Dec 28, 2013

August: Osage County


This movie is destroyed by Meryl Streep. She is such an outrageous ham in it, she seems to have blown in from another galaxy. She creates an enormous imbalance between her character, a thorny, pill-popping Oklahoma matriarch, and the rest of her family. It ain't her fault. She should not be playing this role. Nothing about her looks, feels or sounds like a woman from the plains. It really is a pity that La Streep does not contain her most histrionic impulses. Where one gesture would suffice, she employs 38. Even with all that hamming, she is nothing less than ferocious and very much alive, but this is probably one of the worst performances of her career.
The only woman who steals the show is the great Margo Martindale. Everybody else looks like they'd rather be somewhere else, with a director in firmer control of his leading lady.
I saw the play on Broadway, and while entertaining, it was not grand material enough for the stage. It felt like an unusually prickly sitcom, something that could be a satisfying HBO movie. Hence, as a film it works better. Tracy Letts writes acerbic dialogue (perhaps too talky for the screen) and it is fun to sit in on a monstrously dysfunctional, although not very believable, family played by a cast of thousands which barely knows what to do. Julia Roberts, who plays the oldest daughter, employs mostly one scowl the entire film. She has good moments, but she seems pinched. I always feel like sending her a vibrator; something to loosen her up. What can she possibly be so uptight about?
Her sisters are played by Julianne Nicholson, who wisely goes the quiet route, and that other hambone, Juliette Lewis, who has a great opening scene but then descends into camp. The problem is that no one else follows her. Sam Shepard plays the family patriarch and his raspy, down home voice is gone too soon. Young Abigail Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) brings no definition to her undefined part, Ewan McGregor is wasted as some sort of college professor. But others are more fun to watch, like Dermot Mulroney, looking perfectly comfortable playing a sleazebag from Florida, and Benedict Cumberbatch, doing a good, if improbable, job as the idiot cousin.  Only the great Chris Cooper, as his dad, and Margo Martindale, as his mom, seem to be in the right movie.
Obviously this is a problem of direction (by John Wells), but I suspect, mostly of economics. With the right actors, people who actually know what it is like to come from a red state, this could be a decent, modest independent film, and provide a better illusion of authenticity, but those actors do not movie tickets sell.

The Wolf Of Wall Street


Martin Scorsese is back to his old stomping grounds, those of the unsavory, amoral characters he loves to love. In this case, this mafia is not the one in Little Italy or Jersey, but the one on Wall Street, as embodied by one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio giving it his all, and then some), upon whose memoir this well-written movie (by Terence Winter from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) is based.
The movie is three hours long, and although it feels expansive, I was not bored for one second. It chronicles, in debauched detail, the rise and "fall" of Belfort, who started working as a broker for an old Wall Street firm which went bust in the crash of 1987, to then stumble upon a scheme getting 50% commissions pushing penny stocks and, after that, all kinds of increasingly brazen financial crimes.
His beginnings are worth noting for one thing: Matthew McConaughey is in them, and he has so much fun being a charming, A-type master of the universe, unrepentant asshole, he should get a special Oscar for his few minutes onscreen. He is fun in a bottle. DiCaprio can't quite muster McConaughey's easy charm, but he certainly musters every other extreme of human behavior. It's good to see him having fun, for a change.
It's also fun to see Scorsese fill up his whirling frames with nerds from Long Island. This is a mafia film, only it takes place on Wall Street. The assorted nerds are the old high school pals Belfort recruits to start selling bad stocks to suckers. Belfort is a bullshit artist extraordinaire, a born salesman. He sees opportunity, gives his firm an invented hyphenated name, claims the two Waspy last names arrived in the Mayflower, and voilá, you have a classic American success story, all based on lying, cheating and stealing.
There are grumblings out there that the filmmakers are celebrating and glorifying the chutzpah of inveterate, criminal sleazebags. True, you watch this movie at the peril of finding yourself rooting for absolutely detestable guys. But the grumblers forget that this is a Martin Scorsese movie (see Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets). The guy has a soft spot for hoodlums. That unease you feel while wondering how you can possibly root for Belfort and his pal Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, magnificent), is the fascination and repulsion Scorsese has always harbored for characters who don't play by the rules. I sure am glad he is not making movies about children, the Dalai Lama, or Howard Hughes. It's more fun when he spends time with the people he loves.
The movie is told in voiceover narration by Belfort, so it's not meant to be "judgement day": it's his point of view, and he's not too contrite. It should be a tragedy, but it is the comedy of this terrible man's life. He survived pretty much unscathed, and now even has a blockbuster movie to his name.
But there is a very dark side. The descent into abject behavior by everyone involved, the utter lack of a moral compass, insane drug addiction, depraved indifference to anything and everything, and the almost inhuman dissoluteness of formerly regular guys are viciously portrayed. There is no armed violence, but this is the violence of plunder. Scorsese portrays Belfort's pep talks as excuses for frat boy-like savagery. It is funny, but it is also disturbing and disgusting: the way they treat women, the way they cheat their clients, the way they betray each other.
I did not find the film to be an enthusiastic endorsement of financial immorality. Quite the contrary, it is saying that it is in our system to let these things happen. By enjoying these extreme financial escapades are we not colluding with Belfort, as we collude with white collar crime, where in real life no one ever pays? If it isn't for the poor FBI agent (a very good Kyle Chandler) checking into things, utter depravity would continue ensuing. Belfort himself learns the ropes of impropriety from his mentor (McConaughey), who comes from a "venerable" firm. He is just doing the same as the bigger Wall Street firms at a much smaller scale, and with exhibitionism and working class gumption. Even so, the accumulation of wealth looks staggering, to us poor schmoes. It is a very uncomfortable tightrope act, being entertained by horrific behavior that caused grief to endless people, but this is what makes the movie interesting. As a tragic morality tale it might be unbearable. As a vicious comedy, it leaves a welcome nasty aftertaste. You can feel guilty of enjoying the excess all the way to your house.
If anybody can sustain three hours of manic energy spiraling out of control, it is Scorsese. Many of his trademark tropes are here: thrilling camerawork (by Rodrigo Prieto), precision editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, and also the by now tiresome relentless rock & roll soundtrack. This film will remind you of Goodfellas with its voiceover narration, and of Casino, in particular Belfort's relationship with his second wife, played by an excellent Margot Robbie. It will feel, at times, like vintage Scorsese schtick. The scenes of orgiastic chaos are tableaux out of Hieronymus Bosch but with bad 80s clothes, courtesy of the spectacular Sandy Powell, and they are meant to feel excessive.
Far better are the quieter scenes, where actors get to act and say the very profane and funny lines Winter has written for them. Here you can see a director who is still in full command of his craft. At the center of the movie is a fantastic scene between Belfort and the FBI agent. It takes place at Belfort's ostentatious yacht. It is a long, beautifully orchestrated scene, where Belfort, emboldened by the fruits of his labor, thinks he can impress, humiliate and even insinuate a deal to the G-man. This agent is the only presence of a moral compass in the movie. He takes the subway, anonymous, and unsung. He makes no money. He is what Belfort considers a loser.
Scorsese's movies have not been this fun since Goodfellas, but here the humor is  over the top slapstick. A fabled sequence where Belfort is quaaluded out of his gourd is almost something out of silent comedy. A scene where Belfort's dad (Rob Reiner, spectacular) loses his marbles over a phone call is comedy at its best. It's also a joy to recognize wonderful character actors like Spike Jonze, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, and even Fran Lebovitz as a no-nonsense judge. The enormous cast is well chosen and vibrant.
I loved the end scene (look for the real Jordan Belfort introducing the fake one). It reminded me of P.T. Barnum's dictum: "there's a sucker born every minute".
Jordan Belfort, and apparently all of Wall Street, still live by this motto.

Dec 25, 2013

Nebraska


Alexander Payne is a master at satire that can be brutal yet sympathetic to its characters. Like the great Italian Neorrealists, Payne has come up with a jewel of a movie that makes you laugh and breaks your heart, sometimes at the same time.
Nebraska portrays the epic journey of Woody Grant, a landlocked Midwestern man, (Bruce Dern), in this case, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody gets a piece of junk mail informing him that he has won a million dollars and he needs to collect the prize in person. Being a lifelong drunk and in the throes of incipient dementia, he seems to have lost the will to live, but he is suddenly energized by the task, and no force on Earth, not his long suffering son David, (Will Forte) or his exasperated wife (June Squibb) will discourage him. We first see him walking purposefully along an interstate, creaking with age and will power. He can't drive, because he has a suspended license. If you can't drive in these parts, you might as well be dead.
Bruce Dern gives a performance so immense and so subtle, that some people may think he is not doing anything. It's all in his eyes. Sometimes they are vacant, lost who knows where, but then he focuses and it's as if his mind is suddenly engaged and back on Earth. He doesn't speak much. At times he may remind you of a dog whose face lights up when he understands a command; sometimes you wonder if he is conveniently pretending to be deaf, especially around his wife. There is not one shred of artifice or exaggeration, not one false note in Dern's acting: it is miraculous. He most deservedly won the best actor prize at Cannes and hopefully he will be a front runner at the Academy Awards. It would be righteous for Dern to cap his career with this long deserved honor. He has always been a spectacular actor, but this is a role you never thought you'd see him in. He breaks your heart.
Nebraska is the saddest comedy you've ever seen. It's a family story, and not a happy one. In the bleak Midwestern nothingness, which Payne and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, shoot in lucid black and white, these people stick to each other even though they seem to have lost their love long ago. Woody's wife Kate is a bundle of vicious resentment and a repository of quaint Midwestern insults. She is so bitter, she's the kind of person who badmouths people at their graves. She is hateful, until the filmmakers give her a moment of grace that portrays her in a whole new light. The film is full of such surprises. As in life, we learn along the way that people are not what they seem, and that their histories contain chapters we know nothing about. As David and Woody travel through the almost surreal emptiness, revisiting people and places of the past, David learns much about his father.
This is a movie about enduring love in both senses of the word: enduring in that it lasts, and enduring in that it takes much sacrifice to withstand it. It is about the kind of love that remains, dulled and almost vanquished by disappointment, regret and failure, but somehow still throbs in there. It takes one crazy notion by a seemingly crazy old guy, to make it start beating again.
But Nebraska is more than a family road trip. Payne is a poet of the Midwest; since he grew up in Omaha, he knows what he's talking about. In the heartland, not far beneath the down home politeness, there is a hard streak in people. As the story spreads that Woody has made a bundle, the greedy come out of the woodwork. Some sweet people who are genuinely happy for him, but there are those with long forgotten grudges, and they want to collect. All sorts of claims come out. Who do you believe? Woody was a difficult man, but his greatest mistake was that he could not say no to anybody. And now, at the end of his life, he is paying the price of his guile and lack of ambition; sins in this country.  
Nebraska is as much a movie about the cruelty of American greed, call it individualism or unbridled capitalism, as it is about fathers and sons and long forgotten personal histories.
This is Alexander Payne's most mature and magnificent film. It has a grander stature, deeper emotions, and its tone, aided by beautiful music by Mark Orton, is perfect.
So far, my favorite film of the year.

Dec 23, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


Stay classy, mischief and mayhem! This long awaited sequel to the classic Anchorman is what we've come to expect from Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow, a free-spirited romp through absurd humor, spiked social commentary and generous, madcap hilarity.  What I love about Will Ferrell's comedies is that they are not mean spirited, and they are not dumb. There may be some risque material, but it never descends into vulgarity, and there is a hilarious ribbing of the casually racist mindset. They are mean towards whoever deserves it (racists, fast food joints, news channels, millionaires), but they have a wonderful spirit of bonhomie, quite the opposite from the painfully unfunny The Hangover series. Ferrell and McKay celebrate and send up American foolishness, but they aren't mean.
Ron Burgundy is a pompous idiot, yet he is adorable because in all his fakeness, he is genuine. He is ignorant and close minded, petty, jealous and a fool, but he means well. Quite inadvertently, he invents the 24-hour news cycle of watching car chases in real time while adding wild and clueless speculation to the proceedings. He is the involuntary genius behind mass media idiocy.
In his curmudgeonly review, A. O. Scott claims that only the French take these kinds of movies seriously. Well, the French are correct. These are the only big commercial movies in America that skewer what seriously needs making fun of. This time, it's the demented descent of American news into the gutter. Yet beyond making fun of certain quintessentially American inventions like Nascar, CNN, or political correctness, the Ferrell oeuvre usually and quite correctly presents America at its bombastic wackiest, and, as in all worthy comedy, what it makes fun of is important. These guys are great at mixing social satire with crazy, wacky fun. More power to them.
Anchorman 2 seems game to try everything, whether it lands or not. I love this spirit of playfulness. This time, the filmmakers seem to have gone for the surreal. There is a very funny visual gag of a Winnebago camper rolling in slow motion with the whole Burgundy team inside. And a nonsensical but moving business about bottle feeding a great white shark.
The old cast is back and are wonderful sports, but the one who kills is Steve Carell (in a welcome reprieve from his serious acting gigs) as weatherman Brick Tamland. His obtuseness is something out of Samuel Beckett's worst nightmares. Now he has a love interest, Chani, a like-minded soul (who looks just like Miranda July) played by the fabulous Kristen Wiig. Their shtick together is just bizarre.
I for one really hope that Anchorman 2 trounces The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the box office. I could care less about Middle Earth and its gazillion dollar special effects. I'd rather revel in the riotous costumes and feathery hairdos of Anchorman 2. If there is justice in the world, Susan Matheson, the costume designer for this film, should be nominated for an Academy Award. The clothes here are the absolute worst of late seventies couture; hence, they are magnificent.
This movie has even more of a sketch comedy quality than some of Ferrell and McKay's masterworks like Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers, but there are some very inspired set pieces. My favorite, which made me cry with laughter, has to do with Ron Burgundy going blind. Then, if I am not mistaken, this movie actually ends in tragedy. It's almost experimental, and it is lots of fun. 

Dec 22, 2013

The Past


There are no answers. Or there are no easy answers in this amazing film from Asghar Farhadi, the writer/director of A Separation.  This is how a drama is made.
Ahmad, an ex-husband (Ali Mossafa) comes back to Paris from Teheran to officially divorce his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist), who now wants to marry Samir, a new man (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet). Sounds simple enough, but Farhadi lets this tale unravel with the endless complications of life: lies, secrets, motives, fears.
Families are not the single, solid, unshakable unit they used to be. Now they are comprised of stepfathers and stepmothers and parents who move away and have their own families. The kids are bounced around the needs of the adults. The adults in this case are all caring, competent people, they are all dealing with other people's children as if they were their own. Farhadi is a keen observer of the heaviness of little things. When people have complicated pasts (and Marie's is above average) a little incident, like kids misbehaving, for instance, unleashes ripples of spoken and unspoken consequences. Everything is a clue: she did not reserve a hotel room for Ahmad. He still keeps all his stuff in her house. Why? Her sullen teenage daughter hates Samir. Ahmad functions almost like the town crier, spilling confidences left and right. But what is his motive?
We think we know the answers, and we do, superficially, but like the characters in this movie, we really don't know the half of it. The Past is a detective story of love.
In lesser, more sentimental hands, it would be a barely credible weepie, a convoluted soap opera, but Farhadi is too smart and sensitive for melodrama; he is interested in motive and in the mysteries of human behavior. Why people do what they do (for one overwhelming reason: love) and the mostly unhappy consequences this brings.
Ahmad starts finding out what has been happening since he was gone. Turns out, each character has a past, and they all intertwine, connected by a single thread of love and need and family. The characters become detectives in their own story because they need to try to understand the tangled roots of their present predicament in order to move on to a future that seems extremely fragile.
The movie is full of telling detail. As in A Separation, Farhadi turns a personal family drama almost into a thriller, creating a richly woven and masterfully crafted story. As a writer, he manages to create such a rich structure that the second half of the movie, in many instances where movies tend to sag, becomes a tight knot of deeper and stranger revelations. The camera work is brilliantly unobtrusive, there is no music, no need to call out easy sentiments, in a movie where nothing that is happening is easy. We are intimate witnesses to a series of family crises and are positioned so close to the characters that we eavesdrop on this tangled web of conflicting desires. It is an intense and bracing experience. Normal life is very hard, and what we witness is the stubborn resilience of those who want to make it worth living, with all its heavy baggage.


Dec 18, 2013

Her


This is the kind of movie people love to love, because is it about "love". But it is not about any kind of actual human love that one can recognize. And not because the main relationship is between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha, his Operating System (Scarlett Johansson: best thing in the movie, and you never even get to see her).
It's because the way Her is written makes love look and feel like an endless Hallmark card, an endless sappy, hipsterish, saccharine pop song. As far as love and relationships are concerned, it has the depth of an inflatable kiddie pool, though it seems to think itself profound. Maybe I am an old, but if this is what young people think love is like, an endless litany of interminable kvetching, as a gaping chasm of "I need" and "I miss" and "I want", we are in deep doodoo. No wonder people in this movie can't relate to other people. They think love is all about themselves.
If you want to find out about true love, go see Amour. Her is for sissies.
Despite its lovely look and enticing premise, Her is a bore. Many are the reasons:
Theodore falls in love with his computer's operating system, Samantha, which is designed to be intuitive. She is super efficient and sexy and cool. I thought she was a bit too eager, but then again she is an OS. I wish mine was as perky.  Joaquin Phoenix, in the role of a sensitive schlub, has to act all by himself, cry all by himself and be a milquetoast all by himself. As always, he delivers. It is to Phoenix's credit that he is rather transfixing even when Theodore's only trait is sensitivity. There is no trace of edginess, irony, mischief, ego, self-destruction (always so sexy) or any flaws, except clinging to an infinite wellspring of grief and ennui. 100% sensitivity in a guy is not only hard to believe, it is boring. Theodore works writing virtual personal letters for a sort of personalized Hallmark cards of the future. If he were a corporate lawyer who is sensitive on the side, that would be interesting. But there is no contrast to him. He just aches and mopes.
I have complained elsewhere about this newfangled stereotype in American films; that of the hyper-sensitive male (there is one in every Pixar movie, and many a Mumblecore). These guys are the male embodiment of wallflowers: shy, afraid of girls, too emotionally frail to function. Excuse me if I burp. Meanwhile, with the exception of Samantha, who is perfect because she aims to please, the rest of the women in the movie are just plain strange. Theodore's ex-wife, played mostly silently by Rooney Mara, who deserves better, seems to be a slightly bipolar, difficult girl. We never really understand why they divorced, since she appears mostly in silent flashback montages, like a Saint Valentine's day catalog of Kodak relationship moments: laughing on the beach, having a pillow fight, etc. Since we never really get to experience what it was like to be married to her, his grieving seems a bit over the top. There is a fun dating sequence with Olivia Wilde (a lovely actress with great comic chops) but she turns into a shrew from hell in no time and for no clear reason. Amy Adams, almost unrecognizable in a crazy hairdo, plays an old flame and now good friend. When she and Phoenix are in the same room it feels like they are in different continents. I still don't understand what their deal was all about. Apparently, in the male wallflower genre women are so mysterious as to be incomprehensible, which is another load of crock.
Writer/director Spike Jonze has lovely visual ideas, and he creates a Los Angeles of the future with actual locations and by shooting in Shanghai (where he could not get a blue sky for love or money). He comes up with some arresting, intense moments.
A love scene between Phoenix and Samantha that borders on the ridiculous, is actually bracing, sexy and erotic. When was the last time you could say that about a scene in an American film? But the rest of the movie is most decidedly not. Jonze's vision of love is immature and self-centered, as I assume is that of all those self-proclaimed sensitive guys in movies, who, like Theodore, can't seem to grow a pair. What risk is this guy taking by comfortably falling in love with a machine? Try that with a human if you want real bravery. The sketchy writing never pays off the  questions the premise raises about our codependency with virtual tools. It doesn't even know how to resolve the conundrum of Theo's and Samantha's relationship and does so in an arbitrary cop out.

Dec 17, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis


Bless the Coen Brothers. Who else would devote a movie to a story of artistic failure and unabated rejection? It is miraculous, considering their longstanding artistic success, that they want to spend time in the company of a guy who can't and won't catch a break. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as ornery, uncompromising, perennial loser Llewyn Davis, a folk troubadour among many in 1960's Greenwich Village. He sings beautifully and earnestly at the famous Gaslight. He plays guitar nicely, has a heartfelt voice, but there is a sad story behind him. He used to be part of a duo a la Simon and Garfunkel that is no more. He is broke, has no place to sleep and is beset by tribulations, from getting girls pregnant to losing other people's cats. He is bitter, resentful, and somehow we root for him even if he keeps getting in his own way.
The movie is strangely enjoyable: funny and relentlessly bleak.
The Coens use their slightly surreal and sumptuous style to portray microscopic Village walk ups, (the wonderful cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel), they give ample screen time to beautifully arranged and produced songs (by the estimable T. Bone Burnett) and they dwell in the bitterly comic misery of an ignored artist. The movie has a circular structure, like Llewyn's own L.P.s collecting dust. It starts with a spurt of violence and ends in the same place; the sad story of unheeded talent goes on and on like a broken record.
Art is a tough business. Art is no business. And Llewyn is not a passionate hero determined to make it no matter what. He tries, but is easily discouraged, and he does not have other important traits that may help sheer talent: a thick skin, endless optimism, or the gift for ingratiation, the electricity of grand ambition. He is, like many artists, contemptuous, dejected, bitter and intractable (and he is not always wrong). This may be one of the most authentic movies about artistic failure ever made; though, except for Amadeus, and the Coen's own Barton Fink, I can't think of many others.
This being a Coen movie, it is full of wonderful surprises. John Goodman steals the show playing a jazz fat cat who pontificates from the back of a car. His mockery of folk music is brutal. The incomparable F. Murray Abraham kills it in one scene as a famous impresario who is not too impressed with Llewyn. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver sing a fantastically loopy song, and there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters, including a highly charismatic cat. If I have one qualm is that Jane, the singer played by Carey Mulligan, is too much of a shrew and her dialog (and you know the Coens' gift for ultra-specific gab) rings false. I like that, despite her angelic Peter, Paul and Mary-like vibe, outside of the stage she is mean and bitter, but there seems to be little nuance to her character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a paean to a better Greenwich Village, with better music, in leaner times. But it is more of a poignant and caustic ode to failure. The Coens are sympathetic to and impatient with Llewyn. Even at its funniest, the film really portrays how hard it is to make it, and how hard it is to not make it: a lovely gift for anybody artistic trying to make themselves heard in an indifferent world. In a culture that is pathologically obsessed with celebrating success, Inside Llewyn Davis is a quirky splash of bittersweet reality.

Dec 15, 2013

American Hustle


The hair in this movie is as epic as anything else in it. It is the main metaphor of a film that celebrates American fakeness in all its glory. It all starts with the worst rug ever assembled by man, on the terrible pate of Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, fat and wonderful). This unlikely hero is a sweet, small time con man who separates desperate losers from their money; the kind of guy who has a dry cleaning business and sells fake art masterpieces on the side.
What is the moral compass of a film that celebrates a bunch of endearingly amoral characters? David O. Russell's best film to date is simply stating what we all know but pretend ain't so: America, with its unending appetite for money and its idolization of individual ambition, is the biggest con on Earth. For all our lofty talk of freedom and democracy, we're really only interested in the part about the pursuit of happiness, which is nothing but the pursuit of money. This is the blood coursing through our veins, and we might as well admit it.
This is a highly ambitious film, a spectacularly crafted, extremely complex multiple character story; a directorial tour de force, aided by virtuosic editing and excellent camera work by Linus Sandgren. The storylines (the script is by Russell and Eric Singer) glide into one another in a frenzied yet utterly limber fashion. The movie grabs you by the wide lapels and never lets go. It's great, dark fun.
The story is loosely based on the Abscam scandal in the 70s, a now semi-forgotten episode in which politicians were entrapped by the FBI to get bribes to help the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld and his lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) got caught embezzling, and in exchange for their freedom were forced to cooperate with the FBI.
But American Hustle is not a procedural, nor is it an august American morality play with a righteous hero determined to be ethical. It is a wild comedy, a kindred spirit of Shakespearean romps like Midsummer's Night Dream, full of mischief, prestidigitation and love. At its center is a quartet of heroic losers befuddled by love and ambition.
Irving falls in love with Sydney, but he is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, a national treasure). Meanwhile, the ambitious, way in over his head local FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, better than ever) falls in love with Sydney, who he thinks is called Edith.
Everything is combustible because it takes place in the seventies, when people were unencumbered by personal screens and emboldened by the drama of the times. This movie is a love letter to the era of hot tubs, clingy dresses, no bras, great music, and the passionate public embrace of fake hair; unlike today, a brazenly sexy era. These are the glitzy, Saturday Night Fever, Studio 54 seventies, and between the fantastic soundtrack and the sexy, yet borderline ridiculous way people look, you just want to go there again, perms, bell bottoms and all.
The actors are all an immense joy to watch. As unlikeable as they are capable of being (needy, overambitious, insincere, hysterical, ruthless), they are all sympathetic. They are all searching passionately for their specific idea of happiness. Irving wants to be a family man (and con people). Sydney wants to be someone else. Rosalyn wants Irving to pay attention to her, and Richie wants to make a name for himself. They all do terrible things to other people and to one another, and still they are all adorable. Both Adams and Lawrence give intensely focused, electrifying performances of not quite sympathetic characters. Jennifer Lawrence in particular is the kind of screen presence we thought did not exist anymore. She is a great movie star, not only because she is gorgeous, but because she is alive and magnetic onscreen. Even playing a part for which she is a long shot (Jewish housewife from Long Island?) she is riveting, hilarious, and true. When I watch her, I want her to be protected from all evil so she can continue growing as the great actress she is.
Bradley Cooper is hilarious as driven, ruthless and clueless Richie DiMaso, and Bale is excellent as Irving Rosenfeld. Not only because he is fat and flabby and looks terrible, but because he seems a born schmoozer, the mastermind, yet the more quietly ambitious one in the bunch. He's sort of a lopsided mensch. Perhaps Russell gets a kick of casting everyone against type (Louis C.K plays the saddest sack FBI agent in history), but he and co-writer Eric Singer give the actors so much richness to play off that the actors abscond with the movie.

Nov 29, 2013

The Butler


Lee Daniels' The Butler is like a Western Union telegram of the history of the civil rights movement and it has the same powerful bluntness. A lot of it is obvious and strained, but emotionally, it works.
It's worth comparing it to Steve McQueen's Twelve Years A Slave in that Daniels embraces artificiality in the retelling and feels no compunction in making everything as movie-like as possible; using big stars, milking the string section, and applying a thick layer of melodrama. This is great material for schoolkids (and their minders) everywhere to learn the lessons of injustice, the evils of racism, and the heroic fight for civil rights. It's Civil Rights Lite.
Paradoxically, none of the disturbing questions that arose while I watched 12 Years a Slave came up here. True, slavery is an atrocity which presents its own unique representation issues, but obviously the topics of the two films are intimately related. In The Butler, it is understood from second three that if Mariah Carey plays a poor cotton picker, we're in for the full Hollywood biopic treatment. Daniels applies very broad strokes to show the important milestones of the history of civil rights through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, a real life butler for four American presidents. Steve McQueen's approach is far more methodical and tries to detach from personal melodrama. It is a particularly painstaking reenactment of slavery. The Butler is more like the "Hall of Presidents" Disneyland ride.
There were a couple of times where I saw more than one mobile device light up to check the time; The Butler is long but not boring. Daniels is a clumsy director, but he can elicit fantastic performances from actors, and in this movie, has assembled an amazing cast, headed by the great Forest Whitaker. He is spectacular as Cecil Gaines, a humble man, a man who loved to serve, and seemed to have harbored no resentment for the terrible fate of his family and his own servitude. I cried rivers of tears throughout the movie and I suspect that it was Whitaker's portrayal of a dignified servant that moved me immensely. There is a lovely scene where he is making coffee at the White House as if it were the first and only cup of coffee ever to be served, where he embodies the selflessness, the essence of service. I don't think it is easy for an actor, much less for a modern American, to understand the mentality of servitude; but everything Whitaker does, from serving coffee, to offering cookies to visiting schoolchildren, to reading a story to young Caroline Kennedy, screams quiet, determined authenticity. He manages to be gracious and unerringly helpful without altogether losing his dignity. Whitaker destroys in this performance all those terrible, yet enduring stereotypes of endearing black servants (all the way to the execrable The Help) that have plagued Hollywood movies for years. He should be nominated for an Oscar.
The rest of the black cast is fantastic. Cuba Gooding Jr. (why isn't this man in more movies?), Colman Domingo, Terrence Howard and Elijah Kelley are great. It's fun to see Lenny Kravitz as a butler. David Oyelowo, as Gaines' son, ashamed of his father's servility, is also very good.
Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil's unruly wife, and she has great moments but she seems unfocussed. Adriane Lenox and Yaya Alafia are also splendid. And then we have the presidents. The parade of Hollywood stars under make up (great job overall), is lots of fun. Robin Williams as Eisenhower is the least impressive, because he is mawkish. John Cusack, although a good actor, is too cute for Richard Nixon, but he tries to deliver the slime. James Marsden is perfectly decent as JFK, but the one that steals the show, and I could not recognize him until quite a bit into his role, is Liev Schreiber as a salty Lyndon Johnson. He's got the best role in the house and he rocks it. Alan Rickman does a far more dignified Reagan than I remember him. The famous faces add to the enjoyment of the spectacle, instead of distracting. Daniels has a knack for playing fun meta jokes with casting. It is delicious to see Oprah Winfrey, the richest woman in the world, visit the White House for the first time as a plain and starry eyed housewife (she is excellent in this scene; the best one in the movie). Jane Fonda, in a delicious irony, plays none other than Nancy Reagan like the iron lady she was. She has about two minutes of screen time and she is fierce. John Cusack (in real life, a liberal pinko commie) plays Richard Nixon.
The Butler is so evidently a schmaltzy pastiche, that it could not be tolerable if lesser actors were in it. Certainly, Whitaker's performance deserves a much better movie. But here's the conundrum: 12 Years A Slave is, in terms of craft and vision, a much superior movie, a punishing ordeal that outrages intellectually, but does not really connect emotionally; The Butler, in contrast, is clumsy, obvious, at times ridiculous, but it shamelessly goes straight for the heart, and tugs real hard.

Nov 22, 2013

Philomena


Philomena is the real story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who became pregnant when she was very young, was forced to have the baby by nuns in a convent, who then gave the baby up for adoption without her consent (and worse). The movie is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's book, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith.
There is another, extremely harrowing movie about the evil nuns of Ireland called The Magdalene Sisters, by Peter Mullan, which few people saw, and which is a catalog of faith-sanctioned atrocities, all based in reality. That one, you watch at the peril of sinking into a despair from which there is no rescue. In Philomena, which is clearly intended to reach a mass audience, you'll laugh and you'll cry.
Unlike The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena is not an exposé. It is an uneasy mix of feel-good holiday fare with a very dark backbone. It is a salad of genres: a based on a true story road movie, an odd couple/buddy comedy/weepie, starring an elderly, goodhearted Irish woman (Judi Dench, aka God), and an ornery, cynical, sophisticated writer (Steve Coogan), who helps her search for her lost son.
The comedy is zippy and adroitly performed by God (never once pandering for laughs) and Coogan, who are total pros. The story has some surprising twists, and a heartwarming message about love and tolerance (the opposite of what the nuns practice).
I'm not sure that the film succeeds at reconciling the buddy comedy with the horror of Philomena's story; it tries to please and outrage the audience at the same time. Frears does a solid job; and so it is that Philomena is highly enjoyable, and quite moving, yet obvious and awkward, in spurts.
Now, back to God. Dench can effortlessly play frumpy, regular women just as well as she can play any and all Shakespearean female characters (and all the males, if she so desired), fearsome queens of England and the mother of James Bond.
With her, you never see the homework. If she cares about accents, costumes, make up or other outward tools of character creation, it's hard to tell, because everything seems to come from deep inside. She has the most spectacular vocal delivery, a precise and expressive instrument. Listen to her sibilant, malevolent voiceover narration in Notes on A Scandal (my favorite Dench film performance of all time). Words seem to have invented for her to say them.  I bet that if any movie needed to have a female God character, she'd be the first they'd call.
In this movie, she plays against type (she tends to do alpha females), with waves of quiet, powerful human emotion. Philomena is a complicated character. Determined to find her son, unsophisticated but smart, almost annoyingly forgiving. You can feel her ancient heartbreak the minute she appears on the screen. Yet she harbors no feelings of revenge (those are left for Sixsmith, who seethes at the cruelty). She is not a crusader, but her inexhaustible desire for closure has heroic stature. She shows no self-pity as the character nor self-indulgence as the actor, just enormous grace and dignity.  In this, she seems to be more truthful and authentic than her own movie.

Nov 19, 2013

Captain Phillips


There are two fabulous scenes in this movie by Paul Greengrass. When the four skinny Somali pirates, armed to the teeth in a small skiff, come on board the enormous Maersk Alabama cargo ship, and there is nothing that Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) can do about it; and the last five minutes of the film, for which Hanks may very well collect an Oscar nomination for best actor this year.
Greengrass unleashes chaos and urgency with balletic energy, helped by the jerky, yet amazingly precise camerawork of the great Barry Ackroyd. He stages the action in a "you are there" style, and while choppy, the action is always clear, which is no mean feat. After two hours of relentless quick cuts, however, it gets a bit tiresome.
Even with the tension and the mayhem, something at the center of the movie feels weak. Perhaps Captain Phillips is not such an interesting character. If, as some of the actual Alabama crew members have recently complained, the real captain was more reckless and less heroic, this could have provided a more interesting tete a tete between him and his kidnappers; an extra layer of complexity. This captain never lets the sailors' coffee break go over their allotted 15 minutes; that's as mean as he gets. Hanks, although a solid actor (with an unfortunate New England accent, alas), is incapable of not being nice. And this is a little boring. Wouldn't it be great to see him as a villain for a change? Or at least a morally ambiguous character? Billy Ray's screenplay broadly telegraphs the issues.
Muse, the main Somali pirate, an Oscar worthy performance by first time actor Barkhad Abdi, is much more interesting than him. He is more likable than Phillips, with his sly braggadocio, puffed up by the strength conferred to him by firepower. Muse is smart, reckless and desperate for money. He has done it successfully before and he thinks he can swagger himself out of the situation with a combination of reassurance and grandstanding, and guns leading the way. He even tries to use the same patronizing tone with Phillips that the American uses with him. He is counterintuitively adorable.
Now, as every kindergartner in America now knows, had the Alabama carried weapons, the four Somali punks would be reduced to dust in a hail of bullets. But apparently, international shipping routes are not red states, and the Alabama wasn't packing heat at sea. Hence the disproportionate, absurdly surreal advantage that four skeletal, raggedy Somalis had against at least two dozen burly, yet unarmed, first world sailors on a humongous ship.
What also makes Greengrass a good action director is that he is very good with actors. He has a fine eye for casting authentic looking people, and they are all well directed. The actors who play the US Navy personnel are extremely believable in their roles, with their flat affect and naturalness when spewing complicated jargon. Greengrass gets right the arrogant, colloquial tone of Americans in charge. From Phillips to any American character who speaks to the kidnappers, the tone is one of casual, patronizing, incredulous superiority, and it is pitch perfect.
Who are the pirates? Extortionists. As Muse reassures Captain Phillips in a line that elicits laughter, there is no need to fear; they are not Al Qaeda. That is, they are not a bunch of irrational haters. According to Muse, this is simply about money. But it is also about powerlessness and what schemes the powerless come up with to try to level the playing field. Muse explains that big ships from rich countries fish and deplete Somali waters, so all he is doing is collecting taxes. At one point, he says he loves America, like many who envy and resent it that are also mesmerized by all it promises. He's a businessman! But he is no Robin Hood. He's just a hood that works for an overlord who exploits him. This is how we can sympathize with him but not with his methods. We may feel sorry for his desperate poverty and his naiveté, but we are not cheering for piracy and extortion, no matter how lopsided the fight.
American might comes bearing down in full force, in this case, not to establish justice, but to retrieve its citizens and possessions in harm's way, reinforcing the abysmal power imbalance between the haves and the have nots. It is almost funny to see the orange lifeboat where the captain is trapped with the kidnappers, which looks like something out of Finding Nemo, at war and "negotiation" with the all mighty American armament.
Compared to other movies about Americans at conflict with the world, the villains here are presented in a more human scale, and so is the hero. In the end, he survives the ordeal, but he is utterly bereft of the self-possession with which he commanded that ship in the beginning. Tom Hanks, who in the eyes of Hollywood is the ideal American, like Jimmy Stewart was in the 1940's, is left rattled, shocked and almost unable to find himself. The world has changed. We may have the might; but little beleaguered countries have the impotence and the rage, which, as they have been showing us for years now, are not a joke and are not easily trampled. They can still make us tremble.

Nov 15, 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Color



It is fitting that for the first time in history, the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year was awarded to director Abdellatif Kechiche in conjunction with the two actresses of this film, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. In fact, I think the women deserve the award more than him. He gets a prize for casting them in the first place, for unleashing the miracle that is Exarchopoulos into the world, and certainly for eliciting incredible performances from both. He is hobbled, however, by a blunt, inelegant touch, and lack of discipline. With a three hour running time, I was not bored until the last half hour. Somehow, even with repetitive scenes, and an unsubtle overuse of handheld close ups, the coming of age story of Adele (Exarchopoulos) and her amour fou for Emma (Seydoux) rivets our attention. It is a story of young love, confusion and loss, and if it is moving, it is because the actresses, in their transparent emotional nakedness, make it so.
The physical nakedness, alas, is not as effective as Kechiche hoped for. The now notorious, literal and lengthy lesbian sex scenes have a dulling effect on the intimacy he aims to achieve. They feel heavy, staged, and awkward. Kechiche uses a cinema verité camera approach at all times in order to get as close to the characters' emotions as possible, but when it comes to their time in bed, the filming resembles the pedestrian hack work of porn. He clearly wants to achieve results and instead of letting the actresses explore the lovemaking naturally, which would have been much sexier, he is compelled to orchestrate and choreograph, using clumsy editing. What little imagination he has fails him, and he is unable to offer anything new, creative or even mildly interesting in the quest for rendering effective erotic scenes in film (a rarity). These scenes feel as if a plutonium bomb was dropped in a field of flowers.
Kechiche has never heard of "less is more", and his more is unfortunately, less.
I approached this film with trepidation, since I detested his last film, Black Venus, which I found indulgent, pretentious and exploitative of the main actress.
La Vie D'Adele (the original title in French) is the best he has done so far, but he sabotages his own power by being overpowering. He has no confidence in subtlety.
Exarchopoulos is a charismatic force of nature, and the only living being I could think of that is close to her animal magnificence was Brigitte Bardot at the height of her powers. Exarchopoulos also happens to be a wonderful actress, and you cannot take your eyes off her (nor does the camera). She is strong, vulnerable, transparent, lost, a marvel to behold. She is also the sexiest being to hit the big screen in a long time, so there is no need to capture her in private, either having a wet dream or taking a shower, by moving as if she were a Playboy centerfold. Her disheveled, natural self is all we need. A scene where she dances salsa with a guy is somehow sexier than all the writhing and heavy breathing and acrobatic tableaux that comprise the lengthy, distracting sex scenes with her female lover. A fraction of those borderline ridiculous scenes would have been enough for the audience to understand the pull of the chemistry between the two women. It's a pity, because the movie has moments of great visceral power, like a harrowing schoolyard argument between Adele and her inquisitorial friends, but it squanders them with too many obvious scenes of close ups of people slurping spaghetti. They are meant to signal Adele's big, sensual appetites: we get it. No need to hit us over the head repeatedly with a bowl of pasta. Opportunities to deepen our identification of Adele are lost in Kechiche's quest for getting under his characters' skins. He establishes very adeptly her confusion about her sexuality and her inner conflict with the expectations of her family and friends, and then forgets all about it. We don't need the weepy martyrdom of a gay coming of age, but it would have been revealing to see more of the parents as Adele comes into her own as an adult. Did she ever come out of the closet? How did they react?
Then there are needless scenes where Kechiche goes for the literal. It is not enough for Adele to claim she misses her lover, she needs to put Emma's hand into her mouth in the middle of a café. She needs to guide Emma's hand to her crotch. I didn't buy it. Sadly, all the pain one recognizes in Adele's devastating loss of love is blunted and diminished by Kechiche's inability to restrain himself.

The Great Beauty



A cinematic tour de force, this meandering tone poem to Rome and Italy by Paolo Sorrentino, like his movie Il Divo, resists categorization. Very reminiscent of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, it centers in the character of Jep Gambardella, played by Sorrentino's frequent collaborator, the great Toni Servilio. Jep is a jaded, cynical, well to do journalist, and elegant dresser (he wears the most astonishing bespoke clothes) who lives it up until late every night and gives us a tour of the haute demimonde of present Rome.
The movie starts at dawn, with a flock of nuns among the crumbling ruins. A Japanese tourist suffers cardiac arrest, while an angelical choir sings in a bell tower. Then Sorrentino cuts to an astonishing sequence at a party which has such verve, energy and authenticity, it sucks you in completely. This is one sweaty, vulgar, ostentatious affair, decadent as all Roman parties seem to be in Italian movies. It is here that Jep makes his first appearance. It's his 65th birthday, and there he is, surrounded by crumbling aristocrats, newfangled social climbers, media clowns, etc. Like a vampire, he lives by night, and though he is alive with curiosity, he seems permanently exhausted and disenchanted with L'Italia.
There is a plot in this movie, and a lot of humor, but Sorrentino's style is closer to that of a lush, well-funded music video. That he managed to deconstruct the political life of Giulio Andreotti in the excellent Il Divo with this kinetic style is a testament to his chutzpah and his enormous talent. He is a startlingly original filmmaker; a Terrence Malick on steroids.
Sorrentino takes his sweet time introducing us to Jep's laid back lifestyle in a series of breathtaking set pieces, enhanced by an equally breathtaking soundtrack that  brilliantly combines the tackiest party music (stuff that only Eurotrash could love), with choral music and a lovely score. The sound design and the editing are masterful. So don't be fooled by the apparent looseness of the story. Sorrentino is a gifted artist. Even though he resists the encumbrances of mechanical plot points and tight structures, the movie is coherently mapped out. It's a magnificent ride into the dilapidated heart of Rome.
At some point, Jep takes a prostitute (the daughter of an old friend, as it turns out) on a private tour of the most secluded Roman palazzos, and in a cavernous one, they wander into a bunch of old principessas playing cards. It was in that sequence full of Roman busts and centuries old art collecting dust, that I was struck by the realization that Rome was born decadent. It is as decadent now as it was during Mussolini, the 19th century and all the way back to Nero and Caligula. It is the city with the longest decline in history.
Sorrentino takes fun stabs against a sybarite Cardinal from the Vatican who loves talking about food but has no patience for heartfelt personal confessions, and teases us with the appearance of a purported ancient saint bound by a vow of poverty, who stays at the tony Hassler hotel and complains of discomfort, since she is used to sleeping on the floor. There are also crooked entrepreneurs, aristocrats you can rent for the night, and wealthy, smug communist party members. Sorrentino's witty, at turns loving and exasperated ode to Rome does not go down expected paths, and always comes up with surprises. It seems that nothing in Rome is what it seems.
The saint turns out to be legit, even though she has a creepy minder that behaves more like a rock star business manager. In his many wanderings, Jep visits a Dantesque plastic surgeon's office where people go to get Botox injections as if they were eating the host at communion. The holy surgeon happens to also give spiritual advice; even nuns come to see him.
The Great Beauty is a film about an aging city, an aging Roman and a crumbling society but it is full of life and love for Rome and the crazy mess that is Italy.  It is an experience to behold, hence it is worth watching it on a big screen with a great sound system. Let The Great Beauty wash over you in all its vulgar, lively, amusing, enervating, tragic, decadent glory.

Nov 8, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club


When actors play showy roles that entail extreme physical changes, it is easy to confuse their physical transformations with acting. They lose or gain 40 pounds, and it is an enormous sacrifice, but that does not automatically deserve them nominations and prizes. A full fledged character has to shine through the physicality. Losing 40 pounds and starving to death probably helps actors embody physical and mental pain, but the great ones bring to the table more than that. They bring the truth.
In the case of Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, his extraordinary performance is as impressive as his extreme gauntness. AIDS brings about a vicious physical devastation, and it is right from McConaughey to honor the tragedy of AIDS by looking the part. No amount of make up can convey the deathly mien of this disease. McConaughey looks dangerously ill. But the life force he summons to play this racist, homophobic Texan man is heroic.
Ron Woodruff was a card carrying straight sex addict, electrician and petty hustler who found out he had contracted HIV at the beginning of the epidemic in 1985. That McConaughey is a shoo in for an Oscar and every other award in existence is a given. But look at his reaction when he is told the news in a hospital. Watch the shadow of utter terror in his eyes as he realizes how he got the infection.
He is magnificent, as he has been in every movie he's been in lately. His Ron Woodruff is a schemer, a charmer, the possessor of an outsize personality and no fear, who, out of total self-interest at first, decides to seek treatment for himself, since the FDA is taking forever to approve safer drugs. He also gets a bitter taste of his own medicine as he becomes a pariah because of his illness, at the time exclusively associated in the minds of people, with gay men.
At first he is out to save himself, but then, like a good hustler, he realizes the business potential of supplying non approved drugs to the many desperate, infected citizens of Dallas. A true American hero, in the capitalist sense of the word "American", he devises a system that will give patients the drugs they need to survive (which he finds in other countries) through a brilliant membership scheme. Then he has no choice but to deal with the "faggots" he so despises. And then he learns compassion. You can see the transformation from a hoodlum to a responsible businessman, let alone from a hater, to someone who cares.
The movie is not great. The cuts are annoying, it is not visually inspiring (which is fitting to the ugliness of the disease), the pacing is cumbersome, and every time McConaughey is not on screen, the movie seems to drag. He infuses the movie with such truth and energy, which such presence, and he is such a charmer that you root for him even when he is at his worst. He has always been extremely confident with body language (he reminds me of Christopher Walken: elegant, feline), and he has impeccable timing in his delivery, both in comedic and serious moments. Being from Texas, he doesn't have to fake the accent, and it is a delight to listen to that natural Texan drawl.
Jared Leto is also deeply affecting and sensational as Rayon, a very skinny trannie Ron meets while at the hospital. He should be nominated for best supporting actor. Both of them have moments of humor and wit, and moments that break your heart. Director Jean-Marc Vallee got absolute beauty and honesty in these two performances. At times, the rest of the film threatens to slide into movie of the week territory, but McConaughey's and Leto's fierceness, and Vallee's unsentimental approach to the subject elevate Dallas Buyers Club into the most realistic movie dealing with the subject of AIDS that I have seen.

Oct 27, 2013

The Counselor



My friend Gina asked me if The Counselor was trashy, in the hopes that the answer was a resounding yes. To her good fortune, "trashy" is probably the perfect description for this Ridley Scott venture written by Cormac McCarthy. As movies go, trashy is not always bad. Many trashy movies are wonderful pleasures. Among my favorite middlebrow trash, I count Louis Malle's Damage and Richard Eyre's Notes On A Scandal. Then there is intellectual trash (Claire Denis' Bastards, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist), and loads of basic trashy trash.  
The Counselor aspires for high trash but it inexorably slips into lowbrow, trashy trash, albeit with a million-dollar cast. To get Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz all together in one place qualifies as what in Mexico is called a major taco de ojo. An eye taco, a feast for the eyes (and decent acting).
Ridley Scott has never been a subtle or elegant director. At his best (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, American Gangster, Black Hawk Down), he is a master of thrilling spectacle. At his not so good, his movies are all clunky bombast. The Counselor tries to have it both ways. The script is full of intermittently insightful philosophical musings about greed and evil and terrible human choices. What it lacks are characters with inner lives and a coherent plot. As is the case with No Country For All Men, McCarthy is more interested in expounding his thoughts about human depravity than in giving plausible, believable, realistic actions and motivations to his characters. They function only as devices to serve his morality plays. This is the reason why, as much as I enjoyed No Country For All Men, I did not believe one second of it. The same thing happens in The Counselor. The plot makes no sense.
Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, a slick lawyer for Reiner, a sleazy, yet somehow lovable club impresario played with utter dissoluteness by Javier Bardem, who needs to stop toying with his hair. He is too much of a great actor to keep relying on ridiculous hair for his characters. It worked in No Country For Old Men and that was it.  The most reliable way to describe these two business associates is, the Counselor (like Everyman, he doesn't have a name) wears Armani suits, while Reiner is festooned with Versace and looks like a human piñata. But whereas we do get a sense of the kind of person Reiner is (a genial, sleazy nightclub owner who likes to dabble on illegal stuff on the side), it is impossible to gather who the Counselor is, why he is there, where he comes from or what makes him tick. For McCarthy, the sole answer is greed, but for the audience this might not be enough. Why is the Counselor, who drives a hugely expensive car, the court appointed lawyer for a woman festering in jail (Rosie Perez, always good and always welcome)? Does he do charity on the side? Are we really supposed to believe he is as innocent as he professes? He is always surprised at the information supplied by Westray, (Brad Pitt), a character whose role in the whole adventure is unclear, except he is there like some sort of Stetson hat and cowboy boots wearing Greek chorus to explain to the Counselor in graphic detail how very bad the Mexican drug cartel is, and what a very bad idea it is to cross them. Yet even though he knows so much, and he is so certain of his safety, he makes a mistake so simple and unbelievable, and so telegraphed to the audience, you end up rolling your eyes. The second you see a sashaying female ass encased on a pristine white minitube skirt, you know this chick is trouble, but heretofore wise Westray is oblivious. This is the kind of lazy plot turn that sinks the movie into trashy trash. The movie is plagued by them.
The plot may be convoluted and unclear, but the movie is a fetishistic eye taco, as many Ridley Scott movies are. Which is what brings up the guilty pleasures. One of the best things in the movie is Cameron Diaz and her metallic silver nail polish. You will fixate on the nail polish and its burnished perfection, as you will fixate on her asymmetrical hairdo and the way her mesmerizing black eyeliner makes her look like the leopards she adores and keeps as pets. That's the kind of maleficent lady she is, and she is extremely good and entertaining as a ruthless narcowoman called Malkina. Diaz understands the campiness of the proceedings and lets rip accordingly. Not so fortunate is Penelope Cruz, who plays the counselor's love interest, an unlikely Polyanna who is oblivious to the fact that she is surrounded by the creme de la creme of the worst of the worst. How do we know she is a pure spirit? She claims she likes to go to church. Cormac McCarthy is not a subtle writer.
I had trouble reconciling the mansion where Bardem and Diaz live in with El Paso, Texas, but you can count on Ridley Scott for over the top production design, be it slick modern spaces that ooze ill gotten wealth, or shady Mexican lawyer offices that look like they were decorated by the Spanish Inquisition. All the scenes that take place in the shady underworld of the cartel and in supposedly Juarez, looking ridiculously colonial, are as sadly flimsy and fake as Reiner's mansion looks like money. Though the action is supposed to happen in and around El Paso and Juarez, the sense of place, like the characters, feels ersatz. That Scott, who has directed several movies in Mexico, still commissions music that sounds like a Cumbia infested version of the Gypsy Kings, only adds insult to injury.
Still, you get your pleasures where you can. In this literal, heavy handed movie, where first they tell you about the violence and then they cheaply show it to you, a wonderful relief is the appearance of several character actors who totally kill. Rosie Perez is one, but also, improbably, Bruno Ganz (Hitler from Downfall), as an Amsterdam diamond dealer; John Leguizamo, nailing it as a Colombian narco and, the man who absconds with the movie, Ruben Blades, as a mysterious go-between lawyer. He has one conversation over the phone, which he delivers with a world-weariness that is about the only truthful thing in the entire film.
Here and there we are treated to McCarthy's impassioned words about greed and corruption and the inevitability of evil, and here is where, if you could take this movie seriously, you could find a vital rant about the depraved evil of the drug trade and our pathetic approach to stomping it out. But literal as it is about everything else, the movie does not make the connection between the infinite hunger for drugs here in the States, and the depraved indifference to human suffering it encourages on the people doing the drug consuming; that is, between the beheadings and other terrible depravities that the cartels unleash as a way of doing business, and the bump of coke going up somebody's nose. A pity, because it's such a waste of words and resources. Just being a dark morality play is not enough. Being so schematic, The Counselor barely rises above expensive trash.

Oct 22, 2013

Enough Said


Nicole Holofcener's bittersweet, funny comedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a divorced LA masseuse who is looking for an eligible man and James Gandolfini as Albert, a divorced dad. They meet at a party and start going out and it turns out that he is the ex-husband of Marianne, a new client she also meets at a party, played with her customary terrific bitchiness by Catherine Keener. The two women strike up a "friendship",  as much of a mutually balanced relationship that can be had between a client and a masseuse, where Keener confides in Eva all the flaws of her ex, only for Eva to find out that he is Albert, the man she is dating.
Holofcener writes some very funny one liners and is very good with awkward situations. Behind the hilarity there is a poignant exploration of the perils of searching for love in middle age. People have too much baggage, or unrealistic expectations and in the case of Eva and Albert, ex-partners and teenage daughters that remind them how rapidly they are aging.
Louis-Dreyfus is very funny as an insecure, self-deprecating woman. Sometimes she mugs a bit too much for the camera, but she has impeccable timing and is very touching when she screws things up and things get dark. Gandolfini, in what was to be his last performance, is moving and lovely as a warm, sensitive big guy. They have an easy rapport together and inner lives, something that he exudes particularly well, that make you care for them. The excellent Toni Collette and Ben Falcone are not used to their full potential as a married couple who are Eva's best friends, but they provide a biting contrast to what Eva and Albert are looking for: A stable relationship of many years that, alas, is now strained by routine and veiled mutual contempt. What makes this movie more satisfying than a wish-fulfillment romantic comedy is that the search for love is full of pain. Nobody here is with their head in the clouds. Gone are the days of fearlessly falling in love and rushing in like fools. Now there is trepidation and anxiety and, in Eva's case, letting someone else's bitter experience cloud her instincts and worse, make her cruel in order to protect herself. Holofcener sustains the balancing act between funny and painful quite adroitly, and the movie rings true because it does not pretend that there is one endless love in life, but that life is a series of romantic adventures, some of which work, until they don't. Still, the unexpected joy of finding someone one enjoys being with is as alive and present as the funny gags and the intense fear of intimacy and commitment. In short, a realistic, funny, wise romantic comedy.
So why is Gandolfini a believable sensitive man? Because he has balls. Albert has the balls to ask Eva out. And he has the balls to want to be with her. He is the one with more to lose, more apt to be rejected with his bald pate and extra pounds in a town where everyone is obsessed with looks and fitness, yet he is relaxed and confident and brave in love.


Oct 18, 2013

All Is Lost


There are two movies this season that are very similar in their preoccupation with man against the immensity of nature, where human accomplishment is suddenly brought to its knees and made to eat major humble pie.
All Is Lost, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is like Gravity at sea. But in contrast to the more jokey, commercial endeavors of Gravity, it is a much more sober film, and an impressive writing and directorial improvement for Chandor, after his first film, Margin Call.
Robert Redford has never been the most expressive of actors, but he is perfectly cast and very effective as Our Man, a lone, rugged sailor who is somewhere in the Indian Ocean on a nicely appointed sailboat, when he runs into trouble. We know little about him, and he says even less during the course of the movie. His character is revealed  by all the decisions, big and small, he makes to survive.
The individual choices Our Man makes are small, methodical, but essential steps he takes to salvage his boat and keep himself alive. This is not a visceral movie. It is beautifully shot, and at times everything seems a little too perfect (curiously, the lens never gets wet, even when the storm is raging), but it does give you the sense of what it is like to be alone and surrounded by merciless water, whether under the cruel sun or tossed about in a vicious storm. One learns a lot about the kinds of things you could do in case you're stranded in the ocean like Our Man. With any luck, you will have an extremely well-equipped boat, like he does. And even then, all that man made ingenuity and wealth of resources may fail you.
All Is Lost reminded me of the power of visual storytelling, which is how movies began. The movie is transfixing without dialogue. Our Man is extraordinarily self-possessed, considering his dire circumstances. Clearly, he is a man of few words, even when alone against nature. Chandor has written an elegant, economical script and has wisely resisted the temptation of giving too much information to the audience or plucking too much on the heart strings. This is not a sentimental movie. Chandor gives the audience the opportunity of filling in the blanks of the character, something that is usually absent in commercial films, which refuse to leave anything to the imagination.
At the beginning there are clues as to who he is to others. And because he is so precise in his behavior, and so true to character, one can come up with an interesting back story. I imagine he is wealthy, a titan of industry, used to everything going his way, a leader, who when faced with imminent extinction, does not panic and methodically tries to fix things. This is in stark contrast to Clooney's and Bullock's gabfest in Gravity, and it is so much more mysterious and interesting. I could have used a little more panicking from Redford, who has one fabulous moment where he finally loses it, and with good reason. But because he so clearly establishes who he is by how he does things, his sangfroid is coherent with the character, if not entirely believable at all times.
All Is Loss plunges us into chaos immediately. We experience the ups and mostly relentless downs of this man's losing battle against the ocean. There are some inspired images, like a flock of floating sneakers bobbing out of a stray container, or Our Man wading almost dreamily inside the flooded boat to retrieve a spoon and a fork. He is a fastidious, refined man, and not about to become a savage just because he is lost at sea.
The sound design is fantastic. The cinematography, both over and underwater, is gorgeous. Alas, there are a couple of moments that undermine the very thoughtful craftsmanship and conceptual approach of this film. The music at the beginning is very good; just a couple of menacing chords that blend seamlessly into the terrifying sounds of invading water. I was thanking Chandor in my head for being extremely adroit with the use of music, when out comes a sequence where the music blooms into a horrid, cheesy melody that has Our Man covering his ears in despair. It isn't clear if he is hearing it in his head, in which case he is right to loathe it, but it happens at a key turning point and it shatters our illusion of being there.
Similarly, some people may feel the ending is a cop out, but, even if it is a bit contrived, it is handled with grace and understatement, and it is justly rewarding.

Oct 11, 2013

NYFF: 12 Years A Slave


This film by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is based on the harrowing real story and book by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man from Saratoga, NY, who is kidnapped to be sold to slave owners in the South. It is McQueen's most conventional film to date, and though it is a powerful movie that retains his trademark unflinching look at intense human suffering, this time focused on slavery, there is something stilted about it. All his movies have a paradoxical tension between extreme emotional states and aesthetic distance, which works well with their intimate scope. But this is a big period epic, and you can feel the tension between the need to tell a story in a more conventional manner and McQueen's suggestive style. There is tension, for instance, between the eloquent literary, almost theatrical dialogue, which sounds faithful to Northup's narrative, and the realistic depiction of brutality.
The most astounding scene in the movie is a wordless tableau that takes place in the middle of the film and that says more about the depravity of American slavery than anything else in the movie, or anywhere, for that matter. Were it shown separately, it would be one of the greatest short films ever made. This is the kind of condensed visual metaphor that makes McQueen an exciting director, but this style is mostly sacrificed for more straightforward storytelling, and by corollary, more commercial possibilities.
The filmmakers want to make the story accessible to the widest possible audience, which is as should be. But this responsibility to garner a wide audience presents an interesting conundrum. I could not help but think of the Holocaust, because the parallels with American slavery are many and obvious, as are the parallels on how genocidal violence is depicted in film.
Slavery is the African-American Holocaust. McQueen makes sure this is branded into our consciousness by showing episode after episode of unspeakable cruelty. Sticking closely to what Solomon Northup witnessed and lived through, the experience of this film is as close as we're ever going to be to what it was like to be a slave.
Still, cinematically, the magnitude of slavery as a crime against humanity is so  unfathomable, that any attempt to dramatize it creates an obvious problem with authenticity, which is generally true of Holocaust movies as well. How, for instance, do you use music to punctuate such circumstances? Any fictional embellishment threatens to banalize the authentic depiction of historical evil. The use of well known actors becomes distracting, even if all the famous talent in this film (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard) rises to the occasion. In United 93, also a movie about a historical act of human evil, director Paul Greengrass bypassed this problem by using unknown actors, giving it unquestionable verisimilitude. It worked, but nobody saw it.
This is the paradox of this film.
Perhaps this is why McQueen chose Ejiofor, a well-known British actor, but not very known here, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o for the main slave roles. They are both very good. Solomon Northup, urbane, educated, sensitive, and appalled at his fate, learns to obey and quell his temper and dignity in order to preserve his life. He  cannot fight back, so his journey is the opposite of what we are used to from cinematic heroes: from being a well rounded, accomplished human being, he needs to do less and less in order to get out alive. His heroism relies in surviving and trying to hold on to his last shred of dignity, even when forced to collude in his own dehumanization. Chiwetel gives a very empathetic performance, but there is something about a passive hero that makes it hard to connect for the audience.
Like any other form of institutionalized sadism, slavery is shown to cast not only a dehumanizing pall on slaveowners and slaves alike, but it is encased in its own bizarre bubble; an insane parallel reality. In the dissolute character of slaveowner Epps (Michael Fassbender), corrupt madness runs like a fever. Epps is an ignorant, Bible thumping drunk; cruel, childish, arbitrary. Fassbender is very good at showing his spineless weakness. There is nothing grand about him. He is at the bottom of the human totem pole, a grotesque character, a second rate bully, clearly inferior to Northup in every way.
From the beginning, McQueen establishes that slavery was unregulated capitalism at its nadir. Although he makes clear that even those who profited from it were aware of its revolting effects, even judicious people, such as Thomas Jefferson, engaged in it. It is particularly chilling to think that Northup's descent into hell, as McQueen shows with close ups of water churning through the wheels of a river boat, was only a short journey from New York to Washington D. C.. He went to dinner one day with whom he thought were potential business partners, and woke up in a dungeon in chains. There was a legal and economic system in place that allowed this to happen, and there was nothing he could do about it.
This powerlessness sparks enormous moral outrage. The film's effect is cumulative: it lashes out at you relentlessly - as life lashed out at Northup - until its cathartic ending. This is not a wishful tale about righteous white people with good intentions. It is not fiction. It is a remarkably evenhanded and perceptive eyewitness account of slavery from a survivor. The hero is a Black man, and he engineers his own survival. In this sense, 12 Years A Slave is possibly the truest film about the topic ever made.
Yet McQueen's approach, even as he meticulously documents the most harrowing scenes of cruelty, feels somehow emotionally detached. The piling up of horrors, if utterly valid and faithful to Northup's experience, makes you brace against it. Only at the end I felt a cathartic emotional release. Perhaps this is intended to mirror Solomon Northup's own journey: in order to survive, you have to harden your heart. Unlike Steven Spielberg's Amistad, 12 Years A Slave is unadorned with human pieties. It's an endurance test that shows no mercy towards the audience.
Hopefully, 12 Years A Slave will spark a serious conversation about slavery in this country. For all of our boisterous public debate about race, very little is discussed about slavery (unless, I assume, you are stuck in history class in high school). This is perplexing, to say the least. Considering how important it is a chapter of American history, more needs to be discussed. Because even today there are economic systems in place that are not too distant from slavery: the abuse of undocumented migrant workers, private prisons that profit from the wholesale incarceration of mostly Black and Latino people. The nasty unethical, yet fully legal, exploitation of certain groups continues.

This movie put a thought in my head:
The still benighted South, home of a majority of people who think universal health insurance is communism, and who'd rather die than pay taxes for a more progressive and cohesive society, should be made to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves in America. This is not a new concept, but perhaps 12 Years A Slave will bring the idea back to the table. This movie intends to reopen an old wound. I certainly hope it does.

12 Years A Slave opens October 18.

 



Oct 9, 2013

NYFF: The Bad And The Ugly


We're almost 3/4 of the way through our movie marathon, and this year's edition of the Festival has been a little lackluster, in our humble opinion. 


We've seen a bunch of duds, starting with the silly, humorless Real, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a movie for 14 year-olds without a shred of lightness or wit. It's a science fiction romance about a young woman in a coma, and her boyfriend, who is allowed to roam her mind. The premise is fantastic and full of interesting possibilities. The movie is great to look at, with a crisp, stylish use of CGI, and it has some good creepy moments. Being inside someone else's mind is not necessarily a walk in the park. I fail to understand how it made to the festival. It's not a good sign when the audience claps thinking the movie is thankfully over and laughs when it insists on going on. This is one instance where a smarter remake is in order.


I hated Bastards, Claire Denis' exploitative, sordid, gratuitous, sloppy movie. I surmise she set out to make the film noir to end all noirs, some sort of depraved version of Chinatown, and, as far as I'm concerned, it did not pan out. Her brilliant contribution is to think she can intersperse bits of plot out of sequence, but this is not only disorienting, it's confusing and makes no sense.  
Bastards is a visually and spiritually ugly movie, with a puerile, simplistic wish to disgust disguised as an attack on capitalism (major yawn), a flimsy plot and otherwise dignified actors like Vincent Lindon (only good thing in the movie) and Chiara Mastroianni trying to impart coherence to barely sketched out characters.
It's a good story. A ship captain, estranged from his wealthy family, comes to shore to help his relatives at a difficult juncture and unravels a web of human depravity: a classic tale of diving into the darkest pits of the underworld. But nothing is believable. Instead, Bastards is some sort of pretentious intellectual exploration of genre. Plus, every time I see Lola Creton and her insufferable pout onscreen, I want to strangle her.
There are very few times when I want to unsee a movie, when a movie so pollutes my consciousness, that I want to scrub my brain with lye. This is one of those times. And it's not that what disgusts me is the trite revelation of depravity that Denis taunts the audience with for two hours and saves like a dog salivating over a bone towards the end; it's the utter lack of empathy, grace or genuine human feeling. That, and the terribly cheesy music, vulgar and in bad taste, like the rest of the movie. It made me gag.
The fact that Bastards was made by a woman doesn't make it any less prurient and exploitative. This movie is the equivalent of watching an exhibitionist fondle his dick in public. There is no meaning, only self-absorption and the perverse wish to molest.




Oct 6, 2013

Gravity


The images are of astonishing beauty. The first 15 minutes of this film fill you with wonder.  You are witnessing, almost experiencing what it must be like to be in space; in joy and terror. Sometimes you remember to ask yourself what the hell you are seeing: you do an internal double take, a swift reality check to remind yourself that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are not floating around in space. It is a feat of human ingenuity to put those two huge Hollywood stars in such a backdrop and still create the successful illusion that they are actually there.  
Gravity is a spectacularly beautiful, thrilling and wondrous feat of artistry and craftsmanship. It works wonders in 3D and I assume that it's even better in IMAX.
I say this every year, so here it is once more, with feeling: If cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win an Oscar (his umpteenth nomination) this time, there is no justice in the world; hell, in the entire universe. He is the undisputed master of point of view, as he has amply shown in movies like Tree Of Life. And more: the way the camera captures everything both in outer space and inside the modules, everything we see is stunningly, delicately, magnificently gorgeous. His camera and his light are sensual and sensitive, even in space. The camera moves like nothing you've ever seen before. It is astonishing, as are the special effects and the art direction, all of which should swipe every accolade and award.
Sandra Bullock gives a fantastic performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, in a very basic story of survival in space. She is very good, and George Clooney is his usual charming self. Both command the screen even when encased in astronaut gear. Somehow, they are not dwarfed by the surrounding cosmos.
So why does the heart sink, why does everything come crashing down to earth like a merciless meteorite? It pains me to say this, but the writing is terrible. Everything is weighed down by triteness. That Bullock and Clooney are the chosen vessels to conduct the corny dialogue is fortunate; they pull it off with great panache. Actors of less stature would make the flimsy writing even more glaring. Bullock gives her all to impart weight and feeling to her predictable, utterly needless lines. And Clooney brings his reliable Clooneyness to his character Matt Kowalski; you truly feel that you are in good hands with him, as an actor and an astronaut.
Yet I was praying that at some point the words would stop. I wish Cuarón had heeded the example of Theodore Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc (or, closer to home, Stanley Kubrick and 2001) and stopped the script from blabbing. Everything we need to know and feel is in Bullock's face and in her breathing. She doesn't need to talk.
I also thought of The Hurt Locker as a great example of how an action movie can have existential heft by stripping the dialogue to its barest bones. In that movie, the soldiers, when confronted with lethal danger, use words only when absolutely necessary, for the most basic instructions; yet somehow this imparts the movie with gravitas and existential meaning.
I get it: if you are alone in space, you talk to yourself. I know I would. You are not suddenly going to become Schopenhauer. But in Gravity, the dialogue is jokey, and hokey and disappointingly trite. There is no irony. There is no edge to the humor.  Ryan's painful past seems manufactured by the Hollywood trope factory.
Nobody expects philosophical pontification in a movie that is clearly designed to be a thrill ride, but one knows that Cuarón has done and can do much better. It's as if he and his son Jonás, who co-wrote the film, were abducted by the Hollywood shitty one-liner squad, and this sinks the movie. I don't mind Kowalski's garrulousness. Even though Clooney does not really give it that nuance, it is obvious that he fills the void of space by talking a blue streak. But when he asks Ryan what she loves most about space, and she answers "the silence", a good zinger and a heartfelt thought, why is there soaring music in the background? Why is there a fear to let the audience experience that silence? Some gravity is in order. I loved the ominous, abstract music by Steven Price at the beginning. Did it have to bring in the weepy, epic string section towards the end?
The writing ends up relegating space to a backdrop, instead of using it to investigate how we measure up against the universe. How far we've come, how remarkable and insignificant we are. That's what space is for. Instead, we get stuff more suitable for a Lifetime TV Special.
It is hard to reconcile the facile, sketchy writing with the painstaking artistry of the rest of the film. I wanted to leave cheering. I left pondering why a movie that is such a magnificent achievement in so many levels is so careless and unsophisticated with something so essential. Gravity could have been a masterpiece. It is just a fantastic entertainment.