Movie Reviews - 2012 posts
Thursday January 21, 2016
Movie Review: 2016: Obama's America (2012)
The title is just another lie.
I watched “2016: Obama’s America” in 2016 figuring it’d be a hoot—apocalyptic visions of what will happen if Barack Obama actually gets reelected in 2012. Which he totally did. And here we are. And what exactly did Dinesh D’Souza, Dartmouth alum, right-wing mouthpiece, and perpetual victim of the soft bigotry of low expectations, foresee about our world?
We have to wait until the last 10 minutes of a very long slog. Then he says this:
The world could be a pretty scary place in 2016: Israel brought to its knees, America’s defenses weakened, the Muslim world united.
No, no, and no. OK, drive safely, kids.
The only real laugh-out-loud line is when D’Souza envisions a world without U.S. influence, and we’re shown a map of the Middle East in which all of the Arab countries begin turning the same color: “The Middle East,” D’Souza intones, “transforms itself into the United States of Islam.”
Yeah. Good luck with that.
The rest of the movie, sadly, painfully, is D’Souza’s theories about why Obama will try to undermine the U.S.; why, in essence, Barack Hussein Obama is a modern-day “Manchurian Candidate”: the man programmed by our enemies to take control of our country in order to bring it down. And it’s the saddest little conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard.
Worse, D’Souza presents it all as if he were simply investigating things that didn’t make sense to him. He’s impartial, you understand. He’s got an open mind. “Just like the rest of the country, I was intrigued by Obama,” he says about the heady days of January 2009 when Obama took office as the world was in midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But then Pres. Obama keeps doing things that don’t make sense to D’Souza; like pulling us out of that crisis.
No. Here’s a list of things Pres. Obama did that didn’t add up to our Ivy Leaguer:
- Returning a bust of Winston Churchill to Great Britain (answer)
- Not supporting Britain on the Falkland Islands (how is this still a thing?)
- Delaying the Keystone Pipeline (“which could create tens of thousands of American jobs”)
- Blocking oil drilling in the U.S. and encouraging it in Latin America
- Encouraging NASA to reach out to the Muslim world so it can be more aware of the contributions it made to science and math
All of that can only mean one thing: Obama has been mentored from birth by communists, anti-colonialists and anti-Americans, to fulfill the dreams of his absentee, anti-colonialist father, to take down all that’s good and holy and Christian in the world. Duh.
We get the usual suspects: Franklin Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Edward Said, Jeremiah Wright. We get a lot of insinuation, and guilt by association. When Rev. Wright’s “Goddamn America” speech surfaces in spring 2008, which leads to candidate Obama’s heartfelt hour-long discussion on race, D’Souza stands off on the sidelines shaking his head. “Somehow,” he says, “the real issue, which is whether America is the most evil nation in the world, disappears into the background. Obama has skillfully changed the subject.”
Skillfully changed the subject? To race? The one topic most Americans don’t want to talk about?
There’s a circular idiocy to D’Souza’s critique, which, to be fair, is the circular idiocy of the GOP in general. D’Souza relies on different talking heads to point out that America needs to:
- be tough and influential abroad, particularly in the Middle East
- rein in the national debt
- and don’t think about raising taxes
Of course 1) and 3) counteract 2), and have for the last 40 years, particularly under adventurous Republican administrations, which grow the debt that Democrats are then tasked with shrinking. Meanwhile, the middle class gets screwed.
Early in the doc, D’Souza tells us his story (essentially: India, Dartmouth, right-wing dirtbag), and waxes nostalgic about helping create “The Dartmouth Review” in 1980, mainly for the purpose of provoking liberals on campus. When he was accused of being sophomoric, his answer back then was always: We’re sophomores.
He’s still a sophomore.
Thursday February 19, 2015
Movie Review: Hannah Arendt (2012)
I knew the phrase “banality of evil” but I didn’t know it was controversial. I simply thought it said something meaningful about human nature generally and the Holocaust specifically. To kill six million, you need more than monsters; you need bureaucrats. You need people to keep the trains running.
I also knew Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem first appeared in William Shawn’s The New Yorker; but I didn’t know Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was a friend of Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), that she was a well-known political theorist/philosopher, and that she had been a student and lover of Martin Heidegger. I didn’t know Arendt’s various philosophies—nor Heidegger’s for that matter. I still don’t. I didn’t know Heidegger had Nazi issues.
So I learned all of these things watching “Hannah Arendt,” a 2012 film with mixed pedigree (Germany, Luxemburg, France), directed by Margarethe von Trotta (“Rosenstrasse”), and written by von Trotta and Pamela Katz (ditto).
What I didn’t learn? Why Arendt’s articles were controversial in the first place. I get it ... but don’t.
Here are some of the complaints we hear in the film.
“Eichmann not an anti-Semite? That’s absurd!” says Arendt’s friend, Kurt Blumenfeld, living in Israel, where Eichmann is put on trial.
“You don’t need to be smart or powerful to behave like a monster,” says Hans Jonas, a German-born philosopher living in New York City, where Hannah lives.
“That’s Hannah Arendt: all cleverness and no feeling” says Norman, one of her many detractors, superciliously.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, William Shawn, is portrayed as a genial human doormat, while another editor, Francis Wells, is portrayed as a domineering harpy who can’t wait to get her claws into Hannah.
Obviously there’s some difficulty in making a movie (a visual presentation) about someone who thinks (a non-visual action). But Hannah doesn’t just think; she talks, and argues, and smokes, and the movie captures all of this, it’s just that the arguments themselves—the movie’s core element—aren’t that interesting. They’re repetitive. She states her case, the other side can’t believe she could feel that way, she’s shocked by their shock, retreats, regroups, states her case again ... and the other side can’t believe she could feel that way.
There are good supporting performances, particularly by Axel Milberg as her husband, Heinrich Blucher, and particularly in a scene where he has a brain aneurysm; it’s one of the most effective renditions of sudden, overwhelming pain I’ve seen on film. I also liked Julia Jentsch (“Sophie Scholl”) as Hannah’s sly, amused secretary. And of course I loved being in a milieu where everyone waited for the next The New Yorker to come out and then discussed it as if it mattered. Instead of, you know, what we have today.
But “Hannah Arendt” isn’t a deep movie. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that she won the argument so overwhelmingly. There’s not much for the opposition to say.
Wednesday September 24, 2014
Movie Review: Sagrada: el misteri de la creació (2012)
Of all the people Stefan Haupt interviews in his 2012 documentary on the history and majesty of La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Barcelonan basilica designed by one of the world’s great architects, Antonin Gaudi (1852-1926), the interviewee who lives up to the doc’s subtitle, “el misteri de la creació,” is Etsuro Sotoo, a Japanese sculptor.
Early in the doc, Sotoo talks to us matter-of-factly, in accented Spanish, about his work on one of the basilica’s three grand facades, and keeps referencing “the master.” One assumes he means Gaudi. He doesn’t. He’s talking about the stone. He calls sculpting a conversation with the stone. “Without the permission of this stone, this master,” he says, “I can’t do anything.”
Much of the rest of the story of Sagrada's creation—its starts and stops—isn’t a mystery at all. It’s same old: war, politics and money.
What’s the hold-up?
The doc begins with hardhats working like any construction crew on any tall building in any metro area. But here they’re helping build beauty. You think, “Well, you can’t feel too shitty at the end of that day.”
Work on the structure actually began on March 19, 1882, with a different chief architect. Gaudi took over a year later with grander designs. By the time he died, in a traffic accident in 1926, only one façade had been built. Then the Spanish Civil War intervened. Then Franco and fascism. There was a hiatus, or a near-hiatus, of 40 years: 1936 to 1976. The American part of me forgets that sometimes. “Oh right. That sort of thing does get in the way, doesn’t it?”
Lack of money was an even greater problem. Then there were the post-Franco controversies. Which was the greater insult to Gaudi: continuing the work even though his original designs had been burned in 1936; or leaving his great gift to God, and to us, unfinished? In a way, the Catalans split the difference: continuing with a chief sculptor, Josep Subirachs, who had sided with “unfinished.” In his sculptures, Subirachs acceded nothing to Gaudi. Where Gaudi opted for curves and flow and naturalism, Subirachs chose harsh, rigid right angles and blocky shapes. His depiction of the crucifixion on the Passion façade leaves Jesus nude and his head unsculpted. It’s just a block. It looks like the Son of God is wearing a bag over his head. He’s the Unknown Christ.
Sotoo, the new chief sculptor, is the opposite of all of this. He moved to Barcelona, learned Spanish, and even converted from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism in order to better see as Gaudi saw. That was his goal. By subsuming himself in this manner, interestingly, he stands out more. By not demanding his own individual artistic expression, he becomes the most memorable individual we meet.
What’s the rush?
Controversies continue. In 2010, for example, a tunnel for a high-speed AVE train between Barcelona and Paris began construction 30 feet beneath La Sagrada Familia. Is it a danger to the structure? Will it be over time? The tunnel seems incredibly short-sighted to me, given the disaster that could occur, but that didn’t give enough people pause. Of the pace of Sagrada's construction, Gaudi famously said, “God is not in a hurry.” Not true for the rest of us.
At least Sagrada is funding itself now. It’s a huge tourist destination: three million visitors a year, the doc tells us. For some reason, that didn’t sound like much to me until I did the math: eight thousand a day. Since Sagrada is open an average of 10 hours a day (nine in the winter, 11 in the summer), that’s 822 visitors per hour, or 13.6 per minute. Which means every five seconds it's open, someone from somewhere is entering La Sagrada Familia.
You enter the doc, “Sagrada,” hoping it soars as high as the basilica, Sagrada, but that’s a tall order. In the end, we get a fairly straightforward presentation. It gives us this foreman, that designer, this priest, that maker of stained glass. It’s not bad, but it’s all rather pedestrian.
Occasionally, though, it soars. It can’t help it. Just look.
Tuesday February 25, 2014
Movie Review: Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim (2012)
The audience broke into rapturous applause at the end of György Pálfi’s “Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen” (“Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim”) at SIFF Uptown in Seattle the other night.
My reaction in the back row: “Really?”
The movie’s a cute idea. Create a movie out of the history of boy-meets-girl cinema. Give movie lovers the ultimate movie.
So what’s the story Pálfi comes up with?
Well, the man’s eyes open as Jake Sully, Jim Carrey and John Savage. He gets out of bed as Ronald Coleman, showers as Michael Douglas, looks in the mirror as Jack Nicholson, shaves as Humphrey Bogart. Putting on his clothes he’s Charlie Chaplin. He looks in the mirror and points at himself as Jon Voight. Then he’s out on the street, strutting, as John Travolta ... and Choi Min-sik ... and William Holden. Then he bumps into the girl (Audrey Tautou, et al.) and is transfixed like ... Well, I lost track of them all. But you get the idea.
So it’s a cute idea. It required a lot of editing. Three years of editing, according to the trailer. The trailer also tells us these organizations (or maybe somebody at the festivals themselves?) felt this way:
- “An odds-on candidate for the greatest movie ever made.” – New York Film Festival
- “A true declaration of love for the 7th art.” – Festival de Cannes
- “If you get a chance ... fucking see it.” – Twitch Film
Except ... no.
I went out of curiosity, hoping to see something more than a YouTube montage. It is ... but not by much.
Maybe I was hoping for a better story? But this is the story:
The guy wakes up and goes outside and sees the girl. He follows her to a music hall, where she’s putting on a show. He goes backstage and asks her out. They go the movies. The next day it’s her turn to wake up ... as Snow White, Scarlett O’Hara, Eliza Doolittle. (The women waking up is so much better—not to mention more iconic.) The man’s waiting, reading a newspaper, smoking. Then they’re out dancing. Then they kiss. Then—boom!—sex. A lot of sex scenes, actually, some pretty racy. We get orgasm, and post-coital conversation, and talk of marriage. But then somebody bursts in! The rival! It’s a showdown. The old west. It’s knives, swords, lightsabers, fisticuffs. The hero is bloody and wounded! But wins! And proposes! And the girl says yes. She says yes like Molly Bloom says yes, over and over. I like that bit, actually. All of those yeses, one after the other. But this should be the end of the movie, right—the wedding—yet we’re only a third of the way through. What’s left?
What’s left is life. We get the everyday. The commute as Jack Lemmon. The time in the office as Ethan Hawke. A Chinese colleague plants a seed. He says he saw the man’s wife stepping out with another guy. The man dismisses it. At home she’s doing the housework as Paulette Godard. She answers the phone as Julie Roberts. Is it her lover? No, her doctor. She’s pregnant! She wants to share the news with the man. But, alas, he’s too busy. Or suspicious? “Don’t call me at work,” he says, and they drift apart on mutual misconception. One day he follows her and peeps in on her taking off her clothes. Oh, the pain! Except, no, she’s at the doctor’s. But he doesn’t know this. So he confronts her, slaps her, calls her whore. She runs to a friend’s. He mopes, sees a notice about war, signs up, goes off, and dies. Yes, dies.
So is that it? That’s the story?
No. Superman turns back time. I’m not kidding. And the man is able to go back to a moment where he communicates with the woman. And they reunite. And live happily ever after.
The big joke at the end? He’s now the undead, Gary Oldman of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and takes a bite out of Winona Ryder.
And that’s the end. Rapturous applause.
I’d given up on it long before. “Final Cut,” rather than an homage to cinema, flattens cinema for me. It reminds us how similar it all is. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy dies and becomes Dracula thanks to Superman.
I think my favorite moment was early in the courtship. She spreads her legs as Sharon Stone, he smiles as Norman Bates, then we see Maria’s face from “Metropolis” wink creepily. That made me laugh out loud. The only other times I laughed had more to do with Chaplin than Pálfi.
Over 450 films. Over three years of editing. And it still feels like something I’d appreciate but wouldn’t quite finish on YouTube.
Wednesday November 27, 2013
Movie Review: Populaire (2012)
Let him be gay. That’s what I kept thinking.
“Populaire,” a 2012 French romantic comedy that made the rounds in the “Mad Men”-crazy states this year, is an homage to those Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the late ’50s and early ‘60s, where she’s plucky, he’s unavailable, but in the end ... *smooch*.
Or so I’m told. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Doris Day movie. Via “The Celluloid Closet” I did see scenes where Hudson’s character pretends to be gay to throw her off the scent. So you have a gay man pretending to be a straight actor pretending to be a straight character who is pretending to be gay. There’s enough subtext there to crush us all.
In “Populaire,” Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François of “L’Enfant” and “Les tribulations d‘une caissière”) is a plucky girl, who, to escape her small village in Normandy in 1958, tries to get a secretary job in Lisieux at the insurance agency of the handsome Louis Échard (Romain Duris of “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “L’anacoeur”). Immediately she’s made to feel second-rate by all the would-be secretaries in the waiting room with their cat’s-eye glasses and catty attitudes. Louis is ready to show her the door himself when she spins the typewriter around and begins two-fingered typing at a superfast rate. By the end, she’s flushed, her hair is down, and her bra strap is showing. It’s typing as sex. She gets the job.
Turns out she’s an awful secretary (but plucky!), while he has something else on his mind. Something extracurricular.
No, not that. He wants to enter her in the regional speed-typing competition. He even sets her up in a room in his stately mansion so she can practice more. She assumes he’ll make a play for her—doesn’t speed-typing equal sex?—but he never does. He never even seems to think it. He’s all about the competition. Of course, the less interested he seems the more interested she becomes, and, in this manner, she pouts and frets her way to the regional championship.
Let him be gay
And all the while I kept thinking that thought at the top: Let him be gay. Do something meaningful with the crushingly sad subtext of those Rock Hudson movies instead of giving in, yet again, to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the love-hungry women in the audience. As you did back then.
Nope. The filmmakers, including writer-director Régis Roinsard, do nothing with that crushingly sad subtext. Rose and Louis even have sex before the national finals a Paris, which she wins. Then, as she becomes a celebrity, he’s squeezed out of the picture, or allows himself to be squeezed out of the picture, by the Japy Typewriter people, who are pushing their new typewriter, Populaire. Oh, and there’s the world championships in New York City against the reigning American champ, who is superior and wears cat’s-eye glasses.
So why is Louis so intent on winning these meaningless typewriter competitions? He was competitive in school, we find out. Plus during World War II he commanded a platoon of resistance fighters, all of whom died, while he ran away. It’s a story that has entirely too much weight for this lightweight thing while never answering the main question: Why is he so competitive? About typing?
As for her talent? She’s just a natural. She’s clumsy everywhere but here. Clumsiness—and the cattiness of other women—is the easy way moviemakers make female movie stars sympathetic. But Rose’s clumsiness never feels real. It always feels like movie clumsiness.
There are subplots. Louis was always in love with Marie (Bérénice Bejo, and you can’t blame him), but the war screwed up their relationship, and anyway a handsome American, Bob Taylor (Shaun Benson, Ontario), landed on her father’s barn on D-Day, and that was that. Rose’s father is taciturn and against her going to Lisieux and blah blah blah. Louis once gave away a Van Gogh, or allowed its owners to sell it and reap the fortune, for which his father blames him and blah blah blah.
But mostly it’s about them. The question for all romantic-comedies is “How do you keep the lovers apart?” So it would’ve been brilliant if the answer here was, “Well, it’s because he’s gay.” Instead, it’s because he’s just too focused on the competition, the speed-typing competition, to have sex with her.
Let me speak for all straight men here: I’ve never known a man that focused.
He totally should've been gay
I liked the montage with the multicolored fingernails, and the hands typing out of the wall. I liked the title graphics: very of-the-period. I hated that Louis showed up in New York, with his best pal Bob, right before the final round of the world championships, but I liked how, backstage, he told her that he loved her (“Je t’aime”), and how this was translated into all the different ways to say “I love you” by the international crew of speed-typists backstage, all looking dreamy-eyed and swoony. That was cute.
Otherwise, “Populaire” is painful to watch. Patricia and I kept going, “There’s another hour of this?” “There’s another 40 minutes of this?” Time slowed down like it was the last class on the last day before summer vacation, and we just wanted to be free.
Plus he totally should’ve been gay.
Thursday August 29, 2013
Movie Review: West of Memphis (2012)
I’d heard good things about “West of Memphis,” the documentary by Amy Berg detailing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three young men, Damien Wayne Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, in the 1993 deaths of three young boys, who were found naked, bound and mutilated in a shallow pond in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Two of the young men were sentenced to life in prison; one (Echols) was sentenced to death.
The evidence against them? The confession of one, Misskelley, who was questioned for 12 hours by the police, and who later recanted. Some eyewitness testimony from others, later recanted. Direct evidence? Nothing. DNA evidence? No. Hysteria over the crime helped. The focus of the investigation became Echols after more than month because the crime was perceived to be a Satanic crime and Echols was perceived to be a Satanist, even though he was probably just a Goth kid.
Although we don’t really know much about him, do we? Instead, the doc strings us along for two and a half hours with various guesses about the crime and wringings of hand over the miscarriage of justice and footage of Lorri Davis, who married Echols when he was in prison, reading love letters from him. And, yes, you read that right: two and a half hours. I know the story of the West Memphis Three is a tragedy twice over, but it took Steven Spielberg only a half-hour longer to present the entirety of the Holocaust. Can’t a brother get a film editor in here?
At first “West of Memphis” is a horrific crime story (which it is), then it’s a story of a horrific miscarriage of justice (which it seems to be), then it becomes a kind of detective story—if these kids didn’t do it, who did?—and different people become involved in the investigation and the attempt to right the crime after the crime. San Francisco’s Dennis Riordan becomes the most prominent of the lawyers, but even he winds up with a backseat in the doc to all of the celebrities who made the case of the West Memphis Three their cause: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. But how did they all get involved? Did Rollins start it? And did he bring the others along? It feels like that’s the case but we don’t know for sure. Here’s the question I have that the documentarians don’t seem interested in answering: Of all the miscarriages of justice in the world, how did so many work so long on this one?
That’s the oddity. We have a two-and-a-half-hour doc that still leaves us with fundamental questions. When did doubts about the boys’ guilt first arise? Immediately? What were the West Memphis Three thinking back in 1994 as they were on trial? Did they think they would get off? Did they realize the gravity of the situation? Instead, they’re silent, background figures in their own story. They’re virtually unknowable. But the doc churns over (and over) some of the same material. It draws out the drama and thus draws out the doc. You feel it happening. You feel the manipulation.
“West of Memphis” ultimately disappoints for not being more concise, for not seeing the wider picture, for not answering fundamental questions despite its length. Who doesn’t disappoint? Eddie Vedder. A talking head, he comes off here as sober, intelligent and thoughtful.
Thursday August 08, 2013
Movie Review: The Gatekeepers (2012)
Has Dick Cheney seen this documentary? He should. Have you? You should, too.
“The Gatekeepers” documents the nearly 50 years of struggle, tension, and terrorism between Israel and Palestine since the Six Day War, as seen through the eyes of the six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, whose motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” Here, they are seen. Here, they talk.
Near the end, when documentarian Dror Moreh asks his subjects if they support speaking to the enemy, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the like, they all say yes. Every one of them. Even Avraham Shalom, who looks like your favorite Jewish uncle (checked shirt, red suspenders) but has something deeper and darker in him, even he says yes. “Anyone we can, even if they answer rudely,” Shalom says, adding, “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified.”
Things get clarified in “The Gatekeepers,” too, even if that clarification leads to no easy answers, or, really, any answers. But it clarifies in demonstrating a path that hasn’t worked. Which just happens to be the path we’re on.
What do you do?
It’s tough to imagine the work it took to get these guys to speak, but they do, and they do it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a surprising lack of bullshit. These men have seen things and done things and made decisions and taken lives. They’ve lived the dilemma most of us merely debate over.
The doc begins with one such dilemma, presented rhetorically by Yuval Diskin (director of Shin Bet, 2005-11), even as it becomes a real-world situation later in the film. A known terrorist is with two other people, and you don’t know whether they’re part of it, but you can’t take him out without taking them out, too. “What do you do?” Diskin asks Moreh, just off-camera. “Do you fire or not?” He says not doing anything seems easier but it’s actually harder. Then he says something fairly remarkable for the head of a national security agency. It’s a worldview we don’t get much in the U.S., where absolutism, if not outright chest-thumping, is the norm. It’s a measured response; it resides in the gray areas:
We all have our moments. On vacation, you say, “Okay, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible.” Yet you still say, “There’s something unnatural about it.” What’s unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.
Israel is more besieged than the U.S.—tiny rather than huge, surrounded on all sides by enemies rather than oceans—yet its heads of security present a more human face than ours. They seem smarter. “We took intensive courses in spoken and literary Arabic,” says Yaakov Peri (1988-94). “Anyone who took the Shin Bet’s Arabic program seriously, knows Arabic.” They have a sense of humor about dark matters. Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who looks like he could be Mel Brooks’ younger brother, talks about the dangers of bad Arabic as officials go door-to-door in occupied territories. Adding an accent to the H? It’s the difference between “We came to count you” and “We came to castrate you.”
What’s the dilemma? It’s occupation—of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you control what can’t be controlled? How do you sort the innocent from the dangerous without creating more of the dangerous? How much surveillance is enough to keep your group safe, and when is it OK to shoot to kill, and in the process what do we become? More: How do you fight an enemy whose notion of victory, as one Palestinian tells Ami Ayalon (1995-2000), is “seeing you suffer”? An enemy who thinks you don’t even have the right to exist?
One solution is an open hand—giving up the occupied territories, West Bank and Gaza—but of course the Oslo Accords were meant to do that and it led to fierce reaction and outcry from within Israel and to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent resignation of Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon (1994-96).
Another solution is the closed fist. But in 1984 that led to the Bus 300 Affair, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed summarily by Shin Bet, which led to outcry, investigation, coverup. Yahya Ayyash, chief bombmaker for Hamas, was assassinated in 1996, but there was collateral damage, and outcry, and when a larger group could have been targeted, lesser bombs were used and terrorists survived. For which there was outcry.
Good and safe
We want to be safe but we want to be good. That’s the dilemma. Yet the more practical question is this: Is our method for making ourselves safe in the short-term making ourselves safe in the long-term? Are our methods sustainable? For these six men, whose positions and presence carry considerable weight, the answer is no, no, no, no, no and no.
Of all things, I kept being reminded of “The Wire,” David Simon’s superlative series about cops and drug dealers (and politicians and teachers and the media) in Baltimore. Tactically, it’s about tracking guys too smart to use cellphones. Politically, it’s about the numbers game. Here’s Shalom:
Peri kept showing us this chart. How many people were caught? How many informers were there? How many attacks were prevented? How many weren’t? The picture was always rosy but it was point-specific. There was no strategy, just tactics.
Moreh doesn’t get into the differences between the six Shin Bet directors/talking heads. Is Shalom, for example, talking about Yaakov Peri here? I assume so. Did he object to him? Does he blame him for the all tactics/no strategy policy? But wasn’t Shalom director of Shin Bet then? Could he do nothing?
Moreh doesn’t give us much on the history of Shin Bet, either: when it was formed, by whom, for what; how it differs from Mossad. We don’t get the background for people like me who know very little of the history of Israel. We have to search that out. Which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing.
Finally, beyond what they did with Shin Bet, we don’t learn much about these men. Who went on to politics and the Knesset? Who was born where and when? Shalom, it turns out, was born in Vienna in 1930. He was eight during the Anschluss. Apparently he barely knew he was Jewish, or what that meant, until the day after Kristallnacht when he was beaten up at school. None of that is in the doc, but it lends even more power to one of the doc’s more shocking moments: when Shalom, the former director of Shin Bet, the man with a darkness in his eyes, compares the Israeli army, his army, to the German army of World War II:
The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future. Where does it lead? To a change in the people’s character. Because if you put most of our young people in the army, they’ll see a paradox. They’ll see that it strives to be a people’s army, like the Nahal unit, involved in building up the country. On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. [Pause] Similar, not identical. And I’m not talking about their behavior toward the Jews—that was exceptional, with its own particular characteristics. I mean how they acted to the Poles, the Belgians, the Dutch. To all of them. The Czechs. It’s a very negative trait that we acquired, to be ... I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. [Longer pause] We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.
Moreh was inspired to do “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and he was able to get his first subject here, Ami Ayalon, who opened the gates as it were, because of “The Fog of War.” He told Ayalon he wanted to do something in that manner, and Ayalon nodded and said that Morris’ documentary should be required viewing in war school.
So should “The Gatekeepers.” Forget the modifier.
Wednesday June 19, 2013
Movie Review: Not Fade Away (2012)
There’s an early scene in “Not Fade Away,” written and directed by David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” which encapsulates much of what we are about to see.
It begins with three teenagers on a summer night in 1964 hanging behind a curbside sewer grating and bemoaning their existence in general and lack of girls in particular. The smallest one, Douglas (John Magaro), says the following:
Nothing has ever worked for me. I got this skinny physique. I got this skuzzy complexion.
CUT TO: The Rolling Stones singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on Hollywood Palace.
Great transition. The Stones provide Doug with an answer not only on how to get girls, with his skinny physique and skuzzy complexion, but what to do with his life. He can become a musician. He can join a band. He can become … a rock star.
More, Chase keeps the camera rolling, as it were, so we see the cultural divide the music and the hair engender. Doug’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), watching the show with his bowl of ice cream after a day of work, looks positively disgusted by the Stones, and his reaction is echoed by, of all people, the host of Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin, who says, “Rolling Stones! Aren’t they great?” and then rolls his eyes to laughter from the crowd. He adds:
They’re going to leave right after the show for London. They’re going to challenge the Beatles to a hair pulling contest.
More laughter from the crowd and a conspiratorial smile from Pat. But their world is about to change.
“Not Fade Away,” which became the Stones’ first hit stateside, is about a band, Doug’s, that not only faded away but barely formed in the first place. It’s a slice of life about the haphazard path life can take. It’s universal in this regard, but, because it’s culled from Chase’s past, it’s specific to place (New Jersey) and time: that moment when everything the greatest generation strived for was upended by their children, the boomer generation, for whom it was striven, and who had in them an unreal idealism and an overwhelming sense of privilege.
It starts out about a girl, Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote, looking very Heather Graham circa 1998), who is always in Doug’s sites but out of his reach, not to mention out of his league. But time is on his side. Doug is asked to join the band of his friend, Gene (Jack Huston), who has a bit of a following, as its drummer; then he has to take over lead vocals when Gene, smoking pot, swallows a roach. Doug does well. In fact, he does better than Gene. A source of future conflict. His hair grows out and frizzes, he starts wearing Cuban-heel boots, he begins to look more and more like “Don’t Look Back”-era Bob Dylan. And he gets Grace.
Then he blows it, of course. She has a past? She sucked whose what? He gets into fights with his father, while his mother, Antoinette (Molly Price), an early version of Livia Soprano, is forever crossing herself. The Vietnam War is brought up, and each side takes the most inane position. It’s ill-informed pragmatism vs. lofty idealism. Is that part of the problem with the movie? We get inanity from both sides of the generation gap. Meanwhile, the best version of both sides is represented by the same family: Doug and his father. Everyone else can go to hell.
Pat is a sympathetic figure here: hair-trigger temper, sure, but hard-working, suffering cancer in silence, and sticking by his crazy wife. Doug takes the best of his father, his work ethic, and tries to push the band toward success; but his mates already have an idea of what they are and what they will be. Gene keeps wanting to do covers because that’s what “his fans” like, but he says it at his day job doing itinerant construction. Meanwhile, Wells (Will Brill) has the stages of the band’s success already worked out in his mind. He reminds me of members of the band Visiting Day from a first-season episode of “The Sopranos,” who talk about which of their lousy songs will be their first hit and which will be the second. They, and he, are about to go nowhere but in their minds.
As a slice of life, a slice of culture, and as cinematic memoir, “Not Fade Away” reminds me of a not-quite-as-resonant version of Olivier Assayas’ “Apres Mai.” Assayas’ counterpart, Gilles (ClémentMétayer), goes from would-be revolutionary and into film production, while Chase’s pursues rock ‘n’ roll dreams until he cuts out for California and film school. The movie is about why the first dream doesn’t happen from the perspective of the second dream, which happened.
It’s a good movie, evocative, with great music and production values. Why doesn’t it quite work? Do we get too much of Grace’s crazy sister, Joy, and their central-casting square and conservative parents (Christopher McDonald in plaid golf pants)? The bookending narration, provided by Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), feels unnecessary, too, and her final ‘60s-era dance, in the middle of the Sunset Strip, while fun, doesn’t exactly illuminate. Maybe we needed a greater focus on Doug and Pat. There are moments when Pat looks at his son, sprouting hair like a chia pet, and has no idea who he is. We feel the same.
Monday June 03, 2013
Movie Review: Go Grandriders (2012)
The most interesting aspect of “Go Grandriders” for me is less the tour of the coast of Taiwan—as 17 geriatrics, averaging 81 years old, ride motorbikes from Taichung, south along the west coast, and north along the east coast—than the stories they tell. Particularly the World War II-era stories.
Taiwan has a fascinating history in this regard. From 1895 to 1945, it was a Japanese colony, and during the war many Taiwanese actually fought for the Japanese, whose rule on the island was less problematic (read: genocidal) than it was on the mainland. Many Taiwanese actually liked Japanese rule. But the war ended, Taiwan reverted back to Chinese rule, and two years later Communist forces pushed Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, off the mainland and onto Taiwan, where the KMT stayed in power for decades. Thus, on this small island, you had native folks who spoke mostly Taiwanese and didn’t mind the Japanese, rubbing elbows with mainland folks who spoke mostly Mandarin and hated the Japanese. The 228 Incident, in which the KMT massacred Taiwanese citizens protesting government policies, didn’t help.
So I’m glad Hua Tien-hao made his documentary now rather than 10 years from now. In 10 years, most of these stories will be gone, but here, in “Go Grandriders,” a not-bad, mostly cute, sometimes too cute portrayal of 80-year-olds and their dreams, which became the highest-grossing documentary in Taiwan’s history, we have, among the 17, a man who trained Kamikaze pilots for the Japanese, as well as a former Nationalist soldier who came over in ’48. At one point, this is discussed: how, during World War II, one might have tried to kill the other. But quickly, too quickly, it’s swept aside, amid effusive smiles and declaration and handshakes. Inwei, shr bu hao yisi.
Too bad it wasn’t delved into deeper. That history won’t be around much longer.
The trip is not without its comedy. “If you are currently on medication,” the riders are told at the beginning, “please bring it with you.” One man shakes his head because his wife packs 17 suits for him. Another injures himself because he falls asleep during the first leg.
The gung-ho, ja-yo captain of the trip, 87 years old, a former policeman, can’t make it past the first leg. He has a stomach ulcer, and the shaking of the motorbike causes internal bleeding. He’s hospitalized, then meets up with the participants a few days later. But he’s hospitalized again, and feels shame as they all visit him in his room. Even though he recovers in time to greet the riders at the finish line, the whole enterprise must have been bittersweet for him at best.
Another man, on the perilous eastern leg of the trip, with the highway reduced to two lanes, winds up hospitalized after what we assume is a collision with a truck. (I thought: Right, Taiwan traffic. Maybe two minutes on that phenomenon would’ve been good for international audiences.) Others are greeted as heroes at a local nursing home.
You get ordinary scenes. One man hides from the others with an ice-cream cone, another checks out how his stocks are doing in the local paper. You get touching scenes: One man makes the journey with a framed portrait of his deceased wife in his wire basket. Whenever they arrive in a new town and are greeted with flowers (wrapped in plastic, of course), he puts the flowers in the basket for his wife.
Is it all too ordinary? There’s some talk of death. “If no one died,” one man says, “it would be a crowded world.” I like that. But it’s as deep as the documentary gets.
Sunday June 02, 2013
Movie Review: Kapringen (A Hijacking) (2012)
Tobias Lindholm’s “Kapringen” (“A Hijacking”) is such a straightforward, tense, felt rendition of the contemporary hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean that afterwards you feel as if you’ve been held hostage, too. In a way you have. For two hours. Which makes you wonder whether or not you actually liked the movie. Is it as good as you think? Or is your reaction some cinematic version of the Stockholm Syndrome?
Named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards, “Kapringen” opens with the three-beep sound of a ship-to-shore phone, as Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the cook of the MV Rozen, talks to his wife. He’s got some bad news. Instead of being home on the 15th he won’t arrive until the 17th. She’s upset until he sweet-talks her, charms her. Then he charms us by talking with his daughter. Afterwards we see Mikkel making food for, and joking around with, the men. He’s gregarious but has his solitary moments, too. There’s a nice scene of him on deck, watching the ocean during magic hour with coffee and cigarette.
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, we see the CEO of the company, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), do his thing. A subordinate, Lars Vestergaard (Dar Salim), is having trouble negotiating with the Japanese. They won’t bring down their price. Stuck at $19 million, Ludvigsen wants them under $15, and when he begins negotiations he offers $10. They look shocked, laugh. They reiterate 19. He thanks them and stands to leave. At the door, they say 17. Progress. He turns around. In the end, he gets what he wants.
Both men, by the end, will irrevocably changed.
Mikkel and Peter
We never see the Somalis board the ship. They’re just there, making demands, sticking their semi-automatics in the faces of the men. The captain goes down quickly with a sickness (ulcer), so it’s up to Mikkel—who, as cook, still has to work—to negotiate with the pirates for, say, bathroom privileges. Three of the seven men are holed up in a small cabin. They are forced to pee on the floor. They talk of the stink. We smell it. It’s that kind of movie. Eventually they get a bucket. After weeks, they are allowed bathroom privileges.
The chief negotiator for the pirates is a man named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who claims not to be a pirate, who takes umbrage at the suggestion. He’s a businessman, same as Peter. The pirates wants $15 million, Peter initially offers $250K, and the rest of the movie, and the hostage crisis, revolves around which side will move, and who will live and who will die.
It would be easy to make Peter the villain in all this. He’s a businessman, a CEO, a negotiator with little apparent emotion in his face. Malling’s eyes are so wide-spread he almost looks reptilian. Plus he never gives in. He keeps negotiating. One could say it’s not in his nature. But he too is held hostage. Throughout the movie, throughout the various negotiations, we never see him leave his temperature-controlled gray offices of Copenhagen. He’s stuck.
An Irish expert in hostage situations, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), gives him advice, including hiring an actual negotiator to deal with the pirates. But Peter says it’s his company; he will negotiate. Connor is wary of this—emotions don’t help—but he allows it. And the days pass. Day 7, Day 25, Day 39. Each number seems impossibly large. How long could it go on? Where’s Ted Koppel? Where’s the Danish government? Where’s Interpol? We’re also waiting for Peter to either rise to the situation or for his hubris to get the better of him.
To be fair, the situation gets the better of him. Months in, Omar allows Mikkel what he’s always wanted—to talk to his wife—then betrays and uses him. The barrel of a gun is put to his head and his head is forced onto the table and he’s ordered to say the following: “You call the company and tell them to pay or they are going to kill us all!” She does this. She talks to Peter. At which point Peter stops taking Connor’s advice. He gets emotional. He raises his offer even though the Somalis haven’t countered yet. He gets angry and shouts. Omar shouts back. Then gunshots are heard. Then nothing.
In the shock afterwards, director Lindholm does a very smart thing: he keeps us in the room with Peter. He keeps us in the building with Peter. Everything’s silent. Peter’s thinking, brooding, wearing the heaviness of the situation on his face and in his posture. Has he caused the death of a man? He stays in his office through the night, and in the morning his wife arrives, buoyant, with coffee, and pastry, and a smile. He lashes out at her. The truly brilliant thing is we want to do the same. Her buoyancy in that moment is repugnant. She’s from another world. Her presence in the midst of this excruciating, slow-drip horror is an insult. We know what he does is wrong but it’s our impulse, too.
On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.
Celebrating a robbery
It ends well and not. There’s a payment ($3.3 million) and a death. The deal is only struck because Lars, the subordinate, offers the solution that Peter, the CEO, can’t think of. The student has become the master. But at least Peter is not responsible for a death. In a way, Mikkel is.
When the cheers go up that the deal is made, I thought, “They just paid $.3.3 million to not have men killed.” That’s part of the point, I’m sure. By the end, we’re celebrating a robbery. We don’t even need that final death to make it awful. It’s already awful.
You can’t help but compare the movie to the Hollywood version. Since Mikkel is a cook, I thought of “Under Siege,” the wish-fulfillment fantasy in which terrorists take control of a US Navy battleship, but the cook (Steven Seagal), a former SEAL, takes it back. I also thought of “Captain Phillips,” the true-life, Tom Hanks Somali-pirate movie, which will be released this October. Directed by Paul Greengrass, it looks to have some verisimilitude—it’s not superhero stuff—but it’s still wish fulfillment. It still has its happy ending.
From “A Hijacking”’s IMDb message board, American version:
Hard to believe the Dane's [sic] didn't prep/train for pirates. They were Vikings, at one time. The take away [sic] seems to be, hope for best, prep for worst, keep a Seal Team on retainer.
All Americans are cowboys in their heads but the world is brutal in ways we can’t imagine. It’s also poignant in ways we don’t portray. The faces of Hollywood heroes hide everything but amidst the inhumanity of “Kapringen” there is great humanity.
Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), near the end.
Friday May 31, 2013
Movie Review: The Last Sentence (2012)
In 1996, Swedish director Jan Troell (“The Emigrants”; “Everlasting Moments”) made “Hamsun,” a biopic of the latter years of famed Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), who infamously sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s a tragedy.
Last year, Troell made “The Last Sentence” (“Dom over dod man”), a biopic of the latter years of famed Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT), who was one of the strongest, most strident, and earliest voices against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. It, too, is a tragedy.
The lesson? Apparently it’s tough to have a happy ending in Nazi-occupied Europe. Also being on the right side of history doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.
Two opposing ideas
When I first saw Segerstedt watching newsreel footage of Hitler, I thought, “That’s our hero?” He has a shock of white hair, prominent cheekbones, and something severe and uncompromising in his face. He looks like a drag. He is. Shortly afterwards, we see him at a dinner party giving an overlong toast about “the truth.” He does this while also conducting a public affair with the publisher of GHT, Maja Forssman (Pernilla August, Anakin Skywalker’s mom, y’all). “The sleeper does not sin,” he tells his wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog, in a great performance), before the party. “As you should know,” she replies. “You hardly sleep.”
For the first third of the film, in fact, Troell mostly ignores Hitler and history and focuses on Segerstedt’s infidelity. The cuckold, Segerstedt’s friend Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), handles it all with equanimity and a kind of sad Swedish acceptance, but Puste is less forgiving. She’s full of self-pity but receives little from others:
Puste: What does she have that I don’t?
Ingrid Segerstedt: A newspaper, mother.
And from us? We certainly feel sorry for her. How awful to take a back seat in your husband’s affairs—to not even be able to sit next to him at parties—to be usurped and forgotten in this manner. But any pity we have for her is laced with something else. There’s a quiet moment when Puste sits at Segerstedt’s desk. It’s her way of getting close to him. She doesn’t have him but she has his things. It’s a bit creepy but mostly sad. Then it just becomes creepy. She opens the desk drawer and finds a picture of a girl—“Maja, age 16,” it says on the back—and her face hardens and she tears it up. When she next visits Segerdtedt in his den, stepping over his dogs to bring him tea, and he’s brusque and distracted, she pours scalding water on the dogs.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.” Troell manages this with his characters. Our thoughts, our feelings, are forever conflicted about them. Sure, Torgny should pay more attention to his wife … but she’s such a pain. Yes, he ignores her … but wouldn’t you?
Writing in sand
What’s amazing abut Segerstedt, why a biopic was made in the first place, is not just that he saw the dangers of Nazi Germany; it’s how early.
After the opening newsreel, he writes a screed-like editorial that ends with the line, “Herr Hitler is an insult.” Shortly thereafter, GHT receives an admonishing telegram from Hermann Göring himself, which they celebrate receiving, and which leads to another editorial. About 10 minutes of screentime later, we get news of a fire at the Reichstag building.
Me in the audience: Wait, Segerstedt wrote editorials against Hitler before Reichstag? Wow.
The second half of the movie, after Puste’s death, is more historically relevant but less emotionally resonant. The world closes in: Anschluss, annexation, appeasement, invasion of Poland, yadda yadda. At one point Segerstedt receives a phone call from a Swedish fascist who threatens his life. Segerstedt invites him over for tea. “After that, you can kill me,” he says. His maid, Pirjo (Maria Heiskanen), worries he’s being too flippant but he dismisses the threat. He feels anyone who threatens a man over the phone is a coward and won’t show his face. He’s right. But then one of his dogs is found dead on the grounds from strychine poisoning.
As both Denmark and Norway are invaded, Segerstedt’s voice against Hitler remains strident, and he’s cautioned by the authorities—including, eventually, the King—to tone it down. “You do danger to Sweden,” he’s told. “You are blinded by your hatred of the Germans.” “I don’t hate the Germans,” he responds calmly. “I hate the Nazis.” In a less calm moment, he slaps the face of the foreign minister.
There’s a kind of bitter joke here. Segerstedt warns early and often about Hitler but Sweden is one of the few countries that’s never engaged in World War II. It’s never invaded; it remains neutral. Instead, or maybe as a result, Segerstedt’s battles become internecine. The Swedish police raid the GHT offices and Segerstedt’s voice is muted. An odd banquet is held for him by leftists, in which he’s hailed as a truth-telling knight, and made to ride a horse and carry a lance, but he comes off more buffoon than hero. Finally, his battles become internal. Puste dies, but he hangs on. Maja dies, but he hangs on. He’s haunted by the women in his life: we see them black-veiled and vaguely amused, like Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” Then he’s haunted by the purposelessness of his life. He wrote thousands of articles—to what end? “How quickly it passed,” he says. “I have written in sand,” he says.
In the end, he simply wants to outlive Hitler but doesn’t get to do this, either. Sick, bedridden, stubbornly hanging on, the great truth teller is lied to. “Hitler? Is he dead?” he asks. “Yes, he is gone,” he’s told. But it’s March 1945. Hitler has another month to go. Segerstedt does not.
The test of a first-rate movie is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. “The Last Sentence” does the former but it doesn’t quite function. Moments resonate (“I have written in sand”) but the whole just sits there. In the end, it’s a movie better in the reviewing than the viewing.
Tuesday May 28, 2013
Movie Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)
When I was a kid in Minnesota in the 1970s, Thor was god. Thor Heyerdahl.
I read “The Ra Expeditions” when it was published in the early 1970s, and I might have seen the documentary, “Ra,” at the local movie theater. Both book and doc focused on Heyerdahl’s attempt to captain a boat made of papyrus from Morocco to the west to prove that ancient peoples could have done the same. The first boat, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), didn’t make it, but the second, “Ra II,” did, all the way to Barbados.
But eventually I got bored with it. The adventures were only so adventurous and the ethnography went over my head. I also didn’t get how it proved anything. If you showed that something could be done, how did it prove that it was done? Plus the notion of groups of people shifting continents thousands of years ago freaked me out. It made me feel small and meaningless, which I was, I just didn’t want to know it.
I knew about “Kon-Tiki,” of course, Heyerdahl’s attempt, in the late 1940s, to prove that Polynesia was populated not from the west, as was the prevailing theory, but from the east, specifically Peru. So I was excited when I heard last year that Norway, Heyerdahl’s country, where he’s still a god, had made a movie about this adventure. I was less excited to hear that they made two versions—in Norwegian for Norway, and in English for the rest of the world—but I was excited again when it was nominated for best foreign-language feature at the 2012-13 Academy Awards. It had to be good then, right?
It’s OK. It looks beautiful but it’s a fairly cookie-cutter biopic. We get the following:
- The childhood scene indicating the man he’ll become: He takes risks on an ice floe, falls in icy waters, is saved by a friend, and refuses to tell his parents he’ll never take such risks again.
- The early adventure that leads to the quest: In the 1930s, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) lives in Polynesia with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and comes to realize that the prevailing theories about how Polynesia was populated are wrong.
- The Powers-that-Be getting in the way of the quest: Publishers won’t publish his book, the National Geographic Society won’t hear him out, he barely gets into the Explorers Club in New York, all of which indicate our hero’s underdog status.
- The wife objecting to the quest: Surely the most tedious aspect of any of these stories. Someone please apologize to Ms. Kittelsen for the thankless role.
- The quest itself: The bulk of the movie: sailing a raft, with the wind and the tides, 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia, with five other men.
- A happy ending: Bien sur.
At some point, mid-ocean, I leaned over to Patricia and said, “It would be nice if they made one of these things about someone who was wrong.”
Patricia actually liked the movie less than I did. That doesn’t happen often. And this one is mostly handsome, blonde men, half-naked on a raft, surrounded by beautiful blue water and various fish and mammals. Yet it wasn’t enough for her.
“Couldn’t they have had better conversations on the raft?” she asked as we walked away from the theater. “I know it’s supposed to be tedious, but good god.”
Admittedly, there were few conversations that stand out. Here’s one that does. At one point Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) falls into shark-infested waters and is being left behind by the Kon-Tiki, which can’t turn around, which is subject only to the wind and the tides, and one of the men (apologies: they’re not very distinguishable) jumps in with a rope to save him. The others throw chum in the water to move the sharks away and both men are saved in thrilling fashion: flailing legs leaving the water just as the sharks arrive. Afterwards, this man talks about how many he killed during World War II and how it weighs on his conscience. Then he thanks Herman. “You saved my life,” Herman reminds him. “I know,” says the man. “Thank you.” That’s a nice moment. Good dialogue. But overall Patricia is right.
“And did they all have to be so stupid?” Patricia asked. “Heyerdahl can’t swim, the one guy puts tomato soup in the water thinking it’s shark repellent, the other guy [Herman] harpoons the whale. I mean, c’mon.”
This bothered me less. The idea that Heyerdahl embarked on this journey, 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a glorified raft, even though he couldn’t swim, indicates his mania to prove his theory. The other stuff is there to create tension, conflict. Or, as with the tomato soup, it’s comic relief. Of a kind.
“Plus they telegraphed everything,” Patricia said. “You knew exactly what was going to happen.”
One scene they don’t telegraph occurs right before Herman goes in the water. Throughout the journey, they’ve had a parrot named Lorita on board; but here she suddenly flies off and lands in the water and a shark gets her. (There was a parrot on the Kon-Tiki, by the way, but storms got her, not sharks.) The camera then focuses on Lorita’s caretaker as he moves with determination around the raft. I assumed he was becoming aware that they were surrounded by sharks, a sea of sharks, and the camera would pull back and reveal them churning in the water. Instead, at a key point, he reaches down and hooks the shark that ate Lorita and brings it on board, where it flails helplessly and is then killed. It’s a revenge scene of a kind I’ve never witnessed before.
But overall Patricia’s right. They did telegraph too much. I should have let her write this review.
The right stuff
The movie also overstates Heyerdahl’s role in bringing back the notion of “adventure” in the post-war world, crediting him with inspiring the test pilots that led to the space program. But these pilots were already doing what they were doing in the California desert long before Heyerdahl put together his raft.
Even so, I liked the movie well enough. Yes, there’s not enough complexity, and yes the men aren’t distinguishable enough. But it’s beautiful to look at, the adventure is a great adventure, and Heyerdahl is still a bit of a god to me. Plus the scene with the whale is just majestic. Its immensity. The way it dwarfs us.
I’m curious, though, what backlash, if any, awaited Heyerdahl when he finished the 5,000-mile journey and wrote his book. Did any other ethnographers and anthropologists react the way I reacted when I was young? Just because you showed something could be done doesn’t prove that it was done. Or did all the other evidence (pineapples, stone idols) seal the deal?
As for being nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012-13 Academy Awards? I would’ve gone with “The Deep” from Iceland.
Friday May 24, 2013
Movie Review: The Deep (2012)
I kept trying to place Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the star of “The Deep,” the 2012 movie that was nominated for 16 Edda Awards, Iceland’s Oscars, and won 11 of them, including best picture, director, and actor. It was the second best actor in a row for Ólafsson, even though he’s hardly leading man material. He’s overweight, frumpy, and in Hollywood would be typecast as a villain or the best friend; but in Iceland he’s Tom Hanks. Except he was reminding me of someone else.
At first I thought of Clancy Brown, who played the sadistic guard in “The Shawshank Redemption. I sorted through other options, including Chuck McCann, whom I knew best from the Saturday morning live-action show, “Far Out Space Nuts, ” before it hit me: Vincent D’Onofrio. Both men are charismatic when they want, intense when they want, and both of these factors are important in playing Gulli, a national hero in Iceland, an ordinary man who, one horrible evening, defies the sea, human nature, and, ultimately, science.
Gulli is a fisherman on Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), an archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland best-known for a 1973 volcano eruption that forced a month-long evacuation of the entire island. Gulli was a teenager at the time—we see him in flashback—but now it’s 1984 and Gulli’s a young, aimless man. He’s part of a crew of six on a fishing boat, the Breki, but seems to lack the passion or focus of the others. One is a family man, with a wife and two boys, another has an extensive LP collection and a dog, a third loses himself in drink, a fourth in women. Gulli? He’s just there. At the local bar on a dark frigid evening, he teases the new cook, then comes to his aid when a fight breaks out. His temper, we see, is fierce, but he’s a decent sort. There’s a girl, too, pretty, and a suggestion of a history, but Gulli doesn’t act on it. He still lives with his parents. He still drinks milk from the carton.
He also seems fairly impervious to cold. On a frigid December morning, when the crew of the Breki is going out despite a recent winter storm, and everything from cars to ropes creak with frost and cold, Gulli is hanging out hatless and gloveless, wearing an unzipped jacket with an open flannel shirt underneath. He’s just hanging.
Going in, we know the boat will capsize but we don’t know why. Is it the weather? Palli (Jóhann G. Jóhannsson), the family man, places a damp drawing his son made for him on a heater. Will that start a fire? We get bits from the crew: the alcoholic throwing up in the engine room; the cook unable to make a good cup of coffee for the captain; the watching of “Jaws” on Betamax and a discussion about thow they need to switch over to VHS.
Early in the day, the fishing nets get caught on something on the bottom of the ocean and the boat tilts precariously before extricating itself. So it’s not that. But it happens again in the evening, and the captain, not wanting to lose the nets, which are new, doesn’t order them cut loose. The boat tilts, and tilts, and finally goes over. The men go in. Most die quickly. Three cling to wreckage: Gulli, Palli, and the Captain. But the wreckage keeps getting swamped. The air temperature, we’re told, is 27 degrees, the water temperature 41, and they’re three miles out. “I’m so cold,” Palli says. “We can’t just die here!” the Captain says, panicking, “we have to start swimming.” He does, leaving the other two, but he doesn’t go far. Gulli spots a nearby boat, shouts and waves, but isn’t heard, and in that moment Palli dies, too. “If you make it … ” he begins to tell Gulli. Then nothing. Then his hand goes limp. Gulli, alone, begins to swim. At which point the camera pulls back and we see a lone man bobbing up against a vast, cold blackness.
On his painful journey, he talks to seagulls, tries to tell jokes (but can’t remember the punchlines), remembers the past, makes promises for the future. He gets angry. He prays. He promises that if he’s given just one more day this is what he’ll do. He won’t drink milk from a carton but from a glass—to please his mother. He’ll visit Palli’s wife and kids and tell them how he died—nobly, and thinking of them. He’ll visit his friend’s dog. He’ll pay off his motorcycle so he’ll have no debts. Then he’ll visit the girl from the bar, the one with whom he has a history. This time he won’t just walk past her house. This time he’ll go in. If he’s given just one more day.
And here his troubles began
One of the most horrifically ironic subtitles I’ve come across is from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale,” which, after the first volume of various Nazi horrors culminating in husband and wife taken to Auschwitz, is subtitled, “And Here My Troubles Began.”
I thought of this when Gulli makes it to shore. It’s still night, it’s still dark, and he’s been through hell. But shore, when he reaches it, is a horror of pounding waves and sharp rocks that lead to a cliff face that can’t be scaled. So he has to go back. He has to go out into the surf again. When he finally finds a cliff face he can scale, and reaches its top, he sees nothing but desolation. The ground is cooled lava and cuts his bare feet. He has to fashion socks out of the arms of his shirt. He keeps throwing up all the salt water he’s swallowed. When he reaches a town, a kid thinks he’s a drunk. When he’s finally taken to a hospital, his body temperature is below 93 degrees. He has no heartbeat. Yet he lives.
There’s confusion at first. He said the boat went down where? And he swam how long? That’s impossible. But they find the wreckage where he said it was. A Reykjavik scientist hears of the tale and is intrigued, since what’s being talked about is scientifically impossible. A man can’t survive that long in temperatures that cold. Studies are done. When they prove inconclusive, Gulli is taken to London where more studies are done. With monitors all over his body, he’s placed in a tub filled with ice with three chiseled members of the Special Forces. Their best lasts 19 minutes. He lasts hours. It’s survival of the unfittest. His body fat is like seal fat, we’re told, but even that doesn’t explain it. He still shouldn’t have lived.
In a way he’s not. His survival is not triumphant at all. He suffers survivor’s guilt, and seems halfway between the living and the dead. And the day he promised if God let him live? Where’s that?
Bring warm clothes
“The Deep,” written by Jón Atli Jónasson and Baltasar Kormákur, and directed by Kormákur, is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s as unpretentious as the people it portrays, and much recommended. It’s spare. No real answers are given for what happens, but at some point Gulli has had enough of the tests and he returns to Vestmannaeyjar; and he has that day he promised God. He visits his friend with the LPs and the old dog, who doesn’t respond to him until he puts on the music. Then the dog is his. He visits Palli’s widow and her kids and gives them a kind of closure. But he doesn’t find his. He still doesn’t visit the girl. That’s the part he can’t do. Instead he returns to fishing. He goes out to sea again with another crew. Does he go like Superman? Like someone the sea can’t kill? No. He goes like Gulli.
Did I want more from the end? Yes. But it works. “The Deep” is a movie about blunt facts: what the sea does to you; what the cold does to you. At the end you’ll feel chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the Tom Hanks of Iceland, before the plunge.
Sunday May 12, 2013
Movie Review: Renoir (2012)
Leave it to a great painter like Pierre-Auguste Renoir to make my father look good. Whatever ways my father embarrassed me when I was growing up, he never described my girlfriend’s tits in exquisite, loving detail the way that Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) does to his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), two-thirds of the way into Gilles Bourdos’ slow, painterly film, “Renoir.”
“Titian would have worshipped her,” Pierre-Auguste says. “Flesh! That’s all that matters! In art and in life!” And, weary in his old age, and suffering from decades of rheumatoid arthritis: “I’d give my right arm for her tits.”
The tits in question belong to Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), model and muse to Auguste in art, and instigator and muse to Jean in his film career. Muse and instigator for writer-director Bourdos as well.
“I made the film for Andree Heuschling,” Bourdos told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “She is someone who was the link—the junction between the world of painting and the world of cinema, and between the world of Renoir the father and Renoir the son. I think by using her as a focal point, it enabled me to enter the world of these men.”
That’s a great idea, and the movie is beautiful to look at, and there are moments that resonate. But the movie itself doesn’t resonate.
It opens in 1915 along the Cote d’Azur. It’s peaceful but, as Andrée bikes along a country road, there are signs of less-peaceful events taking place elsewhere. Up in the trees Andrée spots a Hun hung in effigy. As the movie progresses the war gets closer. We see injured soldiers by the side of the road. The Renoir estate will be turned into a boarding house for officers. And one soldier will return home.
Andrée, on this day, is simply biking to the Renoir estate to ask after a job as model to the famous painter. She claims Renoir’s wife sent her but a disgruntled angry boy, in a sleeveless shirt and carrying a stick as a weapon, informs her Renoir’s wife is dead. He calls her a liar and runs away. This is Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid with a Bike”), Renoir’s third and last son, who will remain angry and disgruntled throughout the movie; but the source of his anger is never fully explained, nor, for that matter, much noticed by others. Is it too much, being the son of Renoir? (At one points, he tosses dark blue pigment over André’s naked body while she dozes on a chaise lounge.) Is it too much, as an adolescent boy, hanging around all of these beautiful naked women? (“Show me your tits,” he says, at another point, to Andrée. Is he still angry over the death of his mother, or the dismissal of his father’s previous muse/model, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer)? Coco is intriguing but a secondary character.
Despite the lies about Renoir’s wife, if they are lies, Andrée gets the job but seems remarkably unimpressed by her surroundings. She’s upset Renoir is painting apples rather than her. She wants more money. Renoir is amused, enchanted. That night, sleeping, dreaming, he thanks his dead wife for sending him Andrée. “Her skin drinks in the light,” he says.
Andrée first approached the Renoir estate filmed from behind, as does Jean, on crutches, returning from the war. His return is cause for celebration, for both father and help, and for us, too, to further along the story, but the story doesn’t get much further. Renoir continues to paint, his son continues to help, Jean and Andrée eventually fall in love, or into mutually convenient lust, during which Andrée pushes the young man, who had considered a career painting ceramics, toward film, the medium with which he will become an artist himself (“La grand illusion,” “La règle du jeu,” “La bete humaine”).
But we only get suggestions of this later life. Here? Jean heals, and, against the wishes of both his father and Andrée, returns to war, this time in the Air Force. His father, wheelchair bound, stands to hug him goodbye. The movie, like Pierre-Auguste, doesn’t make it into the 1920s. The rest is afterword.
Moments stand out.
There’s a great shot of the artist dipping his brush in water while the paint swirls slowly down in an orange cloud. I also liked a picnic along the river, during which we see what Renoir is painting, in close-up, and then the camera pans left to what he is painting. It’s all blurry and shadows. The portrait of the artist as an old man with feeble eyesight. “All my life,” he tells Jean, “I got caught up in the complications. Today, I simplify matters.” When Jean suggests rest rather than more painting, his father objects. “I have progress to make!” When his doctor asks what he’ll do when he can no longer hold the paintbrush he responds, “I’ll paint with my dick.”
The old man is driven, as is the young woman, who talks of seizing every chance life offers. But is she too modern? Her body type is right for the period, and for Renoir (veering, as much as modern movies allow, toward the zaftig), but her sauciness, and her look, feel closer to this era. Bourdos may have made the movie for her but he also made her a pain. When Jean, in the beginning of their relationship, finds her flirting with another soldier, he sends her to the kitchen to remind her of her status, and there she struggles uselessly. She demands food, berates the staff, throws Renoir-etched dishes on the floor. When in the middle of their relationship, Jean informs her he’s re-enlisted, she abandons the estate and returns to prostitution. It’s up to Jean to retrieve her.
Would we have been better served seeing how the young Renoir entered the film industry with Andrée, his actress-wife, whom he wanted to make a star and didn’t? Why did he only become a true artist after his separation from her in 1931? Maybe she was his last connection to his father, and he needed to kill his father completely before becoming truly, artistically, himself?
Is that Andrée’s tragedy: serving only as muse to great men? Or is that enough? Most of us have done much, much less.
There’s a great story in here somewhere but it’s not here.
Tuesday April 09, 2013
Movie Review: No (2012)
What does the title refer to?
That should be a no-brainer. In 1988, international pressure led the Chilean leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, to agree to hold a plebiscite, on Oct. 5, on whether or not he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a former exile, the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist, who now works in advertising, and who agrees to advise the NO campaign.
For the 30 days leading up to the vote, both sides, YES and NO, are given 15 minutes to make their case each night on state-run television, and most of the NO folks, including Patricio Alywin, who will become the first president of Chile after Pinochet, want to focus on Pinochet’s past crimes: the hundreds of thousands exiled; the tens of thousands tortured; the thousands executed and disappeared. Saavedra sees this and says “Is that all?” He says, “This … this doesn’t sell.” So he and his team set about crafting a product that might win the election. They create a campaign that is sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, and almost always about the happiness that a true democracy will bring. Because, he asks, what’s happier than happiness? Nada, he answers.
“This is the true story,” the international trailer tells us, “of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”
So it’s obvious what “No” refers to. It refers to the moment when a people told a dictator, “No!”
But might it also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
What’s happier than happiness?
We first see René, in the movie’s old-school video format, making a pitch to the makers of a cola, “Free,” which involves MTVish dancing girls and mimes and silly stuff. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he says. It’s a sentence he will repeat twice more in the movie.
In the middle of this meeting he gets a visitor: José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). “The communist?” he’s asked. “Do you know him?” He shrugs it off but is clearly uncomfortable, or at least annoyed, by the presence of Urrutia. Maybe he doesn’t like having a pitch interrupted? But then Urrutia makes a pitch to him: Would he help with the NO campaign? René gives it a moment and then says, “No.”
What changes his mind? We’re not quite sure. After work, he visits the police station, where Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his ex-wife, is being jailed after another political protest. He watches as she gets punched in the face by the cops. Is that what changes his mind? That’s what we assume. But what happens next? He heads home to make dinner for his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), and to work on a campaign for a microwave oven. The wife, who lives elsewhere, comes home later, as he’s taking the boy to bed. They talk in muffled tones, she asks to kiss Simon, and as she leans close, René almost breathes her in. You can see pain of lost love on his face. Look closely. It’s one of the last times you’ll get any emotion out of René.
The NO campaign comes together bit by bit. Initially, there’s an almost “Barton Fink”-like joke, since René’s first pitch is remarkably similar to his pitch for Free Cola. It’s as if he has just one pitch in him. But he’s more adaptable than that. At one point he’s conversing with his mentor, who arrives with the CIA-like phrase, “I’m not here,” and they’re talking in muffled tones, trying to suss out the answer. How do you win this? What sells? “We need to have a product that is sufficiently attractive,” they say. They ask René’s maid why she’s on the YES side. She shrugs. I’m fine, she says. My kids are fine, she says. So how do you combat “fine”? Not with fear. With happiness.
Someone suggests folk songs? He counters with jingles. Veronica tells him his campaign is a joke? He changes the subject. The opposition talks up the wealth of the supposedly impoverished characters in the NO campaign? He brushes it aside. He knows it doesn’t matter. He tells his people to add more jokes. He makes the campaign fun and dazzling.
Sure, he gets pressured by Pinochet’s goons. Graffiti is spraypainted on his home and car. His housekeeper is threatened by soldiers on the streets. The ad team is watched, followed. He receives a late-night phone call. “How are you, René? How is Simon? I like your train.” Click.
His boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is working on the YES campaign, and the two square off numerous times. Guzman tells government ministers, “We’re going to fuck them up,” and he says it to René, too. René says it back. Guzman implies he’ll fire him and René dares him. “Go ahead, fire me,” he says. The tension between the two men feels personal and political but it’s neither. We’re surprised, for example, when halfway through the movie René is still working for Guzman. He’s working for him in the end as well. So if it’s not personal or political, what is it?
It’s competition. They both want to win. Maybe that’s all René ever wanted.
The tension between form and content
From the beginning, most of those involved in the NO campaign think the entire referendum is a sham, since, no matter the vote, Pinochet won’t let go of power. We assume the opposite, since the movie has been made. But we’re still on the edge of our seats.
The key event, really, occurs election night, Oct. 5, when the generals of the various armed forces don’t back Pinochet’s attempt to rig the election. They keep it fair. That’s really how that dictatorship crumbles. The NO campaign helped, certainly, but without the generals the rigged vote would’ve simply been one more lie during 15 years of lies.
Instead, NO wins: 55 to 45 percent. For a moment, they’re all stunned. Then they begin to celebrate. And as politicians make speeches and people shout and dance and sing, René picks up Simon and weaves his way through the crowds. At one point his eyes get a little misty. Does he smile? I don’t recall. Is he happy? One assumes so but we have no evidence. Does he celebrate with everyone? With anyone? No. He just walks through the crowd, holds onto his son, and thinks. It’s what he’s been doing for the entire movie, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lead character think so much onscreen.
This is the movie’s high point but it doesn’t end here. It continues. We watch René, on his skateboard again, on his way to work again, where he makes a pitch to a soap opera using the same language he used before: “the current social context,” etc. And that’s our end.
What’s changed from the beginning of the movie? Nada. Todo y nada. So why end like this? Why focus on René? Why make him the way he is? Without seeming motivation? Without seeming emotion? Why film the movie in video with its ugly, boxy (1.33:1) aspect ratio?
Throughout, I felt a tension between the movie’s form and its content. What René pitches, what he sells, is the opposite of what writer-director Pablo Larraín is saying and selling.
“No” is an art flick but its hero is selling Hollywood endings. He’s selling glamour even though he’s filmed in unglamorous locations using unglamorous video. The movie has a right to be happy—“a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”—but it doesn’t indulge in its happiness. It’s dour. It’s gray. René would not approve. He would look at the movie and say, “Is that all?” He would look at Larraín and say, “This … this doesn’t sell.”
So what is Pablo Larraín selling?
The current social context
In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that of the two dystopian novels of the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it was the latter, not the former, that is the more accurate depiction of the modern western world. Our problem isn’t totalitarianism but capitalism. We don’t suffer from a lack of choices but an abundance of them. We haven’t become a captive culture but a trivial one. We aren’t controlled by the threat of pain but by the promise of pleasure. We keep voting for happiness.
Pablo Larraín’s “No” is about the return of democracy to Chile, and that’s a glorious event, but the movie doesn’t indulge in the glory. It recognizes that even as one tyrant is overthrown, a lesser tyrant emerges. Chile loses “1984” and gains “Brave New World.” It says “No” to Pinochet. But saying “No” to René? Well, why would we even do that? Why would we say “No” to the promise of happiness?
“What you’re going to see now,” René says at the beginning of the movie, “is in line with the current social context.” Yes. Yes, it is.
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