. He is vaguely cognizant of his own hubris, but there could have been much more about his state of mind and about how existence changes when it is pared down to life or death.
Franco is excellent through the entire movie, but there is one scene that should get him award nods: the first time he turns his camcorder on himself. There is true fear in his eyes, and an authentic and deeply moving combination of confusion, dread and incredulity. He hits a moment of truth and it is amazing to watch. Franco anchors the movie with a quiet competence and his performance is much more authentic, solid and honest than the razzmatazz surrounding him. Everything he does feels coherent with his character: a charming, laid-back A type, a perfectly delightful guy who is cocky and blasé about risk-taking.
Boyle, however, seems to overdo everything. Ralston encounters two fellow female explorers on the way and makes them jump into an underground pool. The first time we see this, it's almost as bracing and exciting as if we were about to jump ourselves. But then they decide they want to do it again, like kids wanting seconds at a rollercoaster. This may be what actually happened, but once the jumps are repeated several times, the impact of the first jump is diminished. In the interest of keeping things moving at a breezy clip, Boyle does not stop to explain some of the stuff that happens. There is a rainstorm (CGI looks rather cheesy), and Boyle cuts to Ralston breaking away but he never explains what happened to his stuff with all that water, how he didn't drown. This casual breeziness bothered me. It detracts attention from Ralston's incredible will to live. The result is that there is much excitement, but paradoxically, none of it is that visceral. It doesn't really hit you in the gut.
If you want to see a much more suspenseful, harrowing, existential and profoundly enlightening account of adventure gone wrong, check out the documentary Touching the Void, about two mountaineers that got trapped in a snowstorm in the Andes. An awesome, existential adventure film.

Nov 19, 2010

Go Banksy!

Here's the short list for Oscar nominated documentaries:
I'm missing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Just because she is a comedian, this is not taken seriously? It was very good. The ones in bold, I saw. Some are better than others, to me none of them earthshaking.
  • Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” Alex Gibney, director
  • “Enemies of the People” Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, directors
  • Exit through the Gift Shop” Banksy, director
  • “Gasland” Josh Fox, director
  • “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, directors
  • Inside Job” Charles Ferguson, director
  • “The Lottery” Madeleine Sackler, director
  • “Precious Life” Shlomi Eldar, director
  • “Quest for Honor” Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, director
  • Restrepo” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, directors
  • “This Way of Life” Thomas Burstyn, director
  • “The Tillman Story” Amir Bar-Lev, director
  • “Waiting for ‘Superman” Davis Guggenheim, director
  • Waste Land” Lucy Walker, director
  • “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, directors 
And here's Time Out's list of the 50 best docs of all time. This being Time Out, a grain of salt the size of Lot's wife is required. I don't think any of the Michael Moore docs are better than the Errol Morris docs, and several egregious misses are the wonderful French documentary To Be and To Have, Morris' incredible Mr. Death, which is among his best work, Touching the Void, and Anvil! The Story of Anvil! Lists never make anyone happy. Still there's a lot of good stuff for your Netflix queue.

    Nov 14, 2010

    Fair Game

    I love Sean Penn. He is always 100% alive and commits everything he has to every role he plays with intelligence and panache. He is inspired casting for the role of Joseph Wilson, husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, also excellent) in this entertaining movie by Doug Liman. Penn is a great choice because we all know his politics. A lot of people hate him for going to New Orleans to help people after Katrina, his visits to Chavez and Cuba and Iraq. At least he takes a stand. So it's doubly delightful to see him seethe as he portrays Wilson listening to Bush talk about Iraq's inexistent nucular program. There are a couple of scenes where he is hounded by the press and he tries to keep his cool, when we all know that Sean Penn would probably deck them in the face. So he is wonderful to watch. Quiet, tender and endearing when he needs to be, a bit of a blustery, pompous ass as well. Give him a great speech about the responsibility citizens have towards their own democracy and he nails it with sincerity and without posturing. Naomi Watts is also very good as Valerie Plame. She is brisk and professional and no nonsense, but when they jump on her to destroy her, the anger and outrage show through her pores, she feels like she's a pressure cooker about to explode. The movie also focuses on the personal fallout and the strain of a marriage in which the woman is never home because she is too busy being a secret agent while the husband cares for the kids and is between worried about her whereabouts and upstaged by her.
    But what it does also very well is to remind us that Dick Cheney still roams the Earth a free man, when he should be accused of treason and convicted to life behind bars for crapping all over the Constitution and the laws of this country. It reminds us that we are still sacrificing lives for a war waged on false premises. It shows how Dick Cheney was trying to make a case for his personal invasion of Iraq despite the intelligence that the CIA had gathered that showed Iraq had no nuclear program. It shows how the Bush administration (Karl Rove and Libby, whose reduced sentence of 2.5 years in prison was commuted by Bush) retaliated against Wilson's fact finding mission by scandalously outing Plame, who had to quit her job and leave a bunch of Iraqi scientists in the lurch, which meant unprotected and as good as dead. Fair Game works well as the intimate drama of a marriage under strain, but better as an exposé of one of the many outrageous crimes that happened during the last administration and for which those responsible have not been prosecuted.
    Fair Game is well written (by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth), fast paced and very entertaining, and if you are a liberal, it feeds your sense of outrage quite deliciously.

    Four Lions

    This is a hilarious spoof by Chris Morris about a group of extremely incompetent but sincere and almost endearing jihadi terrorists living in England. It's nothing short of miraculous to make a funny movie about this topic. Four Lions has perfect control of pitch and tone and surprises the audience by humanizing the terrorists, not being racist about Muslims and at the same time not letting the terrorists off easy. If their intent is to blow themselves up, the movie follows that intent to the logical consequences, and that this is why it is smart and sharp and totally on point. I was waiting for some sort of Hollywood about face and it does happen, just not in the way anyone expects. I can't really talk about it without giving up the great amount of funny jokes, visual gags and pointed satire, but I can tell you it is extremely funny and very intelligent. The actors are all excellent.
    This film is a hoot. I heartily recommend it, even if you go into the theater hoping no one blows you up for seeing it.

    Nov 11, 2010

    Arrivederci, Dino!

    He produced La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, L'Oro di Napoli, Bitter Rice and Mafioso, for which he belongs in the pantheon of the Gods of Cinema. Also Barbarella, several Italian movies with the great Toto and then, except for Serpico and Blue Velvet, oodles of gargantuan Hollywood schlock, including fabulous pop culture artifacts (and mostly duds) like Death Wish, King Kong (with Jessica Lange), Dune, Mandingo and Flash Gordon, among others. Dino De Laurentiis. Producer extraordinaire. Died at the ripe age of 91.  Almost 70 years making movies.  Check out his unbelievable output. How many have you seen?


    The Talmud, I believe, says that there are four ways of giving charity, and the most preferable is when the donors do not know who they are giving to and the recipients do not know who the donors are. This eliminates the recipients' shame and obligation to be grateful and it also prevents inflated egos and expectations of undying gratitude on the part of the munificent. This is very wise, for as we know, even in the most selfless-seeming acts, there are always some sort of strings attached.
    This documentary by Lucy Walker follows extremely successful Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he decides to give back to his roots by making art with and about the trash pickers of the biggest landfill on Earth, which happens to be in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In an Orwellian twist of language, the place is called Jardim Gramacho -- Gramacho Garden. Whatever else it is about, everyone should see this movie to get a sense of what happens to the tons of garbage we generate. You will never see your stupid bottle of Poland Spring, or any of your trash for that matter, in the same way ever again. In developing countries, the poorest of the poor make a meager livelihood by sorting out the refuse the rest of us throw mindlessly away. In Brazil people don't even bother separating plastic, glass, cans and paper from organic refuse, hence the trash pickers need to climb and burrow into mountains of revolting filth in order to pick the recyclables that will net them at the very most $25 a day. These trash pickers are smart, organized and they seem to have more environmental awareness than the trash throwers, but as usual, someone wants to develop the landfill and put them out of a job. I hope that they get paid well for the land, and placed in better jobs. I doubt it.
    Muniz's intentions seem sincere: to make portraits of these people with the garbage they collect, sell it directly at auction and give 100% of the proceeds back to them. By lifting them up from anonymity he intends to change their lives, at which huge bells of alarm start ringing in the viewer's mind.
    Walker starts out by focusing on Muniz, but once the trash pickers are introduced, they totally steal the show. Muniz and his assistant pick a highly charismatic group of intelligent, articulate, and dignified men and women, and the film is most enlightening and poignant whenever it focuses on them. Yet Walker misses the opportunity to make the film about them, or to explore Muniz's stunt from their point of view. Even with the good intentions of the artists involved, there is a whiff of the patronizing, in Muniz's paternalistic and naively exuberant benevolence, in the filmmaker's going along with it without much probing a counter argument, and without seizing the story of the trash pickers and making them more central to the film. The only person who seems to provide a counterpoint is Muniz's wife, and she voices what some of us in the audience are thinking: and who are you, Vik Muniz, that you think you can sweep these impoverished people off their garbage and "change their lives" through art? How exactly are their lives going to be changed?
    Intrinsically, his high concept stunt has its heart in the right place: the trash pickers lives will change because it will humanize and individualize them. It will change their perception of themselves. It will turn their terrible labor into a thing of beauty. This much it does. The subjects seem to thrive by collaborating with Muniz, and they are paid for their efforts. Muniz's art is big on ideas and sloppy on execution. He takes great photographic portraits of his subjects, blows them up to enormous scale and then has the pickers fill them up with the garbage they collect, as he mostly directs the proceedings from above with a laser pointer. The end result looks rather cheesy and the strong personalities of the characters are almost erased beneath the forced layers of conceptual meaning the artist is bent on imposing on them. It's also gimmicky: the trash pickers are asked to pose like characters in famous classical paintings. Why couldn't they just be heroic, as they are, without the superfluous and pretentious artistic wink? 
    At the end of the movie, titles update the audience on some of the positive fallout: with the $50,000 made on the auction, Tiago, the organizer pictured above, has opened a learning center for the trash pickers, one of the women leaves her husband and becomes independent, another woman now works as an employee elsewhere and wants everyone to know she is very happy. They all appear on TV and get their 15 minutes of fame. But not everybody fares as well. The 19 year old who already has two babies is now expecting a third; the amazing Irma, the cook who feeds the pickers, opens her own business, and according to the titles, misses her friends so much she goes back to the dump. They all get copies of their portraits and hang them in the flimsy walls of their homes. Aren't they valuable? Will they invite burglars? So many questions... I'm not a Pollyanna. I am always deeply suspicious of feel good movies about the poor. 
    Even with the lack of contrasting opinions and the insistence on the happy ending, the scenes with the trash pickers are enormously enlightening and eloquent. More than one of them mentions that they are proud to make a decent living instead of dealing drugs or selling their bodies on the streets, which seem to be the only other options available to get out of poverty. They are experts at figuring out the previous owners of the trash; more fortunate people who throw away perfectly solid pairs of shoes, incomprehensible people who throw books away, or the very poor, who tend to put their garbage in small bags. Getting to know the trash pickers is thinking there but for the grace of God go I, and this is of much more benefit to us than we can ever be to them.
    When the abyss between the haves and the have-nots is so insurmountable, one person trying to do something for the very poor seems between quixotic and ridiculous, between sublime and self-serving, even as the gesture is appreciated and is certainly better than nothing. This enormous divide is not only created by lack of money, but also by lack of education, by racism, by class barriers, and the exploitation of the many by the few. Good intentions are laudable but cosmetic. The great injustice of poverty requires a profound and massive redistribution of wealth. I'm not advocating communism, but the trickle down bullshit is just bullshit. It is not getting anywhere near the bottom.