Movie Reviews - 2012 postsWednesday September 24, 2014
Movie Review: Sagrada: el misteri de la creació (2012)
Of all the people Stefan Haupt interviews in his 2012 documentary on the history and majesty of La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Barcelonan basilica designed by one of the world’s great architects, Antonin Gaudi (1852-1926), the interviewee who lives up to the doc’s subtitle, “el misteri de la creació,” is Etsuro Sotoo, a Japanese sculptor.
Early in the doc, Sotoo talks to us matter-of-factly, in accented Spanish, about his work on one of the basilica’s three grand facades, and keeps referencing “the master.” One assumes he means Gaudi. He doesn’t. He’s talking about the stone. He calls sculpting a conversation with the stone. “Without the permission of this stone, this master,” he says, “I can’t do anything.”
Much of the rest of the story of Sagrada's creation—its starts and stops—isn’t a mystery at all. It’s same old: war, politics and money.
What’s the hold-up?
The doc begins with hardhats working like any construction crew on any tall building in any metro area. But here they’re helping build beauty. You think, “Well, you can’t feel too shitty at the end of that day.”
Work on the structure actually began on March 19, 1882, with a different chief architect. Gaudi took over a year later with grander designs. By the time he died, in a traffic accident in 1926, only one façade had been built. Then the Spanish Civil War intervened. Then Franco and fascism. There was a hiatus, or a near-hiatus, of 40 years: 1936 to 1976. The American part of me forgets that sometimes. “Oh right. That sort of thing does get in the way, doesn’t it?”
Lack of money was an even greater problem. Then there were the post-Franco controversies. Which was the greater insult to Gaudi: continuing the work even though his original designs had been burned in 1936; or leaving his great gift to God, and to us, unfinished? In a way, the Catalans split the difference: continuing with a chief sculptor, Josep Subirachs, who had sided with “unfinished.” In his sculptures, Subirachs acceded nothing to Gaudi. Where Gaudi opted for curves and flow and naturalism, Subirachs chose harsh, rigid right angles and blocky shapes. His depiction of the crucifixion on the Passion façade leaves Jesus nude and his head unsculpted. It’s just a block. It looks like the Son of God is wearing a bag over his head. He’s the Unknown Christ.
Sotoo, the new chief sculptor, is the opposite of all of this. He moved to Barcelona, learned Spanish, and even converted from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism in order to better see as Gaudi saw. That was his goal. By subsuming himself in this manner, interestingly, he stands out more. By not demanding his own individual artistic expression, he becomes the most memorable individual we meet.
What’s the rush?
Controversies continue. In 2010, for example, a tunnel for a high-speed AVE train between Barcelona and Paris began construction 30 feet beneath La Sagrada Familia. Is it a danger to the structure? Will it be over time? The tunnel seems incredibly short-sighted to me, given the disaster that could occur, but that didn’t give enough people pause. Of the pace of Sagrada's construction, Gaudi famously said, “God is not in a hurry.” Not true for the rest of us.
At least Sagrada is funding itself now. It’s a huge tourist destination: three million visitors a year, the doc tells us. For some reason, that didn’t sound like much to me until I did the math: eight thousand a day. Since Sagrada is open an average of 10 hours a day (nine in the winter, 11 in the summer), that’s 822 visitors per hour, or 13.6 per minute. Which means every five seconds it's open, someone from somewhere is entering La Sagrada Familia.
You enter the doc, “Sagrada,” hoping it soars as high as the basilica, Sagrada, but that’s a tall order. In the end, we get a fairly straightforward presentation. It gives us this foreman, that designer, this priest, that maker of stained glass. It’s not bad, but it’s all rather pedestrian.
Occasionally, though, it soars. It can’t help it. Just look.
Movie Review: Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim (2012)
The audience broke into rapturous applause at the end of György Pálfi’s “Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen” (“Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim”) at SIFF Uptown in Seattle the other night.
My reaction in the back row: “Really?”
The movie’s a cute idea. Create a movie out of the history of boy-meets-girl cinema. Give movie lovers the ultimate movie.
So what’s the story Pálfi comes up with?
Well, the man’s eyes open as Jake Sully, Jim Carrey and John Savage. He gets out of bed as Ronald Coleman, showers as Michael Douglas, looks in the mirror as Jack Nicholson, shaves as Humphrey Bogart. Putting on his clothes he’s Charlie Chaplin. He looks in the mirror and points at himself as Jon Voight. Then he’s out on the street, strutting, as John Travolta ... and Choi Min-sik ... and William Holden. Then he bumps into the girl (Audrey Tautou, et al.) and is transfixed like ... Well, I lost track of them all. But you get the idea.
So it’s a cute idea. It required a lot of editing. Three years of editing, according to the trailer. The trailer also tells us these organizations (or maybe somebody at the festivals themselves?) felt this way:
- “An odds-on candidate for the greatest movie ever made.” – New York Film Festival
- “A true declaration of love for the 7th art.” – Festival de Cannes
- “If you get a chance ... fucking see it.” – Twitch Film
Except ... no.
I went out of curiosity, hoping to see something more than a YouTube montage. It is ... but not by much.
Maybe I was hoping for a better story? But this is the story:
The guy wakes up and goes outside and sees the girl. He follows her to a music hall, where she’s putting on a show. He goes backstage and asks her out. They go the movies. The next day it’s her turn to wake up ... as Snow White, Scarlett O’Hara, Eliza Doolittle. (The women waking up is so much better—not to mention more iconic.) The man’s waiting, reading a newspaper, smoking. Then they’re out dancing. Then they kiss. Then—boom!—sex. A lot of sex scenes, actually, some pretty racy. We get orgasm, and post-coital conversation, and talk of marriage. But then somebody bursts in! The rival! It’s a showdown. The old west. It’s knives, swords, lightsabers, fisticuffs. The hero is bloody and wounded! But wins! And proposes! And the girl says yes. She says yes like Molly Bloom says yes, over and over. I like that bit, actually. All of those yeses, one after the other. But this should be the end of the movie, right—the wedding—yet we’re only a third of the way through. What’s left?
What’s left is life. We get the everyday. The commute as Jack Lemmon. The time in the office as Ethan Hawke. A Chinese colleague plants a seed. He says he saw the man’s wife stepping out with another guy. The man dismisses it. At home she’s doing the housework as Paulette Godard. She answers the phone as Julie Roberts. Is it her lover? No, her doctor. She’s pregnant! She wants to share the news with the man. But, alas, he’s too busy. Or suspicious? “Don’t call me at work,” he says, and they drift apart on mutual misconception. One day he follows her and peeps in on her taking off her clothes. Oh, the pain! Except, no, she’s at the doctor’s. But he doesn’t know this. So he confronts her, slaps her, calls her whore. She runs to a friend’s. He mopes, sees a notice about war, signs up, goes off, and dies. Yes, dies.
So is that it? That’s the story?
No. Superman turns back time. I’m not kidding. And the man is able to go back to a moment where he communicates with the woman. And they reunite. And live happily ever after.
The big joke at the end? He’s now the undead, Gary Oldman of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and takes a bite out of Winona Ryder.
And that’s the end. Rapturous applause.
I’d given up on it long before. “Final Cut,” rather than an homage to cinema, flattens cinema for me. It reminds us how similar it all is. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy dies and becomes Dracula thanks to Superman.
I think my favorite moment was early in the courtship. She spreads her legs as Sharon Stone, he smiles as Norman Bates, then we see Maria’s face from “Metropolis” wink creepily. That made me laugh out loud. The only other times I laughed had more to do with Chaplin than Pálfi.
Over 450 films. Over three years of editing. And it still feels like something I’d appreciate but wouldn’t quite finish on YouTube.
Movie Review: Populaire (2012)
Let him be gay. That’s what I kept thinking.
“Populaire,” a 2012 French romantic comedy that made the rounds in the “Mad Men”-crazy states this year, is an homage to those Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the late ’50s and early ‘60s, where she’s plucky, he’s unavailable, but in the end ... *smooch*.
Or so I’m told. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Doris Day movie. Via “The Celluloid Closet” I did see scenes where Hudson’s character pretends to be gay to throw her off the scent. So you have a gay man pretending to be a straight actor pretending to be a straight character who is pretending to be gay. There’s enough subtext there to crush us all.
In “Populaire,” Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François of “L’Enfant” and “Les tribulations d'une caissière”) is a plucky girl, who, to escape her small village in Normandy in 1958, tries to get a secretary job in Lisieux at the insurance agency of the handsome Louis Échard (Romain Duris of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “L’anacoeur”). Immediately she’s made to feel second-rate by all the would-be secretaries in the waiting room with their cat’s-eye glasses and catty attitudes. Louis is ready to show her the door himself when she spins the typewriter around and begins two-fingered typing at a superfast rate. By the end, she’s flushed, her hair is down, and her bra strap is showing. It’s typing as sex. She gets the job.
Turns out she’s an awful secretary (but plucky!), while he has something else on his mind. Something extracurricular.
No, not that. He wants to enter her in the regional speed-typing competition. He even sets her up in a room in his stately mansion so she can practice more. She assumes he’ll make a play for her—doesn’t speed-typing equal sex?—but he never does. He never even seems to think it. He’s all about the competition. Of course, the less interested he seems the more interested she becomes, and, in this manner, she pouts and frets her way to the regional championship.
Let him be gay
And all the while I kept thinking that thought at the top: Let him be gay. Do something meaningful with the crushingly sad subtext of those Rock Hudson movies instead of giving in, yet again, to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the love-hungry women in the audience. As you did back then.
Nope. The filmmakers, including writer-director Régis Roinsard, do nothing with that crushingly sad subtext. Rose and Louis even have sex before the national finals a Paris, which she wins. Then, as she becomes a celebrity, he’s squeezed out of the picture, or allows himself to be squeezed out of the picture, by the Japy Typewriter people, who are pushing their new typewriter, Populaire. Oh, and there’s the world championships in New York City against the reigning American champ, who is superior and wears cat’s-eye glasses.
So why is Louis so intent on winning these meaningless typewriter competitions? He was competitive in school, we find out. We also get a bit of backstory. During World War II, he commanded a platoon of resistance fighters, who all died, all his friends, while he ran away. It’s a story that has entirely too much weight for this lightweight thing while never answering the main question: Why is he so competitive? About typing?
As for her talent? She’s just a natural. She’s clumsy everywhere but here. Clumsiness—and the cattiness of other women—is the easy way moviemakers make female movie stars sympathetic. But Rose’s clumsiness never feels real. It was always feels like movie clumsiness.
There are subplots. Louis was always in love with Marie (Bérénice Bejo, who can blame him), but the war screwed up their relationship, and anyway a handsome American, Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson, Ontario), landed on her father’s barn on D-Day, and that was that. Rose’s father is taciturn and against her going to Lisieux and blah blah blah. Louis once gave away a Van Gogh, or allowed its owners to sell it and reap the fortune, for which his father blames him and blah blah blah.
But mostly it’s about them and blah blah blah. The question for all romantic-comedies is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” So it would’ve been brilliant, or at least interesting, if the answer here was, “Well, it’s because he’s gay.” Instead, it’s because he’s just too focused on the competition, the speed-typing competition, to have sex with her.
Let me speak for all straight men here: I’ve never known a man that focused.
He totally should've been gay
I liked the montage with the multicolored fingernails, and the hands typing out of the wall. I liked the title graphics: very of-the-period. I hated that Louis showed up in New York, with his best pal Bob, right before the final round of the world championships, but I liked how, backstage, he told her that he loved her (“Je t’aime”), and how this was translated into all the different ways to say “I love you” by the international crew of speed-typists backstage, all looking dreamy-eyed and swoony. That was cute.
Otherwise, “Populaire” is painful to watch. Patricia and I kept going, “There’s another hour of this?” “There’s another 40 minutes of this?” Time slowed down like it was the last class on the last day before summer vacation, and we just wanted to be free.
Plus he totally should’ve been gay.
Movie Review: West of Memphis (2012)
I’d heard good things about “West of Memphis,” the documentary by Amy Berg detailing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three young men, Damien Wayne Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, in the 1993 deaths of three young boys, who were found naked, bound and mutilated in a shallow pond in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Two of the young men were sentenced to life in prison; one (Echols) was sentenced to death.
The evidence against them? The confession of one, Misskelley, who was questioned for 12 hours by the police, and who later recanted. Some eyewitness testimony from others, later recanted. Direct evidence? Nothing. DNA evidence? No. Hysteria over the crime helped. The focus of the investigation became Echols after more than month because the crime was perceived to be a Satanic crime and Echols was perceived to be a Satanist, even though he was probably just a Goth kid.
Although we don’t really know much about him, do we? Instead, the doc strings us along for two and a half hours with various guesses about the crime and wringings of hand over the miscarriage of justice and footage of Lorri Davis, who married Echols when he was in prison, reading love letters from him. And, yes, you read that right: two and a half hours. I know the story of the West Memphis Three is a tragedy twice over, but it took Steven Spielberg only a half-hour longer to present the entirety of the Holocaust. Can’t a brother get a film editor in here?
At first “West of Memphis” is a horrific crime story (which it is), then it’s a story of a horrific miscarriage of justice (which it seems to be), then it becomes a kind of detective story—if these kids didn’t do it, who did?—and different people become involved in the investigation and the attempt to right the crime after the crime. San Francisco’s Dennis Riordan becomes the most prominent of the lawyers, but even he winds up with a backseat in the doc to all of the celebrities who made the case of the West Memphis Three their cause: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. But how did they all get involved? Did Rollins start it? And did he bring the others along? It feels like that’s the case but we don’t know for sure. Here’s the question I have that the documentarians don’t seem interested in answering: Of all the miscarriages of justice in the world, how did so many work so long on this one?
That’s the oddity. We have a two-and-a-half-hour doc that still leaves us with fundamental questions. When did doubts about the boys’ guilt first arise? Immediately? What were the West Memphis Three thinking back in 1994 as they were on trial? Did they think they would get off? Did they realize the gravity of the situation? Instead, they’re silent, background figures in their own story. They’re virtually unknowable. But the doc churns over (and over) some of the same material. It draws out the drama and thus draws out the doc. You feel it happening. You feel the manipulation.
“West of Memphis” ultimately disappoints for not being more concise, for not seeing the wider picture, for not answering fundamental questions despite its length. Who doesn’t disappoint? Eddie Vedder. A talking head, he comes off here as sober, intelligent and thoughtful.
Movie Review: The Gatekeepers (2012)
Has Dick Cheney seen this documentary? He should. Have you? You should, too.
“The Gatekeepers” documents the nearly 50 years of struggle, tension, and terrorism between Israel and Palestine since the Six Day War, as seen through the eyes of the six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, whose motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” Here, they are seen. Here, they talk.
Near the end, when documentarian Dror Moreh asks his subjects if they support speaking to the enemy, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the like, they all say yes. Every one of them. Even Avraham Shalom, who looks like your favorite Jewish uncle (checked shirt, red suspenders) but has something deeper and darker in him, even he says yes. “Anyone we can, even if they answer rudely,” Shalom says, adding, “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified.”
Things get clarified in “The Gatekeepers,” too, even if that clarification leads to no easy answers, or, really, any answers. But it clarifies in demonstrating a path that hasn’t worked. Which just happens to be the path we’re on.
What do you do?
It’s tough to imagine the work it took to get these guys to speak, but they do, and they do it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a surprising lack of bullshit. These men have seen things and done things and made decisions and taken lives. They’ve lived the dilemma most of us merely debate over.
The doc begins with one such dilemma, presented rhetorically by Yuval Diskin (director of Shin Bet, 2005-11), even as it becomes a real-world situation later in the film. A known terrorist is with two other people, and you don’t know whether they’re part of it, but you can’t take him out without taking them out, too. “What do you do?” Diskin asks Moreh, just off-camera. “Do you fire or not?” He says not doing anything seems easier but it’s actually harder. Then he says something fairly remarkable for the head of a national security agency. It’s a worldview we don’t get much in the U.S., where absolutism, if not outright chest-thumping, is the norm. It’s a measured response; it resides in the gray areas:
We all have our moments. On vacation, you say, “Okay, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible.” Yet you still say, “There’s something unnatural about it.” What’s unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.
Israel is more besieged than the U.S.—tiny rather than huge, surrounded on all sides by enemies rather than oceans—yet its heads of security present a more human face than ours. They seem smarter. “We took intensive courses in spoken and literary Arabic,” says Yaakov Peri (1988-94). “Anyone who took the Shin Bet’s Arabic program seriously, knows Arabic.” They have a sense of humor about dark matters. Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who looks like he could be Mel Brooks’ younger brother, talks about the dangers of bad Arabic as officials go door-to-door in occupied territories. Adding an accent to the H? It’s the difference between “We came to count you” and “We came to castrate you.”
What’s the dilemma? It’s occupation—of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you control what can’t be controlled? How do you sort the innocent from the dangerous without creating more of the dangerous? How much surveillance is enough to keep your group safe, and when is it OK to shoot to kill, and in the process what do we become? More: How do you fight an enemy whose notion of victory, as one Palestinian tells Ami Ayalon (1995-2000), is “seeing you suffer”? An enemy who thinks you don’t even have the right to exist?
One solution is an open hand—giving up the occupied territories, West Bank and Gaza—but of course the Oslo Accords were meant to do that and it led to fierce reaction and outcry from within Israel and to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent resignation of Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon (1994-96).
Another solution is the closed fist. But in 1984 that led to the Bus 300 Affair, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed summarily by Shin Bet, which led to outcry, investigation, coverup. Yahya Ayyash, chief bombmaker for Hamas, was assassinated in 1996, but there was collateral damage, and outcry, and when a larger group could have been targeted, lesser bombs were used and terrorists survived. For which there was outcry.
Good and safe
We want to be safe but we want to be good. That’s the dilemma. Yet the more practical question is this: Is our method for making ourselves safe in the short-term making ourselves safe in the long-term? Are our methods sustainable? For these six men, whose positions and presence carry considerable weight, the answer is no, no, no, no, no and no.
Of all things, I kept being reminded of “The Wire,” David Simon’s superlative series about cops and drug dealers (and politicians and teachers and the media) in Baltimore. Tactically, it’s about tracking guys too smart to use cellphones. Politically, it’s about the numbers game. Here’s Shalom:
Peri kept showing us this chart. How many people were caught? How many informers were there? How many attacks were prevented? How many weren’t? The picture was always rosy but it was point-specific. There was no strategy, just tactics.
Moreh doesn’t get into the differences between the six Shin Bet directors/talking heads. Is Shalom, for example, talking about Yaakov Peri here? I assume so. Did he object to him? Does he blame him for the all tactics/no strategy policy? But wasn’t Shalom director of Shin Bet then? Could he do nothing?
Moreh doesn’t give us much on the history of Shin Bet, either: when it was formed, by whom, for what; how it differs from Mossad. We don’t get the background for people like me who know very little of the history of Israel. We have to search that out. Which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing.
Finally, beyond what they did with Shin Bet, we don’t learn much about these men. Who went on to politics and the Knesset? Who was born where and when? Shalom, it turns out, was born in Vienna in 1930. He was eight during the Anschluss. Apparently he barely knew he was Jewish, or what that meant, until the day after Kristallnacht when he was beaten up at school. None of that is in the doc, but it lends even more power to one of the doc’s more shocking moments: when Shalom, the former director of Shin Bet, the man with a darkness in his eyes, compares the Israeli army, his army, to the German army of World War II:
The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future. Where does it lead? To a change in the people’s character. Because if you put most of our young people in the army, they’ll see a paradox. They’ll see that it strives to be a people’s army, like the Nahal unit, involved in building up the country. On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. [Pause] Similar, not identical. And I’m not talking about their behavior toward the Jews—that was exceptional, with its own particular characteristics. I mean how they acted to the Poles, the Belgians, the Dutch. To all of them. The Czechs. It’s a very negative trait that we acquired, to be ... I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. [Longer pause] We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.
Moreh was inspired to do “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and he was able to get his first subject here, Ami Ayalon, who opened the gates as it were, because of “The Fog of War.” He told Ayalon he wanted to do something in that manner, and Ayalon nodded and said that Morris’ documentary should be required viewing in war school.
So should “The Gatekeepers.” Forget the modifier.