Tag Archives: Movies – 2012

Crime and Punishment: The House I Live In

A few months ago I wrote:

Beware the self-made man: he has neither patience nor mercy for citizens who can’t triumph like he has. I know good people for whom the period between their teens and early forties was a numbing accumulation of cents so that their children would themselves never have to accept menial labor for the sake of putting their own children in private schools. As a result, legitimate grievances from other members of society in worse straits don’t elicit sympathy; the response is closer to “Shut up and deal.”

I’ve heard the strains of self-pity from that well-tuned rightist orchestra in the last two weeks. Inspired by the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, these relatives remind me that “those people,” “the real racists,” should take “personal responsibility” for their actions, like the hundreds of thousands of white Cuban Americans who in the early sixties received refugee food and were naturalized without fuss.

If this sounds familiar, show The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the inequities of a prison system that for a generation has punished sellers of crack cocaine a hundred times more harshly than for the regular stuff (and it’s the same drug, a disgusted Mark W. Bennett of the U.S. district court for the Northern District of Iowa reminds the audience). For a black boy or girl growing up in Gary or Detroit, the deck isn’t stacked against them: they’re not allowed to play the game. On their way to school they watch kids their age on corners making hundreds of dollars a day. To resist the temptation demands a fortitude rather difficult to come by on an empty stomach. “The Wire” creator David Simon, making up for obsequiousness towards the national security state, is grim: “Let’s just be more honest and say ‘Let’s kill the poor’.” Framing the narrative is a smaller one about class and race: a biography of Jarecki’s nanny, who fled Jim Crow to care for white children and lost her black son to drug addiction.

Woody — Italian Style

mov-to-rome-with-love_320You know To Rome With Love is a Woody Allen picture because it begins in such a literal way: Italian music sung over vistas of the Appian Way or something. To juxtapose that postcard against, say, a Bobby Short performance would be like asking Michael Haneke to direct Spring Breakers. Luckily Allen integrates geography into his narrative with greater finesse than did Midnight in Paris, a movie that never stopped looking like illustrations from Goodnight Moon. Modest finesse: when a pair sits cafeside they look comfortable and rumpled in front of the architecture.

Boasting a structural ambition that his recent films have eschewed, To Rome With Love‘s four plot strands cut and restart; if they were stronger I’d say the septuagenarian had returned to the formalist grace of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen wrote two outright duds: a nobody (Roberto Begnini) gets mistaken for a somebody and is invited to talk shows, mobbed on the street, and appears at premiers. Except for a couple of small bits — a sycophant who coos “You’re amazing!” after his un-amazing TV appearance; an entertainment reporter praising Begnini’s wife’s run in her stockings and thrift store dress as high fashion — this Pirandello-worthy idea (by way of Allen’s earlier Zelig) crumbles thanks to repetition and Begnini’s talent for being unfunny. A strand in which a young groom pairs up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) bounces like a rubber doughnut.

Better is the one in which Woody Allen plays a retired music biz guy who encourages his daughter’s future father in law to lavish his beautiful voice in venues beyond the shower. He freezes in a recording studio, however. The solution: have him sing in a portable shower onstage to a rapt opera audience. Allen’s voice, unusually scratchy, matches the feebly timed quips, some of which cross the line into inexplicable (on a plane, anxious: “I can’t unclench my fists — I’m an atheist!”) or lapse into his usual leaden expository gibberish (“I too want to see the ruins — it’s Rome, you know!” Gosh!). He does score one zinger: when Allen’s daughter’s fiancee says, “My father wants pleasure, not money,” Allen retorts, “Well, there’s a great deal of pleasure in money.” The other inexplicable lapse is marooning Judy Davis in her first substantial role in an American movie in years as Allen’s wife. Helena Bonham Carter, Claire Bloom, and Joanna Gleason could have given her career advice.

But Jessie Eisenberg, playing a nebbish who falls in love with an attractive pseud played by Ellen Page, scores a very minor triumph in the kind of Allen routine we’ve seen for years. Page and Eisenberg work well together, surviving a gimmick (she’s turned on by lightning) and literary tag (she quotes Rilke) recycled from the Juliette Lewis character in Husbands and Wives and a shameful anachronistic gay panic routine, respectively. These elements sum up To Rome With Love: too smooth to be a farrago, and about as watchable as we can expect of Woody Allen in 2013.

Skyfall

The last Bond film I watched in the theatre was License to Kill, the last one I watched is the much-lauded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service two months ago. I ask nothing of Bond movies because I don’t ask for them. I wasn’t bored by Skyfall except for the shootout at the Scottish castle, but, my god, is this incoherent, as in “We have no idea what to do with Bardem as a bison-voiced catamite with a blond dye job, and Shanghaim and Julien Assanges, and Ralph Fiennes franchise shopping, and Macallan product placement, and this cool subway train.” Totally appropriate that Bond cares more about his car getting vaporized than the child sex slave (Bérénice Marlohe) he sexes in the shower. In a career full of accusations of misogyny, deserved and undeserved, this scene — and her fate — are the vilest and most sinister in the 007 filmography. It’s vile and sinister because director Sam Mendes and master cinematographer shoot this thing like it’s Serious Bond, thus the return to Bond-as-blackguard creates a fatal tonal imbalance. If it were Pierce Brosnan playing the scene, we’d shoot him ourselves. If it were Roger Moore, we’d be demanding his trial at The Hague. If it were Timothy Dalton we’d call his acting coach. If it were Sean Connery, he wouldn’t have played the scene.

As the whip cream on the key lime pie, Skyfall ends with the ’60s restored and reified: a sexually available Moneypenny and a male M.

Jean-Louis Trintignant: “His lack of apparent definition”

I missed this Terrence Rafferty appreciation of Jean-Louis Trintignant — “a hard actor to get a fix on, though, because he never really had a type, and he didn’t take especially flamboyant, awards-ready roles, either — published in December:

Mr. Trintignant appears to have realized early on that he was, in the usual terms of movie stardom, only an average specimen of homo cinematicus: of modest height, medium good looking, possessed of a pleasant, expressive, but not terribly memorable voice. And he wasn’t distinctive enough to settle into a particular character type, either: not a working-class hero like Jean Gabin, or an aristocrat like Pierre Fresnay, or a wise guy like Jean-Paul Belmondo, or an existentialist heartthrob like his “Z” co-star Yves Montand.

. He overstates the actor’s ordinariness though; the will and intelligence always shone.

What he chose to do was amazing. He emphasized his averageness, turned his lack of apparent definition into a weird kind of strength. In movie after movie he presents himself as a man so unremarkable that you have to wonder if anything at all is going on underneath that opaque surface. And then slowly, painstakingly, he unwraps the package and shows you what’s inside. He always seems cautious and watchful, waiting for the moment when he can (or must) reveal himself.

The Trintignant moment I treasure most: offering Irène Jacob pear brandy in Red.

Amour: The cinema of expiation

Enhanced by some of the sharpest high definition imaging I’ve seen, the first scenes of Amour had me in knots anticipating to what enhanced interrogation techniques writer-director Michael Hanenke would subject Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The septuagenarians, former music teachers, watch a Schubert concert performed by a talented pupil. In the sea of faces we can pick the leads out of a lineup: Riva’s brittle, bland beauty and the skeptical cut-this-crap restlessness of Trintignant are identifiable. The pristine images and distrust in the quotidian prime us for horror, but Haneke for once in his career abjures the rather Calvinist preoccupation with purity for materialism.

In his review, Nick Pinkerton accuses Amour of being yet another assortment of pumped up kicks:

Endemic to Haneke’s dry, ratchet-turning movies is the anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event — let’s call it the “IAE” — an event in which the incipient horror of the human condition pops out from behind the veneer of civilization, an event that the veteran Haneke viewer understands, upon going in, is part of the contract. The IAE breaks the brittle surface of Haneke’s style, and the bracing plunge after the crack of the ice delivers a harsh lesson. His pedantic, castigating filmmaking is a vehicle for these lessons, which have never yet confirmed man’s high opinion of himself.

Now this is true of The Piano Teacher, Cache, and the other examples of Haneke’s cinema of expiation. How fortunate that The Incipient Horror of the Human Condition happens to take place early in the film when Riva refuses to join Trintignant for a nightcap. Who wouldn’t accept a second drink with him? A moment of catatonia spooks him enough to take Riva to the hospital, where the diagnosis is a stroke. Emergency surgery with a 95 percent full recovery rate fails (“We were in the five percent,” Trintignant mordantly observes), and now the couple must cope with a wheelchair-bound Riva paralyzed on her right side. She’s agile enough to keep up with the latest fiction, self-conscious enough to cast off other fictions: the deterioration of their matrimonial state into a parental one.

The next event is inevitable but not awful: another stroke, as science confirms the likelihood of others. With his duckfooted gait and penetrating intelligence, Trintignant suggests the frustration of a man not for a moment conned by the nobility of the responsibilities he accepts (he won’t put his wife in hospice). Riva has garnered the acclaim and the Oscar nod, but Trintignant has the more difficult part. He’s not an amiable chap; for all the erotic charge between he and Riva there’s the suggestion that she endured years of quiet verbal cruelty. With his daughter (Isabelle Huppert, extroverted for the first time in years) he’s terse and unyielding, mocking her sincere attempt at having a “serious talk” about her mother. The disgraced judge in Red, the doubting Jansenist in My Night at Maud’s, and the fascista wannabe in The Conformist add up to portraits of will at war with instinct; in Amour, will and instinct are indivisible. No other 2012 film depends as much on successful casting.

Acknowledging the audience’s complicity, Haneke’s camera lets actors enter rooms without following them. In an hour’s time we memorize every square foot of the Riva-Trintignant apartment: the toilet with the antiquarian WC, the living room strewn with books, an ever-present tea kettle and ashtray on the table, the unexpectedly bare foyer. The ending is a muddle. The second time the damn pigeon gets trapped in the apartment I thought Haneke had lost his mind, and he’s not up to the ambiguity of the ending (expecting ambiguity from Haneke is like expecting pratfalls in a Bresson film), but these are flyspecks on the only honest film he’s made. Don’t call it a horror film though. Yeats and the inexorable accumulation of years tell us that aging isn’t horrible so much as stupid.

Best movies of 2012

Amour opens in South Florida this weekend, but I’ll post my ten favorite films of 2012 anyway, assuming that it’s a Michael Haneke film (but starring one of my favorite actors). I’ve reviewed every film on this list, Keep The Lights On and The Queen of Versailles excepted. I didn’t have a better time all year than watching Magic Mike, enough to forgive its cautionary tale cliches (the same goes for Keep The Lights On).

In The Family (Patrick Wang)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderberg)
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)
Unforgivable (Andre Téchiné)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Keep The Lights On (Ira Sachs)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)

Oscar noms post-mortems, Part One

Slate’s Movie Club debuts this year the same week as Oscar nominations. I won’t review every comment, but I want to point out where club member’s views and mine coincide. For example, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Stephanie Zacharek:

I may be the only person here who has enormous problems with Beasts of the Southern Wild in general and with Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance in particular. Writing about child actors can be enormously difficult; they’re just little kids, for Pete’s sake. If they’re great, we can say they’re naturals—that’s easy. But if they’re bad, we don’t (and shouldn’t) automatically lay the blame on them—ostensibly, it’s the director’s job to guide them.

But even making allowances for the fact that this is Benh Zeitlin’s first picture, the filmmaking in Beasts of the Southern Wild strikes me as ineptitude masquerading as inventiveness. And while everyone seems to have lots to say about the racial politics of Django Unchained, it’s Beasts of the Southern Wild that makes me really uncomfortable. To me, the picture reads like a postgraduate thesis about post-Katrina poverty, using magic realism as the gimmick to get people to care. God, I know how uncharitable that sounds…

Often playing like James Agee re-imagined as Clifford Odets, Beasts of the Southern Wild succumbs, as I wrote at the time, selling a cruel way of life to denizens of blue states.

The worst omission, of course, is Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, in which he stops acting like a sex symbol and plays a tacky Tampa girl’s version of one — which, honestly, is what he always was. Wesley Morris:

McConaughey has labored to find a persona that works both for him and for an audience. He’s aged into himself, and we’ve aged into him. In 1996, he was presented to us the way Julia Ormond and Gretchen Mol were: as products the movie industry invented, packaged, and sold. But he was too sleazy for stardom in 1996 and ’97 and ’98. Spielberg and Zemeckis cast him as these figures of piety and virtue, and seeing him with that hair and hearing use that sexed-up drawl on African slaves and Jodie Foster, you just laugh, especially now. It was never acting at the beginning of his career. It was always Halloween. Of course part of the reason we still have him and not Ormond or Mol is that movie sexism is pernicious and sucks.

Anyway, back then, we couldn’t have known that McConaughey really was the creep outside the Emporium pool hall trying to score high school girls. He eventually found a way to bend romantic comedies to his druggy, slutty conceitedness. And now he’s come out on the other side. We like The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe and Magic Mike because they’re the truth to the lies Contact and Amistad were peddling. Even when Matthew McConaughey’s being good, a kind of lasciviousness comes through and stains all his principles like sweat on silk.

I struggled to find three words to type about Killer Joe that didn’t amount to an endorsement of Kentucky Fried Chicken: after a fabulous start, the sleaze congeals into a garrulous sub-Tarantino talk-a-thon with gratuitous violence. If director William Friedkin had encouraged McConaugheyheyhey to, I don’t know, talk faster instead of chewing on words like a plug of tobacco I’d be praising him.