Mar 30, 2015

White God


This remarkable Hungarian film should come with a disclaimer for those who are sensitive to the plight of animals: it is an intense, sometimes harrowing experience starring Hagen, a handsome mutt who is abandoned and left to his own devices in a society that is callous towards animals.
A new law states that mutts that are not pure Hungarian breeds must be reported to the authorities or taken to the pound. The parable about a fascist, racist state is quite transparent, but director Kornél Mundruczó transcends the political metaphor by embracing the power of genre, and creates an action-adventure film starring a most charismatic canine hero, played by two handsome dogs, Luke and Body.
Lili, an elfin teenager who plays the trumpet in a youth orchestra, loves Hagen and wants to keep him, but her father, with whom she is staying while her mother decamps for Switzerland with her new beau, doesn't want to have anything to do with the dog. A nasty neighbor claims Hagen bit her, and the dad abandons the dog in the middle of a freeway. Soon, Hagen finds a bunch of street dogs who band together and elude the police that wants to round them up and take them to the pound. Meanwhile, Lili desperately looks for Hagen, but as a teenager, she has limited resources and after a while she gets used to life without him.
His fate is terrible. Rescued by a homeless man, he is sold to a trainer for dog fights. The trainer reminded me of the nazis: so much effort and ingenuity for such useless, destructive purposes. These scenes will make you sick to your stomach. But it's a matter of time until Hagen finds his way to Lili again. Yet before he goes back to her, he and his buddies have plenty of scores to settle. And do they ever. This is a revenge fantasy for dogs.
Body and Luke, who play Hagen, and the two dogs who play his sweet sidekick Marlene, are incredibly trained animal actors. Their fellow canine colleagues, 250 of them, are all real dogs from a pound in Budapest, and are extremely photogenic as well. Astonishingly, Mundruczó does not use computer graphics or animatronics in the powerful scenes with the dogs, which are extraordinary precisely because of the lack of digital effects. Cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots the dogs beautifully and they, in turn, naturally chew the scenery. The movie is extremely well crafted, considering its unreliable actors.
Alas, Mundruczó embraces the action genre contrivances far too fervently. I wish he hadn't strained the story to manipulate the audience. Once the dogs rebel, and the sequence of feral dogs running amok over Budapest is spectacular, it would have been more honest not to let it drag on.  Lily plays trumpet at a concert as the dogs roam the city. The artificial back and forth distracts the audience out of this magnificently staged illusion and reminds us that someone is pulling the strings with quite a heavy hand. There are big plot holes and too much reliance on genre cliches, but the director redeems himself with a powerful ending, and with the fact that all the pound dogs were placed in homes after their work in the film. Even with its flaws, it is a unique and spectacular film.


Mar 23, 2015

Cinderella



It's a good story. And it is well told in this Disney film by Kenneth Branagh with a very good script by Chris Weitz. They understand that this is too good a story, too iconic, too archetypal, to mess with. It's the number one movie in the world and, beyond Disney's enormous muscle, it's because it is a powerful story about the loss of innocence and coming of age.
The younger kids in the theater were bored out of their wits, but then again this story of love and sexual awakening, originally by Charles Perrault, is better suited to older kids and adults. As innocently as it might be rendered by Walt Disney, the image of a crystal slipper (in this case, a Kardashian-like high-heeled pump) fitting the right woman in a shorthand for intercourse between foot and shoe is quite evocative, if not downright fetishistic. All fairy tales are full of sexual metaphors (the Prince's secret garden, anyone?). They are also very dark. In the original tale, the step-sisters are so greedy for the Prince they cut off their toes and a heel to make the shoe fit. Sadly, here there are no such extremes.
At the beginning, we are introduced to little Ella's perfect family, a world of bliss that, we dread, will soon come to an end.  Ella's mother dies, as is usual in tales, leaving her dad (Ben Chaplin) to screw things up royally by remarrying a worldly woman, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, iconic) who comes with two grotesquely vapid daughters, Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Ella's stepsisters are mean, vulgar and materialistic, but they are not physically hideous, which is a nice touch. They are ugly from within.
The voice-over narration, beautifully provided by Helena Bonham-Carter, who does double duty as the Fairy Godmother, works. She has savvy, wise opinions. Weitz modernizes the story without making it anachronistic to its own time, as so many of the current animated features do with fairy tales. He also plumps up the thin plot of the fairy tale with realistic character motivations. This makes the story more meaningful and makes us understand why it is a classic. While movies like Shrek, Frozen or Maleficent, almost abandon their powerful source material for the sake of pop culture gags or artificially darkened retellings, this Cinderella tells it straight, and makes it surprisingly moving.
Marriage is still the prize, women are still dependent on the finances of men, and the rich guy still gets the poor girl, but the characters are dimensional. Cinderella (the perfect Lily James) is sweet and way too kind for my taste, but she is also smart and sensible. At first, Prince Charming (Richard Madden) looks too much like a generic teenage heartthrob, but he is given backbone. He's a good guy with a democratic spirit, who wants "the people" to come to the ball, so he can find that awesome country girl he met in the forest. He holds his own against the wishes of his father (Derek Jacobi) because he is confident he can marry for love and not rely on monarchic alliances to rule the kingdom. He's a true liberal. The one aspect of this story that is truly a fairy tale is that anyone from the one percent can be remotely interested, let alone cross paths, with the rest of us.
Cinderella does seem to allow too much abuse from her stepmother, but then she fights back, a little. A revolutionary she ain't, but she takes to heart her mother's last words, good advice it would do us all well to heed: "be kind and have courage".  She confronts that awful woman. She asks plainly of Lady Tremaine: "why are you so cruel?"
As evil stepmothers go, Cate Blanchett is the most glamorous of them all, channeling Joan Crawford with blazing red hair and fabulous red lipstick. Costume designer Sandy Powell dresses everybody in the 18th century, but Blanchett looks like a femme fatale from the 1940s. She wears (and wears them well) spectacular gowns in the most gorgeous shades of green, the color of envy. For envy is her thing. She envies youth, she envies beauty, she also envies, it seems, Cinderella's innocence, her goodness, that which she cannot muster. She's been around the block, she lost a husband, slid down in social status, and is bitter for it. Weitz gives her a redeeming feature; after all, she is fighting for her "stupid", as she calls them, daughters. She's the original stage mother. I like my villains villainous, without added justification, but Lady Tremaine's backstory works. She is a vain and scheming woman, but she is trying to survive. And envy is something we all can relate to. I want her gowns.
Passionate discussions were had with my discerning companions about the production design, the color scheme and Cinderella's dress. We all hated the blue of the dress, but I ascribe it to Disney sticking to its own iconography and to its ancillary merchandising. That girl's dress has always been blue, even if a hideous shade. However, this is one spectacular dress. When Cinderella waltzes with the Prince, its undulating flounces reminded me of Ginger Rogers' gowns, which moved to her swaying. Powell has chosen a rich jewel-toned palette for the ball gowns, and everything clashes a bit in Dante Ferretti's production design, which is meant to evoke an old, baroque Europe. It all smacks of a garish old masters' painting, but somehow it works; as if to say, yes, this is an old-fashioned tale, but it still has power. By the way, there should be a retrospective of the work of Sandy Powell. Her costumes are always breathtaking.
As I don't think this is a spoiler for anyone in the Western world, at the happy end, the now young king and his queen seem poised to rule benignly and wisely together, as a team. A nice modern touch, yet still a fairy tale in this day and age... What can I say? I was moved by this film.

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief



You want sinister, hair-raising horror? This documentary on the criminal cult known as the Church of Scientology will give you plenty to outrage you and creep you out. Alex Gibney's film is an effective summary of the excellent, impeccably researched book by Lawrence Wright, but I strongly recommend the book for a more detailed chronicle about the origins and evolution of this sinister cult. It is an amazing read.
One thing is certain: the book may be superior to the movie, but the movie may be what finally brings this scam down. Images are powerful. Gibney got access to videos featuring Hubbard's increasingly deranged personality, and the creepy mass rallies organized by the current leader and creepmaster extraordinaire David Miscavige, productions overblown with game show tackiness and a not a small frisson of totalitarianism. Think Leni Riefenstahl in the Valley.
Currently out in theaters in limited release and on HBO on March 29, the documentary will gain far more exposure than the book and hopefully inflict more damage. It may encourage more disenchanted Scientologists to come forward and "go clear" on the abusive nature of the church. Perhaps the public outcry will finally force the government to remove this cult's tax-exempt religious designation. It's about time. In the meantime, the church is busy discrediting the disgruntled former members that appear in the film and pestering film critics to include their point of view in their reviews! This, if nothing else, shows how delusional they are.
I think the only smart thing L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, ever said was that "if you want to get rich, you start a religion". His church, which is nothing but a spiritual Ponzi scheme, is there to prove it.  His bizarre faith, a mix of pulpy science fiction and psychoanalysis 101, is delivered in a process similar to an addictive internet game, a sort of Candy Crush Saga of the soul. People shell out money to acquire higher spiritual levels. By the time they get to know the crackpot tenets of their "religion", they are out of thousands of dollars and have spent years exposing their every secret in therapeutic sessions called audits. When they finally hear the cockamamie dogmas about Xenu and Thetans they may be in too deep, too ashamed of having been duped, to leave. It is a brilliant mind control scheme disguised as a spiritual path to make you a better person and the world a better place. The question that Wright says he wanted to answer remains elusive: what makes otherwise rational and intelligent people fall for such a scheme? In this case, it's beyond personal torment or an obsession with self-improvement. Scientology's ascending system of belief is designed to hook you, brainwash you, and relieve you of your money.
Another question that the documentary tries to answer, not very satisfactorily, is how do the former leaders of the church, once enforcers, now whistleblowers, feel about their own actions? Yes, they are brave to come out (considering the harassment coming at them from the church), but where is their sense of responsibility for the damage and pain they inflicted on others?  Gibney should have been harsher with these people. He lets them off easy.
As Gibney piles on outrageous examples of the church's abuses one wonders, how is this legal? The answer is simple: the U.S. government is afraid of Scientology. Last time it tried to collect the billion dollars the church owed in unpaid taxes, the I.R.S. received 2400 lawsuits, and it was infiltrated and harassed in what Wright calls the biggest spying operation ever perpetrated against the U.S. government (not even Russia or China come close). Since the church is so wealthy it can afford to litigate until the end of time, the IRS granted tax-exempt religious status to the church to get the lawsuits and harassment off its back. Meanwhile, the church has enriched itself enormously by the fees and contributions of its members, by its huge real estate holdings, and without paying a cent in taxes or a cent in labor.
If the cult has always been loony -- and one look at Hubbard should be enough to discourage anyone from believing anything coming out of his mouth -- after Hubbard's death, David Miscavige, an even more sinister man who was born into the faith, made his way to the top and has presided over the church in an increasingly paranoid and abusive fashion.
As for its two most famous acolytes, the documentary posits the theory that the reason John Travolta and Tom Cruise have not left or confronted its abuses, is because they are afraid of what the church could disclose against them as retaliation, since every audit consists of detailed notes on the members' most private issues. You do the math.
Although many people claim that Scientology has helped them, the church has been known to try to destroy the lives of anyone that dares oppose or criticize it. It has destroyed families, ruined, humiliated and intimidated former members. If their tactics were performed by anything not called a religion they would qualify as crimes. But the church shelters itself under the protection of the first amendment, and its tax-exempt status. The most outrageous fact that emerges from this interesting film is why this criminal cult, accused of human trafficking, abductions, physical abuse, among other things, is still legal in the US.
A great companion piece to this movie is P.T. Anderson's The Master. If you haven't seen it, see the documentary first. It sheds light on how much Anderson based his thinly fictionalized movie about the charismatic leader of a cult on Scientology. You will see that Philip Seymour Hoffman's incredible performance hews close to some aspects of Hubbard, although he comes across as much classier, charismatic and authoritative than that pudgy man.



Mar 14, 2015

It Follows


It doesn't really. A collection of scattered, potentially interesting ideas fizzle out in this silly horror movie. The premise is that something scary is unleashed against you when you have sex. In real life this may range from HPV to gonorrhea to herpes to AIDS, all way scarier than the people (zombies? undead? It's not clear) who appear to be following the poor horny fools who shag. Imagine if you took these sexually invoked zombies to instill sexual panic in the general population. A disaster movie about abstinence! That would be interesting. But It Follows sticks to a bunch of inarticulate, generic young adults and wastes every opportunity that its own premise promises.
I was wondering if the easy way out from this horror would be to simply use a condom, but the movie never addresses the possibility, as it doesn't really care about the rules it sets up and then changes at will. Character and motivation are never established, so we don't understand why the heroine of the movie makes crazy choices, for instance, as when in the throes of sheer terror she decides to run to a park alone at night and sit on a swing. Unless there are good reasons for the bewildering choices characters make in horror movies, the audience is distracted by the whys. As in, why are you so stupid?
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell toys with the disturbing notion that this post-sexual haunting may be a cruel prank, a sort of urban legend that drives people crazy, since no one else can see the followers. What if it is all in their heads, a sort of suggested hysteria? That's the movie I would have loved to see. Psychological terror is always far scarier and suggestive than the supernatural. The director flashes this idea at the audience but soon abandons it, as he does every potentially interesting story turn. He skims over the juiciest parts of his own premise.
It Follows has all the elements of a classic horror movie (and too many of its well-worn tropes) yet Mitchell doesn't have the attention span and the focus to carry them out. For instance, he establishes that the girl has two creepy teenage neighbors who like to spy on her. But he underestimates their potential to confuse and soon forgets them. The movie is full of such arbitrary and absurd nonsequiturs.
Still, it is fun to find yourself scanning the frame for these shapeshifters, who sometimes look like normal people, sometimes are naked, sometimes look like ghouls. It would be nice to know who they are: the bereft after sex? The people who don't have any? It's a mystery.
It is fun to not know who is real and who isn't, and Mitchell handles this particularly well in one scene. But then random stuff starts happening and one loses faith in a movie that does not follow its own rules. There is one effectively staged, truly scary moment, achieved with nothing but the smart use of a tall guy and excellent timing.  The rest is a lot of aimless padding and lazy writing.
The overwrought, manipulative music score doesn't help. There are a couple of well-staged moments (ripoffs of Polanski and David Fincher) within disorganized sequences, but the movie makes no sense. The ending is a total dud. I didn't follow it.

Mar 2, 2015

Maps To The Stars


The evil sister to Birdman, this bitterly vicious satire by David Cronenberg, based on a novel by Bruce Wagner, is happily, and like Cronenberg's best films, a movie about human horror. Maps To The Stars is about the needy, insecure, monstrously warped egos inbred by Hollywood culture, but in contrast to the genial Birdman, which is a feel-good movie in which vanity motivates creativity, Maps To The Stars is about egos so selfish and diseased they sow nothing but destruction.
The movie is at times clunky, the story and its symbolism are heavy handed and not clearly mapped out. The script strains to organize the complicated plot, in which the central metaphor is incest. The writing (the script is adapted by Wagner from his novel) is uneven. The satire is sharp but the plot is fuzzy. Still, Cronenberg meanders down extremely dark, uncomfortable places and summons his formidable capacity to shock.
More than just a facile look at Hollywood's notorious nastiness, Maps To The Stars is like a Freudian funhouse. It's a labyrinth of selves untethered by decency, empathy or common sense, that leads back to what made them sick in the first place, a recurring nightmare. Fame + Money = Crazy. Maps To The Stars makes Birdman look like a kiddie ride at Disneyland. The ignorant filth that comes out of the mouths of teenage actors in this movie makes the hacked Sony emails sound like they were written by Emily Post.
A spectacular Julianne Moore, winner of the Best Actress prize at Cannes, plays Havana Segrand, a hilariously vapid, damaged, prematurely fading movie star. Havana is the product of a traumatic childhood, courtesy of her dead movie star mother, who she believes or fantasizes, it isn't clear which, sexually abused her as a child. This being Hollywood, a remake is being made of the movie that made her mother famous, and of course, Havana wants to play her mom like a cat chasing its tail.
A hot mess of insecurity and narcissism, Moore is pitch perfect as an emotionally tortured character who boasts the casual cruelty of the utterly self-involved, complete with perky boobs and a perfect L.A. accent. She is scarily good. Havana is not the main character in the movie, but Moore steals it, and you realize how much you miss her whenever she is not onscreen. I am kind of freaking out at the Jungian implications of the same actress playing the Alzheimer's ridden neurosurgeon of Still Alice the same year as this crazy Hollywood bimbo. In my humble opinion, she won the Oscar for the wrong movie. Those endearing journalists from the Golden Globes got it right when they nominated her for both films. Not to take anything away from her sensational work in Still Alice, but her turn as Havana Segrand is an equally brave tour de force. She goes through every feeling, genuine and fake, known to man. She is, as they say in this movie, beyond.
An excellent John Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a wealthy self-help guru who, in true self-help guru fashion, only cares about his book tour, even as his family collapses around him. Cusack approaches the phony he plays with icily controlled glee. Stafford gives expensive and painful massages and whispers psycho-spiritual mumbo jumbo to clueless stars who confuse his shtick with therapy.
Weiss has spawned a little monster, Benjie (the creepily good Evan Bird), a Bieber-like bundle of nastiness; a rotten, entitled kid who makes millions for his incompetent parents by working in crappy sequels and sitcoms. In comes the mysterious Agatha (Mia Wasikowska, excellent, as usual) all the way from Florida, with burn scars in her face. She lands a job as Havana's personal assistant, thanks to her close Twitter "friend" Carrie Fisher, who appears as herself in a perversely funny cameo. Down this Tinseltown rabbit hole everyone is connected, not only through schmoozing, name-dropping and other, more sexual activities, but by virtue of sharing the same nightmares and stories; by virtue of the ongoing incest between the movies, the lives, rehabs and deaths of movie stars, and the starfucking of executives, wannabes and audiences.
Cronenberg pulls no punches satirizing low hanging fruit like these Hollywood types, but as a master of horror he is not content with just skewering a town that skewers everybody for a living. There is something visceral in his judgement. What to make of Benjie's mother (Olivia Williams), who both pimps out her child and lets him abuse her, refusing to set a single lousy boundary? And she is not alone. Every adult is powerless around Benjie. This kid is a cash cow, hence he can be vile to everyone.
As comical as Havana is, her life is painful, lonely, full of drugs and debasement, even as she goes on eighteen thousand dollar shopping sprees.  The kids in this movie are so beyond help, it's actually shocking. Hollywood is shown to be such a den of iniquity that only violent, vengeful purification is in order. Maps To The Stars is a welcome addition to the wonderful genre of acid movies about Hollywood like Sunset Blvd., The Player, and Mulholland Drive, and if it's not quite as polished as these movies, it is deliciously disturbing.