Feb 26, 2015

5 By El Chivo and 5 By El Negro

El Chivo, Birdman and El Negro

Lists are fun! So are nicknames!
Here are two lists by yours truly. Click on the links to read them on Manero.com.

A handy list of must-see films photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, aka "Chivo" (Goat), cinematographer extraordinaire, winner of back to back Oscars, among many other awards, for Gravity and Birdman.

A ranking, from best to worst, of the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, who just cleaned up at the Oscars.

Remember Sean Penn's controversial remarks when he handed his pal his Oscar for Best Movie? Let me refresh your memory:  Penn said, "who gave this sonofabitch his greencard"? Needless to say, the internets collapsed from outrage. But the director was not offended, because a) He and Penn are friends. b) The badly thought out remark (it took Penn a long pause to think of that joke, which landed as badly as the entire telecast) was meant to be ironic. It's not like Sean Penn works with Sheriff Arpaio deporting wetbacks in Arizona.

In any case, the most delicious irony these days of political correctness gone amok, is that Iñárritu's longtime nickname is -- brace for it -- "El Negro": "Black" Iñárritu, because of the swarthy color of his skin.  Looks like it has not fazed him. If it has, well then, his four Oscars in one night will show 'em.  I'm curious what the outraged, oversensitive, tone deaf to irony, humorless masses have to say about this little tidbit. Particularly the Mexicans who are offended by Penn's remark but think that calling someone "Negro" is harmless and endearing.

Newsflash: everybody's racist; some people more than others.
Everybody online: before you slather yourself in unctuous self-righteousness, please get a life.

Feb 25, 2015

Wild Tales

Darlings: I am splitting film reviewing duties here and at manero.com where my review of this darkly funny Argentinian nominee for Best Foreign Film is posted.

Feb 22, 2015

Screw the Oscars

Illustration by Paul Blow

For the first time in years, I'm not watching tonight. My Superbowl has become irrelevant (to me).
I know it is irrelevant to you, but as a movie junkie, this was my televised event of the year. And although it was always disappointing, always a bore, mostly always wrong, I always watched.
After an awards season that makes tonight almost a foregone conclusion, where's the fun in it?
I'm going to see a friend play live music with his band instead. Fuck it.
Thanks to the Hollywood Reporter's eye-opening Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots, we have confirmed what we've always suspected: many members don't take the voting seriously. This is not an excellence contest, it is a popularity contest.
People vote for their friends, for bad movies that make money, for actresses that haven't had plastic surgery. Some don't even bother watching the foreign films, or some of the shorts, documentaries or technical categories. They hear Inherent Vice is bad, so they don't even open the screener. They fault screeners not arriving on time for not considering a certain movie.  Or they think that because a movie is about an African-American subject matter it has been nominated on account of affirmative action or political correctness. Then they protest that their not voting for it has nothing to do with racism, that the movie in question is just not good enough.
For the record: Selma is a movie as good or better than most of its competitors in the Best Film category. It is certainly better than the two lame, sanitized British biopics, and more honest than American Sniper. I clarify for all those people who haven't seen it, but who ask if it is really any good, or it's just there because it's Black.
Some of these voters don't even seem to have a grasp of what makes a movie worth a nomination. "It just didn't do it for me", is one voter's main rationale. Only a couple of voters bothered to watch most of the films and explain why they arrived at their choices from a craft perspective. I hope that the seven anonymous members (five men and two women) that shared their voting process are not representative of the rest of the membership. Somehow, I doubt it.
My question is, if as members, don't they know or care that this contest can really make a difference in the life of a film, a filmmaker, an actor, or even crew members?  Particularly for the smaller categories, with tiny budgets, and even smaller audiences, the validation of an Academy Award nomination is important. These people don't seem to care.
Those who vote for people because they like them, or because they are 84 years old, or because they give humble speeches when winning other awards: if they were the nominees, would they like to be voted on for their social skills, their careers, anything but the work under consideration?
The Oscars are an industry invention, a brilliant inside ploy to bring legitimacy and publicity to Hollywood. But they are also big business. The studios don't spend lots of money on awards' campaigns for nothing.
It is not coincidental that the Academy is almost 90 years old and that some of its practices are as dusty as fraying celluloid. They are trying to make the membership younger and more diverse. They should also consider ways of making members watch all the nominees and take their voting more responsibly.
(Now, let's see if I can really stay away...)

Feb 19, 2015

Birdman vs. Boyhood

Gentlemen, ladies, place your bets.  Or don't.
Here's my take on why these two movies are the frontrunners for the Oscars this Sunday.

Feb 18, 2015

50 Shades Of Grey

It seems to me that the derision with which this movie has been greeted is quite sexist. 
Everybody dumps on this movie as if it was the stupidest movie in the planet. Granted, it is silly and cheesy, but it is no worse than any of the stupid shoot em ups and blow em up extravaganzas aimed at males. What is the freaking problem with women wanting to see this? Nobody is addressing this really patronizing derision for a successful movie that is as bad as any other commercial Hollywood mass market bullshit. But because it is aimed at women and because it is about sex and not guns or explosions, apparently it is ripe for contempt. 
It's not like Fast and Furious 1 through 7 and their ilk are the height of sophistication. So why are people so violently disgusted by a completely innocuous, R-rated romantic fantasy film? The level of contempt aimed at women because of this movie is nuts. If men can enjoy their neanderthal entertainments, why can't women enjoy theirs?

Feb 14, 2015

American Sniper

My first gasp of disbelief came early into this movie, when sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is about to shoot an Iraqi boy who is carrying an explosive device. He has him in his sight and is about to pull the trigger when, CUT, all of a sudden Chris is a little boy, hunting with his dad in the Texas woods. A leisurely flashback then introduces us to young Chris. Born into a God fearing family, with a father who looks like the Brawny paper towels guy, Chris defends his little brother from a bully at school -- an American hero in the making.
This cut is one of the most dishonest, dispiriting choices I have ever seen in a film, and it happens at the very beginning. Director Clint Eastwood eventually goes back and shows how Kyle finishes the deed, but the damage is done. This morally complicated killing, an opportunity to show the savagery of war and what it makes people do, has been scrubbed by a bath of homespun Americana. Once our heart strings have been tugged, it's hard for the audience to think that the guy who was forced to make this choice is anything but a hero, because we just saw how courageously he defends his little brother, how, at a tender age, he steals a Bible from church, how he grows up to be a rodeo cowboy, how he feels the call of duty at the news of attacks against US embassies abroad.
We are not to entertain any doubts that he is righteous.
I do not doubt that Chris Kyle was an outstanding soldier who served his country well. I respect his sacrifice and admire his marksmanship. I am not going to discuss U.S. foreign policy or get into partisan politics. My problem is with simplistic narratives like this movie, which pervade the culture thanks to the unhealthy fixation with heroism that afflicts this country. This fixation is directly related to the insane fetish for guns, which is also in evidence in the film.
It's bad enough that we are the only country on Earth that has an industry devoted almost exclusively to the manufacture and exporting of mind-numbing superhero and guns and explosions movie franchises. But when these childish narratives are used to coat historical events, such as the Iraq war, our very tragic, messy, complicated, hellish, costly (and out of sight, out of mind) foreign wars are sanitized and banalized with the mythology of comic books. This is scary because people eat it up. And people eat it up because it is in the nature of movies to rouse us to emotion. Movies are extremely powerful. They affect and influence us consciously and, even more strongly, subconsciously. It's never "only a movie".
Had Eastwood stayed in the moment, had we seen this man shoot a boy carrying an explosive within the first minutes, we would have had more of a truthful grasp on the hard realities of war, and the unspeakable things it makes people do, on both sides. However, the American narrative of heroism is rarely concerned with the unspeakable (unless it's perpetrated by the enemy), or the gray areas, or moral dilemmas. It is concerned with aggrandizement. I say American because many heroic stories are deeply complex: take your pick of Shakespeare. In other countries immensely heroic journeys can happen to two characters in an apartment. The oversimplification of the world into good guys and bad guys is a uniquely American phenomenon.
American Sniper is based on the true story of a man appropriately nicknamed The Legend, the deadliest sniper in US military history. Kyle was brought up in this very culture of heroism and gun worship and so this narrative is natural and organic to him, as it is to millions of viewers who have these kind of stories in their cultural DNA. The filmmakers then further shape Kyle's story into a mythical entertainment, and, in the name of dramatization, sink into many gross simplifications.
For starters, the four tours of duty that Kyle served in Iraq are used as a backdrop to an appalling mano a mano between Kyle and his Iraqi counterpart, a sniper who had been an Olympic gold medalist. By the time, long into the movie, when it became apparent that Eastwood was going to make this "duel in the sun" the climax of the film, my disbelief had turned to disgust. Not only is the Iraq war boiled down to a pissing contest between two equally proficient dudes, but the vulgar, cartoony choice of showing the bullet as it travels out of Kyle's rifle cheapens and disrespects every sacrifice every American soldier has made, and every life that has been lost or maimed, Iraqi and American. It turns the war into a video game.
Zero Dark Thirty is similar: one determined tough cookie nails Osama Bin Laden. Must be Wonder Woman.
I don't see how it helps American soldiers that the rest of society, which is deliberately shielded from the carnage of our wars, should perceive their sacrifice as something out of a video game. If it is a game, how can anyone take it seriously? The Vietnam war ended in part because it was shown week after week in the evening news. The public was appalled. In our time, we have seen little if any footage of the wars, we don't honor the dead as they arrive or adequately help the damaged as they struggle, let alone consider the people whose countries we invade.
Cinematically, there is nothing in American Sniper that has not been done more powerfully and effectively in other war movies, most recently, The Hurt Locker. There is nothing insightful except the tepid introduction of the topic of post traumatic stress disorder. Eastwood is heavy handed on the battle scenes but timorous on the subject of PTSD, which has been notoriously underestimated by the Pentagon. In this movie it looks like every soldier is getting all the help they can get.
Eastwood flirts with the idea of challenging Kyle's gung-ho patriotism but shies away from articulating a powerful contrasting viewpoint, a glaring omission, considering that Iraq was fought under false pretenses. Instead of his Iraqi counterpart, why not confront Kyle with an Army buddy who has real qualms about the quagmire? The one soldier who intimates doubt is shot two minutes later and Kyle thinks he was killed because he stopped believing in the mission. His relentless hero complex is borderline pathological, but the movie does not have the balls to go there. That would have been a far more interesting film, but not so pristinely heroic.
An evil Iraqi called The Butcher, a real life character, is a sadistic torturer and enforcer, but he has no American counterpart. Eastwood includes an indolent American soldier, but there are no homicidal sadists or the kind of unhinged seekers of violence that lurk in every army, including this one. The movie cherry picks the liberties it takes with reality.
Only one remarkable scene summarizes what an invasion by a foreign army feels like. An Iraqi whose house is searched and taken over by Kyle and his soldiers invites them to eat because it is a Muslim holiday. We see the soldiers feasting at the table as if they were right at home, noisily bantering in English, oblivious to how invasive, insensitive, arrogant and rude they are. Of course, the Iraqi turns out to be an insurgent. Of course Kyle smells him out all by himself.

Feb 11, 2015

What We Do In The Shadows

Probably the sweetest vampire movie ever made (and certainly the best vampire movie made with Kickstarter), What We Do In The Shadows is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, but it is more of this day and age. It is a very funny, well made documentary about a trio of vampire roommates living in New Zealand, written, acted and directed by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, both from the unparalleled Flight of The Conchords.
A documentary camera crew gets the vampires' dispensation to follow them around in their daily, or rather nightly lives.
Viago (Waititi) is an adorable 18th century romantic who is a clean freak, and the den mother. Deacon (Jonathan Burgh) is the rebellious one, a bit of a slob with a Nazi past who likes to knit, and Vladislav (Clement) is like an Elvis figure (he looks like singer Engelbert Humperdinck) with a fading penchant for torture. Petyr is a dead ringer for Nosferatu and the oldest of them all. He is not very social.
They bicker about house chores and endure the complicated rules that govern them (aversion to sunlight, stakes, crucifixes, etc), at odds with life in modern Wellington.
The vampires, whom one immediately feels like calling "the guys", are fully individuated characters with peculiar quirks and feelings. They are friends, they had girlfriends, they like people. They are desperate to do certain things, like get into nightclubs. They are not unduly ravenous, and at least Viago is a considerate eater, although for a clean freak, he's a bit messy. Some humans (like Jackie, a housewife and submissive servant of Deacon), want to be bitten so that they can be immortal, but vampires are fickle and they don't always oblige. Some, like Nick, get bitten and learn the hard way that they cannot eat chips anymore and they cannot go around telling everyone they are vampires. There is also a human called Stu (sounds like Stew) who's Nick's best friend and who is almost irresistibly plump and juicy. A clique of werewolves looks suspiciously like hipsters.
The tone is smart and sweet, and many delightful and imaginative details, visual gags and fine jokes bear repeated viewings. It is no wonder that this movie has won several audience awards at festivals. It has a lovely spirit, without vulgarity, no gross, lame humor and is surprisingly well made, for the small budget. It has a great music score and it also makes wonderful use of the ancient paraphernalia of evil. And of snapshots taken through the guys' eternal lives.
According to medieval representations, the guys are supposed to be super bad, but they are adorbs. What We Do In The Shadows is far more subtle, smart, and knowing than most American comedies, and at the same time it is super accessible, a testament to the fact that you don't need millions of dollars to make a superior comedy (or any movie, for that matter). A real charmer.

Feb 9, 2015


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a good example of enterprising laziness. I'm sure he and his brother Jonathan, his cowriter, did a lot of research on black holes, wormholes, relativity and singularities. This must have taken all their time, since they did not bother to write a coherent screenplay. As with Inception, Nolan is happy to yank the audience's chain for hours without any concern for clarity.
The Earth is dying. Matthew McConaughey (giving it his all while trying to keep a straight face through the corny, incomprehensible dialogue) plays a farmer with a Texas twang that is exaggerated even for the likes of him. McConaughey is a frustrated astronaut. One day he bumps into NASA and a minute later they are sending him out to space because HE IS THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN SAVE THE WORLD. He is a widower too, as is common in Hollywood movies. Why bother with a mother? He has a little girl who is a smart and stubborn pest, capable of holding a grudge for a lifetime. She is angry at daddy because he must go save the world. This is the level of writing. Busy and lazy at once.
Now, when characters (or actual people) take it upon themselves to announce that they are going to a) change the world or b) save the world, I feel like punching them in the face. It seems to me that those who do things to save the world do not go around solemnly declaring their intentions.
But there goes McConaughey, seriously torn between saving the world or staying with his family. What a tough, if contrived, choice. So he gets on this big secret rocket, but lo and behold, he is not alone. Anne Hathaway is with him, working her damnedest to erase any trace of charm or a sense of humor because she plays a serious scientist. And because sex is forbidden in Hollywood, even if Earth runs the risk of depopulation and they are traveling with canisters of frozen human eggs to create a new humanity elsewhere, it never occurs to these two handsome people to start shagging like bunnies, which is what anyone with any sense would do under the circumstances. If not for increasing the population, at least for recreational reasons. Space is a lonely place.
Hathaway happens to be the daughter of Michael Caine, who works for NASA despite his remarkable Michael Caine accent (pretty decent, but not as good as Steve Coogan's and Rob Bryden's). He is trying to solve a mysterious equation that -- guess what --  will save the world. It is never explained why he has no qualms about sending his daughter to outer space.
Then Matt Damon shows up in some frozen planet. We are always happy to see him. Alas, he's gone too soon. People age 127 years in a matter of minutes, which is what happened to me after sitting there for three hours, glazed over by boredom and by a certain bemusement at how anybody can attempt to meld such disparate things as the time-space continuum and a moody child. Gravity suffers from similarly cheesy writing, but at least Gravity is gorgeous and thrilling. And the story makes sense.
Meanwhile, Nolan is incapable of putting a sequence together. Everything is a series of gigantic anticlimaxes. He cuts out of the interesting stuff before he gives the audience a chance to gasp, but stays on the boring stuff. He cuts back and forth from space to the Earth, killing the momentum in every scene. I said that the scenes reminded me of orgasms that fizzle out and was told I was giving the movie too much credit. There is nothing resembling an orgasm in this film. There is no joy, there is no beauty, there is no awe, only plenty of fake heroics and forced feeling. Watching Interstellar made me pine for Steven Spielberg.
The busy music by Hans Zimmer (using an organ to remind us that instead of letting our lives ooze away we could be watching 2001: A Space Odyssey) gives the impression that something is about to happen, but the most exciting thing that happens is the cosmic equivalent of trying to fit a lid on a plastic container; that is, McConaughey trying to park his module correctly. The paucity of imagination is astonishing, considering the lengths Nolan goes through to incorporate the theory of relativity into a telenovela.
Visually, except for a pretty shot of Saturn, all we see is spacecraft sideboob. Nolan seems to think that the most interesting angle in space is from the side of a rusty spaceship. He is not interested in space. He is interested in letting us know, as if nobody has never entertained this notion before, let alone expressed it in a million other movies, books, songs and Hallmark cards, that love is the only thing that can save us.
That Nolan attempts to salute Kubrick is evident. He falls comically short.
There is no movie about space that does not hark back to 2001. But 2001 is poetic, enigmatic and existential. It makes you consider our size in the scheme of things, where do we come from, are we alone in the universe? It would not occur to Stanley Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke to saddle Dave the astronaut with a sob story about his family back at home. In 2001 when Dave speaks to his little daughter from space, it is her joyful nonchalance that makes us realize how lonely space must be. Not everything has to be a vale of tears.
Instead of robot Hal 2000, an elegant, disquieting presence with a soothing voice and a scarily omnipresent lens, we get TARS, an ugly piece of junk with a mid-western accent and a feeble sense of humor. Instead of that crazy white room in 2001 in which Dave sees himself at the end of his life, we get a visualization of the time dimension, which could be pretty cool but for the fact that it is predicated on people saving the world. And you know how I feel about them.
Nolan is good at one thing: convincing Hollywood to give him millions of dollars to make ridiculous movies that, because of their deliberate, inane opacity and their geeky pretentiousness, seem smarter than they are.

Feb 2, 2015

Never Grow Old: The Humbling and Still Alice

Barry Levinson's adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Humbling, starring Al Pacino as a fading actor, is pretty good, as Roth adaptations go. Roth's mastery of language and tone is hard to translate to the screen. Levinson's very assured dark comedic tone (screenplay by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede) is closer to Roth than other recent adaptations, which tend to flatten Roth's caustic humor.
Pacino plays Simon Axler, a famous actor who is starting to lose his gifts. He is aging. He can't remember lines. He has lost his craft, the only thing he ever had. He sacrificed everything for acting, had no family and, after a blackout on stage, he finds himself old, alone and panicking, wishing for death. He has an enthusiastic if clueless agent, (Charles Grodin), and a shrink via Skype, (Dylan Baker).
Enter Pegeen, (Greta Gerwig), daughter of old actor friends, who has been harboring a childhood crush on him way past its expiration date. If it weren't for the fact that he is famous, why would she want to be with him? He is some kind of prize. That creaks.
Axler does not all of a sudden get a rejuvenating second wind. This is Philip Roth, not wishful thinking. What he gets is ideas, and fantasies, and reveries all jumbled along with reality. He also gets back pain. And other people's neuroses.
The movie very deftly makes us feel as unmoored as he is, not necessarily knowing if things happen or they are in his head. With this prickly woman comes a whole bunch of trouble. Pegeen is quite unsympathetic, which should come as no surprise, since Roth is not particularly sweet to women. She goes in and out of relationships and sexual preferences, something that Axler is incapable of fathoming. Gerwig tries to make her egocentrism interesting, but she has no empathy for anyone and deserves none.
I could not help but notice that all the women in this man's life are pests. A crazy loon (Nina Arianda) he meets at a private mental clinic wants him to kill her husband, and Pegeen's jilted lover (Kyra Sedgwick) stalks him. Pegeen's own mother, (Dianne Wiest), wants him to lay off her daughter. Poor Simon Axler, who doesn't seem to ever have done anything to deserve these furies. Still, somehow all these incomprehensible women reflect more on Axler's own bewilderment, his being completely out of touch with people, than on their own neediness.
Like Meryl Streep, Pacino is one of those astounding hams who are mostly something to behold. Here he is hammy on occasion, but not completely over the top. He has many fantastic moments and allows himself to look, feel, and sound decrepit. We see Axler only in his moments of vulnerability and it would have been interesting to get a glimpse of the mastery he lost,  of his craft and life, yet as the title clearly explains, this is a movie about the slide into humiliation that is aging. In this case, it's a ruthless, unrestrained downfall.
I've always loved Barry Levinson's movies. He has a wonderful touch for comedy tinged with darkness. I also love movies that are not afraid to laugh at death and despair. Pacino is touching, but a bit too vulnerable. He is even better when he is funny. There is a hilarious scene involving painkillers in a veterinarian clinic. The excellent cast does the material ample justice. For a movie about death and decrepitude, The Humbling is quite vital. It made me think that we rarely see older people in movies. They play presidents, God or grandparents here and there, but they rarely exist as protagonists within the screen. Movies like Nebraska, Amour and The Humbling are necessary, wonderful anomalies in a world that is indifferent to old age.

Still Alice is also about diminishing capabilities. In this case, Alice is a 50 year-old woman who finds out she has early Alzheimer's disease. As played by Julianne Moore, she is a vibrant and capable neurolinguist. That this should happen to her is supposed to be either particularly ironic or terrible, but since she is smart and has a supportive family, a beautiful brownstone uptown, and a house by the sea, she has more financial and intellectual resources to cope with this devastating disease than most people. Alice is very resourceful and hands on, and searches for the truth with a vengeance.  I think most people are too out of their depth when confronted by this illness to take charge as she does.
Moore is fantastic. She is clearly lost inside her mind, she runs through the gamut of Alice's feelings, including rage, shame, lack of affect, and she really seems like two different people once she starts losing her mind. She acts with authenticity, subtlety and grace. But the movie feels oddly clinical. There is no sense of the chaos I imagine visits families when this happens. Alec Baldwin plays her loving but distant husband, and Kristen Stewart her youngest daughter, but either these people are a little chilly, or the movie, afraid of sentimentality, works too hard to keep strong emotions at arm's length. Julianne Moore summons plenty of tears with her lovely performance, but the movie seems too neatly packaged for such a messy, difficult illness.