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.

The Handmaiden
O.J. Made In America
The Club
Hail Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Wailing

Very Good
The Witch
A Bigger Splash
The Clan
Southwest of Salem
La La Land
The Witness: Kitty Genovese
The Mermaid

Manchester By The Sea
20th Century Women
Hidden Figures
In The Heart Of The Sea
Captain Fantastic
Love and Friendship
The Conjuring 2
Things To Come

Absolutely Bizarre

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

Interesting But Flawed
Miles Ahead
The Invitation
Miss Sloane
The Fits

Toni Erdmann
Hell or High Water

Florence Foster Jenkins
The Family Fang

Nocturnal Animals
Green Room
The Lobster
Don't Breathe

American Pastoral
A Tale Of Love And Darkness

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


Haven't Seen Yet:
I, Daniel Blake

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

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


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


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.