May 30, 2010


This historical spectacle directed by Alejandro Aménabar is the first cheesy anti-religious epic in the history of film (excluding perhaps Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and for this, it must be commended.  Agora is an allegory about religious fundamentalism and religious intolerance; not intolerance towards religion but the intolerance of the religious, and it is rousing, emotional and rather effective. It is also long, and a little bit choppy and muddled but it has a great central performance by the gorgeous and talented Rachel Weisz, who plays Hypatia, an ancient philosopher and scientist who held court in Alexandria at the end of the Roman Empire and who was revered for her brilliant mind.  If she is looking, the real Hypatia must be thrilled to be reincarnated by Miss Weisz. She is so convincing, so beautiful and looks so gorgeous in Roman togs that she makes the best case for atheism and scientific inquiry ever. I hope millions of kids of all persuasions (girls included) pine at her like soldiers used to pine for Betty Grable and decide to become either scientists or atheists or both. It was about time there was a movie defending freedom from religion, cheese notwithstanding.
The movie is a Spanish production but shot with English speaking actors and an Oscar winning actress, so that it can have as much reach as possible (though I doubt it will play in Teheran). The parallels between the antics of the intolerant Christian mobs and the Islamoterrorists who have the world shitting in our collective pants are very resonant, but the movie is really about the fundamental difference between reason (and its byproducts, science and philosophy) and religion; which is the difference between doubt and certainty.
Alexandria around 350 AD was a goulash of Romans, feverish new Christians, and Jews. The pagan religion has become a tacky synthesis of Roman and Egyptian gods and the Romans are portrayed mostly as arrogant, fickle drips. They wear the best clothes. The Christians all look like a group photo of the Taliban, a bunch of joyless, selfrighteous, insufferably dark sadomasochists, all dressed in black rags, with a penchant for throwing stones at the slightest provocation.
The Jews get to wear some fabulous clothes too, and there is a scene in which they take revenge on the Christians who attacked them at a theater performance by hurling stones back at them. In short, it's a free for all, with the Jews caught in the middle between political and religious power and therefore, conveniently expendable.
For a movie about the purity of scientific inquiry and freedom of thought, Agora is surprisingly emotional. The way to dramatize the movie's thesis is to frame the story in emotional terms. A slave, well played by Max Minghella, has a major crush on Hypatia, as does Orestes (Oscar Isaac), and their feelings for her set the story in motion. Liberties have been taken, and this provides most of the cheese, but somehow it works, because as always, the personal is political. 
The movie makes certain powerful points about the perils of allowing religious fanaticism to go unchecked. The Christian mobs, afire in religious fervor, lay waste to the surviving Library of Alexandria and turn it into a barn, in much the same way as every tyranny is afraid of, and therefore hates, books and reason. Anti-intellectualism is one of the foundations of tyranny (which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and the like give me the major willies). Political power wrongly aligns itself with mob sentiment in order to protect itself. In fact, political power, when confronted with raging mobs of the unhinged by faith is deeply afraid to counter them.
The movie is so effective about provoking outrage that at one point I heard myself thinking that religion should be banned. Problem is, banning religion is behaving like the enemy. Religion should not be banned. But in my ideal world, people would believe in whatever they want to believe (that does not entail the destruction of other people), but God and whoever are his prophets would be stripped of their holiness. It is the concept of holiness and purity that gives us these idiotic, unnecessary headaches. It is the concept of holiness that needs to be abolished, since there is absolutely no proof of its existence in the universe. We are human, and deeply flawed. In its best moments, religion has given us civilizing traits, useful moral boundaries and some good literature. In its worst, it's been nothing but appalling destruction, tyranny, injustice: bestial behavior.
I feel lucky to have been born in the 20th Century when even I know that the Earth moves in an ellipse around the Sun. I grew up hearing the names of Ptolemy, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Einstein, instead of thinking I'm gonna fall off the edge of the world if I walk too far. Science even gave us the movies, which is one of its most fabulous achievements, as far as I am concerned. But give science to people obsessed with purity and you get the Nazis. Give science to people obsessed with profits and you get drugs to make your lashes thicker and longer.
There is no holiness in the world. There never will be (I don't care how much you meditate, how much you pray, how much yoga you make, how much tofu you eat). But we can strive to be good and just and live and let live. How about this for a religion?

May 25, 2010


The man with the most wonderful name in cinema, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the Palme D'Or at Cannes.
I like his movies. I'm looking forward to seeing this one.
Love of my life, Javier Bardem shared the prize for best actor (¡Felicidades, guapo!) for his work in Biutiful, an Alejandro G. Iñárritu film we are hoping is not as over the top melodramatic as is his custom. Best thing Iñárritu has done lately is an amazing Nike spot for the World Cup.
A Mexican movie, Año Bisiesto, won the Camera D'Or for best first feature. Nice

May 19, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil

I sympathize with Roman Polanski. Before you lynch me, let me elaborate.
I do not sympathize with his criminal behavior. I do not think that the fact that he survived the Holocaust as a child, or that his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Manson family, or that he is a brilliant filmmaker, can ever justify his sexual abuse of minors. Fact is, had his trial not been a travesty, he would probably have served time, as he deserved. But the trial was a circus, because all celebrity trials are circuses and the presiding judge wanted to be a celebrity himself. All I was saying that the complexity of his bizarre legal process, the distortions of fame, the zeitgeist of the 70's, make his case far more complicated than screaming "off with his head" 40 years after the fact. I was promptly accused of blaming the victim. I don't. I blame Polanski and I blame the victim's mother for leaving her unchaperoned at a "screen test" with a notorious film director at the house of a notorious actor in the middle of the drug addled 70's.  But why all this extradition hysteria now? Is it because there is an Los Angeles DA running for office?  People all of a sudden become naive when it comes to selfrighteous moral indignation. 

May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

I liked it because it's very talky. When people talked a blue streak in this movie I was very happy. When there were explosions and effects I was very bored.
RDJ, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson and yes, even Gwyneth are very game and very fun. Garry Shandling does a pitch perfect interpretation of a pompous senator and Sam Rockwell is great fun as an orange (by way of terribly applied tanner) rival arms dealer. He is divinely oily. Jon Favreau makes movies as likeable as he is and I wish we would see more of him. This movie cost a ton of money but at least it has actors who deliver and who look like they are having fun amid the greenscreen.
RDJ does a great job with the Tony Stark character, that of a very likeable asshole. He is excellent. He creates a complex and very alive character for a comic strip hero. I thought Mickey Rourke was underused. He is a fantastic actor and his Russian accent was great, and I was hoping there would be more amusement from him, but he really is just kind of a sad, watery eyed Russian, very melancholy. Mickey Rourke rocks.
Don Cheadle is a great improvement over Terrence Howard because Don Cheadle is a wonderful actor and I love him (and he is more believable as a soldier and a silver rocket somehow). Scar Jo is sultry and sexy and a total movie star and Gwyneth is very good and has an easy, wonderful rapport with RDJ as Pepper Potts. There is romance. I like. 
The movie doesn't make much sense but it is fun to see so many wonderful movie stars.  Give me a movie star the size of a giant movie screen, and I'm happy. Give me long blue people who all look the same and I'm bored.
The movie kind of pokes fun at itself and at our obsession with arming ourselves to the teeth. And the best part is that it all happens in Queens! I was very worried that all those armaments would destroy Spa Castle or the Chinese and Korean food in Flushing, but thankfully, none of that happens. The filmmakers are not morally debased, like Roland Emmerich who gets an obscene kick out of destroying the world's landmarks.
As always in the American Male narrative, there is a father conflict. I wish that whatever screenwriting textbook people are using, they for once would leave the father thing alone. I've had it with the father issues.How about some mother issues?

May 1, 2010

Movie Trailer Nightmares

I went to see Please Give today (quite enjoyable but a little disappointing) and I was terrified by the following trailers:
• Julia Roberts in the film version of Eat Pray Love. She sounds and looks as pinched and as self-centered and insufferable as the narrator in the book. Julia Roberts lately really looks like she won't have a good time. I understand her character is a pill, but even horrible characters in dire situations can impart a sense of fun about what they are doing (watch Amanda Peet in Please Give). That trailer needs some Julia Roberts smile wattage, if she can still muster it.
There are 2 things that may make the film slightly less nauseating than the book, which should be called Eat Pray Barf. One is the cinematography. The woman was in Italy, India and Bali and as I watched the gorgeous colors and images of the trailer, I realized that the book is totally colorless and she might as well have spent her entire crisis in a Home Depot. But that's because all she was watching was her navel. 

The second thing, and I audibly gasped when it appeared on screen, is Javier Bardem.
Javier effing Bardem plays the Brazilian (older guy in the book) that changes her life and leads her to write a sequel about her bliss. To the detriment of all, except her bank account.
Javier Bardem is one man whose presence makes me quiver. In this case, I'm very concerned for him because no Julia Roberts, and much less, that woman from that awful book deserves the likes of him. I just don't want Hollywood to turn him into an up to date version of Ricardo Montalbán. Bet he's crying all the way to the bank, my gorgeous hunk of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Yum. 

• The trailer for Sex and the City 2.  These four women are starting to look like piñatas to me. They are desperately overdressed, over made up and in the case of SJP oversurgically elongated. And they are supposed to go on vacation in Dubai? For fun? Or because Dubai paid for product placement? Somehow it doesn't sound to me like it's the capital of fun and games. But I only intend to watch this film if it is free on a plane.