Feb 28, 2016

The Witch

With the words "A New England Folktale", director-writer Robert Eggers sends us into a world of potent archetypal imagery that slowly and effectively creeps under our skin. A devout man (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a community of Puritan settlers and they move to the edge of ominously looming woods. Soon weird things start happening. But they are not the sort of weird things we're used to in horror movies. This is not about ghosts or haunted houses. It's about the ancient iconography of evil and in particular of witches, which were all the rage in 17th century New England.
The family is vulnerable to evil for several reasons. Although concrete reasons are not given, the father is expelled from the community because of the sin of pride. Apparently, he feels these people are not pious enough. He looks like a dead ringer for Jesus Christ, which is no accident. He may be devout but it turns out that, as most people, he is human and prone to deception. More dangerously, he has a lovely young daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is becoming a woman, and so she is vulnerable to be a conduit for evil. She is the very image of purity and does nothing remotely inculpating, yet horrible things happen around her. The movie lays bare the raw symbolism of the idea of witches, which has to do with the fear of female power, from virginal purity, to ripe seduction and wrinkled old age.
I kept thinking, "these are the people who founded this country": inordinately righteous, and superstitious, prone to mass hysteria on account of their obsession with the devil. They are not too different from the speaking in tongues evangelicals who try to impose their judgmental worldview on everybody else today. But this is not really a movie about politics. The most original aspect of The Witch is that it is about a system of beliefs and a set of myths and symbols that we have almost forgotten, but that took hold of people's consciences, imaginations, and their subconscious minds for centuries. Nowadays, the powerful images of folk tales trickle down to us in watered down and almost comical horror movie tropes, or have been defanged by the likes of Walt Disney, who stripped them of their powerful sexual and psychological connotations and rendered them in pastel colors. Eggers brings back the originals with a vengeance.
Is Thomasine a witch or not? She protests her innocence at every turn, but she also exudes a quality of mischief and sensuality that could well be a sign of perfidy. She has lustful, or at least, troubled dreams and in a pivotal scene, she acts rather seductively towards Caleb, her younger brother (the excellent Harvey Scrimshaw). She is not ashamed of her beauty and her growing power, and these may be subtle but undeniable signs of her corruption. According to Christian beliefs, the way the devil works is by shifting shapes and taking the appearance of goodness. We don't really know because Eggers sticks to the ambiguity of whether she is a witch who orchestrates chaos, or she is a pure, innocent creature who is the victim of very bad mojo.
If the movie takes its time establishing the daily life of the family, the moment bad things happen, they increase gradually to a bizarre pitch. But nothing is predictable and shocks do not come at set intervals, which is wonderfully unnerving. One of the most unsettling, if not downright scary scenes, involves a possession that makes the one in The Exorcist look like a cheesy Vegas extravaganza.
And the use of metaphor is beautiful. As he writhes in demonic possession, Caleb vomits, not day-glo green bile but a fully formed apple, an ancient symbol of sin.
If you know your iconography of evil, the sight of Black Philip, a horned goat, is a dead giveaway that the devil has made itself at home. Because it is a folk tale, everything is metaphor: the woods, Thomasin, a rabbit, an apple, the father. But because it is a movie, it feels real and it plays with our sense of reality. Are supernatural things happening, or are these the visions and dreams of an impressionable Thomasine? Is the family in the clutches of mass hysteria?
In most horror movies, at the end of the scare fest order is restored, goodness wins the day, or the door is left open for a sequel. This is one of the few horror movies that doesn't end with a return to normalcy. This is very unsettling, not only because evil is triumphant, but because it makes us notice how inured we are to overused storytelling clichés.
The Witch is subtlely creepy. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is beautiful, with only candlelight or natural light throughout, and the use of ominous camera pans works its scary magic.
If I have qualms, they are that perhaps Eggers is a little too obsessed with authenticity and that the characters speak with accents that are hard to understand. Although the music by Mark Korven is applied mostly effectively, there is a moment at the beginning where it stacks the deck unnecesarily. And some of the motivational cogs of the plot were not clear to me. But Eggers has a firm grasp on creating powerful, disturbing imagery. He understands that this archetypal imagery is very basic, but that's where its power lies. I was very impressed with the costume design, with the coarseness and cut of the clothes, and it turns out that prior to this, he was a costume and production designer. This is a very solid debut feature.

Feb 24, 2016

Time To Kvetch: Oscars 2016

Once again, the time is near for that extended fest of self-congratulation and foregone conclusions that we can't look away from.  As always, I strongly recommend that if you watch, you do so with copious amounts of booze. I pity Chris Rock and hope he comes up with the goods. He is in the unenviable position of emceeing a pageant where people like him are routinely ignored.
My two cents: the Academy is no more or less racist than the rest of the Hollywood industry; it reflects it perfectly. Black actors and other actors of color simply don't appear in enough important roles in Hollywood movies and when they do, most voting members do not watch said movies. People (Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine, I'm talking to you) who confuse the griping about racism in the Oscars with some sort of affirmative action quota system are getting it wrong. Nobody is asking the Academy to bestow nominations on undeserving people, regardless of race.
The lack of diversity in the nominations stems from an ingrained bias in Hollywood that needs to be corrected from inception: in order to have a more diverse roster of nominees in the Oscars, there need to be more movies made about diverse people and with diverse people in starring and supporting roles, not just second bananas and window dressing. That these movies and these performances need to be deserving of awards goes without saying. Tokenism only makes things worse.
Also, voting members would do well to take their duties seriously and watch movies all year long so that they nominate their peers from the widest pool of quality films available. Thanks to the internet, everyone can find the most buzzed about and critically acclaimed movies in the festival circuit. It behooves the voters to do their homework and not only see the big stuff.  In fact, there are some glaring omissions due to the Academy's indifference to small or independent films, some of which are superior to several of the bloated movies in the Best Picture roster (99 HomesDiary of A Teenage Girl, to name just two). The Hollywood Reporter has conducted interviews with anonymous voters who reveal their voting behaviors. Turns out that members don't watch the screeners, they vote for their best friends or against their enemies, for whatever makes more money, or for whoever spent more money to sway them.

Now, my Oscar kvetching criteria consist of which are the best movies in terms of content and quality. Not the biggest money makers, not politically correct statements, not consolation prizes, not crowd pleasers. There are movies in this list which I have not seen and I can't really air my opinions on those. Disclaimer: As with the Powerball, my spotty predictions are for entertainment purposes only. I accept a cut of the winnings if you hit the jackpot. 
Blue reflects who will win and red who should win
YES and NO reflect whether these are deserved nominations in my view.

Best Picture
The Big Short. YES.
Bridge of Spies. NO. Bo-ring!
Brooklyn. YES! And my favorite of this bunch.
Mad Max: Fury Road. NO. Dark and visually interesting, but basically, a migraine-inducing 2-hour chase.
The Martian. NO. A dumbass, obnoxious movie if there ever was one.
The Revenant. YES. Iñárritu's most coherent movie but will he win twice in a row?
Room. FINE. The only small movie which made the cut.
Spotlight. FINE. This one is the runner up. The Academy loves righteousness.

All of these movies are better than The Martian, Bridge of Spies and Mad Max:
The End Of The Tour
The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Steve Jobs
99 Homes
Love and Mercy

Best Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant.  
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Lenny Abrahamson, Room

John Crowley, Brooklyn
James Ponsoldt, The End Of The Tour
Rahmin Bahrani, 99 Homes
Alex Garland, Ex-Machina
Marielle Heller, Diary of A Teenage Girl
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo. He's fine, but NO. 
Matt Damon, The Martian. FINE. He's the only interesting thing to watch in that stupid movie. 
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant. YES. He's good, as always, but this is a consolation prize for all the other times he should have won, and for enduring a tough shoot. 
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs. YES. He is fantastic. 
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl. NO. He allowed himself to overact and the movie SUX.

Jason Segel, The End Of The Tour. The performance of the year.
Michael Caine, Youth.
Paul Dano, Love and Mercy.
Jacob Tremblay, Room.
I haven't seen them, but I bet Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Idris Elba in Beasts Of No Nation are deserving.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol. YES. She's always good. 
Brie Larson, Room. FINE. 
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy. YES. She ROCKS. 
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years. YES. She's not gonna win because, big mouth. 
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn. YES. The winner in my book.

Bel Powley, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
Elizabeth Moss, Queen of Earth

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short. YES.
Tom Hardy, The Revenant. YES. Abso-fuckin-lutely.
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight. NO. I thought he was the weakest one in the cast.
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies. NO. He's too shticky.
Sylvester Stallone, Creed.

Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Oscar Isaac, Ex-Machina
Steve Carell, The Big Short
Ryan Gosling, The Big Short
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Stanley Tucci, Spotlight
Jason Bateman, The Gift
Chewbacca. Just checking if you're reading this far.

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight. I haven't seen it but I bet she's great.
Rooney Mara, Carol. YES. She's great.
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight. NO. She's good but nothing special.
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl. NO. A good actress acting unevenly on account of a hack director.
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs. YES. She's great.

Virginia Madsen, Joy
Julie Walters, Brooklyn
Joan Allen, Room
Alicia Vikander, Ex-Machina
Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies. NO.
Ex Machina. YES.
Inside Out. I didn't see it. Pixar gets on my last nerve.
Spotlight. FINE.
Straight Outta Compton. Didn't see it.

The End Of The Tour
Love and Mercy
99 Homes
The Gift

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short. YES.
Brooklyn. YES. My favorite, but too elegant and beautiful to win.
Carol. FINE.
The Martian. NO.
Room. YES.

Steve Jobs
Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Best Animated Feature
Anomalisa. This is the only one I've seen. It's very good.
Boy and the World
Inside Out. Possible winner. People never tire of this stuff.
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Best Foreign Language Film
Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul. YES. This will win.
A War. YES.

SNUBBED: (technically, countries send their official submissions, which is bullshit)
Taxi, Iran
The Wonders, Italy
Phoenix, Germany
The Tribe, Ukraine
Mommy, Canada

Best Documentary Feature
Amy. YES.
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone? 
NO. A mess.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Best Cinematography
Ed Lachman, Carol. YES.
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight. Haven't seen it.
John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road. YES.
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant. WOW. This should win.
Roger Deakins, Sicario. NO. He should have won for every movie he's ever made. Not this one. Next year, for Hail, Ceasar! 

The Assassin

Best Production Design. 
Bridge of Spies. YES.
Mad Max: Fury Road. YES.
The Martian. YES.
The Revenant. YES.
The Danish Girl. OK.

Best Costume Design
Carol. YES.
Cinderella. YES. 
The Danish Girl. YES.
Mad Max: Fury Road. YES.
The Revenant. YES. 

Best Original Score
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Possible winner.

Best Original Song
“Earned It,” 50 Shades Of Grey.
“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3,” Youth. 
“Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground
“Writing’s on the Wall,” Spectre

May the force be with you.

Feb 22, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

This movie is the sweetest bonbon: the Coen brothers' valentine to movies and to the old Hollywood studio system. If you are a movie lover, you'll get a huge kick out of their endlessly amusing treasury of references to different genres, movies and actors. If you are not familiar with the names Esther Williams, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Carmen Miranda or Walter Huston, you may still enjoy the trademark Coen silliness, framed by the gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins, the spectacular production and costume design, and the wonderful cast of thousands, which includes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Ralph Fiennes, among others.
I hope the Academy waits to give Roger Deakins his long deserved Oscar for this movie. His cinematography, in 35 mm, no less, is a love letter to Hollywood films. It pays homage to every trademark Hollywood look of yore. He exquisitely and accurately recreates the sharp black and white of classic romantic comedies, the vibrant, primary Technicolor of musicals and epics, and he bathes Hollywood in a sensuous, warm and golden light, which was what made the studio moguls choose Los Angeles as the home base for their industry.
The plot, as Coen stories go, is a quirky caper about Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood studio enforcer (Josh Brolin) who has to fix everyone and everything so that the studio he works for, Capitol Pictures, functions properly. He's a straight arrow and a problem solver; and boy, is Hollywood rife with problems and people who are rarely any kind of straight. He needs to contain an Esther Williams-like star (Scarlett Johansson) whom the studio casts as an innocent and virtuous mermaid, and who is anything but. Because of casting problems, he has to turn Hobie Doyle, a country bumpkin cowboy movie star (the excellent Alden Ehrenreich) into a leading man for a Noel Coward-ish (Ralph Fiennes) drawing room comedy, except he sounds like a hick and can't act his way out of a paper bag. And then he has to contend with the fact that his hugest star (Clooney, always game for the Coens) mysteriously disappears from the set where he is shooting a movie about the appearance of Christ.
Nothing is like what the studio wants it to be, which is innocent and flawless. Only Mannix knows everybody's dirty little secrets and his job is to bury them. Everyone has a reality that needs to be transformed into wholesome fantasy, which in Hollywood, is a tall order.
That the movie starts with a looming crucifix and that Mannix happens to be a devout Catholic seems arbitrary, if not rather insane, but this is beautifully paid off, since this is a movie about faith, big stories, entertainment and the extraordinary feat of illusion that movies are, both on the screen and behind the scenes.
The zany plot involves disgruntled writers, communists, Herbert Marcuse (you heard that right), a dog, and two gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton. It sometimes zips and it sometimes sags slightly, as it is sprinkled with cameos by movie genres.
Channing Tatum stars in a delightful tap dance number in the style of Gene Kelly's dancing extravaganzas. Scarlett Johansson dives into a gigantic pool of mermaids. Jack Huston banters with a dame in the back of a car, and Hobie Doyle goes from being an eloquently silent cowboy to the most maladroit leading man in film history.
In my favorite sequence, Mannix pays a visit to the editor of the studio, C. C. Calhoun (the one and only Frances McDormand) who is cutting a Thin Man kind of movie, in a moviola, while blithely smoking two inches away from highly flammable celluloid. The Coens lovingly render the clicking and hissing and spooling of film, spliced by her dexterous hands. They show how fragile a movie could be (and you'll find out just how dangerous). But the scene also shows in beautiful cinematic shorthand how a resourceful and embattled director (Ralph Fiennes, polishing his funny bone), and a good editor can turn a terrible actor like poor Hobie Doyle into a smoldering movie star with a few deft cuts and angles. Sheer movie magic.
Meanwhile, Mannix is being courted by the military industrial complex for an "easy" 9 to 5 job where he won't have to deal with egos and crazies all day long. He may be the ringmaster of an absurd circus but it is his circus, with his maniacs, and he can't turn away.
I kept wondering what does Jesus have to do with anything, but in the end, Hail, Caesar! is about two competing versions of faith and mythmaking: religion and the movies. If I understand this movie correctly, for the Coens, the movies are as good and as imperfect a religion as any, or even better. I'm with them.

Feb 3, 2016

The Club

Pablo Larrain, the Chilean poet laureate of cinematic discomfort, is back with a movie about the Catholic church that makes Spotlight seem like a stroll in Disneyland.
After the unusually lighthearted No, the final part of his political trilogy about Chile, Larrain sets his sights on a highly disturbing parable about the unyielding power of the Catholic church. The film takes place in a remote coastal town, in a house that shelters a group of ex-priests and one chillingly devoted nun. They seem good natured enough, almost sitcom material: the one who is devoted to his greyhound, the one who drinks too much, the one who may (conveniently) not have all his marbles in place, the nice, caring nun. Turns out they are basically living under Catholic house arrest. This house is where the church has put them out to pasture for their different sins, or, as we call them in civil society, crimes, all having to do with their abuse of power. As we learned in Spotlight, this is the church's M.O.: when it's not sending criminal priests to devastate unsuspecting parishes, it sequesters them in houses and pays their keep for life.
Life at "the club" is uneventful until people start showing up, as truth is wont to do. First, they have to welcome a new member, another priest, towards whose sins of pederasty they are not charitable. His arrival provokes the appearance of a drifter; a drunk, unhinged, miserable man, who stands outside their window and explains at the top of his lungs what the newbie did to him when he was a boy, sparing no detail. This compels the church to send another visitor, an enforcer priest, who comes to set the house in order.
And this is where things get gnarly. Because Larrain is not interested so much in morality, as in  the warped psychology of people who operate under the impression that they have a religious dispensation for their gross abuse of trust. He is interested in exploring a hermetic system so closed and alien to the laws and customs of normal people, that it has its own perverse logic. In this powerful chamber piece, this perverse logic takes the spiraling form of deep, complex, corrupt motivations. The only analogy I can think of, if you take out the loveliness, and replace it with the darkest dark, is the absurdity of Alice In Wonderland. This is a parallel world with its own crazy rules, and the deeper we fall into the rabbit hole, the more disturbing the illogic.
The fact that the priests drink and gamble, and have a firearm in the house, is nothing compared to the mental gymnastics they exercise to absolve themselves of their evil actions, from sexually abusing children to stealing babies from political prisoners (all stuff that happened in real life, in Chile and elsewhere). They may pray and reflect all they want, but they are not truly repentant because none of them really believe they did anything wrong.
It is amazing to witness how entitled and arrogant they are in their little prison of compulsory guilt. They feel they are doing enough penance by sharing a house in the boonies where their only entertainment is watching TV and taking the greyhound to dog races, with which they supplement their meager income. They are beyond salvation, beyond repair. And so is the drunk, who carries the hurt of his abuse like a crushing stone on his shoulders. His, like theirs, is a wasted life.
The young, modern priest who comes to clean house is an intellectual, but he is not what we expect. If you are hoping for someone with a solid sense of virtue, someone who will enlighten and purify the rancid atmosphere, you are in for a surprise. He represents the moral confusion of a church that is stubbornly behind the times and above the law, and that will still do anything to keep its power and stonewall the truth. Like his charges, he will do anything to maintain the status quo. But he finds an incredibly perverse solution to the house and its problems. It may keep you thinking for days.
Larrain's trademark is a merciless penchant for discomfort, scented with whiffs of human debasement as well as of the most corrosive humor. This is his best movie so far. His particular gifts have coalesced into a masterful command of tone and content. The Club is a very intelligent film, splendidly written, directed and acted, that reveals the bizarre illogic of religious malfeasance for the infinite spiral of rot that it is.