Nov 22, 2010

White Material

Here's David Denby on White Material, the reason that I was afraid to see this movie: 
Dreadful, in an aimless, intentionally disjointed way that some people have mistaken for art. We’re in an unnamed African country at some unnamed time during a meaningless civil war between “rebels” and “militia,” and the members of a white family living on a worthless coffee plantation can’t pull themselves together enough to leave or even to have a coherent conversation. The shots are slung together with purposeful discontinuity even when continuity is absolutely called for if a given sequence is to make any sense. There are striking images, but the director, Claire Denis, leaves them isolated from one another; the movie offers mere postcards of despair. Isabelle Huppert stars as the plantation manager, a woman who refuses to acknowledge literally dozens of signs that death—hers and her family’s—is imminent. The movie is an attack on white postcolonial arrogance and stupidity, but none of the African characters are more than a handsome face.
I should have been more afraid of David Denby. What's up with his contempt for this film? I agree with him that this movie would have benefited from more internal coherence between the characters, but White Material is by no means a sloppy or meaningless movie. I thought it was a rather fascinating exploration of colonialism through a very personal lens. Denis' chooses to depict the escalating danger of a country in civil war, not by connecting the dots and spelling everything out for the audience, but by directly immersing us in the point of view of her coffee grower protagonist, Maria Vial, a stubborn Isabelle Huppert, who, as one of her workers says, doesn't want to be separated from what she owns. There is more than that. Yes, living in an exotic land with indentured servants may make some people slothful and it may distort their sense of place in society, but she is single-minded and hardworking in her desire to yield just one more crop of coffee, to stay in the place that gives challenge and purpose to her life. This is where her son was born, and where she feels she belongs. After all, she seems to be the only white person in the movie who actually breaks a sweat working. She is in total denial and even blasé about the danger of a country in insurrection, and one that predictably looks for scapegoats in the white colonialists, justifiably and not. To her, the current chaos is like been there, done that, this too shall pass.  
Meanwihle Denis shows the resentment of the Africans towards white people with a totally authentic mix of deference and distance, cooperation and contempt, and utter distrust. It did not bother me that Denis does not explain what specific African country it is. It seems to be a combo of all civil wars that ravage Africa, with child armies, and bands of rebels and government militias almost indistinguishable from one another. This is still, after all, the view from outside. The end result, however, is very concrete mayhem that is depicted in a very palpable way. There is nothing more terrifying than young children bearing real guns and machetes. And Denis fixes the camera on their chaotic, brutal, fearsome yet disturbingly beautiful anarchy. She does not make easy anti-colonialist pronouncements. She just shows the consequences. It is a complex situation of dysfunction, codependency and unfairness, of both plundering and progress, between the colonialists and the colonized that finally coalesces in the sheer evil that allows children to be dehumanized to such a degree. I welcome a movie that shows the entanglement and the deep intertwining of cross-purposes, rather than insultingly simplistic dreck like Invictus.
I disagree with Denby that the African characters are merely handsome ciphers. The mayor of the village, who lives in relative ostentation, has a definite character and a clear purpose in the film. There are workers and servants and people with different degrees of empathy towards Maria, but they are subservient because that is what they are in her world. The least worked out of the characters is a mysterious rebel leader called The Boxer, played by Isaach de Bankolé. Is he good or evil, we don't know. He seems to be a hero to the people, but then some of those people are 9 year-olds with spears and machetes. He hides at the plantation, nursing a bullet wound that should have killed him after days of ignoring it. Huppert lets him stay, stubbornly oblivious that this gesture may be considered a dangerous provocation. For her, who later learns who he really is, he is the nephew of one of her workers and thus, he can stay. Her dealings with the locals are matriarchal and guided by human relationships. A stern and demanding, but not evidently cruel mother, she knows who is whose son, cousin or daughter. These poor people have no choice but to need her salary, but they resent her mothering, which they did not invite. Arrogantly, patronizingly, she pays no mind to factions or politics and she pays an awful price for that. Instead of the classic paternalist, evil plantation owner, we get a woman surrounded by ineffectual men. A  father in law that is now sick and unable to help, an ex-husband who has a son by one of the servants and when the going gets tough, sensibly, if flakily, wants out, and a monster of a way past teenage son, she dotes on like a helpless child and who, for unexplained reasons, becomes the symbol of white people at their worst in Africa. He doesn't go about raping and pillaging. He just stays in bed all day, unwilling to help and nursing a sick mind. I thought it was interesting that his mother was at once  disappointed in him and still overly protective. Her enormous blind spot regarding him sheds light on her enormous blind spot about the country she lives in and her place in it. She chooses to be an innocent, and suffers the consequences. Yes, sometimes the characters do things that don't make much sense and there could have been more than a tenuous connection between her character and the relatives that live in the house. But I really liked the impressionistic point of view. It takes the safe distance away from the viewer, and makes it a much more visceral experience.

Nov 21, 2010

A Weekend at the Movies

Today's Special
This romantic comedy written by Asif Maandvi is kind of conventional and predictable but very sweet, moving and enjoyable. It's intimate, beautifully shot, with lovely music, and the Indian food looks delish. And pretty much any movie with Kevin Corrigan automatically gets my love.

aka Clueless and Pointless. This movie is as bad and as ridiculous as The Room, but with a bigger budget and inexplicably good actors, like the inimitable Eddie Marsan, who is the best thing in the entire movie, and the great Ruth Sheen and Timothy Spall. The most mystifying thing about it is why it got made. The devil must have financed it.

Why is Clemence Poesy in every movie? Is she France's second national export after Camembert? Who is she fucking? I dislike her intensely.

On our way to see White Material. I hear wildly diverging opinions... I'm very afraid.
If there is something I can't stand, it's pretentious French movies. I'll let you know!

Nov 20, 2010

127 Hours

...or Danny Boyle's Disco Adventure. The only thing that keeps this movie honest is James Franco's committed, sincere and extraordinary performance as Aron Ralston, the guy who got trapped in a canyon for 5 days. 
I think my prior knowledge of the plot diminished the impact the movie should have had on me. But that is not the only reason why 127 Hours feels unsatisfying.
Don't get me wrong; 127 Hours is very entertaining, breezy and fun. The cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak) is at times breathtaking, Danny Boyle's signature style brims with energy and panache, and some of his visual ideas are inspired, but at the same time it gets in the way and doesn't do justice to a simple story that hinges very basically on the conflict between a man and a rock. There is too much music by A.R. Rahman, there is too much pizazz, and the hyperkinetic style seems to be at odds with the story. Survival is the opposite of glamour. And yet Boyle chooses to tell a story of survival by engulfing it in cinematic razzledazzle.
The movie seems underwritten (by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy). Either that or Aron Ralston is not interesting enough as a character.  I liked the fact that they never cut away to the people in his life searching for him or going about their business unaware that he was in danger. There is no search party, he is alone and we are alone with him. In flashbacks, he thinks of family, of a former girlfriend, of all the people he knows and loves. He is vaguely cognizant of his own hubris, but there could have been much more about his state of mind and about how existence changes when it is pared down to life or death.
Franco is excellent through the entire movie, but there is one scene that should get him award nods: the first time he turns his camcorder on himself. There is true fear in his eyes, and an authentic and deeply moving combination of confusion, dread and incredulity. He hits a moment of truth and it is amazing to watch. Franco anchors the movie with a quiet competence and his performance is much more authentic, solid and honest than the razzmatazz surrounding him. Everything he does feels coherent with his character: a charming, laid-back A type, a perfectly delightful guy who is cocky and blasé about risk-taking.
Boyle, however, seems to overdo everything. Ralston encounters two fellow female explorers on the way and makes them jump into an underground pool. The first time we see this, it's almost as bracing and exciting as if we were about to jump ourselves. But then they decide they want to do it again, like kids wanting seconds at a rollercoaster. This may be what actually happened, but once the jumps are repeated several times, the impact of the first jump is diminished. In the interest of keeping things moving at a breezy clip, Boyle does not stop to explain some of the stuff that happens. There is a rainstorm (CGI looks rather cheesy), and Boyle cuts to Ralston breaking away but he never explains what happened to his stuff with all that water, how he didn't drown. This casual breeziness bothered me. It detracts attention from Ralston's incredible will to live. The result is that there is much excitement, but paradoxically, none of it is that visceral. It doesn't really hit you in the gut.
If you want to see a much more suspenseful, harrowing, existential and profoundly enlightening account of adventure gone wrong, check out the documentary Touching the Void, about two mountaineers that got trapped in a snowstorm in the Andes. An awesome, existential adventure film.

Nov 19, 2010

Go Banksy!

Here's the short list for Oscar nominated documentaries:
I'm missing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Just because she is a comedian, this is not taken seriously? It was very good. The ones in bold, I saw. Some are better than others, to me none of them earthshaking.
  • Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” Alex Gibney, director
  • “Enemies of the People” Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, directors
  • Exit through the Gift Shop” Banksy, director
  • “Gasland” Josh Fox, director
  • “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, directors
  • Inside Job” Charles Ferguson, director
  • “The Lottery” Madeleine Sackler, director
  • “Precious Life” Shlomi Eldar, director
  • “Quest for Honor” Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, director
  • Restrepo” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, directors
  • “This Way of Life” Thomas Burstyn, director
  • “The Tillman Story” Amir Bar-Lev, director
  • “Waiting for ‘Superman” Davis Guggenheim, director
  • Waste Land” Lucy Walker, director
  • “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, directors 
And here's Time Out's list of the 50 best docs of all time. This being Time Out, a grain of salt the size of Lot's wife is required. I don't think any of the Michael Moore docs are better than the Errol Morris docs, and several egregious misses are the wonderful French documentary To Be and To Have, Morris' incredible Mr. Death, which is among his best work, Touching the Void, and Anvil! The Story of Anvil! Lists never make anyone happy. Still there's a lot of good stuff for your Netflix queue.

    Nov 14, 2010

    Fair Game

    I love Sean Penn. He is always 100% alive and commits everything he has to every role he plays with intelligence and panache. He is inspired casting for the role of Joseph Wilson, husband of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts, also excellent) in this entertaining movie by Doug Liman. Penn is a great choice because we all know his politics. A lot of people hate him for going to New Orleans to help people after Katrina, his visits to Chavez and Cuba and Iraq. At least he takes a stand. So it's doubly delightful to see him seethe as he portrays Wilson listening to Bush talk about Iraq's inexistent nucular program. There are a couple of scenes where he is hounded by the press and he tries to keep his cool, when we all know that Sean Penn would probably deck them in the face. So he is wonderful to watch. Quiet, tender and endearing when he needs to be, a bit of a blustery, pompous ass as well. Give him a great speech about the responsibility citizens have towards their own democracy and he nails it with sincerity and without posturing. Naomi Watts is also very good as Valerie Plame. She is brisk and professional and no nonsense, but when they jump on her to destroy her, the anger and outrage show through her pores, she feels like she's a pressure cooker about to explode. The movie also focuses on the personal fallout and the strain of a marriage in which the woman is never home because she is too busy being a secret agent while the husband cares for the kids and is between worried about her whereabouts and upstaged by her.
    But what it does also very well is to remind us that Dick Cheney still roams the Earth a free man, when he should be accused of treason and convicted to life behind bars for crapping all over the Constitution and the laws of this country. It reminds us that we are still sacrificing lives for a war waged on false premises. It shows how Dick Cheney was trying to make a case for his personal invasion of Iraq despite the intelligence that the CIA had gathered that showed Iraq had no nuclear program. It shows how the Bush administration (Karl Rove and Libby, whose reduced sentence of 2.5 years in prison was commuted by Bush) retaliated against Wilson's fact finding mission by scandalously outing Plame, who had to quit her job and leave a bunch of Iraqi scientists in the lurch, which meant unprotected and as good as dead. Fair Game works well as the intimate drama of a marriage under strain, but better as an exposé of one of the many outrageous crimes that happened during the last administration and for which those responsible have not been prosecuted.
    Fair Game is well written (by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth), fast paced and very entertaining, and if you are a liberal, it feeds your sense of outrage quite deliciously.

    Four Lions

    This is a hilarious spoof by Chris Morris about a group of extremely incompetent but sincere and almost endearing jihadi terrorists living in England. It's nothing short of miraculous to make a funny movie about this topic. Four Lions has perfect control of pitch and tone and surprises the audience by humanizing the terrorists, not being racist about Muslims and at the same time not letting the terrorists off easy. If their intent is to blow themselves up, the movie follows that intent to the logical consequences, and that this is why it is smart and sharp and totally on point. I was waiting for some sort of Hollywood about face and it does happen, just not in the way anyone expects. I can't really talk about it without giving up the great amount of funny jokes, visual gags and pointed satire, but I can tell you it is extremely funny and very intelligent. The actors are all excellent.
    This film is a hoot. I heartily recommend it, even if you go into the theater hoping no one blows you up for seeing it.

    Nov 11, 2010

    Arrivederci, Dino!

    He produced La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, L'Oro di Napoli, Bitter Rice and Mafioso, for which he belongs in the pantheon of the Gods of Cinema. Also Barbarella, several Italian movies with the great Toto and then, except for Serpico and Blue Velvet, oodles of gargantuan Hollywood schlock, including fabulous pop culture artifacts (and mostly duds) like Death Wish, King Kong (with Jessica Lange), Dune, Mandingo and Flash Gordon, among others. Dino De Laurentiis. Producer extraordinaire. Died at the ripe age of 91.  Almost 70 years making movies.  Check out his unbelievable output. How many have you seen?


    The Talmud, I believe, says that there are four ways of giving charity, and the most preferable is when the donors do not know who they are giving to and the recipients do not know who the donors are. This eliminates the recipients' shame and obligation to be grateful and it also prevents inflated egos and expectations of undying gratitude on the part of the munificent. This is very wise, for as we know, even in the most selfless-seeming acts, there are always some sort of strings attached.
    This documentary by Lucy Walker follows extremely successful Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he decides to give back to his roots by making art with and about the trash pickers of the biggest landfill on Earth, which happens to be in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In an Orwellian twist of language, the place is called Jardim Gramacho -- Gramacho Garden. Whatever else it is about, everyone should see this movie to get a sense of what happens to the tons of garbage we generate. You will never see your stupid bottle of Poland Spring, or any of your trash for that matter, in the same way ever again. In developing countries, the poorest of the poor make a meager livelihood by sorting out the refuse the rest of us throw mindlessly away. In Brazil people don't even bother separating plastic, glass, cans and paper from organic refuse, hence the trash pickers need to climb and burrow into mountains of revolting filth in order to pick the recyclables that will net them at the very most $25 a day. These trash pickers are smart, organized and they seem to have more environmental awareness than the trash throwers, but as usual, someone wants to develop the landfill and put them out of a job. I hope that they get paid well for the land, and placed in better jobs. I doubt it.
    Muniz's intentions seem sincere: to make portraits of these people with the garbage they collect, sell it directly at auction and give 100% of the proceeds back to them. By lifting them up from anonymity he intends to change their lives, at which huge bells of alarm start ringing in the viewer's mind.
    Walker starts out by focusing on Muniz, but once the trash pickers are introduced, they totally steal the show. Muniz and his assistant pick a highly charismatic group of intelligent, articulate, and dignified men and women, and the film is most enlightening and poignant whenever it focuses on them. Yet Walker misses the opportunity to make the film about them, or to explore Muniz's stunt from their point of view. Even with the good intentions of the artists involved, there is a whiff of the patronizing, in Muniz's paternalistic and naively exuberant benevolence, in the filmmaker's going along with it without much probing a counter argument, and without seizing the story of the trash pickers and making them more central to the film. The only person who seems to provide a counterpoint is Muniz's wife, and she voices what some of us in the audience are thinking: and who are you, Vik Muniz, that you think you can sweep these impoverished people off their garbage and "change their lives" through art? How exactly are their lives going to be changed?
    Intrinsically, his high concept stunt has its heart in the right place: the trash pickers lives will change because it will humanize and individualize them. It will change their perception of themselves. It will turn their terrible labor into a thing of beauty. This much it does. The subjects seem to thrive by collaborating with Muniz, and they are paid for their efforts. Muniz's art is big on ideas and sloppy on execution. He takes great photographic portraits of his subjects, blows them up to enormous scale and then has the pickers fill them up with the garbage they collect, as he mostly directs the proceedings from above with a laser pointer. The end result looks rather cheesy and the strong personalities of the characters are almost erased beneath the forced layers of conceptual meaning the artist is bent on imposing on them. It's also gimmicky: the trash pickers are asked to pose like characters in famous classical paintings. Why couldn't they just be heroic, as they are, without the superfluous and pretentious artistic wink? 
    At the end of the movie, titles update the audience on some of the positive fallout: with the $50,000 made on the auction, Tiago, the organizer pictured above, has opened a learning center for the trash pickers, one of the women leaves her husband and becomes independent, another woman now works as an employee elsewhere and wants everyone to know she is very happy. They all appear on TV and get their 15 minutes of fame. But not everybody fares as well. The 19 year old who already has two babies is now expecting a third; the amazing Irma, the cook who feeds the pickers, opens her own business, and according to the titles, misses her friends so much she goes back to the dump. They all get copies of their portraits and hang them in the flimsy walls of their homes. Aren't they valuable? Will they invite burglars? So many questions... I'm not a Pollyanna. I am always deeply suspicious of feel good movies about the poor. 
    Even with the lack of contrasting opinions and the insistence on the happy ending, the scenes with the trash pickers are enormously enlightening and eloquent. More than one of them mentions that they are proud to make a decent living instead of dealing drugs or selling their bodies on the streets, which seem to be the only other options available to get out of poverty. They are experts at figuring out the previous owners of the trash; more fortunate people who throw away perfectly solid pairs of shoes, incomprehensible people who throw books away, or the very poor, who tend to put their garbage in small bags. Getting to know the trash pickers is thinking there but for the grace of God go I, and this is of much more benefit to us than we can ever be to them.
    When the abyss between the haves and the have-nots is so insurmountable, one person trying to do something for the very poor seems between quixotic and ridiculous, between sublime and self-serving, even as the gesture is appreciated and is certainly better than nothing. This enormous divide is not only created by lack of money, but also by lack of education, by racism, by class barriers, and the exploitation of the many by the few. Good intentions are laudable but cosmetic. The great injustice of poverty requires a profound and massive redistribution of wealth. I'm not advocating communism, but the trickle down bullshit is just bullshit. It is not getting anywhere near the bottom.

    Nov 10, 2010

    The Heart Flutters... the preview of the new (and umpteenth) version of Jane Eyre.
    (Thanks, Maya, for posting this on facebook. You made my day).

    Extraordinary British casts give me butterflies, and from what I could tell, this one has Simon McBurney, Sally Hawkins and Judi Dench (aka God).
    Mia Wasilowska plays Jane, which is perfectly fine by me.
    But the reason the hand trembles, and the pulse quickens and the breath shortens and the eye waters (and the mouth waters), is that Rochester is played by none other than Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglorious Basterds and an amazing movie few people saw called Fish Tank). A magnificent actor and my new British paramour (in a long line of thespians that includes Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes, among others).  This one is a keeper.
    The world always needs a new version of Jane Eyre. I can't wait.

    Nov 7, 2010

    Jill Clayburgh

    A little bit behind everyone else, but I was saddened to hear the news. I saw An Unmarried Woman when I was very young. My mother liked that movie enormously. And Clayburgh made a huge impression on me in that film. Her pores seemed to exude feeling. She was so beautiful, in a normal, not Hollywood glamour kind of way. The story of the unraveling of a marriage from the point of view of the wife and the honesty of the feelings that was exhilarating, almost like getting punched in the gut and feeling grateful for it. I remember being shocked at the scene when she throws up. Had never seen anything like it in a film. I'm writing this from distant memory, since I have not seen the movie in years. But I still remember a somewhat flaky husband played by Michael Murphy, who was very good at playing spineless Wasps, and of course, the icing on the cake of this woman's awakening, the sexy, arty, hairy, robust appearance of Alan Bates (it's called charisma, and like her, he had it in spades).  Remember when there were movies in America about powerful, sexy, strong women like Jane Fonda, and Jill Clayburgh, Susan Sarandon? That is a loss we should be mourning as well.  

    Nov 3, 2010

    Classics: Psycho

    What better way to spend Halloween than in the distinguished company of Norman Bates, his poor dessicated mother and the pointy bras of Janet Leigh?
    I've seen Psycho many times. The first time, I saw it on TV in Mexico when I was 14 years old. My parents told me this movie was so scary that when they saw it on a double date, as they were driving to dinner after the screening, my Dad put his hand on the shoulder of my aunt Evelyn to ask her if she wanted to go for tacos, and she jumped and screamed.
    So my parents sit with me watching the film on TV until the famous shower scene and they decide to go to bed and leave me watching on my own. I ask my Dad if anything horrible is going to happen after that and he says, Nah.
    This movie scared the living daylights out of me.
    I go back to my room in the dead of night, repeating the mantra "it's only a movie", and I close the door and I take off my clothes and I start scratching my shoulder and I use my other hand to scratch the rest of my back and the tips of my fingers touch and I scream bloody murder. The next day, my Dad, who otherwise might wake me up by storming into my room while singing the international socialist anthem, opens my door a crack and starts wrapping his hands around it, making his fingers writhe and squirm like evil creatures and making me laugh and scream at the same time. I couldn't shut my eyes as I washed my hair because I was afraid Norman Bates would come and get me with a knife.
    Well, this time around the actual scares lost some of their potency (and looked slightly cheesy), but the film is still deeply, gorgeously creepy and disturbing. And the suspense is unbearable.
    I think Hitchcock's genius manifests itself all over the movie but particularly in the casting of Anthony Perkins. Norman Bates is so cute and vulnerable and creepy sexy, a grown man that behaves almost like an innocent child, a solitary nerd with an unusual hobby. He does not seem at all evil at the beginning. This is very scary. It means that you can't really tell what horrors people harbor in their psyches. (In a parallel way, the same goes for Marion Crane. Who would have thunk that such a respectable looking woman would be shtupping a married man and stealing money?).
    More importantly, at the time Perkins was a closeted gay man, and there are plenty of instances in the movie that hint at Norman's homosexuality. He sashays up the stairs and hides his mother in the fruit cellar! In those days there was that myth that possessive mothers tended to emasculate their male offspring and breed flaming queens. So Hitchcock exploited that quality he saw in Perkins whether he consciously knew he was gay or not. Which is why there can be nothing more egregiously wrong than casting a snarky Alpha male like Vince Vaughn in that role (except for having the audacity to think that you can make a shot by shot remake of Psycho). 
    Norman's confused sexuality is very scary. He has a terribly unhealthy attachment to his mom, to say the least. There is horrible sexual panic (I blame it on the pointy bra), because supposedly it is the mother who doesn't want to share Norman with any other women. The psychology 101 is a little iffy but the fear is real. In short, parent/child incest: one of our deepest, most abiding and terrifying fear-taboos. Scarier than Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Michelle Bachman and our new Congress combined.
    No wonder Norman Bates is a household name in pop culture. And poor Tony Perkins never was called to play almost anything but psychos.
    Psycho has been paid homage (see Fargo), sequeled, ripped off and copied to death. But in its day it was a very daring film, both thematically and artistically. It's sexual frankness was unheard of at the time. And Hitch was doing unbelievably creative work with camera and editing, as in that classic shower sequence. The choice of using black and white and super expressive cinematography, the amazing title sequence by Saul Bass, who also worked as visual consultant in the film, the iconic music by Bernard Herrmann, the fantastic Hitchcockian black humor. It still holds up. A fantastic film.

    They Do Make Em Like They Used To

    I guess nobody quite gets my crush on Zach Galifianakis, but I'm sure I can rally the troops over this one. There is still glamour in the world. Haven't seen him in a while, though.