Aug 22, 2012


A valiant failure. It's no coincidence that no novel of Don DeLillo's has ever been adapted for the screen. One of the greatest American novelists and a master of language, DeLillo's books do not lend themselves to film easily. This did not deter David Cronenberg from adapting Cosmopolis, a novel DeLillo wrote in 2003 about Eric Packer, a young master of the universe who spends all day trapped in his limo, going to get a haircut, while the world implodes around him, in no small part thanks to his predatory bets on the markets. It is symbolism in capital letters, a dark fable about the tightening chokehold of unbridled capitalism. On paper, it may look like it can be made into a film. There is enough incident, allright. Meetings, sex, even a prostrate exam happen in the car, but then there is the question of the words. Don DeLillo writes sentences that cut like black diamonds, but he doesn't write in a language that anybody who exists in reality could ever utter. Cronenberg aims to be as faithful as possible to that sharp, terse, ironic DeLillo style, but, to do that, he would need the finest actors mankind has ever offered to say these lines without sounding like pretentious automatons. The only one to emerge triumphant in this verbose ordeal is the great Paul Giamatti, firing the words like a weapon at the very end of the film. Matthieu Amalric fares very well playing a pie throwing activist and Samantha Morton hangs by a thread as some sort of financial oracle, holding the screen with the sheer conviction of her luminosity. I would have loved to see la Swinton play the part.
The rest is a disaster, mainly because Cronenberg picked Robert Pattinson, a terrible actor, to play the leading role. He is in every frame, and he tries his best, but he is flat as a board. The character is supposed to be morally and emotionally vacant, but the actor playing him cannot be vacant himself. I don't think Pattinson knows the full import of some of the lines he utters. Not because he is stupid, but because he doesn't have the depth. Ryan Gosling would have been perfect. Alas.
Even worse is Sarah Gadon, who, to judge from her performance as Packer's wife, is a totally inexperienced and untalented actress. This makes me question Cronenberg's sanity. Do not give a role with De Lillean dialogue to someone who can't act. It will bring the movie down.
As we have said before about Michael Fassbender's wooden performance in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, it takes a rare talent to make him act badly. The same happens here but with Juliette Binoche, an even greater actor than Fassbender, sounding wooden and fake as an art dealer. I'm starting to think that Cronenberg is just not a great director of actors. He's beginning to like very wordy literary adaptations, and his last two films seem like the life has been punched out of them by so much unwieldy dialogue. He didn't use to be this way. His movies have always exploded with messy life.
Cosmopolis is stiff but much less corseted than A Dangerous Method. Some moments of Cronenbergian pizzazz wake the audience up. The scene with Amalric is wonderful; surprising, violent and funny. So is a moment where Pattinson uses a gun. The scene with the barber (George Touliatos, excellent) has a certain power, even if most everything in this movie looks like a cheap set. I expected the look to be as polished and metallic as in Cronenberg's Crash (a pervy movie that I love), but the light is harsh, which makes the surroundings look phony (as phony as the New York of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, a similar disaster, but made with much more money).
Imagine this movie had David Fincher made it. It would have been better. It sorely needs that Alpha male gloss. On the page, DeLillo's language reads like a trillion bucks: sharp, smooth, velvety, dangerous. But the movie dies trying to bring his style to life. There is not enough sharpness; not enough precision. Yet, as terribly flawed as it is, the endeavor to bring to the screen this dark fable about the collapse of our society is somehow quixotic. You cannot but root for Cronenberg, if you manage to make it to the end.

Aug 21, 2012

Robot & Frank

A sweet, thoughtful, original and unlikely comedy about a man with incipient Alzheimer's and the robot that is hired to help him out; this is, once more, an opportunity to witness the greatness that is Frank Langella. He has been nailing every performance in every movie he is in, but this one is a gem. Langella plays Frank, a man who lives alone in a little town in the near future, and who is losing his memory. He happens to be an ex-burglar and he is ornery, proud and in denial. His exasperated son (James Marsden) gets him a robot to keep an eye on him and help whip him into shape. Frank is annoyed and humiliated by the robot (voiced by a suave and solicitous Peter Sarsgaard), but as the robot has been programmed to improve his charge's health, Frank, crafty bastard that he is, realizes he can manipulate the robot to help him plan some heists, which are the only thing that keeps his mind alert and bring him joy. It is a truly original premise and director Jake Schreier strikes the perfect tone. The movie is funny, smart and very touching. Somehow, one believes that a relationship is created between Frank and the fantastic Robot, closer to that which he has with his dutiful but distant children. Langella should be nominated for every prize in the book for this extraordinary performance. He doesn't chew the scenery; he doesn't need to. He completely inhabits Frank. One believes he was once a very good burglar. One believes that he doesn't remember who his children are. One knows when he remembers and when he doesn't, when he is faking dementia. He is so good at faking the faking, he is just astonishing. One can see the regret and the sadness of his current life, his tough side, and the sparkle in his eye when he relives his planning feats. He also has impeccable comic timing. Langella has become one of the greatest American screen actors.
I could watch Susan Sarandon pad around in her pajamas and pay the price of admission. I will endure any movie if she happens to be in it. Here she plays a librarian, something of a species on the verge of extinction, who is very nice to Frank, who flirts with her. Her warmth and intelligence fill up the screen. The long lost Liv Tyler plays Frank's daughter, some sort of ditzy hippy liberal who travels the world and James Marsden as the son has great reserves of contempt for a dad who not only was never there, but who shamed the family for being a crook. Yet the delightful chemistry belongs to Frank and the Robot.
A light comedy, Robot & Frank nevertheless touches upon the very painful theme of aging and  memory loss, of losing touch with life. It also skims through the possibilities of a near future when robots will be our daily companions (we're not that far off, given our exaggerated attachments to iThings).
It could have been a gray dystopian bummer look at the future, as sci fi movies usually are, but the twist here is that it is less a sci fi flick than a comedy in which the near future looks almost identical to the present. This makes us focus on human feelings and memories, more than on man made objects. Robot & Frank has a wistful air of nostalgia for objects who don't talk back, like books, for the human connection we are afraid of losing (if we haven't yet) in this age of constant screens. Robot and Frank likes to think that the human is still in charge. It makes us wonder for how long.

Aug 20, 2012

Tony Scott

Tony Scott was among the best practitioners of the action genre and he left behind a number of iconic movies, from the small cult movie The Hunger to Top Gun. His death is enormously tragic, yet as many obits confirm, his movies, although immensely popular, were not usually liked by  critics (in contrast to the work of his brother and collaborator Ridley Scott, responsible for movies like Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, all popular and critical successes).
Tony Scott's movies were, for the most part, preposterous blockbusters; adored by the masses, derided by reviewers. The success of his big movies like Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, and Days of Thunder paved the way for increasingly over the top studio extravaganzas, which turned out to be much less watchable, and far more stupid than the worst Tony Scott movie. Compared to the Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay school of cinematic destruction, Scott's films are a marvel of restraint. There is always an interesting character worth following. He always got solid performances out of his actors, which is more than you can say for many action films. And the action sequences are top notch (although sometimes his movies feel like there never was a cut he didn't like). Still, they are no masterpieces. Many times, they verge on the cheesy. Top Gun and Thunder Days are perfect examples of Tony Scott's brand of impeccably executed mindlessness.
In any case, here are my favorite Tony Scott movies:
First one out of the gate, and his first movie, is The Hunger, a mesmerizing vampire clunker that has achieved cult status because of a notorious lesbian scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. We should be forever grateful to Tony Scott just for orchestrating such an event. The movie is artsy cheese. Lots of fog, fans and venetian blinds. Very 80s, campy fun. With David Bowie, as what else? A vampire.
I actually liked Revenge, starring Kevin Costner, Madeleine Stowe and a scene-stealing Anthony Quinn. It's a little noir set in Mexico, in which Costner has the hots for Stowe, who is married to Quinn, who is sheer evil. Dark and very satisfying.
True Romance, with a script by Quentin Tarantino, happens to be one of my favorite Tarantino films. It is exhilarating fun and has one of the greatest supporting casts ever. A scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is worth the price of admission. Brad Pitt is very funny as a clueless pothead. Scott directed with great verve, making Tarantino's chutzpah shine through.
Crimson Tide is a pretty taut submarine thriller that pits the great Denzel Washington against the great Gene Hackman in a battle of wills, which is like sinking your teeth into a most delicious acting sandwich. Apparently, an uncredited Tarantino spiffed up the dialogue, making it more fun than any submarine movie has any right to be.
Scott made several collaborations with Denzel Washington, who has made a career of delivering plausible, unshakable, dignified action heroes. Washington has a smart gravitas that other action stars don't. He always sounds like a human being and not a sound bite. Even in the most ridiculous action films he makes you care and keeps you following him, which is what happens in the mess that is Man on Fire.
I didn't see Scott's remake of The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3, but I did catch Unstoppable on TV and enjoyed the well manufactured tension of a train hurtling towards destruction without brakes. I also enjoyed watching a lox like Chris Pine come up to bat against Denzel and become a better actor for it.
I hope the Scott family is consoled by the love of millions of people for the films of Tony Scott.

Aug 12, 2012

The Queen Of Versailles

You walk in to this surprisingly affecting documentary by Lauren Greenfield with the preconception that you are going to hate David and Jackie Siegel, the protagonists of this sad, ridiculous American saga. Greenfield gained access to the billionaire couple as they were building the biggest house in America, an enormous mega McMansion "inspired" by the palace of Versailles, without the taste.
The house, set in the swamp that is Orlando, Florida, was to be ninety thousand square feet and had 10 kitchens, a bowling alley and a grand ballroom, among other necessities. It was built in such a scale, as Mr. Siegel put it, simply because he could do it. That is the can-do American spirit right there, to spend, borrow and buy apocalyptically and with great gusto.
Mr Siegel became a billionaire by developing the largest timeshare corporation in the world. As his son explains, with a timeshare you are selling an apartment 52 times over. People pay a mortgage to use the place one week a year. One apartment - 52 mortgages = genius. A timeshare is, like many of the perks of living in the land of overconsumption, something nobody really needs, but Siegel, who seems to be a very shrewd businessman, made billions with it. Heartbreaking are the scenes where suckers are led to the slaughter by smooth talking salespeople showing off tackily appointed timeshare penthouses. Timeshares are the real estate equivalent of Vegas slot machines: for aspiring losers only. Siegel and his son not only know this, but they actually say it. However, they spin it as giving regular people the opportunity to "feel rich", to partake of the delusional fantasy that the American dream has become. Nowhere in the film do the Siegels ever acknowledge that they may have been the victims of their own predatory practices. Nor do they seem aware of the connection between their Republican ideology and the karma they ended up paying. What makes the film interesting, beyond a sarcastic voyage into the lifestyles of the obscenely rich is that the economic crisis suddenly put David Siegel in the same spot as many of his customers; unable to pay off debts, and for the exact same reasons: irrationally cheap loans.
What starts as an exploration of almost pathological conspicuous consumption, ends being a poignant fable about our financial crisis and the rampant criminality of the banking system, which doesn't show mercy even for well connected billionaires like the Siegels. For as Mr. Siegel borrowed cheaply and spent like a maniac, the economy collapsed and so did his business, which was predicated on people making their monthly mortgage payments.
Greenfield, who followed the Siegel family for two years, was handed a once in a lifetime dramatic turn on a platter and she wisely took it. We all have heard about regular people who got foreclosed and fired and ended up sleeping in their cars and eating at soup kitchens, but the irony, and the implications of watching unrepentant billionaires lose their shirts is what makes this film more than just a sideshow into the eccentricities of the American rich. It is an indictment of a capitalist system gone completely off the rails. It still provides good, superior fun, laughing at the foibles of a rich man and his younger trophy wife (this phrase is actually used by the couple's eldest daughter in connection to her own mom). We can laugh at their garish oil portraits and their terrible taste (they all look like they dress at Kmart). The Astors, these people are not. The only thing they have in common with Versailles is the French in nouveau riche. But what makes the film winning and even touching is that the Siegels are very, as they say, "relatable". They are not snotty, evil, claustrophobic snobs. They are plain and down to earth and surprisingly candid and open as subjects. Why on earth did they think it a good idea to let cameras into their private life is anybody's guess. Obviously, they liked to show off their wealth. Maybe Siegel thought a peek into the construction of his own personal Valhalla would be good business P.R. Greenfield may have set out to shoot a satyrical document about the distorsion of the American dream, but she was taken by their openness, and eventually, their vulnerability. She rolled with the punches, and the result is a satisfyingly complex portrait of a family, and of a new class of ridiculously wealthy Americans, whose obscene fortunes ended up being flattened by the financial crisis.
Jackie Siegel happens to be very personable, albeit completely distorted by wealth. In an almost unbelievable scene, she goes to Hertz and expects a driver to be included in the rental. But she doesn't seem petty. She is an ebullient, compulsive consumer, refreshingly un-self aware. As in, I paraphrase: "I wanted to have just one child, but when I saw that I could have nannies, I had eight! They are such a bundle of joy!" (the nannies, I presume). In fact, her gargantuan shopping habits before the debacle (and even during) could singlehandedly save the American economy, or at least the ravaged economy of Orlando. A former Miss America, a bright kid from Binghamton, N.Y. she studied engineering so she could get a job at IBM, then the local source of jobs in town. She quickly saw the misery of a Dilbert-like existence and bolted for a modeling career. Eventually, as Miss America, she met David Siegel, thirty years her senior. Jackie is a great deflater of our preconceptions. She doesn't act like the gold-digger one expects. Just because she was Miss America, doesn't mean she's stupid. But she does like to play dumb. She seems totally devoted to her husband, much more than he is to her. Still, she spends money like other people gorge on food; to satisfy an inexhaustible emotional hunger. Nothing is ever enough, but she shops so guilelessly that you almost feel sorry for her. To me, having that amount of money and choosing to live in Orlando, Florida is incomprehensible. But the Siegels don't have pretensions. They don't care to sit on the board of the Met. They just care to spend and to have and to show it off. Their hunger for things hints to emotional deprivation in both of them. People who feel safe and loved probably don't need to surround themselves with so much crap. The Siegels are world-class luxury hoarders.
For good contrast, Greenfield spends some time with their small platoon of Filipino nannies, who can't see their own struggling kids and are actually the ones who wear the pants around the house, because Jackie is incapable of any kind of discipline.  She has a good eye for irony and hubris, and the film is rich with scenes of great paradox, like a mansion covered in dog poop because nobody there cares to walk the dogs. A scene of Christmas shopping by Jackie, just as her husband is struggling to save his business, is jawdropping. She arrives home with 4 giant Walmart carts of gifts as the maids try to bring them into the house where already in the garage there are mountains of forgotten unused toys.
The movie is an entertaining, disturbing portrait of our rapacious capitalism. It's a scary vision of upended fortunes. Check out Jackie's chauffeur's story. It will give you goose bumps. It's "there but for the grace of God go I". But it is also an intimate portrait of a lopsided marriage, the threesome between a husband, his wife, and lots of money.
Right before the movie came out, Siegel was very displeased with the results and sued Greenfield for defamation. It's ironic that he can't realize that what makes him angriest about the finished film --  according to him, it makes him looks like a loser and tarnishes his business reputation -- is actually what ennobles him.
There have been several documentaries and movies about the grotesque surrealism and unfairness of our recent financial crisis, but this one makes it feel personal. By a happy accident; the financial crisis, it became about much more than a glimpse into bizarre fortune, it's about the collapse of American fortunes of poor and rich alike at the hands of the biggest, most brazen, unrepentant criminals this country has ever known: the financial industry.

Aug 8, 2012

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

This is an excellent documentary by young filmmaker Alison Klayman, about Ai Wei Wei, artist, activist and giant thorn on the side of the Chinese government. It shows how a smart conceptual thinker like Ai is exploiting the capabilities of technology, namely twitter and the internet, to try to shift the balance of power from government to society at large. This movie made me think that the creators of twitter probably never imagined that a gossiping application would become a revolutionary tool for social change. Ai Wei Wei can see that, and is using it very smartly to raise hell.
Ai is one of the world's most famous artists, both because of his provocative conceptual gambits, like destroying an ancient Chinese vase on camera or painting another one with the Coca-Cola symbol, and also for using an amalgam of conceptual art and social media to single-handedly demand, at considerable personal risk, accountability, transparency, democracy, freedom and justice from the notoriously repressive Chinese government.
Ai is angry and fearless, informed (even if he denies it) by having witnessed his father's humiliation at the hands of Mao's "cultural" revolution, one of the most perverse totalitarian cruelties in history. His sense of outrage is visceral: provocation is in his blood. Ai is the product of a confluence of factors, a child of the Maoist persecution of artists and intellectuals, yet at the same time a beneficiary of the westernization of China, someone who was able to leave China and come to New York to start life as an artist. To judge from his global notoriety and his house in Beijing, he has been financially successful. He is the most famous Chinese artist in the world today. Because of his worldwide fame, he was courted by the authorities to collaborate on Bird's Nest stadium (something he later disowned). His twitter feed, accompanied by snapshots, is an abbreviated form of conceptual art. He gets beaten by police, takes a picture, posts it with a pithy remark and soon two hundred thousand people in China and many more the world over (there is a version of the feed in English) are spreading the word. He is a professional provocateur. As a fellow artist says in the film, there is something of a hooligan in him, so he knows how to deal with the hooligans of the Chinese government. In him, the Chinese authorities have met their match.
The terrible 2008 earthquake in Sichuan galvanized him to demand from the Chinese authorities they own up to their "tofu" buildings, badly built schools that collapsed and killed more than 5000 children. In a move that blurs the lines between art and activism, he enlisted a squadron of volunteers who went all over Sichuan asking for the names and ages of the children who died in the quake and then he published the endless list, something that the government should have done. Since then, he has been harassed incessantly by the authorities, who display petty, ruthless and arbitrary methods, which he never fails to meet in contrary acts of defiance. They commissioned him to build a huge artists' studio in Beijing and as soon as it was finished, they decreed to have it razed. He decided to counterattack by inciting people to join a massive party, which he could not attend, because he was under house arrest.
He is an interesting, if uneven conceptual artist, who communicates, through massive installations and acts of artistic defiance, his devotion to the idea of democratic change and a truer reflection of the reality in China today. His installation of millions of ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is pretty astounding. Devastating also is the colorful giant mural he made out of children's backpacks, stating the phrase, "She lived happily on earth for seven years", a quote from the mother of a young child who perished in the quake. Just as the Chinese authorities are unrepentant about hounding him, so Ai Wei Wei is unrepentant about provoking them. He was detained and incarcerated for three months and they accused him of owing the state over two million dollars in taxes. He just recently lost the case. He is a true agitator and living proof that art, now in cahoots with social media, can be a powerful tool of resistance.

Aug 5, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Kudos to Rashida Jones for co-writing and starring in one of the few truly engaging romantic comedies of recent times. What has been passing for romantic comedy in Hollywood lately is mostly inane drivel about women wanting to get married, fighting to get married, and being total ditzes. There are no real or realistic relationships in those movies: they are so "high concept" that they have no resemblance to life (with the exception of Bridesmaids, which is a send up of the genre and at the same time the mother of all those hapless marriage comedies. Yet it is still a bromedy, but with women). What are considered chick flicks are actually a bane for women, but they keep making them and women keep taking them, since they have no other choice (unless they want to sit through yet another installment of overgrown children battling evil in tights and muscle suits, which is fast becoming a superhuman yawn).
And so, Celeste and Jesse Forever, a wise comedy about the end of love, comes as a breath of fresh air. A lot is right with this movie, starting with the subtle, heartfelt writing by Jones and co-actor Will McCormack, which eases gently between the sense of real loss and very funny comedy. It has little vulgarity and none of that tiresome staple of recent American comedies, the gross out factor. Instead, it is smart and winning, extremely well directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who makes the balance between pain and fun seem effortless. This is not a comedy in the vein of Bridesmaids which is like an automatic weapon of jokes. This is a more realistic take on male-female relationships, and it is very satisfying.
Jones (Celeste) and Andy Samberg, who is actually kinda sexy in the role of Jesse, have great chemistry together. All the character roles are nicely played, particularly by Ari Graynor as Celeste's best friend, Emma Roberts as a manufactured pop star, and Chris Messina as a potential suitor. The only one who seems like a fish out of water is Elijah Wood, who is neither here nor there as Celeste's gay boss. Los Angeles plays an important secondary role as the culture in which the characters try to fit in, all well observed and very funny. And even though there are a couple of holes in the story, they are forgiven in the name of a comedy that does not shy away from pain or real emotions.
I will not go into the plot details (which you probably already know) because one of the nicest twists in the movie involves the relationship status of the two main characters. Celeste and Jesse Forever is a bittersweet story about relationships that fizzle out for all kinds of personal reasons; even if the love is still there, people have to move on. One could say that the premise is the reverse of When Harry Met Sally; instead of two friends who finally become lovers, this goes the other way around. I can't remember this topic being the subject of an American film since Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, but I hope that Celeste and Jesse Forever opens the door for a much needed resucitation of romantic comedies in American films, a lovely genre that has been unfairly mauled in recent times.

Aug 1, 2012

The 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Sight and Sound Magazine just released its list of 50 greatest films of all time. The big surprise is that Hitchcock's Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane for the first time in 50 years. Now, is Vertigo the greatest film of all time? It is a great film, but the greatest of all time? Will it be able to last 50 years on top like Kane did? That is the problem with best film lists. They are by definition myopic.
Every time someone asks me to name my favorite film of all time, or even my 10 best, I groan. I find it impossible to say. I can tell you 25, 50, but to narrow it down to less than 25 is a futile exercise.
The Sight and Sound list is a venerable canon, a solid, sensible list. It's a great primer on the history of cinema. It includes films that changed other films forever. I'm thrilled it puts Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 6th place. I'm relieved it does not include Star Wars. It does not overtly celebrate greatly influential movies, for better or for worse, like Spielberg's Jaws, nor does it celebrate insufferable pains in the ass like R.W. Fassbinder. It is an august list. It includes most of the usual suspects (Dreyer, Godard, Tarkovksy, Ozu, Kurosawa). A great many movies in the list hail from the distant past. We need that much hindsight to select great films, that we can't think of anything newer than David Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Wong War Kai's In The Mood For Love, which are more than 10 years old.
But then half the fun of these canonic lists is you get to quibble with them.  This one includes a few essential comedies, Keaton, Chaplin, Wilder, Singing in The Rain, but in general it skews towards the solemn. It includes some stuff that I find unbearably pretentious, even if it might be essential viewing. I loathe mid and late Godard, and so while I agree with the inclusion of Breathless, and have no choice but grump at the inclusion of Contempt, I can't abide Pierrot Le Fou, which is like watching a French brat throw a tantrum for two interminable hours. I sat through eight hours of Bela Tarr's long, mesmerizing and sometimes soporific Satantango. It is a great work of art, but is it one of the 50 best films of all time? If sheer arty length is a criterion, then I think The Clock by Christian Marclay should be a worthy contender, even if he did not shoot one foot of film himself. Do we really need three Tarkovsky movies in the mix? (Not in my book. I find him very tough going). Why not three Billy Wilder's? Or Chaplin? Polanski's Knife in The Water? Why not The Shining? Fargo? Dog Day Afternoon? Still, if you want to explore the essentials of world cinema, this list is a great place to start arguing.