Sep 30, 2010

Tony Curtis

Why does one get so sad when an artist one likes passes away? It's not like I saw every film Tony Curtis ever made, and he made zillions, but:
1. He happens to be the age my Dad would be were he still alive, and that makes me miss my Dad.
2. My mom adored him, and that makes me miss my Mom.
3. He was in the best movie of all time, Some Like It Hot, and he was great. My parents loved that movie, so that also makes me sad.
4. He guest appeared in The Flintstones, one of the greatest TV programs of all time, as Stony Curtis. I learned today that it is the 50th anniversary of the Flintstones this year. The fact that they are no more, makes me very sad.
5. And to judge from the outpouring of sentiment, Tony Curtis was beloved by all, which makes me happy/sad.
Tony Curtis was handsome, yes. But to me what was appealing about him was that gravelly voice and the fact that he seemed genuine. Didn't matter if he was wearing a toga or a dress or a suit, he seemed a real person. He had the Bronx in him, which made him interesting (he also had, as the obit in the NY Times said, a Dickensian childhood). He was totally relatable. He was charming. Families (at least Jewish ones) spoke of him as if he was a cousin.
I saw a clip today of Some Like It Hot and it is sheer joy. Absolute, unadulterated, pure, sparkling joy.
It makes me very sad.

NYFF: The Robber

This Austrian film by German director Benjamin Heisenberg is probably the most stylish, existential, and elegant cops and robbers film you will ever see. It is based on the true story of an Austrian guy, who in the eighties robbed banks, and trained for, ran and won marathons in Austria and who ended up unleashing the biggest manhunt in the history of that country since they stopped searching for Jews in the 1940s. Of all the movies I have seen in this festival, this is the one that could scream "remake", although perhaps there is no need, as almost every American movie is a dumb chase movie anyway.
Well, this is a smart chase movie. Johann, played with extraordinary steeliness by Andreas Lust, is a loner and a taciturn man. He has no friends, he barely smiles, he doesn't talk, except to communicate the minimum he needs, or when he is barking orders to people as he stares at them down the barrel of his gun. But he runs. He uses his bank robbing escapades to monitor his heart, to train for his races. It seems like if he doesn't run or rob banks, he cannot live. The movie never bothers explaining why he is that way. No discoveries of child abuse or neglect, no bespectacled shrink explaining his personality. He seems like a sociopath to me, albeit a relatively benign one. He just wants the money (which he doesn't use) and the spike in his heart pumping. He is not out for revenge on society and is not, at first, a violent criminal. After the film, Heisenberg explained that the real guy used to wear a Ronald Reagan mask and, in the middle of the 80s recession, he was some sort of folk hero in Austria. But the film has been transposed to today and so the mask he wears is just really creepy. The character is barely expressive as it is, when he wears the mask, which also has no affect, he looks very frightening.
I was marveling at how challenging this role was and how well Lust was communicating his emotional repression without being totally unsympathetic, and the director explained that he saw Johannes like an animal (the actor trained with one of the writers, who is a marathon runner, for 4 months. He is totally believable). And indeed, Johannes operates in a streamlined, instinctual plane of existence, almost like an animal. His robberies seem to be more spur of the moment than results of careful planning. He doesn't case joints, he just walks in. His lack of motivation, and his extreme aloofness are disconcerting for us benighted American audiences, but it is surprising how you end up rooting for the guy as his options become dire and he is chased by the entire Austrian police force. In the end, this is not a movie about justice or the long arm of the law. It is about one remarkable (read: crazy) man's existence. There is great cunning to his survival instincts, but he is not a moral or intellectual hero, he has no beef with society. He just needs to run until he needs to stop running.
What will make your heart stop is the unbelievable camera work. Instead of the usual choppy, effect-ridden mess that action movies have become, where you can't really see the action because it is a chaotic blur of cuts and mayhem, the camera here floats and glides over the robberies and the chases so majestically that it is almost like a presence in the movie. There is a wonderful scene where he goes to the movies with his love interest (there is one), and the camera hovers next to the characters as they watch the film, yet never shows what they are watching. But we can hear metal crunching and tires screeching and sirens roaring, a delightful nod to the audience that signifies that action movies can be smarter and better. Like they used to be not too long ago. Heisenberg said that even Rambo is less of a mess, and has more classic camera footwork than what we see today, when they even take frames out of the film to speed things up. (I hate when they do that). He shows that it is not only possible, but highly desirable to convey speed and energy without tearing the action to incomprehensible shreds. You almost feel that adrenaline rush as you watch this man pounce on his victims and run like a panther, you see what he sees, there is time to see the obedience and calm fear of his victims.
There is a steadicam scene that is very reminiscent of the entrance through the kitchen scene in Goodfellas, and there is a gorgeous, extended traveling shot as the guy runs after one of his robberies from the forest in the outskirts of Vienna through a park, and back into the center, which reminded me of Kurosawa. I also thought of Kubrick and his icy detachment, his menacing gliding camera. Perhaps these are deliberate homages to masters who know how to stage action well.
I actually wanted to shout three cheers for the cinematographer and the camera operator. They deserve a standing ovation.

Sep 28, 2010

NYFF: Poetry

Poetry is another amazing film from writer-director Chang-dong Lee, the filmmaker that brought to us Secret Sunshine, a movie that impressed me deeply when I saw it at NYFF in 2007.
Both Secret Sunshine and Poetry are centered on the lives of women who find themselves alone caring for a child. You see almost the entire gamut of human feeling in their personal stories, and Lee extracts incredible performances from his lead actresses. Through their lives, he criticizes a conservative society which still relies on traditional strictures that are coming apart at the seams. A society that, flush with a decent standard of living and modernity, pays lip service to family values.
I have to tell you some of what happens. Spoiler alert. 
Poetry is the story of Mija, played by the amazing Jeong-hee Yoon, an elegant older lady who likes to wear cute hats and chintzy dresses. She is stuck caring for her boorish teenage grandson all by herself, while her divorced daughter is in another city. You couldn't tell from her delicacy and poise, but she has to earn a living by taking care of an elderly man with a stroke, whom she bathes and cleans up after. She may be sweet, but she is no wallflower.
Mija has a mild disposition and is given to small flights of fancy, such as claiming that she and her daughter are best friends. She relies on evasion, no doubt to dispel the funk she'd be in if she took a long hard look at her life. She is diagnosed with incipient Alzheimer's but she ignores the symptoms. She decides to take a poetry class at the cultural center of her small town, because, as she says, she is the kind of person who has flowers in her heart. The class is given by the most incompetent poetry teacher of all time. Everything he says to his poor students is a terrible cliche, and he gives them flowery but vague advice. Soon Mija takes her little notebook everywhere and tries to come up with poems. She searches in vain for "poetic inspiration" by staring at trees and apples, and, as the teacher instructed, by trying to find poetry in the filthy kitchen sink, courtesy of her sullen, ungrateful, odious blob of a grandchild.
It doesn't come to her.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the boy and his friends, kids that look like your garden variety teenage mutant, gang rape a girl repeatedly at school, provoking her suicide.
In order not to jeopardize their futures, the parents of the boys try to settle with the victim's family. The police are too lazy to investigate and the school will do anything to avoid scandal. Apparently, hush money is the customary way to get out of these teenage predicaments, which are dealt with in a "boys will be boys" sort of way by the young fathers of these kids (the mothers are absent from the discussion).
Problem is, Mija, the sole woman at the parental meetings, can't come up with the money. She lives off her tiny pension and by taking care of the crippled old man.
The fathers, who could be her sons, think she is loopy. The proverbial respect for your elders is gone. She is the only one who is deeply shocked and mortified by the news.
Mija is in a dire predicament, but she keeps going to her poetry classes. She joins an amateur poetry reading night. Lee keeps going back and forth between Mija's harrowing reality (her time at home with her entitled, slovenly grandson is quietly horrible -- a total breakdown of intergenerational communication), with scenes at the poetry class. Lee leaves one of the main turning points of the movie to settle on an extended scene at the weekly amateur poetry reading. We have just witnessed the nadir of human indifference and calculation, only to be fully (and hilariously) immersed in a world of billowing sentimental kitsch. Of course one wonders, how can the same society be so callous and so maudlin at the same time? Isn't sentimentality really a route of escape from hard reality? No wonder it is such a hit in places where people live difficult lives. Somehow, one never thinks of Scandinavians as sentimental. But the Third World? Corn Central. This is why l loathed Slumdog Millionaire with a passion bordering on the homicidal. Because it was a crock of corn about desperate poverty.
South Korea is not the Third World, and Mija is not poor, but she is struggling. In this middle class society, wealth breeds indifference to the suffering of those who don't have it. The mother of the dead girl is a simple peasant who works in the fields, and thus, easily manipulated with the promise of money. Then there is the disconnection between Korean family values and the actual behavior of families. If family is so important, why abandon your own child? Why neglect your ailing father or take advantage of your elderly mother? What is it about the endless diarrhea of video games and idiot TV programs that turns adolescents into sociopaths? Where are the parents?
I started wondering why we were spending so much time listening to terrible poetry, but Lee allows Mija's dilemma to ebb and flow, and deepen in time, as moral dilemmas do everywhere except in Hollywood films, where they are usually met with inhuman certainty. I gotta tell you, watching foreign movies is a very useful exercise in purifying ourselves of the dreck that we are conditioned to expect from plots and characters. We are so deluded.
Anyway, Mija is ambivalent. On the one hand, she acts the way family loyalty demands, and acquiesces to the needling of the other parents, because that is the way things are, but on the other, she goes through her process, and through evasion, as well as calculation, she slowly inches towards action. In this, she is similar to the protagonist of that other amazing and much more perverse Korean film, Mother, but Mija is the reverse image of that mother. She has moral qualms.
Nothing prepared me for the monumental shift in tone in the third act, when Mija finally decides to act in a manner according to her heart. By the end of the movie, she gets to write her poem. This may be the only time where I have ever been moved to tears by a poem in a movie. No sentimentality, but truth.
I hope you get to see this extraordinary film.

Sep 27, 2010

NYFF: Oh, Yoko!

The American Masters documentary Lennon NYC concerns itself with the Beatle and his life and death in the Big Apple. And with that time of turmoil, to which Lennon happily contributed as an activist and provocateur after leaving an England that was extremely hostile to his wife, Yoko Ono. The doc retraces Lennon's sojourn in this city he loved, his persecution by the FBI, his prickly activism and the music he made.
I remember that my parents blamed her (my dad blamed Linda too) for the demise of the Beatles. Knowing what we know now about bands that endure too much for their own good, perhaps we should be forever grateful to the reviled Beatle wives.
Still, I will confess that I have never liked Ono, and even though the doc, made with her cooperation, puts her in a favorable light, I may empathize more, but I still don't  like her. 
After the Beatles split, it was a very tall order to top the monumental songwriting work Lennon had done as a Beatle, and his solo career was wildly uneven. In my humble opinion, he wrote as many great pop songs (Jealous Guy, Mind Games, Watching The Wheels, actually Oh, Yoko!, Mother), as a lot of really corny duds (Feels Like Starting Over, Imagine - so sue me - Woman, I'm Stepping Out, Nobody Told Me).
There is always music playing in the background in the doc, both by him and by her and I wished there were less talking heads and more moments of music, but it seems clear from the footage that the activist period and his collaborations with his wife were not his shining moment, musically speaking.
Ono allowed the filmmakers a great degree of candor, and the film also dwells on Lennon's spells as a very nasty drunk, and their painful separation, caused by a very humiliating infidelity. This is very interesting, so that nobody thinks that this is the canonization of a very complicated man. But the moment you have the full collaboration of one of the parties involved, the authorized biography syndrome, one wonders about motives. Is she just being honest and willing to show a multifaceted portrait of him, or is she somehow getting back at him, or both? Something to ponder. He comes across as a fascinating, gifted human being, but about her we know nothing, except she was always at his side, inscrutable, a highly polarizing being. They had an intense and very public love and it looks like they championed each other as artists through thick and thin. However, one was a popular music genius and the other one is not a genius. I can understand her as an avant garde artist, but I find it amazing that he insisted in believing in her and trying to foist her upon the world as a pop artist. She was absolutely ludicrous, hitting the bongos once every bar and attempting to sing with the Plastic Ono Band. The experiment simply didn't work. And that's putting it nicely. But that's the ambiguity of avantgardism, it is hard to tell, even for some of the perpetrators, whether they are any good. Sometimes in the name of "ART", anything goes.
The film is best when one can hear Lennon's incredibly nimble wit and witness the force of his charisma and his craftsmanship. His spoken voice is trumpety, mercurial, full of mischief and edge, but I did not fully realize what an gorgeous singing voice he had. His voice was part of the soundtrack of my life since age 3, so I realize now that I kind of took it for granted.
Lennon NYC is also a wistful look at the grungier, rowdier, much more politically fervid NY of yore and parts of it are deeply moving. Look at the abandoned piers on the Hudson river, at the Twin Towers under construction, at the gritty seediness of a town Lennon adored and which adored him back. But the film is also repetitive and conventional and perhaps too enamored of its own subject. All the talking heads are fans. Plus, it really messes up the ending with an unnecessary coda after Lennon's tragic and needless murder.
"Why would anybody want to kill an artist?", Yoko asks, with a deliberate naivete that I find jarring, at the end of the film.  What an ingenue! Ask Stalin, ask Hitler, ask Mao, ask crazies who go into museums and slash paintings with knives, ask the idiot lunatic who killed your husband. This is the kind of simplistic, ready made cliche like "all we are saying is give peace a chance" that drives me bonkers.
Still, for the most part Lennon NYC is a very illuminating film, full of juicy tidbits and great bit players and fascinating archival footage. If you love the Beatles, Lennon and New York it will be very emotionally satisfying. It airs on PBS soon.

Sep 26, 2010

David Fincher v. Apitchapong Weeraseethakul

We started our yearly, beloved New York Film Festival marathon at 11 am yesterday attending a talk with David Fincher, director of the Facebook movie (let's face it, that's how they should have called it) and of Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and Benjamin Button, among others. Fincher is a smart and astute man and a competent but rather frustrating and uneven director, in my view. I find none of his movies satisfying. He is capable of creating some memorable moments (I love the opening sequence of Zodiac), but in general his movies leave me cold. (I'm dying to see the Facebook movie, though).
Unless you are highly intelligent and charming, if you are in the hands of a unimaginative and boring interviewer, as was the case, it really is not your fault to have to answer inane biographical questions, almost designed to give you an ego trip you certainly don't need. I don't blame him for that. It was interesting to hear he knew he wanted to direct since he was eight and very instructive to know that he did everything in his power to end up doing it, in that practical, no-nonsense American way. He reminded me of a type of American alpha male (many star creative directors in advertising come to mind) that is smart, glib and monumentally cocky in a way that only Americans can be (because only they have the enormous resources they have). That is, each nation is arrogant in its own way, so if you come from the most powerful country on Earth, your arrogance is entitled by that. This doesn't make American arrogance more extreme; quite the contrary: because it knows that it stacks the deck against all others, it has an aw shucks quality, an almost self-effacing, macho je ne sais quoi. So that was my impression of Fincher -- super smart, super calculating, a guy who plays with the big toys, slightly defensive, as if he still needs to prove himself. But I don't get him. I don't get what excites him or what moves him.
By the way, I think he is the perfect guy to make the Hollywood versions of the Stieg Larsson's books (the morbid, violent, grotesquerie suits him well).

Apitchapong, on the other hand, not only had the good fortune of having a limber and funny interviewer (but to be fair, this was the Q&A after the film), but he is almost the polar opposite of someone like Fincher. His movies are the least formulaic films on Earth. He is an extremely original filmmaker, concerned with the symbiotic relationship between tradition and modernity, and the forgotten relationship between humans and other spirits, like animals or ghosts or other beings. His fascinating movies are sort of poetic in a matter-of-fact way, with gentle but sharp humor. He doesn't follow the three act structure and his rhythm can be dense, and his movies are strange and lovely and never pretentious.
As a director from a tiny country, by necessity, he seems very connected to day to day reality. He says he finds his actors in discos. He passes leaflets on the street for casting. He took a picture of the audience. He was wearing a t-shirt that people could buy to help offset the costs of bringing the crew to the festival. And this is the guy who won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year. But when he answered questions about the film, he let us see how intrincately deliberate is his thought process, and how refined his choices, but without calling attention to himself somehow. And he was utterly charming. Not an alpha male. An artist.

Sep 23, 2010

In Praise of Joaquin Phoenix

We were mightily concerned when he showed up, fat, bearded and incoherent at the Late Show, because we adore Joaquin. We think he is a wonderful actor.  We want to see more of him, when he is clean shaven and articulate.
He was a sssseeexxxyy, evil Roman pervert in Gladiator.

He was fantastic as Johnny Cash, which is no easy feat.

We love him in the James Gray movies We Own the Night and Two Lovers.
And do you remember him as the super sexy, conflicted Catholic father in Quills?


You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

I haven't watched a Woody Allen film since, I believe, Mighty Aphrodite. Or, rather, I have seen some here and there, mostly buoyed by the usually disappointing hype, and it has been the law of diminishing returns since 1989. Except for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was graced with charming and resourceful actors, many of his movies just suck and have been sucking for a long time.
I used to be a huge fan when I was a teenager and a young adult. He was a genius. But it's been ages since one can go to one of his movies and not cringe. The humor is not funny and I find his portayals of female characters deeply offensive. They are always either ditzes, or shrews or idiot blonde floozies. And this latest movie is no exception. However, this time, Allen is so sour on everybody, he makes the men terrible as well.
Simply put, there is not one sympathetic character in the film. They all have the potential to be sympathetic, but they are so one-dimensional and their flaws are so petty and overwhelming, that you end not caring for anyone, in a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin (woefully miscast) and Antonio Banderas. They all seem to be at a loss of who their characters are. They end up playing the one note they have been given. It's a shameful waste of talent.
Brolin plays an insecure writer who can't pay the bills and is married to Watts who plays a highly unlikeable woman who has a crush on her boss, Antonio Banderas, who has no character whatsoever, except for his customary charm, which always acquits him, even when sporting ridiculous haircuts (I particularly love him as Puss in the Shrek movies. He is wonderful).
Hopkins plays Watts' dad, who, obsessed with youth, divorces his wife, written as a pathetic idiot and played by Gemma Jones, and falls in love improbably with a very vulgar hooker, played with as much dignity as she can muster by Lucy Punch.
A hooker? Really? Isn't this getting really, really old?
It is hard to make Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin look bad in a film, but Allen achieves it with flying colors. He has nothing but contempt for most of his characters.
Then there's the unnecessary voiceover narration, that adds nothing of value. Without it, Allen would have to give his characters more meat and his structure more heft, but as in many of his late period movies, the script feels flimsy, rushed, unpolished.
There are some moments of horrible irony (territory that he has explored before in movies like Match Point, which I hated, or Crimes and Misdemeanors). But the whole thing feels both flimsy and forced. There is one nasty scene between Naomi Watts and her mother, that I think confirms my theory that Woody Allen is deeply condescending and hostile to women, even as he protests loving them.
As A.O Scott points out in his too kind review, only in a Woody Allen film can an unsavory older creep (Brolin, looking the worst he's ever looked) make the most vulgar overtures to a young beautiful woman (lovely Frieda Pinto) and she just smiles and next thing you know, she is introducing him to her parents.
Icky, creepy and utterly out of touch.
Good actors keep wanting to act in his movies, impelled, probably by Allen's status as a great American filmmaker. Most of the time they are stuck in thankless, unsubstantial roles. If they are lucky (and amazingly plucky) like Penélope Cruz, they can go home with an Oscar. But most of the time, I think they are stuck in the worst possible light, playing half-baked stereotypes in the dark.

Sep 6, 2010

On DVD: Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo García

I just saw Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García for the very first time last night. I think my jaw is still on the floor. One of the most gratifying WTF movies ever made.
It's a weirdass, nihilistic, absurdist, strangely poetic, existential Mexican Western, set in the 1970s, with Beckettian overtones, and Warren Oates, who should have been immortal.
(I want Warren Oates to exist forever and be in every movie and it frustrates me to no end that he can't). 
It is bizarrely funny, extremely violent, insanely fresh, crazy good. Isela Vega is fabulous. The editing is bizarre, continuity non-existent, the cinematography overexposed, but the energy, the wit, the outrageousness, the raw verve, all fabulous.
A whole bunch of people are deeply indebted to Sam Peckinpah, bless his ornery soul.
Quentin Tarantino would not exist without him. And I kept thinking of No Country for Old Men, and wondering if Cormac McCarthy didn't have this movie in mind when he wrote his novel. I bet the Coens did. I also thought of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which this film resembles like a close relative. It's that kind of ironic, misanthropic exploration into human venality, except in this case poor Warren Oates is far more likable than Bogie's character, since he does the deed for love. I'm surprised nobody has wanted to make a remake yet. Perhaps it's too perverse, too wonderfully insane for us wimps of today.