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?