Oct 27, 2013
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Oct 2, 2013
Fernando Eimbcke's third feature is a wry, sharp, sweetly funny coming of age story with a twist. Héctor (Lucio Giménez Cacho Goded) is a chubby, awkward teenager on vacation with his young mom, Paloma (the spectacular María Reneé Prudencio). They are staying in a deserted hotel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, which seems suspended in time. In fact, time seems suspended in time, since nothing much happens. At the beginning, we are not even sure if they are mother and son or brother and sister, such is their rapport. They apply sunscreen, they lie like lizards by the empty pool, they play rock paper scissors to see who takes a shower first. Paloma has an eyebrow piercing, tattoos and an attitude. Héctor is mutating into adulthood, which means he is a sulking, monosyllabic teenager with secret desires. Their chummy relationship is clearly on the cusp of changing. They bicker over their choice of underwear, and there are times when Paloma can feel his awkwardness shutting her out, as he starts objecting to the status quo.
One day, a family arrives. A chubby teenage girl, an old man in a wheelchair and a nurse who looks like a cross between Nurse Ratched and Chloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein. The girl, Jasmín (Danae Reynaud), sees Héctor by the pool and avoids him at first. But then, as she sees him baking like a lobster under the sun, having clearly disregarded Paloma's sunscreen instructions, Jasmín wakes him up and invites him over to his room to slather Phillips Milk of Magnesia on his back. Love, or something like it, ensues.
By now, Eimbcke has established a sparse, still style. His camera never moves. It observes the characters up close or from afar and stays out of the way to allow us to see how they move, mostly internally. He is so skilled a writer/director that one doesn't miss the moving camera. His framing is never boring. One welcomes the beautiful compositions, the almost theatrical, yet fluid, organic staging. Nothing else calls attention to itself, but the characters and their moods and gestures.
The movie seems suspended in amniotic fluid, but Eimbcke has a mischievous spirit and he shatters the stillness of this family's cocoon with a couple of fantastically disruptive visual gags. And there is nothing superfluous in his writing. A seemingly tangential trip to grab a bag of chips from a vending machine at the beginning of the movie is used for a beautiful turning point towards the end.
Not much action, not much dialogue, and still, tectonic shifts are taking place. Héctor discovers sex, but most importantly, and here's the twist (because how many times have you seen a teenage coming of age story?), it is Paloma's coming of age as well. Hers is the ruder awakening, as she suddenly realizes that the exciting tiny new bristles over Hector's upper lip are the harbingers of his impending independence from her; that from now on, he will divide his love for her with someone else. It's the dawn of a new, scary era and her ambivalent, shocked, confused, and unprepared reaction to it is hilarious and deeply moving.
We learn that "there is no dad" for Hector, which explains his strong bond with Paloma. Jasmin knows every detail of her conception. But Paloma doesn't remember how Hector got made (she slept around). That is, she is as far from the stereotypical long-suffering Mexican mother as anyone has ever been in a Mexican film, a feat for which Eimbcke should be named national hero. Paloma is independent minded, a single mother, fiercely loving but not unduly smothering. She is bracingly unsentimental. She is jealous and suspicious of the angelic-faced yet sinuous Jasmin, and just as she exhibits behaviors unseemly for a mother in their wounded competitiveness, in the end she rises quietly to the ocassion with a simple, unobtrusive, selfless act of enormous grace.
A mesmerizing, if hermetic film by Alain Guiraudie, it comes preceded by its notorious sexually explicit gay sex scenes. It's supposed to be a thriller, but if so, it is more concerned with the mating habits of gay men cruising by a remote lake, than by the typical plot machinations of murder mysteries. I found Stranger By The Lake mostly tedious and repetitive, and I desperately wanted it to cut to the chase promised by the promise of a thriller, but it does have an obsessional quality that is hard to shake off. It's as if the film is like its characters, obsessed with the cruising ritual, dispassionate about meaningful emotional connections.
Guiraudie comes back again and again to the starting point. The first images are lovely and bracing. Franck, a very handsome young man, arrives in his car to look for men to fuck. There are naked men at the beach and naked men coming out of the evergreen woods as if they were creatures grazing in their rightful habitat. The leisurely scenes of nature, of naked men at ease, reminded me of earnest animal life documentaries without the voiceover.
In a few economic strokes Guiraudie introduces a small cast of characters. There's the guy who loudly asks where are the horny women, the paranoid guy who is obsessed with privacy, the nerdy perv who likes to watch. Yet there seems to be no real connection or camaraderie other than getting each other off and exchanging pleasantries. Even in the heat of Summer, and considering that they are there mostly for sex, the place seems oddly muted and cold.
An event stands out. Franck strikes up a conversation with Henri, a chubby loner who likes to sit away from everybody. Through the course of the movie they develop a friendship; the only relationship that has emotional dimension in the movie, and not coincidentally, one where there is no sex involved. But Franck has a crush on Michel, a textbook beefcake reminiscent of Tom Selleck, so hirsutely handsome as to be borderline ugly.
The problem with Guirardeau's dispassionate approach is that despite the scenes of graphic sex, which did not seem to me any different from run of the mill porn, we never really remotely feel Franck's longing. He claims to want this man but we don't see it happening. I thought of In The Mood For Love, a film that is about nothing but longing, and in which nothing happens, yet the feeling of repressed desire is intoxicating, because it is shown in myriad gestures. Here it is the opposite: every desire gets easily fulfilled, but the whole thing is as sexy as a piece of cardboard. Granted, I am not a constituent, but I'd be curious to know if gay men find this movie erotic. I found it anything but.
Because we never experience the frisson of Franck's obsession, and because the object of his affection is emotionally unappealing, I found it hard to relate to what happens next, which is an intellectual illustration of amour fou.
Guirardeau's conceit is that the fear of intimacy, the denial of an emotional bond between these men, the strict emphasis on sexual desire, results in behavior that is far more shocking than the sex itself. Suddenly a young man is gone, his towel and sneakers and car sit abandoned for days, and no one at the beach bothers to ask. Franck is more interested in having Michel all to himself, in spite of knowing that he is extremely bad news.
Guirardeau takes forever to sprinkle plot into his observational perch, but when he does, it comes in a few bold, effective strokes. A detective shows up, asking questions. Franck understands that his life is in jeopardy and still proceeds to engage in reckless and ultimately self-destructive mind games. He too, comes back again and again to a place of great risk, but he can't help it. He is head over heels, perhaps in love with desire itself, in love with danger, and with death itself.
Hirokasu Kore-eda's devastatingly tender film centers on an unthinkable family nightmare. Imagine you get a call one day that informs you that the 6-year old boy you have raised all his life was switched at birth at the hospital. Your son is not your son. Your actual son, as defined by blood lines, is living with a different family.
You think your kid takes after you or his mother, in his personality and his quirks. But Kore-eda shows that the kids are not so much products of genes but of their family lives, and that this harks back generations, just like genes do. If your dad was stern and absent, chances are that you will be too. Is this the fault of genes or behavior, or both? The director does not intend to preach an easy answer. He unspools his tale with such careful, heartbreaking observation that the audience, like the parents in the film, goes through every human emotion in the space of two hours.
The only way I can describe this movie is as an infinite, rippling spiral of love and loss. What do you do? The instinctive reaction is to leave things as they are for the sake of everyone involved, particularly the children, since everyone seems happy. But the idea of blood being thicker than water still holds powerful sway in people's minds, and perhaps more so in a traditional culture like Japan.
To compound the deepening complexity of the matter, one of the boys, the elfin Keita, is the single child of an affluent young couple in a big city, whereas the other one is brother to two feisty tots and the son of a goofy, struggling electrician in a small town. The contrasts in their lives are enormous.
The movie starts with tiny Keita being grilled by two stern adults for his entrance exam to a prestigious school. Keita is obedient to a fault, takes piano lessons, and is calm and polite, and you don't notice he leads a boring, circumscribed life until you meet the other kid, whose days are an endless string of carefree, raucous play.
We are outraged at the immediate assumption by the decision makers (the affluent dad, the hospital functionaries, lawyers - all men) that the kid who was raised poor will benefit from switching back to his blood parents, that he will profit from every opportunity of advancement. And that returning the kids to their rightful owners will somehow make things right. But it is Keita who has more to gain: he is to nestle in a happy, unstructured life of modest means; rich in devotion to his present childhood, not to his future success. Meanwhile, the other boy is to live in a spiffy condo with all the warmth of a hotel room.
Kore-eda does not use a parallel structure. He focuses on Keita's dad, an ambitious workaholic with perhaps antiquated notions of blood and duty, and the product of an unhappy childhood. Through his ordeal, which he encumbers and worsens for everybody, every step of the way, we get a meticulous view of the contrasts of family life in Japan. At times you want to strangle him, but Kore-eda makes him empathetic precisely by showing him as a product of nurture as well. He is trying, as all parents, to be a good dad in the way he knows best, which is what he learned from childhood.
Kore-eda elicits incredibly natural performances from the wonderful children in the movie and spectacular acting from the adults. Masterful writing, direction and command of tone, which weaves warmth, gentle humor, quiet defiance, and unimaginable irony and despair, won this film the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. No surprise: Steven Spielberg was president of the jury. Dreamworks is already working on a remake. I'll be damned if they get it right. Like Father, Like Son is not to be missed. Just bring a crate of tissues.
In memory of my dear Aunt Dora, devoted reader of this blog, who was passionate about movies, and would have loved this one.