Movie Reviews - 2012 postsThursday February 19, 2015
Movie Review: Hannah Arendt (2012)
I knew the phrase “banality of evil” but I didn’t know it was controversial. I simply thought it said something meaningful about human nature generally and the Holocaust specifically. To kill six million, you need more than monsters; you need bureaucrats. You need people to keep the trains running.
I also knew Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem first appeared in William Shawn’s The New Yorker; but I didn’t know Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was a friend of Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), that she was a well-known political theorist/philosopher, and that she had been a student and lover of Martin Heidegger. I didn’t know Arendt’s various philosophies—nor Heidegger’s for that matter. I still don’t. I didn’t know Heidegger had Nazi issues.
So I learned all of these things watching “Hannah Arendt,” a 2012 film with mixed pedigree (Germany, Luxemburg, France), directed by Margarethe von Trotta (“Rosenstrasse”), and written by von Trotta and Pamela Katz (ditto).
What I didn’t learn? Why Arendt’s articles were controversial in the first place. I get it ... but don’t.
Here are some of the complaints we hear in the film.
“Eichmann not an anti-Semite? That’s absurd!” says Arendt’s friend, Kurt Blumenfeld, living in Israel, where Eichmann is put on trial.
“You don’t need to be smart or powerful to behave like a monster,” says Hans Jonas, a German-born philosopher living in New York City, where Hannah lives.
“That’s Hannah Arendt: all cleverness and no feeling” says Norman, one of her many detractors, superciliously.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, William Shawn, is portrayed as a genial human doormat, while another editor, Francis Wells, is portrayed as a domineering harpy who can’t wait to get her claws into Hannah.
Obviously there’s some difficulty in making a movie (a visual presentation) about someone who thinks (a non-visual action). But Hannah doesn’t just think; she talks, and argues, and smokes, and the movie captures all of this, it’s just that the arguments themselves—the movie’s core element—aren’t that interesting. They’re repetitive. She states her case, the other side can’t believe she could feel that way, she’s shocked by their shock, retreats, regroups, states her case again ... and the other side can’t believe she could feel that way.
There are good supporting performances, particularly by Axel Milberg as her husband, Heinrich Blucher, and particularly in a scene where he has a brain aneurysm; it’s one of the most effective renditions of sudden, overwhelming pain I’ve seen on film. I also liked Julia Jentsch (“Sophie Scholl”) as Hannah’s sly, amused secretary. And of course I loved being in a milieu where everyone waited for the next The New Yorker to come out and then discussed it as if it mattered. Instead of, you know, what we have today.
But “Hannah Arendt” isn’t a deep movie. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that she won the argument so overwhelmingly. There’s not much for the opposition to say.
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.