May 19, 2014

Gordon Willis

Legend has it that when Francis Ford Coppola screened a rough cut of The Godfather to the film's executives, they had a conniption. The movie was too dark. You couldn't see anything. They gave him money for lights. What did he do with it? Luckily, he stuck to his guns and Gordon Willis changed the look of movies in Hollywood forever.
The rich, bloody hues of the Godfather Trilogy, the crisp, romantic beauty of Woody Allen's black and white New York in Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose. The seedy chic of Klute. The light and shadows in these movies are like another character.
One of the reasons why Woody Allen's best movies are works of art and not just funny comedies is that he was smart enough to hire Willis.
Now is as good a time as any to enjoy the gorgeous, richly expressive wonders of his breathtaking work.

Stardust Memories. Woody Allen.

The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola.

Manhattan. Woody Allen.

Klute. Alan J. Pakula.

The Godfather II. Francis Ford Coppola.

Broadway Danny Rose. Woody Allen.

The Immigrant

This is one puzzling movie. In general, I enjoy the films of James Gray, a director who likes to tell intimate family dramas about mostly immigrant New Yorkers (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers).
His films are of small scope but big emotional gestures, modest but solid. This time, he transports us to early 1920's Ellis Island, where two Polish sisters have just arrived with thousands of aspiring immigrants. One of the sisters is sick and coughing, and gets separated from Ewa (Marion Cotillard). Ewa is denied entry on the grounds of loose morals (which is rather rich coming from the deeply corrupt authorities) and plucked out of the deportation line by a Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises to give her a job as a seamstress. It turns out he is a burlesque emcee and a pimp who trolls Ellis Island to find girls for his revue. And she has no choice but to stick with him.
The story is old fashioned and has the trappings of grand melodrama. In La Cotillard's performance, it has a heroine who is traumatized, innocent, but a shrewd survivor. 
The amber toned cinematography by Darius Khondji seems to suspend everything in a dusty past. The movie is slow and heavy like molasses.Casting Joaquin Phoenix as a Jewish two-bit impresario does not help. There is nothing about him that feels vaguely from New York, (he seems to have just arrived from Hollywood and Vine) but he is, as usual, riveting. He is a good ham, he makes quirky choices, he has some good moments. I could watch him snore and be mesmerized, but he seems rather uneven and adrift in the part. I think of Paul Giamatti or Stanley Tucci, or even Adrian Brody: someone who screams old New York. Jeremy Renner, who plays Bruno's cousin, a Houdini wannabe and rival for Eva's affection, tries to dazzle, but also seems wrong. In general, the main characters are thinly sketched. The only one who is busy filling in the blanks with more layers than anyone has any reason to expect is Marion Cotillard.
She seems as fragile, scared, traumatized and stubborn as she is supposed to be. She is a great silent actress, but she is also capable of acting persuasively both in Polish and English, none of which are her native language. She also happens to be stunning, and Khondji lights her beautifully. Whether she's tired and gaunt and without makeup, or made up like a floozy, you cannot take your eyes off her. She is so good, I can't think of anybody else in the part.
The story sounds good on paper: A crook falls for a defenseless woman he intends to use for profit and she ends up changing him. They are both reluctant to fall under each other's spell. I suspect that a lot of what feels inactive has to do with a script that tells us about bad stuff that happened, yet we don't get to see it. We are told  things we already know, we are told by the other girls that Weiss is in love with her. We only see this clearly towards the end, in a scene where he listens in to her confessing to a priest, and he has a realization that he is destroying her. Then he confesses to her something that we knew from the beginning. There is no momentum. The actions are broad and melodramatic, but they seem imposed on the characters, not earned by force of personality. It was unclear to me if Ewa was that innocent, or if she used her innocence to preserve herself. I was not sure if she was equally repelled and attracted by Weiss, but sparks should have flown while they only sputter. I still enjoyed the really old fashioned story, the mournful music, the way Gray summons the convoluted and hypocritical morals of the day, but I kept wondering why such a big, redemptive drama feels so confined and airless.

May 14, 2014


This review contains spoilers.
An emotionally devastating film set in the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, this intimate movie directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is about Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young Catholic novice who, right before she is to take her vows, learns that she is actually a Jew who was left at the doors of a convent after her parents were murdered during the war.
Ida learns the truth from her aunt and sole surviving relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard charging judge in the communist regime, who harbors an unspeakable loss. A die-hard atheist and drinker who barrels through life with seismic amounts of anger, she rolls her eyes at Ida's Catholic devotion, but Ida is as innocent of the world as her aunt is cynical and worldly. Reminded that this girl is her sole remaining relative, Wanda takes her on a road trip to find the little that is left of her roots.
The movie quietly points its finger at a society that behaved, in most cases, execrably (with generous help from the Catholic Church) towards Polish Jews, during and after the war. But although it is shot in beautiful, expressive black and white, in the square format of the movies of the time, things are not so black and white in this story: her entire family was killed, but baby Ida was saved by some perverse dispensing of pity. We wonder how such deeply pious people could have been so callous, so murderous towards their Jewish neighbors. They were goaded by centuries of church-sponsored antisemitism, greed and the opportunities of war. Bitter irony stings as the current occupant of Ida's family home makes a bargain with her: he will show her where her family is buried as long as she does not claim her house back. She is a nun, he says, he can trust her. Her aunt Wanda went to fight with the Resistance and came back to find that her entire family was wiped out, not by the Nazis, but by the next door neighbors. This is the j'accuse of the film.
By concentrating in the story of one family, long after the war, the film presents its indictment of the collaboration of the Polish citizenry in genocide from a personal and intimate point of view, and this is what makes it emotionally powerful. We do not recoil and distance ourselves from scenes of violence and atrocity, instead, we are vulnerable to Wanda's and Ida's tragic discoveries. Ida devastates because it concentrates on the choices people make under extraordinary circumstances. In the aftermath, everybody has to live with what they did: the Poles deal with the past by generally pretending they knew nothing and remember nothing. Wanda becomes a sort of avenger. In the figure of Ida, an unlikely survivor, yet not really a survivor, since all Jewishness has been erased from her, the film asks for acknowledgment of the citizens' complicity in murder. Meanwhile, the film shows what little remnants there are left of a once vibrant community: old photographs, a forlorn Jewish cemetery in disrepair.
Ida also provides an interesting contrast in characters between the reticent, modest novice a and her world-weary, provocative aunt. In terms of experiences, Ida is almost a blank slate, while Wanda wears decades of rage, fighting and grief in her every gesture. Both actresses are phenomenal, in particular Kulesza. Wanda likes to chain smoke, sleep around and drink, and goads Ida to give life a try. She is merciless in her pursuit of the murderers, but once they get to the family grave in the woods, her anger gives way to grief and she loses her bearings.
As she finds out the truth, Ida must make a choice. After discovering, in the space of a very short time, the existence of truly banal evil, as well as the possibility of living freely as a young woman in the world, she decides to live outside of history. The ending is happy or tragic depending on whether you think that joining a convent at a young age is a good thing or a living death. At least from a Jewish point of view, Ida's reaffirmation of her Catholicism deepens the scope of the tragedy. There will be no trace left of her family at all. 
We don't know if Ida decides to recuse herself from the world because she has found it tainted with horror, or because she expects to glow in purity and religious devotion, or to somehow honor the disappearance of her family by disappearing from the world. She's smart enough to get a taste of what she will be missing after she takes her vows, but it is not enough to convince her that life in the somber world she has briefly experienced is worth it. Perhaps it is as simple as going back to the only womb she knows, which gave her life but also took her real life away from her.

May 12, 2014

Young & Beautiful

The versatile François Ozon is back with the slightly befuddling bourgeois story of Isabelle, a young, beautiful girl (Marine Vacth), who for no discernible reason decides to become a high class hooker. She is 17, lives with her very nice mom, step-dad and brother in a swanky Paris neighborhood, summers in the south of France and voilá, after losing her virginity without any fireworks to a young German man, decides to try prostitution. My guess is that this is as much out of ennui with her privileged life as out of some sort of notion of independence. She doesn't do it because she is horny, she does it because she doesn't get it; she is clinically curious about sex. After Catharine Deneuve in Belle Du Jour, she may also be the coldest fish in that profession. She earns good money (300 euros a pop) which she lovingly fondles as she hides her stash in the closet, under her lingerie. Isabelle is very fortunate in more than one respect: She is stunningly beautiful, she happens to live in the land of fabulous lingerie, and most of her johns are not physically revolting.
I always have a problem with movies that portray prostitutes and their johns as the meeting of supermodels (Pretty Woman, anyone?). I have little patience with the whore fantasies of men. The few whores I've ever seen in real life look, at best, like battered meat trucks, but that's because I'm a remote and innocent bystander, not a high roller with 300 euros to shake at a roll in the hay.
Anyway, the movie is very entertaining, beautifully shot, directed and acted. Isabelle falls for a very handsome older gentleman who treats her nicely, and she has only a couple of relatively lucky brushes with some nasty men. It's nothing physically violent, but in one scene with a john both brutish and cheap, Ozon shows that there's no need to arrive at hard physical violence in order to be violently resentful, demeaning, and full of hatred for women.
Soon, Isabelle's mom and step-dad find out, and that is where things get fun. The mom (the wonderful Geraldine Pailhas), a well-intentioned, liberal woman, is so distraught and at a loss about what could she have done wrong that at one point she suggests, in total seriousness, a girls' only shopping trip to London, to straighten her baby out.
The socio-economics of the film are very engaging. Isabelle lacks for nothing, but nothing is really her own. Since she is legally still a minor, she loses her hard earned money to her parents. Of course her mom suggests donating it to a charity for disadvantaged or abused women. This enrages Isabelle. She has to go back to babysitting, which nets her a paltry 10 euros an hour. I see her point. So would Karl Marx. After all that hard work...
Towards the end, however, the film turns into a philosophical (and to me far less diverting) meditation about love and death, youth and decay, innocence and experience, you know the drill. Still, it's well worth sticking around because Charlotte Rampling shows up, and when that happens, we must stand at attention.
As you can surmise, this is one of the most French movies ever made. Ozon is a puckish observer of the current Parisian bourgeois life, with its safe liberal pieties, Arab servants, multi-cultural affairs on the side, expensive shrinks, and teenagers who love to epater les parents by doing the damnedest things. You can have a blast just thinking about what your own mom would do to you if she ever found out that you were turning fancy tricks at 17. I have a feeling that an all expenses paid trip to Harrod's is not the answer.
Even more fun is trying to imagine the American remake.