Dec 29, 2016

O.J: Made In America


I saw this epic documentary by Ezra Edelman on a big screen at one seating, 11 am to 7 pm, and it took my breath away. It has the scope of a Shakespearean tragedy and the feel of a spiraling, prismatic nightmare. It is crammed with information and raises a thousand questions for every answer it seeks to shed light on. It has a colorful, entertaining and deeply revelatory cast of characters, from best friends, managers, former attorneys, jury members, prosecutors, police officers, and a particularly fabulous helicopter pilot. Some of them, like Marcia Clark, O.J.'s manager, and Mark Fuhrman leave you wanting answers. It is an absolutely riveting and thoroughly depressing film: eight hours of much that is wrong with this country through the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson.

You may remember the murders, the white Bronco and the trial and the surreal circus we witnessed for 8 months in the mid-nineties. This movie puts it all into context. From Simpson's street smart childhood in the San Francisco projects to his astounding feats as a college football hero and adored celebrity, to his ignominious fall, the portrait that emerges is the exact opposite of a hero.
This country has an unhealthy obsession with heroes and it slaps the term on all kinds of undeserving people quite lightly. This tends to happen particularly in sports. I have never fathomed why people think that someone as evidently rank as Michael Phelps is a hero. Look what happened to Lance Armstrong, who abused the privilege. And then there is O.J. Simpson, who took his own glorification to new highs and lows.
He was extremely good looking, a gifted athlete, and according to many people in the film, an irresistible charmer. He had an amazing rags-to-riches story and all the talent, fame, money and public adoration someone could possibly wish for. But soon a jarring note is introduced. The young college football player refused to participate in the Civil Rights movement when Mohammed Ali was gathering the biggest black athletes in America to join in the protest, a decision that cost many of them dearly. We learn through the course of the film that Simpson's indifference, which you could ascribe to youthful ambition was only one manifestation of a deeply narcissistic, manipulative personality. The personality that emerges is that of a coward and an egomaniac with deep reserves of unfathomable anger: driven, controlling, manipulative, paranoid and deeply self-hating, to the point that he did not consider himself Black. His tragedy is that his undeniable talent and consequent celebrity amplified an already damaged ego.
Hand in hand with the exploration into Simpson's personality, Edelman weaves a compelling look into the country he was born into; a country that still refuses to fully acknowledge and heal the disastrous and ongoing ramifications of slavery and racism.
The Los Angeles where O.J. moved after he retired from playing for Buffalo was a sunny haven for people with money but a hell of a segregated town with a police department that was notoriously abusive of the Black community. By the time his saga happened, L.A. had witnessed the Rodney King beating and story after story of police brutality against African-Americans.
Hindsight is truly 20-20. At the time of the trial, I made a $100 bet that O.J. would be found guilty. The evidence, after all, was overwhelming. Perhaps I was too new to the U.S. and was unaware of the enormous gulf between blacks and whites and the racial tensions bubbling under the surface. After watching this film, the competing black and white perspectives are clearly laid bare. The insurmountable differences in the perception of Simpson: to white people, a cold-blooded liar and murderer; to the black community, just another black man framed by racist police, dramatically divided the country thanks to years of mutual distrust and prejudice and to blatant manipulation by the defense and the prosecution alike. Any white person who does not understand how the not-guilty verdict was arrived at will have a much clearer understanding.

This movie covers many layers of the American experience. The first one, which I had forgotten about and which shocked me, and perhaps the only one which is truly universal, is domestic violence. Nicole Brown would routinely call 911 from the couple's home in Brentwood fearing for her life. Quite simply, she was a battered wife. Celebrity or not, her case is yet another statistic of spousal abuse that ends in murder, when victims don't leave and abusers are not arrested and locked up. Poor Ronald Goldman, a waiter who came by to deliver a pair of glasses, was caught in the maniacal rage of a wife beater. The documentary shows the gruesome pictures of the crime scene that were left out of the newscasts and the newspapers at the time. They are so extreme, they were not fit to be seen by the public at large.

The heady, highly toxic and very American cocktail of money and celebrity allows people to get away with murder; in this case, literally. Because Simpson was a celebrity (which turned him virtually into a demigod) and lived in a tony white neighborhood, a policeman shows up after one of Nicole's frightened calls and finds her hiding in the bushes, bruised and scared out of her wits, but instead of cuffing O.J. and putting him in the car, he lets him get dressed, and next thing he knows, O.J. is escaping in his Bentley. Then, as she did time and again, she declines to press charges. It could be out of love, codependency, fear, the fact that he was a meal ticket for her entire family, or possibly all of the above. Certainly his money and status played a part.
The two almost comically incompetent detectives that arrested Simpson after the chase make every effort to allow him to acquit himself in their interrogation. Hell, consider that surreal chase in which a squad of patrol cars basically accompanies him as if at a procession. Edelman shows aerial footage of what happens to any regular idiot who uses his car to flee the long arm of the LAPD. They don't get a parade like O.J. They get totaled.
I don't have to tell you about the distortion of reality that this insane American cult of cash and celebrity brings: we are about to inaugurate a demented orange baboon as President of the United States because of money and fame. In fact, the parallels with Trump are inevitable. In both cases, there are reams of incontrovertible evidence as to the toxicity of both celebrities' characters. They are both pathologically narcissistic.

When it comes to the trial itself, and the justice system that allowed such an unseemly spectacle is where you tear out your hair in despair. Justice for all... that $50,000 a day in lawyer fees can buy. An incompetent and self-serving District Attorney and a beleaguered prosecution team which in hindsight made terrible, but almost inevitable, tactical mistakes, all due to the racial makeup of the story, including the location of the jury trial, the jury selection and the choice of judge, among many others. As the trial laid bare at the time, the American justice system is designed to work only for those who can afford it.

Which brings us back to the "race card". It is a disgrace, but a fact and at the core of this story, that this is how Simpson's legal fate was going to be played out. The most exquisite and painful irony is that, until he became a murderer, O.J. Simpson wanted nothing to do with black people. Except for his childhood friends, all his friends were white. He had always been out for himself; never had a shred of conscience, racial or otherwise. But the minute it was time to elicit sympathy, he suddenly found his roots. He had people like Johnny Cochran fashion a racial narrative for him, complete with a racist cop supposedly planting evidence. Yet Simpson and his Dream Team were not alone in making it about race. The prosecution made it about race when it changed the location of the trial, when it introduced Christopher Darden, and when it chose eight black women as jurors. According to Marcia Clark, it turned out that they had no sympathy for Nicole Brown: the white interloper wife of a Black man.
Race is the poison that feeds this terrible story from inception, and Edelman is not shy to explore its worst aspects - Simpson as the unthreatening negro, the Uncle Tom-ish Hertz spokesman, the guy who had to get the white woman, who wondered what were "all those niggers" doing in his neighborhood, welcoming him home after the chase. Charitably, his loyal friends insist that all he wanted was to transcend race. He had a point, to a point. He wanted to be equal, in his own selfish way. However, his behavior was far from an appeal to equality and brotherly love. He was indifferent to his community and became a sad minstrel sideshow for the mainstream media. He lacked what true heroes have: dignity.






Dec 28, 2016

2016: The Year In Movies. Best, Worst and Everything in Between


Perhaps not as horribilis as it was in real life, but 2016 was a crap year in movies, for the most part.
Still:

Excellent
The Handmaiden
O.J. Made In America
Jackie
The Club
Elle
Hail Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
13th
The Wailing

Very Good
The Witch
A Bigger Splash
The Clan
Krisha
Indignation
Southwest of Salem
La La Land
Neruda
Mustang
The Witness: Kitty Genovese
Aquarius
The Mermaid

Good
Manchester By The Sea
20th Century Women
Hidden Figures
In The Heart Of The Sea
Dheepan
Julieta
Captain Fantastic
Love and Friendship
The Conjuring 2
Christine
Fences
Equity
Loving
Things To Come

Absolutely Bizarre
Evolution

Okay
Café Society
Maggie's Plan 
Don't Think Twice
Weiner
Live By Night

Interesting But Flawed
Miles Ahead
The Invitation
Miss Sloane
The Fits

Overrated
Moonlight
Toni Erdmann
Arrival
Hell or High Water

Meh
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Family Fang

Disappointing
Nocturnal Animals
Green Room
The Lobster
Creepy
Don't Breathe

Bad
American Pastoral
A Tale Of Love And Darkness

Pretentious and Bad 
Knight of Cups
The Neon Demon
Heart of a Dog

Horrid
Silence

Haven't Seen Yet:
I, Daniel Blake
Paterson
Sully

You'd Have To Pay Me To See:
Rogue One
Allied
Hacksaw Ridge
Collateral Beauty
Lion












Dec 27, 2016

Toni Erdmann


A curious and original story from Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is a well-rounded comedy of opposites. A creative, jocular father and his square, corporate daughter face off in a battle of wills that escalates at absurdum.
The movie is anchored by a truthful and phenomenal performance by Sandra Hüller, in the role of Ines, a young German consultant working in Bucharest, who is driven in her pursuit of business deals. She is very good at what she does and has to deal with the soul-crushing, generic corporate culture, which includes casual if aggressive sexism, tiresome, absurdist groupthink and futile passive-aggressive power plays between international employees. The Germans hire an American or English consultancy to work with the Rumanians, which as the movie points out, boast of the biggest mall in Europe where no one has any money to buy anything.
Ade skewers this world perfectly, capturing precisely the genericness of the people, their business lingo peppered with Orwellian English phrases like "team-building", their blind obedience to corporate culture. It deserves her thorough thrashing.
Ines' father, Winfried, aka Toni, (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in an elementary school, is sadly and suddenly in possession of time off, so he decides to show up unannounced in Bucharest. The family dynamics are strained. Just like children of authoritarians may become hippies and anarchists, sometimes children of free spirits are the squarest people, because the apples need to fall as far from the tree as possible. Through her difficulty at connecting with her dad, one can imagine what it must have been like for Ines to grow up with a prankster father, an unambitious dreamer.
Her mother has remarried and seems to be happy with a whole new, normal family. Perhaps it's droll having a clown for a dad the first few years and then it gets tiresome.
The plot of this movie hinges upon Winfried articulating an apparently innocuous question that Ines finds deeply offensive: "Are you happy?"
He likes to gently prank people with the aid of fake teeth and a terrible wig. Ines tries to take it in stride and with dignity, but he keeps surprising her and embarrassing her in public, bent on making her lose her steely composure. And here is where, even if there are a couple of strong, great twists, I parted company with the movie. The guy is just not that funny. His humor is leaden. He is like a giant baby, too dim to understand the rules of his daughter's world. Perhaps this is on purpose, but at over two hours and a half, my patience with his daughter's patience wore thin. Ade strains to find situations in which Winfried has to be involved, for instance, at a visit to an oil field, where Ines could have easily commanded him to stay in the car. There's a lot of forced slapstick, which is a peculiar brand of awkward humor. Some people at my screening were laughing hysterically. Out of me, this movie got plenty of wry smiles but only a few laughs.
But then, as I was losing faith in the movie, Ade escalates it to a daring level of absurdity. Emotionally, it makes sense: Ines is perhaps made of the same cloth as Winfried, as much as she resists accepting it, and being fiercely competitive, even with herself, she truly ups the ante, playing a major prank on her colleagues, literally revealing them in all their corporate absurdity. In the end, for all her resistance, Winfried/Toni has made a dent on Ines. A lovely, moving scene of reconciliation is touchingly poetic.
The movie is funniest when Ines tries to keep everything under control. In the best scene in the movie, she sings a very apropos Whitney Houston song in front of a roomful of strangers. She is nothing if not bent on performing stellarly. Hüller is truly the reason this movie works. And the well-observed details about the travails of working people in a globalized world make it more than just a light comedy. If only the humor were not so heavy-handed.

Dec 19, 2016

La La Land


This is going to sound completely vacuous, but watching Ryan Gosling hoof and sing and fall in love and play the ivories with passion made me forget about all the problems in the world. In fact, it made me think: Aleppo and Trump are happening, but here is Ryan Gosling giving my tired old heart sheer undiluted joy. Isn't this what movies and movie stars are for?
Director Damian Chazelle (Whiplash) is a clever filmmaker, and he seems to have opted for deliberate artificiality in order to make La La Land, a musical movie, work. And work it does, emotionally. The story is about two creative people, Mia, an aspiring actress and Sebastian, an anachronistic jazz pianist, who struggle to hang on to their dignity in L.A., a sunny but brutal town when it comes to making dreams come true.
But La La Land works mainly because Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are wonderful and delightful. They have a lovely chemistry together and are excellent apart. They are not belters or showbiz kind of performers so their naturality as they sing and dance is very affecting. They portray their characters with grit, wit and charm.
Chazelle is good with perky dialogue as well as with visual gags. The opening scene is a nod to the famous traffic jam that opens Fellini's 81/2, but also a sweet joke on the legendary gridlock of Los Angeles. The different music coming out of people's cars sets up the stage for the musical we're about to watch.  Being as they are, stuck in traffic, Mia and Sebastian do not meet cute; they meet with road rage. The spirit of this film is at once romantic and nostalgic for the effortless romance of the past, and also a little bit jaded and realistic about life. Billy Wilder would be proud.
La La Land made me think of the Great Depression and how those Busby Berkeley musicals and other light fare spirited people away from their misery (if they could afford a movie ticket). This charming film does that. It sucks you into the story of the artistic and romantic struggles of two winning losers, with pep and whimsy but without sentimentality, indeed with a clear-eyed realistic assessment of love, and a ballsy dream sequence that goes for the bittersweet because life isn't perfect.
The music by Justin Hurwitz is nice and serviceable, but not particularly memorable (the uninteresting leit motif repeated over and over is borderline annoying). Chazelle uses normal singing voices, instead of Ethel Merman-like singers, and the effect is a little shaggy, but heartfelt. Stone and Gosling are refreshingly natural singers and dancers, a much-needed antidote to the horrifying belting currently in vogue in films like Frozen. They have class.
Although the color scheme aims to evoke the technicolor musicals of yore I thought the film could look better. However, coming up with an original musical film in this day and age is a radical notion, and this fresh take on love and creative struggle is a lovely and timely gift from a talented filmmaker.

Dec 10, 2016

Arrival


I was bored from minute one. Is this a movie about language and communication, or is this a movie about predicting the future, or is this a movie about China and Russia being mean?
Arrival has some interesting stuff going for it. I liked the alien heptapods, which also look like hands and have elephant skin. Their language blooms like ink on water. They sound like basso profundo whales, slightly sad. I liked the thick, gel-like texture of their atmosphere and I liked Amy Adams, who does way too much with way too little. But the movie made no sense to me.
In science fiction movies the science better be buttoned up and understandable. You can't have characters espousing theories about language and half a second later you are communicating with the aliens without really explaining how. Showing a bunch of complicated graphics doesn't do the trick, and particularly not with language, since as opposed to applied mathematics, musical notation or nuclear physics, plain old language is something we all use.
It makes no sense to me that a linguist would try to communicate through written language with beings who grunt in stereo. First option would be sound, no? Music! Echoing their sounds. And the second would be images. A smiley face? Because that's how we started communicating back in the caves. Written language came much later.
Arrival, like other current pretentious sci-fi movies like Interstellar, suffers from ambitious metaphysics and phony, half-baked science that it cannot explain. It's a problem with the writing. People who write movies like this trust that the audience will not be too demanding and so they futz it up and think no one will care. Now, let me clarify. The science could be completely made up. Bugs Bunny could invent the science. As long as it is clearly established, we buy it, because those are the ground rules. But I never understood how we went to being baffled by the aliens' beautiful inky circles, to the word "weapon". How did that happen? And why that word? Showing people trying to solve problems in their head does not do the trick.
Worse, however, are the ultra-conventional, comic book clichés of the world being hostile and aggressive to these things (reminiscent of A War of The Worlds). Sure their spacecraft is scary, and sure the military should be involved, but I would think that NASA and the scientific community would be more important than some meanie from the CIA, of all places. There is a bad Chinese general and the Russians are dicks, and the Americans are not likable either (perhaps the one realistic touch). So poor Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are the only two scientists on Earth who can talk to these guys.
Meanwhile, I spent the entire movie thinking that it really works like a very benign metaphor for Donald Trump. If there is a scary alien that threatens to pulverize the world tweet by toxic tweet, he is it. The anxiety this movie creates about our inability to communicate echoes what is happening in the world right now. Sadly, it doesn't focus enough on the miracle of communication, which is what I thought it was about. At some point, it turns out that it is also about the ability to predict the future, and these two ideas are never explained or tied coherently. It feels like watching two different movies.
But my biggest disappointment is that I felt no sense of either suspense, wonder or awe, even if the aliens are conceptually interesting and there are a couple of mildly thrilling moments (one involving Amy Adams' hair). This movie made me pine for Steven Spielberg, who as shlocky as he can be, is truly a master at unleashing a sense of curiosity and wonder. And fun, for crying out loud! This movie is humorless.



Dec 4, 2016

Jackie


A jewel box of private and public pain, this film by Pablo Larraín is a layered study of the tension between private grief and public performance. It is an intimate portrait of grief, a film about personal devastation from the point of view of a woman who was in close proximity to absolute power, lived at the seat of power, but had only the very limited power she could wield as the wife of the slain president of the United States.
The movie starts with Jackie (Natalie Portman, formidable) talking to a journalist (Billy Crudup) and then jumps back and forth, from when Mrs. Kennedy gave a tour of the White House for the first time on TV, to the assassination of her husband, and its immediate aftermath in her life. The excellent script by Noah Oppenheim never leaves the focus on Jackie. It never moves out to depict the shock and grief that gripped the nation and the world; a wonderful choice, because it is far more powerful as an intimate portrait of a woman in a time of crisis than as a conventional account of historical events.
At the center of the maelstrom, Jackie Kennedy remains an enigma. She is stylish, perhaps frivolous and interested in throwing grand soireés; she is cultured and well-read and obsessed with history in a fetishistic way; she is petite, demurring and gracious but also steely and single-minded in her pursuit of dignity -- a style icon, but a shy one. She is fiercely loyal to the memory of a husband who she knew was disloyal to her. She is poised and controlled in public, and unhinged by grief in private. Natalie Portman pulls out all the stops, including nailing Jackie's breathy voice and her insane accent, which is no small feat. She is fantastic in this movie, capturing moment by moment the tension of living such profound devastation as a public performance. Jackie is a woman trying to rein in and give meaning to a world that is spinning out of control.
Larraín shoots Portman mostly in close-ups, leaving the grand personalities of history, including her husband, on the margins. It's a masterfully realized character study. The scene on Air Force One where Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) takes the oath of office while Jackie is visibly reeling from the shock is all you need to know about how it feels to have the earth pulled right from under your feet.
Larraín is one of the most skillful directors working today. The movie feels like we have entered a snow globe hermetically sealed from inside to witness events almost from the very skin of the woman at the center of the story. Although Jackie is an American story, conceptually it is not a typical American film. It steadfastly avoids clichéd heroics or epic sentiment. Larraín was an inspired choice to direct because his movies are always concerned with understanding and revealing power (mostly in all its ugliness). He is allergic to sentimentality but capable of profound empathy.
The only elements that feel shoehorned are the inclusion of two fictional characters, the journalist (Crudup), and a priest (the great John Hurt) to whom Jackie tells her story. I get the symbolism. After the events, Jackie talks to the press, understanding and fiercely insisting that power lies in controlling the narrative, and with the priest, she lets rip with the awful, unvarnished truth that pours out of her in her grief, which in both cases is tinted with anger. As good as they are, these conversations tend to slow the movie down. Still, Larraín knows exactly what to reveal when, and the script mirrors the experience of shock and loss remembered, in bits and pieces, so the assassination itself blossoms at precisely the right moment, not when the audience expects it, and it feels like a punch in the gut.
The extraordinary music score by Mica Levi echoes the revulsion, the shock, the unmoored feeling of the cataclysmic event. The meticulous art direction, attention to fashion, and every single prop mirror Jackie's own obsession with image, and with history and its artifacts. The perfect harmony of subject matter and flawless execution make Jackie a strangely hypnotic, fetishistic film. Jackie is obsessed with preserving history, showing the truth, and punishing chaos with dignity. Thus, Jackie comes at a very timely juncture, in which we are left to ponder what's in a presidency. As Jackie Kennedy makes clear in this movie, the presidency is as much about policy as it is about powerful symbolism and clear leadership. The first family mirrors the country it leads.






Nov 28, 2016

Nocturnal Animals


A stylish mess. Amy Adams is wasted in a rudderless role in this modern noir by Tom Ford about a wealthy woman who has everything and is deeply unhappy. She lives in a modernist box in the Hollywood Hills, has a penchant for terrible performance art, has a handsome, unconcerned husband (Armie Hammer) and gets a manuscript in the mail from her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a poor sap) in which he has novelized what she did to him before she married the millionaire.
As she reads the book, we go back and forth from her slick, empty existence to a garish American Gothic tale of violence. The elements of the plot of this film have far more promise than Ford knows what to do with and what could be a satisfying blackhearted noir about revenge with a strong femme fatale is a clumsy study in empty artificiality. Perhaps the structure is what dooms the film. If everything important happens either in the past or in a book, there's no momentum and no suspense. A femme fatale who mopes and reads is not necessarily the most compelling plot device. Compounding the problem, the pulpy novel doesn't seem to be very good. Its opening scenes are patently absurd, but it gets better as it goes along. In fact, it gets immeasurably better the moment Michael Shannon shows up as the sheriff of a sleepy dump in Texas where Edward, the protagonist of the novel (also Gyllenhaal) and his family get singled out for abuse by evil local yokels that look like runway models in a Tom Ford fashion show. The main meanie is played by a dramatically miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who despite his best mugging is completely unconvincing as evil in cowboy boots.
Shannon is by far the best thing this film has going for it. The movie feels like a mannequin challenge that comes alive only when Shannon is in the frame. He inhabits his character as cozily as someone wears a pair of faded jeans. He also looks like the only one who's having fun. Everything else is stiff and ersatz and more than mildly ridiculous.
The second best thing is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, which makes Los Angeles dark and brackish and lights the flats of Texas with its own dramatic sunlight. You can enjoy this film for the way it looks and sounds (fabulous fashions, a lush noirish score by Abel Korzeniowsky), but it desperately needs more.
It's hard to waste and misdirect an actress of Adams's caliber, but Ford doesn't give her character dimension, so Adams flounders, still finding some good moments, but unable to bring into focus the person she plays. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal is saddled with the thankless role of playing someone who doesn't fight back. His moment of glory comes offscreen. The ending is also about the best part of the movie and saves it from being completely absurd.

Nov 17, 2016

Elle


I'm curious about the response this provocative film on rape by Paul Verhoeven could generate on American university campuses. Would it be studied or banned? No trigger warning or safe space may be enough to handle this movie, which unlike other movies about rape, resists the pull of moralizing, educating, or representing victimization with well-worn tropes.
Elle is a curious, well-made psychological thriller that aims to provoke discussion by teasing out the twisted psychology of its characters. It's a rape revenge fantasy only in the most literal sense of the word; it also happens to be a rape fantasy of sorts. It's a movie about trauma and its consequences, which has at its center a most unlikely anti-heroine.
In this story, which takes place among the well-heeled in Paris, rape is a trauma that becomes some sort of a game. After all, trauma and games both involve degrees of ritualistic repetition. Michele, (Isabelle Huppert) a rich, successful woman, has some gnarly psychological issues related to parental abuse when she was young. She is a victim that has empowered herself to survive and triumph in a terrible world, which in a way it's its own revenge. We discover through her contradictory behavior that she may still be reenacting her traumas. Michele has survived a horrific past and when violence returns to her life, she falls into its spell once again.
It stands to reason that if a character is played by Isabelle Huppert, no one should expect a fragile wallflower. She is an expert on women who piss ice water. It's not a coincidence that Michele happens to own a video game company where young men create violent, misogynistic videos. She is harsh to her mother, to her son, to her employees, even to her best friend and business partner (Anne Consigny). She exerts control by keeping everyone at bay, but she is also curiously compliant - she balances such behavioral extremes with ovaries of steel.
Somehow, La Huppert manages to make Michele sympathetic, not only because we see her survive a violent attack and, as the story unspools, we are made aware of her past, but because she makes bold choices and her unflinching honesty is both chilling and funny. She is an alluring enigma, wielding power while oozing contempt in some situations, and acting like a docile child in others. Her idea of love is writing checks to family members as she berates them with snark, being irrationally jealous of her ex-husband's younger girlfriend, and punishing her lover by acquiescing to bad sex. Michele has a dark sense of humor and takes to her own recovery from old and new traumas with methodical, steely resolve. She refuses to be a victim. She is in fact, what some males call a strong, powerful woman: the personification of the C-word. Her contradictions make her a fascinating anti-hero.
I can't think of any other movie where a female rape victim is not a conventional heroine or a martyr. Elle presents an alternative narrative to our culture's discourse around rape. It brings out in the open perverse stuff that probably only gets discussed in the sanctity of the therapist's office. Getting off on rape is not the response we are conditioned to expect from victims. It is a huge taboo.
Some people may find this movie objectionable, but I would counsel them to keep an open mind. Michele's story is unique to her and her behavior is as singular as her fingerprints (although she is probably not the only person in the world with these issues). Elle is based on a novel by Phillipe Djiann, and it presents the many compartments of Michele's world: her home life, work, French society, the media, the internet. The Catholic Church lurks heavily in the sidelines, its hypocrisy shrouding and abetting some tortured souls. We even get to imagine the motivations of her rapist. A peek into Michele's predicament is like falling down the rabbit-hole of respectability and finding a bottomless pit where human pain and desire swirl in a repetitive cycle of violence.

Watching the staccato pacing, the well-crafted editing, the spryness, scope and deftly handled development of the story (from an excellent screenplay by David Birke), I was reminded that Verhoeven was once a talented, competent director who made the original Robocop (a good movie) and Total Recall (not bad), but then went on to make trashy movies like Basic Instinct and legendary clunkers like Showgirls and Starship Troopers. That this is his most mature film is an understatement. Though he still gets off on violence, and stages it well, he seems to be better at orchestrating complex chamber pieces with many moving parts, like this one, than bombastic, digitally enhanced spectacles. Elle is an extremely engaging, even entertaining film that grapples with a thorny sexual theme without giving the audience any definite, let alone comforting, answers.

Nov 7, 2016

Moonlight


Watching the first scene of this movie by Barry Jenkins, where Chiron, a scrawny black kid, runs from a bunch of bullies and hides in an abandoned property, panting in despair, I realized that there are no movies that feature black children as protagonists (except for the last version of Annie). This means that black kids never see themselves on the big screen, and not all that much on TV either.
If you are not white, you may grow up without ever seeing yourself onscreen. A gay black friend told me that this is the first time he saw himself represented. No movie until now had ever reflected his reality. This is tragic.
In this respect, Moonlight is important and remarkable, as it tells the story of the painful blossoming of Chiron, also nicknamed "Little", into a young gay black man, in three chapters: as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man. The critical and popular success of this movie will hopefully open doors for similar untold stories.
As is true of other movies with homosexual themes aimed at mainstream audiences, like Brokeback Mountain or Carol, Moonlight portrays Chiron's sexual awakening tastefully and tenderly. Jenkins has a fine cast, including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and André Holland, who are all excellent, and displays a sensitive, empathetic touch.
However, his self-conscious style gets in the way. He tries to elevate material that doesn't need elevating by using too many long and pregnant pauses every time characters speak, and camera work that calls attention to itself instead of deepening our understanding of the characters and their world. The script is rather thin and the characters are not detailed enough. The pacing is slow (not in a good way) and the film lacks detail and texture.
In "Little", the best part of the movie, Chiron gets rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and the boy refuses to go back home, adopting Juan as his father figure. So it is a surprise when we see that his home situation is not as hellish as what we imagined (aided no doubt by a cinematic diet of nightmarish inner city tropes). Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris) seems to keep it together at first, but then at some point she loses her way, and it is never clear exactly why. We can surmise that it's because her life is hard, but a lot of black women go through similarly hard lives and they don't all fall through the cracks. What happened to her in particular? Why is Juan such a wise and tolerant drug dealer? Since the characters are drawn in very broad strokes, these choices feel arbitrary.
At the center of this film is a shy and withdrawn character and, except when played as a child by the intense Alex R. Hibbert, Jenkins does not know how to make him compelling, besides the fact that poor Chiron is having a hard time being who he is. Except for a couple of strong moments where Chiron shows quiet, determined agency as a boy and as a teen, his character feels like a big void in the middle of the movie.
Spike Lee has made highly stylized movies that actually bring the world he portrays to life. Jenkins' self-conscious aesthetic approach feels forced and a tad self-indulgent.
How can a filmmaker portray the real lives of African-Americans in tough neighborhoods without it feeling like we've seen it a million times before? The drug dealers in the corner, the ravaged crackheads, they may all be true to life, but they have also become clichés. The only way to make them authentic is by filling in the context with specificity of character.
Am I the only person that feels that the erotic element could have been stronger? Jenkins handled the sex scene extremely well because it is moving, almost heartbreaking, and erotic how repressed these young men are. But then the thought crossed my mind that since black male sexuality is such a charged topic in American culture, and gay sex is off the charts, let alone black gay sex, he could have made more daring choices. This is how Moonlight reminds me of films like Carol and Brokeback Mountain, which opt for exquisite tastefulness in their quest to find and reassure as wide an audience as possible. Nothing wrong with this, and I don't blame Jenkins, as sex in general is literally absent from American movies, but it's food for thought.
Is Moonlight the year's best movie, as A.O Scott asks in his review? Not in my view. It is an uneven film that bounces from superficial, clichéd tropes to truly memorable and powerful moments in an underdeveloped screenplay.
Is it an important and necessary film that may open the doors to the stories of people who have been ignored by American movies for far too long? Absolutely.


Oct 26, 2016

American Pastoral


I find Ewan McGregor utterly charming and I was rooting for his first directing foray, of American Pastoral, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Alas, pretty much everything goes awry: bad casting, a stiff script, and an equally stiff directorial job.
McGregor plays Seymour "The Swede" Levov, a Jewish Wunderman: a legendary athlete, blond, and blue-eyed all-American Jew in the fifties. He marries a non-Jewish beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and seems to have an idyllic life. His daughter Merry (a very good Dakota Fanning) has a stutter and soon reveals a subversive streak. As her therapist intimates in the movie, being the spawn of perfection (athlete + beauty queen) must be hard. She is a teenager in the late 60s, outraged by the war in Vietnam and seduced by revolutionaries. She bombs a post office and destroys her parents' lives.
It's a great story, but in the translation to film much has been lost, mainly sharpness of observation, and other details that make the characters complicated. Philip Roth revels in human contradiction, to say the least, but this movie is too prim.
As with Natalie Portman's directorial debut and other movies by actors, being a good actor has nothing to do with being a good director. Directors bring scripts to life and make them look real and authentic. This is very hard to do. The scenes in American Pastoral feel lifeless, even though the actors are all doing their utmost. The pace is not glacial; there's no pace. It's dispiriting since it is obviously a serious effort.
People of color complain of whitewashing in movies. I think Jews can be added to the mix. You don't necessarily have to be Jewish to play a Jew, but it adds authenticity. McGregor is a good actor but he ain't Jewish or from Newark, no matter how blond his hair or blue his eyes. Liev Schreiber could be a better fit for the role. David Strathairn is too virtuous for the role of Nathan Zuckerman, narrator and Roth's alter ego. Except for the great Peter Riegert as The Swede's dad, the whole thing feels ersatz. Stories where people age dramatically are tricky, and the makeup job here is unconvincing. There's a scene at the beginning of the movie between Strathairn and an actor who is obviously a much younger man caked with old man makeup. It's hard to get invested in the story with such distractions.
However, one scene packs a punch. A young, arrogant revolutionary brat called Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) tells Levov that she knows where Merry is hiding. Rita screams at Seymour all the terrible things she assumes he is: a bourgeois pig, an all-star bully, his wife a vapid beauty queen; his family of glove makers, exploiters of the workers. None of it is remotely true. The ease with which ideology paints people with a wide brush comes alive in this exchange. It's good shorthand for the awful combination of youthful arrogance and dogmatism, for the simplistic zeal of revolutionaries, and for a chasm of incomprehension between generations that has not been as keenly felt at any other time in American history as it was in that turbulent period.
American Pastoral, is, among other things, about the tension between the desire to be generic (Jews who yearned to assimilate seamlessly into the American dream when that dream erupted in flames) and their impossibility to be generic. This film version is a generic movie that defeats its own purpose.

Oct 24, 2016

The Handmaiden



Sumptuous, perverse and exquisite, The Handmaiden, by Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), is one of my favorite movies this year -- a big, bold tale, the story of an epic swindle, a Chinese box of plot twists and a refreshingly compelling erotic story with a feminist streak.  
Holding such disparate strands together is an heroic if not an impossible task, but director Park tells the intricate story with humor, suspense, feeling, and finesse. 
The excellent screenplay is by Park and Seo-Kyung Chung, based on a novel by Sarah Waters, which has been transposed from Victorian England to Japan-occupied Korea. 
In 1930's Korea, a con man pretends to be a Japanese count in order to woo a beautiful, rich Japanese woman into marriage and then abscond with her money. For that purpose, he plants a young swindler to be the lady's servant and convince her fall for him. That nothing goes as planned is an understatement. As the story unspools amid ravishing beauty, we learn that nothing is what it seems. 
This is the story of a major con, told in three parts, from the point of view of each of the main characters. The second chapter is a retelling of the first but from the point of view of a different character. Watching the same scenes from a different point of view adds enormous richness and amusement to our understanding of the story.
But it is also the story of strong women controlled by a male-dominated system. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is the niece of a cruel and perverse man who is obsessed with books (it turns out that his obsession is not as healthy as it seems), and her handmaiden Tamako is also controlled by a crook. The women seem to be pawns in the designs of these men, but they are strong and willful and they can see which way the wind blows. They are the main characters and they imagine a different narrative for their destinies. 
What makes the movie delicious are the revelations that Park keeps coming at the audience, which for the most part, are truly surprising. At almost two hours and a half, the film is enormously entertaining and holds you in its spell. The entire movie is an elaborate tease. I usually have no patience for movies that tease the audience, but The Handmaiden is as much about keeping the audience on our toes as it is about revealing deeper insights. What is more precious than money? What is true knowledge? Can you really control someone else? Best laid plans can be crushed by the unpredictable forces of love and desire. At the same time, I am grateful for a film that does not have a moral agenda or an important message to impart, but for the satisfying delight of a good yarn, well told. 
Nowadays, it's rare to find a decent film that has a powerful erotic element. But in The Handmaiden the sex works. In contrast to a movie like Blue Is The Warmest Color, where the sex scenes became porno tableaus disembodied from the rest of the story, here the lovers bring their characters to the erotic action. What we know about them helps make the scenes a necessary part of the story, casting light or shadows on the characters, depending on whose point of view we are looking at. 
Park is known for his notoriously violent movies like Oldboy, and he can't restrain himself from showing a bit of grisly torture towards the end. However, he has a prodigious visual imagination and the movie is not only gorgeous in its cinematography and production design, but in how confidently Park tells the story with images. 


Sep 19, 2016

Southwest Of Salem



Here's an article I wrote for Fusion.net on this excellent documentary about four Latinas from San Antonio, Texas who were falsely accused of sexually abusing children. The film is playing at Cinema Village in New York.

Aug 19, 2016

A Tale Of Love And Darkness


Actress Natalie Portman has adapted and directed Amos Oz's beautifully written memoir of the same name for the screen. Bravely, she shot the movie in Hebrew, which is her native tongue, to honor Oz's gorgeous language, which is apparent even in the English subtitles. The novel is remarkable because it is not only the story of a childhood spent as the State of Israel came into being, but as the "tale" in its title implies, it is also a book about how our lives are filled with stories, and how these stories heard at home, gleaned around the neighborhood, experienced or caught on the fly, inspire some people to become writers like Amos Oz.
The screenplay employs a voiceover narration (by the wonderful Moni Moshonov) that effectively conveys Oz's voice. But it is noticeably the work of an inexperienced screenwriter. Portman gets the emotional tenor of embattled immigrants arriving in a desertic, embattled land well, but her script ignores the basic rules of cinematic storytelling. Scenes start late and end too soon, or start too early and continue way past their ending; characters start actions that are never resolved, so there is no sense of forward momentum to the story.  The plot has been rendered in impressionistic vignettes, presumably to evoke the texture of memory. However, Oz's reminiscences are immediate and concrete. He brings the past to life in extraordinarily detailed dimension. The earthy source material, full of rich anecdote and observation, is the opposite of a tone poem.
Adapting this impressive book is an ambitious effort, but this is a good example of how a bad script and rookie direction can ruin a film even if the source material is brilliant.
Portman plays Fania, Oz's mother, a recent immigrant to Jerusalem fresh from pre-war Europe, who has trouble integrating to this new country, also menaced by war. Portman is fine, as she tends to be good at portraying emotionally intense women, and she plays a strong-willed, yet fragile woman who is most alive when she escapes into her imagination and tells young Amos fantastic stories, but ends up withdrawn, a silent bundle of depression.
The rest of the cast is underwhelming. In Room, young Jacob Tremblay carried the movie and made the story believable with his poise and alertness, but Amir Kessler, who plays young Amos, seems to recede into the background. Except for Moshonov's gorgeous narration, none of the character actors make any impression. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak does his best to make the movie look good, and the editors piece the story together as best they can. A Tale Of Love And Darkness is reduced to a sketch in this film version.


Aug 2, 2016

Indignation


Adapting Philip Roth novels to the movies is a Sisyphean task and one that has encountered failure almost every time it has been attempted. I can understand why writers welcome the challenge. They are seduced by Roth's plots and incident, historical context, and indelible characters with clearly dramatic arcs, and by the devastating precision of his writing. But when it comes to bringing Roth's brilliant incisiveness to the screen, all that remains is incident, devoid of the lucid sharpness of the author's voice. The movies are either leaden, humorless, miscast, or dead in the water. I'm thinking of The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned Black man, the forgettable Elegy, and the sharp but sloppy The Humbling, which at least has Al Pacino and the comic touch of Barry Levinson.
James Schamus' adaptation of Indignation is the best one so far because, at the risk of a stately pace, Schamus gives a starring role to language. This movie is not so much about acting, but about thinking, and arguing, and there are a lot of wonderful sentences in it.  The story is drawn out and depressing, a dark coming of age tale, but the movie is riveting.
Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a young Jewish man from Newark who transfers to a Christian college in Ohio in order to avoid getting drafted into the Korean war. His father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher, and the great Linda Emond plays his mother, Esther. Marcus is an only child of prodigious intelligence, and he is swathed in youthful arrogance. He is impatient with his dad's small town mores and his overwhelming anxiety about letting Marcus blossom into a man. As in many a Rothian tale, Indignation is about the tension between the old world and the new. Too many of his son's classmates are finding death in Korea, but if it's not Korea, it's Ohio, and if it's not Ohio, it's Marcus going out with friends in Newark. When we first encounter him, Marcus is coming home late at night as his mother waits for him stoically in the living room. His father is frantically looking for him all over town. America and its promise beckon, and Marcus does not want to remain in the mental shtetl his father still lives in.
On a personal note, I was blown away by Roth when I read Portnoy's Complaint as a freshman in college. I swore he must have met my mother, whose need to investigate my bowel movements inspired him to create Portnoy's mom; Jewish mothers being to deciphering their children's turds as Holmes and Watson are to solving crimes. Furthermore, my dad used to make my mother wait for me when I went out, just like Mr. Messner. I have since decided that Philip Roth knows everything, and I love him for laying bare (and how!) the deepest and most anxious reaches of Jewish identity.
Marcus arrives in Winesburg College, a genteel school that puts him in a dorm room with two other Jews, and makes them all attend chapel services with the polite but firm prejudice of America in the fifties.
An overly serious law student, Marcus gets derailed by a beautiful blonde Wasp, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who is also different from all the squares. For such a young girl, she has already been through terrible emotional turmoil. The two outsiders hit it off. This is enough to spark a quiet yet combustible chain of actions that lead to tragedy.
The centerpiece of the movie is a 16-minute conversation between Marcus and the dean of the school, a condescending but avuncular midwesterner played with extraordinary acuity by Tracy Letts, who deserves every best supporting actor award in perpetuity for his performance.
It's a beautifully written piece of dramatic writing. The dean summons Marcus to inquire as to why he moved to another room (a crummy attic all to himself). He pretends to want to help while he gleefully unnerves the young man. He gets a rise out of Marcus, singling out his Jewishness and questioning whether Marcus is ashamed of it (he denies it, but I think Marcus walks a private tightrope between pride and shame, as many do). The indignant Marcus pushes the Dean's buttons by affirming his atheism and his intellectual superiority. But as the discussion heats up and the unflappable dean pries into Marcus' private life, Marcus hyperventilates to the point of nausea.
He lands in the hospital.  His mother comes to see him. She takes one look at sweet, fragile Olivia, and confirms she's the worst kind of trouble. Not because she's not Jewish, which is what everyone expects her to say, but because with people like Olivia "their weakness is their strength", one of the smartest things I've ever heard said about damaged people.
Emond also deserves every award in the land. It turns out that Esther, as frumpy as she looks, is much more ahead of the times than both her husband and her son, but as a woman in the fifties she is their subordinate, which is probably the reason why she has a freer mind. When you are an afterthought, you have more room to think.
This is a world of men who fight wars and call all the shots, whether they're the dean, or the son of a butcher, or the rich father of a lost soul. In this world, women are peripheral. They use their brains and their hearts as best they can to make a dent.
Indignation is a movie in which complicated things happen. People are not stock characters, they have unpredictable dimensions. The ironies they suffer are thick and bitter. Marcus' ire is ultimately useless, and few things are more tragic than futile indignation.



Aug 1, 2016

Café Society



To be honest, the only reason that compelled me to see the latest Woody Allen film is that the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro. His masterly touch certainly takes it to a higher level. His images are creamy. Some are breathtaking, like a shot of two lovers on the beach. He is beautifully abetted by the production design of the great Santo Loquasto, a longtime Allen collaborator.
So what about the movie, you might ask. Well, it's classic late-period Allen, skimpy on characters and plot, and dusted lightly with ancient jokes. Still, Café Society is not as slapdash as some of his recent outings. It is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia for the 1930's, a time when women were glamorous, nightclubs were swanky and popular music was masterful (as usual, the old standards soundtrack is delightful). Café Society is about the loss of first love; a bittersweet look at the impossibility of everlasting romance.
It is also a movie about different kinds of Jews. There are working class Jews, communist Jews, Hollywood Jews, and gangster Jews, all in one family. Allen has genuine warmth for this neurotic clan. This loving nostalgia and a good cast make this movie enjoyable.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx who moves to Los Angeles in search of a job. Unlike many actors who have tried and failed, Eisenberg refuses to imitate Allen's nerdy shtick. He is a canny actor, but it would be nice if he toned down that neurotic energy and cerebral edge of his. Still, he is effective as the fish out of water in glamorous Hollywood who gets a job at his uncle Phil's agency. Phil Stone (Steve Carell) is flashy, rich, and as a powerful agent, namedrops stars with panache. After much pleading, Bobby starts running errands for him and falls in love with his secretary, Vonnie, played with melancholy poise by Kristen Stewart. I didn't take Stewart seriously when she was younger and eternally pouty, but she has found her stride and here she is mesmerizing. Allen himself provides a narration that is unessential, but which aids in the feeling of longing for the past. The rest of the characters seem to have been imported from Annie Hall. The fabulous Jeannie Berlin plays Bobby's mom, and Corey Stoll plays his gangster brother, wasted without a part and saddled with an unnecessary wig (but I'll take him whenever and however I can get him). Blake Lively plays another Veronica, the other "shiksa" goddess for whom Bobby ends up falling. I wonder if the multiple Veronicas are Allen's homage to Kristof Kieslowski's The Double Life Of Veronique.
The plot is at once simplistic and convoluted and it surprises no one, but the palpable feeling of ruefulness, of losing your love to lesser but richer prospects, of the useless yearning for what could have been, is moving. This movie has more feeling than most of Allen's recent films. He has an opportunity to dwell on the uneasy combination of Hollywood glamour and bickering striving Jews, of Jews straddling between their family traditions and making it in the world, but Allen is too lazy to stitch these strands together insightfully. For a far more profound and devastating look at this topic, I heartily recommend Indignation, based on the novel by Phillip Roth, also playing.
Storaro's magic and that lovely sense of loss are about the only thing that works for Café Society. The jokes feel ancient, and some of the attitudes, like a cruel, uncomfortable scene between Bobby and a hooker are way past their expiration date.  I am also nostalgic for legendary swanky nightclubs that I never knew, wonderful popular music, and people dressing up to go out, but not for the kind of casual, rancid misogyny that is ever present in Allen's films.  He is not one with the times.

May 12, 2016

A Bigger Splash


A bigger cast could not have made me happier: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes, stuck in an arid and steamy Italian island having rich white famous people problems. Apparently, fame is a bitch, so they are morose, ex-suicidal, bored out of their wits, or manically orchestrating fun.
I was not a fan of director Luca Guadagnino's stylish melodrama I Am Love, also with La Swinton, but this one I found more delectable, in the way that sea urchin is delectable: salty, sweaty, messy, sexy, with the longueur of an interminable hot summer afternoon in crumbling Europe. Decadence is so much fun, yet it is rarely found on movie screens nowadays. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, mostly for this reason, and because the four stars are such pros, it's a joy to watch them bask like lizards in the sun, all rotting inside, each one in their own way.
Tilda Swinton plays a rock star called Marianne, who is recovering from her lost voice with Paul, her beau and minder (Matthias Schoenaerts, the man who makes my knees, my heart and my soul quiver).  They make love, he takes care of her. It's Edenic, except that it is also sexy. All is good until her old flame shows up in the shape of Ralph Fiennes as Harry Hawkes, a devilish music producer, a manic louche with energy long past his impending expiration date, and his stunner of a newfound daughter Penelope, the sexy Dakota Johnson (who saved Fifty Shades Of Gray with her sense of humor).
Guadagnino is really good with atmosphere, and in particular, with the texture of the lives of spoiled people. You can tell his actors know this feeling in their bones. They lounge and laze about, colonizing the traditional island with their obnoxious fabulosity, Marianne wearing elegant nun-like clothes by Dior, Harry commandeering a little bar with karaoke, all of them appropriating the space around them with their extraordinary privilege.
I have seen most of Ralph Fiennes's movies, except for the ghastly Harry Potter series. He has never played a character like this before. He may not have been the first candidate to come to mind (I'm thinking Gary Oldman, less elegant; more rock & roll), but he makes up for it with an unsettling combination of desperate mischief and an equally desperate darkness that blossoms in Harry's rare moments of stillness. He is a middle-aged imp and the nonchalant way in which he disrupts people is careless, needy, and selfish. Yet, in the few moments where he settles down, he looks lost and devastated. He is utterly superficial, but he causes deep trouble. He is also not as bad as he could be. Penelope is worse. A quiet, lethal monster of self-involvement.
The whole thing is an unsavory menage a quatre, made particularly icky by Harry's inappropriate ways around Penelope. A backstory about how Harry basically ceded Marianne to Paul as if she were property to inherit compounds the incestuousness of it all.
At first, we think the movie is about Marianne, then we think it is about Harry. The four get a flimsy chance to show whatever ails them, but the movie is really about the obliviousness, the clubbiness and the sharp instinct for self-preservation of those who have it all.
Guadagnino spends three-fourths of the movie leisurely setting up the characters and their relationships, and one just sits there in the blazing sun waiting for things to disintegrate, which I found delightful. He subtly involves Italy around the edges with tales of immigrants dying to arrive at its shores; old-school, sleepy, provincial, Catholic Italy dealing with a harsh world by digging in its heels by tradition and exclusion. At the very end, bad things happen, not always credibly, but somehow powerfully.  Dark fun in the sun.

May 11, 2016

The Lobster


I am a big fan of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Before he made the more expensive The Lobster, Lanthimos delivered elegant, deeply unsettling high-concept movies with very modest budgets (Dogtooth, Alps). You could not stop thinking about these movies. They are like a punch in the gut.
Now that he has a stab at more resources and an English-speaking cast, I'm sad to report the result is disappointing. It's not that he has sold out. The Lobster is still too hermetic and independent to be commercial, but it lacks the sharp brilliance of his other two films.
Still, it is far more original than most movies. Set in a dystopian world in which people who are not part of a couple are persecuted, it follows David, a chubby, miserable architect, (Colin Farrell) who after being dumped by his wife, ends up at a hotel where people go to find a significant other. If they don't succeed, they are relegated to a bizarre fate. Whereas Dogtooth and Alps were fables in which we discovered an alternate reality at odds with people's commonplace surroundings, The Lobster takes place in the near future. Here we are squarely in a sci-fi fantasy world. The shocking contrast between what looks like reality in people's minds and the surreal is lost.
In essence, The Lobster is a one-joke movie that repeats itself way past the punchline. Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filipou, imagine the rules of this society in great detail, but the movie remains an intellectual, conceptual game, rather than an emotionally compelling story.
The screenwriters observe how bizarrely we act when we are in love, and take the absurd demands we place on the objects of our affection (or affliction) and they exaggerate our misguided expectations ad absurdum. They magnify our obsession with perfect compatibility to darkly comic results. The problem is that they get stuck defining the myriad rules of this universe and are hamstrung by their constraints. They are so busy setting up this world, and articulating the rules, they lack the imagination to liberate their story from them. And so, if the first third of the movie is exhilarating in its originality, the rest is explanation and repetition. Some of the rules seem arbitrary, some are forgotten along the way, and some seem unnecessary. Lanthimos has always had a knack for shocking, controlled violence, but here he uses it more liberally, and the shock is more vulgar. The movie is heavy-handed and literal and the late onset love story which is supposed to move us seems trite and puny.
The Lobster is strangely lifeless. Still, it is gorgeously shot, it has a powerful classical music soundtrack, and it has the wonderful Rachel Weisz and Lanthimos' usual collaborator Ariane Labed, who bring as much life as they can to the forced tableaux. Colin Farrell does his best to disappear but brings no nuance to his role. Ben Whishaw is sharper, and the great John C. Reilly is wasted. The movie has flashes of beauty and brilliance, and a cool ending which neatly ties up the giant metaphor we've been watching for two long hours. But is this what happens when money comes knocking?
Say it isn't so.

Apr 26, 2016

Movie Bites

So many movies, so little time. Here are some mini-reviews of things I' ve seen recently:



The Measure of A Man

I recommend this 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 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.


Krisha

A heroic fuck up, Krisha, the title character of this strange and powerful movie, is a larger than life walking disaster, played with ferocious, self-destructive panache by Krisha Fairchild. Director Trey Edward Shults, who wrote, directed, produced and acts as Krisha's son, uses his family members and recombines them to tell the story of a Thanksgiving dinner from hell thanks to the arrival of this middle-aged woman whom the family views with condescension and very little patience. And for good reason. She abandoned her son, she's a drunk, and she is way too long in the tooth for her aimless, needy, self-indulgent antics. Her fragility belies an almost industrial-grade energy for self-sabotage. You know that when a humongous turkey is introduced, and she is in charge of it, things are going to go very, very wrong. Shults weaves this tale with equal doses of dark humor (not that the other family members are that sane), family horror, and true heartbreak. It's all somehow wonderfully cathartic.


Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is fantastic as Miles Davis in this quirky, invented episode in the great trumpeter's life, which Cheadle himself directed and co-wrote. While I understand Cheadle's resistance to make this a conventional biopic, and his aim to capture Davis' unruly spirit (which he nails, here and there), the plot is too silly and it conspires against Cheadle's push to show Davis's anarchic side. Still, after this year's Oscars so white brouhaha, here's a very deserving performance.

 

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's genre exercise in horror makes absolutely no sense and wastes an interesting premise (a touring rock band falls prey to a skinhead militia), in this tepid, arty slaughterhouse flick. There is no suspense, just dull spurts of mangled flesh. It's nicely shot and is peppered with dry humor but nothing is believable, much less the elegant Patrick Stewart, sporting his usual plummy British accent as the urbane leader of the neo-nazis.



The Invitation

A truly disquieting and unnerving movie that is undone by a mostly amateurish cast, The Invitation is a dark little tale of cultish obsession that takes place in the Hollywood Hills, a perfect little metaphor for the obsessive LA self-improvement culture. A couple is invited to dinner with old friends whom they haven't seen since a terrible loss happened. The evening turns out to be more than an innocent dinner party. Director Karyn Kusama displays a very good hand at making this evening as creepy and uncomfortable as possible. She is aided by the great John Carroll Lynch as a guest with a quietly menacing air, and by convincing performances by Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard and Lindsay Burdge as the hippie chick from hell. It's really too bad that the rest of the photogenic cast cannot muster the chops to make it feel like they've actually known each other for years. Still, the overall icky feeling and a fantastic twist at the end make it an interesting option among horror films.

Apr 6, 2016

Chus Lampreave: Spain's National Treasure.


Spain has given the world many wonderful things, among them Serrano ham, cañitas (the Spanish are the only people on Earth who know how to serve beer, in an ice-cold small glass), some soccer teams (I won't get into which), churros, paella, Picasso, tapas, Javier Bardem, Gaudí, etc.
But none is greater than the wonderful Chus Lampreave, a character actress and national treasure who appeared in many Spanish films, most notably Pedro Almodovar's, and who died recently at the age of 85.
Chus always looked like a little old lady and, for the most part, she played the part of the mom or the grandma: the traditional Spanish señora; in her incarnation, a folsky, no-nonsense everywoman. Almodovar gave her the most hilarious lines, and I can't imagine anyone delivering them better.
Her trademark is a mix of the oblivious and the stubbornly commonsensical.  She has no malice but she is never a pushover. It helps that she really looks like a sweet little old lady but then it turns out that she is very much in a league of her own, traditional but unsentimental, and completely true to herself. She has an unshakable, principled internal compass that makes complete sense, if mostly only to her.
There is a wonderful scene in What Have I Done to Deserve This where she is helping her grandson with his homework to identify who of the 19th-century authors on the kid's list is a romantic and who is a realist. She proceeds to tell him all the wrong answers, with the absolute conviction that she can just make shit up and no one will notice. At no point does she waver or give any inclination that she is winging it. She closes with a confident "See how easy it is?" Genius.


Her comic timing was more than impeccable. Sad for her loss, I turned to You Tube for clips of her performances. I think part of her hilarity comes from her uncanny ability to turn on a dime and completely change her mood without missing a beat  in a sentence, let alone in a scene. She goes from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond.
In The Flower Of My Secret, she fights with one of her daughters (Rossy De Palma, whom she hates) and then she turns to the other daughter (Marisa Paredes, whom she loves) and in the same breath talks to her with the utmost tenderness. This being Almodovar, they are having an argument about skinheads.
Chus: "I don't know what I did to the skinheads, you should see how they look at me".


She was a natural because she never intended to be an actress.  Yet she was one of the most memorable comedic character actors in film.
I always thought that she deserved a monument, a fountain in the middle of Madrid, her effigy in a postage stamp, a resplendent statue. She was adored and she will be missed.

Mar 19, 2016

The Clan


To paraphrase Tolstoi, all Latin American governments are corrupt, but each one is corrupt in its own way. And there is something particularly cold and cruel about the Argentinian moral rot as evidenced in this thoroughly disturbing film. This is one incredible and terrible true story.
This movie hinges on one central revelation and has a couple of surprising turns, so you may want to read the rest of this review after you see the film.
Arquímedes Puccio (the astounding Guillermo Francella) is a shady character who seems to have worked for the military in the days of the disappearances of thousands of innocent Argentinian civilians. When democracy is installed, he's out of a job, or needs to keep a low profile, so he finds a profitable occupation, which is to kidnap rich people for ransom.
But this is no mere criminal enterprise. He and his accomplices are aided, abetted and protected by a higher up in uniform that goes by the name of the Commodore. Trapero takes this lurid story and makes it into a potent fable about the unfathomable corruption that infects every aspect of his country. In this movie, except for one character, who eventually also chooses to look the other way, no one is blameless. As is typical of corruption, it's all about connections, favors owed and even blood ties. Everyone is enmeshed in filth.
I noticed that the characters invoked the word "patria" - fatherland - in the movie several times. This is no coincidence. The Clan is a story of toxic fatherhood. Mr. Puccio is not only a deadly father to his children, but he is the embodiment of the poisonous fatherland. The clan is not only his family; the clan is the vast network of people who collude with lawlessness. It's the social unit that greases the wheels of society. As in other Latin American films like Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero, the implication is that if you quietly assent, if you look the other way to maintain the status quo, you are not far from guilty.
In his rationalizations, Puccio represents the mentality of the Argentinian military fascists and their supporters, who truly believed they were protecting their country from communists, atheists, and radicals. He truly believes that the masterful manipulation and co-opting of his entire family (a wife, two daughters, and three young sons) to help him with his dirty job is for their benefit. Anyone who is not with him is an ungrateful traitor. He is the personalization of dictatorship.
Trapero dramatizes the conflict between his son Alex (Peter Lanzani), a gifted rugby player who is just starting his own life, and Puccio's designs, who like any sociopath, needs to spread his tentacles and coerce accomplices to be effective.
Puccio is cold and ruthless, and as attentive to his daughters as he is harsh and contemptous with his sons. He is a master of psychological abuse and manipulation. He is indifferent to Alex's triumphs and worse, he berates him and blames him when things go wrong. He is incapable of admitting weakness or error. He is undaunted in his arrogance. He seems to detest the kid but to make sure he doesn't lose his grip on his son, he gives him a ton of ransom money so he can open his own business. Once Alex accepts the reward, he has no choice but to keep participating. Puccio has absolute power. No one dares stand up to him. This is how corruption and amorality work.
I can't think of anything more despicable than collecting a ransom and murdering the victims anyway. But that is Puccio's M.O. He is a heartless liar. Because he is middle class and has sent his kids to tony schools and rugby clubs, he knows that no one will ever suspect him or his perfect family. He seems to relish making his extortion calls in broad daylight from very public phones. He kidnaps people he knows. He has no compunctions. But despite his extraordinary arrogance, there is one scene in which we realize he is a small fish in a big pond, and that there are bigger sharks to whom he owes everything. Like all such abusers of power, he is a nobody.
He seems to hate young people. He hates his son's youth and sense of possibility, the idea that he might have a different life from his deeply compromised existence. And in this, he reminds me of the dictatorship, which went after young Argentinians with a vengeance, because they had long hair, or listened to rock, because they were vulnerable to ideas of social justice or thought that they had a right to personal freedom. He seems to loathe what his son might become if he manages to get out from under his thumb and he does everything in his power to prevent this.
Francella gives the performance of a lifetime. He may very well be the worst father in the history of movies. He makes Darth Vader look like Bambi.
Trapero is best at exhibiting the psychology of this tyrant, who seems as acutely attuned to how to bend his family to his will as he is unaware of or unconcerned with the trauma he causes them. The rest of the characters are harder to understand. Perhaps this is deliberate. We still don't understand how ordinary Germans acquiesced to Hitler's raving hatred. Still, while I respect Trapero for not falling into the easy choice of making Alex into a rebel (that would be the American version), placing Alex as Puccio's direct antagonist begs for a more equal contest. Alex could be heroically passive aggresive or pathologically subservient. As is, he is weak and afraid and his father swallows him whole. By the time Alex reacts, it is shockingly late.
The script avoids exposition, letting the audience find out creepy details with subtle hints. For instance, Mrs. Puccio is a good housewife and apparently excellent cook who happens to be a schoolteacher. A schoolteacher! How perverted are things when the woman you entrust your children to is a willing accomplice to a kidnapper and a murderer? She is completely immoral. The hypocrisy of saying grace before a family meal when they have a victim screaming in the basement is one of the many ways in which Trapero shows the warped ideology of the far right.
The story is unbelievable. The aftermath to the story, told in titles in the closing credits, is as harrowing as the movie itself. The cast is excellent and the sense of moral gangrene is powerful.
But Trapero displays a heavy hand, particularly with a rock music soundtrack that distracts the audience from the lurid immediacy of the story. I understand that Trapero uses these songs to ground us in the period and provide some irony, but he should have trusted that the most bitter ironies are in the story. I also find it interesting that we go in expecting a thriller and we are faced with a very disturbing political fable, which in a way, is better.  But I wish that Trapero would have used a little more of the rigor and discipline of a thriller and less overwrought stylistic flourishes. Still, the horror is not in the suspense, but in the mindset of this Puccio monster and of the society that allows him to happen.




Mar 11, 2016

Knight Of Cups


Oh, brother.
You know how they say that people who have everything are deeply unhappy? One, I'm afraid that's a ploy by the rich to elicit our sympathy and prevent us from throwing them all off a cliff. Two, who cares?
I rarely feel a movie is a waste of my time. Even the worst movies have teachable moments. But after the first hour of Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous yet Dramamine-requiring images, I started to feel like time was inexorably oozing out of my life with Terrence Malick's phony ode to rich white people's problems.
Now I know that I can happily sit and watch Christian Bale pace wordlessly around Los Angeles for the better part of an hour. But then a thought comes to mind. Why hire one of the greatest actors in the world if you are not going to give him anything to do or say? And why would anyone care about such a character? We know he works in Hollywood because he insists on wearing fancy suits to everything, including the sea, and the two inches of water in the Los Angeles River. This is that kind of movie, in which characters just stand in the middle of that fabled ditch as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
This is a movie in which rich white people show their joie de vivre by jumping fully clothed into swimming pools and/or the sea, as if ruining perfectly expensive clothes and the dry cleaning bill are of no concern to them. The women, all thin and beautiful, when not naked, wear gauzy long skirts to the beaches of L.A. And then they go into the sea with them. Not to die, which at least would be interesting. Just to carouse.
Does Christian Bale play a Hollywood agent? A movie star? An executive? The only reason that I know he plays a screenwriter is because I read it in another review. Do we see him slave away in front of a blank screen? Never.  It looks like he hasn't worked a day in his life. However, his glamorous ex-wife, (Cate Blanchett) seems to have absconded with their beautiful house but then we learn that she is a caring nurse in some godforsaken clinic in the bowels of L.A. Blanchett could be believable as the Great Wall Of China, but seeing her in expensive clothes and then wearing scrubs and touching lepers is a bit of a stretch.
Bale (I don't know the character's name; no one has a name in this movie) has an angry father (Brian Dennehy) and an even angrier brother (Wes Bentley) and he himself is haunted and morose most of the time. One wonders why these people are so aggrieved. They are white, rich, good looking and they live in sunny L.A.
Bale parties hard, fucks all the beautiful women, cruises around L.A. in a magnificent old convertible. What the hell is his problem? His problem is Terrence Malick, who instead of telling a story, paints a tone poem. Alas, there already exists a pretty nifty tone poem about L.A. It's called Mulholland Drive.
Now, there have been some great movies about Hollywood that ooze bile at the industry and what it does to writers, like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and the Coens' Barton Fink, or Robert Altman's The Player and David Lynch's aforementioned nightmare. Knight Of Cups is not in this hallowed group.
It is too aimless and generic. Yes, the industry is full of greedy bastards and the glitz of entertainment hides unfathomable depths of depravity. Yes, rampant capitalism is decadent and unfair, but, a) tell us something we don't know and b) if you find it so distasteful, why give it so much taste? Knight of Cups is like the In Style magazine version of a Hollywood apocalypse. People party but there is not a drug in sight, they fuck with their clothes on. Their biggest sin is vapidity.
This is Malick's L.A. movie, and once in a while the camera sweeps into the vast, manicured emptiness, the lights of Sunset Boulevard, or down to skid row, where Bale and his brother go slumming for no apparent reason. L.A. looks great but there have been sharper, better L.A. movies. One look at the L.A. River and one really pines for Chinatown.
To make matters more ridiculous, the narrative structure is based on tarot cards, with each card representing a facet of the life of this guy, a rather sophomoric concept. Kudos go to the three editors who not only did a beautiful job with Chivo's swaying camera moves, but who also managed to weave a more or less coherent narrative. In The Tree Of Life Malick was somehow able to marry his spiritual ideas to a simple story of a beautiful family with an angry, distant dad. But this time the conceit feels shoehorned to the milieu. Judging Hollywood or the entertainment industry calls for articulation, irony, preciseness. This movie has no sense of humor, no wit, it's nothing but pretentious mystical bullshit, like a dead serious version of Entourage -- something no one wants to see.
And it goes on forever.
It most resembles a mystical Lifestyles of The Rich And Famous, or, if you are into interior decorating, a catalog of premium real estate properties in Los Angeles. Either way, it's an utter waste of time. And what's with the Jewish music?