Dec 30, 2014

Two Days, One Night


This may be the most accessible film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and also the most contrived, but they still manage to make it an extremely taut, emotionally suspenseful experience. It helps that they have the astounding Marion Cotillard starring as Sandra, a woman who is about to be laid off from her factory job. Her fate hinges on her coworkers vote to keep her on, so she must convince each one of them to vote for her. The twist (and here is where the Dardennes get you to suspend your disbelief) is that either she stays, or they get a bonus. They also give Sandra an enormous hurdle, which is the reason for the precariousness of her situation: she is trying to recover from depression. Her struggle, then, is doubly heroic, as she must overcome both herself and her predicament.
You will be momentarily distracted by thinking that this situation would never fly in the Lawsuit States Of America, and probably even less in Europe, where employment laws make it virtually impossible to fire workers in certain countries, but the Dardennes are such skillful and elegant writers, that it doesn't matter much. What matters is the core of the argument: are you willing to ask people to sacrifice something for you? Is what you are asking fair? Sandra's coworkers need the bonus money as much as she needs to keep her job. She and her husband have kids and a mortgage, they are inching towards the middle class.
The Dardennes show us how difficult it is for most people to claw their way into financial stability. And these are not the poor. These are productive people who are not in the margins of society. The Dardennes are chroniclers of the struggling working class, and all their movies are moral fables about hard ethical choices their characters face in an indifferent, callous system. They make high concept films with incredibly tight premises and turn them into harrowing emotional and moral thrillers. They do this without violence, and without dramatic extravagance in modest but very powerful films. My favorite, L'Enfant, is the story of a dissolute young father who decides to sell his baby, because, why not? Everything else seems to be for sale. It is more horrifying than many scary movies.
Two Days, One Night is, like most of their films, a quietly subversive movie. It may be about a woman struggling to keep her job, and it may include a strong critique of capitalism (as most of their movies do), but it keeps you glued to your seat wanting to find out what will happen to Sandra. It even has a ticking bomb plot; there is a deadline to her efforts and if she fails, her world will collapse. Just like Tom Cruise trying to defuse a bomb in Mission Impossible III, but with an outcome of real consequence. The planet may not be in peril, but we want to know if Sandra will be able to sway her peers, who will surprise her with kindness, indifference, or cowardice. We are used to movies with such manipulative plots, but they are rarely at the service of profound ideas about work, society, and solidarity.
Making it all hit you in the heart like a ton of bricks is Marion Cotillard, a fierce actress who can cry oceans at will without an ounce of self-pity. American glamorous actresses (think Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie) try for everywoman roles once in a while and no matter how many notches they are taken down in the looks department, you never for a minute forget that they are glamorous beings pretending to rough it. While they may give it their all, they do not successfully conjure the illusion that they are truly someone else.
Here, La Cotillard wears the same pair of jeans and a couple of wifebeaters for the two days of the title, and makes you wonder how this shriveled woman also happens to be the face of Dior. She is haggard and walks with a slouch. Yet at her most vulnerable she does not fish for sympathy. She is just natural and real, and willing to go to the depths of despair for us, which is what all great actors do: go boldly to places in the soul no one really ever wants to visit.


Dec 23, 2014

Best and Worst of 2014


I was a bit underwhelmed by movies this year. Somehow, I felt last year had more punch.
Here's my list.

Excellent
Timbuktu
Boyhood
Whiplash
Ida
Force Majeure
The Wonders
Leviathan
Two Days, One Night
Mr. Turner
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Foxcatcher
Selma
Mommy
The Babadook
Under The Skin
Obvious Child
Jodorowsky's Dune
The Unknown Known
Citizenfour
Bad Hair
The Passionate Thief  - A restoration of Mario Monicelli's classic

Very Good
Birdman
A Most Wanted Man
Locke
A Most Violent Year
Calvary
Yves Saint Laurent
Magic in the Moonlight
Venus In Fur

Good
Gone Girl
Big Eyes
The One I Love
The Two Faces Of January
Blue Ruin
Snowpiercer 
Listen Up, Phillip
Young And Beautiful
Frank
Top Five
The Trip To Italy
Eden
Pasolini
The Princess Of France
Clouds Of Sils Maria
Love Is Strange

Could Be Better
The Immigrant
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Inherent Vice
The Blue Room
Rosewater
Enemy
Into The Woods
Art and Craft
The Skeleton Twins
Beyond the Lights

Overrated
Dear White People
Guardians of the Galaxy
Saint Laurent
Nightcrawler
Only Lovers Left Alive

Morally Dubious
American Sniper

Pretentious
Jauja
Goodbye To Language

So Bad It's Good
Exodus: Gods and Kings

Bad
Interstellar
Wild
Time Out of Mind
A Master Builder
I Origins

So Bad It's Terrible
Noah

Despicable
Heaven Knows What 







Dec 22, 2014

Exodus: Gods And Kings


Any movie where John Turturro plays a Pharaoh and Christian Bale plays Moses is worth seeing in my book. But just as it should not have taken the Jews 40 years to cross that desert, it should not have taken Ridley Scott almost three hours to tell the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt.
But three hours it takes, and it befuddles that Scott, who is quite a visual storyteller, chooses to linger on endless chariot chases, multiple aerial views of Memphis (not Tennessee), has Jews sauntering through the desert with what seems nary a care in the world,  and Moses falling in love for forever in screen time with Zipporah (who cares?). But then he doesn't let the story alight on more interesting stuff.
Blink and you will miss the golden calf. But the most egregious omission is that he diminishes the very payoff of the story: the bequeathing of the ten commandments to the Jews. They were slaves for centuries, they are liberated by Moses with the help of some fabulous CGI plagues, courtesy of a very testy God who murders everything in sight, and, in an amazing ironic twist with a Biblical amount of chutzpah, gives them the basic tenets of civilization in writing, which include, in capital letters, Thou Shalt Not Kill. It is with these laws that they will flourish as a free nation. Alas, we are not to see this epic moment in this epic film. Instead, we see a much diminished Moses sitting inside a dumpy cart guarding the ark of the covenant as if it were lost luggage at La Guardia.
Why bury the most redeeming aspect of such a violent story? To me this is far more ridiculous than the decision to have God appear to Moses in the form of a British child. I would have much preferred the thundering voice of say, Benedict Cumberbatch coming from behind that feeble burning bush that looks like someone lit it by accident with a can of Sterno, (perhaps Reese Witherspoon wandering in from Wild - same story), but apparently Scott and his four writers move in mysterious ways.
Having a physical presence for Moses to argue with is not an uninspired choice. It may have seemed more modern to the filmmakers, but it does detract a wee bit from the majesty and mystery of an unseen, but very much felt, God.
Epic movies about anything that happened more than two centuries ago are not to be taken factually or seriously. They tend to be a hoot. Hence, it is my humble opinion that it is a waste of time to disparage the racial casting in this movie. We might also whine about 2000 years of Western art in which Jesus, the Virgin and the Apostles are always all as white as Wonder Bread. I didn't see an actual Jew playing any Jews, but I haven't heard anyone complain about this either. I agree that movies need to be more inclusive and true to reality in casting, but not necessarily when it comes to ancient times. Ancient times call for British thespians and Aaron Paul looking as if he'd rather be dead in Arizona than Joshua in this other desert dump.
Turturro nails his sadly short part with a couple of wonderful scenes with Bale, with whom he seems to have real rapport. Edgerton, who has quite a pair of Egyptian lips, is also quite good and campy as a petulant megalomaniac with daddy issues. He finds something to hold on to in his Ramses, while Bale has a harder time finding Moses as Moses tries to find himself. It's hard to be a Jew. Also, it's hard to play a hero whose transformation into a revolutionary is not very convincing. Is it because he saw the suffering of the people, because Ben Kingsley told him to, or because God finally appeared to him? I love that he argues with God, true to biblical form, but I didn't understand how Moses gained his sense of purpose. So Moses is conflicted. But his conflict seems visited on him by the rulebook of Hollywood Personal Conflicts 101, rather than by a real identity crisis. Being an Egyptian prince your entire life only to find out you are a lowly Jew has got to to mess with your head, but Scott prefers to cut (again and again) to the bigger battles.
We can discuss other strange liberties taken by this movie, such as why the very corrupt and evil character of the Viceroy (an Egyptian played by Ben Mendelsohn, probably the only Jew around), is a raging homosexual of the most insidious variety. Why does he have to be a sibilant gay? Is that in the Bible? More importantly, is anybody other than me complaining about this yet? Why bring in Sigourney Weaver to give her half a second of screen time? After three hours of some truly well crafted spectacle interrupted by unnecessary padding, I realized that the reason why this this epic story was failing is because it has been boiled down to yet another irrelevant yarn about two dudes fighting. GAWD. Guys, you got to get a hold of yourselves. This is getting tiresome. You can feel the movie balloon in preposterousness while it deflates in intelligence as this ridiculous, simplistic thread is pursued. If we're not going to have a payoff of Biblical proportions, why bother?

Wild


If only this movie was wilder. I have not read the book by Cheryl Strayed upon which this film by Jean-Marc Vallée is based, but it felt like reading the Cliff Notes. For a story about a woman who exiles herself into the wilderness to confront her grief, Wild feels detached and tame. It should be a tough existential movie, we should feel the harshness, the loneliness, the life or death risk of this woman, woefully underprepared in every way to go head to head with nature. Instead it's a collection of vignettes of her troubles with her ill-fitting boots, her ill-chosen equipment, and her memories, which is what got her there in the first place.  Instead of being viscerally gripping, it's like leafing through a calendar with photos of a national park.
When movies resort to flashbacks to tell a story my heart tends to sink, because no matter how emotional, dramatic or shocking the memories, for the viewer, if it already happened, it is not as powerful an experience as if it is happening as we see it. Because of the way Wild is structured, (the screenplay is by the otherwise capable Nick Hornby) we only see in flashback what made Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) hit rock bottom, yet we don't get a sense of the extremity of her decision. We know it's crazy, we know it's hard, we can see it's dangerous, but we don't feel it. Vallée doesn't know how to wring any ideas or real feelings out if the story. For a far more harrowing, similar extreme camping mishegoss, Into The Wild, directed by Sean Penn, with Emile Hirsch, is much more powerful.
Why could we not follow Cheryl's normal life up to the events that disrupted it, the bad choices she made and then make her decision to walk 300 miles from the Mexican border to Oregon the turning point of the story? We would be in her very terrible shoes, having seen her lose everything she holds dear in life and make an extreme choice with no turning back. Instead, she walks and remembers, walks some more and remembers some more, and the more this rinse and repeat cycle happens, the more her memories feel devoid of power. They all have the same emotional value, there is no sense of escalation. Everything feels equally dull and by the numbers.
Because of this, I had little patience with the main reason for her spinning out of control, which is the loss of her mom (Laura Dern). I thought, get a grip, girl. You are not the only person who has ever lost her mom, and many who do don't decide to self-destruct with such alarming gusto. Had we seen their relationship through time, instead of by thought bubbles, we might be more moved by it.
Of course, watching a person walk for miles may not be anybody's idea of fun in the movies, but surely there are ways to make such a journey more interesting than her just cursing every step of the way and singing to herself. I have always liked Reese Witherspoon, but I think she is too slight, and not only physically, for this role.
Vallée made Dallas Buyers Club, which is also like a Hallmark Movie of The Week, but it gave Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the opportunity to tear into their roles with emotional ferocity, which won them their Oscars. But here Witherspoon seems to go through the motions. She seems to confuse getting naked for the camera with emotional transparency and bravery, and though she is engaging, she is not believable as a hardcore seeker of trouble.  She is badly miscast, and she and Vallée waste the opportunity to really go to dark places. The character of Cheryl Strayed needs an actress who is rougher around the edges. Racking my brain to find a suitable replacement, I managed to come up was Amy Schumer, for what it's worth.
There was only one scene that even though heavy handed, approached the level of tension that the whole movie should have had. It is an encounter with two redneck hambones out of central casting, and yet there is palpable fear in the air. Unfortunately, Vallée has neither a visual style, any imagination, or any clue about how to tell this woman's story. What should feel like a nightmare, or at least an intense journey of discovery, feels like a travelogue. Wild is anything but wild.

Dec 17, 2014

Mr. Turner


Leave it to Mike Leigh to make a biopic that does not feel like one. Mr. Turner is a meditation on the mystery of talent, on the lack of a commensurate relationship between genius and virtue, on the solitary pursuit of art and creativity. It is not, like the two other biopics of British geniuses currently vying for awards, deliberately contrived to be inspiring. There are no forced moments of discovery or redemption, or triumph over adversity. Leigh knows life is adverse: get over it.
Mr. Turner is the portrait of the artist as a disgruntled, and grunting, man. The excellent Timothy Spall, a wonderful presence in many a Mike Leigh film, plays Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art, a visionary genius. The film devotes itself to the last 25 years of Turner's life, thankfully sparing us Freudian flashbacks into his childhood or the ridiculous compression of an entire life into two or three hours.
This is a much smarter way to make a biopic. But then again, this is Mike Leigh.
Spall's Turner seems to dislike the company of most humans and spends his days quietly and furiously working on his art. This may be the only biopic in which watching an artist paint is not like watching paint dry, and that is because Leigh shows the work of the painter as a process of preparation, experimentation, research, discovery, and as powerful action. It is work, rising before sunrise to capture the light. It is not divine inspiration.
Turner was a great artist, hence he spent most of his time wanting to paint. Sensitive to nature and to light, he was much less sensitive to some of his fellow human beings. He refused to recognize the daughters she had with his first mistress. He was abusive to a mentally challenged maid who adored him. He loved his dad, with whom he grew up, as his mother died (in an insane asylum) when he was a boy.  He didn't suffer critics, even champions of his work like John Ruskin, gladly. Leigh portrays Ruskin as a flamboyant pontificator, and this seems a bit unfair, but it confirmed for me Leigh's deeply felt identification with his subject, a fellow artist.
The movie takes a while to establish Turner's world, and the first half seems to ramble along without much incident.  But Leigh subtly and masterfully paints the portrait of this man and his time, the Victorian era, straight-laced and uncomprehending of mavericks like him.  He shows up at the Royal Academy of Painting, a fusty place, where other very good artists like Constable are painting by the book, whereas Turner has freed himself to push the limits of his art further and further, until some critics, the Queen herself and an obtuse public deride the abstraction of his later works. He could have painted portraits of aristocrats and their hunting dogs and retired to greater wealth and fame, but he chose to keep searching. Turner was ahead of his time. He was interested in the experience of nature, in transmuting it not as faithfully and realistically as his fellow members of the Academy, but impressionistically, from within. He fastens himself to a ship's mast in a storm to find out exactly how that looks and feels like.
As in all of Leigh's films, the supporting cast is a perfect ensemble of character actors, acting like a single organism in harmony with their period, while sharply etching their individual characters. In my mind, any and all awards for best supporting actress should go to Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth, a widow who rents Turner a room in Margate and with her sensible, natural wisdom becomes his companion at the end of his life. Dorothy Atkinson is also spectacular as the poor maid, beset with psoriasis, who loved Turner silently as he took advantage of her adoration.
There are a couple of wonderful moments where art meets science, as when Mary Somerville (the great Leslie Manville) pays Turner a visit, and a moment, elegiac, yet full of wonder, when Turner discovers the daguerrotype, which with one pouf of smoke and a blinding flash captures his image with far less exertion than any painting.
And that brings us to the other major character in the movie, which is light, gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Dick Pope, who wisely does not attempt to imitate Turner, but who gives the film the miraculous, multifaceted light that captured the painter's eye and his imagination.
Most commercial movies try too hard to anticipate our feelings, to get us in their corner, using well worn scenes and lines which heroic actors fight to make heartfelt and convincing. And then one sees a film like Mr. Turner and appreciates the quiet mastery and the exacting excellence of Mike Leigh. There is not one cheap, facile or crowd pleasing bone in his body, and yet his films are deeply emotional, and truly human.

Dec 12, 2014

Inherent Vice


A mess, but P.T. Anderson gets brownie points for trying to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel into a movie. And this is a very ambitious, literary film, with plenty of voiceover narration provided by dulcet toned Joanna Newsom, and the expansive feeling of curling up with a loopy book that never seems to end.
I can understand why Anderson may think that this comic noir shaggy dog story set in 1970 Los Angeles is worth telling now. If anything sums up the spirit of the movie, is the picture above. We think we don't, but we live in a dark place. As the rest of his movies (with the exception of Punch Drunk Love), Inherent Vice takes a look at yet another side of the prismatic underside of American culture.
Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, munching the scenery), some sort of doctor stoner who moonlights as a P.I, gets dragged like Alice in Wonderland into a spiral of bizarre goings on under the placid LA skies, coming in contact with all kinds of quirky characters from all walks of life. There are tiny roles for the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short (who seems to have landed from another circus altogether), Owen Wilson, and the much missed (by me) Eric Roberts, who has two seconds of screen time and kills. We barely get to spend any time with them before Doc is hurled into some other crazy situation. I don't think it is worth trying to unravel the plot. The idea is what is below the surface, what fresh and vast conspiracies really run the show.
Doc reminded me of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, he is that laid back and unhurried, although he may be a little less serene. Phoenix is one of those great hams who can do no wrong. Even when he is reaching he is interesting to watch, and he can be funny. Josh Brolin plays his foil and opposite, Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, (bless Pynchon and his wacky names) a square headed policeman with none of the lazy savoir faire of Doc. He is hilarious. Their scenes together are the best thing in the movie. Unfortunately, Anderson doesn't have the wacky comic touch of the Coens and the humor feels labored.
At two hours and a half, Inherent Vice is hard to sit through. The scenes take forever, the wild goose chases don't seem to gather momentum, let alone go anywhere coherent, and though I completely get that this may be on purpose, to give us the density of time as experienced by a stoner, it drags.
Robert Elswit's washed out cinematography and sometimes deliberately ugly framing captures the era but bores the eye. And I found Jonny Greenwood's score underwhelming, though the pop songs on the soundtrack are great.
I have a nagging feeling that perhaps a second viewing may bring more pleasures, but Inherent Vice is, like The Master, an intellectual exercise that fails to live up to its ambitious promise. The Master is gorgeous, sharper, and more jarring. This one is just exhausting.
However, as a body of work, Anderson's films gain in stature because there is a very coherent thematic preoccupation running through them. He likes to find the cobwebs and the dirt under the American entrepreneurial soul. Hard Eight, his impressive and modest debut, takes place around gamblers, Boogie Nights is about a community of porn stars trying to make it, Magnolia is a dark, enigmatic piece about family, There Will Be Blood, about the drive for profit, The Master is about the American obsession with perfecting (and controlling) the individual and our cottage industry of charlatans, and Inherent Vice is about the rivers of rot that course through our enterprising American veins. Anderson looks at the fringes, and under the polished surfaces of our increasingly frayed collective delusion of democracy, freedom and high standards of living. He is not buying any of it and that makes him a very interesting, if somewhat exasperating artist.


Dec 11, 2014

That's Entertainment!


No read has been more fascinating and scrumptious and has inspired more Talmudic parsing from me this year than the leaked emails from the hacking of Sony Pictures, which you can find here.
Part of the mysterious delight they bring is the frisson of schadenfreude at seeing a culture of grandiose self-delusion and out of control egos nakedly exposed and brought down to size through their own astoundingly naive and arrogant disregard for discretion.
And don't tell me that these communiqués were never meant to be public. You'd have to be either a three year old or a moron, or a Hollywood macher with delusions of untouchability to think that you can express yourself in writing so rankly without there being the possibility of a leak, accidental or malicious. Memo from David O'Selznick, this isn't.
The hack is a terrible thing, which has jeopardized Sony's employees' sensitive personal information among other bad fallout. It is also out of the realm of gonzo fiction, if, as suspected, it is orchestrated by His Craziness Kim Jong Un and his displeasure with a Sony movie starring his country, Seth Rogen and James Franco.
I am not gleeful at Sony's misfortune, yet if the executives at Sony had behaved electronically in a way that befits their standing and their salaries, we would not have been so mightily entertained, but they would have less appalling things to hide.
Consider the Kevin Hart email: A simple business negotiation. The studio wants him to promote his new movie on social media, his agent claims that he needs to be remunerated, as this was not part of the original deal. They could have had a perfectly civilized in-house discussion without resorting to calling the star "a greedy whore". Or they could call him a greedy whore all they wanted, but not in writing.
When email started being a thing, the company I worked for furnished us with a very useful set of rules. Besides the obvious plea to use civilized language, and to remember that we were representing the company and using a tool that did not belong to us, my impressionable mind never forgot the part that said not to assume that our messages could not potentially be seen by all the wrong people, let alone escape the company's or someone else's scrutiny. Just don't assume privacy of any kind. Ever. Even so, people sent embarrassing companywide emails meant for just one person. They thought they could say horrible things and no one would ever find out. As Ari Emanuel has now famously said: "Whatever"*.

This happened to Sony, but do not for a moment think that the rest of Hollywood does not comport itself this way. One only had to skim through Nikki Finke's Hollywood Deadline to be swamped by a barrage of malicious, arrogant, petty vitriol. I can imagine the armies of cyber security experts now building virtual fortresses for the rest of the studios. I can imagine executives daunted by the sheer thought of cleaning up the messages in which they excoriate the people who work for them. I wonder if executives express themselves in such a fashion in any other industry (besides perhaps the fresh hell of immature alpha male-dominated startups). I doubt it. Correction: maybe sometimes in advertising, when people don't get the company memo.

It's the best shit show on Earth.

As for the saga of Scott Rudin vs. Amy Pascal, and the Steve Jobs movie debacle, to me, this is a thing of beauty. A marvel in the annals of epistolary literature.
To this day, I do not understand what exactly created the conflict, but, and correct me if I'm wrong, it seems that Scott Rudin, an independent producer whose unpleasant reputation precedes him, was partnering with Sony to make a movie about Steve Jobs, starring Christian Bale (great), directed by David Fincher (great) and written by Aaron Sorkin (great). A golden trifecta of possible awards, a la The Social Network.
At the same time, Angelina Jolie wanted Fincher to direct her version of Cleopatra**, hence Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, did something to mollify the star at the expense of the Jobs movie, which had found financing and was ready to go. No small feat, considering all the giant egos and their schedules involved.
Thanks to Scott Rudin's extremely articulate, coherent and wonderfully descriptive emails I am now firmly on Team Rudin.  I wish I were on team Amy, but her writing style is very disappointing.
Now, let's be fair. Scott Rudin has little to worry about (he ruffled the massive feathers of the entire Jolie-Pitt clan, and of producer Megan Ellison, whom he labeled as bipolar, and who took it in stride on Twitter, calling herself merely eccentric). So what? He represents only himself.
Amy Pascal, however, is beholden to her bosses, to shareholders and to the company she leads. Perhaps she writes abysmally to protect herself.
Imagine her weighing the options. On the one hand, a prestige, niche project with a bunch of expensive alpha males, which may win awards and maybe make some money; on the other, Cleopatra, an epic extravaganza with Jolie, one of the biggest stars on the planet, which could potentially make gazillions because such monstrosities play well in Guangdong and Karachi, let alone Peoria.  From what we can glean, Pascal didn't handle all those competing projects and their respective egos well.
There are other gems, like an ass-kissing email from a Sony marketing guy and a ridiculous email from an agent begging Leonardo Di Caprio to consider playing Jobs, comparing the script to Citizen Kane, and Aaron Sorkin to Paddy Chayefsky. AS IF.
Leaks of the worst powerpoints on Earth will give you a glimpse about the paralyzing, generic idiocy of marketing. Executives claiming that Michael Fassbender is not yet a star add to the picture of a "creative" industry that only correlates success with money and seems to be out of touch with reality. 
You will learn interesting facts. For instance, that David Fincher asks $45 million dollars to direct a movie. He is very gifted, but isn't this insane? Or that stars like Tom Cruise, whom Sorkin originally wanted to play Jobs, bring their own writers to rewrite projects. Why are they allowed such a thing? (This is a rhetorical question: because they make the money). From these valuable exchanges, one comes to the conclusion that movie stars have become an unmanageable "clusterduck†" of entitlement.
The most damaging leak, in terms of public opinion, is the inane, pathetic conversation between Pascal and Rudin about a list of movies that Barack Obama might like, which turn out to be all for Black people. As a joke, it is painfully unfunny, and if it's for real, what disastrous poverty of imagination, to say the least. Still, even if this is the most scandalous leak, it also happens to be the most personal. It's not about business, and it puts sharply in relief how damaging and unfair it would be if any of us were not aware that the entire world is listening to our outrageous comments uttered in private. Which is why their apologies on this one sound forced and hollow. In particular when Pascal, who started the conversation, then claims that this does not represent who she is. If your private banter does not show who you really are, what does?
Sony needs some urgent spin control. I also don't know how this woman is not on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 
It is unfortunate that this leak is causing real distress to countless people, but this doesn't make it any less fascinating as an inside look at the movie industry.

* I just love that this word is what he chooses for a greeting. 
** Why would she think that David Fincher would want to do such a thing is beyond me. 
† As Amy Pascal dixit. 



Dec 1, 2014

The Theory Of Everything


Well, my theory of everything is that most biopics feel like one continuum of time and space. It's hard to tell them apart, these tales of human ingenuity and survival against all odds. They are decorous, and lovingly crafted, splendidly acted, excellent candidates for awards, but they all feel like they come from the same singularity, if you get my drift.
Biographies, the written kind, seem to have a little more inclination to explore the more complex humanity of their subjects (when they're not puff pieces). But biopics tend to be the filmic equivalent of a puff piece. Apparently, in movies our cultural heroes need to be wholesome and aspirational, and utterly admirable. Because who wants to deal with the fact that someone who overcame the most incredible obstacles also had a shady side to them? We much prefer rousing edification.
So having seen two biopics about British mathematical geniuses back to back, I find it a little hard to tell them apart. Of course Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are very different. One was treated like a pariah and the other one like a rock star, but the texture of the movies is very similar. They are feel good movies about amazing heroes.
The Theory Of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), however, has an edge because Marsh has a more intimate, probing sensibility.  His film concerns the life of young Stephen Hawking, promising genius, as he discovers almost all at once that time may have a beginning, that he has Lou Gehrig's Disease and as he meets his first wife, Jane, upon whose memoirs the movie is based.
Nobody understands how Hawking has been able to survive and thrive through a diagnosis that gave him two years to live over fifty years ago. The movie is not overtly saying that it is because of the love and ministrations of his wife, but it does have her make a compelling case to him not to give up. And then it shows us what that meant.
Eddie Redmayne, one of the most adorable beings that ever walked the Earth, is probably going to win an Oscar for his incredible work as Stephen Hawking (if the inclination for the infirm in the acting category prevails). He is charming and full of vim even when the illness has gnarled his limbs and his speech. He doesn't force the genius. His intentions come through clearly from within, although I was left wanting more of him somehow. Was he ever angry, petulant, ungrateful, afraid?
Felicity Jones is equally amazing as his fierce wife, who decides to stick with him through thick and thin with determination and focus. You see her change from a timid young girl to a woman who is taking charge and whose care of her husband takes a toll. Together, they have chemistry. There should be a joint award for that; it almost never happens.
For those who want a closer look at Hawking's influential contributions to our understanding of the universe I recommend Errol Morris' entertaining documentary A Brief History of Time, starring Hawking himself, in an adaptation of his book, which you could also read. In this movie, we get excited at Hawking's ideas by proxy (If David Thewlis gets excited, so do I), and I don't blame Marsh for not going more into them - this is not an astrophysics class.
The Theory Of Everything is a look at the private life of a handicapped genius, and it is mostly well calibrated, moving, beautifully shot and not overly schmaltzy, although it does succumb several times to ghastly cliches, the worst of which is a scene at the end of an audience applauding Hawking. As if he needs the applause and as if we need it to confirm he is worth cheering for. These kinds of cheesy scenes (I counted several) underestimate the audience and undermine the lovely work Marsh does with the characters and their shifts of feeling: extraordinary people dealing with the extraordinary day in and day out.

Nov 30, 2014

The Imitation Game


Sure, it is a conventional biopic about a most unconventional man: Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who broke the code for the German Enigma machine which helped the allies win World War II, and he basically created the world's first computer, only to be humiliated and driven to suicide by the British government for being a homosexual. The Queen only gave him a posthumous pardon last year. A man who should have been hailed as a national hero but instead had to choose between incarceration or chemical castration because of his sexuality. Tragic.
It is a fascinating story, given a toothless. crowd pleasing treatment by director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore (based on a biography by Andrew Hodges), under the recognizable imprimatur of The Weinstein Company. And yes, some of the one liners are painfully obvious, especially when repeated three times, but it is to the credit of the splendid cast, led by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, that they do their best, which is very good, to make them sound better than they are.
As heartwarming Weinstein Company biopics go, this one, with all its flaws, somehow works. It helps that the cast is uniformly excellent. It helps that my beloved Mark Strong plays the role of an MI-6 agent. He does so much with a shrug or a risen eyebrow; he nails his every line with elegant precision and a sense of humor. He is divine. So is Matthew Goode, as Turing's hostile colleague, so is Keira Knightley, as the sole woman to be hired to try to break the code, and of course so is Cumberbatch, who makes Turing into a rather adorable, socially awkward curmudgeon. Of course, I would have preferred a much darker, cerebral movie. After all, all the British pictures of the Weinstein Company (The King's Speech, My Week With Marilyn, etc) seem to be made by cookie cutter, but let's face it, they are a bit of a guilty pleasure. If you, like me, are an unrepentant anglophile and fan of British thespians who loves nothing better than to hear Mark Strong or Colin Firth or Benny Cumberbatch, or Judi Dench serenade you with their most mellifluous elocution, well then, it is heaven.
Alexandre Desplat, who is perilously close to falling into a vat of schmaltz and never coming back, provides the music, which at times is very effective (although I miss his formerly edgier work, as in Birth or Syriana). The production design makes London at war look like a beautiful, color coordinated diorama, there's plenty of tweed to go around, and the story has Turing solve Enigma by overhearing a girl gossiping at a bar. I have no idea if this was true or not, but it is hokey and extremely entertaining at the same time. Alan Turing deserves a smarter movie, but this one is very enjoyable, as long as you forgive the clichés.

The Babadook


Horror movies are more directly metaphorical than perhaps any other genre. They express through overt symbols or tales the fears, traumas, repressions, and terrible fantasies that lie within us. Those of us who love horror movies, who love sitting in the dark enjoying these little sufferings, know that to abandon yourself to an invented fear is deliciously cathartic.
Embrace what you fear is the unspoken mantra of scary movies and it is smartly and sensitively demonstrated by this lovely, scary Australian film from Jennifer Kent; a powerful illustration of the horrors of repressed grief.
It is anchored by a spectacular performance from Essie Davis as Amelia, a young widow who lives alone with her son Samuel (the angelic Noah Wiseman). Samuel is a bit of a weirdo, a quirky child who always speaks his mind and has a robust imagination. He is scared of monsters and has fashioned ways of protecting himself and his mom from them. 
One night, Amelia finds an odd nighttime story to read him called The Babadook (reminiscent of Edward Gorey on steroids), and she reads it to Samuel in bed.
Soon enough things start going bump in the night. Samuel has been obsessing with monsters all along and Amelia is at the end of her tether with him. Now she starts imagining things too.
Kent keeps the ambiguity alive as things get scarier and weirder. Is there a real presence in the house? Is Samuel a bad seed, or is sweet Amelia losing her mind? The psychology of the characters is very sound. They have been through a terrible ordeal of loss. The child is acting out on some very primal fears and guilt, and so is his mom. Her hubris is to pretend that after what she has been through everything is all right.
Kent is great at creating a sense of dread in the audience but also at highlighting the power of metaphor in almost every scene. The movie unleashes a catalog of commonplace horror tropes. Beds shake and invisible powers drag people by the feet, but there is more convincing poetry (and terror) in the source of the fear that is gripping them both.
Good acting is not usual in horror films, but Essie Davis' gives one of the best performances in the genre. She changes mercurially, from a shy, lonely nurse at a nursing home, to the victim of a violent nervous breakdown. The movie would not be as chilling if her story and her veracity were not as grounded in psychological reality.

Nov 28, 2014

Rosewater


Jon Stewart wrote and directed his first movie, based on the book by Maziar Bahari, "And Then They Came For Me", a memoir of the journalist's imprisonment by the Iranian government on suspicion that he was a spy because he gave an interview to Jason Jones from the Daily Show, and the Iranian security forces didn't get the joke.
Rosewater's heart is in the right place, but it is bogged down by a sense of faithfulness to the book and by not enough creative distance. The movie feels constrained by trying to honor Bahari. Gael García Bernal does a solid job with a character that is not interesting enough. The reason for this may be the emotional proximity of Stewart to Bahari, who is his friend, and the story (he feels responsible for what happened).
I'm not doubting that Bahari is a nice and decent chap, but as a movie hero, he lacks contrast. It is interesting that he, a journalist for Newsweek at the time, is a careful man, a man who is not impulsive, or who likes to seek danger. An A-type personality, he is not. And that is cool.
He is no hero, and rather a passive observer until he gets picked up, and even then he is not cocky or particularly resourceful. This may be true to life, and I respect Stewart's decision not to turn him into a Hollywood cliché, but I kept wishing to see a less angelical part of him. He caves in too easily, which makes him an anomaly as heroic prisoners go, but this is not explored sufficiently.
For a movie about the solitary confinement and psychological torture of a man, Rosewater lacks power. There is an inherent problem in having protagonists who are passive victims, but there are things heroes can do to seem active. There is not much of that here. The problem lies in the structure. The movie starts when they come for Bahari and then establishes his life prior to that moment. In the second half, we move to him in jail. So it feels like there are two long acts. There is no suspense. If the story had been told chronologically, more clearly with a normal before and a very disrupted after, we may have dreaded from the beginning what was going to happen to him. But the structure drains it of tension. I also missed a sense of curiosity or observation of the culture, a texture of the life in Tehran. Rosewater is painted in broad strokes, particularly in the first half.
Stewart is good with the actors, but he can't muster a sense of tension. Also unhelpful are the TV-like graphics that are used to enhance some of the scenes. They are hokey. Surely there are more cinematic ways of illustrating a social media revolution. And the movie, as restrained as it is in depicting Bahari's imprisonment, is unabashedly sentimental.
Stewart manages some good scenes in jail, thanks to the committed work of Bernal and his nemesis, the Specialist, the excellent Kim Bodnia, as well as to better writing. He seems to feel more at home writing the exchanges between prisoner and captor, than crafting the flow of the story. The fact that Stewart inflects some of his humor into the movie helps a lot. You can almost hear his voice when the gags come along, and they are all welcome, not only for comic relief but because they illustrate the absurd, Kafkaesque bent of repressive heavies with no imaginations, whom I found a bit too unsophisticated. Rosewater feels like an early draft. It is curiously soft, a bit lethargic.
It lacks the killer instinct that makes Stewart comedy so sharp.

Nov 25, 2014

Citizenfour


This is more than a documentary. It is history as it happens. Not a reenactment, but the "you are there" witnessing of the heroic whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, NSA contractor and teller of "national security" secrets. You heard right: heroic.
Director Laura Poitras, who has been harassed by the government every time she arrives on American soil for documenting our misadventures in the world, gets contacted by a mysterious source that claims that the NSA is spying on everybody. And by everybody, he means everybody.
Thanks to Snowden, we are now aware of the unconstitutional overreach of the Obama administration with the complicity of Congress and American telecommunication corporations, in the name of national security.
The NSA got access to the communication records (phone numbers, email addresses, credit card info, and the content thereof) of millions of Americans, from your friendly internet and phone providers like Verizon, AT&T, Google, Yahoo, etc.
Thanks to them, the NSA now knows that my dog had diarrhea this week, and that I search Google on how to successfully boil eggs, among other things. I feel like inundating Google with the most inane searches, just as an act of civil disobedience. We should crash their system with billions of gifs of Grumpy Cat. Who's with me?
When Glenn Greenwald, who was also contacted by Snowden and William Binney, another NSA whistleblower, testify in Brazil and Germany on how the US is not only spying on its own citizens within US borders (supposedly legally), but everywhere, including on Angela Merkel, completely illegally, you can see some guys blanching at the thought that Uncle Sam knows where they hide their porn stash.  This gives you an idea of the fear that such unimpeded, arbitrary surveillance may instill in the hearts of men and women.
It's very serious. The implications of such widespread metadata spying are chilling, if not utterly terrifying. Guilt by association, intimidation... Even if the government spins the story by assuring people that they don't look at the content of your daily messages, the idea that they are looking at the comings and goings of millions of regular citizens is appalling.
Why spy on all citizens?
The easy answer is BECAUSE THEY CAN. Because we have a ridiculous, unconstitutional law called the Patriot Act which gives them the unchecked power to do it. If allowed, people on positions of power are wont to abuse it (just look at Bill Cosby: eew). Given a blank check, they will take it to the farthest reaches possible. This is what the Fourth Amendment is for.
How is spying on everyone practical or useful or competent, I have no idea. I was always reassured by the thought that God himself could not possibly be prying on the peccadilloes of each and every one of us, and hence I felt that, whatever I did to anger him, he was statistically likely to miss it. With the NSA and their sophisticated tracking, not so much.
At some point in the movie, Poitras shows Obama's spokesman blithely saying that Americans don't mind this kind of thing because it reassures them in the war against terror. He should speak for himself, the cynical bastard. This fallacy that we can allow the government to trample our rights on the pretext of our own security is extremely scary. As Snowden and Greenwald point out, it is not a democracy and there is no freedom if you are being watched. The real terror of the war against terror is that now everyone, including law abiding citizens, is fair game. How does this blanket surveillance make us any different from wannabe totalitarian regimes like China, Russia, or Iran? It makes us worse, because of the blatant lying, the hypocrisy, the abuse of words like freedom and democracy in a country where these concepts have been completely eroded, trampled on, and mocked every day by the Obama Administration and the bunch of leeches who sit in Congress. It is repulsive.
Now, why would anyone want to be a whistleblower? It means introducing yourself voluntarily to a world of pain. Snowden is a smart, extremely articulate young man. If he has an oversized ego (like, say, Julian Assange), he doesn't look it. He really thinks people should know what is happening with their right to privacy. His conscience cannot allow him to rationalize the illegality and the abuse. He must speak out, at an enormous cost to his safety and freedom.
Smartly, he planned to give Poitras and Greenwald the documents first so that the government would not make it about him and his treachery. Once The Guardian (where Greenwald wrote) disclosed the information (and boy, did Snowden have access), then they decided to reveal it was him. He insisted on being identified. That is pretty courageous. I remember that the media tried to paint him as a spy, a traitor and an enemy. They want to try him under the Espionage Act of 1917, which does not make a distinction between a spy and a whistleblower, and which not unlike the Patriot Act, seeks to curtail our rights and freedoms under pretext of war.
Before watching the movie, which is very matter of fact, and not artificially dramatized - the revelations are heart stopping enough - I had the temerity to judge Snowden for accepting asylum in Russia, a place where they have been enthusiastically spying on everybody for centuries. But he does not have much of a choice. What government is going to want to piss off the US and its NSA by helping him? Snowden spent 40 days at the Moscow airport waiting for clearance from Putin. That alone should be punishment enough.
Snowden is courageous and what he did was important. I am not clear on what the consequences, if any, have been. He certainly unleashed a very necessary shit storm, but are they spying any less?
I hope he prevails. May he be safe and vindicated.
Meanwhile, the United States shows once more the kind of dishonest bully it is. I can't take the posturing anymore. Let's just accept that we actually live in a dictatorship of vested interests and enough with the charade.

Nov 22, 2014

Bad Hair


An impressive, tough film by Mariana Rondón, Bad Hair tells the story of Junior, a little gay boy who is obsessed with straightening his beautiful black curls. Rondón does not go into the complicated cultural/racial implications of Junior's dissatisfaction with his curls. She lets the story shed light into these nuances with no editorializing. Of the few Venezuelan films I've seen, this is the only one that is world class, and it is certainly the best. It is well written, well directed, well edited and it has an impressive sound design. The writer/director, the cinematographer, editor and sound designer all happen to be women, which is rare anywhere in cinema. Well done.
A sort of Dardenne brothers' film set in Caracas, Bad Hair is a small, terse movie that manages to tell a rich story without melodrama, exposition or sentimentality, and with a solid sense of craft.
Rondón touches upon many issues of Venezuelan reality just by letting us witness the daily life of Junior and Marta, his beleaguered mother: we learn about the violence that claimed his dad, we see in detail, the poverty from which Marta is trying hard to extricate herself, and we are dropped into a world punished with the sexual mores of unrestrained machismo, like rampant homophobia and an extreme preoccupation with the female body and beauty contests. No other country is more obsessed with, or, I believe, has had more Miss Universe winners than Venezuela.
Marta is a widow, left alone with Junior and a baby (and a fantastic mother in law, who is as mischievous as Marta is dour). But the twist is that Marta, unlike many long-suffering mothers in Latino culture, is a tough, hardened piece of work. The twist is that she rejects her child because he is gay (usually the dad is the uncomprehending dolt, but he is absent here). This is quite daring. Marta makes terrible sacrifices out of a sharp sense of reality, not because she is a saint.
She lost her job as a security guard and is trying to get it back. She and the kids live in a project-like high rise, and she struggles to make ends meet. Just the day to day hassle of scrambling to pay the neighbor to take care of the baby, of not having money to pay for Junior's school photo, of looking for a job and being treated with contempt is a sustained look into a difficult life.
The film shows a reality that Chavismo has not been able to improve for most Venezuelans. Kids play violent games, using foul language alarmingly unsuited to their age, as they listen without flinching to nearby gunfire in the middle of the day. Marta asks for a job and is told she will get minimum wage and no benefits. For all the grandstanding of the Chavista regime, her life, and that of the equally run down neighbors, doesn't seem to get much better. Rondón is smart, however, about not getting into ideological territory: she shows things as they are and lets the viewers reach their own conclusions.
Marta thinks something is wrong with Junior and takes him to the doctor at a public clinic (this is one of the improvements on the lives of the poor by the regime). But she doesn't even know how to talk to the doctor about Junior's sexuality. And the overtaxed, well meaning doctor is no better. His advice to her is to get a man in the home so he can be a role model for the boy. He also tells her to stop bringing her healthy children to the overburdened clinic. In just one scene, we get a lot of information about the reality of the culture and the country. The film is full of such telling moments.
It's one tough film that which shows a mother repulsed by her own child. And Marta is a deeply flawed mother. She is hostile to Junior, and because she is uneducated and prejudiced, is way out of her element trying to bring him up. But within her harshness, she tries her best.  I expected a little more tenderness from the film, a respite from the harshness, but Rondón's sticks to her guns. Life is tough and in such a culture, poor Junior has his work cut out for him. The more clear eyed he is about how hard life is if you are different, the more chances he will have to survive.
This movie would be almost unbearable if it wasn't for a vein of very dry humor and the sharp, sympathetic observation of some funny and bizarre goings on, such as the weight loss meditation seances at a neighbor's house or the endearing, brittle friendship between Junior and his best friend, a charismatic, chubby little girl who dreams of being a beauty queen. I wish that Rondón was a little kinder with Junior, that Marta could reach a softer place in her stony heart, that people in this film would temper their obtuseness, but I respect Rondón's uncompromising vision of reality and I look forward to more good movies from her.

Nov 18, 2014

Nightcrawler


A business manual masquerading as a horror thriller. I was not fully convinced by this heavy handed movie written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal, creepily funny, stars as Lou Bloom, a petty Los Angeles thief that happens upon an accident on the freeway late at night and finds his calling. There are professional outfits who sell footage of human misfortune to local TV stations for their newscasts and Lou is nothing if not an entrepreneurial young man. Apparently, he's been memorizing how to succeed in business screeds and now he wants to start his own crime video company. The connection between the entrepreneurial spirit and sociopathy has been amply documented. Some of the most ambitious captains of industry tend to be sociopaths. This may explain their indifference to human suffering as they create subprime mortgages, or decimate San Francisco with startups. This is the most fun idea in Nightcrawler.
Leo is one driven fireball of ambition, but as a bona fide sociopath he really does not work well with others. He is a loner who irons his shirts and he talks a good game but has a hard time fooling people. He's just too enthusiastic. He repeats business mantras like a parrot, with a creepy manufactured tenacity that belies his utter indifference and alienation from his fellow humans. Gyllenhaal gives it his all. His Lou is feverishly convinced of his own enterprise, and he is very funny at the exhausting sincerity of the guy. He's always smiling, as if he realizes that this is a necessary condition for communicating with others, but doesn't really know what smiles are for.
The problem is that Gilroy does not allow for nuance. There is never a hint of self-doubt, or self-hatred or introspection in Lou. His best moments are tiny shifts when we get a glimpse into Lou's reservoir of nastiness. He is calculating and manipulative, and increasingly ruthless, but in one good scene with his rival (an oily Bill Paxton), he shows how hard he works to control the violent anger boiling under the surface. In contrast to photographers like Weegee or Enrique Metinides, who covered the crime blotter for newspapers, Leo has a good eye, but he is not an artist. He is a vulture who gets a thrill at prying on people's distress and even more at his own manipulation of the imagery. It never crosses his mind to help.
The more savage and morbid his footage, the more money the boss at the local TV station (Rene Russo) throws at him. Russo is great, but she is also saddled with an unconvincing part. I can believe she doesn't want to lose her job and I can believe she has little moral compass, but I cannot believe she is such an easy prey to Lou, who radiates "creep".  You may say it takes one to know one, but I didn't buy the intimation that he may have succeeded in bringing her to her knees. And this is one of the problems of the movie, that Lou has no real antagonist. Anybody with the slightest qualm is timidly peripheral, or opposes little resistance. Lou hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless and hapless young man, as a copilot. Rick is Lou's opposite, he has zero ambition, and a conscience, but apparently nobody can put a dent on Lou's dreams of success. Any kind of dent would have been interesting to watch, because Lou's shtick becomes repetitive.
Nightcrawler works better as an extremely dark satire about a psycho entrepreneur who successfully grows his business, than as a nail biting thriller. There are funny stabs at the inanity of live news coverage, with actual anchors sending themselves up as clueless interpreters of what they are watching.  An inside joke to Angelenos is the justified rage Lou unleashes when Rick makes him take the wrong freeway, complete with a rant about exactly what order of freeway to take, reminiscent of the SNL skit "The Californians".
Gilroy has a couple of good moments of tension, but this is not a movie that takes you to the edge of your seat. Nor does he dwell on atmosphere in late night L.A. I would have liked to see who else creeps out of the woodwork in this town, but Gilroy keeps it generic, and is more interested in well choreographed high speed chases than in the heart of darkness. As Leo is patently singleminded, you know where everything is going, and unnecessary lines like "perhaps it's not that I don't understand people, it's that I don't like them", don't help. The moment when Lou slides from petty crime to something more revolting is chilling and well handled, but the movie seems to stack the deck too much on making a point about the unopposed drive of ruthless ambition. Without true opposition, internal or external, Lou Bloom's story is not that interesting.

Nov 17, 2014

Force Majeure


This smart, disturbing film by writer director Ruben Ostlund, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes and Sweden's official entry to the Academy Awards, takes place at an antiseptic ski resort in the French Alps, where a young family is on vacation. Tomas is attached to his job and his cell phone, Ebba may have insisted on spending quality time with her husband and the kids, and the two children are slightly spoiled.
It's hard to talk about this film without going into major plot spoilers, as the story hinges on a powerful twist. Suffice it to say, everything is going relatively hunky dory until an act of nature upsets the balance of this seemingly solid family. Nobody dies; worse: they have to live with each other from then on. This is not The Impossible, where people are heroes. It's not a natural disaster movie, it's a human disaster movie.
Ostlund is interested in the tectonic shifts that lie under the surface of a relationship. His characters don't act like we expect them to. Ebba turns out to be a bit of a passive aggressive and Tomas, well, he is a calamity. And the way nature mirrors the family's implosion is a brilliant metaphor: a natural disaster almost can't hold a candle to man made emotional disasters. The destructive forces that lie under the seemingly placid snow echo the painful epiphanies that surface from deep within the hearts we think we know.
Force Majeure is an emotional horror movie. These people being Swedish, they try to keep it all under a guise of supposed equality and civilization that frays the more they try to keep it under control.  What's more, Ostlund creates a powerful sense of dread without tipping his hand or using anything but the sights and sounds, and particularly the eerie silences, of the mountain.
In this ski resort, man made explosions make sure that the mountain is well stocked with fluffy powder. Ostlund shows images and sounds of detonations and huge caterpillar-like vehicles tending the snow at night for tomorrow's skiers. He shows the smallness of the skiers against the majesty of the Alps, the humans apparently oblivious to the risks they take in that imposing playground.
At one point, Ebba decides she wants to ski alone. After what's happened, one questions her motives, if not her sanity. Instead of duking it out or screaming at her husband, there is something more complicated going on: unpredictable human behavior. So there she sits in the fragile little gondola, against a wall of white, with empty chairs clanking creepily as she ascends. There are almost never other people, let alone first aid personnel. This is a place where risks are taken, including hurling children on skis down mountains. People do it all the time, but after this movie you may not look benignly at a ski resort ever again.
It has little to do with the snow (although skiing seems like a hell of a lot of trouble), and more with the following question, when faced with a similar situation, what would you do? Would you do as Tomas did? Would you understand, be judgmental, forgive, punish?  He does something appalling, and then keeps digging himself into a hole of denial. It is almost terrifying to watch him dissemble into childish self-pity. But it is also darkly funny. The couple is met by another couple who serve as a sort of Greek chorus. Tomas's best friend, divorced and now shacking up with a much younger woman, tries to rationalize and justify Tomas's action, in solidarity with his male buddy. There is a hilarious scene where this couple suffers emotional fallout just for having listened to Tomas and Ebba's story. It is funny and dispiriting at the same time. Ostlund is not sanguine about love and marriage. It takes a lot out of people. It's even harder than skiing.
The end brings another twist, in which Ostlund turns the tables on Ebba and on us. It's a bit of a headscratcher that leaves you grasping for motivation, but you can be sure that nobody emerges unscathed. Force Majeure is a strikingly original film that will make you think about strength and cowardice, men and women, impulse and reason, judgment and forgiveness, human nature.

Oct 27, 2014

Dear White People


Director Justin Simien's awkward satire promises far more than it delivers, although it does pack a punch of provocative racial invective. Some of it is funny, but in general the script could have benefited from extensive polishing. I admire the gumption behind the idea of making a comedy that exposes racist attitudes in American colleges, based on actual offensive parties that have sprung in several campuses recently, but the execution is underbaked. Just because characters sling shocking racial accusations at each other, it doesn't mean that the artistic merit is as high as their shock value.
Simien has a bizarre sense of comic timing (barely any at all) that smothers any hint of comedic buoyancy. He is tonally awkward. Most scenes are underwritten and go nowhere. Characters take forever to deliver their punchlines. The actors, although capable, are not inherently comedic performers. Simien's stylistic choices are also wrong for the material: polished cinematography which looks like a decently lit TV show, with no expressive edge.
The tone hovers between dry satire and almost melodrama. The characters are thinly sketched, and for the most part, badly cast. The heroine, a lovely girl called Sam (Tessa Thompson), has a college radio show in which she berates white people for being white, as in: "Dear white people: stop dancing". But as written and acted, Sam has not a funny bone in her body. She is self-righteous, which in the hands of inspired comedians can be hilarious (think of Will Ferrell's persona, always so sure he is right, when in fact he's totally clueless). Sam is just self-righteous, and she is pissed off, and though there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, for it to be funny, it should be tempered with something absurd to undercut it, or at the very least with comic verve (Spike Lee was self-righteous and angry, but he could be funny. Also, Richard Pryor).
I don't think it is the actors' fault, but rather the result of immature script and directorial choices which strand the actors in stereotypes. Sam is of mixed race but this is not really contrast, because it is the result of circumstance, not of personality. Most black characters are stereotypes with a circumstantial conflict: the son of the college's black dean is a white wannabe (an oreo, is it?), who is ambitious and handsome, but he smokes pot in hiding. The educated black girl who refuses to be ghetto, but will outghetto herself in order to give the people what they want. A black gay nerd, played by Tyler James Williams, is the only character who is interesting to watch, even if he seems to have flown in from a different movie.
The white characters are all one dimensional stereotypes. There is no attempt to render them any differently. Perhaps this is on purpose. Imagine how black people feel at looking at themselves in the media through a limited amount of types from central casting. White people who complain that this movie is racist against them are missing the point. For one, the black characters viciously stereotype each other, just to add salt to the wound of ingrained bad cultural habits. Two, I never understand when whites whine about black racism. How could black Americans not be racist?
Simien completely avoids the representations of blacks we are used to seeing in pop culture. Quite deliberately, he avoids sassy fat mamas, twerking hoes, hooded drug dealers, the motley crew of black "characters" that permeate our media. In fact, this is the most radical thing about this movie: it forces us to see these educated, ambitious middle class black kids as the norm, not as aliens from a fictional planet, or as politically correct wishful thinking. It also points out how even within black culture certain characters are off limits, like the gay black nerd. This is shocking: to realize the dearth of fully composed black characters in our culture, to realize that we are still being fed a bunch of stereotypes, perhaps softened from the days of blackface, but which still do not represent the diversity of blacks in America, often with the collusion of black people themselves. Simien introduces two different mixed race couples. We rarely see people like them on TV or film, laying waste to the idea that this is not normal simply by cuddling, even when they relate to each other in terms of race. They have more of an impact than all the verbal race baiting.


Oct 20, 2014

Gone Girl


This twisted tale about a marriage on the rocks, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, is given the neat, brisk polish of a David Fincher production. The plot is rather outlandish, but what is interesting is the context. Nick and Amy Dunne seem to be the perfect couple. Yet anything can conspire to bring hardship into a marriage. In their case, the loss of a job, a parent's illness, money problems, moving from New York City to a generic town in Missouri, arguing about whether to have kids, the usual stuff that stifles romance in the privacy of home. Things turn sour.
Amy is the daughter of two creepily successful parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) who turned her young life into a series of children's books a la Madeline. Amy (Rosamund Pike) claims that all the ideal things that happen to her in the books were imaginary improvements upon her real life. The movie is too a story about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we make up for others, and the stories that others make up about us.
Nick comes home one day to find Amy gone, apparently under the threat of violence. He cooperates with the local police, who do not arrest him, probably because he's white and lives in a big house. As played by Ben Affleck, Nick is sympathetic, but flat. He doesn't pander to the media circus that wants him to play the grieving husband, and some of his habits should be cause for concern, such as having whisky for breakfast.
I don't know if Nick is supposed to be a cipher, but the movie and the character would be richer if we could see more of the wheels turning in his head. As the story evolves, a lot is revealed about him but Affleck's performance is not layered, and Nick seems a hollow man. Pike is very good as ice queen Amy, but I wish there were more ambiguity to her, that we could sympathize more.
The plot has many fun twists, but I found the idea of a man suddenly hunted by the media more interesting than the pulpy story. Nick seems to be oblivious to the demands that the omnipresent media places on any citizen who gets thrown into the spotlight. Not so his parents in law, whose media savvy borders on the sinister. They know just what kind of show to put on. Histrionic newswomen (Missy Pyle and Sela Ward, both pitch perfect) crucify Nick over the disappearance of his wife without regard for evidence, crafting the clichéd story they think the public wants to hear: a simplified tale of a victim and a villain, which they use drum up ratings and egg on the whims of public opinion.
Eager townspeople relish their part in the morality play, doing mediagenic searches and vigils: the American penchant for putting on a spectacle of empathy every time somebody (usually white) falls down a well. I really liked this about Gone Girl. It has a brittle view of the American media circus and the public as a willing accomplice to its excesses.
Who is to be believed? First we hear Nick's side of the story. Then we hear Amy's. It's more than a he said/she said thing. Gone Girl is a dark metaphor for the pitfalls of marriage taken to extremes. How do we act as a couple, in public, in private and with one another?  Do we really know our better halves? What are the acts we put on to keep the marriage going? Is it all a performance, a sham?
Neither Nick nor Amy are as wholesome as they would like to seem, but our perception of them changes as the point of view shifts. Our sympathies tend to lie with the person telling the story. They may switch as we hear the other side, only to find out that the versions contradict each other. Now we don't know who to believe. Rashomon meets Fatal Attraction.
Flynn and Fincher handle the shifts in perspective with economy and precision. Fincher tamps down his customary glossy style, as if he's trying for an Anywhere, U.S.A kind of vibe. But the film has a strain of wry, dark humor that separates it from a made for TV movie. It has some bitter ironies, from their pious and unapologetic participation of the public in the demonization of Nick and the canonization of Amy, to the grotesque karmic stuff that befalls her, which is very funny, if it weren't so violent,  and all the perverse turns which I won't spoil here. Except for a visit to a crystal meth den that seems too photogenic to be real, Fincher keeps an elegant grip on the story. I wish the main characters were less dispassionate, more messy, more made of flesh and bone.


Oct 17, 2014

Listen Up Philip


A brazen dark comedy that does everything they tell you not to do in screenwriting school, Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, is the story of Philip Lewis Friedman, an ambitious young writer, (Jason Schwartzman, in his best movie role yet), who is an unrepentant asshole. He is solely concerned with himself, he is cruel to his friends, horrible to his lovers, and refuses to do publicity for his book, which is like being Satan in the publishing industry. Movie heroes are supposed to be likable, or as they say, relatable. Philip is not only flawed; he is a horror. Schwartzman finds the right amount of deadpan, contemptuous self-regard, and somehow makes him funny.
Like in a book, the movie is narrated with big, polysyllabic words by an omniscient narrator with a soothing, sexy voice that belongs to the wonderful Eric Bogosian. This is a literary movie about the petty, insular literary world, breaking unspoken rule number two: "thou shalt not make movies about writers".
Philip is anxious about the publication and success of his book, about writing a new one and about the indignities of people's demands on him. All they ask from him is respect, attention and some modicum of humility, none of which he is capable of summoning. He's the kind of guy who reads about someone else's tragedy and takes it as something that deflects attention from him. His ego is inconsolable.
He is a ladies' man (girls do fall for forbidding, enigmatic literary types), but he lives with his lovely, inexplicable girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, fantastic, as always), a successful photographer. She endures his monstrous selfishness with decreasing good humor. She is as full of feeling as he is full of himself, and thus plays not only his girlfriend but his foil. She ventures out into the world, while he remains trapped in his own calculated aloofness.
As he only cares about his own fate, Philip endears himself to Ike Zimmerman, an older, very successful writer, played as the living portrait of needy egocentrism masquerading as wisdom by the great Jonathan Pryce. The cleverest thing in the movie is a montage of the book covers of Ike's successful novels. They are spoofs of Philip Roth novels, seventies' book jacket design and chunky typeface included.
That Philip is virtually this man's younger version is apparent to everyone but Philip. There is something poignant about having the future version of you in front of you, so you can take notes on who and who not to become, but Philip doesn't seem to learn much from his mentor. It's not clear whether Philip sees himself as a future Ike, whether he wants or not to be like him, or learns from how sad it is to grow old with success, yet not ever shaking off an almost crippling insecurity, which translates as arrogance, contempt and mistrust for everyone.
Philip strikes a friendship with Ike, which means he must endure Ike's mastery at undermining. Pryce also manages not to make his character totally odious. He has a daughter, the wonderful Krysten Ritter, whom he treats badly. There could be a semblance of a hate-love flirtation between her and Philip but Ross Perry does not pursue that.
I wish the camera work was not as shaky (cinematographer du jour Sean Price Williams, jerking it all over the place), the sound was better, and the jazz sax score less intrusive. But it's the actors who do justice to the bitter tone of the film.
During the second act, Philip virtually disappears from the screen and we follow Ashley's life without him. It's hard to understand what she saw in him, but Moss is alive with possibility. In the end, Philip remains unredeemable, which breaks the next rule of screenwriting. The flawed hero must change, or find redemption, or learn something. It doesn't happen. So how come this movie is not depressing and hateful? Ashley's determined moxie makes up for it. She's a hero for putting up with Philip, and even more for sticking to her guns and her dignity.
This is a comedy, so there is a happy ending of sorts; a bittersweet, rather abrupt ending. This contrarian, off-kilter film is a good companion piece to Birdman, which also deals with creative egotists, with more budget and much less bile.

Oct 15, 2014

Birdman


Well, Alejandro González Iñárritu should certainly do comedy more often. This is the best film he has made since Amores Perros. He has always been gifted at the cinema of extreme emotion, and this material allows him to indulge in his trademark intensity without falling into sentimentality or melodrama. He has made a movie with a sense of humor. At last.
Now I can see why it is hard for the previews to convey the tone and the experience of this movie.  Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is a really ambitious film about art versus commerce, love versus adulation, fame versus talent, ego and creative risk taking.
Riggan Thompson (the much missed and wonderful Michael Keaton), is a has-been movie star who found celebrity playing Birdman in a Hollywood comic book franchise. To expiate his mercenary sins, he is now orchestrating a comeback, starring in, directing and producing a serious play on Broadway. He has all the fame in the world but he wants his prestige back.
Riggan is putting everything on the line to make this show work, even if no one, including himself, thinks he can pull it off. It is seen as the vanity project of a washed up star and it doesn't help that a voice in his head, that of Birdman himself, is constantly questioning his artistic pretensions. We are inside the head of this man as he navigates the treacherous waters of celebrity and creative ambition.
Iñárritu films this as one continuous shot with the help of the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, aided by digital stitching. Usually, this kind of daredevil style distracts from the story, and ends up giving the audience headaches, but Lubezki and Iñárritu make it work. It is a visual tour de force. The camera closely follows the characters in endless motion through the narrow backstage confines of the St. James theater. This mimics the experience of being in Riggan's shoes, dealing all at once with his fear of the unknown, the vertiginous demands of everyone around him, from his lawyer and partner (Zach Galifianakis), to his estranged daughter (an excellent Emma Stone), to the actresses in the play (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), to his unhinged costar (Edward Norton). In all the razzmatazz, Lubezki finds moments of repose, his camera always at the service of the actors. The lighting is precise, eclectic and beautiful. It is seamless, expressive work, which should be honored with a seventh Academy Award nomination.
Iñárritu's films have always had great energy and visual verve, but this one is actually fun. He elicits compelling, if over the top, performances from all his actors, but my favorite is Edward Norton, happily chewing the scenery as Mike Shiner, a crazy actor with lots of talent but not so much fame. Norton is so electric and fun as an enthusiastic thespian douchebag with a smidgen of vulnerability, he should be in every movie. Why is he not in every movie?
Antonio Sanchez's drum score gives the film an extra jolt of energy, which is a bit much. The drums work really well when no one is speaking, but they irritate when the characters strain to be heard above them. Luckily, Iñárritu, who is not known for his restraint, tempers this sonic assault with a soundtrack of beautifully chosen classical music for the more lyrical moments, which are very welcome.
Birdman is very meta, what with the Raymond Carver references, actors who have been in superhero movies playing actors who have been in superhero movies, and a dose of teasing whimsy we're not sure if it is all in Riggan's head or not. But if you strip the technical fireworks, the showmanship and the sometimes labored references, the raw emotions of all those needy egos are there and they manage to be truly touching. Riggan is a beleaguered character, and though his ego and his need for validation are immense, they take an enormous beating from all quarters. He is trying. He is serious. And what he is doing is, in his world, heroic. A fantastic (both for its greatness and for being totally contrived) confrontation between Riggan and Tabitha Dickinson, the faux chief critic of the New York Times (the great Lindsay Duncan) gives you both sides of the thematic crux of the story. She berates Riggan for cheapening art with his fame, and he reads her the riot act by saying that by writing a review she is risking nothing, whereas he is putting his entire life on the line. They both have a point. I did not get a clear sense of where the writers' sympathies are. Would we rather watch what seems a pretty awful theatrical adaptation of an important work of literature, or would we rather be entertained by a cinematic roller coaster ride? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Something like Birdman, which is trying to be artistic in a very entertaining way.

Oct 11, 2014

Foxcatcher


A horror film. As dark a movie as you'll ever see with a Hollywood cast, Bennett Miller's film about millionaire John du Pont's relationship with Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz, is profoundly disturbing. I came out of it wanting to dunk myself in a bath of Clorox. This is high praise. I, for one, am grateful for an American film that challenges our increasingly unsustainable obsession with heroism.
Like most movies based on real stories, Foxcatcher may not be entirely faithful to the real events that transpired, but it takes them as a springboard to explore the corrupting power of money.
It is about a loser with all the money in the world, an extremely creepy Steve Carell, who takes Mark Schultz (a solid Channing Tatum), an Olympic gold winner with zero money, under his wing. du Pont is obsessed with Olympic wrestling, with patriotism, winning, guns and the American way. He is heir to the enormous du Pont fortune and he lives alone; that is, with his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, doing almost nothing and killing it). He is unloved and deeply warped by unhappy money.
The real heroes, the Schultz brothers, are hardworking regular people trying to make a living. Somehow, they were unable or were not chosen to parlay their olympic gold medals into endorsement deals. So they are losers, stuck working hard to eke out a life. Meanwhile, John Eleuthére du Pont, scion of a blue blood American family is, by all accounts, a winner. He has inherited everything he could possibly want, except what he can't have, which is a life. du Pont is a failed athlete, a wannabe coach. He wants to be a mentor, father figure, brother, teacher to a winner, by which he assumes he will garner the admiration of the entire nation. But he is too feeble, or too pathetic, or too damaged to do anything worthy. Thus, he achieves personal glory by buying his prestige.
It is possible that he wants to be the father he wishes he had, or that he gets a kick out of watching semi-naked muscular men pile up on top of each other. Wisely, Miller and the screenwriters (Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye) don't clutter the film with cheap psychology or flashbacks of his lonely childhood. In one scene, he opens up to Mark, and with one line about a childhood friend, we learn all we need to know about what it is like to be him.
Miller lets the story unfold at a stately pace as we watch with growing despair how toxic du Pont's embrace of Mark Schultz is. Carrell, sporting a fake nose, bad teeth, bad skin, and bad eyes, summons a man who seems to be asphyxiating under his own repression, of something so bottled up, it sucks the life out of anyone, including himself. He is an inspired choice, since as a comedian, and particularly as Michael Scott, in The Office, Carell has demonstrated he's capable of going to uncomfortable extremes of maladroitness, self-delusion, self-absorption and lack of social finesse. Even though the character of John du Pont is humorless, he cuts so ridiculous a figure as a wrestling groupie, Carell finds ways to sneak in the funny, in a very unsettling way. Like Michael Scott, du Pont is a loser with power, but from hell and on steroids.
du Pont wants the Schultz brothers to come to his remote mansion and train with him, but David (an excellent Mark Ruffalo), the eldest, and the real father figure to Mark, is a high school coach and a decent family man, and he doesn't want to go. However, with enough bags of money, du Pont eventually lures him. You think you can't buy integrity? Think again. du Pont's money is as irresistible to David and the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Federation as it must be to our long-suffering representatives, who can't campaign for office without begging for corporate munificence. Once the checks are written, politicians cannot be beholden to anyone but their benefactors, just as Mark and David have to cater to the man who is buying their lives. It is true corruption and it destroys everything.
One can extrapolate this story of one rich man's capacity to buy everything with money with the nature of life in America. After all, du Pont is a patriot, as concerned with the notion of freedom as any of those rapacious Republican titans of industry who bandy the term about only for what suits them. He talks in empty platitudes about freedom. A freedom that apparently only applies to those with means. Freedom to buy your way around so that everybody is at your service. The kind of freedom that turns others into slaves.
In du Pont's admiration for Mark there must be a tinge of envy. His is not the well-intentioned attention of a real mentor. It's the manipulation of a narcissist. Miller doesn't tip his hand before he has to, which makes Foxcatcher a harrowing movie. As we discover du Pont's mind games, and his psychological troubles, we realize in growing horror that his charitable motivations are a calculated ruse to aggrandize himself. His manipulations and his detachment from normality really creep up on you.
With enough money, everything becomes a circus. The wrestlers have no choice but to indulge du Pont's pathetic coaching fantasies. In this movie, du Pont can't wrestle, let alone coach, his way out of a paper bag, nor can he be a true role model for anyone, since it is all a lie. Perhaps if he were a European aristocrat, he'd be content to snort his millions up his nose, lose them at Monte Carlo, waste them at Saint Tropez, or whatever it is those people do. But as an American, he is delirious with the imperative to be heroic. He has the misfortune of being a loser in the land that does not suffer them gladly. But unlike most losers, he is armed with money, and extremely dangerous.