May 30, 2011

The Tree Of Life

This winner of this year's Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival is a unique moviegoing experience that some people may think is either a transcendent work of art of sublime beauty, or the most beautiful Hallmark postcard ever made. I think the truth lies somewhere in between, edging closer to the first option. It is certainly gorgeous and magnificent, and I recommend that you buy a ticket (do not wait for the DVD), sit down in the dark and let the flood of images and the swelling music wash all over you. Allow yourself to be transported. 3-D is boring compared to this.
Terrence Malick's latest film (he's only made five films since the mid-Seventies) is not a conventional narrative, although it has a story. It has very little dialogue, most of it actually whispered in voice over. We are to understand the story from the editing, the actors' faces and their actions, not from words. Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Academy Award hopefully guaranteed this time) create a world of intimate sensory images, with the camera recreating the point of view of a child who experiences the every day miracles and painful obstacles of life. Malick seeks to faithfully recreate the texture of memory in film. This is imagery that creates emotion without words, and it is stunning, lyrical, sensual and deeply moving.
The movie shows the past of a family and the childhood memories of Jack (Sean Penn -- I love every wrinkle in his grizzled face) who grew up in a town in Texas in the 50s, with an ethereal mother (the lovely Jessica Chastain), a tough, embittered but loving father (a very good Brad Pitt) and two younger brothers.  But this is not Leave it to Beaver. The Tree of Life is no less than a meditation on grace and nature and God and the origins of life, both human and on Earth. Intertwined with the images of the family are magnificent sequences of images of the universe, life forms being created, extreme close ups of the sun, the meteorite that brought on the Ice Age, deserts, forests, beaches and water in many forms.
Some of it may not make total sense (but it also does not not make sense), and some of it comes perilously close to new age corn. It never does because Malick's images convey complicated feelings and the movie is conceived as a sensory experience in which he gets us as close as possible to the characters' emotions, almost as if he'd like us to seep into their skins. (People always have the most beautiful skin in Malick's movies. Think of Badlands or Days of Heaven.)
Some critic complained that childbirth was a fantasy in pristine white with no blood, sweat or tears. That is, that everything is too beautiful. I did notice that Jessica Chastain, who always looks naturally ravishing, had three children without gaining an ounce, but that is not the point. After all, Malick is the guy who gave us Days of Heaven, the most beautiful movie ever made about the depression. One does not expect gritty realism from him. There were also rumblings that there is no sex in this movie. There is sex. But it is as it comes in life, a bit scary, without warning (and in those days, without explanation) from the point of view of a maturing boy.
Jack (Hunter McCracken), the older brother, suddenly notices female bodies, he steals a camisole from a neighbor and in an elliptical but powerful close up, feels stirrings of lust that then make him feel guilty and confused. There is more truth and depth to sex in this scene than if it had been acted more explicitly. Yet the movie is tremendously sensual and emotionally powerful.
The tone of Tree of Life is prayerful, elegiac, meditative and mystical. It is a movie that explores religiosity, faith and personal belief. The father prays in church and is strict and authoritarian (clearly Jack's feelings of guilt and fear come from that side of things), but the mother is more of a pantheist. It is her system of belief (here comes a bit of the new agey Hallmark card), that you have to love every being and every leaf and that the only way to live is to love -- which is equated with grace and transcendence. I think that Malick may be expressing his conviction that a belief both in God and in evolution are not mutually exclusive, and are actually complementary.  Even if you are a committed anti-spiritualist like me, you can marvel, as I did, that Malick celebrates belief, and chooses to share it with us with great generosity of spirit. The Tree of Life feels expansive and bountiful. It is a deeply compassionate film.
The movie has a rhythm that ebbs and flows like waves. There is an enormous amount of visual richness in every frame. The camera, most of it loose and dynamic, sometimes gets a bit vertiginous, but it also stays the right amount of time very close to the human face: tearful, joyful, loving, fearful, angry. The three boys are natural and lovely presences.  There are wonderful scenes of a toddler jealous at the arrival of a baby brother, of two children crying together at the thought of leaving their house behind, or playing dangerous games, of a family in the thrall of an unhappy man and their joyful release when he is out of the house for a few days. Time seems to float in these memories as if suspended, does not seem to pass by. Days are a jumble of moments and sensations that break the spell of innocence. Life happens. Illness and death happen too. This is a deeply personal film on a very ambitious scale, intimate and grand at the same time. It is a remarkable achievement. It makes me very happy that this is an American film. It shows that not everything has to come from the same sausage factory with the same tired, insidious marketing. American stories can still be told with artistry and integrity, even if they don't make gazillions at the box office. And Terrence Malick is still around and making amazing American films.

May 29, 2011

On DVD: Enter the Void

I was afraid of this movie by Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) because I'm not a fan of his self-indulgent, kinky pretentiousness. My mother would have called him un enfermo de talento, sick with talent. I didn't always agree with the people she accused of suffering this creative malady (Godard was another one, and she was half right) but in the case of Noe, I think it nails him. Still, I streamed the movie on Netflix, curious about the much touted visuals and the kinkiness.
I loved the amazing opening credits, the trippy digital sequences and the color cinematography by Benoit Debie is absolutely awesome, but that is about it. I could watch those beautiful digital designs many times over, and in fact I wished there had been more of that in the movie, as opposed to the creaky, cheesy plot.
Enter the Void would have been a much better movie had it been a short film. And by short I mean 15 minutes long. Technically it has much to recommend it.  I loved the sound design and the way the movie looks. It is a worthy experiment on total point of view camera. It made me want to go to Tokio. But I also found it pretentious and annoying.
Spoiler alert that won't really spoil anything:
The plot is really cheesy teenage philosophy, set in the story of the vaguely incestuous relationship of a young man and his sister who are traumatized by the death of their parents in a car accident at an early age. For no comprehensible reason, the orphans are cruelly separated and put in different foster homes. The brother ends up supposedly DJing in Tokio, selling and using drugs to bring his sister over, and once she arrives she finds nothing better to do professionally than to prostitute herself. English lessons, anyone? Not. What can I tell you, Noe is a kinky guy. Little House on the Prairie, this ain't.
Paz de La Huerta, as the sister, is insufferable, ugly and a bad actress to boot. The kid who plays the lead does not seem to be a professional actor and he has no personality, but he doesn't really need one since we barely get to see him (his is the camera's pov). The first half hour of the movie is pretty gripping, not because of the plot but because of the strange world that Noe and his creative collaborators have devised. The rest is slow as molasses, not very coherent, terribly self-indulgent, gratuitously porny and obsessed with the female breast.
Note to pretentious European filmmakers: let's declare a moratorium on the male fixation on the female breast as a source both of milk and hard-ons*. Somehow Bertolucci halfway gets away with it, and even in him it seems puerile. Get over it already. Freud is fast becoming passé.
To be honest, I slept through about an hour of the movie. When I woke up I asked whether I missed anything and was told nothing much. Because Enter The Void is mostly interesting in terms of style rather than substance (and please do not tell me that you take seriously its half-baked ideas about sex and death and love) one starts to pay too much attention to the stylistic workings, since there is no one to really care about on screen. Thus:
If you shuffle off your mortal coil, why do you look at yourself from the back all the time?  This relentless framing with the back of the head of the main character in the foreground reminded me of a terrible director of commercials I know who likes to shoot the backs of the heads of people front and center, for no discernible reason. Here there is a reason, but the head still gets in the way.
If you die and hover observing those you love, why do you mostly hover from above? If death is really a voyeur, then there is much fun to be had. Wouldn't it be cool to fly around a little bit, and not only get closer when your sister is fucking guys? If I had that freedom, I would stick around for a little while, and then fly to Hong Kong to watch people eat dim sum, or go to Kyoto for the day. Then of course, I'd come back to try to mollify my loved ones, distraught at the tragedy of my loss. There is something touching and powerful about imagining a life after death where the dead are present but unable to reach us. However, it gets lost in the midst of much, not very germane prurience. I'm not a prude but I like sex in movies to have some other reason than the director gets off on it. So sue me.

*In contrast, American male filmmakers don't even acknowledge the existence of the female breast unless it's been implanted with bags of silicone and the nipples are safely hidden behind indestructible bra fabric. You can't win.

Midnight in Paris

I read an interview with Woody Allen in which the opening sequence of Manhattan (1979) is compared with the one of Midnight in Paris. For me, this provides an interesting assessment of how far he is from the days when he was at the top of his creative powers. For Midnight in Paris starts with a series of shots of that city with very nice music, just like Manhattan did years ago. But the opening of Manhattan, with those gorgeous black and white shots of New York, and the rousing, perfect music of George Gershwin, felt like a love poem to the city and really stirred the soul. In contrast, the opening of Midnight in Paris feels like you are browsing postcards at a souvenir shop near Notre Dame. Maybe my romance with Paris has soured a little bit, and the sight of all those buildings that look like wedding cakes no longer stirs my heart just so. But I suspect it's not really my fault, or Paris'. The opening of Manhattan was a bracing, original and lovely artistic choice, while this just feels pedestrian, as generic and devoid of humanity as a postcard, as if it's there to plump up the movie's running time. 
As recent Woody Allen movies go, however, Midnight in Paris is far more charming than its predecessors. At the center of this film, Allen has conceived a lovely idea. What if you could go back to your romantic notion of Paris in the 1920's? Like Cinderella, at the stroke of midnight, successful Hollywood screenwriter and budding novelist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is transported magically to some enchanted evenings with famous creative and literary heroes of the day. By daytime, alas, he is burdened by an undermining bitch of a fiancee (poor Rachel McAdams), her hideous, wealthy Republican parents, and by Allen's direction, which insists that every one of his leading men should be a doppelganger for him. As the Magnificent Arepa points out, the neurotic self-involvement and the exaggerated nebbishness used to work as long as it was Woody Allen who played himself (when he wasn't too old to be leering at romantic interests who were decades younger). His persona, his nerdy looks, and his extremely funny delivery made him a very endearing pain in the ass. But if you ask gifted actors like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (!), Josh Brolin in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, (!) and now Owen Wilson to do that shtick, it is ridiculous.  So a lot conspires against the modicum of charm of Midnight in Paris: peremptory writing, a total disregard for believable characters or coherent plots, and a director who lets his lead actors flounder, and who makes them look bad when they are supposed to be, at the very least, engaging.
Gil's fiancee does nothing but disparage and humiliate him, alone and in public, and yet, like a doormat, he never reacts to her growing cruelties. So he looks like a schmuck and she like a total harpie. Why would we be invested in people like this? Why are they together at all? She has not one redeeming quality. To add to her disagreeableness, the costume designer saddles McAdams, a very attractive woman, with unflattering clothes. And even though Owen Wilson is a likable actor, as the movie goes on and he is unable to be anything but a wimp full of Woody Allenish tics, one wants to smack him upside the head and tell him to grow a pair. In what world does a grown, successful writer have to go back to a museum and ask the tour guide if she thinks that a man could be in love with two women? Is he so clueless? Why doesn't he go to the Academie Française and ask them there?
In the very bad, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Josh Brolin plays the exact same character, a misunderstood and unappreciated writer (mostly harangued by his terrible wife, played by Naomi Watts). To make luminous actresses like McAdams and Watts look and sound awful takes a very sinister talent, and I am sick of it.
Let's, for the sake of argument, compare this to another comedy. In Bridesmaids, the characters, who struggle with the problems of real people, not only provoke drama but they confront it head on, actually piling it up, with hysterical results. Bridesmaids is a wildly exaggerated comedy, but it is rooted in psychological reality. Allen writes characters that whine and mope and kvetch and ponder their self-absorbed lots in life, but that avoid conflict entirely. Even comedy needs characters one can identify with.
As always in his films, the actors are A-list. They all play wispy caricatures, but some of them sink their choppers into the opportunity with gusto. Marion Cotillard, playing some sort of feminine ideal with no personality, is constitutionally incapable of being uninteresting, so she tries to make this woman radiate some sort of intensity. Alas, a piece of cardboard and a roll of tinfoil have more onscreen chemistry than her and Owen Wilson. Adrien Brody has oodles of fun and is very charming as Salvador Dalí. All the bit players are excellent: Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill as Scott and Zelda, Corey Stoll as Hemingway, and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. For your information, even Carla Bruni is natural and charming as a Rodin Museum guide. Allen's fans are delighted at being able to laugh, like insiders at a club, at the easy cultural references like the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Cole Porter, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Buñuel, Dalí, etc. Allen could have exploited more comedy opportunities with the incongruity of a visitor from a future time, and the jokes are fun but facile.
The cinematography by Darius Khondji is lovely, and as usual, Allen chooses a wonderful soundtrack of American and French classics. The charm of Midnight in Paris mostly lies in a lovely sense of nostalgia, realized very effectively with no special effects. The bittersweet idea that people of every age pine for and romanticize the days of yore is a golden nugget and makes the nostalgia thread of this movie a sweet delight. At the stroke of midnight, we are transported to the 1920's in the guise of a period car coming down a Paris street. The illusion is beautifully simple and magic. Every time we have to go back to today's world and its overbearing characters, we feel the pang and, like Gil, want to be transported back to the days when Woody Allen's movies were better.

May 28, 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, is the story of a married man who has an affair with a younger woman. Movies about romantic triangles are a dime a dozen, but this one is amazing. It brings the viewer into the rooms where love blooms and families live and fights happen with total emotional realism. No one is a villain, or a bitch or a saint. There are no judgments, there is only the painful fallout of human behavior. There is humor and there is drama, but as in real life, it is devastating, messy, but not quite histrionic: everyone somehow survives.
Muntean tells the story mostly through medium shots and very long single takes. There is no coverage (no cutting from the wide shot to the medium shot to the close up, no shooting the scene from the pov of one character and then another). We are there, with as many characters as are in the frame at a given scene. If something happens outside the edges of the frame, the camera doesn't necessarily follow it. The fact that we can't see it doesn't make it any less present. The camera is there to record as intimately as possible the feelings and actions of the characters, without the use of close ups. This is achieved to perfection. To his enormous credit, to the credit of the actors and the writers and the excellent cinematography, the scenes never feel long. The first one does, simply because we are put without warning right into the messy bliss of a post-coital bed. We are too close to the characters, we probably feel more naked than them and we are conditioned to think a cut is coming soon. But this allows us to connect intimately with the characters and it deepens the emotional reality of the film. The characters go through their emotions without formal interruptions. The length of the scenes is the time it takes lovers to cuddle and banter after sex, the time it takes to take a little girl to a dentist appointment, the time it takes for a married couple to have an argument (one of the best marital arguments ever filmed).
The writing is as natural as breathing and so are the actors. Actually, the actors are nothing short of miraculous. It must have been extremely challenging for them to nail the scenes while being totally unprotected by the saving device of coverage. They had to get everything right: rhythm, blocking, lines, emotions, and interact with each other believably, which they did with flying colors (Muntean rehearsed them for a month). On the other hand, not being chopped off on every beat must have helped them to liberate their feelings, and to find the natural arc and the rhythms of both comedy and drama. It feels like improvisation, but it isn't. Formality is used to deliver the richest, most true to life spontaneity. 
The camera stays mostly front and center as we are allowed to be in the room with these people. Sometimes I marvelled at what was not said. Watch the young lover as she sees him unexpectedly arrive with his wife. There are no camera tricks to signal that we should be focussing on her, but her silent reaction is one of the most complex and precise depictions of rage mixed with nerves and sheer what the fuck, I've ever seen. Watch him come to see her at home and her mother opens the door. The way this woman looks at him, there is no need for her to say one word. She offers him cake, and he feels so unwelcome, it sticks in his throat. The married couple are actually married in real life and they have an uncanny rapport that feels like they have been married forever. The young woman is brilliant in a role that is usually thankless, if not embarrassing. There is not one cliché in the portrayal of the characters. Now, all of this may sound like penitential artsy fartsy Romanian film homework to you, but this movie happens to be very witty, warmly funny and extremely entertaining. The intimacy it achieves between the viewer and the characters will keep you glued to your seat, to borrow a trope that may excite you into seeing it. You know from the beginning it's gonna end in tears, but the journey is so rich and truthful, you don't really want it to end.

May 19, 2011

The Lars Von Trier Show

Lars Von Trier goes to Cannes. Lars Von Trier says something inane and "provocative". Lars Von Trier gets the world's attention, like a bratty 7 year-old acting up in front of the guests. This has been happening for years now, except that this time his hosts at Cannes had it with him. They decided to ban him from the festival after he apologized for his inane, childish, ridiculously stupid, irrelevant, petulant, apropos of nothing remarks about Jews and Nazis and Hitler. Be it far from me to attempt to explain the motives of someone who thinks it's funny to claim he wants to be a Jew and then say he is a Nazi and sympathizes a little bit with Hitler and perhaps he will make a big blockbuster called "The Final Solution". Not funny, not relevant, deeply inappropriate, but clearly more because of abject stupidity and a pathetic need for attention, than because he is actually a racist or an antisemite or a Nazi sympathizer. I don't think LVT is either a Jew, a Nazi or an antisemite, as he had to clarify after opening his big mouth, but I do think he is an unqualified idiot. A self-indulgent creep with a genius complex. You can tell the kind of asshole he is by the other comments he made. Pot shots at fellow Danish filmmaker Suzanne Bier for being Jewish and making movies he doesn't like, or the 4 hour porn film he wants to make with his stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Worse than a zit-ridden, sullen, snotty teenager with a potty brain, really. He should stick to making movies and keep his mouth shut.
Props go to Kirsten Dunst who had to sit next to him and listen to his incoherence with the biggest fart face ever (see above). At one point she tried to stop him and he went on, making things worse. If you are going to be a provocateur, be truly provocative and smart and make people think. Don't be a self-serving asshole. By the way, I like some of his movies. I dislike others. And I will see Melancholia.

May 17, 2011


I was afraid that this comedy with Kristen Wiig (splendidly written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo and hilariously directed by Paul Feig) was going to turn out to be women behaving just like men (hurling, farting, burping and cursing), and up to an extent they do, but they are also unmistakably female, and that's what works about Bridesmaids.
I could have done without the gross out bits, but somebody decided that in order to get guys into a theater, all current comedies need to have a gross out clause. The world has laughed since the beginning of cinema without such inane thrills, but now apparently it can't. Even in an excellent female comedy like Bridesmaids, it's in the contract. However, there is a gust of real transgression here, as one cannot possibly find a more apt visual metaphor for these insane, expensive wedding customs, as literally crapping all over them. To see Maya Rudolph have a digestive emergency while buried under a cloud of tulle is one of the funniest, most transgressive and enduring images involving a wedding dress we're ever likely to see in film.
Bridesmaids is less farts and puke than extremely funny, knowing laughs at the ambivalence of Annie (the incredible Kristen Wiig) at being chosen as the maid of honor for the wedding of her best friend Lilly, Maya Rudolph, also excellent. As any single woman nearing her past her prime years knows (not only in America, but the world over), you can be very happy for your friend and still feel that you want the earth to swallow your lonely ass to have to deal with all that wedding mishegoss. There is a lot to mine here and Wiig and Mumolo do it with great gusto, smartly anchoring the laughs in reality while making fun of the competitiveness between women and the crazy, corny bridal bullshit.
Bridesmaids is firmly rooted in our current reality and it deals head on with the increasing class differences in America, a fact that is somewhat surprising for such a frivolous comedy. Annie was wiped out by the economic downturn. She drives a shit car, lives with two bizarre and inexplicably British roommates, and can't pay her bills, let alone splurge on bridesmaid dresses and bachelorette parties. Her foil is Helen, the very game and funny Rose Byrne, a control freak as ridiculously rich and unshakably perfect as Annie is a mess and struggling hard.
In the movies of producer Judd Apatow there is always plenty of crass humor, but there is true empathy for the characters, who do not live in Hollywood fantasyland but  in the real world (Bridesmaids takes place in Milwaukee). Apatow roots for the losers, the misfits, the stragglers, because he estimates correctly that that is where most of us stand and with whom we all can relate. His movies are not generally nasty or mean spirited, like The Hangover. They are funny and sweet. He pretty much created the bromance genre (the buddy movie with a gentler, more emotional streak) and it was about time he gave a chance to female driven buddy comedies (he has created artistically and commercially successful hybrids that appeal to men and women, like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up). It's a pity that nobody takes comedy seriously at awards time, because some of his films are among the best American movies of recent years. I wanted The 40 Year Old Virgin to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I love Anchorman, I adore Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers (the man-child premise taken to a meta extreme), I really liked Knocked Up and enjoyed Superbad, even though I felt I had to wash my ears with lye, it was so shockingly vulgar, yet at the same time, super sweet; Apatovian, in short. Having lived in Israel in the 80s, I literally rolled on the floor with laughter with Don't Mess With the Zohan, which Apatow co-wrote. Bridesmaids is Apatovian too. There are many laughs, both crass and classy, but there is true feeling.
Kristen Wiig is a major comic talent. She is capable of being genuinely happy, hysterical, depressed, twisted with envy at the same time. The way in which she says "what is happening?" as she squeals through her friend's good news is tinged with terror. She is unafraid to be full of contradictions, not all of them adorable or particularly mature, and she is fearless with slapstick, like in a devastating sex scene that looks like she's being ridden like a stagecoach. She tries to please the cad (none other than Jon Hamm, clueless and brutal in a handsome kind of way), so fast and rocky it is, as he likes it, not slow like she would have it. Very true and very funny. Wiig is as good or better than Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler or any of the big guys of comedy. There needs to be much more of her on the big screen.
Now, is this movie a feminist fantasy of empowerment? Not really. It is a classic romantic comedy with a happy ending: all the women (a fantastic ensemble cast) get their guy. Is this so terrible? Nope. As is true of the Apatovian universe, the important romance in the movie is not really between the guy and the girl, but between the girl and her best friend. Theirs is the relationship that counts, that gets frayed and that one hopes will survive all that corny wedding crap. Rudolph and Wiig actually have a lovely chemistry together, and their bond feels deep.

May 9, 2011

Extra, Extra!

Please note the addition of an email subscription service exclusively for you, dear readers. Now, if you so wish, you can be alerted of new posts from the comfort of your email address.

May 8, 2011


A disaster. The biggest problem with this movie by Julian Schnabel is that it has a terrible, amateurish script by Rula Jebreal, the woman who wrote the novel in which she based her own screenplay. I find it mystifying that instead of hiring a real screenwriter, the producers of this film pretended that they had a real script in their hands. This movie is so badly written, it doesn't even feel like a first draft. I wonder why anyone gave a pass to such an unprofessional, perfunctory piece of writing. Why would Julian Schnabel, who has a solid track record as a director, lower his standards for this particular piece of work? Could it be misguided political correctness?
It happens with all kinds of oppressed minorities. Someone belonging to one of these groups writes a half baked script and no one dares tell them to spiff it up and come back when they have something decent. There is a double standard: the downtrodden are not expected to work as hard because they already have it too hard. The result is schematic dreck like this. One example: bad US Hispanic movies like Entre Nos, which, not surprisingly, is also based on a real story and like Miral, feels faker than a telenovela. The enigma here is that no one could confuse Julian Schnabel with anything downtrodden.
Now, if you decide that you want to make a movie about this heartwarming subject (the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), because God knows that movie audiences rate this topic with the same level of excitement generated by a root canal, you better milk it for everything it's worth. A great political movie arouses outrage, or at least spirited debate (Z, Bloody Sunday, to name just two), but here the outrage is that the filmmakers have the nerve to oversimplify to caricature this most complicated conflict. In Miral the personal is not political. The personal is a pamphlet.
The idea of following the life of a young Palestinian girl as she confronts political activism is certainly interesting. The story of Miral has the potential of being truly compelling and thought provoking but the way it is presented doesn't even rise to the level of propaganda. The Israelis in the movie are portrayed mostly like sadistic bullies (although they happily welcomed the production shekels; the movie was shot almost entirely in Israel). 
Miral is simplistic, expository, wooden, heavy handed, and undramatic. Even if it's based on a true story, it feels totally preposterous. Nothing in it is believable because everyone in it is like cardboard. The characters talk to each other in either bombastic historical exposition or embarrassing clichés, the actors seem to have been paralyzed by the bad lines they have to utter, and Schnabel's knack for arty images collides disastrously with the sophomoric writing, becoming precious and annoying. Miral can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a history lesson, a political screed or a personal history. Hint: a personal history will always make a less annoying movie than a didactic, patronizing sermon.
It's pointless to expect such a crude movie to generate any kind of serious discussion. The Jews that objected to its screening at the UN should have saved their breath. This movie is utterly inconsequential. It adds nothing of value to the debate and it does not particularly help the Palestinian cause (unless you think it a great victory to portray the conflict as waged by two separate sets of stick figures, ones noble and long suffering, and the others almost twirling their mustaches; take a wild guess at who is who). Interspersed with the story of Miral, real footage is shown of David Ben Gurion declaring statehood, of Jews arriving in ships in 1947 and almost immediately dancing the hora, and decades later, of the Six Day War and the first intifada, but there is absolutely no insight into the intractability of the conflict. It is willfully naive, lazy and dishonest to bring up such footage so superficially, without committing to really explore the toxic dynamics of the myths of foundation on both sides. Had the filmmakers believed in the power of Miral's story, instead of in their own grandstanding political ideas, they would have made a better film.

May 1, 2011


Looks like this year, except for the icy sharp Dogtooth, (I haven't seen the Algerian Outside The Law), the foreign language Oscar nominees have one thing in common, and that is they all are super-overwrought. In 2010 there was a nice mix of genre in the category: the great gangster movie, Un Prophet, genre defying stuff like The White Ribbon and more romantic fluff, like the winning The Secret in Her Eyes.
This year, apparently the world at large is a vale of tears and a house of horrors. The winner, Susanne Bier's In A Better World is like a classy Danish telenovela taking place in Denmark and Africa, Mexico's Biutiful is a teary melodrama with Javier Bardem, and Incendies, from Canada, is like a Greek tragedy in the Lebanese civil war.
Incendies takes the prize for can you top this in human suffering (both the characters' and the audience's). It teeters between morbid gruesomeness and raw emotional power. I found the entire premise, if symbolically charged, very hard to believe. Not that I cannot believe that in a civil war neighbors savagely kill women and children and unarmed innocents, or that I am innocent of the atrocities that human beings commit in the name of religion, but the story is too contrived.
The premise seems rather fantastical. A dying mother leaves her Canadian twins (who are in their twenties) a will in which they have to find their father and their brother in Lebanon and deliver letters to them so she can rest in peace. As the twins set out to do the task, they are confronted with the bitter history of their family and their mother's country. The horrors and revelations pile up; the movie goes back and forth between the kids searching for the story in the present and flashbacks to the terrible past. I understand that through this harrowing adventure the filmmakers want to make a powerful statement about the incestuous self-destruction of a civil war, but I have problems with movies that stack the dramatic, emotional deck to the point of straining credulity.
The movie is based on a play, yet my feeling as I was watching, was that this heavily symbolic story would probably work better on the page, as a novel.
Parts of it are very effective, and the movie captures that Middle Eastern tribal feel really well. At one point, looking at the olive groves in the parched land beneath the merciless sun (Lebanon is played by Jordan), I wondered if the particular geography of the area inspires the worst kind of murderous divine frenzy in its inhabitants, because God knows the entire region is nuts. To this day, it's like a bunch of tribal shepherds hating each others' guts and killing each others' sheep. It would be awesome if it would stop.
My favorite scene is when Jeanne, the female twin, travels to a village searching for someone who knew her mother. She is received by a chatty group of women who are curious and hospitable. Nobody speaks a language in common and it is a beautiful moment of Jeanne being in the place of her origins and at the same time, a total stranger. Then, as someone is found to translate and Jeanne explains who she is, the women have a wild argument in front of her and end up casting her away; the hospitality becomes hostility in a second. It's a great scene that depicts the clannish stubborness of tribal notions of honor and the insistence in not forgiving old, festering grievances, which is after all, the tragic story of the region.
The revelation at the conclusion of Incendies goes all out, in the spirit of a Greek tragedy, like a horrifying but cleansing catharsis. The kids learn a terrible truth and all I could think of, is how can they live with this knowledge? This is the kind of thing that fucks you up for life. I'm not sure if this is the point the filmmakers wants to make, since they prefer to give a sense of closure and of peace, rather than explore the terrible burden of the truth. This seems to be at odds with the graphic and violent tone of the rest of the film and strikes me as facile. It's supposed to make the audience feel better after two hours of relentless pummeling with human horror.