Jun 27, 2012

On DVD: Alamar

This is simply a beautiful movie. I'm not a huge fan of meditative cinematic tone poems, which I sometimes find boring and pretentious, with the filmmakers' heavy stamp of sensibility and opinion intruding upon the pristine circumstances that they set out to portray; but this beautifully thought out and realized film by Pablo González-Rubio is another story.
A hybrid between storytelling and documentary, Alamar (which is a poetic way of saying "to the sea"), follows the summer that Natan, a young boy who lives in Rome with his Italian mother, comes to spend time in Banco Chinchorro, the remote island where his Mexican dad lives with his own father, a crusty, lively old fisherman in Mexico. These people live literally in the sea, in a little house on stilts. They fish for lobster, red snapper and barracuda. They catch the lobster by diving into the sea with a snorkel and a harpoon, looking for them in their caves and spearing one by one. The fish they catch by throwing fishing line with bait. No sophisticated equipment; just goggles, a snorkel, fins, a spear, bait, line, and a pretty solid motor boat. The young father teaches Natan what his life is about. He is loving but firm, and Natan is a quick study.
González-Rubio, who wrote, directed, edited, produced and magnificently shot the film, has an artist's eye for composition, camera movement, and color. The images are absolutely stunning. He captures the cramped intimacy of the boat, of the little shack, as well as the majesty of the sea, the hard work of the fishermen. The underwater photography by Alexis Zabé and David Torres Castillo is also spectacular, yet inobtrusive: everything is in proportion to the simplicity of the story. The filmmaker achieves a wonderful trick: he makes it look like he's staying out of the story while crafting it with great skill, delicacy and insight. He knows better than to divert attention from the quiet power of the story and of the bond between three generations of men.
Alamar has the feel of a documentary, although González-Rubio wrote the story. There is no philosophizing, as in Le Quattro Volte, a similar film about life in a remote Italian town. There is no artistic self-indulgence either, no excruciatingly long takes that attempt to pummel the viewer into appreciating nature, and make you feel guilty for not having the superhuman attention span that such pretension requires. Every minute of Alamar is moving and mesmerizing, because it is so visually magnificent and because it concentrates on an intimate, but almost mythical story about a boy who comes from a world away to spend the summer with his dad, who lives with very little. From the comforts of Europe with all the trappings of what we call civilization, plush toys, TV, running showers, to a wooden shack with a hammock and a radio, in a place where no one ever wears shoes.
Natan turns out to be surprisingly adept at adapting. Not every urban little boy would take to the choppy seas with such esprit de corps, let alone being away from his mom and the life he knows, to an existence where there is nothing to do but fish, eat what you caught and look at the sea. Oh, but there is so much more to marvel at. An egret that comes to the house for breakfast, hermit crabs, fish gasping for breath: life on Earth.
We see Natan queasy from seasickness and perhaps jet lag on his first fishing expedition. The first time his dad teaches him to snorkel, it's not fun. But soon he becomes a child of nature. It seems that he has inherited some of his dad's ways. By the time he has to leave, he sheds quiet tears as his father comforts him with words that promise constant nearness.
Gonzalez Rubio lets things happen. He doesn't create contrast or conflict where the image and the action speak for themselves. If this was in less sensitive hands, it could easily be turned into a story of a fish out of water who learns to be in the water, a boy hero who learns from his hero father, but thankfully, the filmmaker doesn't impose the artifice of dramatic narrative on them; it is there, naturally in the sadness of the geographical distance between them. There are no false notes in Alamar. I regret missing this movie when it was shown in theaters. But it is gorgeous, even on a small screen.

Jun 22, 2012

The Dictator

I'm not surprised people did not run in droves to see the new Sacha Baron Cohen movie, although I understand from parsing the box office numbers that even though it was treated as a box office failure in the media, it has been accruing positive word of mouth, which is why it is still in theaters. Baron Cohen's comedy takes guts to watch. People may be afraid of sensitive terrorists taking offense and blowing up a cineplex. They might be afraid of laughing at a side of Middle Eastern culture that has not been much fun in recent history. It gives one pause. Do we really want to watch a Jew skewer insane megalomaniacal, mostly Arab, strongmen? I certainly do, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea.
Yet Baron Cohen does it winningly. There is much fun to be had watching how he simply appropriates stuff dictators do in real life: change the names of things, like Turkmenbashi, who named all the months of the year after his mother, have doubles (the Husseins), armies of women (Ghadaffi), torture and kidnap suspected enemies (Dick Cheney). He's not making anything up.
Baron Cohen is a rare comedian: equally gifted verbally, conceptually and physically. He is as gifted at sight gags as he is at extremely layered satire. The political satire is dead on, not only about Middle Eastern dictators and cultures who oppress women (he is particularly offensive about that, but it's well deserved) but also about liberal Brooklyn food coops rife with good intentions, American foreign policy and everything that is wrong with America (in a rousing, biting hypothetical speech at the UN that elicited applause from the audience). He offers a smorgasbord of different kinds of comedy, delivered with zestful glee, thanks to the sprightly, confident direction of Larry Charles. Baron Cohen can be vulgar and offensive, but he pokes fun at the right targets. This is what people who object to his excesses don't seem to understand; he aims the satire in the right direction. On a few instances, he can be vicious (as in his portrayal of a Wadiyan shepherd), yet he seems to have a ball impersonating terrible, but somehow endearing, idiots. His stupid people tend to be rather sweet. Admiral General Aladeen is a crazy, ruthless torturer, killer, and megalomaniac, so how come he is adorable? Perhaps it's his sincere enthusiasm about absolute authority. He is completely oblivious to his own insensitivity. And we find that we even have things in common with him; he is right to be furious about the usurious internet fees in hotels, after all.
The plot is flimsy and it knows it, so it zips along knowing how derivative and inane it is, and still milks itself for solid laughs by always offering a twist upon a twist, always gilding the lily for maximum comedic effect. Somehow Admiral General Aladeen ends up working in an organic food coop in Brooklyn. Baron Cohen points out that there is a whiff of the fascistic about the purity of intentions of the politically correct in a scene where owner Zoe (Anna Faris) wags her finger at the police for some perceived p.c. offense much in the way that reminds Aladeen of his dogmatic self. Which makes him fall in love with her. Takes one to know one. That Zoe employs Aladeen to run her store and he whips the place into shape is a delightful turn. After all, you need dictatorial people to make decisions and run things smoothly. The Dictator offers biting political satire: a scene where Aladeen meets his match in an American torturer (John C. Reilly), a spoof of terrorism and the American fear thereof, and he even has the balls to make the Wadiyan language an Arabic-sounding version of Hebrew, which he speaks flawlessly. There is also hilarious, spirited slapstick, some of it reminiscent of a WB cartoon, except with Aladeen playing Wile E. Coyote. And really silly jokes, which I confess are what makes me chuckle the most in his movies. I adore his silly humor.
Not everything is equally funny. A shepherd milking a human female's breasts is rather crude and unfunny. But sometimes when he is at his most vulgar, he is also at his most playful, like in the apocalyptic nude wrestling scene in Borat. There is an uproarious surprise full frontal moment that is completely unexpected and works like magic.
Does Baron Cohen take things too far? Sure. There is a sustained bit about a decapitation so deliberately offensive that it curdles the laughter in your throat, but then threads its way up to a hilariously absurd routine that ends leaving you in stitches. If you think about it, what's with the penchant for decapitations? Baron Cohen rightly points to this blood sport as a deranged fetish, the ultimate human absurdity. In short, and to stop sounding like a pretentious fart, this movie is a hoot and I think he is a comic genius. He has balls of reinforced titanium. 
While one misses the daredevilry and the shock factor of his spontaneous interventions in his landmark films like Borat and Bruno, working in a scripted movie has not blunted Baron Cohen's edge. Here the bravery is in the brazenness of pulling off the concept, confidently strutting on a very tight rope of offensiveness, pointed satire, delightful mischief and even romantic comedy. He can handle it all, and he looks like he's having fun. He is truly a lord of misrule.

Jun 13, 2012

Dark Horse

For someone as misanthropic as Todd Solondz it is somehow admirable that he keeps making movies. I was not a fan of his last outing, Life During Wartime, a prequel of Happiness, his best movie to date. Dark Horse is slightly better. It is the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a fat, spoiled, obnoxious 35 year-old Jewish man who lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow!) in suburban New Jersey. Abe is rude, ungrateful, full of himself and unbearable. He has a warped sense of self-confidence that masks a huge, unjustified chip on his shoulder. He is the living portrait of grandiose entitlement. His mother dotes on him, his father is bitterly disappointed in him (with good reason), and of course, he has a younger brother who is a handsome, successful doctor. Abe gets the idea that he can propose marriage to Miranda, (Selma Blair), whom he meets while both mope at an exaggeratedly happy Jewish wedding (is there any other kind?). Miranda is depressed and also lives with her parents. Abe surmises correctly he stands half a chance with her -- she seems to have given up on life altogether. Because miserable people are magnets for more misery, she accepts.
Still in full command of subversion, Solondz' sets out to upend our expectations of romantic comedy love: that Abe will change, that Miranda will coax half a redeeming quality in him. Little of this happens. Abe changes a bit, propelled more than anything by his own grand sense of fantasy. At least in his mind he has conversations that hint at self-awareness, but this doesn't mean that his behavior changes when he snaps out of them.
Solondz' brand of humor elicits sour laughter that dies in the throat. Now, I give him props for sticking to his guns. This is his jaundiced view of this country and it's good to have him around to rain bitterness on our parade of moronic escapism and fake pieties. But there is something flat and lifeless about his movies. He is cruel to his characters, who tend to have just one dimension, like cartoons.
Now, people have come to expect perversity and provocation from Solondz and the buzz is that Dark Horse is disappointingly sweet and mild for him. I disagree. The fact that there are no pedophiles or any of his other usual perverts doesn't make this movie any less discomfiting. The elephant in the room, what nobody is talking about in the reviews I've read, is the Jewishness of the main character. Solondz likes to push buttons and he certainly does here with a Jewish-American male who is a monster of self-absorption. In one of the many fantasies he has, he is described both as a tightwad and a freeloader. He is the kind of prick that demands his money back because a toy came with a scratch. There is a wonderful speech in the film; actually, the one crucial moment of lucidity where there is a ray of hope for Abe, in which Marie, Abe's confidante, (Donna Murphy) reads him the riot act and tells him he is the child of absolute privilege and pampering but he still complains (I paraphrase). It's food for thought, this extremely critical view, not only of American suburbia with its hidden, deadly anomie, but also of American Jewishness. Apparently, Solondz is not as comfortable in his Jewish skin as other Jewish comedy purveyors, like Judd Apatow or even Larry David (a genius at being despicable and right at the same time). With Solondz, being Jewish is not a pretty sight. Is this fair assessment or Jewish self-loathing on his part? Perhaps a little bit of both. I wonder why everyone insists on ignoring this very interesting aspect of the film.
Solondz' extremely sour humor could have benefited from casting a more genial shlub. Think of Jonah Hill, who in Cyrus has proven he can go dark and creepy, or Seth Rogen, Josh Gad, or even someone more volatile, like Zach Galifianakis. Any of them has more verve in the nail of their pinky than Gelber, as he has been directed here. But this would run contrary to Solondz's trademark punishing bleakness. Yet even monsters need to have some modicum of charm. Otherwise, why should we care? Why make someone utterly odious? If there is anything endearing about Abe is that at least he gives it a try, in his own overbearing, deeply mistaken way. In Solondz's universe this is pretty heroic.
I can watch Christopher Walken do nothing for three hours and be enormously entertained. Here he's great at just staring coldly at his son, with a priceless sustained deadpan glare of disappointment and failure. But why cast him and Mia Farrow (also very game) as two Jewish parents? Are there not enough Jewish actors in the Tri-state area? I'm not of the school that believes you have to have a DNA test to play an ethnic character. But Solondz already makes much of the fact that Abe is Jewish. There is always a star of David or a poster of Israel or a Jewish themed t-shirt in the frame, so why not go for it?
In the end, Dark Horse is intermittently funny but it feels pretty lifeless, despite a bubbly score of cheesy pop songs. The humor feels labored and heavy-hearted. It's like Portnoy's Complaint without the wild sense of mischief, without the guts to really provoke a Jewish heart attack. A total downer, as usual.

Jun 12, 2012

Now Showing At A Theater Near You

At Lincoln Center, Corpo Celeste, an impressive opera prima by Alice Rohrwacher and one of my favorites at last years' New York Film Festival.

At MoMa, another great movie by a young female documentarian, Natalia Almada's El Velador.