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


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.