Oct 27, 2010

Why I Hate El Clinto

But boy, was he handsome.
My fellow cineaste and dear friend Ken can't fathom why I cast such violent aspersions on the directorial career of Clint Eastwood, a man whom I consider highly overrated as an auteur. Ken makes a good point. Is El Clinto a hack of the magnitude of Joel Schumacher or Michael Bay? (nobody is a worse hack than Bay, except perhaps for Jon Avnet). I think the difference is not one of competence but one of temperament. The problem I have with El Clinto's movies is that they seem ponderous and pretentiously solemn. Hard as I try, I find it impossible to connect with them. I find them bone dry, stiff and clichéd. To be fair, I liked Letters from Iwo Jima. And I saw Changeling on a plane and, surprisingly, liked it, thought it was very effective. He gets good actors to do good work in scenery chompers that are more related to the world of movies than to the reality of flesh and blood. 
I find him nothing more than workmanlike. I find his movies are loaded with fake sentiment, as opposed to real emotion. And he has made an inordinate amount of  clunkers, like Invictus, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, among others. The sheer amount of mediocre work he's done has rarely stopped some critics from gushing (critics, and I don't use this line of argument lightly, who seem to be overwhelmingly male, white and square).  It's not El Clinto's fault that critics adore him without reservations. A. O. Scott had the audacity to be kind to Invictus. Roger Ebert tweets that Hereafter is not as bad as everybody says. They cut him way too much slack and I wonder why. Perhaps they are happy that a handsome, charismatic but not particularly good actor can direct halfway decently but with little imagination. Perhaps they identify with that.
Ken mentions Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River and Unforgiven. I saw all of them and believed none. Take Million Dollar Baby. Trite and conventional and with Morgan Freeman as the loyal black sidekick who sweeps the floor. A female Rocky, except that Rocky in its time was far more authentic and original. Unforgiven is a deeply hypocritical film that claims to abhor violence while it makes a big spectacle of it. I have no problem with violence in movies when it serves a dramatic purpose, but to use it to illustrate the point of how bad it is to use it is dishonest. I have to admit that I didn't dislike Mystic River. But I didn't love it either.
His movies do not speak to me at all. 

Oct 20, 2010

Moviegoing Etiquette

Here are some extra rules of moviegoing etiquette that are not advertised by the cinemas, but that everybody should follow in order to avoid me wanting to get a high powered rifle and blast your head off:

No texting during the film.
People with baseball caps or other headgear should remove it the minute the lights go down. The same goes for women with idiosyncratic hair a la Marge Simpson. Take it down. By the way, I hate adult men who wear baseball caps if they are not in the park or under the sun. Do grow up.
There is absolutely no talking during the previews. Previews are like foreplay, almost as important as the movie.
Although this is hard to enforce, tall people, people with big heads, or tall people with big heads, should have the courtesy of sitting in the back of the theater if said theater doesn't have stadium seating.
If you are going to munch, do it discreetly.
Do not bring your pastrami sandwich or your kung pao chicken to the movies. They reek.

Enjoy the show!

The Ten Best Latin American Films of the 2000s

Be sure to check out the first edition of the Cinema Tropical Awards this Friday.

I was very happy to have been asked to compile my list of the 10 best Latin American films of the last decade by Cinema Tropical, a worthy and serious organization devoted to promoting quality films from south of the border.
I am in the good company of a bunch of other cinephiles and cineastes. You can check out the winners and download all the lists at the link above.
Here's what I sent:

I was relieved that I could think of more than ten good Latin American films of the last decade. 
This could not have been easy 20 years ago.
The common thread in my selection is a group of talented Latin American filmmakers who are, first and foremost, masters of their craft and who are deeply invested in their social reality without ever falling into melodramatic excess. The list includes two established international talents, Lucrecia Martel, one of the best filmmakers in the world today, and Alfonso Cuarón. The rest are new filmmakers, both male and female, that show extraordinary promise. Fabián Bielinsky left us wondering what marvels he could have achieved with his impressive command of genre. 
All of them have a bracing inclination for aesthetic rigor and clear eyed intelligence.

LA CIÉNAGA (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)
With a jaundiced eye and an amazing knack for atmosphere, Lucrecia Martel explores the complex dynamics of the provincial bourgeoisie in Argentina.

Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (Alfonso Cuarón, México, 2001)
Alfonso Cuarón shows his mastery at handling both farce and deep melancholy without sentimentality. The script is sharp, funny and subtly revealing of the contrasts in Mexican society.

THE HEADLESS WOMAN  (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
A woman is involved in a car accident; she is disoriented, then there is a coverup. Lucrecia Martel creates a richly layered physical, psychic and political world, that resonates beyond its provinical confines.

NINE QUEENS (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentina, 2000)
A fantastically taut, smart, crisp caper with fabulous twists and the magnificent, sullen sexiness of Ricardo Darín.

DUCK SEASON (Fernando Eimbcke, México, 2004)
Mexican teenagers bored out of their wits on a Sunday afternoon, reminiscent of Ozu. The work of a young filmmaker with plenty of style and delicate wisdom.

XXY (Lucía Puenzo, Argentina, 2007)
A strong, intelligent film about a teenage hermafrodite, XXY is the movie equivalent of tough love; fierce, unsentimental, compassionate and with a breakout performance by Inés Efrón. 

THE MAID (Sebastián Silva, Chile, 2009)
She lives among us! A psychologically astute film about a live-in maid, that staple of the Latin American upper classes’ happiness or dread. With a fearsome performance by Catalina Saavedra.

THE AURA (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentina, 2005)
A gorgeous, atmospheric noir that challenges convention by happening in a cabin in the Patagonian woods. Oodles of style.

TONY MANERO (Pablo Larraín, Chile)
A murderer dreams of becoming the best John Travolta impersonator during the Pinochet years. A chillingly original portrait of absolute moral rot.

LA ZONA (Rodrigo Plá, México)
Rich people literally fence themselves off the poverty around them, living in comfy, arrogant isolation in the middle of their own country. Mexico, in a nutshell.

Having said this, I also liked Martel's La Niña Santa, but I thought it shouldn't be a Martel monopoly. I also liked, less, Pablo Trapero's Leonera. I liked Cautiva, I sort of liked Whisky and Silent Light. 
 I did not include Amores Perros because I knew it was going to be on many of my colleagues' lists and I like Y Tú Mamá También better. I have not seen Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe, which made it to several lists. For the life of me, I don't understand why people like Pan's Labyrinth so much, but that's the beauty of film, hay de todo para todos.

Oct 18, 2010

Smartypants Spookfest

For your Halloween viewing consideration, that is in case you decide to stick around at home instead of traipsing around in a ridiculous costume (you know you are too old for that shit):

Spook Your Intellect:
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) Fabulous adaptation of A Turn of The Screw, by Henry James. With Deborah Kerr as a governess that is going Britishly bonkers. The original "I see dead people".
Don't Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973) or, Dread in Venice. Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Venice and menace. What more could one want?
Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965) Catherine Deneuve loses it and there is an uncooked rabbit in the fridge. Yum.
The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976). Hell is the neighbors. And your own mind. 
The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) with Alan Bates (need I say more?) Brownie points if you understand what's going on, but a classic of 70's atmosphere.
Nosferatu (F.W Murnau, 1922; Werner Herzog, 1979). Max Schreck or Klaus Kinski?
Do them both!
Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988). A blood-curling performance by Jeremy Irons as gynecologist twins. Your pap smears will never be the same.
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008). Let the right movie in. The original, not the remake. 
Pretty much anything by David Lynch, the master of nightmarish kitsch.  Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are my favorites, but Eraserhead could also do the trick.

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1962). The one and only. You'll never trust a shower curtain ever again. (And Frenzy, and Rebecca, and The Birds, The Lodger... )
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).
Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). This should be the It's A Wonderful Life of Halloween.
Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945) Four elegant, creepy stories, the best one being Michael Redgrave, ventriloquist and his evil dummy. Chucky is small potatoes.
Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). Super duper creepy B-movie.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) Garish and effective.
Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976). Nothing is scarier than adolescence. Do a double bill with Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen. You see someone with acne and you will run for your life.

STSOOM (Scared The Shit Out Of Me): 
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1970)  Horribly horrible.
Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999). It did, so sue me.
The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007).
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007). What can I say? I'm easy.

Got a beef with this list? Drop us a line in the comments.

Oct 15, 2010

On DVD: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

I first saw this movie from 1975 when I was about 12 years old. My mom had already seen it and loved it so much that she took me to see it with her. The guy at the entrance didn't want to let me in (I looked like 10) and my mother said something like "I'm her mother and I'm giving her permission to see this movie".
To make a long story short, it was like nothing I had ever seen. After it was over, I cried, unconsolably, for about three nights. At that age, movies about injustice unleashed tempests of tears in me. Another two that destroyed me were The Hill and Dog Day Afternoon (both, curiously, by Sydney Lumet).
So it was very interesting to watch Cuckoo's Nest again. Today, this classic film by Milos Forman seems to me strikingly European. The sense of humor, the ease with which the camera by Haskell Wexler roams the mental hospital, the breezy playfulness, the frankness, don't come from an American sensibility. However, this is a bona fide American story. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, it is a perfect metaphor for America as it collided head on with the Sixties. The hospital is the straitlaced, puritanical, controlling, supposedly well-meaning Stepfordian America, embodied by Louise Fletcher to chilling perfection as Nurse Ratched. McMurphy, (an epic and life changing performance by Jack Nicholson) symbolizes what was coming around the bend. The clash between these two titanic impulses is a succint and powerful illustration of what was going on in this country at the time. The movie takes place in 1963, it was made in 1975: it's that era in a nutshell, or a nuthouse, to be more precise. When I was twelve I understood the story literally, having no idea yet that the United States was such a schizophrenic place. As a child, from the vantage point of Mexico, the States seemed to me a paradise of order, justice and equality. I once said that to my mom (after my first trip to Disneyland) and she told me the U.S. was not as perfect as I thought. I chose to ignore her. How dare she rain on my U.S.A parade?
At that age I was very entertained by McMurphy's inmates, who seemed totally nuts. Now I can see that although they are quirky, and overly emotional, they are not so crazy. The movie is worth watching just for the incredible ensemble cast. As far as I know, this was the first time anyone ever saw Danny De Vito, the sweetest thing in the movie, as Martini, an ever smiling guy who eats dice and does not understand how games are played, or the first time anyone ever noticed the amazing Sydney Lassick, who plays Cheswick, or saw the intensity of Christopher Lloyd, or Vincent Schiavello, or my adored Scatman Crothers or the incredible Brad Dourif. This was a career making movie for many of the actors. And this is the movie that changed Nicholson into an actor specializing in anything over the top. You can see his films before and the ones after, and the shift towards exaggeration is clear. Still, McMurphy is one of the greatest characters in American movies and Nicholson made him. Legend has it that Gene Hackman turned down this part. How can anyone turn down this part?
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest holds up very well. Like many of the American films of that era, it is a painful reminder of how far Hollywood has fallen. The movies that win Oscars today for the most part can't hold a candle to intense, controversial, committed films like this one.

Oct 14, 2010

Department of Rediscoveries: Birth

No one paid much attention to this gorgeous, strange film by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast and some amazing British TV commercials) when it came out a few years ago.
I saw it again at a New York Film Festival sidebar and was blown away by its eerie beauty. I wish you guys could see it on the big screen, because it is ravishing. The music by Alexandre Desplat is unbelievable (I liked it so much I bought it on iTunes), the cinematography by Harris Savides incredible and Nicole Kidman is excellent as a woman who is visited by a 10 year old kid who claims to be her dead husband.
Don't ask. Just get the film and enjoy it. It's a fantastic film.

Oct 13, 2010

Gold Mine

I'm just doing the exercise of thinking of what the Hollywood movie version of the saga of the Chilean miners would be like. Apparently, one of them was expected to emerge from the mine by both wife and lover, who showed up to receive him. I don't know if Hollywood would go for that. Or maybe they will make the people from NASA the saviors, and leave the natives to be second banana heroes.
There has to be a villain, so I assume that would be the owners of the mine.
And where exactly is Hollywood going to find 33 Latino actors to play the guys?
Unless they multiply Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem and Benicio Del Toro by CGI, it's gonna be a tough one. 
Even though I rejoice, like everyone else, at the miners' deliverance, I can't help but thinking of that episode in which Bart Simpson fakes he rescues a little boy that falls into a well and a media circus comes to town. Chile's president, who at least had the good political sense to spend enormous sums of money to have the miners rescued, has benefited greatly from his decision. Evo Morales even showed up to welcome the one trapped Bolivian miner. Presidents from all over the world make phone calls. It's like when presidents show up at the World Cup, a great photo op.

Can't get rid of my misanthropy, dear readers.

Oct 11, 2010

NYFF: Black Venus

This movie by French Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche deals with the story of Sartjie Baartman, a South African woman who in the 19th Century was known in Europe as the Hottentot Venus, and was paraded around like a carny in a freak show in Paris and London, in a downward spiral of human debasement until she died of venereal disease and her exceptional body was sold to science.
She was a big woman, with a very big behind and unusually large genitalia. She performed in a cage and pretended to be a "savage" although she spoke Afrikaans and drank to drown her terrible sorrows. It wasn't only until 2002 that her remains, which had been surgically severed by science, were repatriated so the pieces that remained of her could be buried in her native land.
There is a kind of movie that looks to provoke outrage and to denounce unsavory episodes of human behavior, by painstakingly and morbidly recreating that which it is denouncing. I remember being offended by Hector Babenco's Pixote, a movie about a poor little boy in the slums of Rio. Babenco found an actual street urchin from the slums and had him act in the movie in scenes that were not fit for a child to participate in, let alone watch. Then, after his 15 minutes of fame, the boy was dumped and forgotten in the slums where he was found, having been exploited for entertainment, by a movie that purported to condemn exploitation. Similar to Black Venus in its repudiation of the human tendency for morbid ogling, is Michael Haneke's Funny Games. In this movie, Haneke expresses his outrage is by showing the audience unendurable cruelty and violence and then chastises us for sticking around to watch. I find these films both morally superior and repulsive, as they are intended to punish the audience for having the curiosity to look (without knowing that all we are going to be shown is debasement), and for supposedly taking a stand against exploitation by using utterly exploitative means. I am furious with myself for not having stormed out of Black Venus at the first of many instances where I thought I could not take the humiliation and the debasement of the main character any longer. And if I foolishly stayed, a question I'm still pondering why, I hope it's because I wanted to know how it would all end. Every time I was about to hit the exit, the director cut to a new scene that promised perhaps an end in sight, and then the humiliation would be even more obscene. I think one sticks around to see if finally this woman will stand up for herself, but she never does.
Black Venus is a squalid movie. I am sure that the filmmakers are convinced it's quite the opposite. That they are broaching the subject of the oppression of women and of black people and white racism and somehow they are in a chivalric quest to restore this woman's dignity. But how can they restore her dignity when they show her countless humiliations not only in repetitive and increasingly nauseating detail, but what is worse, by appropriating her persona and recreating her without giving her a full fledged dimensional character, nuance or even a logical motivation to explain why she allowed herself to be debased as she was. For this is not a documentary. Any time a fictional movie seeks to recreate the life of an actual person, we know that artistic liberties are taken in order for this person to inhabit a dramatic world, with dramatic rules.
In the case of Black Venus the increasing debasement of this woman is as offensive as the basic, one-dimensional, utterly opaque way in she is portrayed. Nobody expects her to act like Norma Rae, but why wasn't she at least furnished with a psychologically coherent set of motivations that allowed her to participate in her own abjection? The movie is so basically and clumsily written that it hints at these reasons but never makes them explicit. Thus she is portrayed as an exasperating passive aggressive, much more passive than aggressive, a desperate alcoholic, and a simpleminded person that tries to inure herself to pain. She is not given a moment of insight. We understand that she will not disrobe herself for a bunch of French scientists, but not that she allows herself to be paraded like a circus animal and worse in front of the jet set. She is stubbornly complicit in her own debasement, but the audience fails to understand why.
Yahima Torres, the brave Cuban actress who plays her, is not given much to do with a character that seems to have only one side. She does it well, this self-destructive and willful abandonment of willpower, but hasn't she been exploited as well? She has been asked to subject herself to humiliation in front of camera, crew and audience, without a whit of restraint on the part of the director. I reject movies that try to teach the audience lessons by giving the audience bitter medicine. You can be eloquently outraged at any shameful episode of human evil without using that very evil to repulse or titillate. I think they are fundamentally self-serving and dishonest. In the end, the explicitness soon becomes tiresome and instead of summoning empathy it creates rejection. What is more, one wonders if the director is not getting a kick from reorchestrating such abjection once again. And for what purpose?

Oct 10, 2010

NYFF: Revolución

To commemorate 100 years of the Mexican Revolution, young Mexican filmmakers were given a budget and total artistic freedom and asked to deliver ten 10 minute short films on the topic. The results are a mixed bag, and the collection is interesting, as much for its failings as for its successes. I'm reviewing them here in order of personal preference.
My favorite short was the first one, La Bienvenida, by Fernando Eimbcke. To me, this beautiful black and white movie is like Mexico in a nutshell, with a nod to Juan Rulfo. A combination of progress and stasis, of modernity and tradition, and more than anything, of enormous promise that fails to materialize (which is what happens in general with this collection of shorts). I knew the short was by Eimbcke a minute into it: a restrained camera, beautiful shots, and a sweet, evenhanded and refreshing lack of histrionics, which is what I most hope for when watching Mexican movies. Someone who doesn't smother everything with sentimentality. My only nitpick is that it relies too much on fades to black. A municipal band in a small town in the boonies is rehearsing for a concert. The young tuba player is out of it. He is chastised and asked to get his act together before the concert tomorrow.  This man has a tuba but no running water. His life is hard, but he rehearses.  Big day comes, tuba player is ready, so is the orchestra, made of poor people that nevertheless attack the Don Giovanni overture with heart. The conductor gives a typically overly flowery speech and the band waits for whatever important dignitaries to pass through that dusty, unpaved, forgotten corner of Mexico. The orchestra is ready, but they never come.
My second favorite short was Rodrigo Plá's 30-30, a spot-on short about the grandson of Pancho Villa, who is asked by the municipal president of a small town to be the guest of honor in the Revolution Day celebrations. The man has prepared a small speech that he wants to run through the mayor, but the functionary doesn't want to hear it. He tells him that in Mexico of today he can speak his mind. The festivities are garish, complete with cardboard cutouts of Villa and Zapata, and a Miss Soldadera contest, but Pancho Villa's grandson's speech is never allowed to happen. Plá uses stills to convey all the devalued acts of commemoration this dignified man is dragged to by government officials because there is not enough time in the world, let alone the span of a short film, to represent the tsunami of demagoguery that the Mexican government (regardless of which party is in power) is capable of. 30-30 (the name comes from a carbine used in the revolution, but I venture to interpret that it may also be a play on hindsight, like 20-20 vision) is a dispiriting short, with mordant political humor, and it speaks the truth sharp and crisp.
Mariana Chenillo's La Tienda de Raya was one of the most promising shorts, mostly well written, well directed and well acted, but the end is disappointing. The protagonist, a woman with a mellifluous voice who works at a big supermarket, is invited on a date by her besotted store manager and she wants to fix her front false teeth for the occasion. But she doesn't have enough money for the treatment. The store pays part of her salary with food vouchers (this is reminiscent of pre-revolution days, in which peasants were swindled out of their impoverished earnings by having to buy their food at the estate stores of the landowners, an abusive practice that died with the revolution). The woman wants to be paid in cash and the store says no. A fellow employee gives her the number of a lawyer who then files a lawsuit against the store. I was surprised that Chenillo makes the woman into a passive victim, instead of someone a la Norma Rae, who takes a stand -- a little personal revolution. Instead, the woman acts surprised when she sees the lawsuit document, as if she had nothing to do with it, is fired and end of story. This kind of futile ending is one of many instances in Revolución that show acute disillusionment with the way things are. But a passive, clueless protagonist is not as interesting as someone who acts, or at least learns something from her experience.
The last short in the film, Alvarado and 7th, by Rodrigo García, is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, a vignette of life unfolding today in slow motion at that very Mexican corner of Los Angeles, as some Mexican revolutionaries on horseback pass by, while people continue their comings and goings without noticing. It is beautiful and poetic, (what good was the revolution if 11 million Mexicans are living north of the border?) but I was a little underwhelmed. I wished to see the horses at least run into a gallop. 
I am not a fan of Gerardo Naranjo's films, and his short was more stylish than substantive, yet it was bold, sparse and arresting, although he could have told the same story in 5 minutes. A man is carrying a wounded man on his shoulders. They are both bloody; we don't know why. They come to a road. Nobody stops. The man who isn't wounded goes to a bridge and throws a rock down at a car, smashing the windshield, but the car just gets the hell out of there. Then he finds some metal things to throw, aims at a motorcycle, kills the guy and then takes his friend on the motorcycle. Lawlessness. A cycle of violence. End of short.
We know we can count on Carlos Reygadas to lay it on thick with his insistence on epater-ing le bourgeois come hell or high water. I thought his entry was interesting the first five minutes. Beats me if I'm getting this right, but it looks like he assembled a bunch of Mexicans of different social classes for a picnic of sorts in Tepoztlán, a small colonial hippie town near Mexico City, and he had 5 cameras recording bits of conversation. Bad sound, shaky camera work, and people talking mostly bullshit. The rich Mexicans look as appalling as they are in real life, the poor ones as ignored as they are in real life and neither the twain shall meet, which is as it is in real life. This being Reygadas, there has to be a shot with an unkempt indigent man touching himself -- we are lucky that Reygadas didn't bring in a morbidly obese woman to perform fellatio on a midget. I liked the audacity of the approach at the beginning, but when a formless 10 minute short feels like 10 hours, interest quickly becomes annoyance. Kids destroy an abandoned car, people get wasted, they start destroying stuff, but it is not entirely clear what the point is of this exercise. I assume it is to represent, in sort of a hellish tableau vivant, what Mexico is like: chaos neatly separated by race and class. But as is usual with Reygadas, I always smell a whiff of exploitation of the non-actors in his work and a big puff of self-important auterism. I find him hard to take.
Also rather pretentious, but less oblique, is Amat Escalante's El Cura Colgado, also Rulfian and stark in its aesthetic, like the Eimbcke short. A priest is hanging from a tree, his horse and altar boy burned. If you are Mexican, you know this must be taking place at the time of the Cristero war, a bloody episode tied to the revolution in which scores of Catholics were massacred. A boy and a girl appear on a donkey and untie the priest. The donkey gives out and the 3 souls walk in the desert, fleeing from violence. They walk and they walk until suddenly they come to a modern road, pockmarked with Costco and McDonald's. They cross a barbed wire fence and walk among the cars, asking for charity. To judge from the pixelated faces of some of the drivers, this was shot cinema verité like, without obtaining releases, which is unnecessarily distracting and confusing. The end scene takes place at a McDonald's counter, with the three hungry and thirsty protagonists staring at the menu board in incomprehension. I get the very obvious point, but this scene made me think that even though we despair at the proliferation of food chains in Mexico, we are still poor enough that wherever you find a McDonald's, you are bound to find a perfectly decent taco stand around the corner.  The next Mexican revolution may very well happen the day there is no more street food left to eat.
Lucio, directed by Gael García Bernal, is charming but underwritten. Too much vague symbolism without a coherent end. I extrapolate that it is some sort of parable about the tension between worship of government or worship of Catholicism, as symbolized by a group of young schoolchildren who are grappling with the demands of honoring those two powerful traditional forces in Mexico that are meant to be respected without questioning. Lucio, the young boy of the title, decides to stay away from both.
To be honest, I got the Cliff notes from Bernal, who explained his short at the Q&A. Without the explanation I'd be more at a loss. As many of the shorts in this collection, Lucio is a bit vague and doesn't have a compelling end, which makes the story feel weak. 
Lindo y Querido, by Patricia Riggen, exasperated me. This is a matter of sensibility. The short was of the few that is actually more fleshed out, but I have little patience for heavy handed cuteness and even less for sentimentality. A sick Mexican man in the US and asks to be buried in Mexico when he dies. His very Americanized daughter thinks this is a pain in the butt, which it is, but there are funeral agencies that repatriate dead Mexicans to be buried in the soil they miss and love but that never gave them much.
So she brings the dead man across the border (we've seen this before in Guillermo Arriaga's script of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). This cutesy stuff with dead people a la Weekend at Bernie's is not my cup of tea. It turns out that her grandfather had been a revolutionary and she learns the lesson of loving the land that you fight for even though it has treated you harshly. It seems petty to find issue with a short that has such good intentions and is a total crowd pleaser but I wish that Riggen could have kept her sentimental impulses in check.
Pacífico, by Diego Luna, to me was one of the weakest stories, which is disappointing, since Luna directed a very good documentary about boxer Julio César Chávez. This short is a muddled personal story of a young man who buys land in a corner of an undeveloped Mexican beach paradise (there must be exactly one beach left untouched) and he has to deal with his estrangement from his wife and child, a sleazy developer, and the locals. By the end, he misses his family and goes back to have dinner with his little boy. Not much rhyme nor reason to this one.
Absolutely none of the filmmakers felt they had anything to celebrate. The sense of disenchantment with the vastly unfulfilled promise of the revolution is the unifying thread of the film. All and all, most of the shorts could have been stronger, tighter and more effective.

Oct 9, 2010

NYFF: Old Cats

As Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, the talented writer/directors of this charming but unsettling film explained yesterday after the screening, they are a combination of Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh. This is a pretty good way to describe this film, their second outing after the excellent The Maid. Old Cats is a story about a very toxic relationship between a cold and unloving mother (Bélgica Castro), who is starting to have serious symptoms of Alzheimer's, and her monumentally screwed up 40-something daughter, (a ferocious performance by Claudia Celedón, who was the lady of the house in The Maid). Just the fact that the movie concentrates in a bad mother-daughter relationship is cause for rejoicing. There are very few of those around. It is a total bonus that it is splendidly written, extraordinarily acted and very funny and powerful.
The mother lives with her second husband (Alejandro Sieveking, Castro's husband in real life) in an apartment crammed with tchotchkes and two obese old cats. The movie was actually shot in the couple's apartment.
The daughter, who has a butch girlfriend who insists that people call her Hugo (the great Catalina Saavedra), basically wants her mother to sign the apartment to her so she can sell it and make the money that has always eluded her.
As in Mike Leigh, there is plenty of laughter about their impossibility to connect. The first time we hear of the daughter, she is on the phone asking to come see her mother and her voice is overly chirpy and phony. The mother isn't buying it. When she finally shows up, her entrance is almost a showstopper. She makes a terrible fuss about her allergies to the cats, who have to be sequestered in one room for the duration of her visit. She can't stand that the animals receive more affection than she ever did.
I was blown away by Celedón's performance, which should be as star-making as that of Catalina Saavedra's in The Maid. She is the very picture of a royal fuck up: needy, manipulative, self-involved, scheming, whiny and a loser. She seems to be surrounded by a tornado of negative energy, but by the end of the film we pity her, for it is clear that we are witnessing the result of years of maternal rejection, and at least she has tried to do something with her life, even though it was never worked.
The mother turns out to be not as sweet and vulnerable as one thinks at the beginning, but by the end, she is not as heartless either. For a moment I thought that the movie was sliding into melodrama, but Old Cats retains its dramatic and comedic integrity. The characters may change their stubborn ways, but only just enough. Or maybe not enough.
Both The Maid and Old Cats are movies that feel like nature documentaries on the behavior of the human species, but without the soothing voiceover narration. Silva and Peirano are young filmmakers who seem to be wise beyond their years, and a creative team to follow.

Oct 8, 2010

NYFF: Somos Lo Que Hay/We are what we are

Romania, Israel, Korea, Chile, Argentina, are countries that have few resources to allot to filmmaking, yet they have produced a generation of immensely talented filmmakers and a host of extraordinary movies in recent years. They all seem to have encouraged a cottage industry of quality films despite their limited resources. After the great promise that was shown by Mexican films like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También, which happened a more than a decade ago, Mexico seemed poised to burst out with a cinema of consistent quality. Alas, except for a few dignified exceptions (Carlos Reygadas, not my cup of tea but a darling of the cineastes, or Fernando Eimbcke), it really has not come to pass the way it should have. I don't begrudge the Three Amigos (Cuarón, González Iñárritu and Del Toro) their having decamped to the greener pastures of Hollywood. But it is worth noting that the great movies coming out of small countries are made by filmmakers who are working there and creating films about life at home. Mexico needs to nurture its homegrown talent and encourage it to stay there. Also, someone needs to start writing better movies. Staying home is not enough.
I think that the programmers of the NY Film Festival have this wishful thinking that there is something of value to show coming from Mexico, but except for Reygadas' Silent Light, so far the Mexican films I have seen in the festival in the last couple of years, suck.
This year, I have watched at least a dozen films and except for this Mexican turd, they all have very high standards. If I can surmise any reason why this film made the official selection in this and other reputable festivals, I venture it's because its cannibalistic twist is a novelty for the horror genre. However, this should not be reason enough to foist it upon the audience. Somos Lo Que Hay is half baked and amateurish and a wasted opportunity. The idea is original enough, and with more artistic discipline and a more sensitive filmmaker, it could have amounted to something better. After all, a family of cannibals in Mexico City is ripe material for a horrific and terrific commentary about the disintegration of the social fabric in Mexico, or about horriifying Mexican social mores. But the execution is sloppy and mediocre. The movie is disgusting but not disturbing, and the worst sin for a horror film: it's not scary or entertaining. It has no suspense, no tension and nothing truly horrifies, except how bad it is. The acting is abysmal, coming as it does from the Mexican school of hamming, where no one ever speaks normally and every line is grounds for extreme overreaction. Everybody cries bitterly and with great gusto at all times, and when they don't cry, they mope, and when they don't mope, they scream at each other. The only bright spot is a little cameo by Daniel Giménez Cacho who plays a morgue employee who beautifies the corpses and considers himself an artist. He's fun to watch and I kept hoping he'd come back. No such luck.  It would have been fun if you ended up rooting for the cannibals; instead, you pray someone takes them out as soon as possible.
As usual, the weakest link is the script. The dialogues are beneath basic. I wonder if the writer/director, Jorge Michel Grau, who is a graduate from the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, has not been taught that it is entirely amateurish to answer every statement uttered by a character with the retort "what!?".
Grau didn't take the trouble to think through the characters or the story. It sounds and works like a first draft by a film student. This is a family who eats people because of a ritual that the director thinks it smart not to explain to the audience. There is a difference between mystery and confusion, but I'm afraid he thinks they are one and the same. I think the ritual thing is a cop out; "lazy" is the word that comes to mind. Doesn't make any sense. With all the great junk food we have in Mexico, why are these people eating their neighbors? A taco de carnitas in any corner stand would hit the spot.
The little dark humor there is, gets lost in the weakness of the story. The movie is mercifully short (although it feels much longer), but it is underdeveloped. The tone bothered me the most: sordid, morbid, overwrought, heavy handed, inconsistent. It's a clichéd, tired Mexican sensibility that some of our better filmmakers have dispensed with, and that is about time we got rid of (after all, we've been making movies for about 100 years). Why do we have good actors that are forced to ham it up, great cinematographers and excellent crews that work on utter duds? Because you could probably count with the fingers of one hand the people who know how to write a screenplay.

Oct 7, 2010

NYFF: Another Year

Finally, a thoroughly delightful film in the festival, where most of the films have tended towards the darker side of human nature. Mike Leigh is a Chekhov for our times. I can't think of any other artist that can meld laughter and pain with such beauty and grace. His films are like rich tapestries or symphonies of human relations, with  beautifully layered notes, colors, harmonies, dissonances, and textures of human emotion. When you see a Chekhov play, directors tend to have trouble balancing the laughter and the pathos. This is not the case with Mike Leigh. His films give us an accurate representation of human character with all the comic and tragic nuances beautifully shaded. It is not only that the actors (some of whom have been working with him for years) are astounding because of his famous process of arriving at the script through months of improvisation. Leigh's actors are allowed time and space to inhabit their characters so fully as to create the most realistic illusion of intimacy. But the movie is beautiful in its own right, with elegant and expressive cinematography by Dick Pope, excellent costume design, gorgeously made.
How refreshing it is to see a film where the main characters (although this is an ensemble piece) are a nice, decent couple, Tom and Gerri, who have a longstanding marriage and who care for their friends. When was the last time you saw this on a screen? This couple is played to perfection by the great Jim Broadbent and the great Ruth Sheen, who are happy with their lives and who generously open their house to family and friends like Mary, (Lesley Manville) a lonely, needy woman of that age where women stop existing for men. Mary is surrounded by a fog of her own lonely desperation. She is all nervous, centrifugal energy, which means that she expends it all her considerable energy on herself. She is a good person, but she is desperately lonely, and likes to delude herself with impossible flirtations, only to come crashing hard when they don't bear fruit. Manville's performance is quite over the top. She twitches and sulks and kidnaps social occasions with her manic energy, but at the core she is just miserably lonely and full of pain, and she is utterly believable. I could count 5 women I know that reminded me of her.
Gerri, who is her colleague, takes pity on her and frequently invites her for dinner. The woman is a saint. Mary comes to Tom and Gerri to be consoled, and to drink all their wine, and get so pissed she has to stay the night. Here is an example of Leigh's  incredible touch:  Mary gets wasted in an interminably garrulous scene, and then Gerri suggests she should stay the night. Mary protests too much and then Gerri says, "I'll find you another t-shirt", so it turns out this is not a unique event: it has become a ritual, for Mary probably cannot contemplate going home alone. Five words of dialog, and we get a full canvas of a life lived in lonely misery.
Tom and Gerri humor her, quite humorously, for there are plenty of funny lines in the movie and you laugh at her character and their reactions to her, but at the same time it is just heartbreaking. Mary is what my mother would call an onshikenish in Yiddish. The word actually means a plague, but Mary is just a good person that is hard to bear, as everything revolves around her neediness. But sad as she may be, she never turns into tragedy or bathos.
There are other characters: the couple's son, a young man in his thirties that has everyone worrying about his bachelorhood, Ronnie, Tom's taciturn brother; Ken, a friend of Tom's who is just as lonely and as sad as Mary, and Carl, a nephew who shows up late for five minutes to a funeral and releases dark discontent as thick as ink. The contrasts between the characters' individual realities serve to add dimension to each one of them, as we see all of them through everyone's eyes.
The film chronicles a full year in the lives and relationships of these people, and the seasons are framed by a garden that is tended by Tom and Gerri, just as they take care of their family and friends, with loving care. Things happen as they do in life. The son finally meets a girlfriend, the wife of Tom's brother dies, a baby is born, Ken comes to visit. He likes Mary but she can't abide him. As it is in life.
We are lucky to being allowed to enter the rich fabric of these people's lives, fictional characters that breathe real life. A beautiful film.

Oct 6, 2010

NYFF: Post Mortem

When I saw Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero two years ago at the New York Film Festival, I was very impressed with its dark originality, although it was tough going. 
Larrain returns to the festival this year with Post Mortem, a movie that takes place on the days of the coup d'etat against president Salvador Allende. Like Tony Manero, Post Mortem aims to disturb. As in the first film, the protagonist is played by stone faced actor Alfredo Castro, and there are many parallels between the two films. Larrain's creative choices are becoming stylistic tics: a central character that barely registers emotion, a fascination with the cheesier side of show biz as some sort of metaphor for living in an apolitical fantasyland, drained out colors, Bressonian angles, joyless sex, nasty characters, humor so dark it dies in your throat. In short; unabated, sordid gloom. Blokes, a short produced by his company also shown at the festival, deals with the same historical period in Chile and the same topic (the political is personal) in a similar washed out style. Larrain is becoming a cottage industry of dyspepsia. He was born in 1976, three years after the coup, and he grew up in Pinochet's murderous, repressive dictatorship. Hence, his movies are jewel boxes of stylized rage. They ooze moral revulsion. This is visually rendered with a predilection for showing characters eating and having sex in unsavory ways. They are meant to literally create disgust in the audience.
I find Larrain's style extremely interesting and totally legitimate, but labored. Post Mortem is another brutal parable of how the political is intensely personal, and how the evil that society allows, festers inside each citizen that acquiesces to it.
Mario, the main character, works as a note taker at a morgue and is in love with "La Nancy", the burlesque dancer who lives across the street from him. She is mean and crazy, delusional with faded grandeur, even as her sleazy impresario refuses to put her on stage because she is so emaciated, she looks like she just came from a weekend in Auschwitz. There is one scene in the middle of the movie when she comes to visit Mario and he offers her a fried egg. She bursts out crying and he follows suit, slobbering and spilling snot and saliva all over his food. This goes on for quite a while. This is profoundly shocking and at the same time darkly funny, because it comes out of nowhere, as neither of the characters actually reaches out to console one another. Five minutes of grotesque crying and then Larrain cuts to a close up of Nancy being humped, presumably by Mario. There is no tenderness, no joy; she never even looks at him, she doesn't touch him. It's a nasty and sordid world. Again.
Nancy's father happens to be a communist organizer, so that when the shit hits the fan, Mario is obliviously taking a shower while we can hear violence across the street, her house is ransacked and torched and he can't find her, sending him into a desperate frenzy, which in his case is indicated as a microscopic frown. He rescues her super cute dog and heals it. The man is utterly in love.
The morgue, which was a relatively leisurely affair before the coup, becomes monstruosly busy after. Murdered civilians are brought in by the truckload to be catalogued, according to the military's orders, without names, just by gender, approximate age and number of bullet holes. Mario continues doing his job, betraying no opinion of what is going on around him, but he helps to save someone who turns out to be alive in the pile of bodies he is carting to the morgue. He may be stonefaced, but he is not totally inhuman. Only one of the workers in the morgue displays what is commonly recognized as human emotion. She is revolted by what is happening, and she loses it, in the only scene in the film that allows the audience to feel grief and indignation.
Larrain is preoccupied with people who look the other way while tanks are rolling by, who are oblivious to politics and who think that politics don't affect them. And while his massive anger is understandable, his cold blooded approach is too stylized and his deliberately repulsive style ultimately distances, if it doesn't altogether alienate, the audience. I respect that he sets out to provoke revulsion and a visceral rejection of political indifference (he unsparingly portrays his fellow Chileans for the most part, as extraordinarily nasty, self interested people) but I wonder if untempered disgust is enough. If you are expecting Mario to be positively transformed by the end of the movie, you are in for a bitter shock. His amorous travails finally lead him to perform a cruelly horrifying vendetta, sinking him further into his disconnection from the society around him. It's a great ending, but watching Post Mortem is like taking a gallon of bitter medicine. It may be good for you, but that doesn't mean you have to like it.

Oct 5, 2010

NYFF: Inside Job

                                                    The Three Stooges

Charles Ferguson is the documentary filmmaker who made No End In Sight, a very cogent look about the Iraqi mess and now he brings his organizational storytelling skills to Inside Job, a very entertaining, maddening and bitterly comic look at how the entire world was (and is being, as we speak) swindled by Wall Street in cohoots with the American government, including the current one. It is a blatant piece of rabble rousing, but, hell, we needed one. It is also a good didactic primer about what happened and how. Like No End In Sight, it doesn't really tell us anything new but it says it with verve, clarity and righteous outrage and it is required viewing for those people who still don't know what hit them. It should be required viewing for all Americans, period. But particularly for those who still think this is a true democracy and their votes count (HA!). For those Americans who are sitting on their asses (that includes me) waiting for government to reform itself and stop getting kickbacks from corporations, and start protecting its citizens from violently criminal greed. And particularly for those Americans who still refuse to be deeply disillusioned with Barack Obama. Obama had a chance to enact real financial reform and instead hired the exact same people who helped bring about the cataclysm in the first place, so that they could bail out their buddies and continue their bonus giving tradition undisturbed.
There is a parade of examples of brazen conflict of interest, the appalling behavior from the SEC and the rating agencies, the excesses of $1000 an hour prostitutes and mountains of coke, all passed as legitimate business expenses, beautiful aerial views of mega mansions in The Hamptons and fleets of private jets and helicopters, an entertaining catalog of outrage. And the movie, smartly, looks like money. Ferguson is no Michael Moore, with that klutzy DIY aesthetic. He understands that the movie needs to convey the hard glitz of greed. See it and weep. Or riot. Your choice.

NYFF: Aurora

Cristi Puiu, the Romanian director of the excellent The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, wrote, directed and is the star of his new film, Aurora, which is three hours long (impish provocateur that he is, he said after the screening that it should have been six hours long). If it weren't three hours, it would probably have been another masterpiece, and if you muster the patience to sit through the interminable first hour, you will be amply rewarded, for he is a deeply intelligent filmmaker. But you will need to wait for him to set up his enigmatic story by introducing all the characters related to the protagonist without a word of exposition. This is not a whodunnit but a "whydunnit". And it takes forever to find out. The movie starts with the main character in bed with a woman who is crying. She goes to the bathroom and the camera lingers for what seems to be an eternity on him scratching his arm in almost total darkness (oh those pesky, gloomy Eastern European films). We don't know if she is the wife or a lover but through hints in the action we kind of figure it out. The first third of the movie is frustratingly slow and deliberately opaque, though Puiu later protested to the audience that he was not concealing anything, but revealing, and he kind of has a point.
For an hour we see this taciturn man drive around, stalk a house, sit around, hatch a plan to use a rifle. We don't know why, or against whom. It is almost a silent film and he seems like a useless bungler, a sad sack. But then something finally happens. The way Puiu builds tension is by starting out with an action that obviously creates suspense, then he meanders around for far longer than he should until you get comfortable with the meandering and when you least expect it, it happens.
Most of the violence in this film is off camera, and it is deeply shocking.
In the second act, we realize that this man is seething with repressed rage. Our entire perception of his character changes, as more is revealed about the people who surround him, and he becomes a much more menacing figure. The movie picks up and the scenes are now alive with action. Just don't expect Jean Claude Van Damme.
Because of the nature of the film I can barely talk about it without revealing stuff you should not know. You are supposed to be in the dark making conjectures about relationships and motives, and then little by little Puiu reveals what the connections are and the movie grows richer as we discover the threads that lead this man to act like he does. Puiu is a master of the mise en scene. He crams in one roaming shot, without coverage or cuts, an enormous amount of information and opinion about the characters, their country, their culture, and his own darkly comic frustration with the way things are. He is a pitch dark observer of the little cruelties of every day, of the lack of human tact and empathy, and of years of national malaise.
Puiu said after the screening that he objects to the way violence is portrayed in films, as if it was something extraordinary that is far removed from our day to day life. He claims we are surrounded by violence in real life and said he wanted to make a film about how anyone can harbor violence without depicting violence for thrills, but as a brutal, human act. Aurora depicts different degrees of violence, from the verbal abuse by parents of a mischievous child, to the indifference about the feelings of others, to murder.  I am the last person to have patience for arty movies of self-indulgent length, but the more I think about Aurora, the more deeply it resonates and the more I admire it. I simply can't shake it off.

Oct 3, 2010

NYFF: Carlos

Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas, is 5 1/2 hours of a gripping, stylish, smart and sardonic look at the life of Ilich Ramirez, aka Carlos the Jackal, the notorious terrorist from the 1970s. It was made for television, although it doesn't feel like a TV series. It is swiftly paced, energetic, gorgeously shot and thoroughly enthralling.
Carlos is played with blunt effectiveness by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who speaks convincingly in English, French, German and Arabic, plus his native Spanish. He is a cold blooded murderer, bent by singleminded revolutionary fervor to end imperialism and help the Palestinian cause. He is also educated and well spoken and quite enjoys his bourgeois luxuries once in a while. At the beginning I felt queasy in case this ended up being a celebration of a rock star terrorist celebrity, but Assayas is very clear-eyed about his antihero. He portrays Carlos as a violent idealist whose despicable means to an end bear little in common with the empathy he supposedly feels for his own cause.
The film has plenty of wit and sardonic humor so, in contrast, with the boring and solemn hagiography that was Steven Soderberg's Che (an equally long production, but which felt much longer), this is no canonization of a guy, who at the very least, was a sociopath. Carlos represents the embodiment of the "armed struggle" that purports to free the oppressed by killing the oppressors (mostly innocent people) without ever helping the oppressed one bit. To look at it from the vantage point of today just proves how fruitless it all was. Israel is still around, the Palestinians are still in hell and the Arab world still can't get its shit together. Plus, communism is dead.
At the beginning, Assayas paints Carlos with the swagger of a rock star. He is attractive, cocky, irresistible to legions of women, and kinda cool. But soon it becomes clear that not only is he a ruthless murderer, but he ends up being the pawn in a larger game played by very sinister forces in the nasty underbelly of Cold War and anti-Zionist politics. He is not an innocent, but he seems to have no choice. If he has to carry out attacks, someone has to pay for them, no? And who is financing these terrorist spinoffs of the PLO, all these warring factions of Arab guerrilla infighting? Khadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad, some of them trying to gouge each others' eyes out, plus the KGB and the Stasi, for good measure.  Carlos acquiesces to doing the dirty work for ugly regimes without blinking, for he is a firm believer in the sowing of terror as a means and an end. As the seventies, with all their hijackings and bombings and cliques of young European and Japanese idiots scaring the shit of their complacent First World countries, give way to the more materialistic eighties, Carlos essentially becomes an arms runner, and he uses terrorism to liberate the less effective of his comrades that end up arrested. The cause, all of a sudden seems real petty.
Carlos refuses to ever acknowledge the degradation of his revolutionary zeal.  As for the great concern over the plight of the Palestinians, the movie makes clear that it is intertwined, from the very beginning, with a hateful and deliberate targeting of non-Israeli Jewish civilians as well. By the time one of the cells connected to Carlos hijacks an Air France plane and lands it in Uganda, at the bidding of the FPLP, the German terrorists on board separate the Jewish hostages from the gentiles, making the incident seem so much like Auschwitz on a Plane, that it makes the Israelis fly to Entebbe and liberate the hostages in an operation that probably did much to end the whole hostage-taking circus. After that, I think the terrorists decided that it was just easier to forgo their 15 minutes of broadcast fame, and just blow the hell out of airplanes, without all that jazz.
The movie shows how the Libyans pay Carlos to kill Anwar Sadat, only to be thwarted by the Muslim Brotherhood, who gets there first. That is enough foreshadowing to point us to the kind of terrorists we have to deal with today.  They make Carlos and his ilk look almost quaint.
Carlos claims he is only a soldier in the armed struggle against imperialism, but he likes to give orders rather than obey. Soon he is cut loose from the FPLP and he forms his own group, aided by a bunch of benighted Germans who spy for the Stasi, while the Stasi spies on them. As the hippie seventies give way to the materialistic eighties, Carlos adapts. He secures arms for the Basque ETA, he does assassination favors. And he keeps sinking lower and lower into a pariah, getting thrown out of pariah nations in a descending ladder of unsavoriness.
Carlos is an unsentimental chronicle of disenchantment with what now looks like quaint (but needlessly bloody) revolutionary ideals. It makes one ask the very important question, how do you get from feeling empathy for the downtrodden to killing pregnant women in their homes? And yet, one look at these cosmopolitan, globetrotting criminals and we realize that even their stylish pizazz is gone. Compared to the Islamonuts, the reds look like the paragon of reason, and of style.
To be honest, I was thrilled to watch a movie that is so close to my own convictions about the dangers of revolutionary dogma. I've always been allergic to far left propaganda, I don't buy the berets, the folk songs, the frustrated hatred against capitalist democracies, the supposed fight against tyranny and injustice by people who couldn't identify a totalitarian tyrant if he sent them to the Gulag, to a forced march, to a reeducation camp, and then bit them in the ass.
Yesterday, talking about Godard with my friend and fellow blogger Virginia, it occurred to me that Assayas is a stylistic heir to Godard. The movie is so well shot, so bracingly edited, so limber in its staging, that it reminded me of those exhilarating early Godard films.  Carlos may be Godardian in style, but it could not be a crisper rebuke to the dogmatic ideology of the far left, and so perhaps to the far left politics of Godard himself.
Assayas shoots this narcissist nihilism with such panache, energy and chic, that I wonder if he doesn't feel a certain nostalgia about the good old days where any idle 19 year old petit bourgeois wanted to join the Red Brigades. Nowadays you can't get young people off their facebook to walk the dog around the block, let alone to join a revolution. If he visually romanticizes Carlos and his exciting times (Edgar Ramirez is far more attractive than the original, and the movie is just stunning), the story makes sure his depravity, and that of his employers and comrades, comes across quite clearly. Carlos seems more like a major narcissist with good organizational skills and deadly sang froid, an adrenaline freak, than someone who is truly concerned about the fight for justice. He is in love with the idea of violent revolution, but has absolutely no qualms about killing innocents. He enjoys wielding the power of fear. For a Latin American, he was highly organized and highly effective. Too bad he used these unusual traits to kill people.

Oct 1, 2010

The Social Network

At the center of this entertaining meta-creepy movie is a character who remains an enigma from the moment he appears on screen. I don't think Mark Zuckerberg needs to worry so much about how the movie makes him look, because Aaron Sorkin, the writer, has taken his founding of facebook to explore much more than his personality. This is not a biopic. This is an exploration of our new adventures in the virtual arena of "social media", of the new era in which our personal connections and relationships with others need not take place in concrete space and time, but rather on virtual forums that can actually be "monetized". 
Sorkin takes Mark Zuckerberg and turns him into a dramatic figure. Thus, the MZ in the movie is a guy who is obsessed with belonging. He is a computer nerd, he feels like an outsider because he is Jewish and a nerd, and quite an unsocialized being (zero tact, zero charm) and he is at Harvard, a place that is predicated upon making most people feel like outsiders to begin with. I think Harvard should worry more than Zuckerberg. The film portrays it as a preposterous wannabe version of Brideshead Revisited, with a manufactured, absurd snobbery that does not belong neither in this day and age, nor in this country. I bet Sorkin, and possibly Fincher, had a field day making it look like an entitled den of inequity (and iniquity). Animal House with Etonian pretensions.
The film chronicles the disputed beginnings of The Facebook, as it used to be called back in prehistory in 2003, and it is basically a gripping legal procedural of who said what and who did what, once it became clear that this thing had enormous potential to unleash huge amounts of greed from all involved. Mercifully, the legal wrangling does not take place in a courtroom, but at depositions in antiseptic conference rooms with extremely capable lawyers. I loved the actors who played the lawyers. I want to hire them. As lawyers. I'm gonna sue Zuckerberg for my incurable addiction to facebook.
The lack of stuffy courtroom drama clichés is a breath of fresh air and keeps the proceedings snappy. The setting makes for a much more intimate fight. Former friends now face each other across a table surrounded by cutthroat lawyers, that are prepared to be even more ruthless than them. These scenes are intertwined with the events as the feuding parties recollect them. The back and forth between before and after is an excellent structural choice. It keeps the audience on its feet but it also deepens the emotional content. The past weighs in the minds of the characters now suing each other to pieces.
Mark Zuckerberg is played by Jesse Eisenberg as flinty, awkward, cerebral, cold and aloof, but way too sensitive to criticism and rejection (this may actually be true in reality, since he is devoting considerable PR resources to counteract this movie). Eisenberg is excellent; I contend that he is the only young actor who can deliver lines at such high speed, you can see his brain churning). He is also fearless: he plumbs the depths of assholeness but understands the deep vein of vulnerability (for belonging, for succeeding, for status and respect) in his character, which to his enormous credit, he doesn't milk for sympathy, but keeps very close to the vest. It's a great and daring performance. The rest of the cast is good, too. I loved the guy who played Larry Summers. This, so far, is the David Fincher movie that I like best. The script by Aaron Sorkin is smart and crisp, and Fincher keeps the rhythm snappy and the movie barreling forward with great skill.
So is Mark Zuckerberg an überasshole, a guy intent on worldwide interweb domination, or is he a pathetic, yet arrogant nerd genius with an unfortunate lack of social graces? Is he painfully awkward or is he uncaring? Does his penchant for wearing nothing else but hoodies reflect a semi autistic genius nerd or is it coldly calculated? The movie insists that it's not the money that drives him. He seems oblivious to all the enticements of fortune. What he really wants is acknowledgment. He is the uncool who desperately wants to be cool.
I think the central paradox of the movie can be encapsulated in one line told by a lawyer to Zuckerberg: "your best friend/is suing you for 600 million dollars". The very title of the film as well: The Social Network. Since when did human beings become cables? Real human relationships are flesh and bone, they take actual "face time". If you prick them, do they not bleed? Networks are connections, all wire and plastic. I think that what vexes Aaron Sorkin is that it is getting harder to make the distinction.