Sep 20, 2011


I'm with the Japanese. I believe that at this point in human history we can relegate the hand shake to an ancient custom. We live in a time where you shake someone's hand and could get sick. So why don't we all greet strangers with a respectful little bow? According to Contagion, we could save ourselves a lot of grief.
The first half of this movie is pretty gripping. Nothing scarier than a natural disaster movie in which the killer is invisible, airborne and spreads by contact or by sneezing. The first sequence is a precise rendering of our modern fears. Someone shakes a hand in Hong Kong and dozens of people get terribly sick all over the world. Our cramped urban and flying quarters are hotbeds of infectious disease, and paranoia. The opening sequence includes many darkly fun takes of innocuous daily occurrences that become tinged with peril. A horrible death may lurk inside an innocent bowl of peanuts. Anybody who lives in a big city with a subway is going to get a perverse kick out of this film. The New York audience chuckled with delight at a scene in which a very sick guy is told to get off a bus and he touches absolutely every pole in said vehicle before he gets out.
The spread of contagion is seemingly initiated by Gwyneth Paltrow while having fun in Macao. By the time she gets home to Minneapolis, she looks like death. The initial symptoms are classic flu, and as we all know, that has never stopped anyone from doing whatever they need to do. But then it gets much worse. We don't know how she got it. Is it avian flu, pig flu, a stomach flu, or was it a night of forbidden sex?  Soon the movie is talking about 25 million victims. The efficacy with which director Steven Soderbergh shows the world reacting and adapting to the pandemic is chillingly matter-of-fact and it's the best part of the movie. He lets the details tell the story. A sniffling passenger on a plane gets a glass from a stewardess, and there goes the global neighborhood, from normalcy to a state of emergency like from 0 to 60. Without much warning, the signs of society breaking down start appearing on the screen. The first sign of apocalypse is uncollected garbage everywhere (a perfectly normal occurrence in New York City, which may be the reason why the filmmakers chose San Francisco to shoulder the burden of chaos instead). I loved the visual scope of the movie. An enormous empty warehouse is found to quarantine the sick in the US and Kate Winslet, playing an investigator from the CDC says, "great, now we need four more like this one". A simple shot of a steep San Francisco street, strewn with garbage, is a perfect visual metaphor for a world turned upside down by a mysterious infectious disease. Forget about zombies, vampires or even evil Muslims. The bugs are much scarier (which may be the reason why this is the number one movie in America).
An interesting idea the film posits is: when something like this happens, how do the authorities react in order not to create mass panic and mayhem? Who can benefit from such massive distress? (Somebody will). And what is the ethical way to proceed if you have inside information about the disease? Like the virus, one word from an expert asking someone not to tell anyone is all it takes to spread panic among the population. What if that anyone is a good friend you ran into at the supermarket? How can you keep a secret like that?
As other critics have pointed out, Contagion makes clear, despite Republican protestations to the contrary, that no one but the government is equipped to deal with impeding doom of this scale. The Centers for Disease Control, which is the epicenter of the movie, its fictional budget hopefully un-slashed, goes in full heroic mode trying to contain, and find a vaccine for the disease. The head of the CDC is played with humane gravitas by Laurence Fishburne. I'm happy to see an African American actor in a role usually reserved for white stars. One of the most subversive aspects of the movie is, in fact, the casting. Most of the heroes are women: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, they all play capable scientists trying to contain the disease. The always solid Matt Damon plays Paltrow's husband, yet his heroics are of a purely personal nature. He is relegated to keeping himself and his teenage daughter alive, which is no small feat considering that he needs to keep her away from her boyfriend at all times.
But as smart as Contagion is, it has some heavy handed aspects. Jude Law plays a blogger with a suspicious either cockney or Aussie accent, who spreads rumors and misinformation. He is such a nefarious villain that they even mar his handsome face with a rotten front tooth, an unnecessary choice, since Law relishes being despicable with no need for prosthetics. Although I liked that the movie made a forceful point against the kind of people who spread unfounded rumors about useful vaccines and idiotic conspiracy theories or who profit from widespread panic, I thought the filmmakers were too unfair to bloggers. We are in trouble when the blogger in the movie is even more conniving than the hedge fund manager. What about religious nutcases? I expected them to make an appearance as the usual cheerleaders of doom, always in time to celebrate an upcoming apocalypse, and I find their absence unrealistic. There is also a loathsome female bureaucrat. It wasn't clear to me who exactly she works for, but she is the kind of person who says no first, and asks questions later.  
The movie is structured like Babel or Traffic, (they share the same editor, Stephen Mirrione, who has worked on many an unruly plot structure). This is both a strength and a weakness. This braided structure lends itself more naturally to this story of truly global repercussions. But then there's the problem of tying a bunch of loose ends by the messy final third of the movie, which is when the movie deflates. Soderbergh seems to be in total control of the narrative up to the midpoint or even later, but then characters that seemed to have an important role are promptly forgotten. Elliot Gould is introduced as a scientist who is growing live viruses in his lab and then he is unceremoniously dropped (you can do that to other actors, but not to him). Something unbelievable happens to Marion Cotillard while she investigates the source of the outbreak, but in the movie no one seems to care about her fate until the very last minute. This dilutes the concentrated, scary excitement that the movie builds while showing simultaneously the search for a way to stop the outbreak, the heartbreaking personal story of Matt Damon, the vulnerability of the first responders, and the general chaos, which is the most fun. Looting, forlorn airports, scarcity, mayhem, and key actors dying surprisingly soon. I loved that. The disease spares no one, even if they have won Oscars.
But the movie has a relatively pat ending that ties all the loose ends all too neatly and somehow belies its own thesis, which is that fighting infectious diseases that keep mutating is very hard and takes too long. Jennifer Ehle (who, to tug at your heartstrings, needs to be the daughter of another selfless scientist who is dying of the disease), spends most of her time on screen saying unintelligible scientific words with great assurance and looking very hard for a vaccine. She then ends up saving mankind, I will not disclose how, but I thought that it was too easy.
The movie starts at Day 2 of the pandemic and ends at Day 1, when we finally find out what made Gwynnie sick. I wish it would have shown more clearly that, ironically, it is our progress, the fact that we have built roads connecting distant villages and bringing better living standards to people, that allows viruses that have never lived outside non-human host to travel towards us in our shrunken world.
Still, as disaster movies go, Contagion is smarter than usual, and scarier. 

Sep 17, 2011


I don't know whether this noirish car chase movie should be taken seriously. There's much in it that has got to be tongue in cheek, although it's hard to tell whether director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini are dead serious or joking. Either way, if we can't be sure, something's not working. A.O. Scott, in his review, called it "conventional and timid". I would say that it is artificial and antiseptic, despite its ridiculously cartoonish bloodbaths. It feels like a extended music video, polished to within an inch of its life, full of scenes in slow motion with a bubbly 80's soundtrack. 
Drive is the story of Driver, (Ryan Gosling) a man with no name, few words, and an inexhaustible reservoir of brutal anger, who does Hollywood stunts for a living and helps with the occasional heist. As much as I love Ryan Gosling, and as good as he can be, he's no Steve McQueen. He's no Clint Eastwood. He's too fresh faced and too expressive to fit the lonely, silent action hero type. At his age, guys like McQueen and Eastwood already looked like they had a lot of mileage. Gosling has good moments in this movie but he is not helped by a director who has no clue about what to do with characters and actors. I can buy the silent dangerous type who decides to redeem himself by falling in love with the single mother of a sweet kid. It's been done to death. But as played by Carey Mulligan, this woman is so beatific you almost expect her to sprout a halo. Turns out her husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. So Mother Theresa here seems to have a penchant for troublesome men. Problem is, there is nothing in her character that remotely indicates how or why. It would help if she wasn't this flat fantasy of female benevolence. Give her some sexy, some neurosis, some sense of fear, some danger. I find saintly mothers of cute kids as offensive a female stereotype as whores with hearts of gold, bridezillas and bitchy career women.
Gosling and Mulligan have some chemistry, but Refn deliberately misses the one moment where sparks could fly.  Gosling is driving her around, and she chastely puts her hand on his. We never see their faces. There is no sex at all, except for a kiss in an elevator, which is the best scene in the movie and also the most ridiculously grotesque. These choices may be Refn's commentary about the puritanical pornography of violence in America, but this still does not help us care about the characters.
Drive looks great, sounds great and performs the requisite car chases with cool efficiency, but watching this movie feels like watching the chassis of a very shiny sports car. There is little there, and what little there is, is either too dispassionate, or very discomfiting. I was struck by the fact that if you do the math, in the social-racial arithmetic of this movie, the three "good" characters are white, (Gosling, Mulligan and Bryan Cranston as Gosling's mentor), she is married to a no good Latino, and the meanies happen to be two absolutely horrible Jews (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, both expertly chewing the scenery). Feeble lines of dialogue attempt to justify the motivations behind these two execrable people. In the case of Nino, played by Perlman with great panache, he's a wannabe Italian mafioso who bears a grudge because the guidos call him a kike; and Brooks is excellent as a businesslike crook who owns a collection of exquisite blades and knives with which he bleeds people (I assume mostly gentiles) to death. Those he likes, he bleeds more gently, and this is supposed to make him human. I was faintly reminded of medieval blood libels, but perhaps, being of the Jewish persuasion, I'm too sensitive. Still, I can't help but think how these kinds of toxic representations keep bubbling up in the collective unconscious. I'm not saying that there cannot be Jewish gangsters or evil characters in movies, as there are in life, but in a movie with only six characters, two awful Jews is a bit dispiriting, to say the least.
There is a difference between nihilism and empty cool. This movie looks like it wants to be some sort of an existential meditation on the vicious corruption of money, but it is too stylish, too controlled and too basic to really dig for the dirt. The violence is so over the top as to be risible. The characters don't have credible lives. Even if steeped in all the conventions of the genre, which can be quite fun, Drive is pretty lifeless.

Sep 13, 2011

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

This provocative, bitterly sardonic documentary starts at the end of Ceaucescu's life, when the much diminished Romanian dictator and his wife Elena sit in a court refusing to answer questions. It is a shock to see a country's leader barked at by somebody who remains unseen. He sits there, impassively, in his expressionless default mode, but looks shrunken (if it were possible to further diminish a man so devoid of charisma). The first impression is of two ordinary elderly people. They'd look like ruddy peasants if it weren't for their ornery haughtiness. Power confers distorted stature to the most unlikely people. No Winston Churchill, Stalin, or Mao, this little party hack, who astonishingly ruled Romania for almost 25 years, was a terrible speaker and looked like a pudgy rodent. One spends the mesmerizing, sometimes frightening and sometimes mind-numbing three hours of absurd official footage that comprise this fascinating film wondering how in the world he managed to rule that country for so long. 
The concept behind this darkly ironic movie, is as its title describes, to tell the story of this man exclusively from his point of view. It is a testament to the isolating magnetic field of power. The archival material is incredible; some of it, particularly the material in black and white, is beautifully shot.  It must have been official footage, since the camera is always present to record tovarich Ceaucescu at every parade, every march, every speech, every tour. The endless barrage of official visits to factories and bakeries, party officials trudging through corn fields (!), communist harvest days, labor day parades, has an astonishing and prismatic cumulative effect. It probably mirrors what many people must have felt living in a groundhog day-like nightmare of relentless communist propaganda. At the same time, it is a study in the insanity-provoking effects of absolute power.
Crowds always applaud incessantly. Relentless, pointless, ridiculous applause. There is so much applause that I thought the CIA could use the soundtrack of this movie to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. Who are these people who applaud to no end? Are they true believers, or are they there faking happiness on the factory's time? There are always crowds lining the streets, waving flags, clapping, but the camera is seldom interested in selecting the individuals among them. They are, according to party dogma, the Romanian "people", a designation one should be very wary of. According to these images, Romanians are a happily communist bunch. But the scenes of a congress hall full of toadies, of robotically applauding apparatchicks, make one shudder at the thought of how easily the masses can be manipulated. How easy it is for many to feel safe in the anonymous embrace of acquiescence. Totalitarians know this and exploit it to no end. Yet watching this film didn't make me feel as smugly comfortable as I would wish with our own massive acquiescence in our so called democracy. We also have plenty of applauding sycophants. 
Brilliantly, the film follows Ceaucescu's rise chronologically, and even though we never get to hear from anyone else, it gives a basic tour of his idiosyncratic brand of socialism. I had to read about him in Wikipedia, but pretty much everything in his entry is represented in the movie. The crucial thing that's missing is a different point of view. He started out as an anti-fascist fighter, the son of peasants, and rose through the ranks of the communist party. He was bold enough, as unprepossessing as he was, to defy the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He had an independent streak and courted Western nations. The Russians somehow put up with his antics.
As multitudinous parades go, it is easy to infer that the better the parade, the worse off the people. Hence, North Korea takes the cake when it comes to awesome displays of Communist apotheosic kitsch, followed by China, with Romania a close third. In a very absurd bit, we see the welcome he got in England, where the Ceaucescus were received by the Queen with more pomp and circumstance than anybody has a right to deserve. When he makes it to the US, back when Jimmy Carter was president, the American welcome is downright pathetic, compared to what he's used to. Sparse, unmotivated crowds, who do not do anything in unison, and a puny dais with ridiculous bunting. A sad affair.
After a zillion parades, and trips to Maoist China and North Korea, things seem to sour. Perhaps he was impressed with these countries astounding penchant for unbelievable displays of massive human calisthenics. But apparently after his visits with Mao and Kim Il Sung, he imported the cult of personality and a harsher Marxist-Maoist line. He then lost total contact with reality. There is a great scene in which he speaks to his congress about the creation of endless committees (something out of Ionesco, except he isn't joking). Pictures with his likeness start appearing, followed by his wife's as well. There's footage of him playing volleyball (he was worse than me, and that is saying something), presumably with the national Olympic team, and pursuing certain pleasures not quite in the spirit of Communist sacrifice, such as gruesomely hunting bears, and swimming very badly in some pebbly sea. As heads of states go, the Ceaucescus must win the prize for hillbilly unsophistication. But he must have been a formidable manipulator to last as long as he did.
Subtly, sinisterly, one starts feeling the cracks. Natural disasters befall Romania. A terrible earthquake, a flood. He visits and ungracefully waves his arms, as if decreeing nature to get its act together. He is creepily inexpressive throughout. He decides to build a megalomaniac avenue with megalomaniac buildings. The scale model itself is megalomaniac. Yet the few shots there are of the streets paint a different picture from the land of abundance that appears in all the government kitsch. Buildings look dilapidated, the place looks like a backwater. When it's time for the obviously staged footage of food stores grotesquely laden with obscene surpluses of food, one immediately knows that the moment he visits these bakeries and stores, people must be suffering terrible scarcity. 
Then one single man dares confront him in Congress. You can hear his wife saying, let him speak, as if she is granting permission to some lowly servant trying to say a word in his own behalf. The comrade objects to the fact that Ceaucescu has deftly maneuvered the byzantine levers of the communist bureaucracy to reelect himself yet again, but he is promptly drowned out by the unanimous jeers from the entire audience. Truly frightening.
There are many pleasures to be gleaned from this approach that lets the narrative of the tyrant speak for itself. You recognize the same party hacks from the very beginning of the movie, getting senile but still in power. You see the changes in fashion and the increase in the grandiosity and absurdity of the Communist rhetoric.
We know the people revolted against his regime because in the end, he ran the country to the ground but this was not recorded for his posthumous autobiography. 
We hear about Timisoara when he addresses the nation blaming the violence on foreign imperialist agents (who else?), and next thing you know, he and his deceptively mousy wife are sitting defiantly but clearly fearful, on the other side of an angry show trial. Then the screen goes black.

Sep 11, 2011

9/11 at 24 Frames per Second

United 93 by Paul Greengrass

I wrote this article for a Mexican magazine five years ago. The translation from Spanish is mine.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the media asks whether the American people are ready to watch films about the topic, if it’s not too soon to reopen the wounds caused by that terrible day. If five days after the debacle, there were already people on the streets of NY selling souvenirs about the catastrophe, five years later should not be such an issue. We all knew that when the smoke cleared, Hollywood would put its machinery to work. The question was how. Those of us who saw what happened that day with our own eyes, without the filter of TV screens, know that the eeriest thing was that to the naked eye it looked exactly like a disaster movie. Looking towards the World Trade Center you almost expected Godzilla to appear from behind and crunch everything underfoot. The attacks were spectacularly cinematic. When wondering how the movies can recreate this event in an authentic way, the question arises whether the 9/11 attacks themselves could have been possible without the influence of movies like Armaggedon or Independence Day. Paradoxically, the challenge for filmmakers is to tell this story in a realistic and credible way, so it doesn’t look like yet another run of the mill disaster movie.
Which is why perhaps, to date, there have been an infinite number of TV programs and documentaries on the subject, but only a handful of commercial movies. None of them has been a sure-fire commercial hit. One of the most notorious ones is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, a documentary satire of the Bush administration.  As far as fictional recreations go, since there have been other attacks in Europe and elsewhere, and everybody now lives in mortal fear every time we go on vacation, people don’t exactly storm the box office to watch these films.
In my opinion, the best movie about the topic is Paul Greengrass’ United 93. It is a documentary-style recreation in real time about the fourth hijacked plane, which was apparently deviated by the passengers so it would not crash on the White House. It took me several weeks to find the courage to go see it. The real reason for my interest was Greengrass’ work at the time. Bloody Sunday, his movie about the Irish troubles, impressed me greatly. When I saw United 93 a few weeks after it opened, it had only made $30 million, a paltry sum compared to the box office of movies like Mission Impossible III or X-Men, which opened around the same time.
United 93, is in my view, the best disaster movie ever filmed. The mantra “it’s only a movie”, which one whispers in the dark to ward off heart pounding fear, serves no purpose in this film. United 93 is written and directed by Greengrass as a reverse paradigm of disaster movies. Dialog is pithy and direct, not heroic, not patriotic, symbolic or sentimental, but rather existential. There are no big speeches, or anything that sounds like words in a screenplay, only the urgent language used in situations of extreme crisis. The greatest virtue of this movie is that it is an existential drama, shot with unknown actors and real people. United 93 has no famous stars playing heroes. We completely identify with the passengers and those on the ground who try, unsuccesfully, to help: orphaned of artificial hopes, abandoned to the confrontation with the incomprehensible, without the consolation of a Harrison Ford ready to save the day. There are no satanic Arab villains either. The movie starts, quietly and shockingly, with the terrorists meticulously preparing themselves in their hotel. They shave, dress, eat, pack, pray in silence, which makes their next actions seem even more absurd: their humanity makes them truly sinister. The film also shows, without cheap political shots and in a hair-rising way, the ineptitude of the authorities in real time. In hindsight, one is flabbergasted at the incompetence of the government’s and the military response and at the incredulity of the authorities in charge that this could happen to the most powerful country on Earth. Greengrass understands that reality is much stranger than fiction. His realistic and rational style allow the passengers’ rebellion to be credible and logical, and hence truly heroic. 

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center
In contrast, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is an emotional story about two real policemen who were trapped underneath the rubble. Stone, who served in Vietnam, identifies deeply with Americans who have risked their lives for their fellow citizens. One of his obessions is the American people’s lack of awareness about those who sacrifice their lives for their country (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Salvador). World Trade Center is not a political movie and does not bother with the terrorists or the historical context; it glorifies the bravery of the policemen and firefighters who tried to rescue people in those buildings. This is a big surprise for those who expected an anti-government screed from Stone.
The movie starts with Nicolas Cage, and his partner, the excellent Michael Peña, getting up at dawn to go to work as Port Authority policemen. From the first two seconds, we know we are watching a Hollywood production. Everything is a cliché, including a transvestite prostitute who shuffles around 42nd Street, before 9 am, where such beings have become virtually extinct since the Disneyfication of the area. What is admirable and powerful in the film is the extraordinary recreation of the towers, both from inside and from outside. Using extraordinary digital effects, Stone reinvents reality prior to and during the attacks with chilling authenticity. He has the good taste not to recreate the actual crash of the planes and he never shows the towers falling, which one is grateful about, although he does show over and over the images on TV screens, which were replayed that day and beyond ad nauseam. The recreation of the disaster area and the consequences of the first impact is totally genuine (bits of paper flying, smoke, and those infernal ashes). To see the halls of the mall beneath the towers and the subway stations as they were before the attack is shocking. It is also extremely sad.
I can’t say I liked World Trade Center. But it did shake me emotionally. Even though the dialog seemed simplistic, cliched and unrelated to real life, I have to admit I cried rivers of tears.
World Trade Center is an homage to the heroism of the police and the firefighters, but that is the reason why it lacks bite. In contrast to United 93, in which the suspense is unbearable (even though we all know the ending), World Trade Center moves back and forth between the trapped heroes and their families above ground with great emotion but no dramatic tension. The focus on the personal makes it lack conviction and indignation.  The setting is recreated with great fidelity, but the characters feel made up, even if based on actual people. They sound like movie heroes. This is the trap that this event sets for those who want to retell it as fiction in moving images. It is hard to compete with reality.
The movie ends two years later with a happy ending, the heroes more or less recovering, their families grateful. The truth is that many people who survived the attacks have suffered from PTSD. A recent article in New York Magazine interviews several survivors and many of them felt alienated from their families, incapable of sharing their experiences, guilty about having survived and prone to panic attacks. The Village Voice told the story of three firefighters whose lives have been terribly affected by their work in the highly toxic rubble. Many rescuers now suffer from respiratory disease, cancer and other problems.
At the end of the movie, titles appear with the number of victims: 2792 civilians from 87 countries, 343 firefighters and 75 police officers. The film versions of  9/11 remind us that the world is not the same since then. Our reality is more unbelievable than any movie. What shocks is the innocence of terror in which we lived in the good old days.

Sep 7, 2011

The Debt

An uneven, unconvincing film by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) about the story of Mossad agents on a mission to capture a horrible Nazi doctor, The Debt could have been a much more competent movie. As it is, one thinks one is going to see a Mossad caper, only to find out it's an interpersonal spy love drama about truth and lies. I'm curious whether the source material, an original Israeli film, was better at tying everything together.
Many things fail to convince in this film, the casting being first among them. For a convincing Israeli accent in English, the only movie that can serve as reference has got to be Adam Sandler's hilarious Don't Mess With the Zohan. Granted, the Israeli accent is heavily phlegmy, so Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain et al, come up with varying degrees of mittel-European that are daintier but not very authentic. Marton Czokas is the one who fares best in the accent and Israeli deportment category.
The Mossad agents are supposed to speak Hebrew among themselves in heavily accented English.  They are on a mission to capture a Mengele-ish Nazi doctor in East Germany and bring him to trial in Israel. They also seem to be the most incompetent Mossad agents in history, because they bungle everything. At one point, the Nazi, (the excellent Jesper Christensen) who has been speaking German to them all the time, switches to English, which must mean he speaks flawless Hebrew. This is extremely confusing, distracting and ridiculous.
People are making much about the fact that Jessica Chastain doesn't look anything like Helen Mirren, who plays Chastain's character later in life. That didn't bother me as much as Sam Worthington, a kid whose stonefaced appeal totally eludes me, becoming Ciaran Hinds, or the very handsome Marton Czokas becoming Tom Wilkinson. I actually thought Chastain and Mirren were quite good as the same person. As good as he is in everything, I just can't see Tom Wilkinson as an Israeli. Furthermore, the movie is so clunky that even he and Mirren, who can usually do no wrong, seem unconvincing.
The actors seem as uncomfortable with the fake accents as they are with the tone deaf, grandstanding dialogue. But it is nice to hear them speak German and Russian (but no Hebrew). The best actor in the movie (and this is becoming some sort of terrible-fabulous cliche, what with Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes and Bruno Ganz being fabulous Nazis in movies) is Christensen, who is chillingly, efficiently and humanly evil. 
The gist of the movie, which is that these people lied for years in the service of national healing and of their own job preservation, is very interesting, but it gets lost in the piecemeal handling of personal drama, spy action and history lesson. There is a much smarter, tighter movie buried within the premise of The Debt.