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


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


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


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.