Feb 28, 2010

A Prophet

I love Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped), the director of this fantastic gangster film. Because it is Audiard and it is French, expect to be taken into a morally bewildering journey in the life of Malik, a young Arab man, his terrible education in jail and his rise from illiterate, involuntary servant to capo of his own criminal outfit.
This is a deeply complex movie that is not only a classic jail/gangster film. It is a film about a father/son, master/slave, teacher/pupil relationship, a film about endless betrayals, personal and ethnic. Malik ends up having to work for with the Corsican mafia in jail and alienated from his people, the Muslim Arabs. At the intake process he claims he is not religious, he doesn't pray, he equivocates about eating pork. He is assimilated, except he can't read or write. The Corsicans are horribly racist towards (in this milieu, if not in France, the phrase "your Arab" basically means "your servant", which is appalling). But Malik quietly bides his time, learns their language, allows them to insult him, because he is doggedly heading towards his survival and quiet, calculated revenge. He may be the most realistic hero ever, not given to grandiose gestures or showy moral posturing. He just silently watches and learns and becomes a gifted criminal in his own right. He is such an observant and quick study, you root for him all the way.
The movie hinges on a murder that he is forced to commit. If he doesn't do it, he will be killed. He is queasy with fear, and debased by having to perform this act. Once he has crossed that threshold, which doesn't go as cleanly as rehearsed, it leaves him deeply shaken (how many times have you seen this happen in an American film?). Yet instead of shriveling with guilt, he learns to live with it, in order to continue surviving emotionally. The dead man appears in his dreams and waking hours, and poignantly becomes his cellmate, a phantom presence that both haunts him and keeps him company.
We are inured to the obscene violence in American films, the more obscene because it is fetishized and banal and stripped from its revolting essence. Not in this film. I will be forever grateful to Audiard for reminding movie audiences that murder is a heinous and barbaric event, not something entertaining or to be taken lightly.
Audiard's masterful command works at the service of the story, of building character with incredible detail and intimacy, never getting in the way with directorial stylistic flourishes.
Many scenes in this movie took my breath away. Some were just fleeting moments; some, so well written that I gasped. The scene in which Malik is about to kill his victim is astonishing. The first time Malik gets to leave jail for a day, he is in a car and he's feeling the wind on his face. Could have been a cliché, but having spent an hour or more with him in the claustrophobic nightmare of jail, when this scene comes along, you can almost feel the bracing rush of the wind on your own skin. An unbearably tender moment in which he falls asleep with a baby in his arms, allows him a simple bliss he has never experienced. And the amazing final scene leaves one heavyhearted at the prospects for this young, talented criminal. After so much surviving, there is still more surviving to do.
Tahar Rahim, who plays Malik, is astounding. He is quiet and unassuming but  convincingly traverses an extreme dramatic arch, from being a scared teenager innocent of the ways of jail, to an entrepeneurial mini boss. The incredible Niels Arestrup, who plays Cesar, the Corsican capo that both abuses and protects Malik in jail, is unforgettable as an old man who has total control in a place he can never escape, and whose diminishing influence leaves him frightened and alone. I loved the music by the great Alexandre Desplat. The movie is richly rewarding and its great intelligence and endlessly resonant layers of bitter irony grow on you the more you think about them. 

Feb 27, 2010

One more thought on Avatar

You know how the Na'vi are these poor evolved underdogs that have to fight a massive empire intent on crushing them?
And you know how everybody thinks the Na'vi is them (Palestinians, Jews, minorities, Evo Morales?)
Well, in a film industry analogy, the Na'vi are the struggling film industries of the entire world, threatened by extinction because of the monopolistic, gargantuan, massive, unstoppable, omnipotent, crushing power and influence of Hollywood, and particularly Avatar, which would be the big bad meanies invading Pandora.
So James Cameron: fuck you and your bloated billion dollar fable about the noble weak vs. the evil strong. Fucking bunch of hypocrites. 

Feb 21, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar

My nephews, the Mini-Enchiladitos, 8 and 4 years old, probably have more sense of the nuances in life, of the gray areas, of the ambiguity of things, than James Cameron. At their tender ages, like any other child, they probably sense that sometimes things are complicated and not categorically and clearly divided into good and bad with nothing in between. Life is all about moral and emotional complexity. This is why there is nothing in Avatar that remotely resembles human life, human thinking or human feeling. Avatar is a well-oiled money making machine that you have seen and heard many other times before, but with a new coat of spectacular visual effects. It works great in places and in others it sputters, swallowed by its own hypocritical bombast and its thunderous lack of charm.

Besides James Cameron and most bloated commercial Hollywood spectacles, what other entities tend to deliberately erase moral ambiguity? Religions and totalitarian despots. The deliberate withholding of ambivalence (with its attendant corollary, the disappearance of irony) is a very dangerous thing. It numbs the mind.

Avatar's pompous, selfrighteous, off-putting sermonizing about respect for nature, love among the species, or the evil actions of the Bush administration, is deeply suspect, because it is premised on oversimplification. Plus, you gotta have nerve to spend half a billion dollars making a movie that probably used more electric energy than what entire countries have used in centuries, and give the audience an utterly inappropriate speech about the destruction of the planet. What's more, I think it is deeply cynical, because it banks on a global sense of grievance against the United States, which is one of the reasons Evo Morales likes it and it has grossed billions of dollars abroad.

Some right-wing nutjobs claim Avatar is anti-American. I think it is more American than apple pie. They shouldn't be fooled by its liberal criticism of our recent invasions; this is just calculated ingratiation with the global audience ("See? we're not so bad"). They need to look at the hero of the movie, Jake Sully, who, like Pocahontas' John Smith or Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, changes sides to supposedly help the good cause. He of purity of motives and a decent heart will vanquish evil all by himself, because even though he belongs with the meanies, he wants to be unencumbered by greed and ambition and achieve a puritanical state of grace (and shag the gorgeous natives). It may seem like ambivalence that he is torn between loyalty to his race and his sense of decency, but real ambiguity is much more complex than deciding between the totally corrupt and the totally innocent. If it were so easy, we'd all be saints. That he switches sides never to go back is not that big a deal, since it's established that there is nothing worth going back for. This myth is the epitome of self-serving American self-righteousness. It's what Americans want to believe of themselves, that they are really decent at heart, despite their predatory, plundering ways. It's the wishful thinking of a bully. I have less trouble believing in Santa Claus.

James Cameron may be very gifted at managing the creation of huge cinematic spectacles, but his imagination is pedestrian, he is utterly unoriginal, and has terrible taste. He shamelessly recycles myths that are extremely hard to swallow in this day and age. I've had it with the myth of the noble savage (which is nothing but soft serve racism) for quite a while now, but what I cannot abide a second longer is the myth of the American hero. One more stupid fight between Good and Evil and I'll start randomly shooting my invisible long range missiles in the general direction of Hollywood.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy certain parts of Avatar, towards the beginning, those in which no one was speaking. I was fitfully transported here and there by some beautiful sequences with lovely colors. However, the moment language intruded, it was as jawdroppingly stupid as some of the visuals were beautiful. James Cameron hasn't an ounce of wit or a sense of mischief, unlike Steven Spielberg, who is a genius when he is playful. Cameron wouldn't know lightness of touch if it tickled his tight, important ass. The comparison with Spielberg is useful. In my view, Spielberg's greatest weakness is his sentimentality, but at least his schmaltz feels genuine, whereas with Cameron it's all posturing bullshit. Spielberg is much more human, much more ingenious, much more thrilling, much more fun. I don't get a sense Cameron has real feelings. He has statements.

This movie is at least one hour too long. All the good faith it elicited from me at the beginning, with the admirable CG and motion capture improvements and the beautiful colors, evaporated by the last act, which is an unforgiveable groaner (compounded by the increasingly atrocious score by James Horner, plus Celine Dion screeching at the end). There is an endless battle scene with weapons and explosions and not much plot coherence and the trite mano a mano to the death of Jake vs the Meanie (an insufferable Stephen Lang). The villains are too evil, the heroes are too good and none of them are interesting. Sigourney Weaver makes the most cringe inducing entrance ever by a good actor in the history of film, which is a credit to the heavyhandedness of the director (as is the casting of mostly insufferable people like Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez). Sam Worthington, playing the hero, was the only mildly likable character in the movie, even when every line he uttered conspired against him.

So yes, Avatar is technically amazing, but it is intellectually empty and spiritually unconvincing. Technical wonder coupled with inanity is a total waste.
Somebody with more artistry and originality should come along and give these amazing new tools a try. Do not hold your breath though, because as long as there are hundreds of millions of dollars invested, we are going to be awash in trite, predictable, onedimensional formulas. Studios are going to sink hundreds of millions of dollars to try to replicate Avatar's success, and most of the outcomes are going to be even worse (already the trailer for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland looks awful).

Hollywood is more and more is like a hellish version of Groundhog Day where all the movies and all the stories are one and the same, rehash after rehash, getting more bloated and staler every day.

Feb 19, 2010

Department of Irrational Hatreds

Everybody has irrational hatreds in film (just like we all have passionate adorations). Everybody has one star, or director, or movie they cannot abide. The hatred itself is not unfounded, but the extent of it may be irrational. I have plenty of those, and so, my dear reader, should you.
• Jennifer Jason Leigh. (aka the female Rod Steiger). I absolutely loathe her. I loathe her face, her hammy acting, her tics and mannerisms. I didn't totally hate her in Dolores Claiborne and I liked that movie that she made with Alan Cumming. I can't stomach the poor woman. The movies of her husband come in a close second.
Star Wars. I hate this movie with a passion. I blame it for everything bad that ever happened to American movies. I hate Princess Leia's hair and her stupid bathrobe, I hate Mark Hamill, I hate Chewbacca, I hate those two stupid robots, I hate its reductionist good v. evil American crap. I hated it when I was 14. Do I need to lighten up? Maybe.
• Tom Cruise. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein (who was referring to Oakland, California), "there is no there there". This, to me sums him up. There is nothing inside. He is only good at playing assholes. He creeps me out (and this was before I ever knew of Scientology and maniacally jumping on talk show couches).
• Quentin Tarantino. An idiot savant. A talented guy who chooses to be deliberately stupid and stupidly violent. Can't fucking stand his movies. I did like Pulp Fiction, however.  Same goes for Kevin Smith (actually less talented than QT, but funnier in person).
• I hate Clint Eastwood, director. The most overrated hack on Earth.
• I hate Mumblecore
• I hate Benicio del Toro (sorry, ladies). He's the Jennifer Jason Leigh of men, a bad ham. Let me know when he stops mumbling.
• Jean Luc Godard. I know, I know. J'aime the old Godard, the one of Breathless, A Band Apart, and Contempt. He changed film forever. Duly noted. The rest of his pretentious, pompous, self-important, childish provocations, I can't stand.
• I hate, I hate, I hate and I hate James Horner. He is responsible for the music of Titanic and other painfully overblown schmaltz.
• This reminds me that I hate Celine Dion. I don't think explanations are necessary. She is the human equivalent of a dental drill on an infected root canal without anaesthesia. I also hate Lady Gaga (just because) and Coldplay. Derivative, pretentious hacks.
• I hate Tarkovsky and the people who love him.
• I hate people who say that they don't hate anybody or that hate is too strong a feeling. Bull. Shit. 

Manohla Vs. A.O.

Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese have 2 movies out this week. We are seeing both. I'm PUMPED!
The critics in the NYT seem to think one is good and the other one isn't. This caused a fierce comment thread on my facebook page in which somehow Yoko Ono, Hitler and Coldplay made an appearance (as in who of the three is most annoying). However, the passionate argument was not about Scorsese and Polanski, which everyone involved adores. It was about the film critics of the New York Times, who provoke violent feelings among readers.
I usually do not review other reviewers (it's not good form), but here goes:
We all love Anthony Lane, although sometimes I wish he'd just say whether he likes a movie or not. Commit, dammit.
I happen to like Manohla Dargis a lot. She can be ornery and venomous, which is sorely needed in the soporific, sclerotic Arts section of the Times. Also, how could you possibly hate someone who spells Manola with an h in the middle?
I like her more than A.O. Scott, whose taste seems to be warped by the amount of trash he sees. I will never forgive him the glowing review he gave to Invictus, the worst movie I have seen in a long time.
The one thing that drives me crazy about both of them is that they fill up space by revealing entire plots with nary a spoiler alert, which is why most of the time, if I haven't seen the movie, I only read the first and the last sentence of their reviews. This gives me an idea of whether the review is positive or not and I don't have to know that the butler did it.
I once sent hate mail to Janet Maslin. I threatened to send her a Molotov cocktail if she didn't cease giving away all the plots and all the jokes. Several years later, she no longer reviewed films. I'm sure I was not the only one complaining. She reeked.
And I'm proud to say I once got hate mail myself, when I was a reviewer for La Jornada Semanal, back in Mexico. The fact that a reader was so incensed by my bad review of Batman (the first one) that he sat down to compose a bitter letter of complaint, made my day, my month, my year.
I love that movies unleash passion in people.

Feb 7, 2010

Two Israeli Movies

Ajami, now showing at Film Forum, is one of the Best Foreign Picture Oscar nominees this year. The nomination seems symbolically or politically motivated, since the movie is directed by an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew.
Reminiscent of the grittiness of Gomorra, it's a story about the underworld in Ajami, an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, which is a beautiful old city next to Tel Aviv. It has more to do with gangsters and turf wars than with politics, but even the farthest corner of the underworld (gangster bedouins!) is affected by the realities of living in a concentrated space suffused with conflict and distrust between two peoples (and their endless subdivisions), i.e. Israel.
By the end, I felt that the film was as exhausting as the country. Yet my only big beef with the movie, which has a compelling story and very well achieved realism and which is important to see for various reasons, is that the filmmakers went the Babel route and instead of telling the tale in a straightforward, chronological narrative, they jump around in time and they, as they say in Hebrew, mebalbelim lanu et ha moach (they mess around with our brain). This creates unnecessary confusion in the audience. Sometimes, by going back to an event, they clarify things giving them ironic depth, but some of the key pieces of information either remain unclear, or seem weak links on the very formidable chain of deep relationships that is the core of the film. Here everyone is truly interconnected, not by halfbaked coincidence like in Babel, but by human relationships that are too entangled personally, geographically and politically. It's like a Gordian knot of humanity.
The main chain of events goes something like this (spoiler alert):
An Israeli Arab young man sells his car to his neighbor. The neighbor is then killed by mistake by a gang who thought it was revenging itself on someone who would not pay protection money. Now the car seller needs to pay that money in order to spare himself and his family. He cannot possibly come up with the money, so he decides to start selling drugs. He also asks help of the Christian Arab who is like the de facto mayor of the neighborhood. He kind of helps (if help is bargaining down the price of the payoffs), but he realizes his daughter is in love with this poor schmo, who happens to be a Muslim. The father then does whatever he needs to do to thwart their union. This ends up involving the not particularly pure Israeli police (and this is a point in the movie that isn't clear to me whether they are clean or corrupt). There are other characters that intersect in this thread, and they are all hurtling towards tragedy.
There are many scenes in Ajami of physical brawls, people entangled in the ground, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews pulling this way and that way, without weapons; an apt metaphor for the deep, intractable interconnection of the country itself. The Israeli Arabs speak Arabic peppered with Hebrew phrases here and there. The Israelis do the opposite. There are Arab characters who could be Jews and Jewish characters who could be Arabs. A lot of people will be surprised not to find a terrorist in sight, nor a politician, nor a liberal or a conservative or a religious anything in this movie. And this is what makes Ajami a singular and important film. It shows what is never shown in the news. A society that malfunctions despite and because of the bigger political problems it suffers. Basically a dysfunctional network of families. Israeli writer David Grossman has said that he wishes Israel were a normal country with the problems of a normal country (crime, drugs, etc). Unfortunately, his wish has come true (there is now a healthy mafia, and more social inequality than ever) on top of having to deal with the elephant in the room. And in Ajami, the movie and the neighborhood, the elephant is always there. It is there with the Arabs who cross into Israel from the territories to get illegal jobs, it is there with the distrust that the Israeli Arabs have of what they call "the government", and with the sense of injury and threat the Jews feel towards the hostility from the occupied territories. The acts of no one in this film are politically motivated. They are all acts of personal survival and personal revenge in some way or another, but they are informed by mistrust and resentment and the consequences are tragic for everybody.

Eyes Wide Open is a quiet, devastating, very interesting film about two orthodox Jews who happen to be gay. Set in Jerusalem in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, the story is about a butcher who finds love in the arms of a gay yeshiva student drifter (quite hot). This is a story of forbidden love, and the more forbidden the love, the sexier, but it is also the story of people who cannot help their nature and of the society that shuns them. If being gay in regular society is hard, being gay in an ultra-orthodox religious community is hell. But the difference is only one of degree. The rejection and the disrespect and the fear and the intolerance are basically the same, except that in a religious community there are (interestingly enough, like in Iran) gangs of moral enforcers that threaten anybody who doesn't toe the line with the prospect of true excommunication, shame and violence.  Eyes Wide Open's singularity is that it is very matter of fact about the discovery of homosexuality in its particular context. The tone of the movie is not prurient or romantic or mawkish (although there is a lot of sexual tension). It is clear eyed, like its title. The butcher is a serious student of Jewish law and his rebbe/teacher is a guy with smart, interesting ideas about God, for instance, that God does not really want people to be ascetic. The butcher however, is a bit militant in that he finds redemption in the challenge, he finds enjoyment in the difficulty of overcoming sin (probably because he knows his own nature). However, it turns out that the difficulty is not as much succor as the love of this man and he becomes as defiant as he can, I think because he has the intellectual and social standing in the community he thinks will protect him and because he knows that what he feels is pure. But the double life is awful; his marriage, to a saintly but not stupid woman, suffers. His business is threatened, gossip is rife, people say that the meat he sells is not kosher, everything can collapse because there is simply no way that this community will tolerate what they consider his deviancy. I was thinking that the two of them could save themselves endless hardship if they changed clothes, cut their beards off and moved to Tel Aviv, which is only half an hour away, but it is not inconceivable that at least for the butcher this is inconceivable. The movie opens up a glimpse into the stifling, fascistic tendencies of orthodoxy. There is a young guy, for instance, who is in love with a girl, that has already been promised to someone else in marriage. These two young lovers are having an affair and the rebbe and the butcher and the father of the girl come to read him the riot act. He mentions love, he would destroy the world for her, and this is even worse. How dare he say he loves her in front of her father, asks the butcher, who is basically threatening him with the same treatment that is coming to him. In the end, the butcher cannot get away from the ideas that inform his world.

These two movies are good examples of the blossoming of Israeli cinema into, for the first time ever, an artistic, cultural, creative force. I have seen excellent Israeli war movies (Lebanon, Beaufort) and other excellent movies like Or, which zero in on smaller, more personal quandaries with unflinching honesty and power. Ajami and Eyes Wide Open deal with molecular communities in a very small country with very big problems, but somehow these stories transcend the particularity of being an Israeli Arab or a gay Ultra-orthodox Israeli (what could be more minority than that?) into universality, without losing their unique and extreme sense of place. It makes for powerful cinema. It's the best thing that can happen to Israel culturally, both within and without its borders. I hope it continues to thrive.

Feb 5, 2010

On DVD: Two Scary Movies

On the recommendation of my friend Cynthia I Netflixed (this is surely a verb now) La Ceremonie, a film by Claude Chabrol, based on a novel by murder mystery writer Ruth Rendell. This movie scared the shit out of me and absolutely nothing supernatural happens in it. It is a movie of psychological terror. You let a stranger that harbors darkness into your house. You are on your own.
All I can say is that Isabelle Huppert in this movie is what my mother would call an "onshikenish" in Yiddish. A plague. A walking disaster. God, is she evil. God, is she scary. But not the way she was scary-repressed in The Piano Teacher. Here she is a dynamo of ebullient, concentrated restlessness, of human energy gone berserk. Huppert plays the post office woman in a rural town in France which is home to extremely wealthy people and their country chateaus. She is full of envy, she is a horrible gossip, a terrible chewer of gum and a heartless sociopath, with intimations of infanticide to boot. She opens and reads other people's mail, that is how bad she is. To say that Huppert pisses ice water is not nearly enough to describe the core of malevolent intelligence and selfish hardness that imbue her character (oh, but she does volunteer to help the Church, looking to rummage around what others discard for the poor). I think of her and I shiver.
She meets Sophie, the super creepy Sandrine Bonnaire, the new maid of these nice, intellectual, liberal, delightful rich people, Jacqueline Bisset (even sexier when she speaks French) and Jean-Pierre Cassel (wonderful actor and dad of Vincent, God Bless him) and their two children. This is one movie where you root for the rich.
So they hire La Bonnaire, who is quiet and thorough and cooks extremely well, although she seems a little unsocialized, a little weird. Jeanne doesn't insinuate herself into her life, she barges in, full of friendly energy and a certain correct instinct for complicity. I'm not going to tell you the movie. Suffice it to say that I suffered deliciously through it, but don't expect any of the usual scares. There are none. The malevolence just builds slowly, Chabrol leaves a lot unsaid, and you can fill in the blanks in search of the pourquoi, which makes it even more unsettling and disturbing. It is horrifying because it is perfectly feasible that there are nasty people out there who cannot control their hatred and their envy and their monstrous selfishness; whether you wish to ascribe it to social inequality, it doesn't matter. Evil festers and grows in the hearts of people. That is scary enough for me. Plus, it has a fabulous ending. Netflix it.

My friend Marta recommended Rec, a Spanish zombie movie that has been a darling of horror movies lately (an American version is in production, I believe). In the faux documentary vein of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, a news team gets trapped in an old Barcelona apartment building where things are going bump in the night, and they record everything with their video camera. The movie has some very effective moments, particularly towards the end, but I thought it was stupid. The moment the people inside the building get quarantined and nobody helps them, I lost faith in the story, which means it stopped scaring me. It seemed too easy a development, too pat. If there is an army of people out there wearing containment masks and weapons, wouldn't they come in to try to destroy the source of infection? Wouldn't they try to help the innocent people trapped in there? The gringos would do it. Or is it in Latin/Spanish culture to hope that the infectious zombies are going eat themselves away? I wouldn't put it past us, but it weakens the strength of the movie.
What is interesting is that the tensions between the neighbors are immediately racist, which is a true reflection of Spanish society. Everybody wants to blame the Chinese (or Korean, it's never clear which) family that lives in the building. That sounded about right.
If you really want to scare the hell out of me, forget the flesh eating zombies, just call Isabelle Huppert.