Dec 28, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This was my most anticipated film of the movie season. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds (I do not much care for the Cumberbatch, sorry): British thespian wet dream central! Plus, it is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who gave us the extraordinary vampire movie Let The Right One In.
I confess: I have never been able to finish John Le Carré's novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (tried twice), I have never read any of his other books and I never saw the adaptations with Alec Guinness. But I can tell you this: I was a little bored. I did not mind the grainy, brackish hues of the cinematography and I loved the cumbersome apparatuses that spies relied on in those days; rotary phones, big ass typewriters in code and enormous recording devices. No cellphones, no email, no internet, no satellites. Spying was a more intimate, dangerous affair. I appreciate Le Carré's doggedly realistic contribution to the genre. James Bond, this ain't. Spying is hard, sometimes bureaucratic, painstaking work; it's not all martinis, bananaphones (as in Maxwell Smart) and chicks, he will have you know. There is something quaint about this nostalgia for the Cold War and the games that the Eastern bloc played with the West. They all seem futile in hindsight, but what do I know.
All that fake seventies hair distracted me. Why is Tom Hardy wearing such a terrible blond wig? Is it because he is a spy on the lam? But something else did not work. As great as Gary Oldman is, his performance is so understated as to feel absent. He seems like a hollow at the center of the movie. Not that he should be Sean Connery, but you don't get from him the piercing intelligence you get just by looking at a photo of Alec Guinness as Smiley.
All that Karla business (Karla is the Russian spymaster), and trying to find who is the Soviet mole among this group of British spies sounds very exciting on paper. But the movie is not as bracing as it could be because most of it is told in flashbacks, which somehow dulls the sense of urgency, and can be a bit confusing. There is a key scene where Smiley recounts his one tete a tete with Karla. It feels central to the film, but all that telling instead of showing makes the film tedious. The movie does get much more exciting towards the end, after all that back and forth, as Smiley gets closer to nailing the mole, even if it is not exactly clear how he got there. This story intimates that something personal is at the root of spying. In the end, it is men or women who burrow into other people's lives, and files.  At the center of the mole business is the hint of a homosexual relationship between Colin Firth and Mark Strong (bring it!), and there is an aura of dulled pain suffusing the whole thing. Smiley broods because his wife has left him; Firth and Strong are the love that dare not speak its name, Hardy is desperate to save a woman he loves. Alas, there too much of a fog around them to make them connect with the audience.
I hope Firth doesn't get typecast as the silent suffering gay, since he makes it work as wonderfully here, and with a lot more panache, as he did in A Single Man. He is a splendid actor. John Hurt is the liveliest of the bunch as Control, the head British spy. He is a lot of fun to watch. The rest of the cast is very solid, but none of the characters get enough screen time to make an impression, except for Strong, and Tom Hardy, who appears briefly but nails his part as a spy who has been left in the cold.

Dec 26, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

No director could be more perfect than David Fincher to helm this second film adaptation of the book by Stieg Larsson. I have never read the books, because as is the case with most movies, and most fast food chains, I don't do franchises. But I did see the original Swedish movie. Fincher's version is superior, and not just because it is way more expensive; his temperament makes the material more tolerable, at least for me. I happen to think the source material is awful. I understand that the book is a pageturner, but I find the story truculent, morbid, exploitative, mostly humorless and rather pointless. The idea that beneath such a perfectly well-behaved liberal society like Sweden there lie horrid problems (racism, Nazism, sexism -- every evil politically incorrect ism under the sun) is interesting, but I could not discern in either of the movies the contrast between the nice Scandinavian veneer and the dark depths of depravity. The story just piles on the depravity, leaving no room for irony: stacking it up just lessens the impact and evil becomes banal, vulgar and boring. I imagine that for Swedes the idea of a depraved welfare official is subversive, but the biggest problem I have with this story is precisely this segment. This man rapes and tortures his ward, Lisbeth Salander. In both films the rape and her subsequent revenge are depicted gruesomely, for titillation. I love revenge as much as anyone, but I don't appreciate when a rape is shown with supposed moral disgust, yet in a titillating manner. I don't buy the self-righteousness. I think Larsson is just getting off on the violence. He thinks women are going to find Salander's revenge satisfying. I find everything repulsive. 
But now the good news: At least Fincher is such an elegant craftsman, he counters the vulgarity with style. The opening credit sequence (by Blur Studios) is, as always in his films, absolutely stunning. Turns out that Fincher is becoming a great director of actors. The cast is perfect and superb. Everyone is understated, no one is histrionic, not even Christopher Plummer, who's always chewing the scenery (this time he nibbles it politely). It's as if the Arctic cold outside managed to frost everyone's hearts a little bit. Daniel Craig is very good as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He plays the ingenue and he does it charmingly, gracefully and without a trace of self-consciousness. Rooney Mara is excellent too as Lisbeth Salander. I adored the conceptualization of her character; that is, her look: hair, make up, wardrobe are absolutely brilliant. In the first movie, Noomi Rapace looked like an amped-up version of Joan Jett. Just vulgar. But Fincher and Mara go for a much more waifish, elfin look. She is ghostly translucent and looks like a goth spirit from the netherworld. This works better than a butch woman with distracting biceps and spiky hair.  Plus, it's amazing what a pair of bleached eyebrows can do when paired with jet black bangs. This Lisbeth Salander doesn't look good; she looks damaged. Mara's performance is almost silent, all in her gaze and her body language, intense without a hint of hamminess. Inside her tiny, aggressively appointed frame, she harbors vast reserves of suppressed rage. She is totally compelling, and also very brave, with all that aggressive nudity. Another cheer for Fincher: he's probably the only American director to go for it. Yay. I find Hollywood's puritanical avoidance of sex while they are gluttonous for grisly violence very offensive. With Fincher, we get the best of both worlds: his customary grisly tableaux of violence, and nudity. My only wish is that we could see as much of Daniel Craig as we see of Mara. There is always a next time.
The two big villains, Salander's evil guardian (Yorick Van Wageningen, impressive), and Stellan Skarsgard are excellent, relaxed fakers. No mustache twirling here. I was delighted to see the great Steven Berkoff as Christopher Plummer's attorney. Donald Sumpter is great as detective Morell, Joely Richardson is wonderful, everyone is measured and intense and good in this movie.
If only it didn't last almost three hours and was utterly pointless. It is long and meandering (like Zodiac, and Se7en), but one is utterly transfixed by how good it all looks (great work by longtime Fincher cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, less yellow than usual), how like clockwork it all works, by that polished Fincher style that is almost hypnotic in its cool, sharp, detached elegance, in its obsession with investigative detail. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian does the job, although I wonder if there is any way to cut to the chase sooner in this smorgasbord of grotesquerie.
Fincher likes to take his time with procedurals. His pacing is not slow; the plot is long. Still, Fincher stages a short set piece in the subway, where someone tries to steal Salander's bag, (after endless exposition and looking at computer screens) that is totally bracing, beautifully executed, fast, sharp, breathtaking. Also, as he proved with The Social Network, he may be the only guy in the world who can make staring at computers sexy for the audience. The way the images and information appear on the computer screens is beautifully and dynamically presented. This is quite an achievement.
Fincher can also build good moments of tension, two to be precise, and I wished there were more, considering his leisurely stroll in finding the culprit of a crime that happened 40 years ago, that I couldn't care less about. I was entertained by his style, by the fine actors, by everything but the plot.
I used to dislike Fincher's movies because I found them glossy, but hard-hearted and empty. Interestingly, the one movie where he tried his hand at love and feelings, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his worst failure. He should stick to human nastiness. Ever since The Social Network, I'm warming up to him. He has great control, great craftsmanship, and watching his movies is as richly satisfying an experience as buying some very expensive couture item, or going for a spin in a very expensive, shiny, new sports car (none of which I've ever done). The surfaces are enthralling. 

Dec 24, 2011

Young Adult

Written by Diablo Cody, and directed by Jason Reitman, the team behind Juno, Young Adult gets brownie points for trying to be a very dark comedy, a willful antithesis to all those fluffy, borderline offensive Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson movies about women desperate to get married that always end with the woman getting the guy. But Young Adult does not have the frenzied joie de vivre of Bridesmaids, which is also an antidote to that. This is a strangely toned film, mostly held together by the compelling performance of Charlize Theron as Mavis, an alcoholic ghostwriter of young adult novels, who lives in the big city (Minneapolis) and is obsessed with recovering Buddy, her now happily married old flame (Patrick Wilson), who is still stuck in her old town, with a new baby. On paper, everything is there for a great, sarcastic comedy about selfishness and romantic immaturity, and I give credit to all involved for pushing the material to the most uncomfortable lengths; but something doesn't quite jell. For one, the laughter dies in your throat. I guess you need a subtler hand to make it more mischievous while keeping the darkness alive (Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Fargo, or the early films of Alexander Payne come to mind). Sadly, Reitman and Cody are heavy-handed satirists, while the genre requires a light and killer touch. Reitman needs more finesse as a director to make the horrible ironies of the story resonate. And the conventionality of Cody's by-the-number plot turns completely undermines the bracing contrariness of her script. 
There is a lot of richness in the idea that a woman who writes for young adults is a young adult herself, and of the worst kind. Mavis is bitter, self-pitying, both needy and cold, a bitch on wheels, arrogant and pretty brazenly horrid. Cody employs the voiceover narration of the teen novel Mavis is ghostwriting to provide an ironic echo to what is happening in her life. This is a very clever device to make Mavis tolerable, since it shows a window to her sad fantasies of love and happiness; yet little sticks in the mind, and none of it deepens the pleasure of watching this movie. In fact, watching this movie is not a pleasurable experience. There are a few genuine laughs, mostly because Theron tears through Mavis with great gusto and insight. But Cody overly punishes Mavis for being the Alpha Bitch. You can totally imagine Mavis being a gorgeous, nasty piece of work in high school. Well, now she is 37, still gorgeous (you'd need pounds of prosthetics to make Theron look bad), and her comeuppance is here. In the end, like many other American movies, Young Adult becomes a pat moral tale. Mavis is going to learn her big lesson and both she and the audience are going to be punished for being such selfish Americans. Boo hoo.
I have no problem with an anti-heroine that makes you cringe, but I do have problems with arbitrary, artificial plot points. And there are several important ones. Mavis arrives in town and gets recognized by Matt, the local cripple (Patton Oswalt, miscast and misdirected, in my view), and they almost instantly develop a buddy relationship. I never understood why Matt was so invested in preventing Mavis from reclaiming Buddy. What's it to him? A simple inkling of motive would have made his goodness understandable. Then there is the problem with small town goodness. Except for Mavis, everybody is an angel. Buddy is a sweet and decent guy, his wife is adorable, and Matt bears little traces of hatred or resentment towards the jocks who left him a cripple, thinking he was gay. So I found Matt and Mavis' relationship unconvincing, and Oswalt too much of a teddy bear to be interesting. If someone with a bit more bite, like Zach Galifianakis, were to play this role, Matt and Mavis could have been a killer duo, and much more fun. But, instead of wallowing joyfully in the destruction someone like Mavis can unleash, Cody goes for the confessional, for punishment and atonement: yawn. The piece de resistance, a scene where Mavis exposes herself for all the town to see is ludicrous and forced. The audience can go with everything that happens until then and right after that, but Mavis' self-inflicted debasement to the entire town is a groaner. She regresses to being the petulant high school bitch of yore, but it is not believable that she, of all people, would unravel like that, even after the requisite several shots of whiskey. Why hit the audience over the head with a frying pan when you could use a light, more devastating, touch? Beats me.
There are some further moments of discomfort with Matt and a wonderful exchange with Matt's smitten sister (she's smitten with Mavis), right after the punishment scene, as well as some well observed moments about what it is to be a writer: Mavis stealing overheard conversations; one minute her face and page are blank with dread, and the next they teem with life and words. Theron is particularly good at conveying her writer's thoughts, and she is the best reason to see this movie. She makes Mavis human. Too bad that Cody and Reitman shoehorned her subversive story into a most conventional plot.

Dec 22, 2011

Best And Worst Movies of 2011

(And everything in between). All and all, this was a pretty great year for movies. Some critics justly included gems like Aurora, Poetry, and Tuesday After Christmas in their lists. You can find these movies in my list of 2010, because I saw them at the NYFF. This list is subject to change, as I'm still to see some movies.
But if I absolutely must furnish a:

10 Best List

A Separation
The Artist
The Trip
The Tree Of Life
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Into The Abyss
Corpo Celeste


Cedar Rapids
Presunto Culpable
El Velador
This is Not A Film


The Descendants
Jane Eyre
La Princesse de Montpensier
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 
The Muppets
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Ides of March

Margin Call
Le Havre
My Week With Marilyn
Midnight in Paris
A Dangerous Method 
Miss Bala
Young Adult
Crazy, Stupid, Love


We Need To Talk About Kevin 
The Debt
Take Shelter
George Harrison: Living in a Material World
Once Upon A Time in Anatolia


The Iron Lady


J. Edgar
The Help
The Skin I Live In
Leap Year

Dec 18, 2011


Roman Polanski has taken a clever but unimpressive play and made it better.
When I saw Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway, I was entertained but underwhelmed. It's a neat but rather facile concept -- the veneer of civilization promptly chips away as two sets of parents discuss a fight between their children. The movie, with a screenplay by Reza and Polanski, uses basically the same material but instead of trying too hard for a meaningful message about the human condition, Polanski turns it into a zippy, exciting, mischievous farce. What seemed vulgar and heavy handed on stage, is elegant here.
In theory, adapting this play into a film sounds like a futile enterprise. Why would you want to spend an entire movie watching four people bicker in one living room? Yet in the hands of this master director, you forget you are in one room most of the time. The movie is precisely, elegantly crafted, the camera is perfectly expressive and the nimble, assured pace is bracing. This little chamber piece is a tour de force and master class in directing, with no self-conscious fireworks. (How I wish Polanski had directed We Need To Talk About Kevin). He can teach a thing or two to directors who let style run rampant. With Polanski, style is content; expressive and unobtrusive at the same time.
Polanski's gifts are not only his assured command of the medium; the mise en scene is fantastic and he is a great director of actors. In this version, the characters are more sharply defined. The material benefits from the camera's closeness to the actors' faces. The actors know this and go to town, doing their job with skill and excellence.
The cast is uniformly splendid, topped by John C. Reilly who is absolutely hilarious and pitch perfect as Michael Longstreet, a guy who behind his sweetness hides a good amount of contempt for his high-strung, politically correct wife Penelope, (Jodie Foster); Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan, a dry, Blackberry wielding corporate lawyer, and Kate Winslet as his composed wife, Nancy. All four work beautifully as an ensemble. I was amazed by the lovely, unflagging flow of their collective energy. Of the four actors, Foster lacks the subtlety of her colleagues, and she seems a little over the top. Yet she is very compelling. She approaches Penelope with a tight, controlling fury and she is believably, valiantly self-righteous. Winslet can make tulips wither with one look, and her transformation from prim and proper corporate wife to drunken mess is flawless. Waltz is drily reptilian as a lawyer from hell, but he is likable because he is blunt. None of the actors condescend to their characters, which is why they are all so winning. It is also worth noting that for such a small film, Polanski recruited the best of the best: the great production designer Dean Tavoularis and costume designer Milena Canonero, the excellent cinematographer Pavel Edelman, and Alexandre Desplat's music is as elegant as the rest of the film. A  tasteful Brooklyn apartment has been created on a set in Paris and the narrow views of Brooklyn from the apartment and shots of Brooklyn Bridge park are done with subtle digital effects, since Polanski cannot set foot in the US.
The only thing that falls a bit flat is the ending, which seems abrupt and inconclusive, but Polanski seems much more in command here than last time around with The Ghost Writer. Carnage is a lot of fun.

Dec 15, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mothers are supposed to be endless repositories of unconditional love and patience, but what if they have a hellish child? The premise of a failed relationship between a mother and her newborn baby is very interesting and never before seen, that I know of, in film. Can you think of any other movie about a resentful mother with a very bad kid? What can a mother do when confronted with having to love a succubus who hates her back? According to writer-director Lynne Ramsay, nothing, which is the main reason why this movie is a mess.
Be it far from me to cast aspersions on the great Tilda Swinton, who is as good as she can be in such a wrongheaded movie. It is not her fault that she is miscast as Eva, the mom of the Kevin in question. Swinton has such intelligent charisma and such a powerful personality that it is hard to believe she would be such a passive masochist, particularly in the hands of a rotten toddler. She's not easy to believe as a suburban American mom either. In this film she is an incomprehensible doormat, and doormats, even when played by La Swinton, are a lost cause to the audience.
With a more linear structure, this could have been a disturbing horror movie about a demonic child. Had it been a cheesy horror movie, or something in the vein of Stephen King, it would have been more interesting. Artsy-fartsy as it is, it just doesn't make much sense. In the first part, we see Eva living like a ghost, having flashbacks of a better life and of horrifying events caused by Kevin (Ezra Miller). Ramsay jerks the audience around for a good while until she finally decides to clarify what happened. Even though the movie exerts a visceral pull, especially in its second half, Ramsay's treatment of the topic is so pretentious and elliptical, that little works.
The story takes place somewhere in upstate New York, in what looks like a European's cliched idea of the American suburbs, complete with a supermarket scene with fake cans of tomato soup. In the aftermath of some truly hellish misbehavior by teenage Kevin, Eva, ostracized by the community, finds work at a crummy little travel agency too pathetic to feasibly exist. Although we see that in her former life she enjoyed a big house and fancy clothes, we never understand exactly what it is that her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her do to lead such an economically robust life, especially since they seem to be eternal hippies.
Missing in this movie about a mother is what is most important to parenting, which is common sense. Scene after scene of a satanic toddler, who then becomes a little boy, who then becomes Ezra Miller, being utterly evil, and there is not one timeout, not one screaming match, not one comeback from a frustrated parent. It never occurs to anyone to send this seriously deviant kid to a child psychologist. The sole time Eva loses it, the boy ends with a broken arm, but even then it looks like he deliberately hurt himself to torture her. Franklin is too naive and unbelieving about Eva's complaints about the kid. The kid, of course, is cherubic when dad is around, yet even when he witnesses some horrendous lip on him, Franklin just shrugs it off as boys will be boys. The casting of Reilly, who is excellent at playing easy-going men-boys, is rather hamhanded. On the other hand, you cannot cast Ezra Miller and be deliberately oblivious to his astonishing otherworldly beauty, which could either be a source of his always getting away with murder, or is not believable at all (aren't all those crazy kids with murderous fantasies usually gangly nerds?) The movie ignores this as it does most of reality. Hence we wait for two hours for Eva to put the kid in his place, but she never fights back. She doesn't even fight back when as a teen, Kevin really harms his sister. This was the last straw for me.
Ramsay doesn't want to spoil her arty movie with the coarse banalities of daily parental drama, so the way characters react in this movie has absolutely nothing to do with reality. There is no outside world to speak of. No teachers, no PTA meetings, no counseling experts. Eva is alone in her belief that this child is out to get her. Again, if this movie was in the hands of someone with creepiness in their mind, this could be bone-chilling. Is Eva imagining the child's malevolence? But Ramsay is more interested in showing the aftermath of destruction in Eva's psyche. She is his mother, but it's hard to understand why she sticks by him. She doesn't even like him. Ramsay punctuates Eva's depression with a very annoying country and pop music soundtrack that further removes the story from real life. Style gets in the way. Still, as flawed as it is, this film manages to create significant disquiet. In a culture that always finds justifications for the worst human behaviors, usually along the lines of an abusive childhood in the past, this movie turns this explanation on its head. It's the kid who abuses the loving parents, without apparent reason. Kevin is just evil to the core. What would you do with a kid like him?

Dec 7, 2011


The first scenes are a bit of a shock as we watch a CNN-like news update about war between Rome and the Volscian nation. I thought for a second that this Ralph Fiennes directed movie (his first as a director) was going to be one of those unfortunate Shakespeare updates that try too hard to win over a modern audience. But as the movie conjures up this barbaric world of war, shot in ugly parts of Romania, it becomes clear that Fiennes and his wonderful adapter John Logan conceived this strange Shakespeare tragedy as a very powerful antiwar movie. What makes men go to war? What are the consequences of the notions of honor and heroism? Who is fit to rule a country? Isn't war primitive? It is not a civilizing force.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, whom Fiennes met when he worked in The Hurt Locker, uses a frantic hand held camera to capture the messiness of war. The fight scenes are chaotic, the colors are murky and washed out, and the entire aesthetic is brutal. This is not glorified combat. There is none of the stiff, symmetrical pageantry one sees in other films of Shakespeare. Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's most compelling plays, but Fiennes' update is visceral, thrilling and extremely poignant; it happens to be one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare to the screen. Screenwriter John Logan uses modern newscasts to dispense with all the boring messengers that declaim expository info, and this smart device helps make Coriolanus' tragic flaws even more dramatic. Fiennes plays the title character, Marcus Caius, a renowned soldier whose brutal exploits make him a natural leader of Rome. Problem is, he refuses to pander to the populace, who perceive him as authoritarian, arrogant and aloof (he is). It is a one-note performance of sheer imperious stubbornness. He is a principled but inflexible man, so unwilling to give in to the ass-kissing that is necessary in a democracy, that he rather banish himself away from his family and his country, than court the people's favor. He is borderline insane. I felt that the character could have used a soft spot somewhere, but I'm always impressed with Fiennes' disinterest in being likeable or pandering to the audience. He was surprisingly charming in the Q&A at the screening I saw, but he always plays his characters with utter disregard to his own vanity.
Coriolanus is more than an antiwar pamphlet. There are some interesting notions about authority and democracy in this movie. The "people" come across as rather unsavory and obnoxious activists, who are nevertheless easily swayed by media and political manipulation by two wily tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who conspire to manipulate the masses against Coriolanus, with the curious consequence that you end up rooting for the autocrat. One must remember that in Shakespeare's day Roman democracy must have seemed bizarre, but him being the most modern writer who ever lived, he somehow foresees this tension on who is to have power and how easily it is to manipulate the masses.
There is one absolutely extraordinary performance in this movie, and that is Vanessa Redgrave's as Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother. It's a great character: a mother who wants her son to go to battle. She steals this movie in a way that I haven't seen an actor do in a long time. Her scenes with Fiennes are the best Shakespearean and the best screen acting you will ever see. She brought tears to my eyes a couple of times with her fierce conviction. Brian Cox, playing a trusty family advisor, a garrulous but clever politician, is also excellent. 
Logan and Fiennes interpret this play fittingly to our day and age. One cannot help but think about Bushie and his Mission Accomplished, about the lies we were told about nucular weapons in Iraq, and though the film comes with a bit of delay, (since  the media is not showing us anything anymore that might outrage us) as long as there are soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq, it will be a potent reminder of why we are still waging these destructive wars to this day.

Nov 24, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

I have a fear of biopics because they tend to be stiff and cheesy and too reverent towards their subjects. The opening scenes of My Week With Marilyn promise a classic Harvey Weinstein, Oscar-hungry project, all very prim and proper but not very interesting, but if you stick around, it gets more poignant as it goes along.
You have to have ovaries of titanium to step into the shoes of such an icon, and Michelle Williams acquits herself quite well. At first one must get past the physical differences (Jessica Chastain, who does a Monroeish turn in The Help, would have also been excellent casting). Williams can look very pretty, and she has that mix of wispiness and will that make her a good choice for the role; but even with some extra padding in the rump, she does not cut the gorgeous, voluptuous figure that Marilyn cut in her day. Her face is not as perfect, but what she lacks in the flesh, she makes up in spirit. As the movie progresses, we get a glimpse into this rare, unhappy creature. The voice is breathy, almost labored, and the charm and the pain are there, as well as some sullen unreachable quality by which she denies the world her luminous presence. Marilyn is fickle, flirty, manipulative, charming, either innocent or playing innocent -- sometimes all in the space of five seconds. She must have been quite smart, to play dumb so well.
The story is sweet and sad. It is based on a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young man who leaves his family's august manor to "join the circus" of the movies. He gets a job as a gofer at Laurence Olivier's production company. Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, his heir apparent, chomping at the bit) decides to cast Monroe as his love interest in a comedy. In reality, The Prince and The Showgirl was the first movie by Monroe's production company. She is the biggest star in the planet. He is so famous an actor that a brand of cigarettes bears his name, and he is married to Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara, That Hamilton Woman and Blanche Dubois). As actors go, these two were living legends at the time, and must have been huge to Marilyn's eyes. As Colin says to her later in the film, Olivier is an actor who wants to be a movie star, and she is a movie star who wants to be a serious actress: it won't work. Compounded by the fact that the most famous woman in the cosmos was pathologically insecure and suffered from stage fright, among other demons, the shoot did not go well. Marilyn arrives in London with third husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, trying to sound very Brooklyn) and acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) in tow, and everything goes wrong. Marilyn is always late, she flubs lines, Strasberg whispers in her ear, and worst of all, she feels Olivier hates her. Marilyn relies too much on the Strasberg method by which she has to plumb all kinds of emotional depths in order to say one line, which drives Olivier crazy. I loved seeing the chaos she created by always being late, utterly inconsiderate to the cast and crew, including Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, aka God), a giant of the British stage who was nevertheless enormously kind to Marilyn. Monroe was famously unprofessional. Directors forgave her time and again because her charisma was truly spectacular. She oozed desire. Her painful contradictions seemed to come out from every pore of her flawless skin, which made her an incredible movie star.
The movie is told from the point of view of Colin. Besotted with Marilyn, he somehow gains her confidence and ends up being the appeaser between her and Olivier. They develop some sort of a friendship and Marilyn decides that he is the only person from the studio she can trust. Now, when was the last time you saw a male ingenue on screen? Redmayne is excellent as the wide eyed but smart and sophisticated kid who gets his heart broken by the biggest sexpot on the planet. It is a smart and lovely performance, and except for a couple of moments in which he actually bats his eyelashes, rooted in true feeling. Redmayne and Williams have great chemistry together, and he makes his love for her utterly believable. You can clearly see how he goes from eager neophyte to the manly man who is there to protect her. And you can see his heart breaking, which is no small acting feat. I hope it is not an unsung performance: a man in love is such a rare part for a male actor.
Colin, who is the third assistant director on set, ends up having more power over Marilyn than Olivier. Olivier, a pragmatist, lets it happen as long as Colin can make her show up on time and functioning. Marilyn, of course, wields the ultimate power because she knows she is the only indispensable cog in the wheel. She wields her power with her physique, and by being an emotional wreck. She hints at her horrid childhood, and her complicated relationships with men, but the movie smartly leaves her bottomless misery a mystery. She is solely obsessed with her own shortcomings, willfully oblivious to the chaos she causes on the set. There is a wonderful moment where, after having being herself (if such a thing was possible) alone with Colin, she has to turn on the wattage for an impromptu audience of admirers at Windsor Castle, and she becomes Marilyn for them, mimicking her own sexy mannerisms. It's hard to fathom how impossible it was to be her: she never left the girl from the foster homes behind, even if she reached the pinnacle of access. Adored by everyone, she never felt anybody truly loved her.

Nov 13, 2011

J. Edgar

This movie confirms what I have always maintained. That Clint Eastwood is a hack whose reputation as a good director I find inexplicable. J. Edgar Hoover is surely a great historical (and hysterical) character: a complicated prick, and the only man in the history of the United States to have remained in power for almost fifty years. However, this biopic, ponderously written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and clumsily directed by Eastwood, manages to make his story dull, disjointed, stiff and lifeless.
The film has many issues. It is directed by a man who does not have an ounce of inspiration in his body. He takes a script and stages it in the most unimaginative, workmanlike, literal way possible.
The script is needlessly baroque, with a back and forth structure in which an aged Hoover (Leonardo Di Caprio, looking like an exploding cauliflower) writes his memoirs and flashbacks to his beginnings as a young man. This drains the story of drama. A conventional chronological structure would have allowed us to see more clearly the arc of this strange, Shakespearean villain, from a stuttering sissy with a domineering mother to the most powerful, intimidating man in America. That would have been more daring. Instead we are needlessly dizzied by all the back and forth and horrified by a terrible make up job (don't be surprised if it is up for an Oscar. It still sucks).
The aged Di Caprio looks just like Jon Voight, so why didn't they get Jon Voight to play him in his old age instead? And Clyde Tolson, the love of Hoover's life and his second in command (a charming and excellent Armie Hammer), could have been played by Eastwood himself, instead of making Hammer look like a zombie out of a Christopher Lee movie.
How are we expected to believe anything this movie says about J. Edgar Hoover when the make up is so cheesily fake? When the director makes terrible choices in terms of casting characters that age many years in the span of two hours? Judi Dench could play a lamppost and get awards for it, and I always welcome her presence, because no one utters lines the way she does, but there is a preposterous scene when J. Edgar is a little boy, and instead of using a young actress (Samantha Morton, say) they give poor Dame Judi a terrible reverse aging makeup that makes her look ghoulish, and the movie amateurish. This is hack work. Had the script been linear, most of the make up problems could have been avoided because we'd have seen the exploding cauliflower/Jon Voight only at the end of the movie.
But let's say that you manage to look past the makeup debacle. The movie still fails to make a strong, clear point about a closeted gay man who was obsessed with secrecy, who spied on people and intimidated them by keeping secret files on them and let them know about it. The film fails to investigate how a man with an obsession for law and order, a man who created a modern, efficient and methodical FBI, was corrupted by power and abused his position to such an extent that he had eight sitting presidents trembling in fear of him, along many others. All that annoying back and forth fails to connect in a meaningful way how Hoover's queerness affected the creation of his law enforcement persona. Hoover could have been written as a character of Shakespearean magnitude, but the movie is cumbersome, corny and very superficial, and it wastes the opportunity to create an interesting portrait of an abuser of power. This J. Edgar could have been a man of invincible power yet vast reserves of weakness, cowardice and self doubt. Yet we don't really get to see the tension or the contrasts. And I don't blame this exclusively on the actor.
In a world where you would not need a movie star to bankroll a film, this role should be played by a great character actor, someone like Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Sarsgaard or even Joaquin Phoenix, who is a good looking version of Hoover (use your imagination). But in this world, the role goes to a boyish looking movie star who is not the character's type at all and becomes a distraction in it. Now, Leonardo Di Caprio is a consummate professional, and he clearly did his homework. He commits to this role as he does to all his work, with the utmost thoroughness. He nails the rapid speech (apparently the result of childhood stuttering), the stiffness of the era and of the man, and he even gets to act quite decently behind the clumps of makeup. They have him wear dark contact lenses that obscure his eyes, for crying out loud; if the poor guy gets an Oscar nomination it will be for acting in spite of all the obstacles against him -- bad makeup, bad casting, a clunky script and a hack director. Di Caprio delivers a very solid performance, but not a great one. Something feels mechanical and stunted. I think that the structure of the movie undermines the arc of the character, so while Di Caprio is sweating buckets trying to bring the guy to life, Eastwood and Black do everything in their power to make it hard for him.
J. Edgar Hoover was a nasty son of a bitch and this movie shows him that way. But this is the post Tony Soprano age, we are used to nasty sons of bitches that seduce or compel us to keep watching. I felt absolutely nothing for this character in the course of this interminable movie, no matter how much cheesy swelling music they added in the scenes that are meant to tug at the heartstrings. No hate, no love, no interest in this man. I blame it on the stiffness of the direction, on too many ridiculous scenes, like Hoover proposing to his secretary (Naomi Watts) at the Library of Congress five minutes after he's met her, or an over the top tantrum by Tolson as Hoover tells him he thinks it's time for a Mrs. Hoover. But mostly, one gets detached from the cardboard quality of the whole enterprise because of the lack of a livelier and deeper probing of Hoover's character. This movie is a bore.

Nov 12, 2011

Into The Abyss

Werner Herzog starts his powerful, devastating new documentary about the death penalty and violence in America, interviewing clergyman Richard Lopez at a cemetery. Lopez is a priest who accompanies those sentenced to death as they receive the lethal injection in a death row jail in Texas. In this first interview, Herzog sets up his approach to the topic. At first we think he is going to mock or confront the priest about the seeming absurdity of the Church participating in such a ritual. But Herzog simply asks Lopez what it is exactly that he does at the death chamber. The priest explains that he is there to be with the convicts in their final moments and he is only allowed to hold the condemned man by the ankle. There is something at once childlike, primitive and biblical about this minor detail, and this is the kind of nugget that Herzog knows how to mine. Herzog does ask him quite skeptically about God's role in all of this, to which the priest answers that everything happens for a purpose, etc. Lopez starts talking about spending time alone at a golf course and observing birds and squirrels. He then breaks down in tears as he thinks how he is able to save two squirrels from getting squashed under his car but there is nothing he can do to save the convicts at the death chamber.
The camera gets closer to the crosses behind Lopez, which are all identical, and Lopez explains that those death row inmates who have no one to take care of their burial are buried here by the state, with a cross and only their inmate number -- no name. It is only then that we realize there is something strange about this cemetery and these crosses. It's as if the men were killed by the state but the state wants to act like they never existed. This is such a quietly outrageous image, that I still have trouble trying to understand how it is possible. Just the sight of this decent man, trying to do what he believes is God's work in a bizarre system, standing in front of a verdant field of endless numbered crosses, is devastating. Every question that Herzog asks from his subjects, begets many more questions in the viewer. Are these men alone in the world or have their families rejected them? Is it the state's business to murder convicts, and then bury them with nameless crosses? What is it about the US that disconnects people so much from one another? 
This film does not pretend to be an "objective" look into capital punishment in the US. To make his point about the absurdity, the indignity, the wrongness of the death penalty, Herzog uses the capital case of two young white men in Texas, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were teenagers at the time of the crimes. Shrewdly, Herzog chooses to focus on an air tight murder case that cannot be easily tainted by partisan politics or ideology. The men are both white, as are all their victims, in full possession of their minds, and the evidence against them is incontrovertible. He starts the film fooling the audience into thinking that what we may be about to see a gross miscarriage of justice, but then he slowly reveals the chilling circumstances of the case, which make the viewer feel like the two kids should fry in hell for all eternity. They committed a wanton and callous triple murder.
Herzog lets the facts of the case unfold as if in a mystery, but this is not a procedural or a criminal investigation. He layers the revelations so skillfully, manipulating them precisely against our assumptions or expectations, that he creates an exponential portrait of senseless violence. Both convicts accuse each other of the crimes; both are lying. Herzog is not interested in the minutiae, or in who did what.  He is interested in the deeper mystery of why men commit murder and the devastating emotional consequences of such violence. This story, as told to him by the relatives of the victims, a police officer, the father and the wife of one of the murderers, a couple of acquaintances of the murderers and a man who used to work at death row, is a bottomless parade of human calamity, an abyss of pain that sears everyone connected to it, compounded by the crowning absurdity of the death penalty.
Herzog is too smart to sound superior, snide or impatient with the bizarre paradoxes of the moral vision of the state of Texas. This is not smartass agitprop a la Michael Moore. Herzog is an enormously skilled storyteller and a serious artist; he wants us to absorb the shocking contradictions and comprehend the scale of human suffering, and that is how he quietly, personally makes his political statement.
The movie is shot by Herzog's longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, in simple but powerful compositions of the subjects in mostly medium shots in the foreground of the frame. I don't know how Herzog got the local police to let him use the footage they took of the actual scenes of the crimes, but he does, to remarkable effect. This is stuff that the public never gets to see, and it is horrible and surprisingly sad. One of the victims was killed as she was baking cookies. The police find the tray with the cookie dough and the TV on.
Herzog has an eye for the powerful image. He repeatedly films the empty death chamber, with the little cell that holds the prisoner in the last hours of his life a dozen steps away, a table laden with no less than four Holy Bibles in English and Spanish in front of the cell, and the actual chamber itself, with the lethal injection gurney and its many restraints. Everything looks antediluvian except for a state of the art digital clock inside the chamber. There is no need for Herzog to comment. He just trains his camera on visions of abject absurdity.
Herzog is usually an eccentric character in his documentaries, asking pesky questions and having contrarian opinions. In this case, he refrains from making comments or passing judgement. He allows the testimony of these people to create a heartbreaking tapestry of hurt and injustice.But he is a great interviewer: gentle, intimate and blunt at the same time. He asks the right and logical questions, and some slightly eccentric ones, and all of his subjects open up to him. It seems like they know, can sense or have been told that he is an important filmmaker and some of them address him with a formality that is very touching. 
There is something about the way in which Herzog focuses on some detail in one person's story, that creates a whole reality without him needing to establish a lot of context. He interviews a friend of Jason Burkett who recounts how Burkett once held a gun to his temple for hours and then shot at him, and somehow the gun did not go off. The kid and Herzog talk about how lucky that was and Herzog somehow coaxes him to reveal that he learned to read and write in jail (most of the males in this film have been in jail). Herzog asks him how it feels to be able to read and write (awesome) and surmises that you have to be twice as smart as everybody else to function in the world without reading and writing. Herzog does not make a big deal out of it, but one wonders, is this the richest country in the world where you still have illiterate, impoverished adults? Why is everyone in Texas so hell bent on self-destruction?
By focusing on the personal on a small scale, he opens a vista of a United States that is deeply troubling; a place, Texas at least, where young, piss-poor people may not have access to education or opportunity but they apparently have unfettered access to guns, where entire families fester in jails and where the state kills people who killed other people, which makes the law and lawlessness look too much like each other.
The title of the film, Into the Abyss, sounds just like a nature documentary (it is a film about human nature). Its subtitle is A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. Of life after senseless death and of life in spite of death, of bad lives, life in jail, lives that should by all accounts be less fraught with danger and hardship. Herzog ends hid film in a note of hope, with a woman pregnant by one of the murderers. Having heard his pronunciations about the cruelty of nature before, I don't believe he just wants to give us a ray of sunshine. I understand that the need to continue human life is just as strong as the need for some to end it, but I wasn't completely comforted by the thought of bringing a baby into such a world, After all, what is the future for this kid, whose father is up for parole in another 30 years? Yet, if anything gives you faith in human nature in this film it is that at least some of them, like Burkett's father, feel guilt, sorrow and remorse; others have a conscience, like Lopez and Fred Allen, a man who finally quits his job at death row after enduring too many executions.
A conscience, which is what the murderers lacked, is all we can hope for, all we need to ensure we don't descend into savagery.

Nov 9, 2011

Oscar in Crisis

After saying publicly that "rehearsing is for fags", professional idiot and overcompensated Hollywood hack Brett Ratner predictably had to bow out of producing the 2011 Oscars.
Some people are having a zirotsky, mostly because of the gay slur. My interpretation, which is not a justification, is that none of this calamity would have transpired if he had said "rehearsing is for pussies", which I think is what he meant, and which is still offensively stupid. Rehearsing may not be for hacks of his caliber; it's for serious professionals.
Ratner was stupid and clueless enough to use "fags", a nasty slur for gays; a huge and talented contingent of which keeps Hollywood in business, not so much by buying tickets, but by actually working in it. Probably a huge number of the people behind the scenes in any Hollywood production and/or Oscar telecast is comprised of "fags".
Like that idiot Republican from Texas who used the phrase "Jew them down", unless you want the public to get a glimpse into the kind of schmucks you really are, learn to calibrate your language, fools.
I find Ratner's arrogance about rehearsals equally or more offensive. Is he so gifted that he can do away with professionalism? His movies are the garbage they are, among other things, presumably because he is too macho to rehearse them (although I doubt that he doesn't rehearse the car chases, explosions and karate chops involving Jackie Chan).
Just as you don't want your children hearing a successful Hollywood hack (a role model, in other words) use slur words against a particular minority, you don't want them influencing your children to be lazy, arrogant slobs. Saying that rehearsing is for fags is like saying that doing your homework and studying are for losers; a patently stupid thought. Rehearsing is for artists, consummate professionals and generally people who passionately try to do their very best with their creative gifts, whether big or small. 
Still, this goes to confirm that Ratner's hiring was a very bad idea. And so instead of this being a calamity, it may actually be a good thing. It is almost inhumanly possible to imagine an Oscar ceremony worse than last year's. I have a feeling that Ratner was on the way to achieving that. Now we'll never know. It has even crossed my mind that perhaps Ratner wanted out of the whole bloated blintz and he knew exactly how to extricate himself from it, but that may be giving him too much credit.

Some people enjoy watching the Oscars as a ten car pile up from which you cannot avert your eyes. I'm not one of them. True, they are impossible to survive without copious amounts of alcohol or other painkillers; but every year, and despite an avalanche of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, one wishes it will be a fun, cool show with a gazillion movie stars (not TV, not internet, not reality show stars) and fairly apportioned prizes. This I know is delusional, but such is the pull they exert for some of us (or maybe only me).
We know the Oscars are ridiculous, moribund, unfair, vulgar, fake, clueless and horrifying, but they're the Oscars. I surmise this is similar to being a diehard Red Sox fan, except that the Oscars don't even deserve that kind of fan loyalty. So what is it about them that makes me park my ass in front of the TV set that Sunday or Monday in February or March or whenever it is and submit myself voluntarily to excruciating torture? Maybe that for about four hours I get to glimpse many actors and artists I love all in one room and to uselessly root for the movies I liked (and don't forget the dresses).
I actually scream at the TV screen on Oscar night (sort of like this guy).

Nov 2, 2011

Cinema Quote of The Week

Anthony Lane knocked it out of the park this week.
This is why I enjoy reading him (bold letters are mine):
“Tower Heist” might nonetheless become a footnote in the history of cinema, as might Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” another new release. The two works have almost nothing in common, except that both show clumps of unlikable people behaving implausibly in confined spaces. More important, both are enmeshed in the squabble over video on demand, or VOD, which allows customers to view a new, or barely used, film in the nest of their own home. On October 5th, Universal Pictures announced a trial project, whereby “Tower Heist” would be available to half a million households in Atlanta and Portland, Oregon, three weeks after its appearance in movie theatres, at a cost of $59.99.
One’s immediate reaction to this news was: sixty bucks! For a Brett Ratner movie! It’s like one of those cafés in Weimar Germany where a glass of beer cost you four billion marks. The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the “Tower Heist” experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge... Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won’t go.
“Can you blame us?” they will cry. “Who wants to pay for a sitter, drive twenty miles in the rain, and sit in a fug of vaporized popcorn butter next to people who are either auditioning for ‘Contagion 2’ or texting the Mahabharata to their second-best friends?” And the answer is: me.
ME TOO, Anthony! Here is the clincher:
There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema.  ...One thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone.
Read more for Lane's fun pan of Tower Heist and his pithy but quite accurate assessment of Melancholia.

Oct 26, 2011

For Your Halloween Consideration

Don't want to dress up as Michelle Bachmann or an OWS camper this Halloween? Watch a movie instead!

Here's a list of spooky movies for your viewing pleasures. And some new additions below.  I'm in the camp that humans are far scarier than zombies, ghosts, vampires or ghouls, so much of what you will find below qualifies as horror in my book. 

Now Playing:

Martha Marcy May Marlene. I think this is a horror film. Period. And a good one too.


Requiem. A German movie about an exorcism, based on a real story. No turning heads or day-glo vomit, but creepy and disturbing nonetheless.

Eyes Without a Face. A beautiful French horror classic. Almodóvar's new film borrows liberally from this one. And this one is much better.

La Ceremonie. Evil unleashed in the form of a maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her nasty girlfriend (Isabelle Huppert). Pretty much anything with Isabelle Huppert will make your blood curdle, so consider watching The Piano Teacher as well. 

The Butcher. Another disturbing little film from Claude Chabrol, a master of social horror. 

The White Ribbon. The budding seeds of Nazism in a small, creepy German town. Gorgeous and frightening.

Dogtooth. This Greek movie will weird you out. I promise.

Black Swan. Relive the anorexic nightmare. I actually saw it a second time on a plane, and it held up. 

Taxi Driver. Saw it again recently. Pretty horrible in the best way possible.

The Room should be required viewing every Halloween. You get to see the mind of a deranged person who thinks he has made a movie. Really scary.

Oct 23, 2011

The Skin I Live In

Except for Volver, a movie I loved, I have not liked an Almodóvar movie in ages. He has become a parody of himself, and since I am not a fan of camp, his excursions into deliberately cheesy melodrama are not for me. The Skin I Live In is yet another contrived pastiche of a filmmaker who is now more concerned about paying homage to and namedropping the sources for his creative inspirations than at telling a compelling human story.
I am not as erudite about film as to list all the movies that this one pays tribute to or borrows from. The most obvious one, Eyes Without a Face, is a masterpiece of horror and it is echoed here in the secluded plastic surgery clinic where Dr. Robert Ledgard (a good Antonio Banderas) experiments to create artificial skin. But far from a horror movie, The Skin I Live In is more vulgar, convoluted, nonsensical and clumsily told than a bad Mexican telenovela. There is nothing remotely mysterious or suspenseful about it, but that is not the point, because the point is to be as campy and kitschy as possible, which, on me at least, has a distancing effect.
The only thing that kept me watching is the gorgeous, sensual cinematography by the great José Luis Alcaine. Visually, the movie is too polished for the crappy acting style and the stilted dialogue, but at least you can marvel at the pristine light and the rich color of almost every frame. The music by Alberto Iglesias is almost exactly identical to his music for Talk to Her, and just as lovely, although one tires of artists ripping themselves off so shamelessly. I also marveled at the amazing makeup worn by Elena Anaya, as Vera, the woman on whom the doctor experiments, and whose skin looks like Estee Lauder's wet dream. These things held my attention while I struggled to stop cringing in my seat.
I cannot abide the humorless Marisa Paredes, an Almodóvar regular, an actress who in Spanish would be called "una pesada", who plays the doctor's assistant and who also turns out to be his mother (big shock). I'm not giving anything away. The vulgar convolutions of the plot hold no mystery or suspense whatsoever. I was rather more shocked to find that in this movie Almodovar completely eschews his light touch in favor of exaggerated, clumsy bathos. I don't expect him to redo Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Matador over and over again, but I do miss his fresh, comedic moxie and the days where his staging was lithe and playful. This present work is as light and as palatable as reinforced concrete. He used to be cheeky but never vulgar. Not anymore.
As in Talk To Her, I could care less about his admiration for Louise Bourgeois, or Cayetano Veloso or Pina Bausch. These inclusions of his favorite artists in his movies may be genuine fandom on his part, but they strike me as both pretentious and provincial. 
There is one interesting idea in this movie, which is a theme that Almodóvar has touched upon before, and which is hidden somewhere in the middle, blooming only for a moment before disappearing among the bizarre, meaningless melodrama. There is a sequence, when the doctor, as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, is turning a man into a woman, who then seems to fall in love with him, that communicates the idea that sexual identity and gender are fluid. That beneath the skin, deep inside, our desires, male or female, are far less distinct than we think. This is a beautiful idea well worth putting in a film, Alas, the rest of the movie is like a botched surgery, with the ugly bolts and stitches visible to the naked eye. The Skin I Live In is a movie of ideas, firmly ensconced solely in the director's self-referential head, which is why, in spite of all of the beautiful color, it feels utterly devoid of life.

Oct 22, 2011

Margin Call

It looks like hype was looking for an Occupy Wall Street movie and found this one right on time. Its timeliness will no doubt help conceal the fact that it isn't a very good movie. It is entertaining and spottily enjoyable, a valiant but flawed effort by noticeably inexperienced writer-director J.C. Chandor.
David Denby has lost his last marble by saying that it's the best movie ever made about Wall Street. The screenplay feels like an early draft, the cinematography and the staging are mostly inept, and given that some of it does work, it squanders many opportunities to make its point, whatever it is, clearly and forcefully. If it is trying to do what Downfall did for Hitler, that is, give human dimension to these greedy bastards, it fails. There is a difference between having ambivalent or ambiguous characters and characters who act incoherently within the premise they have been set up in, which is what happens with most of the characters here.
As I could not clearly understand the point of this movie, I surmise that these are its two main premises:
1. The investment bankers gambling other people's money in their glass bubble above Manhattan did not fully know or even understand what they were doing, and the few that did looked the other way as long as the profits kept coming.
2. Huge piles of money are thrown at or withheld from these characters like carrots or sticks, and therefore, they feel they have no choice either way. All the characters are immobilized by greed, or the system, or the need for money, hence nobody has any principles.
The problem is, paralysis and general spinelessness may be true to life, but they are unsatisfying dramatic choices. Characters who know and fear the worst are much more exciting than characters who know nothing and just look stricken at the sight of a computer screen. You could have the most appalling villains and make the audience care for them if they have their own skewed integrity, but in this movie nobody rises to the challenge.
Paradoxically, documentary films about financial shenanigans like Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room or Inside Job feel more urgent and deliver more of a blow to the gut. The reason for this is mainly in the writing. Margin Call has lots of expository speeches but little action; hence, the stakes, high as they are, don't feel as urgent as they should. We are told the world of these investment bankers is about to collapse, but we don't see it happening to them, they just explain it to us. When Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), is asked how he can blow a yearly two and a half million dollar salary, he meticulously lists his budget: what goes towards taxes, the mortgage, the flashy car, the expensive wardrobe, restaurants, booze and whores, which he can deduct as entertainment. The enormous figures sound realistic, but it would be more compelling to see what is at stake for him, or at least to see how this has personal consequences. Yet nobody in this movie, despite sweating buckets at the sight of gnarly numbers, seems to have a personal stake or a reaction, except for maybe losing their jobs. They already have so much money, it's like bubkes to them. This might be realistic, but it is dramatically flaccid. If I held a gazillion stock options valued at $95 a share and the next minute they are worth 65 cents, I would have a big reaction, believe me.
The film begins tautly enough with a well executed sequence of massive layoffs at a prestigious investment firm, where two ruthlessly efficient female enforcers calmly tell Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) that he is now finished at the firm, all his communications with it severed. He leaves his unfinished files with junior analyst Peter Sullivan, who then does the math and discovers a financial catastrophe waiting to happen. Eric is fired and his attitude is one of resignation rather than revenge or indignation.
At the same time, Peter Sullivan is an actual rocket scientist who ends up working at this firm because the money is better than in academia. After two years in such a cutthroat place, he still behaves like a Pollyanna. Resignation, like innocence or timidity, are boring dramatic choices, and soon, despite a certain show of ambition that is not fully exploited, Sullivan's dramatic thread runs dry as well. So the movie jumps to Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who is like the den mother and cheerleader of his floor, and has been in that place for over thirty years, egging youngsters on to give it all for the firm, surviving by stopping his ears to all the unseemly financial misdeeds. He's supposed to have feelings because his dog is dying (the cheapest way to telegraph humanity). Remember Hitler in Downfall? He was nice to dogs and secretaries, but the genius of that movie is that the more humanly Hitler was portrayed, the more of a monster he became. He might have been insane, but he was not an incoherent character. Sam (whom I am not comparing to Hitler) oscillates between humanity and ruthless efficiency. He seems to have a bit of a backbone, loyalty to the firm (which is over 100 years old and no one seems to give a shit), but then he acts spinelessly, and we do not quite understand why. The way the script is written, the stuff that needs to drive the action surfaces after the fact, (turns out he needs the money). This kills the dramatic tension. If we had known that Sam has a conflict between, let's say, his debts and his loyalty to the firm, we'd be hanging at the edge of our seats, but the way it's played, it doesn't so much feel like a betrayal but like a deflation. And so we are left with a hazy collection of characters whom we have trouble understanding. Their motivations, money notwithstanding, are not personal enough. Worse, nobody in this movie fights back, even for craven reasons, like greed or revenge. They all rather take the check, which is humanly credible but it flatlines the movie.
If Margin Call feels like a better movie than it is, it's because the cast is immensely enjoyable to watch, and several individual scenes work nicely. Chandor does a good job of keeping the entire cast at a very balanced, high level of performance. They all seem to belong to the same universe, which is quite a feat.
Jeremy Irons is over the top but mesmerizing as John Tuld, a Dick Fuld or some such megamaster of the universe type. Irons, like Spacey, is an actor who can do fifteen states of mind in one scene, and he nails the studied charm of the supremely arrogant. His scene in the boardroom is a roller coaster ride of imperiousness, coyness, false modesty, a man who is playing the part his underlings expect from him; a smorgasbord of acting. He goes to town, but despite his expansive performance, he is there to represent The Evils of Capitalism, but is not very believable as a flesh and blood character. And as much as I adore Irons, I have a beef with the fact that his character is British and not American, as he should be. The villainy we are all up in arms about today was mostly homegrown; why make it foreign? Why couldn't Irons do an American accent? To me, this choice undermines the story and makes it ring faker than it should.
Not even Kevin Spacey seems to believe the business with the dog. Still, what he is capable of communicating before he even opens his mouth is astonishingly precise, and he is equally sharp when he speaks. He's like a microsurgeon. He takes a line comprised solely of the word "what" and quietly turns it into a mini drama. And it is nice to see him playing a defanged shark, for a change. He is superb.
Demi Moore, who is excellent, is wasted in a role that has a huge turn that then goes nowhere, but she has one amazing scene in which her expression registers bitter regret at having pursued a life at the shark tank, instead of something more fulfilling. She's so good, one wishes she would abandon professional celebritydom and come back to acting. Simon Baker is very good but unexplored as an icy Jared Cohen. Paul Bettany is excellent but also left behind as a cold bastard who turns out to be not so horrible after all. And poor Stanley Tucci gets a potentially juicy role and has to settle with non-action. The actors deserve kudos for making much more of their characters than what they were given to play with.
There are some nice touches about the way corporations work: there is always the boss of the boss of the boss, all the way to God, while at the same time no one ever takes responsibility for anything. The layoff scenes are chilling in their use of proxies and euphemisms to soften the cruelty of being fired, and the uneasy camaraderie at such a poisonous work environment seems quite authentic. If only it had been directed by Sidney Lumet. He would have brought the genuine human messiness that this schematic movie lacks.

Oct 18, 2011

NYFF 2011: The Descendants

I'm a big fan of Alexander Payne, a smart, independent-minded American filmmaker, in my view, an heir to great satirists like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.
His movies are about regular Americans and the messes they get into: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the most heartbreaking segment in Paris Je T'aime. If Citizen Ruth and Election were more broadly satirical, Payne has been moving into more Chekhovian territory with his last three films. Even though his humor at the expense of his characters may be mordant, he is never mean-spirited or contemptuous of them, like, for instance, Todd Solondz or Noah Baumbach. His movies have great empathy for regular Americans who try to live their complicated emotional lives as best they can.  
Payne doesn't have a flamboyant cinematic style, his movies about plain people look rather plain, but he does have an inimitable tone: the language of his characters is precise, hilarious, and peppered with regionalisms, and some of them, always deeply flawed, like Tracy Flick in Election and Miles and his friend Jack in Sideways, are unforgettable, not to mention total Oscar bait. His stories are full of comedy and heartbreak. That perfect balance between pain and humor is not easy to get right, and Payne has it down better than any other American filmmaker working today. He is a humorist and a humanist. 
If Sideways explored the way in which grown men can behave like children, The Descendants is about a man who has to be mature enough to raise his kids by himself. George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident and now he has to take care of two daughters, one aged ten (Amara Miller) and a rebellious teenager (Shailene Woodley). He is in the middle of finalizing the sale of some pristine Hawaiian land to developers and has no clue on how to raise his kids. This could be the premise for a stale TV show, but on top of everything, King learns some damning truths about his wife that send him reeling in pain. This is a bittersweet, funny, poignant film about marriage, love, death, infidelity and, especially, about family. Family can be a pain in the ass, but you better hang on to it, because it's the most important thing you have. (Lots of arty movies with a "family is all you've got" motif this year, including The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Shame).
The casting of Clooney as a clueless dad is as unconventional as the casting of Jack Nicholson as the most timid and conformist of Mid-westerners in About Schmidt. Clooney, sporting a bad haircut and Hawaiian shirts galore, is solid and believable as a Hawaiian lawyer, clueless dad and a man who takes some unexpected emotional punches. As in Syriana and Michael Clayton, Clooney does competence in pain well, and here he delivers a deadpan, relaxed and very natural performance.
The entire cast is pitch perfect, including a scene-stealing turn by Robert Forster as Clooney's hardass father-in-law. Some of the movie borders on cliche, like the surfer dude teenage boyfriend (a very sweet and funny Nick Krause) who tags along with the Kings on their adventure, but Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash  dive head on into apparent cliche, and subvert it. There are no easy pieties and pat sentiments in this movie. Death brings chaos, anger, and pain, and yet humans are still funny. It's no wonder that Payne says he loves the Italian neorealists: he has a similar temperament.
What I loved most about this movie, besides the fact that Payne found an all-Hawaiian music soundtrack that doesn't drive the audience crazy, is that the movie does not shy away from what death looks and feels like to those who remain. People may have their rituals and say their goodbyes and talk to a comatose woman who may not be listening, but her death is presented without adornment or syrupy euphemism, and so are their feelings, in all their misery, frustration and grace.

Oct 17, 2011

NYFF 2011: The Artist

I had no faith in this movie. I was afraid it was going to be a gimmicky, twee affair along the likes of Amelie (a movie I loathe), but The Artist, by writer director Michel Hazanavicius, is a disarming, inventive and charming love letter to the art of filmmaking, and it is a wonderful treat. It is technically breathtaking, flawlessly executed and it restores our wonder in the magic of cinema by showing us how it's been done since the beginning.  
The Artist has the cheekiness of being a new silent film in black and white. What's more, it makes it a new and thrilling experience. In this age of shrinking screens, 3D, digital cameras and special effects (which it itself uses, subtly and brilliantly), it reminds us that cinema, the most modern form of art, has always been about technological advancement. From the very beginning people were inventing ways with which to better tell stories, whether with sound or with color, with the invention of the dolly or the cut, or better special effects. The art form has never stopped moving forward and hopefully, as long as it has affecting stories to tell, it never will. The first movies were shown on zoetropes or movieolas, little personal machines that you cranked up to see a spool of film achieve movement. Now that we can watch films in our phones, and that commercial movie screens have shrunk while TV screens have mushroomed, we are back to square one. This is not necessarily a good thing, but The Artist both asks us to restore our sense of wonder in the movies and admire the craft that goes into making a film, as well as to let go of our fears and embrace whatever is coming, for as long as a story is told that reaches our hearts, the art form will not die.  
The Artist is also an elegy to an age where cinema was simple but grandiose. The stories were basic, the technology primitive, but oh, those sumptuous movie palaces with giant screens and live music! Now the movies have become enormous, expensive spectacles, most of them still telling some very basic stories, while the communal experience of moviegoing keeps shrinking; a tragedy, if you ask me. You could watch The Artist in Netflix, or even in your iPhone, but as every other movie except the bad ones, you need a big screen to fully feel the impact of the expressiveness of the human face, the gorgeousness of its images and the thrill of its lovely tale.
The story is simple: George Valentin (the excellent Jean Dujardin, who won the best actor award at Cannes) is a silent film idol, a dashing cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. He is a huge movie star, with a ravenous ego. He swashbuckles and rescues damsels in distress for a living. He lives in a mansion with his unhappy wife (Penelope Ann Miller, excellent) and his loyal dog (Uggy, very excellent), who also appears in his movies, and whom he dotes on much more than on his wife. The opening scene is a film within a film. We are watching people watching a silent movie. It is the premiere, and the actors and producers wait behind the screen to hear the audience's reaction, which we can't hear, but which we see in the triumphant expression of their faces as we gather that the audience loved it. Then it cuts to a silent shot of the audience applauding wildly. The music score by Ludovic Bource (deserves an Oscar nomination) is a pitch-perfect homage to movie music and it complements, enhances and underscores the movie gorgeously, focusing the audience's attention on what a great music score can do in a movie; basically, drive you to tears, fear, excitement and joy. The exquisite black and white cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman is also worthy of top awards.
Valentin basks in the adoration of the public, and on the street, while posing for photographers, he meets a pretty girl by accident (Berenice Bejo, wonderful). From there, it's boy meets girl, boy loses girl and, of course, boy meets girl again. She is a wannabe starlet who looks for work as an extra in a big Hollywood studio, and the movie chronicles her rising fortunes as Valentin's star ebbs (in a beautiful sequence where we see how her name appears in the credits of movies, from the very bottom and with spelling mistakes, to top billing as "Peppy Miller"). Valentin is getting on in years, and his producer (John Goodman, excellent), shows him the future: a sound test for the "talkies", which of course, we can't hear. Valentine laughs it off, as many did in its day, as a fad and a failure. Soon, he's out of work, because then, as today, Hollywood is always hungry for the new. The hero's tribulations and his love story are deeply affecting, aided by Dujardin's charming and wonderfully calibrated performance.
There are many ingenious moments in this fun, delightful film, which is so well done, and it has so many layers of creative ingenuity to it, in the use of the movie grammar -- sound, music, shots -- that I bet it could serve as a master class in early filmmaking techniques. It lovingly recreates every old movie cliche, both technical and dramatic; from emotional mugging in close ups, to a thrilling car sequence, to an Astaire and Rogers number, to a dog to the rescue scene. It also reminds us that film language tells a story mainly visually, and that it can make us experience all kinds of feelings with few words, if any. 
The Artist, a great commercial work of art (by Hazanavicius, a guy who is mainly known for his French James Bond spoofs), works at several levels. Film fanatics like me are going to have a ball with all the fun meta movie stuff, which is prodigious, but the average moviegoer will not be immune to its charms, for it is funny, poignant and delightful. Its entire premise is to show that a silent film in black and white can still win people's hearts. And that the essence of movies, this magnificent, collaborative art form, is here to stay. It is sheer joy.

Oct 14, 2011

NYFF 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene

I just adore movies where evil happens in plain daylight. I have not felt so creeped out by a movie in a long time. Writer-director Sean Durkin's extraordinary film is a psychological horror story about Martha, the outstanding Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the celebrity twins), in a breakthrough performance, who escapes from a cult and goes back to her affluent sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, also excellent). As she starts a new life at her sister's, certain innocuous moments trigger traumatic memories in her, and the movie goes back and forth seamlessly between the present and her life in the cult.
The cult at first looks like a naive commune of hippies, led by Patrick, a scrawny, not particularly charismatic guy (John Hawkes). But the bizarreness and the menace of controlled chaos, seep in instantly. People sleep huddled together on mattresses on the floor, the men eat first as the women wait (starving people is one method of mind control), people share clothes and supposedly try to start up a farm, but it is not clear how they make a living.
Patrick has an emissary (creepy Brady Corbet) who brings lost young women from nearby towns. They are received warmly, and at first it seems like a cool place to chill out from the demands of reality. Martha arrives because her good friend Zoe is already there. Durkin lets the details of life in the cult trickle steadily and become more and more disturbing as Martha becomes more unhinged at her sister's house. Durkin and his editor sustain the double helix of the structure with great fluidity, as they let the creepiness accrue without hurry. We see the daily dismantling of self at the cult, but to watch Martha being unable to behave normally once she is safe, is just as fascinating. She has been brainwashed out of the most basic social behaviors, and, as she does not confide in her sister, she and her husband have no idea why she acts so strange. She says she broke up with a boyfriend with whom she was living in the Catskills, something that seems to horrify her sister. It is completely believable that it would never occur to them that she has been in a cult. They know nothing about her.
Besides being a chilling trip into the dangers of falling victim to a cult, which for my taste is scarier than vampires, zombies, or ghosts, the movie is also about American social disconnection, which is also scary as hell. Martha has not been in touch with her sister, her only surviving family member, for two years. Magnificent Arepa and I were saying that if Martha were a Latina, she would not have lasted 2 days without her entire family going on a search and rescue mission. In the US, you are on your own: that's the American way. It is common for people to drift out of society. In the end, the lost souls who end up in bizarre cults are looking for an alternate family, and Patrick, an incestuous father figure, a serial sexual abuser, couches life in the cult in those familial terms. Through a hodgepodge philosophy of so-called freedom and enforced communal life, Patrick strips his charges from their moral bearings and their willpower, besides drug-enabled sex and other nasty mind games. Nobody ever stops around the cult compound to check it out. Evil can flourish undisturbed where nobody cares for their neighbor.
Lucy is married to a wealthy New York City architect (Hugh Dancy), and Martha stays at their country retreat in Connecticut, so spacious that Martha questions, not without a point, why two people need to have such a big place. The wealthy married couple are classic strivers, they want to have kids, they work their asses off and they enjoy the fruits of their wealth. They may be egotists, but they have functional egos. Cults deprive you of your ego in the positive sense of the word: they strip away who you are, your values, your integrity. Martha seems to have kept what little ego she had before she arrived at the cult: as opposed to others who are completely brainwashed, she bristles at incidents of cruelty, and there is a part of her that Patrick psychopathic ego can't touch, which is why she escapes.
Durkin's successfully expresses Martha's sensation of not knowing where she is, where she is waking up, how much time has elapsed, how close or far places are from each other, yet, this intelligent, disciplined film makes sure the audience always knows what's happening, even as we share Martha's disorientation. As far as I'm concerned, the chilling ending is what turns this movie, which could pass as a psychological drama up to that point, into a quietly devastating horror film.
The more I think of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the more it gives me the shivers.
It's a wonderful feeling.