Dec 29, 2015

Joy


Jennifer Lawrence is the Robert De Niro to David O. Russell's Martin Scorsese. A muse, a great collaborator, and a splendid actress, she is the main reason to see this unevenly textured comedy about business hardships. Written by Annie Mumolo and Russell, it chronicles the rise and fall and rise of a woman named Joy, loosely based on the real Joy Mangano, who invented a self-wringing mop.
Russell makes movies in which the funny coexists uneasily with the difficult, and what I liked best about Joy is that it dwells on the tribulations of a business venture. It's her family tribulations that feel forced. Joy lives in a small home with her two kids and her depressed mother (the hilariously lost Virginia Madsen), who spends years in bed watching soap operas. In the basement lives her estranged husband (Edgar Ramírez), whose dream in life is to be a crooner. Her difficult dad (Robert De Niro, at his boorish best) is left on her doorstep by his third wife, who doesn't want him any more. Why she endures them is anybody's guess. Even though the actors are all on their game, this feels like a bad underground sitcom.
An unnecessary voiceover narration provided by Diane Ladd, who plays Joy's grandmother, explains that Joy was always an inventor and a doer as a child, and so when she finds herself struggling as an adult, she wonders whatever happened to her that she did not fulfill her potential. Unfortunately, we don't get to see it, but we do get some hints: the dismissiveness of an insensitive father and the demands of motherhood and divorce. Basically, what women have to go through when they want to do more in life than load clothes into a washer. Joy attempts to be a satirical feminist fairy tale but it is too disheveled to be a satire and too undisciplined to be a fairy tale. This makes it interesting, even if it's not quite successful.
One day, as she's invited on the yacht of her dad's rich new girlfriend (Isabella Rosellini, having great fun as a villainness), a spill occurs that Joy has to clean up, and she has an epiphany that leads to the invention of her non-humiliating mop.
This is where the movie gets its thorns. Rarely do we see American movies that show the agonies of running a business. In fact, rarely do we see movies where women run a business. Here we see what Joy struggles against: jealousy, incomprehension, negativity, distrust, inexperience, contempt, shady people. A plague of reasons conspire against her as she tries to make her venture work. Her family is a hindrance, she is out of her league, but she is not a quitter. The dramatic ups and downs, many of them contrived and telegraphed too soon, require a focused and transparent actress, and Lawrence comes to the rescue. She is magnetic and totally genuine. The scene where she finally gets to peddle her product on QVC is Oscar material. Joy freezes in front of the TV cameras, but then she hits her stride and finds the conviction of someone who truly believes in her product with the energy and desperate need of a saleswoman. As in all her performances, Lawrence is capable of signaling vulnerability, backbone and maturity, and of making her arc -- her passage through time and experience -- feel completely real. Never a false note in her.
Bradley Cooper appears briefly as the boss from the channel that orders product from her, and they have such good chemistry that their scenes are the best in the movie. I liked the frustrations mounting on Joy simply because it is refreshing to see them. When she loses all hope, she tells her little daughter that it is not true that opportunity is there for the taking. That there are people and circumstances that make sure that opportunity is snatched away from you and crushed. It's a bitter pill to fail so transparently in front of your child. A clunky fairy tale with little sugarcoating, Joy is a movie about the frustration of not being able to do something creative that you know is good, where the system that keeps telling you that you can be and do whatever you aim for is the same system that is completely indifferent or even poisonous to your struggles when you try. Failure is what feels most real in this movie. Even if if the fairy tale conceit is not fully worked out, Russell once again summons a uniquely contrarian tone and energy to his prickly comedies. Joy is a feel good movie that is not a feel good movie at all, which is fine.

Dec 28, 2015

The Revenant


This might be the film I like best by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It's a visceral and fantastic western that looks like a fevered dream thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's spectacular cinematography. The action sequences are framed in medium shots and close ups, getting us right in the middle of it. The camera gets fogged up by human breathing, and smeared with blood, it does not attempt to hide the reflection of the sun on the lens. Sequences of carnage are relieved by floating vistas of awe inspiring nature. It is an exciting movie and a visual feast.
For once, Iñárritu's boundless enthusiasm for raw feeling, which tends to be overbearing and borderline kitschy in most of his films, suits the story and the surroundings. Based on the novel of the same name and on real characters, it takes place in the breathtaking wilderness of Montana in 1823, where bands of American and French trappers fight over pelts, while they endure flying arrows and scalping from the Native American tribes whose land they have stolen and tarnished.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays captain Hugh Glass, a man who is travelling with his teenage son (by a Native American woman) with a group of trappers as they are attacked by a tribe. Glass is then seriously injured in an astounding mano a mano with a grizzly bear and left for dead by Fitzgerald (the excellent Tom Hardy) an insubordinate, conniving member of the party.
It is a story of survival and rebirth fuelled by revenge, with some magical realist elements, thankfully kept in check by the director. Like any classic western it is a story of morality. When survival is at stake, decency is hard to come by. The stakes in this movie are truly life or death, and the operating ethos is lawlessness, but there is always a moral compass in the love of a father and son, and in the precarious ethical behavior of a couple of men. Ethical behavior strikes humans randomly. Some men have it in them, some don't. The ubiquitous and excellent Domnhall Gleeson plays captain Andrew Henry, in charge of the expedition, who has to make a Solomonic decision about Glass' fate when he becomes a burden to the group. Between the upstanding (Glass), and the amoral (Fitzgerald), Henry represents half measures, the majority of us, who fall as short of heroism as we do of villainy. He's an interesting character: a bad manager who does the right thing halfway, going through the motions of authority while washing his hands of real responsibility.
As Glass painfully recuperates, trying to survive in the rough with almost superhuman effort, the humans persecute each other, forging vendettas and partnerships across a landscape almost as cruel as they are.
The Revenant provides a glimpse into the foundational myth that shows how brutally this country was born. The elements for violence and strife are there from the beginning. In the pristine forests and majestic mountains blood is spilled for pelts and money, Native American villages are burned and pillaged, racism is as natural as the landscape, people endure untold misery, men seem only a step removed from beasts.
It's literally the wild west, where the greatest motivation is lucre and, when violence intervenes, revenge. It's easy to dismiss revenge as futile and barbaric, but it is one of those basic human feelings that boil up despite our every attempt at civilization. Revenge is informed by a sense of justice, but is it moral? Is it useful? All westerns are about the tension between the vigilantism of revenge and the civilizing, yet precarious influence of the law. In The Revenant, in the middle of the vast forest, revenge is the only law.
Iñárritu stages thrilling action sequences and he is a good director of dramatic action. DiCaprio rises to the occasion in a virtually wordless performance of heroic stature, but as the icily calculating, swaggering Fitzgerald, it is Tom Hardy who absconds with the picture. An impressive Will Poulter plays the young Bridger, a kid with a conscience who gets pummeled by Fitzgerald's cunning.
Even if it is pointless, revenge is a powerful, visceral motivation. We root for the good guy and we still thirst for him to set things right. Intellectually, we may look down upon revenge as brutal and uncivilized, but we gorge on it emotionally, until we ask: to what end?

Where To Invade Next


Yes, he can be obvious and a tad overbearing, but Michael Moore returns to form in his latest passionate outburst of unabashed liberalism. The concept is a bit cheesy: he goes to "invade" different countries in Europe and take with him their best social policy ideas to bring back home. Sounds like hard medicine to swallow for even the most hemorrhaging hearts, but Moore actually creates a bitterly hilarious film as he explores other industrialized countries, less powerful than ours, where people live better and common sense still reigns.
Like him or not, he has mastered the form of the satirical documentary. This film is among his funniest. I can't really go into details so as not to spoil the laughs for you, but he talks to people in Italy about paid vacation, France about school lunches, Slovenia about college debt, Norway about their prison system, and Iceland about how they dealt with their financial collapse. He milks the comparisons with the American way of doing things for laughs. It works. Compared to Europe, we look like a brutish, callous culture. It's very funny if it weren't so tragic.
As usual, he omits the problems in Europe that don't suit his crusading spirit, and is not interested in engaging in debate. His willful naiveté can be annoying, but by showing us the existence and possibility of a better system, he bares the cruel and sad dysfunction of our predatory brand of capitalism. His passionate outrage gives strength to his premise. Laughter is plentiful but it hurts, as well it should. We have become an absurd country.



Dec 22, 2015

2015 Movies: Best And Worst And Everything In Between



As is customary every year, here's a list of the movies we saw this year in order of admiration.
My feeling as the year ends is that 2015 was not spectacular, although it did yield some lovely movies at the top of the list.

Excellent
About Elly (not from this year, but in theaters this year) 
Brooklyn
Jafar Panahi's Taxi
Phoenix
The End Of The Tour
The Tribe
The Big Short
The Wonders
Mommy
White God
What We Do In The Shadows
The Fool
The Measure of A Man
Among The Believers
Iris
Junun

Very Good
The Revenant
99 Homes
Spotlight
Steve Jobs
The Gift
Carol
Where To Invade Next
Youth
Love And Mercy
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Ex-Machina
The New Girlfriend
Amy
Mountains May Depart
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Son Of Saul
McFarland USA
Maps To The Stars
Manos Sucias
Thought Crimes
Far From Men
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Treasure
Everything Is Copy
Tangerine
Gett
Creep
'71
Dior and I

Fantastic But I Fell Asleep
Cemetery Of Splendour
The Assassin

Good
Joy
Trumbo
Les Cowboys
Mia Madre
James White
Room
Macbeth
The Stanford Prison Experiment
While We're Young
Pawn Sacrifice
Learning To Drive
Hungry Hearts
Far From The Madding Crowd
Mad Max: Fury Road
Cinderella
Going Clear: Scientology or The Prison of Belief
The Overnight
Slow West
The Wolfpack
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Human Capital

OK
Cesar Chavez
The Princess of France
Gueros
Welcome To Me
Madame Bovary
Beloved Sisters

Not As Bad As Everyone Says
Black Mass
Magic Mike XXL
Entourage: The Movie
Good Kill
50 Shades Of Grey
Sisters
Cake
The Humbling

Not As Good As Everyone Says
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It Follows
Still Alice
Sicario
Listen To Me, Marlon
The Duke Of Burgundy

Disappointing
The Lobster
Bridge Of Spies
The Martian
Experimenter
Grandma
Trainwreck
Goodnight Mommy
Danny Collins
Suffragette
Don't Blink - Robert Frank
My Golden Days
Meru
She's Funny That Way
Results

Meh
Southpaw
Mistress America
Sleeping With Other People

Pretentious and Terrible
Heaven Knows What
Queen Of Earth
Time Out Of Mind
Aloft
Bare

Bad
Chi-raq
The Danish Girl
Dark Places
The Age Of Adaline
La Sapienza
Ballet 422
Cantinflas

Godawful
Interstellar
San Andreas
Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Crimson Peak
A La Mala







Dec 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Let me preface this by saying that the only Star Wars movie I ever saw was the original when it came out. I was about 12 and I hated it. I never set foot on a theater showing Star Wars ever again. Until now.
But it is a testament to the pop culture power of the George Lucas franchise that one really doesn't have to sit through the movies to know about Yoda, princesses with names like limbic systems and even Jar Jar Binks. None of the reassuring psychological mumbo jumbo really matters except the grip that this convoluted yet simplistic tale has on the world's imagination. It has something to do with fathers (what else is new?). And with a "Force" that you can use either for good or evil, which is none other than a secularized version of the Christian concept of free will, a concept that grates on my nerves. I don't buy it, but this is grist for another post. Star Wars is like a salad of Christianity Lite and Taoism. To Lucas' credit and perhaps even genius, no one in it believes in God.
The current, long-awaited sequel by J.J. Abrams warrants attention, as Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon as far as I'm concerned, exaggeratedly beloved by huge swaths of the world's population.
The bad news is, I was mostly bored. The reason for this lies, I suspect, in the way scripts for this kind of blockbusters are written, which are mainly extended intergalactic chase scenes and endless shoot em ups, disconnected set pieces punctuated by short intervals of stale and expository dialog between characters played by actors who seem lost in the greenscreen. Every time I see these fanboy movies I always wish Steven Spielberg had directed them. At least he can put dazzling sequences together with a sense of playful mischief. And he is not as dishonest, or better at camouflaging the manipulative editing and lazy writing. Everyone else, including Abrams, is a clunky, distant wannabe.
I perked up when I saw Oscar Isaac, a charismatic actor who is excellent in every movie he's in except for this one. He's used to playing complicated, sometimes unsavory characters; here, he's a mere goody two shoes. They give him the most inane lines and no real reason for existing and for once, he does not know what to do. He looks like he doesn't belong.
I perked up every time the great Domnhall Gleeson shows up, as a general of the evil First Order, an empire controlled by a giant prune acted with his customary panache by Andy Serkis. Gleeson, who tends to play decent chaps, wisely decides to camp it up a bit. He brings a controlled yet intense sang-froid that's more riveting than anything happening around him. Adam Driver also delivers, since he happens to be the only interesting character of the lot. He is a tortured, insecure son. As for newcomers Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn), I wish they had been directed not to take themselves so seriously. Through no fault of their own, they are rather insufferable.
Ridley fares well. Her character is the only glimmer of hope not only in the story, but for the entire Hollywood blockbuster industry. Here's a girl who can survive on her own, drive a spaceship like the best of them, and has a firm grip on auto mechanics. She is a smart and resourceful fighter who does not rely on feminine wiles to carry the day. She uses her wits. Given the usual way in which women are portrayed in most Hollywood films (helpless, clueless, threatening, or simply afterthoughts) I do not exaggerate when I say that considering the worldwide cultural influence of Star Wars, this may be a watershed moment in which the rancid stereotypes of women begin to change in Hollywood, and hopefully, in the culture at large. I salute the filmmakers for making her the undisputed protagonist of the movie, and as compelling a hero as any guy. She is certainly way more compelling than the insipid Luke Skywalker. If only they hadn't given her a guy's name. I still wish these female heroines were not acting like guys in disguise, but baby steps. 
The audience cheered when Han Solo and Chewbacca arrived, and so did I. They provide some personality and comic relief, though not enough. Harrison Ford, who was the best thing in the original movie, seems to be on the fence as to whether he hates or loves being there. Bringing back Carrie Fisher, now as General Leia, and not taking advantage of her sense of humor is a waste. Nostalgia is put to good use with the original cast and C3PO and R2D2 but opportunities for real storytelling are as ignored as scrap metal in the dust.
Lupita Nyong'o is wonderful and unrecognizable as the nicely rendered little prune who owns the intergalactic cantina (the first cantina was much more fun than this one. This one is a downer).
Only Chewie is fun. Only Chewie is hip. I can't get over his messenger bag. It's the best thing in the movie.
Thanks to enormous advances on digital special effects there are some spectacular vistas. The production design and the costumes are cool. The First Order live in a cold white planet and their gatherings resemble Riefenstahlian Nuremberg rallies in space. They reminded me of the Nazis in terms of style, (including Gleeson's high boots and the troopers' Nazi salute) but also, and more au courant, of ISIS, as they are also bent on destroying anyone who doesn't think like them, for no good reason.
John Williams provides cascades of epic notes and bits of his famous musical themes for the movie. It's a good, yet busy score. In short: I expected it to be more fun.


Dec 18, 2015

Son Of Saul


Laszlo Nemes' impressive first feature attempts to bypass and even solve the problem that has plagued any fictionalized movie that has ever been made about the Holocaust. This particular atrocity presents a paradox: the more filmmakers try to faithfully recreate the horror of the extermination camps, the less authentic the movies look, the more artificial, and sometimes even offensive, their futile efforts at realism.
Human atrocities and genocides have been committed since time immemorial, but thanks to the Nazis' mania for recording everything with cameras, only the Holocaust has provided us with reams of documentary imagery of actual human depravity. Once we are familiar with those grainy black and white photographs of naked bodies piled high, of Nazis shooting women and children point blank, and emaciated creatures staring bug-eyed at the camera, no movie is ever able to convincingly recreate the horror of their plight and the unfathomable violence they faced. There is no dignity in the fictionalization of the Holocaust: Fake death, fake torture, evil Nazis, defenseless Jews: things get perilously close to pastiche, despite the best intentions. The Holocaust makes the conventions of drama seem ridiculous.
But Nemes tries to solve this problem. He attempts to use a different cinematic language with which to approach the unspeakable. He does this by shifting the point of view of the camera from its usual distant, omniscient perch to the perspective of one of the characters. The camera focuses on Saul (Geza Rohrig), a Jew who has been chosen to work in the Sonderkommandos, that is, to lead other Jews to their deaths, or face death himself. The camera follows him closely, trying to show us what he sees. There are no graceful crane shots, or even wide shots, the usual aesthetic detachment that gives us relief in the form of composed frames. Here, Saul's harried gaze sees only what is immediately in front of it, afraid to train itself on the periphery of the horror. This has the disturbing effect of the having the audience almost strive to see more, to try to find our physical bearings, and what the hell else is going on. We can't see much, but the details that we glimpse out of focus or in the corners of the frame (masses of people getting undressed, piles of discarded clothes, limp naked bodies, pools of blood on the floor) let our imaginations to fill in the blanks. This is far more powerful than the safe distance that meticulous period detail can make us feel. Nemes' approach raises these questions: Do we really need to see more? And if so, why do we want to see more?
We may not be able to see this hell too clearly, but Nemes makes sure that we hear it: waves of human wailing, the cacophony of Yiddish and Eastern European languages, the barking of German; once in a while, the horrifically preposterous sound of babies crying, random gunshots, an ever-present industrial rumble of a factory of death. These sounds are more harrowing than any images; we don't have time to defend ourselves from them.
At the same time, Nemes' approach, while intelligent and valiant, inevitably also calls attention to itself. There is something artificial in the handheld, if masterful, shaking of the camera and Nemes' insistence on keeping the point of view always on Saul. It makes us aware that there is a camera; that, for all the immersiveness of the experience, this is a fiction.
It is a simple story, an allegory. In the midst of trying to survive the next second of his existence, he finds a still breathing boy in the pile of gassed bodies, who is then promptly asphixiated by a Nazi (they were nothing if not efficient). Saul then desperately looks for a rabbi who will say Kaddish, the mourning prayer, for the boy, who he claims is his dead son. This single, insane act tries to restore a smidgen of civilization to a place where there is no time or room for it. It is not fuelled by piety: Saul is not very familiar with Jewish law (if he were, he would know that he can say the prayer himself and it has the same effect). He does it to hang on to the last thread of humanity he can find. He does this without emotion, but with ferocious focus.
Rohrig is not a professional actor and he looks numb most of the time. This is both realistic and frustrating, as he is not a particularly compelling presence. I'm sure this is on purpose. This is one carefully conceptualized movie, made with enormous skill, and perhaps Nemes wanted to steer clear from the emotional flourishes of a professional. Once you commit to relentless, quasi-documentary authenticity, however, the strain of imposing a dramatic structure starts to show. Drama requires poetic license. There is no room for poetic license in the Holocaust. You can't have it both ways.
Son Of Saul is a polarizing movie. Some find it exploitative. I admire Nemes' exploration of a different way to approach the subject. It still raises questions about our need to dramatize an unfathomable historic event which already happened in a way far worse than anybody can conjure. Nemes gets as close as possible to a dignified recreation without easy succor for the audience. Son of Saul is an intellectually rigorous film in that it understands the warped logic and reality of Auschwitz (a place where only death could flourish), but for the same reason, it is emotionally numbing. It does not summon as much pity and sadness as righteous anger. Beyond tragic, it is cruel, as it should be. Saul's quest seems less ennobling than mad and futile. In this topsy turvy hell where doctors make sure people die and everything is obliteration, Saul's fleeting glimpse of hope at the very end turns out to be a harbinger of more destruction. This is why, even as it doesn't completely succeed in melding the historical with the allegorical, Son Of Saul fares better than most in that it does not try to interject hope or mercy where there were none.


Dec 14, 2015

The Big Short


A fun, hair-raising, if rather tardy, outrage-inducing satirical romp by Adam McKay, based on Michael Lewis' book about the financial whizzes who realized that the world economy was going to tank back in 2007 due to subprime lending practices. It is a gnarly topic, but breezily explained by a very game cast. Instead of going for the full-out dramatization of a non-fiction book, McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph use some fun devices to keep the story urgent. Some of the characters speak in voiceover and break the fourth wall, roping us in as accomplices. Celebrity guest stars, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, explain to us in almost plain English some of these incomprehensible, diabolical instruments. It's 80% exposition, but it doesn't feel like it.
All the actors deserve kudos for credibly wrapping their tongues around the deliberately impenetrable financial jargon. They are all fantastic. Christian Bale, who rarely gets the opportunity to be funny, is melancholy and awkward as Dr. Michael Burry, a t-shirt wearing renegade who managed a big fund in California, looked at mortgage defaults and decided to short that market. That is, to bet against it.
A very funny Ryan Gosling stars as an AAA asshole called Jared Vennett, a big shot at Deutsche Bank, who decides to go into the shorting business for himself, like a rogue cowboy (this kind of behavior is applauded at banks). An excellent Steve Carell plays fund manager Mark Baum, and a wonderful team of supporting players rounds up this white male saga of financial chicanery and destruction.
The story follows how different people started snooping around the securitized mortgage industry, to slowly and painfully reveal that the world would collapse on a tailspin of unregulated greed, corruption, malfeasance and corporate criminality, which not only went unpunished, but was rewarded with a trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. The movie works the audience up into a lather of disbelief and outrage. It is fitting that it opens with a quote from Mark Twain, the father of American satire. If it were drama, it would be too bitter to swallow. But satire can hurt more than drama, and McKay is delightfully, and rightfully, incensed about it. He manages to keep the laughs and the suspense pumping while clearly explaining what happened.
It is a strange vicarious thrill to find oneself rooting for these banker guys shorting billions of dollars of toxic instruments, and waiting (hoping!) on the edge of our seats to see if they cash out. Some of them seem to have a conscience, like Baum; others like Vennett, don't. Others, like Burry, are ruled by their own strict professional compass. All of them are brilliant masters of the financial universe, and it takes them forever to figure it out. Meanwhile, the audience cannot help but be seduced by the allure of the billions of dollars bandied about in conversation. We are eavesdropping where we will never be welcome. These terrible guys are our fantasy proxies, which is rather depressing. The tension between the serious outrage and the comedy is deftly handled, but what exactly are we laughing at? We were played, and are still being played like idiots.
Together with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who is known for his gung-ho work on films like The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93, McKay keeps the complicated explanation moving and stitches together collages of images of recent history with fast cuts of how rosy things looked back before 2008 and the human debris that followed: people living in tents, lines snaking around depressing job fairs.
My favorite scenes are at the local level, when Baum and his guys go to Florida to take an actual look at the housing market. It's a sweltering ghost town. Mail piles up in abandoned houses, gators loll about in brackish swimming pools. Strippers take out loans on five houses, while local banker bros brag about giving loans to people without incomes, trying to impress the horrified bankers from New York.
McKay feels the need to insert a couple of discreet but unnecessary touches of humanity. Baum is reeling from a terrible loss, which is what makes him into a crusader. We see a family lose their home and it is sad, but I don't think the movie needs these tears. It is devastating enough as it shows us how the system is made to game us; how despite endless protestation, nothing has changed. We're dupes in the biggest con on Earth. We are still living the fallout of that disaster, the government is still not regulating the banks, and banks are still creating toxic products, albeit with different names. Politicians are still at the service of Wall Street. The middle class is being strangled, and somehow poor people and immigrants, as Baum says, are blamed for everything.
Nothing to laugh at, really.

ps: Check out this unsurprisingly mean-spirited review and masterpiece of cognitive dissonance from The Wall Street Journal. It's kind of a hoot.

Dec 7, 2015

Chi-raq


Adapting Aristophanes' classic comedy Lysistrata to current day Chicago gang warfare is a great idea. The story of how the women of Sparta decided to withhold sex from their men in order to stop war resonates across centuries, particularly now that the United States is gripped by homegrown gun violence. Spike Lee starts his movie with a graphic presentation of statistics since apparently nothing else helps: there are roughly the same amount of deaths due to gun violence in this country than all the American casualties of our latest Middle Eastern wars.
This film is truly timely. It seems as if it was printed just yesterday. It mentions a disheartening parade of Black people who have recently been in the news as victims of police brutality, from Eric Garner to Sandra Bland and others. It is an urgent call for sanity by a director who has plenty reason to be outraged.
Sometimes outrage inspires Lee's best work, as in the two sober and moving documentaries he made for HBO, 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke. But often it does not serve him well.
Here, the execution is bogged down by Lee's penchant for blunt lecturing and his resolute lack of finesse. Having the dialog rhyme is a good idea, as it reflects a powerful aspect of Black culture. It works if you can write witty and musical rhymes and you have actors who can deliver them with naturality. This is not the case. The rhymes are lame. Except for Samuel Jackson, who could and should read every phone book in existence, and in one killer cameo, the great Dave Chappelle, most of the actors struggle to act convincingly. Jennifer Hudson and Steve Harris acquit themselves well, even though the actors are directed to ham it up. As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is beautiful and charismatic but brings nothing but triteness to the role. Same with Nick Cannon. What is the point of bringing back the sorely missed and usually charming Wesley Snipes, as Cyclops the gang leader, if he is going to be mugging and unfunny? None of the characters rise above stereotype.
Chi-raq's power is in its raw outrage, which is condensed into one long actual sermon delivered by a priest (John Cusack, on fire) about the profitable business of keeping young black males armed with weapons instead of choices. It is the best and central scene in the film, but it is preceded by a tepid gospel routine, with a dreadful song (why, with all the amazing gospel songs that exist?). One wonders why the priest, who is such an important part of the Black community, is white. There is an explanation for it in the film, but I wonder if Cusack was cast to attract a wider audience.  Or maybe Lee thinks that if he puts these awful truths on the lips of a Black actor, white people are going to dismiss them as whining, which they most certainly are not. It is a baffling choice.
Chi-raq is an ambitious film which unabashedly celebrates Black culture while it aims to rouse people into pondering the virulent injustice and attendant self-destruction with which Blacks live every day. Yet even though Aristophanes provides a solid plot, the narrative thread of the movie is weakened by lackluster musical numbers and unnecessary story tangents.
Matthew Libatique's cinematography is strong, but the trademark Spike Lee camera moves are feeling their age. Terence Blanchard, who has done well scoring other Lee films, provides a mostly sappy score that clashes with the strong people portrayed. Only the winning costume design by Ruth Carter wittily synthesizes echoes of ancient Greece with current street fashions.
Spike Lee burst into American film thirty years ago with movies like Do The Right Thing that were fresh, funny and provocative. With success, his movies got bigger and a didactic streak seeped in. Just like Steven Spielberg can't help laying on the schmaltz, Lee can't help lecturing. It is one constant in his films that deflates them for me.
Still, Spike Lee has left his mark in American movies like no other director of color. He's had an epic, if uneven, runChi-raq is not his greatest, but it has a couple of moments of raw power. Lee shows people at a rally holding pictures of the real victims of gun and gang violence, many of them children. They are more eloquent and devastating than any speeches.

Here is my personal list of the best Spike Lee films:

Do The Right Thing
When The Levees Broke
Four Little Girls 
Malcolm X
Jungle Fever
Inside Man
Summer of Sam
25th Hour


Dec 6, 2015

Youth


Another visual delight from Paolo Sorrentino (La Grande Belleza), Youth is really about death and decay and the span of lifetimes. Anchored by a magnificent performance by Michael Caine, it takes place in a luxurious but decrepit spa in the Swiss Alps, where rich and famous people go to take the waters and rejuvenate. As in La Grande Belleza, Sorrentino imagines the enclave where the wealthy congregate as the slightly Dantesque anteroom of Hell. It is supposed to be the lap of luxury, but it is also decadent and tacky, in a vulgar bubble of its own, bereft of the outside world.
The movie, a richly symbolic and sometimes shambolic disquisition on aging, is a visual feast.
This is not only because of Luca Bigazzi's extraordinary cinematography but because Sorrentino, like a proud and prolific chef, serves frame after frame of crisp, powerful images. He is very good at visual storytelling and he delivers many wonderful visual puns: an embarrassment of riches. The editing is a wonder. While the dialogue is clunky and uneven at times, and the philosophical ramblings not always clear, the images are exuberantly expressive. They communicate better than all the words in the story.
Sorrentino has the gall, and the talent, to follow in the footsteps of Fellini, using the same kind of grandly symbolic imagery that skirts the province of dreams and the subconscious. Youth is reminiscent of 81/2, which is also about the mind and soul of a creative man. Sorrentino seems to be deliberately courting the comparisons to Fellini, while at the same time dutifully following his tradition. He gets away with it because, like his master before him, he has a wry sense of humor, and a very playful, satirical sensibility. He may be philosophical, but he is not pretentious. Who else but Sorrentino could summon an aged, wheezing, obese version of Maradona as the perfect embodiment of wasted, incomprehensible genius?
Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a famous composer who is retired and "apathetic". An emissary from the Queen of England requests that he come out of his shell to conduct his famous "Simple Songs" for Prince Phillip's birthday. He refuses. He is done with music and, apparently, with life. His best friend and in-law, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is at the spa too, writing his last screenplay, as is Ballinger's daughter and assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz) and a pensive Hollywood actor (an excellent Paul Dano). Lesser actors would have trouble sounding halfway credible in such a grandiose movie of ideas, but this bunch holds its own. When sharing the screen with Michael Caine, they rise to the occasion. Otherwise, they would all be toast.
Ballinger is supposed to be unsentimental, a man who forsook his family for his music and is now nursing his regrets with dignified aloofness, if not a deep funk. It is a casting coup, since Caine is anything but cold, and he imbues this man with a serene world-weariness that is deeply alive and very touching.
Keitel and Caine compare prostate problems as they ogle a Miss Universe who is not as dumb as everyone thinks, and try to come to terms with aging. They obsess about a woman they once loved, and while Ballinger is trying to renounce this world, Boyle is consumed with leaving a masterpiece for posterity. Youth is about the finality of life, the ravages of time and the more pernicious ones of ego. The two friends are at the end of life, but Fred's daughter, Lena, provides a glimpse into what happens in the middle. Youth is a movie about the many faces of experience. It is populated with wise children, cheeky old people and every age in between.
Ballinger's music is composed by David Lang, the contemporary American composer from Bang on a Can. Sorrentino is as good with images as he is with the use of sound and music, and Lang's score ties majestically (if in places just a little bit schmaltzily) with the visuals. Youth is made with extraordinary craftsmanship. But it is a throwback to the filmmaking style of cinematic symbolists of yore, like Fellini and Ken Russell. I detect a hint of quaint machismo, too. Even though it looks supremely modern, it seems a bit old-fashioned.
Youth is too long and meanders in places, but if you allow yourself to be swallowed by the ravishing beauty of its every frame, you are in for an experience. They just don't make this kind of movies anymore.

Nov 28, 2015

The Danish Girl


When someone like Todd Haynes gives a conventional treatment to unconventional stories, like Carol, he uses the context of the era and a certain ironic detachment which raise his films above melodrama. Tom Hooper, the director of The Danish Girl, and his writer, Lucinda Coxon, are only interested in melodrama and they trample over everything else.
Watching The Danish Girl is like hearing a generic power ballad: a synthesized load of hysterical, sanitized, empty emotion. Sentimentality is the poison of truth. This movie is a sentimental waste.
Even though the story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (neé Einar Wegener, a man) and her wife Gerda is set at the turn of the century, in Hopper's version it could have been set at any other time in history. He completely ignores the zeitgeist, an era of feverish and rapid transition to modernity, which could have richly echoed his hero/heroine's own gender rite of passage. In fact, this movie could be set in Mars, and it would make no difference. It is under written and over directed, and it strands two excellent actors, Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne, in a vale of tears.
Alexandre Desplat's lush but gooey score is a good illustration of the mistaken temperament that courses through this movie. Instead of using the music of the time as inspiration, Desplat writes a mawkish score that, except for four notes I'm convinced he borrowed elsewhere, is devoid of any relation to the music of the era.
Worse, there is no real ambiguity in this story of deep, layered gender ambivalence. The characters are mostly presented as saintly people. Einar/Lili is a poor woman trapped in a man's body and she is either gripped by unhappiness or by tremulous joy. There's little in between. I expected to see rage, willfulness, or callousness in Einar's dogged pursuit of his truth -- something with an edge. But the writing is all declarations of undying love or recriminations: it has the level of a soap opera.
It is not the actors' fault. They give it everything they have, but it seems that they have either been instructed to emote as much as possible, or the director has chosen their cheesiest takes. Hooper steadfastly ignores any dark human traits that do not hew to the unhappiness-happiness continuum. At first I was appalled to see a fantastic actress like Vikander trying too hard to convince us and herself that she is a spirited and bossy painter, stomping around her atelier like a child pretending to be a general. Later in the movie she becomes better and, despite her director's best intentions, has moments of real, heartbreaking confusion. Still, the actors are saddled with an unimaginative and corny script. I had to go to Wikipedia after the movie to confirm what I suspected all along, which is that Gerda must not have been the paragon of heterosexuality herself. Turns out she was a full out lesbian who specialized in exquisite and explicit lesbian erotic illustrations. The movie does not mention this, and deliberately obscures Gerda's lesbianism, so poor Vikander is left playing a shell. No wonder she seems a little lost. It's all fake.
Redmayne is a magnetic and sensual actor. Here, when not crying rivers of tears, he finds the charm and longing in Lili, as well as the storm of conflicted feelings inside Einar. He brings the sexy all by himself: Redmayne swoons and does arousal better than anyone else onscreen, male or female. But since this is a sentimental movie, it is predicated on his character's noble suffering, and that gets old fast.
There is nothing really adventuresome in this film, a sense of humor is sorely lacking, and everything is bathed in virtue, and worse, cliché. The best scene is one in which Gerda starts undressing her husband to find he is wearing her silk camisole underneath. Redmayne is transfixed by arousal and she finds it arousing too. If only there had been more of this kind of exploration. Are we really that binary? What are the gradations of gender identification and sexual desire? The movie is too busy being trite and careful to dwell on these things.
Even when the irresistible Matthias Schoenaerts arrives to save the day (and that he does, making himself useful by refusing to shed a single tear), Gerda feels horribly guilty for kissing him, even after her own husband has virtually become a woman and refuses to come back to her. Are we expected to believe that these artists living in Paris and Copenhagen at the dawn of the 20th century behaved like such bourgeois prudes? The fact that The Danish Girl insists on presenting Gerda as a card-carrying straight woman makes it completely dishonest, and a disservice to its own topic.
What is appalling about this movie is not that a heterosexual actor is playing a transgender character (when you find a transgender Eddie Redmayne, and by that I not only mean someone with his talent, but also someone with his Oscar and his star power, we'll talk). It's that a committee apparently has decided to make transgendered people and their lovers palatable to a mainstream audience by discarding everything that is visceral, messy, sexual, mysterious and true about their experience and substituting it for toothless pablum.



Nov 22, 2015

Carol


Perhaps it is by design that Todd Haynes' movie, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (well adapted by Phyllis Nagy) feels so airless. After all, lesbians in the 1950s must have felt claustrophobic. Ed Lachman's gorgeously muted cinematography suggests a repressive, lonely world. It feels like being inside an Edward Hopper painting: alone in the crowd.
Carol (Blanchett) is a rich lady with a small child and a marriage on the rocks, and Therese (Mara) is a salesgirl at a department store and budding photographer. They meet as Carol is browsing for Christmas gifts and take a shine to one another. Therese is beguiled by Carol's glamor, and Carol sees something beautiful and dangerous in that deceivingly mousy girl. Their gaydar goes off immediately. In those days, gaydar was a finely tuned instrument, and essential to recognize other kindred spirits who lived in the shadows.
Because Carol and Therese are women, they have to use a language of glances and gestures while they try to pass off as straight in a world that denies them existence. At the same time, because they are not even supposed to happen as a couple, they can meet in public and pretend that whatever is going on is anything but a romance. Not only are they attracted to one another, but there is a difference in age and in social class. The movie illustrates this tension between private desire and outward appearance to perfection. Powerful feelings simmer under the surface until they have to blow up. It is a hard way to live. Even though much has changed in terms of gay rights since then, in the personal realm, this negotiation of sexuality with the world at large is still dramatic for a lot of people. This is what the movie brings to light.
Carol serves as an interesting contrast to our own times. Today, even those who disapprove have to concede that homosexuality exists and gay people have successfully demanded parity and dignity. The story's setting in the 1950s, that decade of American prosperity, puritanism and witch hunts, takes us back to an era in which there was a collective will to smother and penalize homosexuality by placing it under the category of perversion, and in male instances, crime. As long as it wasn't outward, people pretended it didn't exist. If it made a sound, it was swiftly punished. Hence, it comes as a bit of a shock that the men in Carol and Therese's lives are viscerally aware of their rebellious strangeness. They argue against it as if they could change it. But they are not villains. Both Carol's husband (Kyle Chandler) and Therese's boyfriend (Jake Lacy), love these women. It is hard on them too.
It's difficult to live a double life, or a life that seems charmed but is deeply unhappy, as is the case with Carol. If divorce was a scandal in those days, imagine lesbianism: Carol was doomed. But she decides to pursue Therese. They take the car, that most available of American freedoms, and go on a road trip together. Therese has less to lose. She is young and ripe for adventure. For Carol, things are harder. She is richer, wiser, older and she has everything to lose.
If there is anything subversive about Carol is that it is a conventional movie. It's a classic love story. It's also a classic melodrama. The characters have terrible obstacles to overcome, as in any story about forbidden love. It just happens to be between two women. This is the point Carol makes: there is no difference between this love and the one society approves of. But this movie is also about pursuing personal freedom, at a great cost, in the face of an uncomprehending society. It's about rebellion.
Everything about Carol is exquisite and exquisitely controlled. It has class written all over it: Lachman's cinematography, excellent editing by Affonso Gonçalves, costumes by the great Sandy Powell, music by Carter Burwell and an amazing soundtrack of pop music of the period.
As in Far From Heaven, Haynes frames this narrative of personal rebellion in genre, namely, 1950's Sirkian melodrama. Perhaps because of this Carol seems more like a beautiful artifact than a story about messy passions. It is too stylized to breathe fire, and something in its composure mutes its emotional and erotic power.
If it has an impact, it's because Blanchett and Mara bring a fierceness to their roles that struggles against all that composure, both in the story and in the telling. They illustrate perfectly the unbearable tension between who they are and who they are expected to be. They are both excellent. Blanchett is a monster actress, and she does not disappoint. But I'm very impressed with Mara, who doesn't seem to take up much space but radiates a quiet and formidable willpower.

Nov 11, 2015

Spotlight


Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by him and Josh Singer, is less about child abuse than it is about hard work. It's about how journalists at The Boston Globe, after years of burying the story, finally investigated claims of the massive molestation of children by Catholic priests in Boston, with the complicity of Boston's Cardinal Law.
There is barely a child in sight. There are no teary scenes with outraged parents. Better yet, there are no scenes of abuse, just the powerful, uncomfortable retelling of it. The victims are in the periphery of life, muted, forgotten. Once in a while they come back as adults to demand to be heard. The way in which they are shrouded by hurt is evidence enough of their torture at the hands of the priests who raped them.
Conceptually, the movie frames the story within the same opacity and obfuscation the journalists encounter when dealing with claims of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy. No one wants to know. No one wants to believe that priests are capable of such depravity. Several times we learn that people (lawyers, victims) shared this information with the Globe and it was buried in some neglected newspaper section that no one ever reads. Such is the depraved arrogance of the Church, and its confidence on its own unquestioned power, that it can operate a ring of pedophiles in plain sight for years, shuffling criminal priests off to different parishes, never prosecuting or punishing them, and then quietly settling with the victims for a pittance.
Spotlight is not an emotionally dramatic movie. It is a procedural. It accumulates a quiet outrage as it churns out the finding and corroborating of evidence. Spotlight is also not a visually exciting movie. It is shot in muted tones and looks and feels like an old-fashioned TV show. But it is gripping in its steady and clear narrative.
The stellar cast seems to have been instructed to rein in any kind of histrionics, except for a moment when journalist Mike Resendez (Mark Ruffalo) loses his cool as his boss (Michael Keaton) decides not to publish just yet. Otherwise, they just work their butts off every day to get closer to the truth.
Liev Schreiber (so nice to see him playing a mensch), is quietly impressive as Marty Baron, the new editor of the Globe, an outsider who wonders why this story has not been followed. He is not Catholic, he is not from Boston and he doesn't care that no one messes with the Catholic Church.
The actors are all solid, from Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (incapable of not being droll, but it works), Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou as Cardinal Law and Paul Guilfoyle, a standout, as the Church's hatchet guy. Especially powerful is Neal Huff as a victim who refuses to let it go.
If I have nitpicks, is that no one bothered with the Boston accent and that there may be a couple of unnecessary scenes that explain too much. But there are many nice touches. The way the beleaguered victims' lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) chirps up, but only when he speaks to children. The way court clerks, judges, lawyers, relatives of the priests instinctively close ranks the minute someone comes snooping is the chilling portrayal of a day to day conspiracy, made more sinister by the fact that everyone in Boston seems to be in on it.
Investigative dramas tend to tug at our heartstrings by parading the victims and giving them their day, trying to assuage our sense of redress. Here, there is no redress. Most offending priests and their powerful enablers have never been prosecuted. There is no happy ending. Since the movie doesn't focus directly on the suffering of the victims, their plight resonates more strongly in our imagination. What breaks the heart is the shroud of indifference that engulfs these people, who live their lives with terrible burdens and secrets that the police, the press, their communities, their church, even their parents - refuse to acknowledge. One is revulsed by are the arrogance of impunity, the strong arm tactics, the sadistic refusal of the Church to put an end to this problem. Not to mention the fact that the offending priests preyed on the most vulnerable children from impoverished, broken homes.
Even the journalists have to deal with some soul searching of their own as to why the Globe never really pursued the claims when they first appeared. I wish the movie had given more weight to this, which centers on the editor of the Spotlight section of the paper, Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), but it refrains from turning into a blame game. Spotlight goes out of its way not to tarnish the sad legacy of the victims' stories with cheap drama. Its power is that it points to the evil of indifference, denial and acquiescence, implying that everyone who turns a blind eye is guilty, as to the evil of the abuse itself. It's the kind of movie that gains in stature the more you think about it.


Nov 3, 2015

Brooklyn


The pedigree of this movie is as impeccable as its execution. Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, adapted by screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby, and directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn is a gem of gorgeous writing and sensitive direction; a truly beautiful film.
It is a story of immigration that does something rare: it truly communicates homesickness and captures the contradictory feelings of people who straddle life in two countries. Nothing terrible happens in this movie. There is no violence; just loss, experience and the passage of time. Just enormous changes on a personal scale; that is, life.
The wonderful Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young woman from a provincial little town in Ireland who, with the help of a caring priest (Jim Broadbent), boards a ship towards a brighter future in early 1950's America. Once in Brooklyn, she lives in a boarding house with other spirited young Irish lasses, supervised with keen, warm discipline by Mrs. Kehoe (the scene-stealing Julie Walters).
Eilis works in a department store and pines for her mother and sister left behind. She feels lonely and adrift. Anyone who has ever emigrated will understand exactly what she is going through. The sense of possibility is so wide open that her only way to manage it is by narrowing her existence to working and staying out of trouble and by missing horribly what she left behind.
Eilis is hardworking and solid, and she is cautious with adventure, but soon she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a nice Italian guy (this is the only part of the movie that feels a bit ersatz, and I blame it on the foreignness of the filmmakers, who like Eilis, come from the other side of the pond). Eilis and Tony fall in love. Then Eilis has to go back to Ireland. There, she experiences the flip side of immigration: her perspective changes. Suddenly her culture, which was as natural as breathing, seems to her narrow and provincial.
The film is an example of sheer craftsmanship, from the cinematography to the production design, to the uniformly excellent cast. But more poignantly, it is emotionally authentic and true to life. It does not serve up easy clichés, but delves deep into the bittersweet experience of experience. We really see Eilis mature. She is the same character yet changes before our eyes, from the moment she first gets on the ship, young and unprepared, to when she returns to Ireland, shaped by experience. It's not just her hair and makeup, and now worldly wardrobe -- it's her behavior that is a wonder to behold.
It is in her quiet, momentous choices that Brooklyn soars.
You don't have to be Irish to fully profit from the wisdom of this movie. Besides its universal insights on the immigrant experience, it is eloquent about the pull of America, with its modernity and its expansive embrace of individual freedom. Things are not so much said, as seen and felt: We feel the giddiness of liberation in the girls of the boarding house. They may miss home, but America is fun. Returning with Eilis to her hometown, we feel and see the gray, oppressive pinch of small minds and stifling tradition.
In the end, Eilis bravely chooses to look ahead and remake herself, but not without rueing what she leaves behind. This elegant, soulful movie feels as satisfying and profound as a lovely, juicy novel. I have not read the book, but Brooklyn the film is a great story, beautifully told.

Oct 30, 2015

The Wonders


Alice Rohrwacher's second feature, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, is a movie about principles and how hard it is to keep them afloat in a changing world. It is also a lovely coming of age story about a young girl who is trying to blossom into her own person. Gelsomina (the astounding, Falconetti-like Maria Alexandra Lungu) is a teenage girl who lives with her beekeeper parents in rural Italy at an organic farm where they make honey. Her father is a hardworking German who is trying to live sustainably and to survive hard economic times. He has the misfortune, agriculturally speaking, of having four daughters, something the locals never stop teasing him about. He has turned Gelsomina, the oldest, into his right hand woman. She is conscientious, hardworking and efficient. But she is also growing and she is starting to bristle at his authority. He works her too hard, and even though he adores her, he is oblivious to her simple yearnings, for which he will eventually pay a bittersweet price.
Rohrwacher finds rich detail in every character.  She fills this world with inner life. Through the family's daily travails, she immerses us in a rural world that is being encroached upon by suspect government schemes involving tourism and appalling Italian reality shows. For a principled hippie like the father, keeping these monstrosities at bay from his daughters and his farm is a heroic, if thankless struggle, but for Gelsomina, these invasions may provide a way out of the crunch of financial doom and into something less relentlessly taxing. They are also full of whimsy, something that is in short supply in her exacting life. She is, after all, a young girl.
Rohrwacher is a wise and mature talent. An astute director of actors and a wonderful writer, she is immune to sentimentality. Her movies are tough, yet tender. The things that happen to this family may be small potatoes to us, but for them they can mean catastrophe. Because of their self-imposed isolation, everything that comes this family's way has enormous impact, whether it is a ridiculous reality TV contest or an extra helping hand at the farm. So when they take in a young boy as part of an exchange program for juvenile delinquents, nothing huge happens, but he throws everything out of whack: Gelsomina's importance as the oldest and most favorite daughter is undermined, as her interest in the boy is piqued, and this eventually leads to her blossoming into a decision maker, going against her father's demands for the first time. Like any great Italian film, The Wonders has a wistful combination of humor and sadness, of satire and heartbreak, of toughness and grace. A lovely, intelligent film.

Oct 19, 2015

Steve Jobs


The opening scene is riveting. The actors are mesmerizing. The dialogue is snappy, and the only let down is a treacly story about a daughter and a sappy ending. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the story of a brilliant asshole. As played with focused ferocity by Michael Fassbender, who has long deserved a role of this scope, no matter how big a prick his Steve Jobs is, there is something, if not likable, rather sexy about his egotism. Perhaps it's his sharp mind, his unwavering certitude and the zippy lines he's given to utter by Aaron Sorkin.
Danny Boyle directs with verve and fluidity what is basically a series of dramatic duels: Jobs vs. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, great), Jobs vs. John Scully (Jeff Daniels, great), Jobs in a wonderful rapport with his right hand woman Joanna Hoffman (the excellent Kate Winslet, showing how to manage someone unmanageable). Fassbender achieves something rare: the portrait of a man who pisses icewater but has a fire within. It is a beautifully calibrated, magnetic performance that truly sustains the movie. He also does a mean Cupertino accent. Now, is this anything like the real Steve Jobs? Probably not.
Everything happens backstage before the launches of three emblematic Jobs' products: the Macintosh, Next (yep, no one remembers that one), and the iMac. This has the effect of making you feel a loving sense of nostalgia for the first time you saw one of those machines or their brilliant ad campaigns. It also makes one feel that this happened in prehistoric times. It's all very artificial and deliberately theatrical -- it is, after all, set on the stages where Jobs introduced his products. We see the conflicts behind the scenes but we never see Jobs' flawless performances.
Boyle's kinetic style makes it work. I wish there was less music competing with Sorkin's plentiful dialog. Sorkin writes like Hollywood screenwriters of yore: snappy, clever, fast lines that feel like a breeze compared to the ponderous and inane dialog that comes from most American movies these days. But you have to be very alert, or you'll miss chunks of it.
In The Social Network, Sorkin had more manageable material. He was not dealing with an icon, but with an antisocial college brat who could barely connect with his own feet, yet created a social network. The problem with the figure of Steve Jobs is that the scope both of the man and his work is much broader, hence Sorkin's focus is scattered. There is no easy metaphor here. The arc is that of a fearsome godlike creature who becomes human, and it doesn't quite work. The movie tries to cover emotional territory that feels a bit forced, stepping lightly and not very convincingly on personal issues like the fact that Jobs was adopted, and that he rejected his own daughter. This comes through like Psychology 101. We don't really get a sense of the hard work Jobs put in. We get a sense of the hard work he made others go through, but because we only see him bossing people around as he prepares to face the expectant crowds, we never get a sense of the day to day business of running Apple. The movie could also have used more of the sense of delight in the user experience that was Jobs' holy grail. We hear a lot about it, but we don't really see it. What really drove Jobs remains a mystery. Still, Sorkin's compression device is understandable in that it distills his complicated life (based on Walter Isaacson's biography) into two hours. Although artificial and limited to zipping through the most important milestones of Jobs' leadership at Apple, the movie is still buoyant.

Oct 17, 2015

Crimson Peak


I felt sorry for the actors. Guillermo del Toro's mashup of every gothic storyline known to man is only terrifying in its cheesiness. I have never been a fan of Del Toro's excessively corny fantasies, and this one takes the cake. A goulash with chunks of plots from Cinderella, Jane Eyre, vampire stuff, ghost stories and heavy borrowing from movies like The Shining, Crimson Peak is heavy-handed and overstuffed.
Where to begin? Young Edith Cushing (as in Peter Cushing, one supposes) consorts with ghosts. The ghost of her dead mother appears to her with a warning about bewaring of Crimson Peak, whatever that means. Edith (Mia Wasikowska, a good actress that seems to be stuck forever in the 19th century), soon falls in love with the dashing and charming Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, valiantly giving it his all). He has a somber sister, Lucille, (Jessica Chastain, who smartly understands that the only way to go is camp) who is suspiciously jealous of Edith. They live in a remote and ghastly house somewhere in England, where they manufacture red clay or red pigment that comes from clay, the color of blood. I won't go into the intricacies of a plot that Del Toro doesn't bother clarifying. All I can say is that one look at that dilapidated mansion out of the Chapultepec amusement park, and Edith should have either redecorated or run for her life. That she does neither is a sign that the director has no sense of humor, or of human nature.
The movie is a hodgepodge of ideas that he didn't really think through. I was convinced, for instance, that this was a solidly PG-13 movie until a ridiculous sex scene and then a plot about incest that seems to have sprung from the feverish imagination of a 14-year old. The motivations of the Sharpes are unclear: do they need money to keep the family business going, or they need blood because they are evil? Beats me. I defy anyone to recount the plot of this movie coherently.
Del Toro's ghosts look like the kind of Halloween decorations you buy at J.C. Penney's. They are too cheesy to be really scary. I pined for movies like The Innocents or even The Sixth Sense, in which the apparitions are deceptively real and truly spooky, not ghoulish puppets that are ridiculous rather than scary. Apparitions that are manipulated with clanging sound effects are not honest scares, and this is the cardinal sin of this movie. A horror movie may be cheesy and improbable and stupid, but if it manages to scare us, it has done its job. That is not the case here. If people jump, it is not because Del Toro knows how to stage a scary scene, it's because he uses loud sound effects instead.
The production design is meaninglessly cluttered, the costume design is an exaggerated parody of Victorian dress; even the nightgowns have puffed sleeves. The wigs are outrageously phony, the lighting makes everything look like a garish disco in the 1980's.  The somber elegance of real Victorian gothic, the perverse stylishness of an Edward Gorey are absent here.
I was reminded of Mexican telenovelas. Chastain, in particular, seems to be channeling the evil villainess Catalina Creel in Cuna De Lobos (Cradle of Wolves, a fabulously campy Mexican soap from the 80s). I also thought of cheesy Mexican horror films like El Santo Vs The Zombies. It is not inconceivable that these are some of Del Toro's influences. The question is whether he knows this. He seems to take his own cheesiness too seriously.

Oct 16, 2015

Experimenter


Stanley Milgram was a social scientist, the son of Holocaust survivors, who was obsessed with answering the question that still plagues us to this day. How could the German people do what they did during the Nazi years? How can regular people be ready to commit atrocities just because someone with authority asks them to?
To find out, Milgram created a controversial test in which he asked some subjects, whom he called "teachers" to administer a questionnaire, and if their subjects ("learners") answered incorrectly, they were to give them electric shocks. To his surprise, about 65% of the teachers complied, even when they heard the learner behind the wall pleading to stop, screaming in pain or not responding anymore. He tricked the subjects into thinking that there was an actual person being electrocuted. Some were uncomfortable and they protested, but very few stopped doing it.
He is one of the most influential social psychologists in recent history. His experiments brought awareness to concepts like groupthink, mass obedience, and other issues that are of particular concern to modern man. We do not live anymore under omnipotent religions or princes. Modern man is supposed to have the individual agency to refuse. But Dr. Milgram's experiments revealed that complying is more common to human nature than rebelling. Our instinct to conform, to not rock the boat, to be accepted, is strong, and it can be abused by those in power, even if we don't live under totalitarian regimes.
Unfortunately, as fascinating as Milgram is, Almereyda's film does not live up to its subject. Almereyda uses an experimental approach himself, and the film is a visual essay rather than a conventional narrative film. Instead of dramatizing Milgram's story, Almereyda narrates it, which makes for a very stilted movie. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) constantly breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Sarsgaard is a resourceful actor who tries his best to come alive as Dr. Milgram. I can see why he was cast, as he can be icily dispassionate, but I think he's not right for the role. On the other hand, he is saddled by the artificiality of the approach and does what he can with what little he is given to do.
Almereyda's unconventional execution reminded me of Il Divo, by Paolo Sorrentino, an essay-like character study of Giulio Andreotti, the former Prime Minister of Italy. Yet Sorrentino had resources at his disposal: a great cinematographer, spectacular locations and a grand sense of visual style. Under a clearly limited budget, Almereyda's chosen visual quirks look dreadful. They also seem arbitrary. Sometimes, he puts the actors in real locations that share the screen with black and white photographic backdrops. This could look good with a lot of digital enhancement, great cinematography and color correction. Done on the cheap, (bad lighting, terrible wigs) the film looks amateurish and these flourishes make little dramatic sense.
Most of the solid cast is wasted because they don't have much to do. Winona Ryder is self-conscious and twitchy as Milgram's wife. The actors who take part in the experiments are all terrific in very small parts: Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, Jim Gaffigan and others. But that is because they have actions to perform. Still, they are too well known for their parts, and this also feels lopsided.
In this case, the experimenting should have been left to the characters on the screen. Nothing wrong with trying, but a dramatic narrative and a better sense of how to spend the production dollars could have brought Milgram's story to life much more effectively.

Oct 12, 2015

The Martian


Lovingly polished to within an inch of its life, this sophomoric outer space busyness by Ridley Scott, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is not only an extended commercial for NASA (not that there's anything wrong with that), but as the Magnificent Arepa memorably put it, it most resembles a reality cooking show -- in space.
The film makes an impassioned case about "sciencing the shit out of" everything, and this is a worthy message in these obscurantist times, in which millions of Americans think the world was created in seven days and women are a figment of Adam's rib. However, cheerleading for science does not a good movie make.
The premise is promising enough: a guy is left for dead in Mars. He is all alone in the red planet and needs to survive for as long as he can with what's left in the spaceship. But because he happens to be an American with an extreme case of gung-hoitis, there is not one pause in this film for poetry, or self-reflection, or awe, or a personal reckoning with the universe. This Mark Watney is a doer, a hero with a capital H, and he has no time to ponder. What he has plenty of time for is cracking wise and complaining about disco music. There is nothing wrong with humor, and we were not expecting Tarkovski, but the character is insufferable. Matt Damon, a damn fine actor, does what he can to make Watney likable and human, but the character, as written by Drew Goddard with teenagers in mind, is an alpha-male jock with a soft spot for plants. I liked that he was smart and solved problems, but I hated his self-congratulation, his smugness, and his competitiveness with no one around. Wouldn't it be more exciting to cast perhaps a more fragile nerd, so that the odds would seem more insurmountable? One look at Damon's abs and his superior blondness, and we know that there is no way that this enterprising bro won't make it.
One goes to the desert here on Earth and is quickly brought down to size by our sudden awareness of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. This guy is all alone in Mars and he acts like a sitcom character. He has no time for vulnerability. There is shit to do. When alone in space and about to die, one is cocky. These are the values Hollywood exports: only the individual is heroic, he works solo and his is all the glory. They don't bother giving him an Achilles heel. He doesn't have hubris. He's the perfect guy for the job. Even with a team of equally insufferable heroic characters on Earth trying to help him, each one trying to be his own little hero, there is no sense of something bigger than the individual. Republicans who extoll the virtues of bootstrapping must love this crap. I wonder if the rest of the world is not fed up already with this relentless hero worship. It can't be the only game on Earth.
I do not understand why this movie is in 3D. The opening sequence in which a tornado hits and Watney is left for dead is visually incomprehensible. The photography by Dariusz Wolski is spectacular, and so is the production design by Arthur Max, but everything is busy with endeavor, and Ridley Scott gets lyrical only with a few lovely scenes of the crew members cavorting in zero gravity. The rest is scientific exposition that no one understands, or endless repetition of the same tired clichés. How many times can you see people clapping and cheering in control rooms, here or in China? How many times is the hero going to bitch about disco music? Do we need a character who announces that something might go wrong and then cut right to everything going wrong? There is no sense of wonder, let alone surprise. The movie, which involves cooperation with the Chinese space program in order to sell billions of tickets in China, pretends to be clever, but it is written for dumb appeal.
As incomprehensible as the opening sequence is the scientific mumbo jumbo the poor actors have to spout while pretending they understand any of it. I resent movies where they throw technical jargon at us. They make the audience think it's smart for paying attention. Who knows what any of it means? Who cares? Are you going to go check your equations to see if it pans out?
Worse, I never really understood why they couldn't send the crew back to retrieve Watney. The obstacles seem invented out of thin air only to create fake moral dilemmas. Which is why I find movies like The Martian morally bankrupt. They squander the opportunity to say something true about being human and instead they sound like the Koch Brothers, if only they liked plants.

Oct 8, 2015

Bridge of Spies


Based on a true story, the latest Steven Spielberg movie starts darkly and nimbly enough as insurance lawyer James Donovan, (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) an artist accused of being a Russian spy. Since this is the cold war, the US government wants to give an appearance of justice and due process in order to teach the tyrannical Soviets a lesson. Behind closed doors, however, everybody thinks this is just putting on a show, and that Donovan will play his role, Abel will be sent to the gallows and America will look good. But it so happens that Donovan is a man of integrity, and, as a lawyer, he is not prepared to lose a case, no matter who he is defending.
Donovan soon finds out that at the apex of cold war paranoia, people, including judges, are willing to throw the Constitution out the window and to convict first and ask questions later, much like what has happened since 9/11 gave the government the pretext to ignore constitutional protections and do terrible things in the name of freedom. So far, so good.
This being Spielberg, every frame is richly composed, the production design by Adam Stockhausen is fantastic, the cinematography by Spielberg's longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminsky is lush and theatrical, and we zip along thinking that this is a great rebuke to laws like the Patriot Act, and aren't we lucky to have directors like Spielberg who want to call attention to the dark side of the American obsession with "freedom".
But then, this being Spielberg, the movie turns into a predictable hero-worship tale in which Donovan fights through thick and thin to save his client and ends up negotiating a spy exchange in East Berlin, which puts him into something out of a spy movie, but without the suspense.
Attempting to get a chocolate chip cookie out of its aluminum foil wrapping without the usher noticing was far more suspenseful that whatever was happening on the screen. People complained that Lincoln was boring. Well, I was riveted by the back and forth of political negotiation in Lincoln (and by the rich and precise language of Tony Kushner's script) and was bored to tears here.
I suspect the reason is that as written and played, the character of Donovan is toothless. Hanks is his usual likable, capable self, but for someone so shrewd, he lacks edge. There is a total absence of sexiness, and I don't just mean the physical kind, but the sexiness of a shrewd mind, of a crack negotiator who enjoys the fun and games. I understand the concept of a reluctant hero, but Donovan is thrown into an adventure by the CIA, and keeps complaining that he wants to go home. No doubt he uses this "aw shucks" strategy to disarm the enemy, but he is terribly uninteresting. This character needs an actor with more guile, someone who doesn't ooze virtue. Nothing is more boring than virtue.
I was not impressed with Mark Rylance either, because his Abel is a caricature and his mousy shtick wears thin. The great Amy Ryan is wasted as Donovan's wife. The movie is very stagey, and it gets hokier by the minute.
A terrific montage of school kids being traumatized by cold war propaganda is better than the entire film. Spielberg orchestrates a couple of visually exciting moments, but his instinct is towards the sappy, and I, for one, am exhausted with the fantasy of American decency. It has long outlasted its welcome. No one believes it anymore. Somebody make it stop.
For a much better hero, I recommend The Measure of A Man, a small, powerful film in which the hero (the great Vincent Lindon) is a guy who loses his job and is willing to do anything to have one, until his conscience says "enough".  It takes place mostly in a kind of French WalMart. Director Stephane Brizé wrests nail-biting suspense from a conversation with the guy in the unemployment bureau, from confrontations between security guys in the store and people whom they catch stealing. No Russian spies, no cold war, no swelling string section when the hero stops at nothing to do the heroic thing. Just the relentless fight of every man, every day, for dignity.

Sep 21, 2015

Black Mass


Johnny Depp gives one of his best performances as James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who was an informant for the FBI.  Depp is chilling as a brutal criminal with a warm spot for those he loves. However, of all the people who could have played Bulger, why choose someone who looks nothing like him? We have to look past the solid make-up job, the receding hairline, the blondish hair, the distracting blue contact lenses that obscure Depp's expressiveness. Even though his performance is good, it seems encumbered by artifice. Depp fancies himself a modern-day Alec Guinness and loves physical transformations, but in this realistic movie this feels like an uphill battle. Ed Harris would have been spot-on in terms of looks. But so could have Matt Damon, who'd have no trouble with the Southie accent, or Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, or even Kevin Bacon, who is in the movie as an FBI agent, and who always rocks. Basically, any good actor who is also a blue-eyed blond could do. All the effort made to turn Depp into Bulger is distracting and it whacks the film out of balance.
The story is incredibly juicy. John Connolly (the excellent Joel Edgerton), is an FBI agent who was a childhood friend of Bulger's and he convinces Bulger to inform against the Boston Italian mafia. The brutal Bulger then uses the government's protection to run rampant and become the mafia kingpin of Boston. The movie is about testing loyalty, and about the good getting in bed with the very bad. The incestuous level of corruption between criminality and the government is the most interesting part, but the script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk seems a bit unfocused. I would have loved to know a little more about how it was possible for the most notorious gangster in Boston to have a brother (Cumberbatch) who was state senator for Massachusetts.
The direction by Scott Cooper is spotty. Some scenes are powerful but others smack of cliché. Who is really the main character? Bulger or Connolly, who starts out wanting to make a name for himself as the guy who brought the mafia down, and ends up sullying himself and the FBI for recklessly consorting with criminals?
I enjoyed the long, unwieldy movie because the cast is a dream (it also includes Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, and Rory Cochrane). While Depp is busy channelling the likes of Christopher Walken, Joel Edgerton brings a dark humor to Connolly, an excitable, ambitious, if crass, agent who gets comfortable playing outside the rules to accommodate Bulger, and then flails in hot water by watching him spin out of his control. Edgerton is an intellectually sexy actor; he brings surprising but coherent quirks to every part he plays. Here, he gives a very layered, rounded performance, swaying between his gratitude and admiration for Bulger, to a comic swagger that creeps in once he gets his way, to his deepening brazen, desperate denial about the terrible mess he has created.
This movie needs a director with a fiercer sense of irony and a stronger sense of outrage. Still, if you like gangster films, this one's a keeper. Even the good guys are thugs.

Sep 18, 2015

The New Girlfriend


This movie by François Ozon is what no American movie about the topic of transsexuality will ever be: a nuanced and smart look into the infinite subtlety and fluidity of human sexuality.
Here in the US, people are busy policing pronouns and creating labels, categories and sub-categories of sexual orientation. This insistence on putting people in monolithically labeled sexuality boxes seems too literal and petty to encompass what each one of us desires in the privacy of our own selves.
The wonderful Romain Duris (in his best performance to date) is David, a young husband and father who loses his wife to illness. Her best friend Claire (the also wonderful Anaïs Demoustier), has promised to take care of David and his baby and one day, as she jogs by their house, she walks in to find David dressed as a woman. At first she is offended and adamant that he is a pervert (everybody in this film is an upper-class, suburban Catholic), but then she starts feeling the pull of attraction towards this man who loves to dress up as a woman. They bond over shopping and secrets, and Claire finds she has feelings and fantasies that she had never entertained before. To watch her go from judgment to confusion, to curiosity, to anger, to fantasy and tenderness is the lovely miracle of the movie.
The plot could play as farce, but Ozon prefers to keep things intimate and full of feeling. To see Duris burst with happiness as he walks through the mall as a woman in heels and later to watch him grieve for the fact that he will never be the woman he wants to be is very touching, as is seeing Claire gradually allowing herself to be moved and enlightened by his plight.
In this movie, everyone seems straight as a post, but the moment someone comes out with a different hankering, this creates ripples in everyone. Hence Claire's husband (Raphael Personaz) evinces a tiny spark of interest when Claire tells him that David likes men (it's easier than explaining to him that he likes women but loves to dress as one). To add to the confusion, Claire ends up being in love with the woman in David. In Ozon's gleeful, generous fantasy, it all works out in the end.
Ozon playfully and tactfully suggests that the symbiosis between human emotions and sexuality is endlessly complex and mysterious, and that this is part of the fun, as well as the tears.