Apr 22, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

A very thoughtful Canadian movie (deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Movie Oscar last year), about an Algerian immigrant who becomes a substitute teacher at a Montreal elementary school, Monsieur Lazhar surprises by its measured candidness and lack of sentimentality. The preview makes it look like yet another movie about an inspirational teacher, but Monsieur Lazhar is thornier and wiser than that. For as his new students are grieving the loss of a beloved teacher, he deals too with unbearable loss. The movie gently juxtaposes the difference in proportions between a well to do country like Canada, with what looks like an amazing public school and lucky children who are overprotected from life, and a politically unstable, volatile country like Algeria, where chaos and violence actually happen to families, but it never does this with the pious eye of the comfortably superior towards the victimized. Quite the contrary, it calls out our p.c pieties about immigrants and the education of children with wit and poignancy.
Director-writer Phillipe Falardeau has picked a wonderful group of children, all very good actors, and in Mohammed Fellag he has a charismatic protagonist who is not out to jerk out our sympathy without displaying an edge. Monsieur Lazhar has opinions, he's direct, and he comes from a less coddled country. He's not familiar with the p.c pedagogical politics of the new world, but he truly cares about the children. He struggles to retain his dignity even in a mild, relatively welcoming place like Canada. Without exaggeration or bombast, he refuses to concede to anything but honesty when dealing with the children's loss. Parents and teachers have every which way of handling the children's bewilderment, except for actually confronting it head on and admitting that kids are intelligent and sophisticated enough to deal with it. All their well-intentioned obfuscations and euphemisms just lead to more bristling from the kids, who can sense adults talking down to them. Monsieur Lazhar does not understand this. As the principal prohibits him from sharing with the entire student body a letter that a kid read in class, he says, "it's not the letter that is violent, it's life that is violent". Implication is, you may not know this, living as you do in Canada, but you don't do kids any favors by hiding from them the bitter complexities of life and death. The movie's command of tone is so assured, that you don't notice the emotional temperature rising until almost the very end, when some twists of fate reveal, that surprise surprise, life is not fair, and endings are not happy, but mixed. Bittersweet happy, if you consider the good Monsieur Lazhar has done to these children, and the good they have done to him.
A truly moving film.

Apr 20, 2012

On DVD: American Males Just Won't Grow Up

In my Netflix queue, a bunch of independent movies about the immaturity of the American Male. And a movie about a woman who wants to speak in tongues.

A very enjoyable comedy with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon Levitt, about Adam, a young guy who discovers he has cancer (Levitt, who is excellent) and his best friend Kyle (Rogen, very funny), who does not know exactly how to deal with such news. Writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine sustain a wonderful, melancholy comic tone without sentimentality. Gordon Levitt gives a very sympathetic and wise performance as the young man with cancer. I didn't think he had it in him, but he is very compelling here. It's a funny, sweet, unsentimental cancer movie that works (no small feat), and everybody is endearing in it.

The Duplass Brothers' dark, well written, disturbing comedy about, what else, men who won't grow up, and something more interesting: people unable to establish emotional boundaries. People need limits. The cast is magnificent in this very creepy comedy about John, (John C. Reilly), a loser shlub who has been divorced from Catherine Keener for seven years and still can't get his act together. She is getting married, but he is still super needy and oblivious of her privacy, and she allows it. He meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), who he can't believe is even looking at him, and they fall in love. But Tomei turns out to have a 21 year old son, Cyrus, a creepy man-child, (the excellent Jonah Hill), in what has got to be the most disturbing mother-son relationship in a comedy (except maybe for Fatso with Anne Bancroft and Dom DeLuise, remember?). Cyrus is solipsistic, narcissistic and way spoiled by his sensitive mother, who thinks he's made of glass and tries to protect him from everything, unaware that he is quite ruthless in his possessiveness. Of course, when John threatens to take Mommy away, they both fight like the overgrown children they are. This is another very well balanced exercise in tone, combining truly dark, uncomfortable oedipal stuff with pitch perfect humor and a nice streak of awkward human drama.

I hated this movie from the opening frame, but I could not stop watching. This is an overwrought, underbaked, inarticulate, silly movie about some sort of subculture of young white hipsters without jobs or brains that I'd be happy to draft to a foreign war. Guys who build flamethrowers and soup up cars and think it's endearing to drive to Texas on a date to eat at the worst roadside joint in the nation. I assume it aims to be some sort of nihilistic fable but it's more like lame, violent mumblecore, and possibly the film with the most utterances of the word "dude" in the history of cinema. With so many talented young actors desperately looking for work, Evan Glodell, the writer-director, who is also the protagonist, and nowhere near an actor, is incapable of casting but the most obnoxious, uninteresting actors for the job. Or maybe those are the only ones who wanted to participate. Nobody in this movie has a personality. That, in and of itself is creepy.

Higher Ground
The impressive directing debut by actress Vera Farmiga, about life in a hippie evangelical sect. She plays a woman who wants to feel the spirit but somehow can't. The movie is well observed, very well acted, and very sympathetic, starring a bunch of wonderful NY stage actors like Donna Murphy, Nina Arianda and Norbert Leo Butz.  A rambling but fascinating look into the experience of faith among the faithful.

Apr 17, 2012

We Have A Pope

Nanni Moretti's gentle, wayward movie has a wonderful central premise: A new pope, Cardinal Melville (the one and only Michel Piccoli, magnificent), his very name a nod to Bartleby the Scrivener, is chosen to succeed a dead one, but it turns out that he doesn't want the job. He is depressed and volatile, so the Vatican takes the desperate measure of bringing the very best shrink in Rome (Moretti), to try to talk some sense into him.
One expects what follows to be a mordant culture clash between two opposite philosophies of life, faith and reason; but Moretti chooses to meander in all kinds of amusing directions instead. I suspect that fleshing out that premise (faith v. psychoanalysis) would have entailed too much intellectual rigor, so he is content to let it drop and give us a very cute satire instead. As long as you don't scratch too deeply, the movie is funny and very enjoyable. But Moretti makes strange, unconvincing choices, and although he employs that wonderful bittersweet Italian humor, sprinkled in sadness and steeped in absurdity, the cuteness overstays its welcome.
In this quirky fable, the Vatican is populated by cherubic cardinals from all over the world, all of them secretly praying not to get chosen as the pope. It is an opulent fortress, completely detached from the real world, but that has no resemblance whatsoever to the seat of forbidding, unyielding, malevolent power that the actual place really is. The first big disappointment in the plot comes when Moretti decides that no cardinal is worldly or human enough to want to be the next Pope, an office that not only carries unfettered mythical power but infinite pomp and adulation; it is, in short, the greatest kiss ass in the universe. Who would not want to be considered infallible? Who would not want the blind love and devotion of billions of people? Unless he is being inscrutably wry, I find it impossible to believe that not one of his  pudgy cardinals covets that position: the closest there is to God on Earth. Since Moretti seems to be playing the sweet card with a straight face, the movie makes no sense. His insistence on being idiosyncratic but not rigorous reminds me of late Woody Allen: a couple of underdeveloped great ideas, tied together by a flimsy plot.
The shrink is brought in to help, but he is not allowed to really probe the Pope's subconscious (the Church does not believe in one). Hilariously, his conversations with the Pope are attended by all the cardinals. But instead of fighting the stringent rules, he gives up immediately, and the Pope needs to be farmed out to therapy with the shrink's ex-wife, for the sole reason that the plot needs him to escape the Vatican. One expects this man to learn something in his anonymous journey through Rome, which has some very moving moments. Particularly beautifully rendered is the Pope's feeling of anonymity. He even walks around the waiting pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, and nobody knows who he is: an amazing feeling of freedom. But it's a collection of rambling scenes, rather than a sustained character story.
The public relations arm of Moretti's Vatican, which in reality is an incredibly sophisticated operation, is represented by one chubby bumbling bureaucrat. I understand this is a fable, but the sins of the Vatican, all of them sins of power, are too satanic to give it such a fairy tale treatment.
To Moretti's credit, this movie feels less solipsistic and much more substantial than any recent Woody Allen film; the acting is excellent and the cinematography is wonderful. There are many delightful moments; nice, well observed little metaphors, like the Vatican stonewalling any kind of information as it struggles to deal with the reluctant Pope. They sequester the shrink and cut him off from normal life, because that is how they are used to dealing with things, by lying and blocking information. There is a lovely moment when Moretti plays Mercedes Sosa singing Todo Cambia, "everything changes", which is the idea at the core of this slight movie: that everything changes, except for the Vatican. The cherubic cardinals sway to the music but are oblivious to its message.
But then the film meanders into irrelevant metaphors. Turns out the Pope is a failed actor and he follows a troupe that's doing Chekhov. Yes, there is an interesting parallel between Papal spectacle and the theater, and I assume Moretti wants to replicate Chekhov's masterful wistfulness about the futility of life, but this too is wasted. The shrink decides to organize a sweet but ludicrous volleyball tournament among the Cardinals, in which they become competitive for once (as if) and they enjoy themselves. Moretti is either unwilling or incapable of staying close to his own tracks, and the movie fizzles out. 
The ending is rather abrupt and bracing. For once, the Pope really talks to the people, not at them from the balcony at St. Peter's Square. But Moretti never really explores this adamant man's character. He may be implying that this Pope has sensibly decided that the world does not need a pope any more, but, like this uneven, idiosyncratic movie, this seems to be the result more of a whimsical, personal tantrum than a rebellious stance against absolute power.

Apr 16, 2012

The Cabin In The Woods

Quite a surprising mashup parody of science fiction and American horror movies, The Cabin In The Woods grows on you as it turns out to unleash some high concept mayhem in a much more trippy and meta way than the Scream movies. 
It is hard to explain the premise without giving it away, which would be a sin, for if there is something truly fresh about this movie is that you definitely don't see any of it coming. A group of five good looking, inconsequential young adults retire to a remote cabin in the woods for some r&r. The place is spooky, but that's not the half of it. They are unaware that they are part of a greater narrative that belongs to another genre and becomes more and more bizarre. It is quite entertaining. One of the characters is the classic stoner who ends up being more clear and aware than anyone else. His inclusion made me think that writer-producer Joss Whedon and writer-director Drew Goddard probably burned several fat ones while they were coming up with ideas. The plot twists pile up, systematically and right on time, and the movie is surprising, even nasty fun. It is diverting, but alas, not delightful; clever, but not entirely meaningful. It's too busy trying to nail all the frantic paces it has to go through to let itself breathe. As is typical, they spend more time in plot mechanics than in making the most of their fantastic concept. This is a pity, because the concept is an illustration of the fact that all horror movies are some sort of a cathartic collective nightmare, some kind of massive purification ritual (while this sounds really pedantic, the movie manages to make it fun and cheesy).
I wish they had been a little less pitch perfect about the idiot stock characters of the American horror film and given us more funny, endearing characters to root for. The actors (who are complete unknowns to me), are competent, but their characters don't matter. This is done on purpose, but it feels very emotionally disconnected. I had far more fun watching the always excellent Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford effortlessly chew the scenery in roles I cannot disclose.
The same with some of the movie's better gags. There is a stunning sequence when all hell breaks loose that would be even more magnificent if the filmmakers allowed themselves to linger for a few seconds more on the fantastic chaos they unleash.
The movie has a liberating feeling of we're going to get away with this, just you wait. It thrives in its own contrariness. Stuff that never happens in American movies happens here, so you sit there thinking, this cannot be happening right now, it is not possible that they are going for this. Which just makes me rue how conditioned we are by the trite narratives of heroes and happy endings. This film, which is unabashed about exposing the inherent cruelty, the two-way sadism of horror movies, is out to have some fun at the expense of the genre, and while it is not scary at all, it is quite fun.