May 21, 2012
This winner of last year's Jury Prize at Cannes is probably the most comprehensive, honest movie about child abuse ever made. Co-written and directed by female filmmaker Maïwenn, it is based on true stories from the Child Protective Services Unit of the Paris police. It is a fluid, tough, funny, intimate, extremely well made ensemble piece about a group of committed men and women who intervene to protect kids from all kinds of abuse. It is also the farthest you are ever going to travel from the sanitized heroics of American TV shows like Special Victims Unit. The blunt honesty of Polisse is unthinkable in the US. I can't even picture HBO doing it, although I can picture them trying.
If Polisse sounds sordid, it is not. It is tough as nails, and also funny, gripping, entertaining and smart. It deftly weaves the professional exploits of the unit's members with their personal stories. It shows them in action and at rest. They are really a tight clique and their work is so tough, that although they are all heroic, they are also prone to outbursts, violence, substance abuse, arrogance, insolence and all kinds of emotional ups and downs. Maïwenn -- who appears as a photographer documenting the unit's daily work -- and her actors achieve a degree of camaraderie and spontaneity that feels almost documentary. It is the best ensemble acting I have seen in a long time.
The police are blunt, sarcastic, outraged and self-righteous. They have complicated love lives and are used to screaming at their bosses with impunity. Even if it is acted and scripted, the movie sets up realistically, without any exposition, how each one of the cops deals with the aftermath of each case. For instance, the chief upstairs allows one of his underlings to throw a violent fit in his office, because the boss refuses to make a special phone call to find a shelter for a homeless African woman and her boy. There are no grandiose speeches; as the cases pile up, one instinctively understands that these cops are given a lot of slack because of their line of work.
Every scene that deals with the abuse and exploitation of children is intense, but not overwrought. The kids are incredible. But the scene of this African woman and her kid will tear your heart to shreds. Still, Polisse is not a conventionally sentimental movie. It has many moments of grace and visceral power. If at times it threatens to veer into sentimentality, it is more around the private lives of the cops, than around the children's issues, which it treats with astounding lucidity. Polisse is also a vast microcosm of life in France. Child abuse is one instance of human activity that transcends social class. So it's a wide scope of human degradation, from Gypsy encampments, to coddled rich assholes with connections, to clueless teenagers, to working class monsters, to junkies, to even a confused pedophile who is devastated by the harm he causes but cannot help it. There is nothing black and white in this film. The movie refrains from judging, and it portrays the offenders as the human beings they are, but the cops are the avenging angels and they tend to let their anger loose in a way that is cathartic for the audience. There is a fantastic scene in which a French Arab policewoman confronts a Muslim man, an Imam perhaps, who intends to give his underage daughter in marriage to someone somewhere. This is against French law. The scene is not about the law, it turns out, but about the contempt the man shows for the policewoman. It starts in French but soon he tells her in Arabic she should be married and ashamed of herself. She rips him apart and this female cop loses it. Years of her own history with her parents, her culture, the difficulty of being of her culture in a place like France, her pride and shame and everything she's had to go through to get to where she is, all of it explodes in a magnificent outburst. It encompasses France's recent history of unresolved culture clashes in a couple of minutes. In another remarkable scene the detectives make fun, somehow deservedly, of a teenager as they interview her. She is an idiot and they are cruel to her, and there is no real attempt to justify them. They are tough, worn out and sometimes jaded, but they are also passionate and consumed by their work.
The actors are all miraculous. Polisse is reminiscent of that other French social realistic marvel, The Class. It is a remarkably luminous film about human darkness.
May 7, 2012
Jack Black gives the performance of his career so far in this excellent film by Richard Linklater, based on an incredible true story about Bernie Tiede, a gay mortician in East Texas who befriended and then murdered Marjorie Nugent, a mean, old, very rich widow (Shirley McClaine). The humor in Bernie is delightfully black and salty, but the story is very sad. Based on a Texas Monthly article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is an atypical comedy in that it melds the fictionalization of Bernie's life with documentary-style interviews of the actual citizens of Carthage, a motley, colorful bunch. They also appear in some of the fictitious scenes, interacting with actors like Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey. Further confusing reality with fiction, professional actors (and they're so good it's hard to tell) also play some of the characters that are interviewed. Linklater even includes a scene in which McConaughey, who plays Danny Buck, a crusading D.A, has a conversation with two of the actual townspeople, (who happen to be the most outspoken ones) and the actor cannot play it straight. He betrays a smile and almost looks at the camera. It doesn't matter. This remarkable approach is a lovely device that fudges the real with the fake to remind us that reality is stranger, and crueler than fiction. Critics have complained that the interviews drain the movie of momentum, but I disagree. They are threaded very smoothly into the narrative and they add a very rich layer of astonishment. It's a risky stylistic move, and it makes the movie funnier, sadder, wiser and an utter delight.
Besides Jack Black, the best thing in Bernie are the townspeople themselves, who emerge as very distinct characters, each one with their own brand of the priceless local patois they effusively use to describe what transpired between Bernie, a universally beloved character, and Marjorie, a universally despised one. The casting of the real people is brilliant. They are a joy to watch, and especially, to listen to. They are gifted raconteurs.
The story is not just about Carthage. It's about a country in which the wrong people get punished all the time, while the real assholes roam unimpeded. Nobody disputes that Bernie killed Marjorie, including him. Being hateful is no reason to be murdered, though, and the movie tips the deck too much in Bernie's favor. After all he did kill her, while he could have walked away. But he was the kind of guy who could not put his foot down, could not disappoint, could not confront. He put up with her abuse until he snapped. Despite the town's protestations as to Bernie's character, The D.A. went after him with the zeal reserved for hardened criminals. An opportunistic campaigner, he showed no mercy and sought the harshest punishment. Meanwhile, Marjorie's family, who hated her and tried to sue her for her money while she was alive, conveniently shed crocodile tears over the inheritance the minute she was dead. Bernie's prosecution left a lot of sad and bereft people in its wake, and not only because they loved him, but because they had to give back to the FBI all the gifts he had lavished on them, courtesy of Marjorie's largesse to him. Apparently, he spent all the money she gave him by helping other people, which adds an extra notch of unbelievability to the story. One would think he'd insinuate himself to this nasty piece of work in order to get her millions. After all, they traveled the world and wined and dined until she turned on him as well, apparently incapable of being nice to anybody, not even the nicest guy in the world. She was so mean, controlling, possessive, jealous and petty that she was deliberately generous to him so she could enslave him. Still, one wonders, what was in it for him? He certainly benefited from her largesse until she soured. His story reminded me of Bernard Lafferty (what's with the Bernies?) who was the gay, faithful companion of heiress Doris Duke, self-abnegating and devoted to the point of insanity, and who also ended up with a bunch of her money. There is something very sad in these real life gay characters who are so bereft of self-acceptance that they need to seek that love in others, each in his own selfless way. It always ends in tears.
Bernie Tiede's insatiable hunger for love and acceptance translated, somewhat bizarrely given human nature, into irrational acts of generosity, instead of egotistical self-indulgence or narcissism. Jack Black gives a phenomenal, believable, committed performance as Bernie. And he is perfect for the role: Bernie is the nicest man ever, a fabulous mortuary salesman, an embalming genius, comforter of widows, confidante to the "LOLs" (Little Old Ladies) innate showstopper, devout Christian, a massive extrovert and a flaming closeted queen. He's the kind of guy who brings a ray of sunshine even to jail. Cynics that we are, we all keep wondering, there has to be more than that, there has to be malicious self-interest and greed. But his self-interest seems to have been to amass as much love and admiration as possible by being a philanthropist. There is something almost mythical about the story of the nicest man in town crossing paths with the meanest dame in town. Their bizarre co-dependence somehow reminds me of the schizoid nature of this country: either pathologically, destructively selfish (cf. Wall Street, Republicans, et al), or truly civic minded. Where is the middle way?
That everybody knows Bernie is gay but no one really seems to care is another one of the puzzling, yet endearing and true aspects of Carthage, and by extension, human nature. And by further extension, the nature of the gay rights debate in America. Although Bernie is not meant as a forum for or against gay rights, it just shows how the topic actually behaves in real society. For all the anti-gay rhetoric spewed by politicians and religious ideologues, particularly in that neck of the woods, nothing trumps people's common sense and their personal relationships. This is not to say that the citizens of Carthage harbor no prejudices against gays (or others, as is hilariously clear from one character describing the shortcomings of the citizens the next town over). They just harbor no prejudice against Bernie, because they know him and they love him. As is the case in genteel, provincial, bigoted societies, they all look the other way when it suits them. Some prefer to be in denial: a dear old lady protests that Jesus was over thirty and wasn't married, and neither were the apostles to her knowledge, and nowhere in the Bible does anyone claim they were gay.
Bernie connects us with that ineffable quality of American reality that makes you feel you are living in a crazy alternate universe where common sense and kindness have left the building. It feels like when you read the national headlines. You know Americans have to have more common sense and decency than the media and the politicians give us credit for, but it is nowhere to be found in the news.
May 6, 2012
The most thrilling movie currently showing at theaters is this exhilarating, brazen Norwegian thriller, based on a novel by Jo Nesbø. Outrageously over the top but in complete command of pacing, plot and story, Headhunters is a masterful thriller. I would be surprised if the rights have not been bought yet for an American remake. I will be surprised if the remake retains what makes this film so compelling: it is driven by a most charming anti-hero. At least he already comes with an Anglo name. Roger Brown (one suspects this is not his real name), is a headhunter at a top executive search company. But he is short, and not very handsome (he certainly seems more attractive as the movie goes along). He is married to a gorgeous woman who towers over him, and he is convinced, in his massive insecurity, that she only wants him for his money. Hence, to retain her and the status she gives him, he gives her a lavish lifestyle he can't possibly afford, which makes him steal art masterpieces in order to pay the bills. Roger is all about arrogance, which is the default mask for insecurity.
To him, it's all about how he appears to others, and boy does he overcompensate.
Aksel Hennie, the extraordinary actor who plays Roger, is a complete discovery. Roger is a skillful, cocky prick. In a rare instance of actually welcome voice over narration, he explains how to rob fine art successfully and why he is who he is. In short, he's short, but what he lacks in stature, he has in spades in spunk. He is always on in public, a mini alpha male, too proud of his ridiculous head of hair, a blond James Brown coif, he is horrible to his mousy, clingy lover, horrible to prospects at job interviews, a nasty piece of work. But we also see the true side of him. He walks into a room already factoring in who's smarter, taller, more handsome than him (most everybody), and the fact that he allows us to see who he really is makes him utterly endearing. This is what makes the movie exciting. It is about a despicable character you end up loving.
It's already suspenseful fun to watch him do his job at stealing art with great precision and panache. But then, the noose around his neck gets tighter: the police are sniffing around, he owes zillions of krone in debt, the wife seems to be looking for attention elsewhere and he realizes someone very dangerous is out to get him. He is put through a series of can you beat this plot twists that are so over the top you can barely believe you are still buying the premise, but you are, on the strength that everything has been meticulously set up and that Roger will do anything to survive. At first it seems that he will do anything to not get caught and be unmasked for the fraud he is, but as he gets literally stripped to the core of his being, he understands what is really important, and manages to change dramatically, while still being his mischievous, manipulative self. I have rarely seen an actor deliver such a rounded, brilliant performance. You root for Roger, because he is brazen, and he is brave and takes on the wrath of the gods by being who he is.
Director Morten Tyldum delivers a perfect thriller. The pacing is fast but always clear, everything works like a charm without feeling mechanical, the movie has amazing swing. The super contrived, fun plot is always driven by character and by the end you almost want to stand up and cheer for awful, arrogant, short, bug eyed Roger Brown, a most unlikely hero. If you want to spend two really fun, exciting hours at the movies, this is the one you should see.
May 2, 2012
More icky and creepily atmospheric than suspenseful, Sound Of My Voice is an fitfully interesting, if under-delivered trip into the recesses of a crazy cult in Los Angeles, led by Maggie, a beautiful, charismatic woman (Brit Marling, who wrote and directed with Zal Batmanglij), who claims to come from the future.
A young couple, he is a journalist and she is a reformed Hollywood producer's spawn, infiltrate the cult to try to expose it. As is to be expected, the skeptic ends up being more vulnerable to the con than his more open girlfriend.
The material about the cult, and how this woman, Maggie, manipulates her acolytes is quite fascinating. Marling gives a quiet, eerie performance, using the hushed, phony-sacred tones of the most annoying yoga teachers, to purge her followers of their own free will. The cult dynamics feel quite authentic, and every time we're in her compound, a pedestrian basement in a generic suburban home -- that is, a wall-to-wall carpeting creep fest -- the movie is mesmerizing. The problem is in the protagonists, played by Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicious, two weak, uncharismatic actors with little chemistry or chops. Maggie's storyline seems to have been given much more attention by the filmmakers, but the couple ends up taking most of the screen time and their dialogue sounds amateurish and undercooked in contrast. Lots of opportunities are wasted to explore their relationship, and it is rather puzzling that their conflict is avoided, instead of being exploited for maximum drama and suspense.
Some of the plotting is clunky and the pacing is too slow for a movie that promises to be suspenseful. I can understand why the scenes at the cult are shot in real time, to enhance the oppressive isolation of those in the basement; but they go on too long and the tension in the movie fizzles out. The final ironic twist was another disappointment. A good final ironic twist should deepen and illuminate, confound expectations in a felicitous way, but this one feels just lame, particularly when the movie makes clear that Maggie is a fraud. In the hands of more canny directors, the ending could have been a nail biter, but it falls totally flat. Still, there is a lot that is interesting in Sound of My Voice, particularly the stubbornly uncommercial yen to explore dark corners in sunny places, and the strong, impressive presence of Brit Marling, a promising new actress.