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|27 reviews in total|
I went in with low expectations after reading some negative reviews.
This movie blew me away. It moved me deeply. It is certainly one of the
most original, unpredictable, unformulaic, gorgeous movies to come out
of Hollywood in years. I find it almost miraculous that Spike Jonze was
able to deliver his vision in such a truthful, seemingly uncompromised
way. Chapeau, chapeau, chapeau to him.
He and Dave Eggers expanded on the book by Maurice Sendak by giving characters to the Wild Things. It's a story about raw feelings. About feelings so painful, so intense, that they cannot be articulated except through wild actions, like monster tantrums. Hurt, jealousy, loneliness, pain, joy. How does a child deal with these feelings? How do adults cope? One may grow up, but the feelings are the same.
Although people complain that not much happens, I think a lot happens emotionally. Jonze's achievement is his masterful control of tone. There is gorgeous, insane energy in the wild actions of Max, a child bewildered by a broken home (not in the original source). And then there is a lovely, melancholy but mischievous feel to the place where the Wild Things are. I find it a fascinating interpretation true to the core of the Sendak story. Nothing sounds canned or clichéd.
When Max first finds them, The Wild Things are utterly bewildered, Big guy Carol is running around destroying things without quite knowing why (it's because of unrequited love). Max brings them a sense of purpose, some order and some lost joy. He does that by becoming their king and soon he learns that this degree of control requires responsibility and honesty. Maurice Sendak made up one of the most brilliant and durable metaphors in children's literature. Our feelings are volatile creatures that behave in wild ways. But what fantastic creatures they are! They all sound reassuringly like neurotic New Yorkers and were made by the Jim Henson people with great fidelity to the original Sendak drawings. This is the opposite, for instance, of what happened to poor William Steig's Shrek, who was defanged of all his charm and transformed into plastic merchandising by a big studio.
The faces of the Wild Things are extraordinarily expressive, but what works like a charm are the actors who lend them their voices. I loved James Gandolfini as Carol. He has the voice of a lovable lug (one of the reasons he was so sexy in The Sopranos), and as Carol he brings out the sweetness and vulnerability in that warm, teddy bear voice of his. He was the only one I recognized off the bat, but the rest of the acting is extraordinary. Everybody's tone is just right, slightly off-kilter but emotionally true. Catherine O'Hara is a hoot as Judith (a shrew and a self described "downer"), Paul Dano, quietly tender as Alexander, who no one ever listens to; Chris Cooper, softly authoritative as Douglas, and Forest Whitaker, as Ira, deeply in love with Judith, and even Lauren Ambrose as KW is spirited and lovely.
This is not a film for young children. It may be a film for children the same age as Max, the protagonist, who at the beginning seemed to me a little long in the tooth for such tantrums. But as he goes to where the wild things are, he becomes more like a child, more vulnerable and more powerful and he is more delightful. The kid is put through the wringer, like kids are when they feel any of those terrible things that Max feels, and the tone is dark but playful. I can totally understand Sendak's impatience with parents who complain about the movie's darkness. The story, and the film are about the hard truths of childhood. They are not a fantasy land for blissful escape. However, thinking of my young nephews, I'm not sure that they would not be scared by the chaotic strangeness inflicted on Max.
But it is a wonderful film for adults, if you allow it to take you into its extraordinary realm of metaphorical feeling. It is more magical than anything I've seen in a long time. The one thing that got on my nerves was the hipsterish music by Karen O. The score by Carter Burwell (this man can do no wrong in my book) is fine, but all those cloying, cutesy songs were a little bit too much for me, particularly when inserted into scenes where the characters were talking. The cinematography by Lance Acord is amazing, the landscapes and the creatures are amazing. It is a deeply beautiful film.
Immediately after watching this new Coen Bros. film, I went home,
dusted off my Bible and looked up the Book of Job. I was trying to
understand the point of this frustrating movie. Giving the Coens the
benefit of the doubt, I'm guessing it's some sort of modern day
biblical parable, and it echoes Job. It's about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish
college professor in Minnessota in the late 1960's who gets hit with a
relentless series of tribulations that test his decency. He tries
looking for answers with the Rabbis in his community, who can't or
The movie starts, amazingly, with a little parable that takes place in a shtetl, in Yiddish. The parable was in itself maddening, about the point of doing good, or of thinking evil; an illustration of moral ambiguity. The scene seems an homage to the days when films and theater thrived in Yiddish, and even more, to the millennial Jewish culture of storytelling, of teaching through narrative. But to judge from what follows, it's hard to understand why it's there. The result is disappointing at almost every level.
For one, the Coens have lost sight (ever since O Brother Where Art Thou, it seems) of their funny bone. Their attempts at humor have been leaden (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, etc.). To misplace your funny bone in a movie about Jews that attempts humor is a particularly terrible sin. The movie is totally missing warmth and mischief, things that made masterpieces of Fargo, Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski. It has chutzpah, but it feels stifling and stifled. It has no verve.
One of the main problems of the film is that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, a resourceful actor stuck in a thankless role) is such a total pushover. He has absolutely no edge. The point about Jewish genius nerds (see Woody Allen, Larry David, Seinfeld, etc.) is that they may be nerdy, but they have rapier wit, or deep neurosis or a fantastically funny, warped way of seeing the world. Larry Gopnik has none of this. He is a decent, boring, literal man with endless tolerance for abuse. Thus, he is extremely unlikable. You can't root for a man that doesn't root for himself. I kept thinking of Gene Wilder, who could be as meek as a sheep but had this hilarious undercurrent of hysteria. Something like this would have helped the audience not to lose heart with Larry Gopnik.
The Coens have also become intellectually lazy. You can't have an argument with religion, which is what I think this movie is, if you are not going to look sharp. A Serious Man seems made by Jewish atheists duking it out with their religion. Is this a parable of Jewish suffering, of an unduly punishing God? Is it a modern retelling of the Book of Job? Unfortunately, it's hard to tell because the movie refuses to probe deeper into Gopnik's crisis of faith or confidence. I totally identify with the Coens' criticism of rabbis who speak in platitudes about parking lots or who answer everything with unintelligible parables, but what the movie seems to be saying, which is disturbing me, is that the Jewish oral and written tradition is useless in the face of cruelty. By corollary, so is all storytelling. Why bother telling a story if there is nothing to learn, nothing to be done?
What is the point of the movie? That you can't go to religion to solve your moral and existential dilemmas? Perhaps organized religion is indeed useless, but the source material is not, just read the awesome Book of Job, probably the first existential text about human despair ever written. It would have been interesting if Larry Gopnik realized he had to help himself and decided to turn things around, whether the outcome was good or bad, funny or tragic. But he just keeps flailing and the world is more and more cruel to him. He keeps claiming he didn't do anything. And that is the problem.
I also have a feeling that the Coens, like many modern Jews, are conflicted about their heritage and the ambivalence is palpable. Whatever they are trying to say, it's very confusing. Their portrayal of their Jewish milieu is slightly disturbing. Everybody is a cartoon, and because of this, most characters are unsympathetic. Here, let me bring the example of Larry David, perhaps the most unsympathetic Jewish character that ever walked the Earth. Somebody said to me he is the reason why people hate Jews, that's how polarizing he is. However, Larry David serves a purpose. He is cathartic. He relentlessly explores the fraught relationship of his monstrous inner self with the world at large, and by doing so, he sheds light on all of our interactions, Jewish or not. Onedimensional cartoons in a dramatic film is a different story. Those are actually trickier.
There are some tender and inspired moments, as in the relationship of Larry with his crazy brother Arthur (Richard Kind), and intermittent Coen funniness like a Bar Mitzvah boy stoned out of his gourd, and the always deeply gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins, but in all A Serious Man feels disturbingly dessicated and aloof, as if the Coens were trying to do a thesis about storytelling and they forgot to connect with their own hearts.
Still Walking is an intimate movie about a family reunion. Its
observations about family dynamics are the most true to life I have
ever seen. The movie paints the entire gamut of emotional family
experience with delicate yet powerful brush strokes but it's not a
sentimental film, nor an opportunity for actors to grandstand. It's
Japanese, so all the strong undercurrents of emotion are held in check
by equally powerful restraint (both cultural and directorial). A
brother and a sister attempting families of their own go to visit their
parents in Yokohama. The parents have lost a son and the family's
devastation hangs heavy in the air. You can actually feel it bearing
down on your shoulders from the first frame. Anybody who has ever spent
the night at the house of relatives will feel the weight of family
history that this film captures so truthfully.
The parents are engulfed by their quiet, ongoing grief and the surviving children resent all the attention given to the one who is not there anymore. The movie is surprisingly mordant, touching, cruel, sad, funny: human. The mother is this wonderful woman who cooks up a storm (I so wanted to be invited to that house). She is from an older generation, which means she has been forever in the shadow of her husband the doctor, cooking and cleaning and feeding the children, but she is not a pushover, nor a saint. She is mischievous, catty and petty, prejudiced, funny, generous and cruel at the same time. She is a marvel, and the actress who plays her is astonishing.
This movie has many emotional surprises that make the audience gasp, but they are presented with a sure, light touch, never falling into easy sentiment, never shying away from human complexity. It's a film about family, and love and duty and regret and it is stunningly beautiful.
I had really liked director's Luis Estrada dark political satire La Ley de Herodes and I was looking forward to this one. But A Wonderful World disappoints. It is a political satire/fable, and the premise is interesting. In a not too distant future, the Mexican Minister of Economy declares there is no more poverty in Mexico and plans to run for the leadership of the World Bank. However, a homeless drunk gets in his way. On paper, the movie should work like a charm. It's a very dark satire of the Mexican elite's indifference to the poor. But the execution is very flawed, even if the film boasts a veritable roster of some of the best Mexican acting talent around. This is what really bugged me: The rhythm is glacial. The plot meanders. And every scene is way too long. Every scene could have been cut in half and it would have still expressed its point, but Estrada loves the sound of characters cursing colorfully yet endlessly. He and his co-screenwriter, and the editor haven't apparently gotten yet William Shakespeare's memo that brevity is the soul of wit, and so it is with this film -- long and increasingly witless. Satire requires precise, surgical timing, economy of words and feelings and a coldish heart. None of this is in evidence here. There is a virulent strain of sentimentality coursing through this film's veins that really is unbearable. It's so bad that in scenes where the bum cries you can actually hear they added sniffles in post-production. So cheesy! There is a ridiculous, rather offensive love story, between the bum, played with great panache, and quite some hambone by Damián Alcázar, and a poor woman called Rosita, played by the unfathomably ubiquitous Cecilia Suárez. Now why is this offensive? 1. Because Cecilia Suarez is not believable as an impoverished inhabitant of a slum. She is tall and pretty and white as snow and and her attempts at sounding low class are absurd. I wonder if there are no other Mexican actresses available that don't look like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. She seems like she's trying to channel a silent film actress and the comic character of La Chilindrina, and she is not only insufferable but silly. Why could a poor woman not be anything other than a blathering, innocent imbecile? It is a disgraceful performance and no friend of anybody who is poor. 2. Because the Mexican rich and or middle class (and this includes the filmmakers) still think that the poor speak and behave like comic characters out of a 1940's movie. This may have been the intention, but it backfires, because instead of portraying them with some modicum of dignity, they are just corny stereotypes. Good hearted and innocent, to boot. This is patronizing. And patronizing is what the Mexican elites are and have always been to the poor. This is actually one of the points of the movie so it is rather maddening that this awareness didn't seep through to the way the poor are portrayed. The bum has a collection of bum friends (all great Mexican actors: Jose Carlos Ruiz, the great Jesús Ochoa and the great Silverio Palacios) and they are cool, but the direction as usual is as broad and unsubtle as if they were playing to the rafters in Azteca Stadium. 3. There is a sequence in a hospital which is a completely unnecessary, cheap, pathetic dig at Mexican Jews (which by the way, are like less than 1% of the general population). It's supposed to be a very fancy private hospital, called Sinai, and it seems like all the patients wear yarmulkes just so you don't miss the point that Jews are the only people in Mexico who can afford fancy hospitals, which of course is not true. An attempt at wit is to see signs for the spa and the golf course and the pool in the hospital's lush grounds. My heart froze when I saw this. It is amazing to me that screenwriters Estrada and Sampietro would write something so objectionable, so stereotypical, so inane and so uncalled for. 4. I can imagine what they were trying to achieve with the production design, which oscillates between the shiny modern Mexico and the slums, which are given a sepia, Fellinesque treatment, but even this seems pretentious and half baked. In short, a good idea terribly executed. Lazy and mediocre, written with more stupidity than wit.
Given the track record of Martin McDonagh as an incredibly gifted playwright, I expected In Bruges to be smarter and funnier, particularly smarter. McDonagh does have a way with words, but it seems to have eluded him in this film, which works better as a concept. Maybe it would work better as a play, but as a film it feels half-baked. I see that he is referencing Waiting for Godot and he's playing with his usual mashup of violence and humor, and he is paying homage to old, masterful movies like Touch of Evil and Vertigo, but the whole thing feels really forced and rather soulless. I am willing to suspend my disbelief and swallow that the wonderful Brendan Gleeson and the incredibly uneven Colin Farrell are hit men on holiday, but why? They really seem to be the nicest chaps, with no edge of meanness. Lovable thugs who work for a fastidious thug, played rather maniacally, by Ralph Fiennes, whose performance over the phone is actually funnier than when he actually shows up. It is nice to see him in a comic role and sporting a perfect thuggish accent, but he is not believable either. And the actors are saddled with stupid lines, which is really surprising coming from Mr. McDonagh. Gleeson is divine as a hit-man perfectly content to spend some downtime sightseeing. He revels in the calm. I love Brendan Gleeson and if there is a reason to see this movie, he is it. Farrell is all over the place, and trying really hard to be funny, which may not be entirely his fault. He is best when he feels guilty and dissolves into tears, but otherwise he mugs for the camera like there is no tomorrow. Jeremie Renier, who has starred in the distinguished films of the Dardenne brothers, L'Infant and La Promesse, has a bit part here. This always bothers me, that when the big foreign production comes to town, the best actors in that country end up playing stupid bit parts. Such is the pecking order. There is a subplot involving a racist dwarf, and fat Americans, so you know the movie is aiming low. Some American critics have vociferously objected to the violence, which is really beyond me, considering Hollywood is still churning out violent porn like Rambo. The violence is over the top in concept, as Farrell kills human beings that are taboo to kill. And this may be the point of the movie, that the principles of criminals are bogus, and killing anybody is wrong, period. But it's a point we expected Martin McDonagh to make with his accustomed panache, not all dumbed down.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Superbad is an unlikely love story between two mega nerds, Evan and Seth, played by the fantastic Michael Cera, who is a young master of the excruciatingly gentle deadpan, and by Jonah Hill; physically, the only true heir to the great Zero Mostel, and in this movie an unbridled monster of male teenage need. The filth that comes from this young man's mind, let alone his lips, is heart-stopping. I'm all for freedom of expression and particularly freedom of sexual expression, and freedom in comedy, where nothing is sacred, and long live Lenny Bruce and all that, but the obscenity in this movie becomes a bit tiresome after a while. There are the seeds of subversion in this extremely explicit, and sometimes funny, talk of sex, but how effective can subversion be if it becomes monotonous? I wonder whether Superbad does in fact reflect the culture or is it just that the writers have dirty minds? Are kids today so truly influenced by porn and so obsessed with sex? Or is Superbad setting the pace? Still, even though I confess that I found the relentless barrage of vulgarity a bit off-putting, I welcome that a mainstream hit movie will make all those Bible thumpers call for the apocalypse. The obscenity is a slap in the face to the hypocritical virtuousness of an immoral God-fearing president, and as such, bring it on! What Superbad makes clear is that the culture in America is permissive in everything but in deed. For a teenager, it is faux liberty. Porn is abundant, but real sex is not. Booze is abundant, but it can't be had if you are a teen, (and still they do get sloshed); adulthood is thrown right in front of your face, and it is a scary thing. Superbad explores the dark side of the nerd's angst, and by God, this is the angsiest trip since Gregor Samsa turned into a roach. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote this script when they were teenagers, and it shows, even though it has been massaged into something more substantial. The movie is great and most funny at exploring the tribulations of the teen mind. In the surprisingly tender coupling of Seth and Evan you have the division between civilization and barbarity. Evan, the one with the moral conscience, is a sweet bumbling loser with genuine decency. There is quite a disturbing scene of a sloshed young girl being extremely sexually aggressive with him. The moment of truth has arrived, and Evan is mortified and terrified, not only because of the act itself but because of the moral implications of taking advantage. The lust and fear verging on panic of women is a constant in Apatow's male buddy comedy as is his insistence that real sex and intimacy make men very afraid. Seth, on the other hand, is a monster of selfishness and his hysteria is palpable, as is his hurt at being abandoned by his friend. The best parts of the movie are when you see these two in action, whether they are parsing the mysteries of sex as if they were Talmudic scholars and particularly when they have a spat. They have a true relationship, a dependency that staves off loneliness and fear, and Hill is wonderful when he is wounded. Most reviews I read talked about the sweetness of the movie, so I was rather taken aback by its depiction of bully behavior, which is a constant in teenage life, and in this movie, practiced by adults as well, since in the Apatow universe (and therefore possibly in America) no man is ever really a mature adult. The more puerile parts, like a too long subplot involving two irresponsible, childish cops and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the biggest nerd ever to hit a movie screen, are intermittently funny but they distract from the meatier conceit of male bonding in the time of hysteria. I love that this motley bunch of Jews, white nerds in a totally white universe, sway and jive, or try their best, like superbad black guys. That's another subtle dig at a culture that is desperately in need of macho cred. Apparently, nowadays only ghetto talk provides that and the actors and writers know there is nothing funnier than a white nerd trying to pass off for a badass mofo. The funky music score, by the way, is excellent. The movie redeems itself by ending like a love story, with a tender (platonic) love scene between the two friends, who go on to face their respective rites of passage on their own, lost in a mall, as befits the new romantic comedy in America.
Who doesn't love British trashy movies? They are the best kind of
trash. Literate gossipy trash, enacted for our enjoyment by gifted
actors with plummy accents. Like Damage, remember that one with Jeremy
Irons and Juliette Binoche and the amazing Miranda Richardson? Or The
Mother, with a buck naked Daniel Craig? Or even Prick up your Ears,
with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. There is something utterly
delightful at seeing the Brits lose their emotional marbles in lurid
little stories. I love it. Hence, Notes on a Scandal is a highbrow
guilty pleasure, based on a novel by Zoe Heller, with a witty
screenplay by Patrick Marber (of Closer fame) and well directed by
Richard Eyre. It doesn't quite work for a number of reasons, which I
will go into later, but the reason to see it is for Cate Blanchett, who
will be Judi Dench when she grows up, and Judi Dench herself, who is
our age's Sarah Bernhardt. And then there is Bill Nighy, whom we adore.
I know we are all tired of Dame Judi getting nominated every year. We
are tired of the Judi Dench drill. I am even more tired of the Clint
Eastwood drill, because Dame Judi is talented, whereas El Clinto is
unjustly overrated. However, this is one performance of La Dench that
truly deserves a nomination. I'm still rooting for Helen Mirren (Judi
would have been equally as splendid as Elizabeth II, if she weren't
tired of playing every single Queen of England in every movie, always).
Anyway, her level of actorly proficiency is truly frightening. She is
also quite fearless. She uses her scariness and and her fearlessness to
chilling effect as Barbara, an embittered spinster teacher in a bad
public school in London. You take one look at Barbara, with her greasy
bad perm and her pursed lips and you know bile courses through her
veins. It certainly oozes from her mouth and her innermost thoughts.
What a delight to listen to such articulate nastiness! One of the
problems I have with the movie is that it gives away her badness from
the very beginning, which makes it hard to believe that Blanchett, who
becomes her victim, would be so naive as not to notice that this woman
is a dangerous harpy. However, one forgives a lot because the dialogue
is deliciously sardonic, and extremely literate, and since a lot of it
is rendered by Dame Judi in a voice-over, you just let yourself listen
to the way she inveighs a word like "invent" (as in "he did not invent
it") with what would amount to polonium-210 in the physical world.
There are a couple of willful-suspension-of-disbelief moments in this
movie which almost ruined it for me. However, as we live mired in
Hollywoodland where characters are usually one-dimensional, and female
characters are virtually non-existent, it was refreshing to see two
complicated characters that were not easily explained. Barbara, as all
good sociopaths, has a vulnerable side. Like the Lieutenant of
Inishmore, she loves her cats more than her people, yet her loneliness
makes her vulnerable to love. Her scariness is a hoot, her intelligence
is amazing, but her quiet moments of devotion are why Dame Judi kicks
major, incredible butt. La Blanchett, meanwhile, shows her very
considerable chops by not even attempting to outperform her colleague,
and she turns in a careful, utterly believable and realistic portrayal
of a conflicted, bored woman, a woman sheltered by a life of privilege.
Because, you must know that this being a British movie, it is about
class. And class is what the Brits do superduper-well. So while the
contrivances of the movie take it a bit into the realm of "I'm not
quite buying this", the artistry and truthfulness of the performances
keep it firmly anchored in reality. Plus, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Note on Phillip Glass scores: every movie nowadays seems to have one. They all seem to sound the same. It is getting to be almost self-parodic. The score for this movie is gorgeous and it works (the critics disagree with me on this one), but it is distracting, because it is so Phillip Glassiesque.
Alfonso Cuarón has many virtues as a director and they are all in evidence in this powerful, spectacular movie. My favorite virtue of his, which was much in evidence in the great Y tu mamá también, is his ability to weave many different moods and tones into a coherent emotional whole. Just as in Y tu mamá también he achieved a lovely melancholy undertone to the picaresque adventures of the two main characters, here he melds an urgent, moving emotional core to what is essentially an action movie. Or perhaps it's the other way around. His refreshing lack of sentimentality is what makes this possible: his movies are emotionally complex. Cuarón seems allergic to melodrama and to sentimentality, and I hope he is never cured. That is what I love about his films, the playfulness and sense of humor, the complexity, not of storytelling but of human emotion, the truthfulness of feeling. A couple of small details, like angelic choral music in a redemptive scene or the name of a ship at the end are as much as he is willing to concede to sentimentality; not much, considering that the fate of mankind is at stake. Children of Men is an apocalyptic movie about a future that is too close to home. It is apocalyptic, yet not futuristic. That is, the immediate future looks less like the Jetsons and more like a nightmare out of Hyeronimus Bosch. It takes place in 2027, which is just around the corner, and it's not a happy sight. In this world torn apart by conflict and self-destruction, the discourse that we hear today from the likes of Bush and Donald Rumsfeld has come to pass. Illegal immigrants are put in cages and deported, they are sent to detention camps closely reminiscent of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the environment is almost all toxic waste. The premise that the entire world suffers from collective infertility doesn't seem at all far-fetched. What makes the movie harrowing is how close we are to being in such a state. It's almost as if the filmmakers are saying "wipe the self-satisfied grin off your face and don't get too comfortable, for we are already there". This is a movie where there is no detachment. The camera follows the hero like a shadow and it feels as if you are there with him, right next to the explosions, shockingly close to the violence, with the point of view of the naked eye, not of the language of the camera. Yet amidst the incredible chase scenes and the beautifully exploding mayhem, Cuarón and Lubezki are capable of achieving quiet, luminous moments of grace. I was frantically looking in the credits for whoever was responsible for the production design, which, with the entire art department, deserves a standing ovation and an Oscar (imdb says it's Jim Clay and the great Geoffrey Kirkland). I don't think I remember (except for High and Low by Kurosawa) a film that is more crammed with visual information. Because of the wide angles, the frame is full of details, and it takes a few moments to get used to so much coming from the screen. The context is as much in the foreground as the characters. I heard Cuarón say in an interview that this was his and the great cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki's approach in Y tu mamá también and they use it here as well, albeit on a much grander scale. There are not a lot, if any, traditional set ups of close up, medium shot, and reverse takes in Children of Men. The camera is fully engaged in the world around the characters. As you may have already heard, there are several extended shots in this film that are absolutely mindboggling. The piece de resistance is a climactic nine minute (or so) extended tracking shot without a single cut. However, to their credit, Lubezki and Cuarón so immerse you in the dramatic narrative that you barely notice there is a tour de force in progress. It is a thing of breathtaking power and beauty. In Clive Owen (long live his mother, as they say in Spain, praise the Lord for making him, a bona fide movie star with tons of talent), Cuarón has found a perfectly reluctant hero and one of the main reasons why the movie works at an emotional level. Owen plays Theo, a jaded ex-activist, embittered and hurt by the loss of his son and who has grown inured to the horrors around him. I will not give you the entire plot of the movie, as Anthony Lane did in his review, because you must see for yourself. But Owen gives a sharp, moving performance of a despondent human being who is slowly wakened from his apathy by having to perform a heroic deed almost against his will. As the world collapses around him, what Theo has that many others don't is basic human decency. It's as simple as that. It is not grandiloquent outrage or a self-righteous belief in freedom and democracy or none of that crap that gets bandied about by the bad guys nowadays as an excuse for their self-interested mayhem. Theo drinks, he smokes, he winces at the grief of others and he wears his task quite uncomfortably on his sleeve. Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis or any of those simplistic, grandiose fools, he ain't. In the end, what I most admire about Children of Men, besides it's undeniable artistry, and despite some of its commercial inclinations, is its commitment to protest. Cuarón does not shy away from shocking violence, but it is not much different from what you see on CNN any given day: people's limbs torn out by bombs, ethnic strife, a generalized disregard for human life. The movie has a strong, quietly indignant point of view about the state of affairs today, and that is what makes it so relevant, so powerful and so disturbing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an unfortunately generic title for a great war movie. The name in French (it's a French-Algerian-Moroccan co-production) is Indigenes, which translates as "Natives", which would have been a much more apt title. Its five main actors won the best prize for male acting at Cannes this year and with good reason. The movie is also Algeria's official entry to the Oscars, and I hope it gets nominated. It would be great if it won. Indigenes deals with the Arab soldiers that fought for the French army in WWII and were treated with racism, unfairness and contempt by the French, which should not surprise anybody. This film is an excellent war movie that quietly asserts its outrage over the injustices committed to the North African soldiers which were recruited to fight in the name of Vive la France. The movie is a conventional war film, very well done, with great dramatic moments, great suspense and tension, and well rounded wisdom in the observation of humanity. Its greatest virtue is that it wears its outrage with dignity, not bombastic self-righteousness, which can be a common trait of outraged war movies. It reminded me of Kubrick's Paths of Glory and of a fantastic film from Sidney Lumet with Sean Connery called The Hill; both about the cruelty of war, not between enemies, but inside your own ranks. It really is one of the best war movies I've seen and instead of the yearly Clint Eastwood kiss-ass festival, if you are going to see a war movie, this should be it. In Indigenes, the abuses keep coming, slowly, but surely. Many details, some relatively banal, others terribly outrageous, keep piling up as these men slowly realize they are being cynically used and abused by the French military. First there are no tomatoes for the Arabs and the Africans, then there is no leave to see their families, then it's censorship of their letters (if addressed to French white women) then it's no promotions through the ranks, despite outstanding heroism and evident leadership qualities. It slowly dawns on you that they are being used, quite cunningly and ruthlessly, as bait to get at the Nazis. The film raises some very interesting questions, extremely relevant to our day and age. It makes you quietly wonder how could the French fight against the Nazis and be so relentlessly racist themselves. Although it is mentioned once, one thinks of Vichy. And one thinks of France's own unfortunate, brutal misadventures in Algeria. The movie is an indictment, not only of human prejudice (which not only happens from the French to the Arabs, but within the Arabs themselves), but also of the poisonous nature of European colonialism. More importantly, one thinks about the legacy of French colonialism and racism present today in the youths who set fire to their neighborhoods in France because today, as then, they are not truly allowed to participate fully in the egalité and the fraternité that the French are so proud of. After a while, even though they stick it out because they believe they will be rewarded somehow, because their sense of honor is genuine, you just know, painfully, that the North African soldiers are not going to see squat, not even a freaking thank you. Their contribution will not only be completely ignored, but a scandalous postscript at the end of the film confirms that to this day, the French refuse to honor the memory of these soldiers.
Martin Scorsese and his wonderful editor Thelma Schoonmaker, certainly know how to open a film. The degree of visual energy and panache in the first twenty minutes of The Departed is absolutely glorious, beautifully thrilling. I wish I could say the same of the rest of the movie, which, while enormously entertaining, has so many twists and turns, and is so long that after a while one would like to get off the fun ride. It is extremely violent and as happens with all movies that depend on intrincate plots, at a certain point one asks very logical questions of things that are not happening but should. Such as "how is it possible that the Irish mafiosi controlled by a fun, over the top Jack Nicholson haven't figured out by now who the rat is"? The Departed is delightful because everybody in it is a pro: Nicholson goes to town hamming it up, but his relish is contagious and he is wonderful. Matt Damon is extremely fine as a cold, professional, ruthless villain. I'm glad he was cast against type. Di Caprio is quite good as his counterpart, a mole in the mafia. And the rest are adorable pros: my beloved Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and even Mark Wahlberg, trying real hard to come up with the goods and acquitting himself nicely. The Departed touches upon recurrent themes in Scorsese's work: true morality, human hypocrisy, the corruption of the soul, how easy it is for evil to run rampant in this world, how very f***d up is human nature. The movie, as entertaining as it is, has substance, and is the best thing Scorsese has done in years. The one weak link I found was the subplot with the female shrink, played, not too convincingly in my opinion, by Vera Farmiga. She falls in love with both Damon and DiCaprio and to me that's already gilding the lily. Still, if you want to see what a master of movie making can do, run to The Departed and enjoy the mayhem. One big nitpick: too much rock and roll music in every scene.
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