Apr 25, 2010

The Room

This is probably the hardest film review I've ever attempted to write. It's taken me three days to wrap my mind around this one.
I knew The Room was bad, but I was not prepared for the barrage of human maladroitness that inundates the screen on every frame. 
It is a credit to the film that once its interminable duration is over (the longest, scariest, most ridiculous hour and a half of your life), you cannot stop thinking about it. Diagnoses about the precarious state of mind of the auteur fly: autism, creative sociopathy, terminal narcissism, repressed homosexuality, Transylvanian abandonment, abject cluelessness, brain injury. My guess is: pretty much all of the above. The Room is a treasure trove of questions about the mysterious ways of the human mind. It is also perhaps the absolute worst movie ever made. But there is something strangely endearing and quixotic about it.
Where do I begin?
There have been great terrible directors in the history of film. Ed Wood is the best known example. In Mexico we had Juan Orol, a master of involuntarily absurd kitsch that could mash up ten genres in a single film (zombies, gangsters, cowboys, rumberas, you name it). But these auteurs somehow followed rudimentary notions of human drama. I don't mean drama in the fictional sense, but the natural drama of the daily exchanges in real life. If a mother says to her daughter: "I have cancer", the daughter should somehow acknowledge the receipt of such information.  If someone says "I want a glass of water", the other person doesn't say "Basketball". But in the case of The Room, the rules of human interaction don't apply.
We are in a parallel universe.
The writer, director, and main actor who purportedly spent 6 million dollars on this extraordinary clunker is a ghoulish creature by the name of Tommy Wiseau. A nom de plume? Who knows. We ascertained that his accent sounded vaguely Eastern European. I think he is a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler, but he also sounds Brazilian to me (or to be quite honest, like a person who has worked very hard to mask a speech impediment). Perhaps he is the spawn of Zsa Zsa Gabor and an ancestor of Giselle Bundchen, by way of Fabio.
In any case, he seems to be operating with only half a brain. If Tommy has seen a play, a movie or a TV show in his life, it is clear he has not learned absolutely anything from it. Not even how to imitate it. He seems to be illiterate at life. It's like those people who cannot recognize distinct emotions. This movie has no affect. The feelings the actors try to imitate are barely recognizable. Wiseau's reactions as an actor are completely divorced from reality. This is enormously creepy.
The movie is shot in San Francisco and in a room made of cardboard, with props made of styrofoam. According to the "behind the scenes" (oh yes), it was shot both in 35mm film (there go $3 million) and video HD. The crew members look like crew members, not the director's cousins, so there go the other $3 million. However, regardless of film stock, The Room looks pretty awful. Not so much because of the avant-garde camera work, but because of the art direction. Instead of shooting at a friend's apartment, the worst set in the history of sets was built for the occasion. The centerpiece of this set is a midget spiral staircase in the middle of a room the size of a broom closet that leads to nowhere and that seems to have been made of plywood and dented bicycle handles. In every softcore sex scene there is always either a film of gauze, or rain trickling down a glass. There are also long stemmed roses (symbolic of pure love). However pure the love, the sex scenes concern themselves mainly with the humping abilities of Tommy, who, as someone said, looks like a slab of gristly steak. 
There is no point in talking about the plot except to say that it is a trip into the subconscious of Wiseau -- in his sympathetic view of himself, a misunderstood sensitive, who is deeply hostile towards women yet professes to love them (Macho Man 101) and who has unresolved, if not unromantic, homoerotic tendencies (Macho Man 102). There is a scene where men in tuxedos throw a football at each other, nobody understands why.  It is impossible to talk about the plot of this film without losing your marbles. I'm not going there. More disturbing is the fact that the entire enterprise is treated as a legitimate film, with artistic pretensions, as if it was on a par with everything else we all collectively agree is a film. Watching this movie feels like following Alice down the rabbit hole, with my profuse apologies to Lewis Carroll.  
The Room is probably the most immediate trip you can take into somebody's naked subconscious. Unfortunately, it is not a particularly rich mind you are visiting. If art is the sublimation of the subconscious (I am allowed to be pretentious; The Room demands it), this is exactly the opposite of art. It's the sheer subconscious without aesthetic distance, irony, self-awareness, imagination, without the articulating power of creativity.
Compare The Room to Hitchcock's Vertigo, which also takes place in San Francisco, also has a blond femme fatale and it is also about male sexual panic. An homage? Who knows. It doesn't matter because you all know what Jung said about the collective unconscious. With Hitchcock, you see how an artist organizes his conscious and subconscious material to give back to us a collective dream (which is what movies are, after all); with Wiseau, you see the chaos of a mind in darkness which churns out an inarticulate, mediocre nightmare, which belongs solely to him.
For anybody attempting to learn how to write a screenplay or make a movie, The Room is the best example of everything that you cannot do. It is great learning material.
Frankly, I'm seriously freaked by the liberties Wiseau has taken with my solid sense of reality. Watching him on a Q&A session on You Tube, I felt a scary pang. I don't know if he's for real. Perhaps he has created a character, like Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton, or is a more primitive version of Sacha Baron Cohen. This is wishful thinking. Maybe Wiseau is like this, in which case I feel like I've lost some sort of innocence. I have crossed a threshold from which there is no turning back.
So what's the endearing part? The dude made his movie. He wrote it, shot it, cast it, acted creepy in it and put it out there for all the world to see, never expecting that it would become a cult masterpiece of delusion (now he claims he was in on the joke). Be it far from me to applaud every moron's misguided sense of artistic initiative; quite the contrary, "Don't just do something, stand there" (Noel Coward) is one of my favorite mottoes. But for some unexplained reason one ends up admiring the benighted can-do spirit of this creep.

Apr 18, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

Lately, I've been thinking that the foreign movies that win the Academy Award win by virtue of their length. I bet nobody really sees all the contenders. They just look at the dvd cover and vote for whichever movie is shorter. Either that, or whichever movie is more sentimental.
The Oscar winner for best foreign movie of 2009, this Argentinian film is a perfectly good movie, but it is not a better movie than The White Ribbon or A Prophet, the other strong contenders for the Oscar, which were more cerebral, less touchy-feely. This one is much more crowd-pleasing and sentimental. It is also an interesting hybrid of a thriller with a love story.
The first act is a straight procedural, inflected with a lot of sharp humor, about Benjamin Esposito, the extraordinary Ricardo Darin, who works in the byzantine Argentine justice system (I defy anyone to explain to me what it is exactly that they do, these people with the pompous titles. I think they are the equivalent of district attorneys).
A great running joke of the movie is that they call each other by these archaic titles but they expend most of their energy refusing to work. They are engulfed in paper, as are all festering, incompetent, useless Latin American bureaucracies. Esposito is forced to investigate the rape and murder of a young woman, and years later he tries to write a novel about the case, which obsesses him for life.
The film is based on a novel and it feels literary. There are wonderful characters, all played by wonderful actors and everybody is highly articulate, in love with the sound of their own language. There is a breezy, fun rhythm to their repartee. The subtitles miss most of the specific saltiness, the dry irony inherent in Argentinian slang. It's quite delicious.
The movie goes back and forth between past and present as Esposito tries to write his book. At first it seems like a conventional crime story, but soon the dark side of Argentinian politics makes itself revoltingly clear. I would have to give away important plot points to explain why, which I won't do, but I think this is the best part of the film. Up to this point we've been following a crime story with no apparent broader implications, but there is a turn, which feels like a knife twisting in the gut, when it becomes clear how the repressive machine of power worked to make a mockery of justice and could taint any citizen, even those who had nothing to do with politics. The fact that it springs out almost from left field makes it all the more shocking and more resonant.
Delicately braided into the thread of the crime, is the parallel story of the impossible crush between Esposito and his well connected, aristocratic boss, the wonderful Soledad Villamil.  Both actors achieve a lovely sexual tension they basically communicate with their eyes, and have beautiful chemistry together. It's nice to see two very smart people in love. Very sexy.
Here I must pause and sing the praises of Ricardo Darin, the greatest Argentinian actor ever, and as far as I'm concerned, squarely in the pantheon of great international film actors. Darin has never appeared, that I know of, in an English speaking film. He is not conventionally handsome, his face is puffy and craggy, his eyes the sharpest blue. But he is so charismatic, he just needs to show up. He has a combination of steely cool and warm passion that I bet makes many a heart flutter just like mine. Yet he is an extremely intelligent, measured actor, who never ever does anything histrionic when his quiet intensity and transparency suffice.  Lo amo.
Back to the movie: it's a complicated yarn that defies our expectations of the classic whodunit and is populated by great characters, some very funny like Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), a lush and Esposito's sidekick; some pompous, ineffectual bureaucrats, like the judge they all work for, and some horrendously evil, like Romano (Mariano Argento), one of the most villanous, yet totally credible bureaucrats ever committed to film. That man has a scene which encapsulates the absolute rot of a bureaucrat at the service of criminal power and he nails it. The acting is all first rate.
The movie is grounded in the political reality of Argentina in the seventies, and it is about human decency, revenge and the possibility, or even the relevance of pursuing, defending, and getting justice years after the fact, just as it is about missed personal opportunities. This story revisits the festering wound of the dirty war in Argentina very powerfully precisely because it does so obliquely.
The movie falters towards the end, where it adds an extra layer of romantic schmaltz and the restoration of justice of sorts that feels like wishful thinking to me.  Up to the third act I was mesmerized with the twists of the plot, the richness of the characters, the language and the atmosphere (many scenes in weathered old bars and cafés, the moth-eaten mustiness of the Tribunals of Justice) and the aching wistfulness of opportunities lost. However, the end feels a little contrived and a little saccharine.
On one hand it's kind of the genteel revenge fantasy of anybody who feels justice has not been served, and on the other, it's a romantic happy ending. I was a little disappointed by it.

Apr 15, 2010

The Square

A modern noir from Australia by director Nash Edgerton (is this a noirish name, or what? The guy is a former stuntman), this tight little film is very entertaining. The premise is classic. A couple of lovers. He is older and better off, she is younger and living with a mulleted boyfriend, which telegraphs unhappiness better than anything I can think of. She is a very interesting femme fatale. Looks almost innocent and you can't help but root for her since the boyfriend and his buddies all wear mullets and tattoos and are way too gauche to endure. She is striving up from owning a measly beauty salon to shagging an engineer. We're not talking billionaires here. She finds a bag of ill-gotten money and convinces her lover to hatch a plan to take the money and run. He's a decent man, but he is totally pussywhipped. The fun is in the casual, perfectly natural way in which the plan gets horribly screwed, and in the surprising way in which tangential people get sucked into the vortex of bad, the body count growing, all because, as a character says in the best line in the film, "a man points his dick in the wrong direction, and here we are".
Film noir expects us to believe in the existence of mysterious bags of money and the people who think they can breezily steal them. You can't approach film noir with a magnifying glass of pristine logic. Noir is about incontrollable human impulses, usually of the worst kind. If you surrender yourself to the pleasures of the genre, you are going to have a great time with this film. It dots its i's and crosses it's t's pretty cleanly. Unlike other movies of the genre, that become harder to believe as they progress, this one sets up the plot very cleverly and creates very clear and believable motivation arcs for the characters, even though as with any noir, characters are not there to be a mirror into human psychology, (except of the most basic kind: lust, greed, fear and revenge). They're there to zip the intricate plot along. The Square is a very enjoyable puzzle that bears more scrutiny than other films of its genre but not too much. If you think about it too hard, it can become preposterous, but it's still oodles of fun.
The film is preceded by a fabulous short film by the same director. A stunning little jewel of very dark comedy.

Apr 11, 2010

TropiCast Numero 1

Darlings, here is the link to my first podcast ever, a very interesting (I should hope) conversation between a bunch of Latino film lovers and critics here in New York. We spoke about the list of the 10 best Latin American films of the 00 decade compiled by Cinema Tropical. If you have nothing better to do with your precious time check it out.
And here's a little video we did impromptu after the podcast.
We're having another podcast soon on the Argentinian movie who won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award this year. I will keep you posted.

Apr 8, 2010

Low Riders

Lately I've been consuming some samples of Latino entertainment culture in the US and I've come to the conclusion that we have an unfortunate tendency to sugarcoat and bathe our stories in corn syrup. We also tend to set the bar pretty low.
Case in point: I finally saw the Broadway musical In The Heights last night. I enjoyed some of the music, and some of the performers were wonderful, but for a look at life in the barrio in Washington Heights, I thought I was going to be choked by a cloud of cotton candy from beginning to end. The wonderful set was the only realistic thing in the entire play. I don't expect every show or movie about Latinos in the US to be about nasty drug dealers and lazy loafers, and I am all for positive characterizations of Latinos, when they are multidimensional and true to life. But if I ever see a long-suffering sweet abuela again, I am going to punch her in the face. Don't people ever get tired of the stereotype? Are their freaking grandmothers really that cloying?
In Junot Diaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar's mother, a Dominican immigrant who undeniably sacrifices herself for her children, is a monster of bitterness and rage. This is much more interesting than a character who is only missing a halo and two fluffy wings on her shoulders. In fact, what separates Junot Díaz's novel from the corny stuff that is produced by and about Latinos in this country is that Díaz portrays life with all its bittersweet and harsh complexity, and not as some wish it would be, a lifeless candyland of abnegation and cheap sentiment that benefits no one. Which is also why Oscar Wao was so successful and resonant in the world at large. It does not live in the ghetto of the mind that we're sometimes too eager to keep ourselves in.

Same thing with an independent movie that is coming out soon, Entre Nos, about the plight of a Colombian woman and her two children as she is abandoned by her no-good husband to fend for herself in Queens. You would think that this would be an intensely dramatic story, but instead it is totally drained of life. The characters are like stick figures covered in syrup and there is no dramatic contrast, no irony, no humor, no depth. Underwritten characters, impossibly boring, repetitive dialogue, not a shred of visceral honesty, Entre Nos manages to turn a pretty dramatic story (which at the end of the film we are surprised to learn was the actual story of the director) into a boring, flat, uninteresting mess. It is made with the most beautiful and pure intentions, and it has absolutely nothing interesting to say.
Either we oscillate between morbid, harrowing stuff (Sin Nombre, María Full of Grace) or absurdly sentimental cheese that has no relation to human reality.  Are we incapable of irony? In our countries of origin it seems to be alive and well. Why do we lose it when we get here?
This is my beef: in the name of political correctness, inclusion, multiculti harmony or whatever you want to call it, we accept much lower standards for Latinos in the US, than for the general audience. This is pernicious. This movie would not pass muster had it been made by someone other than a minority. But this is not the only example of this phenomenon. You only need to take a look at the NY Latino Film Festival, which has extraordinarily low admission criteria and people managing it who can't even speak Spanish correctly. None other than HBO, a paragon of excellence in visual storytelling, sponsors it. But apparently they don't demand nearly the same standards of excellence from Latinos. Because we are Latinos, we get away with mediocrity. And not only is mediocrity tolerated, but in many cases, celebrated and applauded. Look at those sweet, exotic Latinos, living in a planet beset by good intentions. Let's give 'em a round of applause. A little pat on the head, and there you go.
We get away with sloppiness, cheesiness, corniness, and lower standards. If we think this is helping us, it isn't. Quite the contrary, it keeps us safely in the margins of culture, instead of at the forefront. And I'm not blaming the gringos. The gringos are only trying to feel better about themselves by being condescending to us. It's up to us to demand better of ourselves.
And can we please hold the melcocha?