Dec 29, 2015


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.

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

Very Good
The Revenant
99 Homes
Steve Jobs
The Gift
Where To Invade Next
Love And Mercy
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
The New Girlfriend
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
Dior and I

Fantastic But I Fell Asleep
Cemetery Of Splendour
The Assassin

Les Cowboys
Mia Madre
James White
The Stanford Prison Experiment
While We're Young
Pawn Sacrifice
Learning To Drive
Hungry Hearts
Far From The Madding Crowd
Mad Max: Fury Road
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

Cesar Chavez
The Princess of France
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
The Humbling

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

The Lobster
Bridge Of Spies
The Martian
Goodnight Mommy
Danny Collins
Don't Blink - Robert Frank
My Golden Days
She's Funny That Way

Mistress America
Sleeping With Other People

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

The Danish Girl
Dark Places
The Age Of Adaline
La Sapienza
Ballet 422

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


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


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.