Movie Reviews - 2011 posts
Saturday March 04, 2017
Movie Review: Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)
Roger Corman was responsible for helping launch the careers of some of the best and most beloved actors and directors of the last 50 years: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron.
He also made hundreds of shitty exploitation movies.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood rebel,” directed by Alex Stapleton, honors both of these achievements but there’s something disingenuous about it. It focuses on the “rebel” rather than the “exploits.” It continually pits Corman against the Hollywood studios (where he’s an underdog) rather than other exploitation filmmakers (where he’s just trying to make a buck in a crowded field).
Corman got into the biz in the early ‘50s going through the script slush pile at 20th Century Fox. Ironically, the man with no taste rejected most scripts as not being good enough. One he liked, and gave notes on, became “The Gunfighter” starring Gregory Peck, and his notes were used, but he received no on-screen credit. So he said “Screw that” and struck out on his own. He made low-budget, guerilla flicks that fit the times: teen rebel and dorky monster movies in the ’50s; Hammerish horror films with Vincent Price in the ’60s, followed by the biker flicks with Peter Fonda that prefigured “Easy Rider.” In the ’70s, it was dusty “Bonnie and Clyde” wannabes (“Big Bad Mama”), along with women-in-prison films.
His one stab at legitimacy, according to the doc, was the 1962 film, “The Intruder,” starring William Shatner as a northerner who goes South to stir up trouble against integration. When it died at the box office, that was that. Corman never tried to be hifalutin again.
I think that’s what he’s trying to get at with the “Star Wars” analogy. Here’s the quote:
When I saw “Star Wars,” I said, “This is a threat to me.” Because it means the major studios are beginning to understand what we’ve been doing for $100,000 or so, and they’re now doing it for multi-millions of dollars. And it’s going to be very difficult for us to compete.
Bigwigs like Peter Bogdanovich back him up:
He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures, which he did for no money, and, you know, quickly and unpretentiously. ... I miss the Roger Corman versions.
Corman’s low-budget genre flicks, in other words, became the studios high-budget genre flicks. He had his niche and they took it away from him.
Except ... Bogdanovich’s comment about “He did it first with horror pictures and science fiction pictures”? What science fiction? In the ’50s, Corman directed rubber-monster movies, like everybody, and in 1968 Bogdanovich directed the Corman-produced “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women,” in which astronauts land on a planet of dinosaurs and Swedish girls, and in ’75 Corman directed “Death Race 2000” with David Carradine and an unknown Sylvester Stallone. That’s it. He really didn’t do much with the genre. While George Lucas was innovating in the science fiction realm, Corman was hip deep in things like “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Caged Heat,” “Jackson County Jail” and “Eat My Dust.”
Yet the talking heads, and the doc itself, seem to give Corman credit for doing low-budget “Star Wars” even as they dismiss “Star Wars” as The Thing That Ruined Hollywood.
It certainly ruined it for Corman. Scorsese mentions meeting Corman in the early 1980s and having the following conversation: “I said, ‘Aren’t you going to do any more? Aren’t you going to direct a few more?’ and he said, ‘I don’t think so. The whole scene is changing ... I don’t belong there.’” Indeed, Corman directed only one movie after that conversation: “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound” with John Hurt and Raul Julia in 1990.
Except ... he kept producing. How many movies? After 1980, a mere two hundred and eighty nine. But the doc glosses over this period. Why? I suppose because none of it matters. Corman didn’t give any new Nicholsons or Scorseses a leg up in the business, while most of his movies went straight to video or straight overseas. That might’ve been an interesting angle for Stapleton to pursue, actually. With drive-ins dying, where did Corman’s post-1980 movies show? In theaters? If no, was it really “Star Wars” that got to Corman or was it competition from fellow schlockmeisters Golan and Globus, whose company, Canon Entertainment, ruled the schlock-film realm during the 1980s?
The B movie of it
This might’ve been a good question to ask, too: What’s the difference between Corman’s grindhouse flicks of the early 1970s, which are celebrated, and the post-1980 straight-to-video flicks, which don’t rate a mention? What did Corman think of Golan and Globus? Russ Meyer? Was there a time when he got disgusted with humanity and its low desires? With himself and his low desires? When he thought “Enough already”?
Are any of these films worth making?
None of it is asked. Instead, we see Corman receiving an honorary Oscar in 2009. All of the talking heads say he deserved it, and Jack Nicholson, on his comfortable couch in his comfortable mansion, cries at the end, thinking how much he owes Corman. That scene almost makes the doc worth watching, but it never lays to rest my thought that Corman spent a lifetime titilating us to no good end.
“Oh, how we longed for the B movie of it,” wrote George W.S. Trow in “My Pilgrim's Progress.” That's where you begin.
Friday September 12, 2014
Movie Review: Red State (2011)
For an hour I was impressed. Unfortunately, this thing lasts an hour and a half.
I didn’t pay much attention to “Red State” and its surrounding controversy when it arrived in 2011. Maybe because the controversy arrived and the movie didn’t. After so-so reviews at Sundance, writer-director Kevin Smith created his own company, SModcast Pictures, to distribute it. Kinda sorta. “Red State,” according to Box Office Mojo, played in five theaters in March, one in August, and one at the end of September. Then it went to VOD. Then it disappeared. Blip.
Part of the problem is the one Philip Roth identified in 1961—the difficulty of making the absurdity of American life credible—but at least in one area Smith doesn’t do poorly. He gives us a version of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, but with guns guns guns. He puts us in their church. He forces us to hear their sermon. Then he gets trigger-happy. He dramatizes not only a version of Westboro but a version of Waco. Equal time, I suppose. Doesn’t work. Falls flat. Feels false.
Plus, for a movie that makes a homophobic group the enemy, it feels a little homophobic.
A vengeful God
Three teenage boys are hanging out, bored and horny, in a small Southern town. One, Travis (Michael Angarano), late for school, sees a protest by the Five Points Trinity Church and its leader, Rev. Abin Cooper (a stellar Michael Parks), at the funeral of a homosexual kid who was recently murdered. It’s Westboro’s “God Hates Fags” package with one exception: Five Points Church actually murdered this kid. We find that out later.
One of Travis’ friends, Jarod (Kyle Gallner), has found an older woman on the Internet (Melissa Leo) willing to put out. Since boys will be boys, they visit her at her trailer—sidewiping a car en route. There, they drink beer, get undressed, pass out. Drugged. A trap. When Jarod awakes, he’s in a covered cage, inside the Five Points Trinity Church, where Abin Cooper begins his sermon.
Cooper talks about the horrors of modern American society and its homosexual agenda. He preaches on Noah and the Flood: how God killed everyone but one family. He mocks softer churches that talk of a loving God. Does the Noah story sound like a loving God, he asks? God, he says, demands fear. Then he and the members of his church, nice, middle-aged folks, reveal a homosexual kid shrinkwrapped to the cross, whom they kill. Then they push him through a trap door and into the basement, where Travis and the third friend, Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun), are tied up. Then they begin to shrinkwrap Jarod to the cross.
These are intense scenes—the best part of the movie—and Parks completely sells them. He’s awful and charismatic and in some sense logical. If you believe in the Flood, why would you believe in a loving God? Jesus’ corrective notwithstanding.
The kind of preaching Cooper does is actually in Kevin Smith’s wheelhouse. I don’t think I’ve seen a Kevin Smith movie as interesting as Kevin Smith talking. YouTube has tons of these videos. He’s a racounteur. So it makes sense he’s at his best when he lets one of his characters speechify.
But then we get into the Waco portion of the story. From wacko to Waco.
A vengeful government
Remember the sideswiped car? Turns out the local Sheriff (Stephen Root) was inside, where he was giving head to another guy. Back at the office, cowardly, shaking, he tells his deputy, Pete (Matt Jones, Badger from “Breaking Bad”), to track down the other car. Pete, it turns out, is pretty good at his job. He does it. It’s at the Five Points Church, where Pete is in the process of being mollified by Abin Cooper until a gunfight breaks out between one of the parishioners and an escaped Billy-Ray, both of whom buy it. Pete buys it, too, but not before calling in the gunfight to the cowardly gay Sheriff. At which point the cowardly gay Sheriff calls in ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman).
Keenan first has to convince his superior to get involved; then he has to convince him to get involved in a measured way. Apparently, the superior, whom, like God, we never see, wants to kill everyone inside—women and children included. It's the story of Noah all over again. But this is about the time my attention began to waver. I didn’t buy it. Seemed like bullshit. And why does Keenan have to convince another agent to follow these orders when he doesn’t?
It’s all scattershot and the body count mounts up. There goes Travis, who gets it in the head—ironically, from the cowardly gay Sheriff. There goes Agent Brooks (Kevin Pollack), who’s barely in this thing. He says a couple of witty lines and is gone. Shame. There goes the cowardly gay Sheriff.
We’ve got one guy left: Can Caleb survive? Do we care? There’s an odd scene, or several scenes, between Caleb and Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), the cute, blonde Five Pointser, who is trying to bargain for the lives of the babies in contradiction to the “blaze of glory” end demanded by Cooper. Both she and Caleb wind up getting killed in cold blood by ATF agents. As always happens. Then the trumpet sounds, announcing the return of God to the world. Or so Cooper believes. It’s actually pot growers next door, playing a joke on him with a huge horn, a huge amplifier, and an iPod. (Not a bad bit, but couldn’t they hear the automatic weapons fire?) Keenan explains all of this at an inquiry that really isn’t an inquiry, where he’s both suspended and promoted. It’s supposed to be a cynical end but the cynicism is immature. There’s nothing subtle about it.
That’s always been Smith’s problem: a lack of maturity and subtlety. I get it with “Clerks”; Smith was only 24 then. Now he’s into his 40s. Time to grow up a bit.
Monday September 08, 2014
Movie Review: Dolphin Tale (2011)
My review of “Dolphin Tale 2” will be in The Seattle Times on Friday ...
Picking on “Dolphin Tale” is like picking on the polite kid at school with the combed hair and the shirt buttoned to the top. Only a jerk would do it.
Here I go.
Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a quiet kid in the small, coastal town of Clearwater, Fla. His dad ran off five years ago, his mom (Ashley Judd, everyone’s mom now) is a busy nurse, while his favorite cousin, the hunky state swimming champion Kyle (Austin Stowell), has joined the Army to save money to train for the Olympics. Because that’s how it’s done these days. State swimming champions don’t go to college, and Olympic hopefuls don’t get funding; they just go off to war in their athletic prime and hope to return whole. Since the movie is about a dolphin without a tail, you kind of know where this subplot is going.
Besides being a Mr. Fix-It in the garage, Sawyer is also dumb. Or at least he’s flunking school: Ds and Fs. That’s why he has to go to summer school. And that’s where he’s biking one morning when the Old Jewish Fisherman on the beach (‘70s sitcom staple Richard Libertini) tells him to call 911 because a dolphin has washed ashore tangled in ropes and nets. Sawyer, with the trusty Swiss Army knife his cousin gave him (“Family is Forever” inscribed on the side), cuts the worst of the ropes off and talks to the dolphin until a rescue unit arrives. This unit is led by ultra-serious dad, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.), chatty daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and the usual background contingent of buff dudes and fit girls.
Sawyer slowly gets immersed in their world. He shows up uninvited, meets a comic-relief pelican, Rufus, and discovers that the dolphin he rescued, named “Winter” by Hazel, is slowly dying. Ah, but Winter revives when she hears Sawyer’s voice! She starts trilling. She starts caring. So Sawyer is allowed to stay.
Except wait, isn’t he supposed to be going to summer school? Ah, but his mom decides, after one line of dialogue from Kyle’s father (who knows best), that this is a better experience for Sawyer than diagramming stupid old sentences in a classroom.
Except then Winter loses her tail; it was just too damaged by the crab trap. Ah, but with Sawyer’s help, she learns to swim side to side rather than up and down!
Except this damages her spine. And the spine is everything. Ah, but at the local VA hospital, where Kyle is recuperating from damaging his leg in one of America’s many unnamed wars, Sawyer meets a prosthetist, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman, on loan from Bruce Wayne), and convinces him to create a prosthetic for Winter!
Except Winter won’t wear the prosthetic. Ah, but ...
And thus the movie stutters along in this episodic manner: from “Except” to “Ah, but!” From handwringing conflict to facile resolution.
By the end, the major conflicts are three-fold: 1) Will Kyle get out of his funk?; 2) Can Morgan Freeman create a prosthetic Winter will wear?; and 3) Can they save Mr. Clay’s aquarium from being shut down? The resolution to this last is particularly facile. The aquarium and land, without government funding, is bought by a rich developer, Philip J. Hordern (Tom Nowicki, looking like Richard Branson), who plans to turn it into seaside resorts. Except the kids do an Andy Hardy number and put on a show that’s hugely successful, particularly with amputees, and it melts the developer’s heart; and he lets them keep the aquarium and do whatever they want with it. Cue cheers.
“Dolphin Tale,” written by Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2,” “Duma”) and directed by Charles Martin Smith (my man from “American Graffiti,” “Starman,” and “The Untouchables”), is based on a true story. Winter exists, the prosthetic exists, she’s an inspiration to amputees. So you feel like a shit saying anything bad about it. But the story they’ve constructed around this true story is steeped in an anodyne 1950s TV sensibility, where fathers know best, women and girls have clumsy enthusiasm, and everything is telegraphed so we won’t be worried for long. I imagine the real story is much more interesting.
Wednesday September 11, 2013
Movie Review: Super (2011)
“I’ve wondered all the time why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero.”
That’s Libby (Ellen Page), early in James Gunn’s low-budget, Troma-inspired “Super,” before she becomes Bolty, girl sidekick and sometime lover (or rapist) to the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson). Anyone not caught up in a fantasy world, of course, knows the answer to this one, and it comes to Libby later in the movie. Too late, it turns out.
She and the Crimson Bolt are storming the palace of drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in an amused performance), until one of the bad guys shoots them both and they fall in the high grass. By this point, we know they’re wearing body armor so we’re not worried. And sure enough, Frank Darbo, the Crimson Bolt, groans, shakes his head and begins to get up. He shakes Bolt Girl, who is lying on her side away from him—c’mon, get up—and she rolls on her back and half her face is gone.
That’s the answer. That’s why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero. Because bullets don’t bounce off.
Credit “Super” for not imagining otherwise. “Kick Ass,” which was released a year earlier, and had a bigger budget and bigger stars, pretends a young girl with martial arts moves can take on a roomful of bad guys and not get injured. That movie feigns ironic indifference to the very thing it desperately wants: wish-fulfillment fantasy.
“Super” doesn’t. But it’s still an odd movie. It still sends mixed messages. It still gives us an improperly sweet ending.
Finger of God
Frank Darbo is a man for whom two good things happened in his life: he pointed out a thief to a cop (“He went in there, Officer!”), and a beautiful girl, Sarah (Liv Tyler), agreed to marry him. He draws pictures of both of these things and puts them on his wall. Then Sarah gets involved with drugs again and Frank is too weak to stop her. Then she leaves him for Jacques, the local, genial drug lord.
Jacques is so genial, in fact, and Frank so grotesquely, huffingly obstinate, it’s as if Frank is the villain. Frank goes to the cops, who tell him they can’t arrest Jacques for winning the girlfriend battle. Frank goes to Jacques, who remains good-natured even as Frank pounds on his car. But then Jacques’ men, including Michael Rooker, pound on Frank.
Why the superhero route? Because Frank comes across a TV show, “Holy Avenger,” in which the long-haired pot-bellied hero (Nathan Fillion) uses the power of Christ to defeat villains and keep the same two clean-cut teens on the straight and narrow. Apparently this show is based on some direct-to-video thing called “Bibleman,” starring Willie Aames, which is an odd thing to parody—something that’s barely made inroads into popular culture. Oh, and Frank also has a dream, or maybe a vision, in which his skull is cut open and his brain touched by the finger of God.
Despite God, his crime-fighting starts poorly. He hangs behind a garbage dumpster for a few days waiting for crime to happen. In his first encounter, a drug dealer pulls his mask down (“No fair! No fair!”) and Frank is forced to run. So he returns to the local comic book store, where Libby works, and asks a question: How do superheroes without superpowers get by? Libby shows him Batman, who has a utility belt, and the Green Arrow, who has his arrows, and Frank decides on a weapon: a pipe wrench. He clocks bad guys on the head with it then says his line: DON’T STEAL! DON’T MOLEST KIDS! DON’T DEAL DRUGS!
Is he too distracted? What does fighting crime have to do with rescuing Sarah? He gets further distracted waiting for a movie only to have a middle-aged couple butt in line. He speaks up; they sass back. Then he splits the guy’s head open. It’s actually kind of funny—the awfulness of what he does—but then Libby, guessing his identity, defends him to him. “I hate when people butt,” she says. That’s kind of funny, too.
Libby is there to make the wholly unreasonable Frank seem entirely reasonable. She insists on dressing up as his sidekick, all 5’ 1” of her, and taking out a smarmy dude who keyed her friend’s car. She crashes a glass vase over the dude’s head but afterwards reveals doubt about the crime. “Yeah, pretty sure it was him,” she says. She rams one bad guy into a wall with Frank’s car and revels in his pain:
That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ha ha ha ha ha! .... It’s called internal bleeding, fucker!
I assume we’re supposed to laugh and be horrified at the same time—that’s what I did anyway—I just can’t tell if there’s more going on or less. The goal of “Super” is to shock us with the consequences of violence, but to what end? To what alternative? And what to make of the sex?
Right, the sex. Libby comes on to Frank. She asks to make out with him. Later, she rapes him. If “no means no,” she rapes him. It never would have made it off the page, let alone on screen, if the genders had been reversed, but here it’s, I don’t know, horrific and funny again. And sexy? A bit.
Plus her action spurs Frank to action, to taking on what he’s been putting off. They attack Jacques’ place, and Libby sacrifices half her face, and her life, but the Crimson Bolt kills everyone else, and rescues Sarah, who’s a virtual prisoner by this point, a near rape victim herself. In a few months, we’re told in an afterword, she leaves Frank again to marry a better man. She has four kids with him. These kids call Frank “Uncle Frank”; and Frank, who began the movie with only two good memories, and who was too timid to even buy a rabbit for a pet, now holds his pet rabbit while gazing at a wall full of great memories he’s had from the adventures we’ve just watched, and his voiceover searches for a greater meaning to everything that’s happened.
Now I guess I’m doing that. I’m searching for greater meaning to everything that happened.
“Super” was written and directed by James Gunn, who also wrote “The Specials,” a lame superhero parody from 2000, but is this movie even a superhero parody? I like the scene where, in the mirror, a la Travis Bickle, the Crimson Bolt tries out his signature lines:
- Everybody give up!
- It’s me, the Crimson Bolt!
- You just made the biggest mistake of your life!
Before settling on one:
- Shut up, Crime! Here’s the Crimson Bolt ... Crime.
But the Crimson Bolt isn’t super. He knows no skill like Batman or Green Arrow or Zorro. If anything, the movie feels like a parody of vigilante movies or worm-turns movies than superhero movies. It’s a “true life” version of those genres. It reveals, via an imperfect, dangerous hero, the awful violence implicit in our stories. Gunn doesn’t clean it up; he doesn’t make it easy for us. We are revealed by what we want—even as he sometimes gives us what we want.
Overall “Super” gives us massive mixed feelings. When the Crimson Bolt stabs Jacques to death, he says the following:
You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t CHANGE!
This is wrong twice over:
- The rules do change
- The rule that changes least is the one Frank is engaged in.
Would the movie have been better if it had not played up Jacques’ 11th-hour villainy—allowing Sarah, for example, to be nearly raped? If Jacques had remained fairly genial throughout? If Sarah had been watching TV when Frank burst in? Would it have been better without the semi-sweet ending, which allows Frank both epiphany and happiness? His epiphany involves self-sacrifice, in letting Sarah go, which is also how he finds happiness. Fine. But Libby is still dead, dozens have been wasted, and that couple in line still had their heads cracked. It gives us sweet when we needed a little more horror.
Monday April 08, 2013
Movie Review: The Intouchables (2011)
There’s a scene 30 minutes into “The Intouchables,” the second-highest-grossing film in French history (after “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis”), in which a family friend of French aristocrat and paraplegic, Philippe (Francois Cluzet), warns him about his new North African caretaker, Driss (Omar Sy).
By this point in the movie we’ve seen Driss: 1) barge into the job interview for the caretaker position by pretending to be someone else; 2) proposition Philippe’s red-headed assistant, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) at the job interview; 3) steal a Faberge egg from same; 4) still get the job; 5) object to the most basic elements of the job, such as fitting Philippe with support hose; 6) pour boiling water on Philippe’s legs because he has trouble comprehending that Philippe feels nothing below the neck; 7) poke Philippe in the eye with a forkful of food because he’s watching Magalie’s ass; 8) refuse to give Philippe chocolates (M&Ms), saying “No handy, no candy”; and 9) disparage the artwork Philippe buys.
So by this point, the family, and the family friend, are justifiably concerned. “These street guys,” the family friend says at an expensive café, “they have no pity.”
“Exactly,” Philippe responds. “And that’s what I want. No pity.”
It’s the first true moment in the movie. It’s practically the last.
What to make of the appeal of this film? Google “the intouchables” and “magic negro” and you get 1,200 results from critics in America, where the film grossed $10 million. What must the French, with their tendency toward philosophizing, be saying? That Philippe is representative of modern France, a once-strong entity now reduced to wriggling its head helplessly? That the old, crippled France needs younger, more brash immigrants to revive it? That France, made immobile by centuries of crippling civilization, needs to find its brash voice again?
Who are the intouchables of the title? Both men, one assumes: the North African immigrant and the paraplegic. French society doesn’t want to touch either. They don’t know how to deal with either. If that’s the idea, we don’t get enough of it in the movie. No one stares awkwardly at Philippe. They tend to react with fear to Driss only when he physically threatens them.
Are we supposed to like Driss? He’s an asshole but the movie stacks the decks in his favor. At the job interview, the other applicants, with their degrees and knowledge and empathy, can’t answer the actorly question, “What’s your motivation?” Money, one says. The men, says another. I like crippled people, says a third. The question is never asked of Driss because we know the answer. He wanted the signature that showed he was looking for a job so he could continue to receive unemployment benefits.
There’s a jerk, a businessman, nouveau riche (you know), who parks his sports car in front of Philippe’s gated driveway, talking on his cellphone all the while, so Driss strongarms him, threatens him, to the smiles of the servant, Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) inside. Philippe’s daughter goes out with a boy with swooshy hair, who dumps her and calls her “a whore,” so Driss strongarms him, too. Demands croissant pour la famille tous le matin. The boy is dutiful. He even puts his hair in a barrette as Driss suggests. Driss may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.
We get a bonding scene. One night Philippe wakes in a panic with labored breath, barely able to talk, and Driss put a warm compress on his face and talks him through it. He brings him outside in the night air. They stroll along the Seine. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen Paris at night,” Philippe says. Good, sad line. They talk about girls, sex. “How do you …?” Driss asks. “You adapt,” Philippe says. “You find pleasure elsewhere.” The ears, for example. Odd that he doesn’t talk about giving pleasure. He can still do that, yes? The two smoke pot. Philippe barely seems to know what it is, what it does. Assume Philippe is Cluzet’s age. That means he was born in 1955. That also means he was 18 in 1973, 21 in 1976. And he doesn’t know from pot? Please.
We wind up at Le Deux Magots at dawn and get some of Philippe’s backstory. He always liked extreme sports, he says. He liked speed. He went paragliding in heavy winds, crashed, broke his 3rd and 4th vertebrae. Et voila. At the same time his wife contracted an illness and died. “My real handicap,” he says, “is living without her.” Another nice line.
But at the moment he’s corresponding by mail with a woman named Eléonore (Dorothée Brière), who lives in Dunkirk. He dictates purplish prose to Magalie, who sends off the letters. When Driss listens to the awful dictations, when he finds out this has been going on for six long months, he takes matters into his own hands, as he is wont to do. He snatches one of the letters off the lap of the helpless Philippe, finds Eléonore’s number, calls, puts Philippe on. Magalie does nothing. In this moment she’s as helpless as Philippe. Of course Philippe loves it. Of course this is what he wanted all along. Photos are then exchanged. (Turns out Eléonore is gorgeous.) A meeting is set up. But Philippe is nervous, too nervous, and leaves just as Eléonore is entering. We see, he doesn’t. La tragedie.
The movie keeps doing this. Driss will act the asshole, but he’s either our asshole or he’s doing something the characters wanted all along. So it’s good. We were just too uptight, see? We were paralyzed with inaction. Thank God we hired this asshole. He’s making everything right.
Buying into the bullshit
Eventually Driss’ own life, in the form of a cousin being enticed and/or harassed by a drug-dealing gang, shows up, and Driss must return to it. This doesn’t ring true, either. Driss finally has a good job, with good pay, but he’s going to leave it in order to help his family? Really? We see him and his cousin meet the hard-working family matriarch (aunt/mother, respectively) at the train station and carry her bags. I liked that scene. We see Driss talk to the gang members in their black SUV. I didn’t like that scene. Because apparently that took care of the problem. Just that.
Meanwhile, Philippe is lapsing. None of the other caretakers work out. They’re too polite, no fun, don’t get it. When Philippe asks for a massage, the caretaker brings in a dude, for God’s sake, rather than two Asian babes who will massage both men while they smoke pot, as Driss had done. And Philippe can’t ask for himself. Because while some of Philippe’s culture rubbed off on Driss, none of Driss’ matter-of-fact brashness rubbed off on Philippe. So in the end, after a bad episode, they have to call Driss back, and he takes Philippe first on a joyride, then on a carride to a seaside town, where they go to lunch. That’s where Driss abandons him. Why? Guess. Right. Eléonore. And she and Philippe meet and fall in love. And Yvonne winds up dating one of Philippe’s relatives, and Magalie’s girlfriend (ah ha!) moves in with her, and we get a final shot of the real Philippe and Driss looking out to sea—because apparently this bullshit is based on a true story—and all is right with the world.
France loved it: $166 million at the box office in 2011. (Perspective: The No. 1 box office hit in France in 2012, “Skyfall,” grossed $60 million.) It was nominated for nine Césars, including best film, best director, best original screenplay, and two nominations for best actor. It won one: best actor for Omar Sy. Over Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”
Me, I felt trapped 10 minutes in. I felt paralyzed, helpless, forced to endure the movie’s odd form of race fantasy and wish-fulfillment fantasy. Philippe isn’t representative of the problems of modern France; the success of “The Intouchables” is. Even France buys into the bullshit.
Monday March 11, 2013
Movie Review: The Monk (2011)
For half the movie we’re wondering: Is it “the devil is a woman” or is it just the devil? The answer disappoints. Me anyway.
Vincent Cassel plays Capucin Ambrosio, who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a monastery in 16th-century Spain. The title graphic, “1595,” intrigues on its own when you consider that, for most movies, 1979 is ancient history. (The source material, by the way, is a gothic novel first published in 1796 by Matthew G. Lewis, Esq., who was not yet 20 years old. It’s been filmed twice before: in 1972 starring Franco Nero; and in 1990 starring Paul McGann. We get a new version every 20 years, basically.)
Groupie? Snake? Gateway drug?
The movie opens with Ambrosio in the confessional telling a penitent, a man known only as Le Débauché (Sergi Lopez), that “Satan only has the power we give him.” Turns out Le Débauché has given Satan much power. He talks of falling, again and again. He talks of sleeping with his niece several times a day. “What an exquisite abyss,” he says with wonder in his voice. He seems to be enjoying his confession. Ambrosio is not amused. His eyes get darker and spookier. This is Vincent Cassel, after all.
At this point, Ambrosio is something of a local legend. He is a firmly devout man who is able to communicate his faith, and the glory of God, to others. “His faith is so alive it swept my heart away,” says one supplicant, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who faints after a sermon. We can’t help notice she’s pretty.
Then we follow several storylines:
- Ambrosio’s mentor is dying, and warns of great evil all around.
- A boy in a mask, a burn victim who has lost his parents, Valerio, asks to join the monastery. “I want to withdraw from the world and be closer to God,” he says. The other monks are doubtful and fearful; Ambrosio lets him in.
- A nun visiting Ambrosio’s confessional drops a note indicating an illicit relationship. She begs understanding but Ambrosio gives her up. “Instead of fleeing punishment,” he tells her, “you should yearn for it.” She gets it. Pregnant, she’s imprisoned by L’abesse (Geraldine Chaplin) until she starves to death. She blames Ambrosio for her fate.
- Antonia is courted by a handsome noble but her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), haunted by her own past, is doubtful.
We wonder how these stories will come together. Antonia’s, in particular, seems to have no relation to Ambrosio’s. Until it does.
The mentor dies, the nun dies, Valerio is revealed to be a girl (Deborah Francois of “Les tribulations d'une caissière”), who wants to be closer, not to God, but to Ambrosio. Is she an early version of a groupie? She asks for a rose from his garden before he sends her away, but as he reaches for it a scorpion bites him and poisons him. Near death, Valerio arrives and … Does she suck the poison out? Does she make love to him? Both? He lives, realizing he’s sinned, then sins again. She’s less groupie than the snake who has entered his Garden of Eden. But is she the snake?
The world turns dark. A fellow monk, about to finger Ambrosio for his infidelity, is killed by a fallen gargoyle. When Ambrosio investigates on the roof of the monastery, he realizes, as do we, that he’s living through a moment he’s dreamed about several times. Over the parapet, on the ground, he sees a woman in a red cloak praying in the baking sun. In his dream he reaches for her but can’t touch her. Now he does. It’s Antonia. She wants him to console her mother, who is dying and haunted by her past. He does. But now he’s haunted by his present and Antonia.
Rebuffed, Valerio offers Ambrosio a further temptation: a floral aphrodisiac, or organic date-rape drug, with which to seduce Antonia. He takes it, takes her, and the two of them, naked, are discovered by Elvire, who recognizes the birthmark on Ambrosio’s shoulder as the birthmark of the baby she gave up. Ambrosio is her child! And he’s sleeping with his sister! But before Elvire can say anything, Ambrosio wakes, walks up to her, and kills her. His mother.
By this point, yeah, I’d lost interest.
Why Satan should stay on the sidelines
While Ambrosio is worth watching in his moral rectitude, he’s not at all interesting in his fall—or in how he falls. It’s an unfair fight, really. Throughout I kept wondering what sexual release 17th-century monks had. None? How impossible. And to then have Satan gang up on you? Poison you and entice you with beautiful French girls? Speaking for men, we have little shot even if Satan stays on the sidelines. Once he gets into the game, it’s over.
The interesting battle, in other words, is internal, not external. The interesting foe is within, not without.
“The Monk” (“Le Moine”), directed by Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry…”), is beautifully photographed by Patrick Blossier, who juxtaposes the cool monastery with the white-hot, baked surroundings. As always, Vincent Cassel is a force, here mostly held in check. Joséphine Japy has a delicate beauty. But I’m not a fan of gothic anything.
After his trial but before his death, Satan finally appears before Ambrosio. He’s Le Débauché, from the beginning, who throws Ambrosio’s own words back at him: “Satan only has the power we give him.” Then a final deal is struck. Antonia has gone mad (her rapist is her brother who kills their mother) and Ambrosio sells his eternal soul to make her well and happy. One wonders: Is this redemption for Ambrosio, since it’s the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it the final step in Ambrosio’s fall, since his eternal soul belongs to Satan? At which point, black birds, who pecked at the baby Ambrosio at the doorstep of the monastery, pick at the remains of the grown man, dead in the desert.
So probably the latter.
-- March 10, 2013
Monday June 25, 2012
Movie Review: The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
There’s a moment in “The Woman in the Fifth” when the title character, Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), having just given a handjob to down-on-his-luck novelist Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke), leads him into another room in her high-ceilinged luxury apartment in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. The next shot is a close-up of an incredibly handsome man, with bare shoulders and hair slicked back, and, for a second, I wondered if Margit had led Tom into some kind of orgy with an Italian model. Then it dawned on me: Oh, that’s Tom. That’s Ethan Hawke. She’s bathing him.
That’s right. He’s handsome.
You forget watching “The Woman in the Fifth” (“La femme du Vème”). His character is so skittish and drawn, peering at the world through crooked, smudged glasses, and wearing the same musty clothes (hence the bath), that you forget the guy’s a movie star. Women in the movie are forever removing those glasses. With reason. They’re too askew, and the lenses enlarge his unstable eyes too much. They’re the glasses equivalent of Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose in “Chinatown.” They’re so unflattering you can’t imagine a movie star wearing them.
An actor, on the other hand...
When did I begin to hate Ethan Hawke with the white hot hatred I usually reserve for members of the New York Yankees? Was it “Reality Bites”? The offhand way he explains the meaning of ‘irony’ to poor Winona Ryder? Was it the fact that he published a novel, “The Hottest State,” in 1996, at a time when I was trying and failing to get short stories published? Was it the privileged, pretentious way he moved through that privileged, pretentious decade? And when did I begin to let go of this unnatural hatred? “Training Day” helped. “Before Sunrise”/“Before Sunset” were OK but he played pretentious in the first and novelist in the second. So it must’ve been his loser brother in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He stole the film from Philip Seymour Hoffman. I watched for Philip, despite Ethan, and Ethan blew me away.
He does it here, too. He’s a novelist again, with one published book, but you wouldn’t know it looking at him. He seems stunted. Every move he makes is tentative and uncertain. At times he tries to act confident, as before a lawyer, but his bluster augments the uncertainty in his face. It’s hollow and painful and followed by bursts of unrepentant anger. It’s no surprise when we find out he was recently in a mental institution.
As the movie opens, we see him bluffing his way through immigration, bluffing his way into a Parisian apartment building, and when a woman, Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot), tries to shut the door in his face, he pushes his way in. He speaks a passable French but talks to her in English (“Can’t we talk like normal people”) and she responds in clipped French (“Tu n’est pas normal”). Turns out she’s his ex-wife, but he’s less interested in her than in seeing his six-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon), and, voila, runs into her as he’s leaving the building. She’s glad to see him; she’s not scared the way Nathalie was. He’s happy she wears glasses like his. Later, he’ll tell her, “You see the world like I do.” Even then, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
He’s still on the run, though. Nathalie’s called the cops, so he leaves Chloe and tugs his luggage down the street. After falling asleep on a bus, his luggage and wallet are stolen. When he complains, the bus driver tells him, “Go to the police.” The very thing he can’t do.
In this manner he winds up in a rundown Arab cafe/hotel at “Au bon coin” (the Good Corner), which has a pretty Polish waitress, Ania (Joanna Kulig), and where he has to give up his passport to the owner, M. Sezer (Samir Guesmi), to get a small, dingy, second-floor room with a loud, angry neighbor, Omar (Mamadou Minte), who doesn’t flush their shared toilet. At the same time, some luck: Sezer, who may or may not be a petty gangster, gives him a job, €50 a night, to monitor a videocamera in a dingy, locked room, and let in anyone who asks for “M. Monde.” Then at une librairie anglaise, he’s recognized for his first novel, “Forest Life,” and invited to a swanky literary party, where he runs into Margit (Scott Thomas), whom we know to be our titular character, a potential femme fatale, with whom he talks on a balcony overlooking the base of the Eiffel Tower. She’s direct and gives him her card. When he shows up at her place, with a few scraggly flowers in his fist, we get the handjob scene mentioned in the opening graph.
So what’s her game? What’s his? He’s trying to see his daughter, as a father rather than as a stranger on the wrong side of the playground fence. In the meantime he writes her a long letter complete with drawings of woodland creatures, as in the enchanted forest of his first novel, which Ania finds in a Polish translation and reads. She’s impressed and he winds up sleeping with her, too. Unfortunately, Ania is Sezer’s girl, and Omar attempts to blackmail him. He leaves a note:
1,000 EUROS TOMORROW OR YOU’RE DEAD.
Margit, for her part, remains supremely confident in Tom. She tells him his next novel will be great since he has all this material: Sezer, down-and-out in Paris, her. He confides in her about Omar’s threat but she dismisses it:
Tom: You have no idea what these people are capable of.
Margit: You have no idea what you are capable of.
Then things move fast. Upon returning to au bon coin, he can’t open the second-floor WC. It’s blocked. Yes, by Omar, who sits on the toilet, dead, with a plunger down his throat. The cops come and question Tom about his arguments with Omar; they show him the blackmail note with his fingerprints on it. One wonders: Did Sezer set him up? To get back at him for Ania? Tom winds up in a solitary jail cell. Can he sink any lower?
He can. Margit is his alibi, and he tells the cops where she lives. But she doesn’t live there. She’s not even alive. She’s been dead since 1991.
But suddenly he’s released. The police have a new suspect, Sezer, who, when he sees Tom, reacts angrily, claiming Tom set him up.
Throughout the movie, intercut with the action, we’re shown dreamy images of a forest, like the one from Tom’s novel, with a girl in a colorful dress, blurry and just out of view, leaning against a tree. Is she dead? At one point we wonder if it’s Ania in her flower print dress. But when Chloe goes missing, we know it’s her. Not dead, though. We see her wandering back into the city, and the police pick her up and reunite her with her distraught mother. Tom, meanwhile, is reunited with Margit, who represents madness or death. At the end of the movie, he shows up at her door again, sees a flash of white hot light, and gives into it completely.
“The Woman in the Fifth,” the work of Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a smart, atmospheric, noirish thriller that clocks in, like a true 1940s noir, in under 90 minutes. I went in not expecting much. It has a 5.1 IMDb rating, so I assumed pretentious; I assumed it would fall apart. It doesn’t. I was hooked from the beginning. I’m still hooked.
We see the world through Tom’s eyes, like his daughter, and once we know that Margit doesn’t exist we try to figure out who does. Omar? Sezer? Ania? He could be imagining the whole thing from an asylum in England. It would explain why he often winds up in cells: the small chambre, the video room, the jail. It would explain why Paris is mostly empty side-streets.
Indeed, some post-coital conversations suggest that the entire movie is in his head:
Ania: It’s not good for you here.
Tom: There is no ‘here.’
Tom: I feel like the real me is somewhere else ... and the one that’s here is like a sad double.
At the same time, this last line is eminently relatable. Most of us have felt this way. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I due for better things? Yet here I am. We don’t have to be in mental institutions to feel this way; we just have to be human.
Me, I want Omar, Sezer and Ania to be real. I think the movie’s better this way. So, yes, Tom is in Paris. Yes, he kills Omar but doesn’t remember it. Yes, he kidnaps his daughter. That’s why he returns to Margit. He gives in to the white hot light of death/madness to protect his daughter from himself.
That’s why he does what he does with the letter, too. That’s why it’s poignant. He’s been writing it throughout the movie. It’s long. But in the end he doesn’t trust it, or himself, enough. So to protect her, to make sure she doesn’t see the world through his eyes, he throws the letter in a trash bin. Then he returns to retrieve one page, which he tears in half. That’s the one he mails. It contains two words: Love, Dad.
Monday June 04, 2012
Movie Review: Starbuck (2011)
“Starbuck” is a small joy of a film: sweet without being cloying, gentle without being dull, and, above all, unassumingly, organically funny.
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a genial bear of a middle-aged man. He’s affable, forgetful, bumbling, with a strong back, a widening middle, and a mane of dark hair. He’s the delivery driver for his father’s boucherie but can’t drive across town without getting a parking ticket. He’s dating a local police officer, Valerie (Julie LeBreton), but never invites her over because he’s growing pot in his apartment. He’s a friend to all and no one, a punchline within his own family, going nowhere and not really resenting it. Under his old warm-up jacket he wears the worn T-shirts of favorite hockey, futbol and baseball teams. He’s 42 and you get the feeling he’s been sleeping on a couch half his life. He’s been hibernating. He’s about to wake up.
He’s awakened at the start of this movie by local toughs, French-Canadian gangsters, who want the $80,000 he owes. Later that day, he discusses it sheepishly with one of his brothers at the family butcher shop.
Brother: How much do you owe?
Brother: 80 thousand?
David: When you say it with a face like that, it sounds like a lot.
Everyone else is more interested in the jerseys. David has volunteered to get the jerseys for their own futbol squad and they assume he’ll screw it up. They keep reminding him, he keeps assuring them, until finally he explodes: “I have the jerseys!” There’s a pause until one responds, matter of factly, “He obviously doesn’t have the jerseys.”
He doesn’t. Attempting to retrieve them, he gets into an argument with a man in a sportscar who has taken his parking space, and while he’s arguing the shopkeeper closes shop. He has to talk him into reopening the shop, by which point he’s got another parking ticket. But he’s got the jerseys. “They’re in the van,” he tells his friends. Cut to: the van being towed because of the parking tickets. Cut to: the taking of the team picture, with everyone but David looking annoyed, and everyone but David attired in something besides the team’s red jersey.
Then his life gets complicated.
One of the running gags in the film involves all the different people who break into his apartment. The gangsters are first. A slick lawyer is second. He informs him that during the period between 1988 and 1990, under the pseudonym “Starbuck,” David donated sperm 693 times at a local sperm bank. (We later learn he was earning money to take his Polish-immigrant parents to Italy before his mother died.) Of those donations, 533 kids were born. Of those 533, 142 are enjoined in a class-action lawsuit to overturn the sperm bank’s confidentiality agreement and uncover who he is.
Oh, and Valerie’s pregnant, too.
There are good, honest bits on the horrors of children. “Never reproduce,” his brother with a pregnant wife tells him. His lawyer and friend (Antoine Bertrand), who must contact the local bar to get his license back to take David’s case, talks about his post-parent impotence. David wonders how he can use such language in front of his kids, but his friend remains unfazed. “I can say whatever I want,” he responds. “They don’t listen to me. They don’t pick up the frequency of my voice.” Even level-headed Valerie worries about what kind of mom she will be. She sees the snotty-nosed kids at the local playground and wants to smack them around.
All of David’s kids, of course, with the exception of Valerie’s, are in their early 20s now. David is given a manila envelope with the names and stories of each. He’s told not to look at it. Being David, he can’t resist.
The first is a professional soccer player. He and his lawyer attend a game and whoop it up. The second is a would-be actor working as a barista. David takes over for him so he can make an important audition. The third is a young drug addict. David takes her to the hospital when she ODs.
In this manner, anonymously, and seeing himself less as father-figure than guardian angel, he makes contact and tries to help those who need it. He’s as curious about them as they are about him. One is a lifeguard, another is a street musician, a third is developmentally disabled and living in an institution. David follows one offspring around town, a handsome gay man seemingly meeting boyfriend after boyfriend, until he hooks up with a girl in front of a fancy hotel. David follows them inside and into a conference hall where—he slowly realizes—he’s attending a meeting the 142 children of Starbuck. By this point he’s standing, looking around in disbelief at all of the life he’s helped create, and he’s asked, by the moderator, the street musician (played by French-Canadian musician David Giguère), why he’s there and what he wants. He claims to be the adoptive father of the developmentally disabled child who can’t make it. But he bucks them all up. He tells them that they may not know their biological father but they now know half-brothers and sisters. They now have another family. Everyone applauds.
“Starbuck” has its problems. All of the characters are a little too good-hearted. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. The gangsters, for example, have the patience to wait out the rest of the film, and break no bones, merely hold David (and then, more horrifically, his father) underwater in a bathtub. The second time they do it to David, in the midst of all his problems, he doesn’t even struggle. He seems to be thinking, “Well, this is one way out.”
Then there’s the scene with the drug addict, Julie, played by former child actress Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse. David helps her, trusts her, and the next morning she doesn’t betray that trust. Problem solved. Anyone who knows anyone who’s alcoholic or a substance abuser knows that one morning is nice, but it’s one morning.
And how did David wind up owing $80 K anyway? It’s the opening salvo that drives the rest of the film but it doesn’t fit into his T-shirt and sweatpants lifestyle. Is he a gambler? Did he sink all of that money into sports memorabilia or harebrained business schemes? How do we know he won’t do it again?
Even so, the script by Ken Scott and Martin Petit, which won the Genie Award for best French-Canadian screenplay last year, goes in interesting, unexpected directions, and it never stops being funny. Its lead, meanwhile, Patrick Huard, handsome in profile, with a bit of Gerard Depardieu in his stunned, close-set eyes, and a bit of Bill Murray in his overall slacker demeanor, is glorious.
“Starbuck” winds up celebrating what it mocks (fatherhood, for example) but in a way that never tips over into schmaltz. Its joys are small: a baby’s hand in the tip of your finger; a montage of people jumping off a dock. Its laughs are big.
Monday May 28, 2012
Movie Review: Goodbye (2011)
The first word spoken by the protagonist of “Goodbye” is hello. Noora (Leyla Zareh) is an Iranian lawyer whose license has been suspended, and who, we learn by and and by, is pregnant and trying to leave the counry. The lawyer she’s hired has helped others escape, and he has a plan for her. She’ll give a talk abroad and then just walk away. So why do we feel the weight of her ambivalence? Why does she talk of abortion when her pregnancy, she’s told, will help her escape? Is she ambivalent about leaving Iran or being pregnant? Answers come by and by.
“By and by” is the key to “Goodbye.”
Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof is a fan of the long, static shot, with characters moving into and out of frame, and he directs Zareh as if she’s close cousin to Catherine Deneuve at her most aloof and unknowable. If Hollywood movies are avalanches of action and suspense, “Goodbye” is a slow drip of often unreliable information. Where is her husband? Is he working in the fields in the south? Is he a journalist working against the regime? Is he a former journalist the way she’s a former lawyer, and now he’s working in the fields in the south? Either way, it beats her current job. In her dingy, gray-blue apartment, she glues together pretty boxes that a man picks up once a week.
Most of the time, though, she’s waiting, and we’re waiting out her waiting. She goes to this office, that office. She feeds her pet turtle. She gives him water. She takes him from his atrium and puts him in a pan of shallow water from which he tries to escape. She puts up a flimsy barrier of newspaper around the pan—a kind of metaphor for media blackout?—and he escapes anyway. Shame. That turtle was the most dynamic part of “Goodbye.”
Background: In 2010, Rasoulof was arrested in the same raid that nabbed fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who went on to make “This Is Not a Film,” with which “Goodbye” shares much. Panahi put himself at the center of his film but otherwise both movies are Kafkaesque explorations of authoritarian limbo. Both characters are accused and await sentence or escape. Panahi’s film, being real, ends more ambivalently.
Noora’s ambivalence, it turns out, is not about leaving Iran. She often goes to the rooftop of her apartment building for a cigarette, and in the background we see airplanes taking off. Despite the jet-engine noise, she doesn’t bat an eye. She doesn’t even look at them. She betrays nothing. But this is what she wants: escape; goodbye. Near the end of the film, she tells one of her husband’s colleagues, sitting on a small park bench, “If one feels a foreigner in one’s own country, it’s best to leave it and be a foreigner in a foreign land.” Great line.
No, the weight of her ambivalence is about her baby, who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She’s not sure whether to keep it. Then she’s sure she wants to keep it. After that, everything else is machination. The timing must be right. To get the money to pay off the lawyer who has her passport, she needs the deposit on her apartment. To get the deposit on her apartment, she needs to vacate a few days early. To get a hotel room in Tehran, she needs a husband. She’s like the pet turtle in the shallow pan: barriers, large and small, continue to confront her.
The night before her flight, at the Shiraz Hotel (Rasoulof was born in Shiraz), she leaves word with the front desk for a wake-up call and taxi to the airport. A mistake? We watch her cut bread for the journey. She sleeps, and dreams of a Down Syndrome child, then wakes to a knock on the door. Earlier in the film we watched her apartment being methodically searched by plainclothesmen. This time we just hear them.
Man: Open the door.
She [pause]: Who is it?
Man [pause]: Open the door.
She fetches a more formal veil to wear from her suitcase; and as she walks away and opens the door, the camera stays on the suitcase even as we hear the sounds of men arresting her and taking her away. Unfamiliar hands paw through her belongings and remove evidence. The final sound we hear is the screech of an airplane taking off—the one that doesn’t incude Noora. I thought of a spin on a Bob Dylan song: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a plane to cry. The suitcase stays.
“Goodbye” is, I admit, a movie more interesting to write about than to watch. I almost nodded off several times during the screening. It’s a slow drip of a movie, a kind of Iranian water torture, and I wanted it to give me more. But I’m a spoiled moviegoer and a spoiled man. When Noora first says her famous line, about feeling a foreigner in one’s own country, I felt that it applied to me, too. I certainly felt similar during most of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But my discontent is mild, and with my fellow citizens who elect such leaders, while hers is overwhelming and with leaders who allow no opposition voices. It’s the difference between “1984” (her world) and “Brave New World” (mine).
I kept thinking of a line from E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel”; something Daniel’s father, Paul Isaacson (read: Julius Rosenberg), tells his young son about all of the injustice in the world. “And it’s still going on, Danny,” Paul Isaacson says. “In today’s newspaper, it’s still going on. Right outside the door of this house it’s going on.” This is current events as art.
The movie begins with a hello and it ends with a goodbye, but it’s not the goodbye we wanted. Noora doesn’t escape from; she disappears into. And it’s still going on.
Friday May 04, 2012
Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
“Monsieur Lazhar,” a nominee for best foreign-language film at the most recent Academy Awards, is such a gentle film, and so evocative of childhood, that I began to think it was set during my childhood. This evocation is particularly true of throwaway shots: the winter streets of Montreal at twilight; teenage boys play hockey at night under the lights. At the same time, I grew up 40 years ago. Is Canada still so innocent? Do the kids not need locks on their lockers? Do they get pint milk cartons after recess? Do they have recess? Do American kids?
The movie begins with a shock. At an elementary school in Montreal, Alice (Sophie Nélisse) reminds Simon (Émilien Néron) during recess, “Isn’t it your turn for the milk?” We don’t know what that is yet, “the milk,” but writer-director Philippe Falardeau is precise in his details: Simon, on his way, knocking the hat off a fat schoolmate, being chastised by another teacher but pleading “the milk” and allowed to continue; loading up a plastic milk crate with pint-sized containers from a small refrigerator and carrying the thing clumsily to his locker, where he removes hat, jacket, scarf, mittens, picks up the crate again, balances it with one arm as he tries to enter the classroom, and finds the door locked. He looks in, cupping his hand over his eye, then stumbles back in shock, dropping everything. In the classroom, his teacher, Martine Lachance (Héléna Laliberté), is hanging from a rope. Dead.
Other teachers scamper to herd the kids back outside before they glimpse what Simon glimpsed (one, Alice, gets through), which, it turns out, is what they do for much of the rest of the movie: attempt to hide the fact of death and suicide from the kids. One of the first administrative acts is indicative: they paint the walls of the classroom from dull yellow to dull gray. It’s a thin, unwelcome veneer.
Into the post-suicide chaos, the title character, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), arrives. He’s Algerian, taught in Algeria for 19 years, and brings a gentle but old-school spirit to the classroom. The desks are in a semicircle? He puts them in regimented rows. Dictation lessons? Here’s Balzac. He chastises Simon for taking his photo without permission, then slaps him upside the head for insulting another student. When informed that touching the students, let alone hitting them, isn’t allowed, he lies about hitting Simon.
Montreal le slush
Most teachers in these types of movies are human but heroic. Think Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society,” Morgan Freeman in “Lean On Me,” Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer and Edward James Olmos in their various films. Think confrontation scenes and uplifting, swelling music. Monsieur Lazhar is human but a fake. In Algeria, he was a civil servant and restaurateur, not a teacher. His wife taught. She also wrote a progressive book that was condemned by Islamic authorities and the family had to flee. Bachir preceded them to Canada. The night before his wife and kids were to join him, they died in a fire. Arson suspected.
Bachir isn’t even a citizen. He’s struggling to stay in the country as a political refugee, but the government has doubts about his story. It thinks Algeria is back to normal now. “Algeria is never completely normal,” Bachir responds, quiet and perplexed.
Lazhar may be a fake teacher but he’s genuine. He’s fussy and a little nervous. He’s scrupulous in manner. He wants the kids to learn. He has nightmares that, because he didn’t do his job correctly, they’ll become grown-ups but speak as children. That could describe our entire culture, by the way.
He plays favorites. Alice, adorable, looking a bit like Anna Chlumsky 20 years ago, is smart and curious. She looks up Algeria online and thinks it’s beautiful: all white and blue. He tells her it’s called Alger la blanche. She dismisses her city thus, Montreal le slush, but he tells how he was stunned by its greenness when he first arrived. When Alice’s mother, an airline pilot, shows up, he admits Alice is his favorite.
He also wishes to confront, rather than cover up, the tragedy that began the film. In this way he butts heads with worried administrators and reticent parents, but, again, this is not a Hollywood wish-fulfillment story. The administrators, led by Ms. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), as well as the other teachers, aren’t bad folks. They’re overworked, underpaid, understaffed. They’re like all of us, mixed bags, and our opinion on them keeps shifting. One of Lazhar’s fellow teachers, the enthusiastic and attractive Claire (Brigette Poupart), is actually kind of annoying, and thinks too highly of her African travels, while the macho gym teacher, who warns Lazhar that they live in a “woman-curacy,” and whom the students dismiss as someone who probably can’t even read, has some nice lines on the difficulty of teaching kids the pummel horse without touching them. “We now treat kids like they’re radioactive waste,” he says.
More to the point, Bachir doesn’t win. In the clash with a sensitive modern culture, it’s not even a contest. There are no “Captain, my captain” moments, no marches down to the jail cell, no final victories as the music swells. In his class, by chance, he gets the kids to open up about their former teacher’s death, which helps two of them: Simon, who blamed himself for the suicide, and Alice, who blamed Simon. “Don't try to find a meaning in Martine's death,” he tells the students. “There isn't one.”
The Tree and the Chrysalis
But for this act he’s investigated, his past is discovered, and he’s fired. He pleads to stay the rest of the day, to say good-bye to the kids. Oddly, we don’t see this good-bye. The class is studying fables, and they’re all supposed to write their own, including Bachir. We see him read his to the class. You could call it “The Tree and the Chrysalis.” Earlier in the year he taught them that word, “chrysalis,” whose metaphoric overtones for 11- and 12-year-old kids are obvious. “Commes vous,” he says of the stage between caterpillar and butterfly.
In his fable, things don’t go well. The tree tries to protect the chrysalis, but a storm and a fire damages it. The butterfly that emerges isn’t the same.
The movie ends well by ending quietly. While in voiceover we hear Bachir complete his fable, we watch Alice, on his last day, get her things from her locker, then return to the classroom. She’s obviously distraught, losing her favorite teacher, and displays a kind of abject vulnerability by dropping all her things. He hugs her. The fable he tells is sad, the various tragedies of life are sad, but the true sadness of the film is this. It’s in every step we take that leaves more behind. It’s in all of our good-byes. The film offers no uplift, no final victory. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau knows we don’t need swelling music to make our hearts swell.
Friday April 27, 2012
Movie Review: Footnote (2011)
This is some Old Testament shit right here.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp, but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s a comedy like the British version of “The Office” was a comedy. Laugh-out loud moments are rare because we’re often struck dumb with embarrassment and anguish.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not, and, as the movie begins, the father is a reluctant audience member at another ceremony in which his son receives another honor, and gives another speech honoring his father. He talks about how, in third grade, asked for his father’s occupation on a school form, he wanted to write “professor,” since that’s what he was, but his father insisted upon the plainer and—to him—more meaningful word “teacher.” When the speech is over, everyone stands and applauds. The last to stand and applaud, and the first to stop and sit, is Eliezer, who is lost in his own bitter world. Later, in bed with his wife, the son reveals that that childhood moment wasn’t so lighthearted. His father forced him to write “teacher” by grabbing his hand hard. His hand hurt for days.
Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins.
This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. He sits back on a nearby rock, stunned. We wonder what he’ll do. Whoop it up? No. He continues on his silent way; but at the library, bursting, he can’t do research, and instead he and an elegant older woman head outside. From a distance, we, and eventually his son, see them talking. He says more to her than he does to his family.
But there’s a wrinkle. The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
When Uriel discovers this, and, worse, discovers that the committee, with Prof. Grossman as its chair, wants him to tell Eliezer of the mistake, he’s distraught. He declines, then thinks about it, then declines, then thinks about it, then flatly refuses. “It will kill him,” he says. “It will bury our relationship.” He wants the committee to honor his father, as it should have done years earlier. He voices his father’s bitter complaints. Does Grossman hold a grudge against Eliezer? Uriel accuses him, shoves are exchanged, and Grossman, the distinguished, elderly professor, whose forehead has the deep folds of a shar pei, winds up on the floor with a bloody nose. In the end, Grossman acquiesces. On two conditions: Uriel must write the judges’ considerations; and Uriel must never again submit for the Israel Prize. The highest honor will thus be denied him forever.
Each section of the movie is given a chapter title—“The most difficult day in the life of Prof. Shkolnik” is the first, for example—and the next chapter is titled “The revenge of Prof. Shkolnik.” And who is this revenge against? His son.
You know that great juxtaposition scene in “The Godfather” when Michael becomes godfather at his nephew’s baptism as he become mafia godfather by taking out his enemies? The dual baptisms scene? It now has a rival. Writer-director Joseph Cedar cuts between the younger Prof. Shkolnik praising his father’s work in the faux judges’ considerations while the elder Prof. Shkolnik trashes his son’s work as unscholarly and unscientific to a visiting journalist (Yuval Scharf). As his son creates a triumphant fiction out of his father’s tattered career, the father trashes the son’s scholarship as fiction. It’s brutal stuff.
So what now? To save his father, Uriel has sacrificed some part of his reputation, which his father, triumphant, has now trashed from the high perch on which his son placed him. He can’t lash back. That would defeat the whole purpose. He can’t go back, either. Grossman’s in the way.
Both men live with long-suffering women. Earlier in the movie, Uriel’s wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), informs her husband , during one of his many complaints about his father, that Eliezer is at least true to himself and says what he means, while he tends to avoid confrontation. He’s certainly done that with the Israel Prize. Eliezer’s wife, meanwhile, hardly says a word. She merely exudes the pain of living with a silent, bitter man for nearly half a century.
So what now? Two things happen. At a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Uriel tells the truth about the Israel Prize, in a whisper, to his mother, and we immediately hate him for it. It’s a small, cowardly act—yet wholly understandable. If the universe won’t know the good he’s done, at least his mother will. But why burden her with this knowledge? Isn’t she burdened enough? Does he hope she will tell the father, who will recant his public criticisms of the son?
Moot point: Eliezer figures it out himself. He shows us what a true scholar he is by realizing the word “fortress” in the judges’ considerations is a word Grossman never uses but his son overuses. His research confirms this. He flashes back to the phone call, and how he was supposed to receive the formal letter the next day but didn’t receive it for several days. It all clicks. His son was supposed to get the honor but honored his father instead.
At the great hall where the ceremony takes place, we watch Eliezer watch dancers rehearse a surreal number, and for a moment we wonder whether he’s dreaming. But then it all becomes too ordinary for a dream. We get Uriel in the audience, suffering in silence as his father suffered in silence, estranged from his son as his father had been estranged from his son, not communicating with his wife as his father had not communicated with his wife. He spies the elegant older woman he’d seen with his father. What’s her deal? What’s their deal? Is it an affair? The movie doesn’t say. Things are unknowable. His father is unknowable. The ways of God are unknowable while the smallness of man is overwhelming. We’re all footnotes.
In the end, Eliezer, silent and bitter, waits to go onstage to receive his honor, just as, in the beginning, he sat in the audience, silent and bitter, waiting for his son to receive his honor. We wonder: Will he go through with this charade? Or will he remain true to himself, and to science, and to scholarly research? He listens to the accolades being told about him, the fabrications and fictions, and at that moment, as he’s about to be introduced, the movie ends. It cuts off, goes dark, rolls credits. The movie ends with Eliezer doing what he’s always done: waiting in the wings.
Talk about brutal—and for the audience this time, too. Because we’ll never know. My guess? Everyone goes through with the charade, and everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. But that’s just my guess. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
Monday April 23, 2012
Movie Review: Les Hommes libres (Free Men) (2011)
Most movies about civilian life in Nazi-occupied Europe are pretty straightforward, whether they’re set in France (“La rafle”), the Netherlands (“Oorlogswinter,”), or Poland (“Katyn”). The Nazis are occupying your country. They’re rounding up Jews. They’re killing your friends. Everyone knows who to root for and against.
“Les Hommes libres” (“Free Men”), directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, focuses on Algerian Muslims living in occupied Paris, and thus adds a twist. The country that has occupied your country for more than 100 years is itself now occupied. So is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Younes (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), a black marketeer, begins the film as the classic disinterested protagonist, a kind of less-connected, rootless Rick Blaine. His cousin, Ali (Farid Larbi), a communist, tries to involve him in union issues. “We’re getting organized,” Ali says. But Younes sticks his neck out for nobody. “I’m not interested,” Younes responds. He says he wants to “make my pile and go home.”
Then he’s fingered—by Ali?—and the authorities swarm in, take his goods, put him in jail. There, L’inspecteur (Bruno Fleury) offers him a deal. He’ll let him go if he hangs out at the Grand Mosque of Paris and reports back what’s going on. Younes, conflicted, accepts.
Younes, we’re told, is an amalgamation of several World War II-era Algerians, but two of the folks he meets at the Grand Mosque are based on historical people: Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), the founder of the Mosque, and a French loyalist; and Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby), an up-and-coming Algerian singer with Elvis sideburns and amazing eyes. To the latter, Younes sells, for 800 francs, an Algerian drum he had acquired for two packs of cigarettes. For a moment, as he calculates his profit, he’s a happy man.
The authorities are watching the Grand Mosque because they suspect—rightly—that the Muslims are harboring Jews. The number of Jews Ben Ghabrit’s Mosque saved is debated these days, but both sides agree it’s somewhere between 500 and 1600. That’s Oskar Schindler territory.
Younes discovers all of this but feeds the authorities harmless information. He discovers Salim is part Jewish but warns Salim rather than telling the authorities. Ben Ghabrit actually makes short work of Younes’ snitching activities by complaining to a German official with whom he’s friendly, Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz), that the Vichy French have sent in spies. Word gets back to L’inspecteur, who grabs Younes off the street, threatens his life, but ultimately lets him go. Younes is now free from that double life, about to enter another one.
The more he hangs out at the Mosque, and the more he sees the fiery-eyed Leila (Lubna Azabel), the more he’s drawn into the resistance. At first he reluctantly goes on errands. Then he volunteers. By the end, he’s a part of it rather than apart from it. He’s a leader.
In this way Younes is similar to Malik, the role Rahim played in “Un Prophete”: the loner who becomes a leader for his people after being co-opted by the enemy. Both characters never seem particularly strong, smart, or calculating, and yet, because they’re underestimated, they come out ahead. Rahim is an interesting actor. He exudes calm rather than intensity. I like his small gestures. The surprise on his face when he witnesses Salim kissing a French girl (“You can do that?”). Asked how he’s doing after being let go by the authorities, he gestures, without heat but vaguely annoyed, at the scar on his cheek. You feel his shame as a snitch and his awful grogginess waking up from his first hangover.
This is French drama so there’s less force driving the narrative; there’s a randomness that feels real. Younes saves two Jewish kids during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up but we only see them again at the end. He begins a flirtation with Leila but she’s rounded up before their first date. As she’s being led away in the back of a military vehicle, their eyes lock, and in those few seconds their eyes say everything that time and circumstances won’t allow.
So why the Hollywood moments? The rain falling on Salim after the cemetery subterfuge; the look the Jewish girl gives Younes after he guides her to the getaway boat on the Seine; the unnecessary introduction of Salim’s homosexuality; the emaciated cheekbones of the Gestapo agent.
“Les Hommes libres” is a good film but no more. There’s a simplicity and economy to the story, an almost conscious attempt to avoid histrionics and melodrama—which is appreciated after the recent spate of melodramatic World War II fare: “Le Rafle,” “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe.” The movie ends after D-Day and liberation, but a better ending might have been the moment Younes, again by the Seine, takes out Omar (Zakariya Gouram), his original black-market source, and a true snitch. It’s Younes killing the man he might have been.
Wednesday April 11, 2012
Movie Review: Le gamin au velo (2011)
Has there been a more misleading movie poster in recent years? After the movie was over I assumed the U.S. distributor pulled a Weinstein to draw in American crowds but the poster is the same abroad. We all want that happy, breezy, leggy image. We all want to see that kind of movie.
Which isn’t this movie.
It begins with Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), 10 or 11 or 12, on the phone, listening with a worried brow, and being told by an unseen adult to hang up. He doesn’t. He clings to the phone like it’s a lifeline, which it is, and accuses the adult of misdialing. The world is not right, he knows that much, and assumes it’s this adult’s fault. So the adult lets Cyril dial the number himself, and they put it on speaker phone, and we hear those three annoying tones—which apparently are international—before the equally annoying message, which doesn’t sound any better for being in French: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service...” But Cyril continues to hang by the phone as if to will a different response. When the adult, an educator at an orphanage or “youth farm,” tries to guide him away, Cyril attacks, runs away, is chased, caught, brought back.
This scene is repeated throughout the movie in different ways. Cyril is a boy in perpetual motion. He’s a kid who’s running away from the truth. He’s also running toward the truth.
A month earlier, his father, Guy (Dardenne brothers’ staple Jérémie Renier), placed Cyril in the orphanage, telling him he’d be back for him within 30 days. Those 30 days are now up but he hasn’t returned, hasn’t called, and his home phone is no longer in service. When Cyril bolts the youth farm and makes his way back to their old apartment building, he’s told, through the intercom, that his father doesn’t live there anymore. He sneaks inside the building anyway, is chased, grabs onto the nearest adult, a local hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France—smart kid), and refuses to let go until he’s allowed inside the apartment. But it’s like with the phone all over again. The apartment is empty. He inspects each room carefully, looking for evidence but really looking for a different reality. At this point he refuses to believe any adult, any evidence, because the truth is too painful. It means his father abandoned him. It means he’s alone.
Back at the youth farm, Samantha shows up with his bike. Cyril had accused another kid of stealing it, but the father of the kid claims he bought the bike off Cyril’s dad, so Samantha simply buys it back. Cyril refuses to believe this story but he does show Samantha some stunts: how long he can stay still and upright; how long he can pop a wheelie. He flits around her car, almost dangerously, but even when showing off he never loses his dour, pinched expression. The movie will be half over before we see him smile.
His father had his own bike, a motorcycle, and Cyril, widening his search with the bike, keeps asking for a man with “a golden helmet.” It’s great image. It brings to mind Greek gods.
In a sense, that’s what Cyril is searching for but he finds the fallen kind. His father now works prepping food in a restaurant in a small town, and, when Cyril shows up, Dad acts distracted and claustrophobic around him. I was going to write he’s uncaring, but that’s not quite it, even though he obviously doesn’t care. Put it this way: there’s no guilt over what he’s done. On Cyril’s part, there’s no anger, either. Around his father he affects the nonchalance of boys. “C’est pas grave,” he keeps saying, even though it’s all grave. He clings to his belief in the man with the golden helmet. Eventually Samantha steps in and demands that Guy tell Cyril the truth to his face.
Three times during the movie we get a noticeable, almost distracting blast of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, and each blast seems to follow a moment of realization for Cyril. The first blast comes shortly after Cyril learns about his father.
So what happens to a fatherless boy? He looks for substitutes. In this case, substitutes come looking for him. Another boy, a different boy, steals his bike, and Cyril chases him into the woods, where he meets Wes (Egon di Mateo), a local tough who admires Cyril’s tenacity, calls him “pitbull,” and takes him under his wing. Do we trust this guy? He gives off a bad vibe. In his room, he gives Cyril a sodapop and lets him play his PS3, and Cyril, unsmiling, feigning his usual nonchalance, is nonetheless captivated by this new father figure. It never shows in his face—the way it would in a Hollywood film—just in his actions. It’s heartbreaking the lengths he’ll go for Wes’ approval. He winds up fighting Samantha, with whom he’s staying weekends, and who’s the only good thing in his life, in order to commit crimes for Wes. When things go awry, Wes refuses his money, which Cyril then takes to his father, who also refuses it. Neither is particularly magnanimous in their refusal. They just don’t want to get caught. They leave Cyril holding the bag. Cue second blast of Beethoven’s piano concerto.
Thomas Doret, I should add, is heartbreaking and annoying and completely believable in the title role. After the father revelation, Samantha tries to comfort him and he jerks his shoulder violently away from her. When he first enters Wes’ cramped room, with the bed the only sitting option, he seems awkward and confused, out of either etiquette or fear. For much of the movie, he keeps pursuing the wrong path even though the right path is right there. In this, he’s like most of us.
Most people will have two questions after watching “The Kid with a Bike”:
- Why does Samantha care so much about him?
- What’s with the end?
Cyril raises the first question within the movie but the movie smartly doesn’t answer. Most movies would give us a facile rationale for her actions: oh, she can’t have kids, or she was an orphan, too, or she lost her brother when he was 10. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian writer-director brother team (“La Promesse,” “L’enfant”), are smarter than that. They leave it unknowable to us, and to Cyril, and maybe even to Samantha. Much of life is like this. We don’t know why we do what we do.
It’s the third act that’s weak. Cyril, with Samantha’s help, finds the right path, and he’s riding on it, when stuff from the wrong path—in the form of the father and son he attacked for Wes—appears before him. The boy attacks him, chases him into the woods and up a tree, and throws rocks at him. One rock finds its mark and Cyril falls. Motionless. Dead? After the son retrieves the father, Cyril recovers. He wakes up groggily, makes his way back to his bike, gets on, rides off. We get our third blast of Beethoven. The end. It’s a very European ending but I didn’t find it meaningful or resonant. The past always catches up? The right path doesn’t mean a clean path? What?
“The Kid with a Bike” is an honest movie with a dishonest poster and a weak ending. I wanted to like it more.
Monday March 12, 2012
Movie Review: Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
WARNING: MARVELOUS, EXOTIC SPOILERS OF PARADISE
“He who seeks beauty will find it.”
Bill Cunningham, quotidian fashion photographer for The New York Times, says this near the end of Richard Press’ excellent, moving documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” while accepting an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France; and it’s so true to him, so meaningful to him—and, really, to the documentary about him—that his voice begins to crack. He’s not just espousing something he read. He’s telling us his life philosophy. The point of what he does, he says, is “not the celebrity, and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.” Then he thanks the French and leaves the stage.
Cunningham is an American original. He covers the tux-and-gown society scene for The New York Times on a Schwinn bicycle. He covers the haut couture fashion shows wearing the sturdy blue jackets of French street cleaners. He is one of the better known fashion photographers in the country even though he’s the first to admit he’s not really a fashion photographer. He has an overwhelming joie de vivre that covers an overwhelming personal sadness.
His “On the Street” column is an American original. Screw the models; screw high society; what are the people wearing?
“The best fashion show is definitely on the streets,” he tells us early in the doc. “Always has been and always will be.”
What trends are forming? What’s interesting? What’s fun? Who’s fun? What “marvelous, exotic bird of paradise,” as he calls them, might he spot today? His frequent subjects include: Iris Apfel, the nonagenarian teenager wearing her great, round glasses; Patrick McDonald, the carefully chapeaued and eyelined dandy; and Shail Upadhya, the former U.N. official from Nepal, whose loud, colorful, homemade suits are at humorous odds with his dour visage.
“You’ve just got to stay out there and see what it is,” says Cunningham. “You’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is. There are no shortcuts, believe me.”
A gentleman in the age of snark
Cunningham is in his early 80s, and so, despite his pep—and he’s someone who actually deserves that word—there’s something inevitably old school about him. He still uses film in the digital age, for example. He’s also a gentleman in the age of snark.
“He’s incredibly kind,” says socialite Annette de la Renta. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill. And he’s certainly had the opportunity.”
Back in the day, and for a time, Cunningham wrote a millinery column for Women’s Wear Daily. Then he wrote a piece, similar to what he does now, on women in the street wearing the clothes of the models of the runway. It was a positive piece about style: how each woman made the fashion her own.
“And they changed his copy to make fun of the women,” says Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details magazine. “He didn’t think he’d ever get over it, because he was so embarrassed and upset. ... That was the end of his career at Women’s Wear Daily.”
Tellingly, Cunningham doesn’t say a word on the subject. He’s someone who focuses on the positive: the fashion he likes and the stories he likes.
Who’s that boy?
So who is he? Where does he live? Is he from an upper-class family? Is that why he fits in so well with socialites? Is he straight? Gay? Why is someone so passionately interested in fashion so disinterested in fashion for himself?
“People don’t get to know him very well, do they?” asks Iris Apfel. “I get the feeling he doesn’t sit down and talk to people very much.”
“I have no idea of his private life,” says Annette de la Renta. “I have no idea if he’s lonely.”
Answers come by and by. He lives at Carnegie Hall, of all New York places, in a room so cluttered, so full of file cabinets and old magazines, it could be used to torture claustrophobes. Part of the drama of the doc is that Cunningham, and the few remaining artists living there, are being evicted by the grandees of Carnegie Hall. By doc’s end, he’s in an apartment overlooking Central Park. We should all be so displaced.
His background is working class. That helps explain the blue jacket and the taped poncho, and the egg sandwich and coffee lunches, but Women’s Wear Daily also helps explain these things. If you spend less, you need less, and you need to work less with folks whose purpose is the opposite of yours. That torn poncho, looking almost like a garbage bag, which he happily fixes with electrician’s tape, is a kind of freedom.
So: a fascinating man. A good documentary. Then, in the last 10 minutes, it becomes a great documentary.
The patron saint of unspecified sorrows
Press, the documentarian, gets Cunningham to do what Iris Apfel suggested he doesn’t do. He sits him down and asks him questions. He says has two very personal questions for him, which Cunningham may or may not want to answer. He says it’s up to him.
First: Have you ever had a romantic relationship in your entire life?
Cunningham, elfin and buoyant as usual, laughs at the question and answers it with one of his own: “Now do you want to know if I’m gay?” Then he answers it—his own question—but elliptically, with a callback to his working-class family, and how they most likely discouraged him from entering the fashion world for that very reason. Because they suspected. Even if he didn’t. Not then.
When he gets back to the romantic relationship question, he answers in the negative. “There was no time,” he says, his smile now strained. “I was working night and day. In my family, things like that were never discussed.”
His answers simply bring up more questions. Was his work a means to ignore, or cover up, what he didn’t want to face? Early in the doc, Cunningham calls fashion “the armor to survive everyday life.” Is that what his camera, and his work, is for him? A means of staying on the sidelines and not getting in the game?
Press’ second personal question isn’t a question at all. It’s a pretty innocuous statement. But it releases the deluge.
“I know you go to church every Sunday,” Press says.
“Oh yeah,” Cunningham answers. Then he bows his head, and his shoulders begin to shake, and a second later one realizes he’s crying. He sobs for 10 to 15 seconds. Then he lifts his head and answers. He seems to be clarifying things for himself as much as for Press:
Yeah, I think it’s a good guidance in your life. Yeah, it’s something I need. Yeah, I guess maybe it’s part of your upbringing, I don’t know. Whatever it is. Everyone... You do whatever it is you do as best you... Yeah, I find it very important. For whatever reason. I don’t know. (Laughs) As a kid, when I went to church, all I did was look at women’s hats. (Serious again, nodding.) But later, when you mature, for different reasons.
In the very next scene, his colleagues at The New York Times celebrate his birthday by wearing Bill Cunningham masks (photos of his face attached to sticks), but it’s in this scene where his mask slips, and a huge pool of sorrow is revealed, and we’re not quite sure what to make of it. What is the sorrow? What are the different reasons he goes to church? It seems mixed up with the usual: love and family and sex and relationships and loneliness and work and faith, and the things we try to leave behind but which stay with us, and the things we hope will eventually catch up with us but never do.
We never find out. I think this makes the doc better. Up to this point, Cunningham is admirable. He’s a professional and an original and a gentleman: someone who set out to do what he wanted and is still doing it on his own terms. Once he breaks down, he becomes us. Because we all have our pools of sorrow. We all have questions that might release a deluge. It’s part of the reason why, like Bill Cunningham, patron saint of specific joys and unspecified sorrows, we go out, every day, and seek beauty.
Tuesday March 06, 2012
Movie Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)
WARNING: INK-STAINED SPOILERS
I was talking about this documentary with Evan, the friend who recommended it, and admitted it made me realize why I never became a true journalist. It wasn’t because I wasn’t curious enough or a good-enough writer or a fast-enough writer when I needed to be. It’s because I wasn’t tough enough.
In the doc you watch David Carr, media columnist for The New York Times, take on various bombastic elements and shut them up. He stares them down, calls them on their bullshit, then moves on. Even when I’m able to do the first two things, I don’t move on. I allow the first two actions to linger and infect the surroundings. Carr, who looks like nothing much, Bilbo Baggins’ after a bad night, with a hoarse voice and a skinny neck and a wide middle and a face that seems permanently bent toward the ground, is able to cut so surgically through situations that there’s actually little bleeding. It’s like those scenes where Zorro takes a swipe at a candle and it doesn’t move, causing the villain to laugh at Zorro’s ineptitude and anticipate his demise. Which is when Zorro holds up the tip of the candle, or pushes the tip off with his sword, or stomps on the ground and the candle crumbles to bits.
That’s what Carr is like. The other guy laughs at his ineptitude and then David stomps on the ground and the dude’s argument crumbles to bits.
As both Evan and I admired this ability of Carr’s, and lamented our own ability to cry bullshit in social situations, he added, “You know what I could use? A David-Carr-in-the-box. So when I get in those situations, I can take out my David-Carr-in-the-box, and just, you know, pop. Let him loose.”
I agreed. We could all use a David-Carr-in-the-box. The New York Times should get on that. Talk about your revenue streams.
Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolff?
“Page One: Inside the New York Times” also reminded me, of course, of something I lamented daily about two years ago: the death of newspapers; the death of print. I’m in the business, an offshoot of journalism, a small, momentarily protected niche, but I haven’t worried about the death of investigative journalism much in the last year. I’m not sure why. The problem certainly hasn’t gone away.
It’s a seemingly insurmountable problem. Investigative journalism, done right, is expensive, and in the past was paid for by two revenue streams: ads and subscribers. The Internet, our new, more democratic printing press, has cut into, if not obliterated, both of these. Craig’s List killed classified ads, online ads pay a fraction of print ads, and online readers, those spoiled, spoiled children, have been conditioned to expect content for free.
There’s also the problem of audience. Investigative journalism is not only tough to do but tough to read. It takes work. How much better to go to an aggregate/opinion site/blog that boils it all down and also gives you pictures of celebrities in bikinis or with baby bumps or in the midst of divorces. How much easier to just be distracted. How much more fun.
One of the pivotal and most satisfying scenes in “Page One” occurs about halfway thorough, at a debate by a group called “Intelligence Squared,” which, for its topic of the night, raises a purposely provocative one: GOOD RIDDANCE TO THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA.
Carr, the schlub, gets to represent the mainstream. His opponent, at least as far as we see in the doc, is Michael Wolff, founder of newser.com, an aggregate site. Wolff looks a bit like Alvy Singer’s balding, viral man. He seems fit, and tough, and his bald head gleams like he’s from the future. And he brings us a message from the future:
What you’re going to hear tonight is that the media is necessary for the commonweal. An informed citizenry is what this nation is about. That is self-serving crap. The New York Times is a good newspaper—sometimes... But after that it’s off the cliff. It’s oblivion. The news business in this country is nothing to be proud of. The media is a technology business. That’s what it is. That’s what it has always been. Technology changes, the media changes.
Carr obliterates him. He begins politely by holding up a print copy of the home page of Wolff’s site. “Newser is a great-looking site,” he says, “you might want to check it out. It aggregates all manner of content. But I wonder if Michael’s really thought this through. Get rid of mainstream media content...” Then he holds up that index page without the aggregated mainstream articles. It’s mostly holes. It barely exists. He peeks through it at the audience, which is applauding, and says, “OK, go ahead.”
Great scene. It not only reveals Wolff’s hypocrisy—how he’s making money off the very thing he’s disparaging—but it reveals the hypocrisy of the Web. Much of the Web simply repurposes someone else’s work. The Web doesn’t care for originality or accountability; and it’s creating a society that doesn’t care for originality or accountability.
Is the Times necessary because it’s good?
At the same time ... OK, Carr makes a salient point. What happens when mainstream sites like the New York Times, which still drive much of the discussion on the Web, disappear? What replaces them? Don’t we need vegetables? Don’t we need meat? Or are we just going to keep popping the content equivalent of Milk Duds in our mouths?
But it doesn’t address all of Wolff’s points. From the above, two remain:
- The Times says it’s necessary because it’s good but Wolff says it’s not that good so it’s not that necessary. So: Is the Times good?
- Media means technology. Technology changes. You can gripe all you want but it’s going to change.
To the first point. The Times has its weaknesses. It’s a serious paper—it’s not sensationalistic like most of the mainstream media—but it has a love for, or at least a trust of, the institutional voice. The doc treats Judith Miller’s reporting on WMDs like it’s an anomaly but that was based upon institutional trust—upon getting access to the institutional voice and printing it—and the Times does this all of the time. Its coverage of Hollywood, say, is almost always from the studio perspective. Its coverage of business is almost always from the Wall Street perspective.
And in politics? It gets played. It assumes an opposition voice, no matter how marginalized, provides balance. It assumes that an institutional voice is legitimate even if it’s in the middle of a lie. It won’t call a lie a lie. Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane’s recent column, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?,” is indicative of this attitude. Brisbane wrote:
[Some readers] fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?
That sound you heard was people around the country exclaiming, “WTF!?!”
The answer to Brisbane’s dilemma is obvious. If a public figure says something demonstrably false, you call him on it, and as high up in the article as possible. If a public figure says something harder to disprove (or prove), but without evidence, then that’s your story: X ACCUSES Y OF Z: PROVIDES NO EVIDENCE. It’s less choosing to correct one fact over another than printing what facts we have. And if an institutional voice proclaims factual what is not factual, that’s your story. Objectivity is not stupidity.
But the doc doesn’t own up to this or any weakness in the Times. It’s basically saying: we’re good so we’re necessary. So please don’t kill us. For your own good. It's saying, as Carr said to the Intelligence Squared audience, “OK, go ahead.”
The Times they are a changing
For the most part, I agree. But then we get into the second of Wolff’s unaddressed points: It doesn’t matter if the Times is good or not. Its model, the printing press, is now obsolete. Everyone has a printing press. Most everyone’s printing. Or posting. Or uploading. The Times used to have to compete against however many newspapers in New York City, and maybe two or three nationally, and another one or two internationally. Now the competition is everyone and everywhere. Even this little ol’ site is competition. You’re reading it, after all, instead of the Times. Wastrel.
“Page One” is a fine-enough doc, particularly when David Carr’s onscreen, but, in journalistic parlance, it misses the story. Can one support serious investigative journalism in the digital age and on a digital budget? If not, what replaces it? And what becomes of our misinformed and malinformed and don’t-want-to-be informed citizenry—and, by extension, our democracy—then?
All previous entries
What Trump Said When About COVID
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Blonde Crazy (1931)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Come Fill the Cup (1951)
A Lion Is In the Streets (1953)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)