May 25, 2013

Fill The Void

This surprise hit, written and directed by Rama Burshtein, takes place inside the fold of a well-to-do orthodox Jewish family in Tel Aviv and it is remarkable for being a very sympathetic, insider's view of a cloistered world. Burshtein went to film school in Israel, and then became religious, so she has the advantage of straddling two world views. This, her first feature, is self-assured and very touching. It is unheard of for an orthodox woman to write and direct a film intended for a general audience. The restrictions that the haredim, as they are called, place on what women can and cannot do are legion. So Burshtein had to use mostly non-orthodox actors, and is very brave by forging ahead with a project that the more radical members of her community may consider offensive, even as it portrays them in a very good light.
Beautiful, soulful Shira (the amazing Hadas Yaron) is 18 years old and going through the arranged marriage dating ritual. That is, parents talk amongst themselves, trying to find a good match for their marriageable kids. The kids are slowly introduced to one another in the hopes that something will spark that will lead to a happy union, or at least not to unmitigated disaster. Shira sees her first candidate at a at an arranged viewing at a supermarket, of all places. Being young and innocent, her heart flutters, despite the fact that the young dork displays no interest in her and has nowhere near the charm or intelligence that she deserves. Marriage and procreation are the foremost obsession among orthodox Jews (and I venture to say, Jews in general), and just as marriage is celebrated with great joy, its absence is pretty much the worst that could happen. Shira's friends are getting married off, and we see the ambivalent reaction of elation and dread in Shira's face when one of them delivers the good news. For the young bride's older sister it's even worse. She sheds heavy tears of sorrow when she should be happy.
Shira's pregnant older sister dies in childbirth, leaving her husband Yohai (Yiftach Klein) a widower with a baby. A wife must be found for him, even though he is not ready to remarry, and the one candidate lives in Belgium. Shira's mother cannot abide the thought of losing her grandchild, so she gets the idea, which is something that tends to happen in this community, of marrying Shira to him.
Shira is appalled. Yohai is her beloved sisters' husband, which is gross. She doesn't see him as husband material (he's actually good looking, but in his early thirties, considered too old for her). She also wants to have her own experience with someone as fresh as her, not with someone who's been around the block. But at the same time, Shira feels its her responsibility to prevent more sadness in the family, to fill the void left by her sister. She is guileless, but also quite mature. The audience may be surprised to learn that the wishes of the parties are indeed taken into account by the parents, the matchmakers and the rabbis. Nobody wants to force young people to be miserable forever, although their lack of independence and experience may be difficult to surmount later on. As negotiations ebb and flow with Yohai, she doesn't realize that he has begun to see her with loving eyes, and his feelings are hurt by her cold resolve to marry him only in order to help her family. Shira makes mistakes and has several changes of heart. It's her coming of age, not only as a woman, but as a person.
Burshtein said that she wanted the setting of the movie to be Shira's heart and she achieves this by staying very close to her, (with the help of wonderful cinematography by Asaf Sudri). There is a beautiful, funny scene where she plays accordion in the kindergarten where she works, and her troubles make her drift into a haunting melody that definitely kills the mood of the jumping toddlers around her. Burshtein sustains a wonderful tone of warm, gentle humor and melancholy and shows that there are still choices to be made by individuals, that not all is as appalling as it looks from the uncomprehending outside.  Shira's middle aged aunt, for instance, covers her hair like a married woman, though she's a spinster. This is under the sage advice of the rabbi, so that people won't torture her with stares and questions. She has no arms, so why add further humiliation? By the same token, she confides in Shira that she almost got married once, to a guy who had a limp, but she didn't like him. There was a choice for her, as there is for Shira, even though it may seem very limited by our emancipated, secular standards. I despise the orthodox oppression of women and the regressive, neurotic rules they cling to that are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but it's good to know that it's not as bad as it seems. Granted, most of the characters in this movie are quite attractive, this is a wealthy family and the adults seem to be wise and sensible people. Things may be more dire in reality for members of this community that are not as blessed as this family. Still, Fill The Void is a warm, lovely film that brings us closer to a community with which we may feel we have nothing in common.
This is quite an achievement.

Hannah Arendt

At the beginning of Margarethe Von Trotta's new film about the German philosopher (opening at Film Forum May 29), one fears many scenes of intellectuals talking. Actors tend to play intellectuals as grandstanding orators. They pontificate while eating pigs in a blanket at a cocktail party; they know no small talk that doesn't involve Kant. Thankfully, there are only a few such clunky scenes at the outset, and then the movie hits its stride by focusing on Arendt's coverage of the trial of nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Hannah Arendt was an important German Jewish philosopher, who studied with Heidegger (with whom she had an affair as a student), Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl. Before she got into hot water by covering the Eichmann trial, she wrote the very influential books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. She escaped Nazi Germany, was captured and escaped a French detention camp, and emigrated to the US, where she taught at the New School. The movie focuses on her coverage of the trial for The New Yorker, and the fallout after what came to be known as "the controversy".
The movie smartly uses real footage of the trial to show us chilling glimpses of Eichmann himself, feigning stupidity and insisting he was just following orders. This is what made Arendt formulate her now famous thesis about the "banality of evil". According to her, Eichmann was not an extraordinary monster, but a middling bureaucrat who had no real animosity towards Jews and thought he was just doing his job. That is, she bought his crap lock, stock and barrel; but even so, she raised a valid point, which we understand all too well these days. Yet only about 20 years after the Holocaust, with many survivors still smarting, her idea of genocidal bureaucratic mediocrity was not received with open arms. It was not understood at the time what is obvious to us today, that most people who actively participate in mass murder, as Arendt assumed rightly, are not extraordinary, but actually the opposite: ignorant, mediocre, easily swayed idiots. One has just to watch the appalling footage of the most recent barbaric act of Islamic fundamentalists, who hacked to death a soldier in London, to clearly grasp her point. Today, we understand her concept of the banality of evil not only because we have lived it, through 9/11 and all subsequent murderous acts of devotion to warped ideologies, but because we have more historical distance and reams of information about the participation of regular people in the depravity, not only of the Holocaust, but of other modern genocides as well. Alas, this was not the case with Eichmann. He was the architect and executor of the Final Solution, not just a pencil pusher.
The movie depicts how, at the time, many Jews mistook Arendt's description of Eichmann as a petty bureaucrat as sympathetic to him. She was not. However, her reporting of a part of the trials that dealt with the collaboration of Jewish community leaders in the deportation of Jews to their deaths, fared even worse. Even though the testimony came from the trials themselves, Arendt was ostracized and excoriated, and lost some dear friends, for asserting that if these leaders had not dutifully collaborated (perhaps unknowingly at first) with the nazi deportation machine, there would have been more chaos and less Jews would have perished. All hell broke loose. She was accused of being a self-hating Jew and got threats and hate mail. Being a philosopher, the biggest gulf she was unable or uninterested in bridging was the one between the intellectual purity of her reasoning and the emotional, unfathomable humanity of the events. She was not there to give comfort or empathy, but to look evil in the eye. She made no moral judgements, but tried to understand what makes human beings evil. Even if she made a grave mistake in believing Eichmann's "just following orders" routine (the standard excuse of every living coward who has been ever accused of crimes against humanity, a phrase she coined), she did give us a truer understanding of the nature of human evil. She is a giant.
Played by Barbara Sukowa with riveting intensity, Arendt reaches a dramatic apex with a fantastic 8-minute speech she gives at the New School, defending her position. Her major philosophical points are clearly and well interspersed in this and other moments in the film.
I wish there would have been more of Arendt's conflict as a Jew. That German-Jewish duality which allowed her to forgive Heidegger for kissing nazi ass, and that perhaps understood all too well the organizational skills of Germans like Eichmann. She was a proud German, so how did she really feel about the Jewish question? Was she ever able to reconcile her pride in German culture to what these people did to her own?
In the end, for a movie about intellectuals, Hannah Arendt is a surprisingly strong, fascinating experience. It's a good thing too that Janet McTeer is there to lend her remarkable gifts as Mary McCarthy, who was Arendt's steadfast friend. Hannah Arendt may be the first movie that has ever made me want to go read a philosopher. It must be doing something right.

May 21, 2013

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon Levitt wrote, directed and stars in this funny and smart movie that succeeds in doing what many consider impossible: a romantic comedy that guys (and girls) will like.  He is not the first to deliver a romantic comedy from the male point of view, since Judd Apatow paved the way with The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but he addresses the gender wars in a more blunt and raunchy way. You could say that Don Jon is Steve McQueen's Shame with yuks, since both movies deal with different manifestations of male sexual compulsion. Don Jon is specifically about a guy (Gordon Levitt, bravely channelling his inner Jersey Shore), who prefers internet porn to real pussy. The movie is brash and blunt about the depiction of women in internet porn and about this guy who can't stop jerking off to it. He and his friends rate women by their bodies and he scores plenty of women, but somehow does not get the same satisfaction that he does with his computer screen.
Enter Barbara Sugarman, the excellent Scarlett Johansson, letting rip her Jersey Princess inner self.  Johansson's sensual beauty was made for the movies and she is unafraid to be sexy and funny. She is fantastic in this film. Jon thinks he is in love with Barbara. But she, like him, is a control freak, and she pussywhips him in no time. A world champion cockteaser, she has a goal, and that is to make husband material out of Jon. He is a total douche, but there is something vulnerable and appealing, ultimately sweet about him. In a way, he is an innocent. Innocent of real love, of meaningful sex, and so naive that he thinks that the porn he watches is real sex.  The cast includes the great Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as Jon's parents and the droll Brie Larson as his sister in a deadpan tour de force. She has one line in the movie that managed to ellicit cheers from the audience. And Julianne Moore, who is as good at comedy as she is at drama.  The plot has some nice twists, whereby Jon gets an education in sensitivity and the movie is generally delightful, with Gordon Levitt, expertly navigating some touchy subjects with great charm and poise, both as the screenwriter and as the director.
But Don Jon leaves lots to think about. Movies like this and Shame have explored the personal implications of the effects of porn on men. There is self-loathing yes, and an inability to relate to women. But nobody yet seems to be addressing the cultural and societal consequences of the ubiquitous accessibility of porn and the way it is shaping the way men relate to women. Many young men, and perhaps young women, since they can access porn as easily as men, expect real sexual behavior to be modelled on porn, which is obviously a grave mistake. The movie points this out in a light and romantic way. You make objects out of people, you can't really have a relationship with them.

May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

There are so many twists upon twists upon twists, so many fake endings, so many wasted minutes of mayhem in this incoherent movie that at a certain point (say, 15 minutes in) you feel like someone dropped you into the spin cycle of a washing machine. The filmmakers (I imagine armies of them, marshaled by commander J. J. Abrams) took "cut to the chase" to heart, actually starting with a chase. It goes downhill from there. There were a couple of fun action sequences among the 827 action sequences, programmed every second heartbeat, but I forget what they were. Movies in 3D are actually mostly about objects hurling through space and their plots are written with this in mind. How many objects can we hurl at the audience in 2 hours? This movie will wear you down, it may very well destroy you, if you are not a 15 year-old male with acute ADD.
I did not quite understand "the darkness" of the title: I was morally confused. There were vague echoes of 72 virgins, and foreign wars and a speech towards the end that admonishes the Federation that we can't become like the bad guys who want to destroy us, so I have a nagging feeling that there was some sort of Hollywood style liberal lip service bullshit embedded in there, but beats me -- and I challenge anyone to tell me -- what it was.
Between periods of induced somnolence, high-decibel anxiety, and utter incomprehension of the plot, these were the things that stood out:
Captain Kirk is played by pretty boy Chris Pine, who lacks both gravitas and insouciance, and makes you pine for William Shatner. In my view, this is a major mistake in the film. You need a believable captain, not someone who looks like he can commandeer a penny arcade.
I perked up when I heard a magnificent baritone speaking offscreen, thinking that Jeremy Irons had sunk even lower than The Borgias, but it was Benedict Cumberbatch; the one reason to sit through this Guantánamo of a movie. He plays the meanie as if he was doing Shakespeare, to his eternal credit. He is a bad guy that once was good, but turned bad because of a good guy that turned bad, but now he decided to be very bad again by feigning good. Oops! Spoiler! Too bad.
I was rooting for him.  With that voice, I thought myself capable of following his every protocol, no matter how despicable. Want to destroy humanity? Just say it and your wish is my command.
I deeply admire the acting crew of the Enterprise and everyone in the cast, in particular stalwarts like Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller (as stiff as ever). It is a mystery to me how all the actors can utter the lines they are given with such professionalism and seriousness of purpose. I wonder if the shooting schedule allowed for actors to recover from laughing, wincing and rolling their eyes at lines like "I was trying to save your life" and "You don't respect the chair" (actually my favorite line this year, possibly ever). The three multimillion-dollar writers must have consulted the Encyclopedia of Hollywood One Liners, because you've heard most of them before. Once in a while, there is a little joke in there, but not frequently enough.
The volume was cranked up so high, this might be a new "enhanced interrogation" technique devised by Hollywood to force the audience to feel thrilled. The shamelessly over the top music by Michael Giacchino is so beyond epic, that I actually liked it. It telegraphed and punctuated everything as bombastically as possible. I hope the composer had fun putting everything but the kitchen sink in there. Sounds like he had a blast.
The production design and the cinematography were, to my surprise, truly cool. Everything is highly polished and reflective, everything gleams. To this day, nobody has been able to design a spaceship that is not a hand me down of the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but hey: Respect the chair.
I loved the futuristic versions of London and San Francisco (which, inevitably, gets smashed to a pulp).
Why do guys want to destroy cities so much? Just asking.
We should all wear those fabulous jewel-toned v-necks next season. The clothes are fantastic, though I object to the miniskirts: too old fashioned.
During the exhausting ricocheting of plot points, I wondered how many hundreds of people worked on the exquisitely detailed special effects, and how many of them got laid off, their workplace bankrupt, after spending months buffing pixels.
I loved that I could see no product placement anywhere. Loved it.
There is a Russian character (Anton Yelchin), whom they have the gall to call Chekov. He is the only incompetent person aboard the Enterprise. He should not have quit his day job.
Spock has a romantic relationship with Zoe Saldana, who is beautiful. I guess even in space women fall for emotionally distant Vulcans.
At some point, I thought, hey, wasn't Star Trek about exploration? There were always nasty aliens out there, but if I remember correctly, the point was to explore and be nice to the other galaxies, not to shoot and blow them up with weapons that look like glorified dustbusters. In this version, there is a lot of mayhem, a lot of spaceship malfunction (a trope of the series) and in between, attempts to humanize the proceedings by having moments of quiet and rest, mostly involving Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and his homoerotic frissons for Captain Kirk (and why not?).
Sadly, everything that is supposed to thrill or move you is so predictable, so calculated, and so cliched, and so loud, you just want to retire to a monastery when it is all over.
"Where shall we go now?" the question is asked at the end. Away from Hollywood, is all that came to mind.

May 16, 2013

Frances Ha

I have never enjoyed the films of Noah Baumbach. Although they are well written and well directed, I find them mean spirited. From The Squid and The Whale's withering portrait of a couple of monstrous, self-absorbed parents, to the depressive sibling dysfunction of Margot at The Wedding and the bitter nihilism of Greenberg, their sour humor is rarely tempered by compassion. Their main characters are really hard to take, and at times it feels like Baumbach is too unforgiving with them. Not this time around.
In this luminous collaboration with actress, co-writer, and main squeeze Greta Gerwig, Baumbach has finally loosened up and delivered a truly lovely, funny, sad film that's an homage to a lot of many splendored things. It's an homage to the early films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, with echoes of Jules Et Jim and A Band Apart, and reminiscent in spirit of Woody Allen's Manhattan; beautifully shot in black and white by Sam Levy. It uses the gorgeous music of Georges Delerue to great effect (together with an extremely well considered soundtrack). It is a tone poem to the difficulty of making it in New York if you are an artist, a bittersweet love letter to female friendship, and a very enjoyable film. Most remarkably, it is an homage to Gerwig's charm, and somehow through her, to all the female movie stars who light up the movie screen with their ineffable loveliness. There is barely a frame without Gerwig in it, and the camera basks on her beautiful, expressive face at all times.
Gerwig plays Frances, a 27 year-old eternal aspiring dancer. She lives with her best friend from college, Sophie, (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting, and very good) and refuses to grow up. Frances is a world class ditz, but she is sweet and loopy and fun. Life gets in the way, the way life does, particularly in New York. Better apartments are found, jobs are lost, friendships strained, and through it all Francis soldiers on, where someone with less moxie would have taken to shrinks and antidepressants. What she does instead is lie. She lies to her friends and family and to herself, trying to hold on to a way of life that is slipping away from her.
It's a strange occurrence when the middle of a movie is actually the most satisfying part of it. The second act introduces some real pain into Frances' life. Gerwig and Baumbach leave Frances' twee antics behind and delve into the painful crush of reality. Everything seems to go wrong for Frances. She can't pay the rent, her best friend is having a life without her, and Frances refuses to give up her dignity, as well as her messiness, for a shot at financial stability. The movie is arranged by chapters on her diminishing fortunes. She moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, the harsh economics of living in New York laid bare, until she's practically homeless, and a fellow dancer takes her in. Still fun, but now faced with serious problems, we really feel for Frances, even as she makes whimsical, unsound choices. She's not a violent rebel, but a sweet fuck up, and it takes rock bottom to make her come through to the other side, older and wiser. At certain points, I thought Gerwig was on the verge of falling into shtick, but she is such a charmer that she gets away with it. I just hope she doesn't play lovely, loopy women forever. She is an intelligent, vibrant actress and it would be great to see her stretch her range.
There are a couple of plot contrivances that gently strain credulity. Potential love affairs never get off the ground, because Frances is more of a sport than a seducer. She doesn't take herself seriously, so no one else does either. A refrain runs through the movie that Frances is undatable, which I found hard to believe. What man in his right mind wouldn't like to spend a couple of hours in her presence? And in the third act things come together way too neatly. The movie really makes you root for her happy ending, but I wish the ending was not so perfect. A little more of Frances' own messiness, of the bittersweet sting of successful compromise would have been nicer, but these are nitpicks. Frances Ha is Baumbach's best movie to date.

May 6, 2013

What Maisie Knew

An affecting modern adaptation of the novel by Henry James, this is a well directed movie by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, who get good performances from a solid cast, and particularly from the remarkable 6 year-old Onata Aprile, as Maisie. She is natural and unspoiled by too much training, and she is wonderful.
We see everything through Maisie's point of view as her parents, Susannah and Beale (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), divorce and then use her as a pawn for their petty power struggles, trying to each possess custody while being utterly inattentive and insensitive to the child.
In a fit of pique, and in order to gain custody, both parents instantly marry partners much younger and much more decent than them. Then they proceed to foist the little girl on them without compunction as they pursue their selfish business elsewhere. Luckily for Maisie, these two (Joanna Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgård) are kind and sensible souls, but even so, the feeling of a void left by parents who protest their love but do not show it, is tough going. It is increasingly horrifying to see Maisie bouncing from one place to the other, with the parents never around.
That Maisie takes abandonment in such good stride raises the question of verisimilitude, since children don't tend to take to parental neglect well. I expected Maisie to act out at some point, as children under such circumstances do. But this Maisie is poised with an innocence tempered by her own sense of knowing, and a steady will to survive moment by moment which precludes her from the tantrums and outbursts her parents are prone to. She behaves with far more composure than her monstrously egotistical parents, well-to-do people one never understands what brought them together, except the laws of attraction between assholes.
Julianne Moore plays a ferociously unlikable rock star. Manipulative, needy, self-absorbed, she still finds ways to empathize with Susannah by inflecting her with a modicum of self-awareness that she thinks is enough to give her a pass as a mother. An "I know I'm bad, so I'm excused", kind of thing. She has one redeeming scene, in which she finally and for the first time abdicates her own desires for the sake of her child. Steve Coogan plays Beale as the kind of hyper-articulate wit who deflects everything with lame attempts at humor, but who can't commit to any responsibility which is not to himself first. These people have feelings, but they come second to their own gargantuan needs.
The movie is shot from the point of view of a child who hears and sees things she may not completely understand, but who knows, instinctively, what they mean for her. The audience has to fill in the blanks just as she does, except we have more tools at our disposal to understand what kind of parents she has. She's blown around like a leaf in the wind and one keeps hoping she will not be torn to pieces. Maisie turns out to be a resilient little girl, which is about as happy an ending as a story like this can muster.
What Maisie Knew is handled with great tenderness, without much sentimentality. It is quietly devastating.