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.

Oct 11, 2011

NYFF 2011: Shame

The fruitful collaboration between director Steve McQueen (Hunger) and actor Michael Fassbender is starting to resemble Scorsese's with De Niro. Shame, their second foray together, is also about the mortification of the flesh but for opposite reasons to Hunger. Brandon, the protagonist of Shame, is far from a religious-political martyr who sacrifices himself with fearless discipline for a cause; he is a sex addict. Handsome, successful by the New York definition (he owns his apartment and has a job), he cannot control his sexual urges. He uses sex like other people abuse drugs. He masturbates in the office, watches porn there and at home, spends probably half his salary on expensive whores, and cannot stop. As is to be expected, this man whose mind is mired in filth, is an obsessive neat freak. His world is all smooth surfaces, steely blues and grays. He looks like money and women fall for him (who wouldn't?). The promise of sex with him sounds tantalizing, but just as he is mysteriously attractive, he is disgusting. He is disgusted with himself for being disgusting, so he goes deeper into more disgust.
The opening shot of this movie is Fassbender lying naked in bed, blue sheets covering his groin, looking like a supine Christ in a renaissance painting. McQueen is a renowned visual artist and, as in Hunger, every frame of this movie is masterfully composed and some are reminiscent (or is it just me?) of classic painting motifs, like pietas and annunciations. But the controlled aesthetics are in counterpoint to visceral emotions, and as in Hunger, McQueen does not shy away from the visceral. He doesn't go for the overly graphic either. He does not confuse that kind of shock value with art, as other more pretentious auteurs do (I'm thinking Bertolucci or Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny). The shock here comes from Brandon's terrible psychic pain and his joyless debasement of his body. Fassbender gives a brave and incredible, almost silent performance as a guy who is fighting with all his being against feeling emotional pain, by compulsively, almost suicidally seeking the release of sexual pleasure, but without the intimacy of human connection. It is a miracle he can keep this perverse act of self-loathing going on for as long as he does. I guess being a white male with money helps.
A woman leaves insistent messages on Brandon's phone. He never picks up. He works at a cold and angular job, all male assholes at the top, for a garrulous married boss that tries too hard to pick up women. Brandon, in contrast, vanquishes them like flies just by deploying devastating come hither looks. He can have any woman he wants in New York (including me). So why use whores? Why watch porn? Because sex is a wonderful way to feel everything but pain. It is a wonderful way to feel debased. He is self-medicating his shame with more of the same.
Spoiler alert, plot details ahead:
One day he comes home from yet another zipless fuck, as Erica Jong would say, to find music blaring from his stereo (the song: Chic's I Want your Love). He takes a baseball bat and bursts into the bathroom, where a woman (the excellent Carey Mulligan) is taking a shower. The framing of this scene reminded me of a Giotto annunciation. She reminds him she had keys. She is an emotional wreck with a bad dye job. Probably nothing thwarts a sex addict more than an unwanted house guest; even worse, a close relative. Later, we figure out that Sissy is his sister, but this is not a "here comes the Flying Nun to set her brother straight" story. She is a mess; a cabaret singer, with traces of self-inflicted damage on her wrists. These two are extremely damaged goods, from across the river in Jersey, which appears in the distance in several scenes, (as if the brother and sister had crossed the river Styx and still could not get rid of all that pain), and prior to that, Ireland. Probably Catholics, hence even more shame. At one point she says, "we come from a bad place, but we are not bad people". This is explanation enough. McQueen is not one for the American confessional mode. The point of shame is guilt and secrecy, not spilling the beans to anyone who will listen.
In contrast to her brother, Sissy expresses her pain by singing, (meaning: by being an artist) and by wallowing in big emotions. She embraces her mistakes so hard she almost smothers them with love. But she doesn't even have a roof over her head and asks to stay with Brandon for a while. She sleeps on the couch and Brandon can hear her, over the heavy breathing of his internet porn, crying and desperately begging a boyfriend to take her back, debasing herself for love and attention: it seems to be the family way. But does he go out and comfort her? Hell, no. He is at once heartbroken and disgusted.
At a nightclub, in the presence of her brother and his boss, Mulligan, photographed in a warm, golden light, sings the most depressing, ironic cover of "New York, New York". It may be her commentary on her own failure to achieve success (although if she made it to a swanky bar that takes reservations, she can't be so shabby), or on her brother's unconvincing veneer of success. He may fool everyone else, but he doesn't fool her. He sheds a tear when he hears her sorrowful voice, but is cold and stingy with his praise. His boss, however, charms her with deserved admiration, and soon she is fooling around with him in Brandon's bed. This is like taking the last baggie on Earth away from a desperate cokehead. He is furious: it disgusts him that she slept with his boss, and he knows this is the pretext he can use to ask her to leave, but he won't admit that she took over his space and now he cannot abuse himself in peace. She comes into his bed later to patch things up, but aware of his unbearable urges, he banishes her from his bedroom. Fassbender won the acting prize in Venice and is a huge contender for the big acting awards coming up. He embodies coherently and fearlessly the extreme contradictions in Brandon's character.
Brandon, unwilling to recognize his problem, just keeps getting worse. The fact his sister is there does not clean him up; it makes him feel even dirtier. His computer at work is taken and a massive cache of hardcore porn is found in the hard drive. His boss tells him that "whoever" put it there is a sick fuck. I guess this being a boy's club, they'd rather keep Brandon, who seems to be good at his job, even though he is always late, than fire him. Brandon feigns ignorance and just walks out of the room. Still, while Sissy lives with him, he goes on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie, wonderful). He makes an effort. The date scene is intimate and awkward, and the waiter, armed with the pretentious spiel of most New York restaurant waiters, keeps interrupting the flow of a painfully labored conversation, and making it worse for Brandon, who is having a hard time trying to seem normal. He really likes this woman and leaves her hanging on the first date with nary a kiss good night. Lo and behold, he controls himself. This does not last long. In the office, on a whim, he takes her to the Standard Hotel (a good example of successful product placement, for once) in the meatpacking district, for a quickie. Unsurprisingly, he can't perform with her. Worse, he treats her like he treats his whores. The answer to which is even more debasement.
McQueen knows how to handle dramatic scenes, and he is a great director of actors. The key confrontation between brother and sister is shot in close up from the back, as the siblings sit side by side on Brandon's couch. She asks him to hug her and this unleashes a torrent of hissing cruelty from him. This scene is far more wounding than if it had been shot showing the actors arguing from the front. Mulligan's extraordinary work in this movie should also be recognized come awards time. I didn't know she had it in her to be so raw.
The third act is Brandon's spiral descent into hell. On his long dark night of the soul, Brandon looks for ways to hit bottom, one of which is to have a paid threesome. The music is Glenn Gould playing Bach, what Brandon hears in his iPod to calm his battered soul. But how does a serious film portray images of sex? The originality lies in that the scene, shot in an arty way that looks like what porn would look like if it had better lighting and a good cinematographer (in this case, Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Hunger), happens to be dramatically the lowest point of Brandon's existence. In contrast to porn, which refuses to acknowledge human feelings, this extended sexual sequence is there to portray the soul of a man in torment. The scene ends with Brandon's face striving painfully for the obliteration of orgasm and becoming monstrous, deformed.
The movie ends with a terrible catharsis. It takes something much worse than what Brandon has been avoiding all along, to make him come out on the other side.
I really liked Shame, but there is something about McQueen's disciplined style that I find confounding. This movie is about extreme emotions, but something feels cold at its core.

Oct 9, 2011

NYFF 2011: Melancholia

My original review of this latest film by Lars Von Trier went like this:
But I owe it to my readers to provide slightly more illumination, so here goes:

My theory about Von Trier is that he is a madman with creative visions and what we have been getting from him lately are personal working outs of his inner demons on film. His first features were not about him, but about selfless love and Christian-like sacrifice, but lately he is using imagery to express a state of mind. Antichrist struck me as a petulant tantrum of self-indulgent excess: the artist in the midst of a nervous breakdown; whereas Melancholia, an exploration into the depths of depression, feels like the gift of an artist who has made peace, of sorts, with his demons. I don't think there is or will ever be a movie that depicts depression so accurately, so sensually and with such understanding as this one.
The movie starts with a stunning sequence of astonishingly beautiful images, accompanied by Wagner's Prelude to the Liebestod of Tristan and Isolde (in a nutshell, love and death, a major theme of the movie). Like Terrence Malick with The Tree Of Life, Von Trier proves that digital imaging can be used to extraordinary artistic effect in movies, not just for chases and explosions. Here, there are gorgeous shots of planets in the sky, strange visions of more than two moons, an orb coming towards Earth, as we see Kirsten Dunst dressed as a bride running in the mud, Charlotte Gainsbourg holding a small child across a sinking golf course, a horse falling in the forest, all in extreme slow motion. The extraordinary cinematography with the digital Alexia and Phantom cameras is by Manuel Alberto Claro.
Then the title comes in: not plain Melancholia, but Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.
Enter at your own risk.
I have a feeling that if Von Trier had not opened his big, idiotic mouth at Cannes, the Palme D'Or would have been his. Melancholia makes The Tree Of Life look like a Hallmark card. In the end, both movies are about grace, but Malick has a much more luminous, new-agey, faith-based view of life. Von Trier's film is about apocalyptic depression. No religion involved.
Opening scene: a ridiculously long white limousine gets stuck in one of the bends of a narrow country path. Inside are a beautiful bride, Justine (Dunst) and an even more beautiful groom (Alexander Skarsgard). It is a funny scene, as the bride and the groom, stressed out at being late to their own wedding, realize the humor of the situation and sweetly help the driver steer the wheel. Finally, they arrive at a gorgeous manor in what must be Vontrierland, because it sounds like it could be the US, except half the people are from Europe. Wherever it is, it looks like a fairy tale, a semi-castle with manicured grounds and an 18-hole golf course, property of John (Kiefer Sutherland, excellent) and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is Justine's sister, even if they don't look anything alike and have completely different accents. Their parents are played by John Hurt, an old rascal who brings two women called Betty to the wedding; and a brittle, monstrous Charlotte Rampling as the mother of the bride from hell. So hellish is she, that she wears a tie dye shirt to the wedding, no makeup. John and Claire are furious because this extravagantly expensive wedding is going down the tubes fast. Udo Kier, almost having a nervous breakdown himself, plays the wedding planner. Fun!
Justine, having arrived at her own wedding two hours late, first has to go to the barn to say hi to her favorite horse. This is not the most auspicious beginning for a bright future (these people are loaded, they have not a care in the world). But the bride is dreamy and distracted, almost narcoleptic. She regularly abandons key moments in the meticulously planned ritual, like the cutting of the cake or the throwing of the bridal bouquet, to jump onto a golf cart or take a bath, saintly groom and wedding party be damned. Something is not right with this lovely young woman, and the way Von Trier depicts the superhuman effort she makes to make it seem like she's there, like she is happy, like she appreciates what people do for her, is harrowing and heartbreaking. Justine cannot get away from the pull of Melancholia. She is awash in depression. This makes her act erratically, and she can be sweet and unfathomably sad and fragile, but also irrational, inconsiderate and bratty. The only note that struck me as false in Justine's story was her relationship with her boss (Stellan Skarsgard). Apparently, she is a genius copywriter and right at the wedding he gives her a promotion, turning her instantly into an art director (as if!), as long as she comes up with "a tagline" that very night. He sics a young man (a good Brady Corbet) to pry the tagline out of her, apparently knowing that her precarious state of mind is conducive to bursts of brilliance. This is fake and absurd, but I assume it is meant to signify that Justine is a creative being, like the film's director.
The second half of the film is devoted to Claire and deals with the anguish she has at the prospect of the world ending tomorrow. As it happens, Melancholia is also a planet that is orbiting Earth and is predicted to come extremely close to it. Claire is afraid Melancholia is going to crash against Earth, and the scientific assurances of her husband do little to assuage her, for Claire has a young son and she fears for his future. Justine appears at Claire's home one day, barely capable to get in and out of a cab, sans husband. Claire takes care of her, with the help of her majordomo, a character improbably named Little Father and played with surly aplomb by Jesper Christensen (the Nazi from The Debt). Ridiculous in a classic Von Trierish way.
Since we are in high symbolism territory, the two sisters are opposites in looks and outlooks alike. Claire is a doer, a planner, a homemaker (perhaps she represents the practical side of Von Trier that allows him to direct films). Justine is in love with death. Paradoxically, Justine's half of the movie is rooted in reality and Claire's in science fiction. Justine, the madwoman, has to deal with the petty exigencies of earthly life; whereas Claire is concerned about the possible end of civilization, not something that surfaces as an actual possibility any given Monday. As Claire fears the collision of the beautiful planet, Justine actually bathes naked in its glow: the twin human impulses of life-giving and self-destruction.
Dunst's and Von Trier's interpretation of Justine's descent into the depths of depression is extremely powerful and utterly realistic. So even as there are planets hurling towards Earth, unlikely majordomos or ridiculous characters (Von Trier seems to have no interest in what goes on in day to day life), Justine's depression and Claire's anguish are totally emotionally true.
I would not want to give the end away, but Justine, having been nurtured with devoted patience by her sister, emerges from the depth of her despair to perform a final act of grace and redemption. In the end, love is the only bond that can heal fear and pain. With Wagner's music booming, I was overcome with emotion by Von Trier's  audacity as an artist. He may be insane, but he is undeniably, enormously talented.
Melancholia is a visually rapturous movie. Like The Tree of Life, it is a cinematic experience best enjoyed in a theater with a big screen and an excellent sound system. Though I can imagine legions of moviegoers scratching their heads at this one, I urge them to surrender to its astonishing power and beauty.
Think about it as the artiest disaster movie ever.

Oct 7, 2011

NYFF 2011: A Dangerous Method

Any movie that boasts of Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Vincent Cassel in it, I don't care if it's good or bad, I'm there.  Any movie that casts them as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Otto Gross, and is directed by David Cronenberg with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, sounds quite promising. Unfortunately, A Dangerous Method is interesting but rather lifeless, like an impressive specimen pinned to a glass case. There is a lot of telling, and little showing. This tends to happen in biopics of great historical characters, but one does not expect it to happen in a movie by David Cronenberg, a director with a healthy, perverse penchant for the messiness of life. The characters talk in big ideas, and the movie feels stiff and  antiseptic, too much inside its own brain, even it deals with human passions that defy reason.
The story is fascinating: Sabina Spielrein, a wildly hysterical Russian Jewish woman, (Keira Knightley), is committed to the Swiss mental hospital where Carl Jung is starting to use Freud's "talking cure". Hers is a textbook case of quaint hysteria: she juts her jaw out, acts up a frenzy, laughs and cries at the same time, and seems possessed by demons, because she gets sexually excited when her father beats her up. In short, a masochist. I wonder whatever happened to hysteria? Women like that today, if they exist, either fuck their demons out or they become workaholics. But poor Sabina, trapped at the turn of the 20th Century, surrounded by nothing but disapproving male authority figures, is gripped by suffering.
Jung takes a keen interest on her and helps her out, even allowing her to assist him in his experiments with free association. She turns out to be very adept at analyzing other people's psyches, including his. They have an affair. Jung is married to a very wealthy woman who keeps having his children. As played by Michael Fassbender, he is quite an iceberg. Fastidious, self-important, aloof, controlled. There is one scene that hints at Jung having big appetites, but Fassbender's performance, even in the throes of passion, seems one-dimensional. The words tell us that he thought differently, but we don't see how a prig like Jung could be such an imaginative and fertile thinker. It's hard to reconcile Fassbender's clipped characterization, no doubt based on lots of research, to the man who created the Red Book and all those fascinating theories like the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and more, which greatly expanded upon and departed from the philosophy of Freud, his mentor.
Viggo Mortensen fares much better with his portrayal of Freud. I totally believed his intelligence, his natural authority, his recognition of himself as a guru, his strong paternal aura and I even felt a Jewish heimishness, a recognizable warmth, exuding from him. He is excellent. Vincent Cassel is also charismatic as deranged Freud pupil and uncompromising hedonist Otto Gross, a dangerous seducer, who goads Jung into unleashing himself and giving in to his desire for Sabina.
This movie is about mind games being played by the people who invented a system to decode them. Freud is the father figure the lovers seek approval from and whom they fear. When Jung wants to end the affair, Sabina emotionally blackmails him by telling all to Freud and threatening to become his patient. This drives Jung crazy.
One aspect of the movie I really liked was the fastidiousness of period detail, the limpid, warm cinematography by Peter Suchitzky, the starched collars and stiff vests of the men, the virginal white lace dresses of the women. It was another time, and it took Freud and Jung to shake off those constraints and turn us into modern people.
We now live at our own turn of a century of neuroscience which has mostly abandoned Freudian psychoanalysis, even if it is still highly culturally influential. Some of his ideas today seem overly male-oriented (penis envy?), some quaint, but he changed the course of human society for the better and it is interesting to revisit his contributions in the light of what we believe now.

Oct 6, 2011

NYFF 2011: George Harrison: Living in a Material World

This four-hour documentary by Martin Scorsese on George Harrison could have been awesome at half its running time. The first part, which chronicles Harrison's musical career beginning with The Beatles, is exciting and wonderful. Scorsese and his great editor David Tedeschi eschew the chronological route for a less straightforward organization of the generous amount of material they have. It's loosely organized by themes: post war Britain, Harrison's loving family, the mass hysteria the Beatles created, the ascendancy of drugs and psychic experimentation, George's dynamics within the band, his spiritual search. For those of us who love The Beatles, it is a moving trip down memory lane. It starts with great flair, with fun, creative cuts both of the images and the sound. A lot of the footage seems fresh and not the recycled Ed Sullivan or Shea Stadium stuff that everyone has seen to death. There are also plenty of reminiscing talking heads, including Harrison himself (from the many imterviews he gave through the years), and his many and sundry friends, including Paul and Ringo, both charming, Eric Clapton, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, and other notables, most ghoulishly Phil Spector, who produced some of Harrison's solo work. The first part reminds us how huge and trailblazing The Beatles and how they rode the wave of their own age with agility and creative fearlessness. They were true artists; not content with delivering the same sweet pop formula that changed pop music forever, they delved deeper, experimenting and creating more sophisticated masterpieces with every album. It is also a window to their particular relationship, cemented, as Harrison comments, by so many times they had to hang out together because they simply could not enjoy five minutes out in the sun without creating pandemonium. They were bigger than God, made more money than God, and all that fame and fortune was a two-edged sword, that seems to have hit Harrison particularly hard.
As enigmatic and mercurial as those who knew George claim he was, he is not as flamboyant and extroverted a subject as John Lennon. The arc of his life, was rich but mostly inward-looking, and as spectacular as it was for him, is not as interesting for the audience.
The problem lies in the fact that the second part of the movie devotes an inordinate amount of time to Harrison's spiritual search. It gets really repetitive. As admirable and genuine as his spirituality may have been, in terms of a documentary subject it is as exciting as watching paint dry. Spirituality is tough to convey, sealed as it is inside people's heads, and it's like what it's said of some kinds of humor: for you to get it, you had to be there. We see endless repetitive footage of Harrison with Ravi Shankar in India and Hare Krishnas and tunics but one keeps hitting one's nose against the window of George's soul and we are not that much more enlightened by the end of the movie. To his credit, George Harrison remains an enigma.
Although Harrison composed a handful of nifty songs for The Beatles, his biggest hit was My Sweet Lord, a saccharine song I never liked. The movie omits the fact, a pretty big one, considering, that Harrison was sued and lost for unwittingly plagiarizing a melody for this monster hit. During his solo career he had a couple of good songs, just as Lennon had at most two handfuls of important hits, but nothing at the level of Don't Bother Me, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Here Comes the Sun, all of which are unique and indisputable masterpieces.
I appreciate Scorsese's intention to make this film more intimate and personal than didactic, but many questions are left unanswered that by the end accrue into a jumbled parade of milestones rather than a complex look into this artist's character. The Concert for Bangladesh, for instance, which was the first rock benefit concert ever, gets short shrift because no one bothers to explain what was happening in Bangladesh that made Harrison stand up for it. That Harrison was a trailblazer becomes clear: he helped introduce yoga and meditation to the Western world almost singlehandedly, at a time when the popular reaction to these pursuits was pretty uncomprehending and hostile. He created the concept of the benefit concert, he was a producer of quirky independent films through his production company HandMade Films. But as in the documentary about John Lennon, also produced in cooperation with the artist's widow (in this case, Olivia Harrison), even though it skims through certain dark sides of George such as his philandering, or his on and off drug use, there is too much reverence going on. Olivia is a charismatic woman with great presence and she delivers the best one liner in the movie, but I wonder if her guiding hand did not steer Scorsese too much into the spiritual. And as in last year's doc about John Lennon, although access to the spouse means access to fascinating material, both works could use less interested parties to tell the story.
It took five years to make the film and by the end it feels like a slog, like Scorsese lost the wind in his sails.

Oct 5, 2011

NYFF 2011: Corpo Celeste

This little gem of an Italian opera prima, directed with intelligence, compassion,  echoes of Italian Neo-realism and a dash of Fellinesque absurdity by young filmmaker Alice Rorhwacher, is the coming of age story of Marta, a 13 year old girl who comes back with her mother and her sister to Reggio Calabria after living in Switzerland.
To judge from the movie's locations, this southern region of Italy is consumed by blight, poverty, abandonment and flying garbage. In this milieu, the Catholic Church struggles to protect its grip on the people. Problem is, its message and the way it delivers it, is mostly irrelevant. The Church does little for the people, though the faithful do a lot for the Church. Volunteer women organize events and processions, they care about ritual and community. Yet the poor teenagers like Marta who have to attend catechism class for their confirmation ceremony could not be less interested. The Church is fighting for their attention with much more compelling forces, like pop culture. Marta is experimenting with faith and she is open to catechism. She seems attracted by the mystery of it, and believes genuinely, in her own way. The devoted catechism teacher tries everything: disco songs, slide shows, dance contests and she even blindfolds the kids so they can experience some saint's blindness. She works her soul off with nary a word of thanks by anyone. She also happens to have a major crush on Father Mario, the frustrated parish priest, who dreams of getting out of that parish into a classier one. Even though he is a man of faith, he basically phones it in, but still has the time to collect signatures for the most conservative party at local election time. This practice goes unquestioned by the citizens. He also collects the rent of the apartment where Marta lives with her family.
Through Marta's relationship with the Church, Rohrwacher paints an increasingly damning picture of the inability and the indifference of the Church to address people's real needs. Marta finds a litter of kittens in the Church basement and discovers the reserves of cruelty and heartlessness that these figures of authority who adore Jesus are capable of. The incident with the kittens is so shocking that had Rohrwacher shot the Church burning infidels at the stake, it would have less of an impact. Marta correctly perceives a great discrepancy between what they preach and how they act, and she goes through a Christ-like journey of questioning of the faith that deeply disillusions her of the Church. I have not seen a better or more balanced exemplification of the essence of what is wrong with the Church: its arrogance, its disconnection to the tribulations of real people, its self-provoked isolation from the world, its indifference to real suffering, its incapacity for compassion. But Rohrwacher does not demonize the Church, she only illustrates, through the eyes of a child, the abyss that lies between true faith and an arthritic, outdated institution.

Oct 4, 2011

NYFF 2011: 2 Small Films

Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, a small film about romantic disillusionment, takes place in the wilderness of Georgia, Russia, and follows two young travelers, Nica, (Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) as they go hiking in the mountains. There is very little incident. The opening scene shows her naked and shivering, waiting for him to bring her hot water for her bath. They are roughing it, and the camera takes an intimate look at what seems their budding relationship. There's lots of sex, silent walks in remote places, trying to figure out how to communicate with the locals. Some scenes suggest the possibility of peril (like dancing with drunk locals at a crummy little bar), but nothing ever happens. Alex is relaxed and good-natured and for a Mexican male, extremely confident in his woman. She has beautiful red hair and seems to be fit and a game traveler. We don't know anything about them except they seem to be having a nice time. Both actors are gorgeous to look at in a completely natural way. Loktev is great at capturing unspoken nuance, tiny shifts of emotion, which her actors handle beautifully. Furstenberg is a very charismatic presence, absolutely stunning in some scenes, and coarse looking in others; she has personality to fill the screen and then some. The camera adores García Bernal and he is particularly good at being inarticulate. He is a great silent actor. 
As they traverse the landscape with a local guide (Bidzina Guiabidze), nothing much happens until a small but loaded gesture, a threatening situation, provokes a reaction in Alex that completely alters Nica's understanding of him and changes their dynamic irrevocably. If before they weren't talking because they were happy in each others' company, now they are not talking because they can't bear to be near each other.
The movie aims to be naturalistic, but Loktev's stylistic choices seem pretentious. She cuts abruptly in scenes between them and the locals, but then the camera rambles endlessly in open shots of them walking through the spectacular landscape. She avoids the feeling of travelogue, but at the same time it is frustrating that we don't quite get to see what they are seeing. It feels deliberately claustrophobic. The sparse music score is one of those ugly abstract compositions that call attention to how arty the filmmakers are but add little to the images.

But even though the subtle psychological dynamics of the couple cast a certain spell, since the characters seem to be abstract figures rather than real people with past lives and present quirks, it is hard to be invested in their journey or their conflict.
The movie tries the viewers' patience with long aimless scenes and a disjointed rhythm. Once things get worse, the film gets better. The rift in the couple makes the guide, a man that is between benign and taciturn, potentially menacing, sense an opportunity. The ending is a wash out. Loktev goes for a very stripped-down world and, mostly through the excellent performances of her actors, who do a lot with very little, it does have a certain emotional power, but the self-conscious style gets in the way of raw emotion.

In my view, the same thing happens with Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre, although this is a far more complex work, with a lot of cinematic references. The Finnish filmmaker is known for his stylized, quirky deadpan. Shot in beautiful compositions with harsh light and primary colors against flat backgrounds, Le Havre is quite remarkable to look at but at the same time its style is starting to feel a bit old. It is the kind of thing that directors in advertising try to imitate when they want to give ironic edge to their commercials, except they rarely know how to pull it off as beautifully. Le Havre is a sweet, subversive little fable about racism and immigration. It takes the opposite route of weepy, truculent movies like Biutiful or Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, which approach the topic with indignant moral outrage.
In Le Havre, a dreamlike world that pays homage to old French films with its deliberately fake sets of a quaint France, the old boulangerie, the old corner bar, the little cottage where the protagonists live, in contrast to the realistic, ugly modern port, some old folks band together to help a group of African illegal immigrants that are trapped in a ship container. The protagonists, an old couple that go by the names of Marcel and Arletty Marx, no doubt a nod to old French cinema stars but also to Groucho and Karl, are poor but happy. He is a debonair gent who shines shoes and can't pay the bills and she stays at home and cooks. His friends patiently allow him to freeload. They seem to stem from a distant age of dignity and courtesy, but in complete opposition to the world today, they have great empathy for the plight of the illegals and organize to save one of them, a young boy named Idrissa, who escapes from the clutch of the police. The actors are deliberately wooden and speak clunky, mildly funny dialogue. The characters seem to belong to the world of film, including a police inspector dressed at all times in a black trench coat and a black fedora, perhaps an homage to Jean Pierre Melville's tough resistance fighters. The gang of friends may have been resistance members themselves, with their instinctive antipathy to the police and an organic tendency to altruism. The meanie who blows the whistle on the kid's whereabouts is Jean Pierre Leaud, Truffaut's alter ego in many films, looking ghastly and mugging for the camera. Kaurismaki has composed a little love song to his favorite French films, the ones full of esprit de corps and humanity, the Marcel Carne's, Jean Renoir's, Truffaut's, rather than the brainy Godard, Bresson or Resnais.
The film is gently funny and offbeat and it convinces once we realize that Kaurismaki is not being naive, but quite the contrary, he is being a contrarian. He asks what if instead of rejection, racism and intolerance, Europe would be warm and welcoming to those seeking a better life. He has enough studied quirkiness to make the liberal pieties less preachy, but my problem with this film is that the high style creates distance, it screams look at me, instead of bringing the audience closer to the characters. Even though I really like the idea and appreciate the execution, I find it difficult to feel passion or enthusiasm for this film.
When you see deeply humane films like Miracle in Milan, which Le Havre resembles in spirit, those films are steeped in human warmth and they open your heart. Le Havre might bring a smile to your face, but it does not reach your soul. 

Oct 3, 2011

NYFF 2011: A Separation

Out of four movies I've seen in the Festival, A Separation, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is at the top of the list so far. Compared to some of the more self-consciously cinematic films we've seen, A Separation is almost decadently rich in human complexity, while it shows no interest in genre or style. This is not to say that it is not meticulously made. It is an astounding directorial feat, extraordinarily acted and edited, and so powerful that you forget you are watching a movie.
A married middle class couple in Teheran is going through a painful separation. The wife wants to emigrate and take with her the couple's only child, a 12 year-old girl. She wants the husband to come with them. The husband will not go. His father has Alzheimer's and he needs to take care of him. We learn this at a brilliant opening scene, the couple looking straight at the camera, telling their grievances to a judge. Although we hear the judge's questions and admonitions, we never see him, but soon we are as involved as he is in the painstaking minutiae of marital recriminations, since we are watching from his point of view.
This simple separation sets in motion a spiral of consequences that affects far more people than this nuclear family. From the very beginning, we are asked to be the judges, and soon we will realize that it requires beyond Salomonic wisdom, patience and fortitude to figure out what is just and what is true. Life is extraordinarily complicated, and life under the current Iranian regime, makes it more so. This movie is probably the Iranian film that paints the most comprehensive, detailed look at life in Iran today, and it broadens considerably our limited notions of what that is.
This opening scene could be a spectacular short film in itself. People talk over one another, the judge seems either blasé or exhausted about the whole thing, but the law is that the child can't leave without the father's consent and that the divorce needs to have absolute mutual consensus. They are at an impasse.
Good luck to me trying to summarize the plot. I don't think I'm spoiling anything, since in this movie God is in the details, and I am grossly simplifying, but proceed with caution:
The wife decides to move out of the house until the issue is resolved, so the husband needs to hire a woman to come and help him take care of his father. It is evident that it was the wife who bore the brunt of the responsibilities at home, and neither the husband nor the daughter know how anything works in that house. The cleaning woman, who brings her adorable little daughter along, was not told that she had to touch the father, let alone clean up after his incontinence. This constitutes a severe religious problem for her. She can't even tell her husband that she is alone in a house with a man. So the employer lied to her, and she lies to her husband, because she is desperate for work. All lies seem to come from simple fears: the employer urgently needs this woman and is afraid she won't work for him because of her beliefs. The woman is afraid of offending God and her husband. One day, the guy comes home to find the woman and her daughter gone and his father on the ground, disconnected from his oxygen tank. The woman comes back from an errand and he is so angry that he fires her. As he fires her, he pushes her out the door, she falls in the stairway.
Anybody who comes from a country with deep economic divisions will immediately recognize the patronizing tone of the husband towards the cleaning woman, and the endless reserves of frustration and anger from her unemployed, debt-riddled husband towards the well-to-do and educated. We never think of Iran in those terms, because all we know about is censorship and religious rule, but even though this religious reality is essential to the plot, the topic at the heart of this movie is not that, but class warfare. It just so happens that the classes are divided in terms of religion as well: the rich are progressive and not religious, and the poor are devout to the point of superstition. They will be satisfied if someone swears on the Koran (but even they, in a pinch, are ready to bend the rules). The rich could not care less about these notions. You can imagine the clash of cultures.
Once the force of unexpected consequences is unleashed, you sit at the edge of your seat, listening to different people give their versions of what happened. The law deals with absolutes, but human life is mired in nuance and equivocation and ambiguity. This is the source of such unbearable, rising dramatic tension throughout the film that it is no wonder that A Separation is being promoted as a thriller. Rashomon has been mentioned in connection to this film, but the style could not be more different, starting from the fact that everybody is in front of the judge at once and there's a messy debate between the parties. Revelations unravel in an endless spiral of motivated, justified, complex lying. Other people are asked to give testimony and they too suffer the consequences of bearing witness to a simple conversation.
What is the purpose of the truth? Can it be bent? Can it accommodate human mistakes? Who is to blame? Is the law fair or impossible? Can ancient notions of honor coexist with life in a modern country? At one point the judge cradles his head in his hands and we feel his pain. Who could possibly mete real justice on such murky terrain? Even as he refrains from depicting the Iranian regime in simplistic terms, Farhadi's insistence on human fallibility is the strongest point he makes against a regime that governs through divine absolutes.
The wonder of this movie lies not only in that it has an incredibly complex and sophisticated plot, but that it never abandons the wisdom, humanity and the fairness with which it treats its characters, none of whom are purely evil or purely good, but most of whom are maddeningly self-interested, irrational, human. It deliberately leaves some of our questions unanswered. After spending such an intense time with the characters, we probably can come to our own conclusions. But it is much more than an incredibly compelling legal procedural. What makes A Separation enormously moving are the bonds between parents and children, the unbearable loss of family cohesion, for rich or for poor.

NYFF 2011: Miss Bala

Although it is described as an action thriller, what Miss Bala does best is make palpable the feelings of fear, revulsion and violation that Mexicans have been grappling with since the dawning of era of the war on drugs.
Laura Guerrero, (Stephanie Sigman), lives in Tijuana with her father and brother and dreams of entering the Miss Baja California beauty contest. In a flash, her world is upended when her best friend Suzu is caught in the crossfire of Lino, a drug lord (Noé Hernández) who storms a sleazy nightclub and sprays everybody with bullets. Laura hides in the bathroom, but he nabs her and spares her life in exchange for criminal favors. Suzu has made acquaintance with some shady guy and that's how it all starts: you come near someone with "connections" and next thing you know, either you are dead or there is no way out. Written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz as a nightmarish version of Alice in Wonderland, and directed with panache by a much improved Naranjo (I'm Gonna Explode), Miss Bala portrays a country that is completely defaced by crime and corruption. Things are beyond outrageous, but that's how things are. Lino has unchecked power: he and his gang roam the streets of Tijuana armed and unimpeded, they close streets, plant bombs, massacre people dancing in nightclubs, have gunfights in plain daylight, buy their arms from a gringo on the other side of the border, and can even fix state beauty contests. Nothing is outside their purview of terror and nobody can refuse or resist it. What unfolds, is in fact, something that looks like an actual war. You would think you are in Baghdad, but this is the new normal.
Mexico is a surrealistic country and its particular war on drugs has Mexican surrealism written all over it (the cult of the Santa Muerte, narcocorridos, the grotesque violence). In the movie, as in life, bodies are dumped in front of the US consulate, strung from bridges. This movie is far less violent than what goes on in reality (decapitated heads appear in Acapulco beaches, people are burned inside casinos). Even though the movie feels tremendously violent, there is little graphic violence, a great directorial choice. Miss Bala depicts the ascendancy of the drug cartels as de facto rulers of Mexico through the point of view of Laura, showing it as the rape of the country that it is; for Laura Guerrero, in my view, symbolizes Mexico. One good day she finds herself in a gruesome nightmare and she has no idea how the hell she got there or how will she ever get out.
Everything outrageous that happens in Miss Bala is credible, and Mexicans will recognize this tragic state of affairs almost with a shrug. It is the realism of the surreal. There are a couple of plot points that strain credulity, chief among them the fact that no one in Mexico, unless they are five years old or just flew in from Mars, voluntarily goes inside a patrol car with a policeman. I could suspend disbelief because the movie establishes that Laura, who does this, is desperately looking for her friend Suzu, and she makes the grave mistake of asking the police for help. This particular cop works for Lino (who doesn't?), and soon she is spirited down the rabbit hole of the drug business.
The organizational skills of Lino's gang are amazing; I wondered if they ever actually had time to run the profitable side of their business, busy as they were killing other gangs, exacting petty but bloody revenges and orchestrating symbolic gestures of terror.
The movie works like a charm until the end of the second act, which takes place at the state beauty contest, with a scene of marvelous, piercing irony. Laura gets what she always wanted, though not the way she wanted it. The movie could have ended there but there is a final chain of escalating humiliations. Suddenly, we understand Lino's contest-fixing motivations (although the deals he makes are not entirely clear to me), and the war on drugs is uncovered to be an enormous farce, staged with the bottomless cynicism of those with power, for the duping of Mexican society and of our neighbor to the north, whose gargantuan appetite for illegal drugs is largely the cause of all this misery. I understand the filmmakers' decision to take the story to its natural and extreme consequences, which is to say that the war on drugs is a losing proposition because many of those who are supposed to be fighting it are actually abetting it. In terms of storytelling, however, it feels redundant, even as the bitter ironies of Laura's brush with the drug cartel keep piling on. In the end, although the story could benefit from more clarity, what boggles the mind and is very effective, are the endless layers and implications of moral rot of everything we just witnessed. Mexico is literally being raped and betrayed, and sinister forces are in cohoots to strangle it.
Miss Bala is being marketed as an action thriller, but a movie with a heroine who is forced to commit crimes in order to survive is not your typical action flick. Usually, films with passive protagonists are hard to watch because if the heroes are not the agents of change, it's hard for the audience to care. But Miss Bala works as a fable, because Laura is put in a situation in which she has do what Lino orders; otherwise she's toast and so is her family. Her dilemmas become existential. No matter how she slices it, she is drowning in rot. The suspense comes from wondering if Laura is going to summon some sort of integrity and stop being a slave to Lino, and whether this is even feasible. To the movie's credit, it steers clear from cliched heroics and wishful thinking. There is nothing that Laura or anyone can do to stop the putrefaction. When she does try, her motives are less decency or integrity than revenge, revulsion, and reaching the limits of human tolerance of humiliation and depravity. What happens to her embodies the sense of shock, revulsion and mainly of impotence that is gripping the country. Similarly, the drug lord's character summarizes the ambiguity that some Mexicans feel for the societal cancers that are the narcos. He seems to have protective feelings for Laura, but they are just his way of playing God. He can grant her life, riches, miracles, just as easily as he can send her to the lowest depths of hell, or kill her and her entire family. In the end, he is a user and an abuser, and there is nothing in him remotely approaching redemption, which is as it should be. Some Mexicans' admiration for the moxie of these barbarians is not only puerile, but tragic. Miss Bala makes clear that there is no sense of honor in these gangs, just unspeakable, depraved cowardice.
This movie poses an interesting conundrum: it aims to thrill and entertain, while at the same time it argues a sober message about the reality of the Mexican war on drugs. This is not in and of itself contradictory; a movie like The Hurt Locker is a perfect example of a great action movie that is also a serious anti-war movie. Yet in the case of Miss Bala, something feels amiss. Perhaps the titles at the end stating the number of victims and the billions of dollars reaped by the cartels are unnecessarily preachy. I enjoyed it very much as an acute and accurate metaphor of Mexico today, but I never felt I was watching a crime caper or an action thriller. It is way too tragic for that.