Skip to content


August 26, 2016

I can kind of understand why Guatemala’s offering for this past season’s Best Foreign Language Film didn’t get nominated, despite its quiet beauty and lyrical imagery. Once you check off the requisite holocaust story and three that engage with different aspects of the complicated relationship between the modern west and the Muslim world, there’s only one slot left for gorgeously photographed indigenous Latin American communities, and Embrace of the Serpent nabbed that one. Luckily, Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul — “Volcano”, in English — is getting a small release anyway.

Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) is one of the indigenous Kaqchikel people in Quatemala. She and her family live on a coffee plantation on the side of a volcano, little more than indentured servants “allowed” to live in their houses on the plantation’s land. Her parents (María Telón and Manuel Manuel Antún) are arranging a marriage to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), who works closely with the plantation boss, going along with him on business trips to the big city and everything. But Maria seems less than thrilled at the prospect.

Her affections are more for Pepe (Marvin Coroy), one of the laborers on the plantation. Less secure than Ignacio, he fills her head with romance and adventure. As soon as he gets paid for this season’s work, he’s going over the mountain, to the United States — well, passing through Mexico in between — and he’s promised to take Maria with him. And like any young couple in love, they don’t want to wait until they get married before reaping the benefits, with predictable trouble for Maria.

Bustamente weaves this story together with silent, almost documentary-style observations of the daily lives of indigenous Mayan enclaves, both ritual and prosaic. He starts the film with Maria and her mother Juana beseeching the volcano for a happy marriage and life. When she becomes pregnant, Juana has a slew of traditional remedies. And until one of them works, the “magic” of a woman’s pregnancy can have all sorts of beneficial uses in the village.

But it is a slow, calm movie that works in more through observation than explanation. As such, it demands a fair amount of attention, and it’s certain to work better with an audience that’s already attuned to the tribulations of indigenous Guatemalans. I didn’t know at the outset, for example, that Guatemalan medical workers had for decades systematically stolen and put indigenous babies up for adoption. Knowing that would have helped make sense of one sequence in particular, and I’m sure that there’s other things I missed that someone more familiar with the issues facing indigenous Central American peoples.

Even so, despite what I might have missed or misunderstood, Ixcanul has much to offer. This community defies reduction or stereotype in any direction, as all real communities do. They are, for all the ways they differ from us, profoundly similar. Maria has the same hopes and dreams and fears that any young woman might have. Her mother does too, and their responses to their circumstances are anything but simple, the way they might be presented if an American production bothered to present them at all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

A Tale of Love and Darkness

August 26, 2016
A Tale of Love and Darkness

When Bret Easton Ellis wrote American Psycho, he intended to call out the dark underbelly of ’80s American greed. And he did, but there was a certain hypermasculine current he could never quite excise from his writing. When Mary Harron adapted Ellis’ novel into her film, she took the opportunity to lay bare how ridiculous Ellis could be, in a way that Roger Avary wasn’t really able to do with The Rules of Attraction.

I mention this, because I think that Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness represents a similar opportunity for a female director to compensate for the astigmatism a male author wrote into his source, but this time the opportunity has been missed.

To be sure, I don’t at all mean to impugn the talents of Amos Oz as a writer or a memoirist. Indeed, there are moments where Portman manages to touch on the haunting lyricism of his prose. The man is a consummate fabulist and storyteller, and in part the movie touches on how he learned these skills at his mother’s knee. But in writing a memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem during the time that overlapped both the founding of Israel and his mother’s untimely death, Oz necessarily writes from the perspective of that doting child, and the story can feel more like an Oedipal fantasy.

Portman has the chance, both as adapter and as the actress playing this role, to inject a more realistic portrayal of Fania Mussman Klausner as a woman. She forgoes this chance, seemingly out of fidelity to Oz’ writing, and possibly out of the mistaken belief that to correct his perspective as a man would be somehow disrespectful of him as an Israeli or a Jew.

Instead of focusing on the woman that Oz’ memoir points to, the movie focuses on the young Oz, then Amos Klausner (Amir Tessler). We see him learn about words from his struggling academic father, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), and stories from his mother. We see the birth of Israel from his vantage, informed by his mother’s fantasies about a Zionist renaissance man. This pioneer in an ancient land — as at home in the fields as the battlefield, yet also intelligent and sensitive — was a far cry from Arieh’s bookish, wan Lithuanian stock. And despite changing his name and joining a kibbutz, Oz eventually realized he wasn’t cut out to be this Sabra superman either.

But while I can see a young woman cherishing her romantic ideals, I can’t quite accept the idea that she mourned them so tragically in her late thirties that she couldn’t bear to go on. The story Oz tells of his mother’s depression — at least as Portman recounts it — comes off as a simplistic projection of his own doubts and fears. And, by extension, the hopes and fears of the Ashkenazi immigrants about their new endeavor, as seen in retrospect by a man writing it at half a century’s remove.

That part of the story is fine. The foundational history and mythology of the modern state of Israel is one that could stand to be told more often. But when a real woman is turned into a metaphor as a tool for telling this story, there ought to be some push-back that turns her back into a fully-realized person instead of a child’s memory.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Don’t Breathe

August 26, 2016
Don't Breathe

For a movie whose very title calls for silence, Don’t Breathe sure draws a chatty audience. I can’t really lay that at the feet of Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez, though, but I spent most of the tight, 88-minute running time thinking about how the behavior of audiences so often gives the lie to the old saw that the communal movie-watching experience is somehow inherently superior to watching in the privacy and comfort of one’s own home.

As to Don’t Breathe itself, Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have done much better this time around, partly because they’re not trying to put their own fingerprints all over a beloved classic. It’s one of the most efficiently-constructed horror flicks I’ve seen in a long time, with no shot going to waste.

The basic premise is simple enough. Three young people in the present-day ruins of Detroit have taken to robbing houses. Alex (Dylan Minnette) gets access to the files from his father’s security company, which gets backup keys and alarm passcodes to get them in the door. He urges caution and tries to minimize their legal liability, but Money (Daniel Zovatto) wants bigger scores, and Rocky (Jane Levy) wants to make enough to move to California with her daughter.

So when Money turns up a story about a blinded army veteran (Stephen Lang) sitting on six figures in cash in the middle of an otherwise deserted neighborhood, he and Rocky want to go for it. Alex doesn’t like it, but eventually he comes along. An early steadicam shot helps cement the geography of the house, with particular emphasis on some items that will surely come back later: a hammer; a bell; a bolted door; a revolver; the outline on a wall where a cross used to hang.

Of course it’s nowhere near as easy as it seems, and Alex bails. Money’s “chloroform bomb” doesn’t work as planned, and the Blind Man — the only name he ever gets — comes down to investigate the noise. He quickly gets the drop on Money while Rocky hides. Alex comes back to save her, only to get trapped inside as the Blind Man closes off the exits with military efficiency. The two must find a way to escape the house while avoiding a man who, despite his handicap, is still deadlier than either of them.

The Blind Man also makes for a great character in his own right. The money they’re trying to steal was the settlement from when little rich girl killed his daughter in an accident. We get plenty of subtle touches that show how her loss has tortured him, as well as some pretty obvious suggestions about how twisted he has become as a result.

All in all, Don’t Breathe offers a solidly plotted and paced thriller that makes good use of its high-concept premise. But I do want to loop back to the audience’s reactions, and in order to do that I’m going to have to spoil some of the later scenes a bit. So if you want to go in cold, now’s the time to leave.

Everyone gone who want to avoid spoilers? good.

So, the Blind Man does eventually capture Rocky, and he reveals that he wants nothing so much as a child to replace the one that was taken from him. And so he’s going to keep her captive until she gives him one. He prepares a turkey baster, claiming this form of insemination wouldn’t be rape. To be fair, I don’t think Alvarez and Sayagues believe his justifications, and neither did the audience. But as he approached Rocky, there was a wave of laughter and applause; the audience was excited at the idea that they were about to see a woman being violated like this.

It was much the same voyeurism that turned my stomach at Compliance, although less explicitly directed by the movie itself. And while I don’t think that the filmmakers can be held directly responsible for the reactions of their audience, I’m not sure that the break is completely clean either. As Truffaut pointed out, it’s very difficult to portray violence in cinema and not end up glamorizing it to some extent. Even if they hadn’t worked to develop a warped sympathy for the villain, depicting sexual violence like this can’t help but draw an uncritical audience in.

Of course I don’t believe that everyone around me in the dark was laughing and clapping along, but enough of them were that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out who was and was not. And of those who were, I don’t believe all of them would have done the same if it weren’t “just a movie”, and even much less that they would have actively participated, given the opportunity. But I honestly don’t know who would or would not.

Surely the vast majority of the people around me were not the sort of sadists who would assault someone like this. But to join in the voyeuristic excitement does mean participating on some level in that sadism, and provides cover for those few who actually would — or do — carry it out in real life. The idea that I was surrounded by people who would cheer an imminent rape was scarier than any shock on the screen. And I’m not even likely to be the victim of such an assault; if I were a woman seeing this movie with a partner who joined in that wave of applause, I’d start looking for the nearest exit and fast.

Can this reaction be laid at the filmmakers’ feet? maybe not entirely. But Alvarez hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to make the prospect of Rocky’s rape less exciting and more sickening to an audience. Don’t Breathe is, in its way, part of the torture-porn subgenre of horror, and this assault is a climactic moment in the movie. It’s not in his interest to do anything but play into his audience’s prurient excitement. Fair or not, this was a severely off-putting sequence in an otherwise excellently-constructed story.

Worth It: if you can get past the content of that one scene, yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Kubo and the Two Strings

August 19, 2016
Kubo and the Two Strings

Is it even possible for Laika to make a bad movie? The Boxtrolls may have been their weakest offering, and even that was plenty entertaining. Kubo and the Two Strings brings their storytelling back up into the realm of ParaNorman and the Neil Gaiman-inspired Coraline.

Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother on the outskirts of a quiet village. Every day he goes down to tell stories in the square. As he plays his shamisen, his origami papers fold themselves into animated figures of the great samurai Hanzō, and the legendary monsters he fights on his adventures. But his stories are always left without a proper ending, as he must rush back to his mother’s cave before dark. In her moments of lucidity, she tells Kubo that Hanzō was his father, and that they had to hide from the jealousy of her own father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), lest he pluck out Kubo’s other eye.

Of course, one night Kubo does stay out late, and he is spotted by his mother’s two sisters (Rooney Mara). Kubo’s mother comes to his defense, and uses the last of her power to enchant his kimono so it flies him to temporary safety. When he wakes, she is gone, but his monkey statue has come to life as his guide (Charlize Theron). They must seek out a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet that will keep Kubo safe from the Moon King.

Along their way, they meet one of Hanzō’s samurai legion, turned into an amnesiac beetle (Matthew McConaughey). With Monkey as Kubo’s stern guardian, bickering with Beetle as his enthusiastic protector, the three form an odd sort of family as they go on their adventure. And what an adventure! Giant skeletons, lake monsters, and of course the Moon King and his remaining daughters stand in Kubo’s way. Director and Laika CEO Travis Knight’s love of Ray Harryhausen fantasy is evident in every frame.

Kubo shows a clear respect for the Japanese folk-tales it draws from, though it does seem odd to choose an entirely western core vocal cast. The artistic style owes as much to Japanese culture as the story does, and it’s so smoothly executed it’s difficult to remember that this is stop-motion rather than computer-generated animation. Remember, as usual, to stay through the credits to see Laika’s signature stinger: a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the film’s production.

But it’s not just the gorgeous animation that makes Kubo a winner. Kubo stayed out that night because he wanted to talk with his father, the way the rest of the villagers speak with their deceased loved ones. Memories like these are powerful and meaningful things. So are the relations we build within families — even ersatz ones — and communities. It’s why Beetle’s punishment was so cruel, and why Kubo’s mother is so tragic; they are cut off from the same wellspring of meaning that Kubo desperately seeks for himself.

And it’s why Kubo’s avocation is so perfectly chosen: we pass down our memories and our meaning through the stories we tell, modifying and transforming them according to our own talents. Stories are how we tell each other who we are. Kubo, like Knight, tells his by forming and animating lifeless scraps into vivid images, and we are all the better for the telling.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

August 19, 2016
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

On the evening of October 29, 1969, a computer at UCLA logged in to a computer at Stanford. It was a landmark, but not quite the one that Werner Herzog makes it out to be in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, his musing on the Internet, how it affects and changes our modern lives, and how it might do so even more into the future.

This was the first established link of ARPANET, which introduced the idea of packet switching to computer networks. Prior to ARPANET, there were computer links from UCLA to Stanford, MIT, and other academic and military research sites, but there was one dedicated line with a dedicated computer at each end to communicate between each pair that wanted to. This clearly isn’t a scalable solution; packet switching allows messages to transmit across established links so one terminal at each site can handle traffic to many remote sites. You don’t need a separate phone line to call each of your friends; one can contact any of them, with the call routed by their phone number. Now the same was true for computers.

But this is not yet the Internet, largely because of another technical shortcoming. On ARPANET, you still needed to know how to get from one point to another, or at least your computer did. If you’re at Stanford in the middle of 1970 and want to talk to MIT, you need to look up the path in routing tables that tell you Stanford connects to UCLA which connects to the RAND Corporation, which connects to BBN Technologies, which connects to MIT. Or if the BBN links are down, RAND connects to the System Development Corporation, which connects to MIT. And every time the network topology changes, every computer needs to update its knowledge of how to get to every other computer.

The solution didn’t come for another five years, and wasn’t really implemented for almost ten more. The Internet Protocol (IP) routes packets of information somewhat randomly through a network, so each node only needs to know what it can connect to, and what its neighbors are likely to know. It’s like Stanley Milgram’s “Small-world” experiment — yes, that Stanley Milgram — where a letter had to be sent from one person to another through chains of people who knew each other on a first-name basis. Different parts of an Internet message might even be sent along completely different routes; they might arrive jumbled and out of order, so the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is in charge of breaking up messages into packets and reassembling the packets into messages on the other end.

It’s this sort of “social network” of computers communicating through TCP/IP that makes the Internet so robust and flexible. Of course, their deployment on ARPANET in 1983 doesn’t make for as singular and striking a story as the first link from UCLA to Stanford, so I understand why Herzog fudged the details in his telling even though the true story seems more thematically resonant. But it also points to the bigger problem with his technological meditations: he skims each subject with a perspective that’s a mile wide, but an inch deep.

It would be natural to ask why a man who does not own a mobile phone “for cultural reasons” is in the position to analyze our society’s relationship to the Internet. On some level, the answer comes down to our western ambivalence towards technology. We have a real Luddite streak that claims every new development — the Internet, television, radio, novels — to herald the end of some well-established moral order. Then the next generation grows up, sees nothing wrong with the technologies they’ve always known, and turns around to impose the same moralism on their children. And so a man who eschews modern communication technologies in his own life is somehow “purer” than the rest of us, which allows him to be our scold.

Which is not to say that Herzog’s tone is always scolding. For each story that comes off harshly critical, there is another one that uplifts. Herzog shows pranksters coming together over the Internet to torture a family in the wake of their daughter’s death, but he also shows people working together solving scientific puzzles about protein folding by turning it into a massively networked game. He visits a community hiding from electromagnetic fields in the shadow of a radio telescope, but also talks to Elon Musk about how the Internet can maintain communication with a colony on Mars. The firehose of data that can be collected in a massively connected world has chilling implications on our privacy, but it can also be used to train expert systems that help computers do more for us than ever before.

Any one of these dichotomies could, in the hands of a documentarian who really digs into them, make a fascinating and thought-provoking film. Herzog — the man who dragged a steamship over a hill — does not seem interested in muddying his hands here. Referring to his stories as “reveries” seems designed to inoculate him against criticism for their shallowness, and allow him to flit from one to the other, following his momentary interests.

Still, even a minor effort by Werner Herzog is engaging. The film is certainly never boring, and not often preachy. If you’re not steeped in the world of technology and the Internet already, you might even learn a few interesting nuggets you can deploy at your next cocktail party while you wait for Malcolm Gladwell to crank out a new collection of anecdotes. But if you’re waiting for substantive thought and insight about our connected world, you’re going to have to wait to hear from someone willing to join it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

War Dogs

August 19, 2016
War Dogs

A newspaper exposé about a couple of scrappy kids from Miami, eyes starry with visions of the American dream, leaping before they look into a situation that quickly has them in over their heads. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Pain & Gain, but no. This is War Dogs, about an entirely different couple of screwups, as much as Hangover series creator Todd Phillips seems to wish he were directing Michael Bay’s best movie in a decade.

The similarities are impossible to miss, right from the beginning at a moment of crisis. The lead and narrator has been up and felt his position slipping, but we come in just when it gives way entirely. In this case it’s David Packouz (Miles Teller), who went in with his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) as an international arms dealer. We meet him as he gets kidnapped in the middle of Albania and brought before black marketeer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), who thinks Packouz is trying to screw him on a very big deal, which is about to go very sideways. And then we flash back to the beginning.

Was there really a Henry Girard? I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Packouz would hide this man from his testimony when facing charges, and then tell all about him in a memoir. Packouz and Diveroli, at least, are very real, although it seems unlikely that Teller and Hill’s performances reflect their reality. Told entirely in Packouz’ narration, he comes off as as a well-meaning kid who fell in with the bad influence his parents had always warned him about. And even Diveroli comes off as less of a flat-out, manipulative psychopath and more of a bro whose friends tend to take the fall when his lulz go wrong.

I’d say that this sort of first-person narration requires a sympathetic narrator, but that’s not really the case. Bay — God help me, I’m about to praise Michael Bay here — managed to soften Daniel Lugo without losing sight of his fundamental scumbag nature. These guys didn’t stumble into their hubris; they were brought up in ease and privilege, scions of well-off and well-known families. But you wouldn’t know it to hear Phillips tell their story.

And this really is the story they might want to tell about themselves. Even Diveroli; he’s suing Warner Brothers not because he doesn’t like how he’s portrayed as the bigger, more irresponsible screwup between the two, but because he’s not getting the piece of the action he thinks he deserves. That whole “drove through the ‘Triangle of Death'” bit heavily featured in all the ads? never happened, but it does make them look like accidental badasses doesn’t it?

Pain & Gain was fictionalized, but every scene contained a kernel of its bizarrely true story. War Dogs just makes up whatever it thinks the audience would like to hear. But then, that’s pretty much what its own protagonists would do, so maybe it’s fitting.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Hell or High Water

August 12, 2016
Hell or High Water

Some scripts from the Black List, once their newfound fame leads them to production and release, make it apparent why they hadn’t been produced before. With Hell or High Water, I can see why producers might have been leery; who makes a contemporary western and doesn’t use it to deconstruct its own genre anymore? But it’s absolutely solid work on the part of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, outdoing Sicario, whose buzz almost certainly helped clinch the production last May.

Director David Mackenzie sets the film’s tone in graffiti on a wall as the sun rises over a sleepy West Texas town: “two tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us”. If it’s not the wall of the West Midlands Bank branch, it’s nearby. We see two men pull up and get out of a muscle car wearing ski masks as the branch’s first teller opens the door. It’s quickly apparent that these two don’t quite know what they’re doing, but they do it well enough to get away with a few thousand in loose cash from the drawers. Then they repeat the process at another branch a few towns over before they bury their car.

Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has more of a taste for the life of crime. Jumpy and excitable, he’s just a year out from his latest stint in jail. His brother Toby (Chris Pine) has barely a traffic summons on his record, but he thinks he can plan the perfect series of bank heists. Just don’t get too greedy; hit them early when nobody’s around; don’t take anything that might be a dye pack. You can launder the cash at a casino on a reservation up in Oklahoma.

It’s not a big mystery, but the script does take its time unspooling just why these brothers are hitting this particular chain of banks at this particular time. While we wait, it gives Pine a chance for some of his best character work ever, opposite western veteran Foster. Not a moment slips by that Mackenzie doesn’t put to good use in developing these two men, how they pull against each other, and yet are bound together.

Even if it’s not treated like a big mystery for the audience, it’s obviously a mystery for the Texas Rangers. Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) grabs the case as one last gasp of relevance, two weeks before his mandatory retirement, backed up by Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Bridges plays Marcus weathered and craggy, recalling Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men. He manages to pull off a certain laconic charm, even while cycling through hoary stereotypes about Alberto’s native ancestry on his way to separate litany about his Mexican ancestry. Marcus and Alberto mirror Tanner and Toby, giving another pair of men who chafe at each other’s differences even as they need each other.

This all plays out against the backdrop of the Llano Estacado’s plains, dry and tight, but not quite arid. The land is expansive, and Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens allows it to show clearly why the spirit of frontier individualism once flourished here. But as gorgeous and open as it appears — especially in the breathtaking shots of the escarpments at the edge of the mesa — we know that things are different than they were in the days of the classical western.

The land stretches out forever, but it’s been invisibly carved up by the interests of banks, ranches, and corporations exploiting natural resources from oil underground to the wind that passes unobstructed over the plains. In the classical western, frontier settlers would pit their mettle and ingenuity against a harsh landscape to carve out a place of their own. In Hell or High Water, the land has been replaced by corporate landowners, but the same struggle continues.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,164 other followers