Apr 29, 2013


Mud takes place in the brackish banks of a river in Arkansas and is a coming of age story about a young boy who is disabused of his chivalric notions of romantic love by a fugitive, Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, who, praise the Lord, has stopped making unfortunate romantic comedies to become one of our very finest character actors, and one of the few American actors who can do a righteous southern accent. He is fantastic. The rest of the cast of this movie, written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), is equally splendid and includes Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, and Reese Witherspoon. The two kids, Tye Sheridan (from The Tree Of Life) as Ellis, and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, are beautiful and wonderful.
Even though one enjoys Mud's leisurely glide into this remote corner of America, where an almost mythical river is a hop and a skip from generic strip malls, this is one slow movie, with a very uneven pace. Many perfectly good scenes could have stayed in the cutting room and no one would have been the worse for wear.
Mud's tone swings between a coming of age story and a film noir and it never succeeds in harmonizing these two genres. I am more partial to the gothic and the dark, but Mud moves in the other direction, reassuring us that for all the threats of violence, no real harm will come to the kids. Nichols is capable of conjuring up dread and suspense, and I wish he'd hewed closer to that tenor of the story. But I loved that Ellis learns a painful lesson about romantic love and has his manhood delivered to him in one fell swoop of reality: love is a bitch.
Indeed, Magnificent Arepa pointed to a very interesting issue that eluded me as I watched the film. All the women in the movie are portrayed as deeply toxic to men. Nichols tries to balance this out with some nuance. Ellis' Mom (Sarah Paulson) and his dad do not get along and she is understandably tired of living in the boonies; Juniper, the femme fatale (Reese Witherspoon) is like a siren whose call brings nothing but trouble. It is not exactly clear why she is back to haunt Mud. Then an older girl Ellis is in love with, makes mincemeat out of him. Arepa thought the movie was downright misogynistic. I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly has a male-centric point of view.
I enjoyed Mud, even with some of its cliches (boy gets a shiner helping a damsel in distress, is rewarded with a bag of ice and a kiss in the forehead), until it comes to a disappointing resolution that arrives at a massive shoot 'em up worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza, deeply at odds with its quieter disquisitions about love and loyalty. More troubling is the fact that after the movie has established the dire consequences that Ellis faces making his very risky choices, the bullet ridden ending seems to happen, like in cartoons, or Hollywood movies, without dire consequences for anybody. Since it's the good guys who are shooting, they are given a pass for the wall to wall carpeting of bodies they leave behind. This is morally queasy, let alone juvenile, and it undermines the very premise that Mud takes such loving care (and time) to build.

Apr 27, 2013

On DVD: Heading South

This film by French director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) is an interesting exploration of the sexual tourism of white mature women of means who travel to some banana republic, Haiti in this case, to get laid with strapping, dirt poor young black studs. I saw this happen on a trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago. The movie captures the akwardness of these mutually "beneficial" arrangements between the tourists and the touristed. Sexual predatory tourism by males is very common in any underdeveloped country with a beach, yet sexual tourism by women is a slightly different matter. It is certainly less common, though it happens in places like Jamaica, Cuba, the D.R, and probably other Third World "paradises".
The arrangement goes something like this: I pay for your food and drinks and perhaps clothes and entertainment and maybe even buy something for your family, and you sleep with me and keep me company and romance me. I live a fabulous fantasy of sexual freedom and pleasure in an edenic context, far from my job, my relatives and my real life, and you give me your body in exchange for money, in front of your peers, some of who hold decent, hard jobs that don't pay for a living and certainly aren't much fun. What happens in the bedroom is between you and me. Perhaps there I let you have the upper hand. But in the light of day, I boss you around, boytoy, and your studly manhood is somehow compromised.
What is interesting about Heading South is that it seems to bite much more than it can chew. It sheds light on the politics between the sexes, on racism, on the role of mature women in affluent societies, on how life is cheap in poor, corrupt places, and it is also about the personae people shed when in a different place. Laurent Cantet's movies are always about the emotional ramifications of the political and economic imbalances between people, and although it isn't hard to guess which side he is on, he is never preachy. He usually achieves an intelligent, graceful balance of the personal and the deeply political, because the personal stories he tells are strong, and his characters interesting.
Heading South is a quirky movie. At moments it seems a tad melodramatic, with plot twists more suitable for a telenovela. At moments, the main characters talk directly to camera, as if they were being interviewed for a documentary. Cantet got incredible performances from both Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young. La Rampling is an expert on women who piss icewater. Here she plays a woman obsessed with her own power, a major bitch on wheels. It is a credit to her chops that the nastier she gets, the more sympathetic, or rather pathetic, she becomes. Her speech to camera gave me goosebumps. Karen Young is extraordinarily resourceful and surprising as an American woman from Savannah who seems like an innocent abroad and then turns out to be something quite different. Heading South is a disturbing, thought-provoking film about a subject that people would rather not think about: who wants to dwell on poverty and injustice when sipping their piña colada?

Apr 23, 2013

In The House

In The House is a very enjoyable movie that is being marketed squarely like a thriller, but is a whimsical, entertaining divertissement by François Ozon on the nature of storytelling and how hooked we humans are on stories. The great Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a frustrated novelist and now teacher of literature in a French high school (the Lycee Gustave Flaubert, no less). Among the exasperating mediocrity and indifference of most students, he finds talent in the continuing stories of a young pupil, Claude Garcia, which are supposedly based on his real life experiences. Germain and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) soon become hooked on Claude's storytelling prowess and on his "to be continued" cliffhangers. Young Claude (the handsome and chilling Ernst Umhauer) writes about insinuating himself in the life of Rapha, a fellow student, who lives in a better house, with a better family and a very desirable mother (Emanuelle Seigner). His story becomes increasingly brazen and perverse, but Germain is so enthralled by the possibility of fashioning this kid into a potential novelist, that he neglects to see how his literary advice is making Claude take more dangerous risks, which if  true, could spell real drama in the lives of the real characters. Ozon keeps the surprises coming, as the story of Claude and Rapha gets entwined on the page with Germain and his wife. All is fair game, as far as the writer is concerned.
This could have been a thriller about a sociopath with literary talent, but it's something more unwieldy, more messy, yet quite delightful.  If it sounds like an insufferably intellectual conceit, rest assured that Ozon keeps it breezy and fun. Soon Claude's stories consume Germain and his wife, and it is as hard for the audience to know what is fiction and what is real as it is for the couple. This is indeed true to fiction, which borrows from real life, sometimes literally, sometimes with invention and exaggeration, and only the writer knows which is which (if they can keep them apart).
Ozon has explored these fiction/reality themes before in movies like Swimming Pool, but here he goes for a light, comedic touch, not devoid of class satire, a gentle ribbing of classisist snobs like Germain and of rich grand dames who own art galleries (where Jeanne works) that show facile art meant to shock their own ilk.
Luchini is dry, deadpan and funny, touchingly distraught by the tale he is helping his student spin. As a curt, distant professor, he comes alive as he takes the sinister Claude under his wing. He is not a drooling, warmly encouraging teacher. He's critical and tough, which makes the kid write with a vengeance. The movie is smart and nimble, but there are a couple of plot points that strain credulity. Having established that all is fair in the telling of a story, Ozon cheekily demands we believe that the otherwise straight arrow Germain is willing to get into major trouble in order just to continue reading. Some of the darker aspects of the story are tonally at odds with the frothy atmosphere. Still, Ozon sustains the fun, intellectual hi-jinks with seamless grace, and a gossamer touch. He seems to enjoy the endless possibilities that the very act of telling the story gives him: shall he land the story into farce or tragedy?  Shall he keep it realistic, or indulge in whimsy? He somehow tries it all, and it works.

Apr 12, 2013

Style Gets In The Way

Simon Killer

I really wanted to like Simon Killer, a film by Antonio Campos, from the team that created the very creepy Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The premise is promising. A young American man, (Brady Corbet, excellent, when you can see his face) is drifting in Paris after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. He is lonely and brooding. He's bad news. I expected a tense, atmospheric film about a guy who loses his marbles and causes mayhem. And it is, albeit directed in the most pretentious way possible, thereby doing a disservice to the actors and to the story. The cinematography is deliberately precious and exasperating. Every scene is too long, what we see of Corbet's committed performance mostly lies in looking at the back of his head or his headless torso. The guy is in Paris. I don't expect a travelogue and visions of the Eiffel Tower, but it drives me crazy when filmmakers think that the only way to capture a character's alienation is by showing us only the nape of his neck, or by shooting everything at navel level.
I think about Roman Polanski's The Tenant, which is also about a guy who is losing his marbles in the City of Lights. There is not much physically of Paris in that film, but the little ironic details, the corner cafe with the surly barkeep, the apartment building with the creaky stairs, the nosy neighbors with their dogs and baguettes, give you a concentrated sense of Paris, and more importantly, they make the protagonist feel even more disconnected and adrift from everything and everyone. If the camera never opens up, there is less contrast, less irony and less drama. You care less about the character. The style calls attention to itself, and takes the audience out of the story and into tedious despair.
Simon Killer is too self-conscious, too deliberately hermetic. The plot is a bit contrived. Simon falls in with a hooker, Mati Diop, (also excellent, if underwritten). A wonderful scene where he orchestrates his own beating in order to insinuate himself into her life, gives you a chilling glimpse of how manipulative he is, and what he is capable of. I wish the rest of the movie was as sharp as this scene. Instead, Campos chooses a contrived plot development about the couple trying to extort money from embarrassed johns (do the French care?) and he also chooses to dwell on the sex, which is alienated and semi-violent and which feels as deliberately "provocative" as the rest of the movie. Worse, I had a feeling that the director was getting off on the violence against this woman, and that he lost the way of his story to direct his loving gaze at a bunch of sleaze.
Simon Killer does, however, have a fantastic soundtrack. The music playing on Simon's earphones is modern and happy and this provides a haunting contrast with his increasing isolation.

Upstream Color

This movie by Shane Carruth makes Simon Killer look as mainstream as an afternoon special. Here the style gets even more in the way of a very complicated story about humans being poisoned with some stuff coming from worms or pigs or both. I couldn't really tell because Carruth does all kinds of narrative jigsaw puzzles but steadfastly refuses to explain or establish anything. The movie is nicely shot, but the two main actors are bland ciphers we know nothing about (Carruth plays the male lead; he is no actor). After a while, I lost hope of ever trying to understand, not what was going on, but the point. The movie seems to be an environmental horror and a love story (between cyborgs; the couple is as exciting as two cold fish). These two seem to have something in common. Both seem to have been infected by whatever it is that is making humans have no willpower (worms or pigs or both). They never talk about it. She looks at his scars and does not think to ask, "Gee, you too? What's up with that?" At some point they hide in a bathtub. I never understood why. Two minutes later they are in bed, unconcerned with hiding anymore. At some point, my patience deserted me and I left.
I have noticed that deliberately obtuse movies such as this, with broken sequences, inexplicable behavior by characters and random surrealistic touches, tend to be described as poetic. This is an insult to poetry. True poetry requires structural and dramatic rigor, it requires enormous coherence and it is by nature, articulate. It requires getting out of the filmmakers' head, and into real human feeling.

The cardinal sin of movies is boredom. A close second, pretentiousness (they are closely related). I prefer to be bored than to have to sit through pretentiousness. It kills my soul.

Searching For Sugar Man

Better late than never. We finally saw Academy Award documentary winner Waiting for Sugar Man, by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, a perfectly decent film that tells the fantastic saga of Rodriguez, a hardworking Detroit man of Mexican descent who started singing in the 70s and despite his enormous songwriting and singing talent, was utterly ignored in the US.
Somehow his records made it to South Africa, where he was huge, except he didn't know it. The story is told like the mystery it is and it is suspenseful, heartbreaking and tremendously moving. Besides Rodriguez and his self-effacing personality, besides the fact that he made a living as a construction worker and continues to display humility that's almost impossible to fathom, the rich paradox of this film is that he was ignored in his own country because the USA was not ready then for a Latino man, with Latino looks and last name, who wrote and sang folk protest songs a la Bob Dylan, (who may I remind you, changed his name from Robert Zimmerman). In those days, all America was ready for in terms of Latino artists was Charo or Desi Arnaz, clownish, exaggerated Latino stereotypes.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, in the height of apartheid, Rodriguez's records were so popular among whites that the government banned some of his songs.  But his fans didn't know anything about him because no one in America had heard of him. Through the perseverance of a journalist and an obsessed fan, they finally tracked him down. This is a most unlikely story of the real triumph of the human spirit, a spirit strangely untainted by greed, by a chip on the shoulder, or self-righteousness. It's easy to understand why the film won the Oscar (even though I still think The Gatekeepers should have won) and it is good to know that because of the film Rodriguez is back on stage and finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Apr 4, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

A.k.a, Schenectady, New York; according to the new drama by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), an American semi-wasteland full of missing fathers, and repressed and not so repressed violence. This long, ambitious film, about absent fathers and lonely sons, heroes and losers, is like Blue Valentine, an exercise in creating intense intimacy with the characters. The movie is comprised of three intertwined stories. Ryan Gosling plays a man called Luke, a motorcycle daredevil and inveterate loser, who aims to do right as a father but keeps screwing up. Gosling is very good at playing obstinate, almost childlike brooders. His smooth underplaying and his angelical face make his violent outbursts all the more effective. He and Eva Mendes together are a many splendored thing to behold. Mendes is incredibly sexy, but also a fine actress; like a Raquel Welch with talent.
Gosling's story comes to an end as Bradley Cooper's story begins. Unlike some of the critics I read, who cannot keep gigantic story spoilers under wraps, I won't tell you how. Cooper plays Avery Cross, a rookie cop who gets in trouble in the line of duty. As opposed to Luke, Avery has an education, a solid middle class upbringing and every chance to be a perfectly good husband and father, but it doesn't work out. He turns out to be a willingly absent father to his bully of a young son (the very mannered Emory Cohen. Somebody must have told this not untalented kid he looks like a young Marlon Brando. He's gotta stop believing it). Cooper is very good in this movie, playing a deceptively plain man who turns out to be a shark. The outlaw turns out to be more decent than the cop; the loner more home oriented than the family stalwart. One gets more satisfaction from these kind of ironies than from understanding who these people really are. Still, all the actors are fantastic, very invested in whatever it is that drives them, and this makes the movie compelling. Ray Liotta is extra perfect as a corrupt cop so efficiently nasty, he makes you want to run for your life. So is Ben Mendelsohn, as Luke's melancholy sidekick, in whom I detected a bit of a very effective man crush on Gosling (and who can blame him?).
Weaved into the topic of fathers is the theme of heroes, of decency and truth and the kind of behavior that men are supposed to teach their offspring, when they are not too busy being selfish egotists.
I have complained bitterly about the American hero fantasies that inform most commercial films, which are made mostly by men. I'm tired of the "trying to impress my absent dad" shit. Nobody ever tries to impress their moms, unless it's a comedy. I'm so over this pious macho cliché. At least Cianfrance and his co-writers are out to explore in more depth what really makes a man a father and a hero. Their answer, in short, is the one who sticks quietly around, being a decent, hardworking human being, actually caring for his family. Not the cop, not the daredevil, but the stand up guy (the wonderful and super handsome Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards).
The third act is about the teenage sons of these two men. The movie is gripping until past the midpoint. Then it becomes strained melodrama, with alarmingly unconvincing plot contrivances and grand symbolic gestures that have characters doing all kinds of unlikely things. But Cianfrance has a great  way with actors, and a desire to make the intimacy between characters and audience happen; actually, a rare feat. In lesser hands this could be a farfetched weepie, but it has a dark and probing spirit, an ominous vibe that is well worth watching.