Monday, January 30, 2006

"Caché": Guilt, lies, and videotape


directed and written by Michael Haneke
starring Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche

Time is out of joint from the very outset of “Caché”—and nothing that follows is intended to set it right. The film opens with a static shot of an unremarkable apartment building from an unremarkable residential street in Paris. There are few passersby, and no activity of any significance. A man emerges from the building, perhaps on his way to work. After a beat, perhaps, we may notice something slightly peculiar about the angle and vantage point of the shot, and something vaguely disconcerting about its utter stillness. What are we watching, and with whom are we watching it? Voices break the silence—the voices of the watchers? Yes, but not in the ordinary sense. The picture freezes and rewinds. We have been watching a video tape with the film’s protagonists. It is their building, and their movements to and from the building, that constitute the subject of the video.

That neat little trick sets the stage for the rest of “Caché,” and is one of the few instances in which director Michael Haneke actually tips his hand. At almost no other point can we ever be entirely sure whether what we’re seeing is surveillance footage or an action occurring in the movie’s present time. This highly deliberate ambiguity, by which the film keeps the audience perpetually off balance—never quite certain whether they’re positioned with the voyeur or the voyeur-ed—mirrors the shifting sympathies and expectations that attend the characters passing in front of the camera.

For at first we seem to be witnessing a particularly creepy form of stalking and harassment, an act of motiveless, possibly unhinged malice directed at a defenseless family. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), along with their adolescent son Pierrot, are both the subjects and the recipients of the videotapes, which reveal not only that someone is watching them, but that that someone has managed to gain access to their most private spaces and conversations. They also begin to receive drawings of stick figures in postures of bloody violence, crude sketches that are as unsettling as they are childish. Nonetheless, the police do not perceive a sufficiently direct threat to take any real action, and so the Laurents are left to marinate in their own growing fear and paranoia.

So far, so good. But the film begins to drop hints that the Laurents are not quite the innocent victims they seem. The very title of the movie is another tip-off that the source of the tapes is not the only thing, by a long shot, that’s managed to remain hidden from view. (It would have been supremely cheesy, but also fairly appropriate, to give “Caché” the tag line, “Everyone has something to hide.”) Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of melodramatically shady past that a Hollywood movie—or even a Hollywood-parodying movie like David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”—would throw in as its idea of a dark secret. No, the Laurents are very much what they appear to be in terms of class and identity—bookish, culturally literate, comfortably-off and warmly hospitable to their friends, he’s the host of some kind of talk show for the intelligentsia, while she works for a publisher; they seem happy together, and their son comes across as a reasonably well-adjusted, well-behaved kid. Still, there’s more to all of these characters than meets the eye, especially Georges. Georges seems to know—or *thinks* he knows—more about the meaning of the tapes and drawings than he lets on, and proceeds to investigate his suspicions without sharing them with Anne, much to the latter’s frustration (well portrayed by Binoche).

And here is the point at which every reviewer of “Caché” probably feels a little like Georges confronting Anne, reluctant to disclose anything but at the same time guilty about leaving the audience wholly in the dark. All I can say without giving away too much is that some basic knowledge of France’s relations with its former colonies, and immigrants therefrom, is essential to understanding the film’s broader thematic canvas, and that the point of the movie is *not* who is sending the tapes and drawings but what effect they have on their target—and why. “Caché” has the form of a Hitchcockian mystery, but it’s really a psychological study of the insulating mechanisms a privileged class can employ to deny and suppress guilt. In both aspects, I couldn’t help comparing it to the movie I’d seen just a couple of weeks previously, “Match Point,” and in both aspects I have to say Haneke makes Woody Allen look like a rank amateur.

No doubt this has partly to do with the fact that Haneke has mined similar territory in his prior work. I haven’t seen any of his previous films, but he’s apparently made a career out of skewering the complacencies, prejudices, and social accountability (and denials thereof) of the very class of persons most likely to see his movies. (“Match Point,” by contrast, was a pretty blatant fantasy about a culture that was most remarkable for being so completely outside Woody’s zone of familiarity.) As “Caché” progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the guilt of the individual is really a symbolic vehicle for the larger collective, subconscious guilt of an entire class, if not the entire nation of France. Perhaps, as a result, the allegory ends up being a little too much weight for the plot to bear, and many viewers may come away from the film feeling that it is less than fair to the character it seems to condemn most harshly.

Which is not to imply the film is in any way preachy or message-driven. In fact, it arguably works best not as a sociocultural commentary but on a purely technical level as a thriller and perspective-disjointing brain-tease. There is one moment in particular that is guaranteed to deliver a ghastly shock: no matter what you think you know, you won’t see that one coming. One reason it’s so effective is that it is on some level so wildly disproportionate to the actions that precede it. Yet its very senselessness inspires not disbelief but horror, followed by reassessment of the relationship between the people involved. Such a reassessment is unlikely to yield any satisfying resolution, for this is the archetypal “iceberg” story, in that the vast majority of the film’s meaning remains, well, hidden from view. That, however, is the root of its haunting appeal. At once allusive and elusive, maddeningly elliptical yet razor-edged, “Caché” just may be the most intriguing film of 2005.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Golden Globes recap

So I watched the first half or so of the Golden Globes with no sound, since I was at dinner in a restaurant - but I don't think I missed much that way. I could still see the clothes and tell who won what award, which is all that matters, right?

No shockers among the awards - and the only moment of real suspense I can remember was the race for best actor in a drama, where Philip Seymour Hoffman edged out Heath Ledger. I make an early prediction that the reverse will occur at the Oscars, but either way, it will be close.

I was pretty happy with how all the awards went, actually. Everyone I wanted to win, did, although I was rooting for Ledger.

And how did they look? Well turned out, for the most part. Highlights: Eric Bana (yum YUM), Natalie Portman (who looks good with short hair, and by the way, is soooo much classier than Keira Knightley - though Keira looked good, too), Teri Hatcher (if you don't look too closely at her face, which still looks all pulled about), Mary Louise Parker (note to Billy Crudup: yer such a fool), Katherine Heigl (of "Gray's Anatomy"), Jessica Alba, Zhang Ziyi (though I don't know about the chartreuse concoction she was wearing, she managed to pull it off). Viggo Mortensen cleaned up most successfully, as did Terrence Howard. And did I mention Eric Bana?

Mistakes: Drew Barrymore's leprechaun look; Anne Hathaway's scary clown lipstick (and scary makeup generally); Rachel Weisz's Bride of Frankenstein 'do (so glad she won best supp actress, though); Heath Ledger's my-hair-is-falling-out-in-patches cut; Kate Beckinsale's tacky white furry wrap; Virginia Madsen's tap-and-they'll-pop decolletage; the growth on Charlize Theron's dress; Alanis as a blonde; spray-on tans on everyone from Mariah Carey to Eva Longoria.

Other random observations:

I like Cynthia Nixon better with red hair.

Michelle Williams has lost a TON of weight - a little too much, I think. She could stand to gain back a few.

Rosario Dawson has big teeth. As in "all the better to eat you with, my dear" big.

Eva Longoria had a stunning dress, but I just don't think she's all that.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the only Hollywooder who can be very obviously pregnant and still look narrower than other Hollywooders.

And finally, was it just me, or did Anthony Hopkins seem a bit drunk or stoned or something in his DeMille award acceptance speech? At a certain point I thought he was going to thank the plumbers who fix his bathroom pipes.

That's all I can think of for now. Feel free to alert me to anything I've missed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The O.C. Report (abbreviated)

Poor Johnny.

Loved Julie and the pork rinds.

And that's really all I have to say about this yawner of an episode. (Even Sandy's white hat is beginning to show wear and tear.) Hope that Caitlin chick shakes things up a bit when she arrives.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

American sass meets British class in deadly "Match Point"


directed by Woody Allen
starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox, Matthew Goode

I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I don’t care much for “Match Point.” Superficially, at least, it’s a well-made film, sharply cut and refreshingly free of the solipsistic self-indulgence that's plagued Woody Allen’s more recent work. A thriller that doubles as a study of sexual obsession and social class, it gradually tightens its grip on the audience with an almost Hitchcockian flair, and along the way offers some fairly acute observations on the insulating effect of extreme wealth and privilege.

It’s also vaguely misogynistic, soulless, and, in the end, pointless.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know most of the story. “Match Point” recounts the rise of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a tennis pro who, at the movie’s outset, quits touring to take on a gig at an exclusive tennis club in London. Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that Chris aspires to a higher station than that reflected in his tiny flat or his working-class background. So we’re to infer, anyway, from the fact that he reads Dostoyevsky (with a study guide) and listens to opera—whether for self-improvement or for genuine pleasure, it’s less clear, but probably the former. His apparent appreciation for the finer things in life soon gains him the friendship of one of his pupils, a toff by the name of Tom Hewett (an ultra-debonair Matthew Goode), and Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer, looking rather adorably gazelle-like). Chloe takes a fancy to Chris and, to use an old-fashioned phrase, sets her cap at him. Before long, Chris becomes a regular fixture at the Hewetts’ palatial digs, and a rising star in Papa Hewitt (Brian Cox)’s company, all thanks to his role as Chloe’s intended.

But no Paradise would be complete without its forbidden fruit, and Chris finds his in the overripe shape of Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom’s fiancée. Like Chris, Nola is unabashedly on the make; her road to the top, however, seems far less secure. An American actress whose presence in London is never really explained, she has only a commercial or two to her credit, and despite (or perhaps because of) her tremendous sex appeal, she seems much less adept than Chris at winning the good graces of her in-laws-to-be. As a consequence, perhaps, her fortunes start to fall at about the same time Chris’s begin to skyrocket, and she eventually drops out of the Hewett orbit altogether. Nonetheless, before she disappears, and when she ultimately resurfaces, Chris pursues her with an intensity that doesn’t prevent him from meanwhile successfully wooing and marrying the mercifully oblivious Chloe. Whatever you may think of the man’s morals, you have to hand it to him for the dexterity with which he plays his double game; he’d be hell at a poker table. Still, as his fling with Nola balloons into a full-blown affair, it becomes increasingly apparent that the situation is headed for a crisis. He can’t keep juggling it all without dropping something. Or can he? Cue double-twist ending, 3.0 degree difficulty.

Part of the power of “Match Point” derives from its ability to show just how torn its main character is between his attraction to Nola and his equally great attraction to his cushy new lifestyle. And it succeeds, to a point. Johansson vamps a little too hard as the heavy-lidded sexpot, but there’s no denying her allure. And Allen seems almost as in love with the Hewetts’ wealth as Chris is, from the Hewetts’ opera box to the floor-to-ceiling window views of the Thames from Chris and Chloe’s marital apartment. When Chris stands in very real danger of losing it all, we feel his pain.

Or at least, we’re supposed to. I didn’t so much, although Rhys-Meyers is rather good as the upwardly agile Chris. I’ve never been able to decide whether I find him handsome or alien-looking, and this film allows him to be effectively both at once. For Chris is, in a sense, an intruding alien, his watchful poise and careful diction a studied contrast to the easy, relaxed demeanors and impossibly posh inflections of Tom and Chloe. When his near-robotic composure does break down—at sensual moments, yes, but also in the very fine last scene of the movie—it’s surprisingly effective. It would be, anyway, if his motives weren’t the oldest ones in the world: the motives of the cad who wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

Call me a fusty moralist. Perhaps I am; what of it? “Match Point” plays with the idea that to be lucky is more important than to be good, but its final word on that not-exactly-earthshattering concept falls flat in a silly third-act coda involving two police detectives straight out of a second-rate BBC skit. And whether Chris turned out to be sufficiently lucky began to matter less to me than whether Nola would *ever* catch a break, that is, cease to be unlucky.

For there’s little doubt that Chris and Nola are set up to be as much adversaries as lovers, and I would find the movie a bit more interesting if the playing field weren’t so obviously tilted. Actually, it’s not as obvious at the beginning: when they first meet and size each other up, the attraction is immediately palpable, as is the sense that they are opponents in a high-stakes match. Nola, at this stage, seems well equipped to rise to the challenge, though even then there are some heavy-handed signs that Chris already has the advantage over her. (They meet over table tennis, for crying out loud.) But as the movie reaches boiling point, she devolves from coy, knowing siren into stupid, completely undesirable harpy—at least, seen through Chris’s eyes. Sure, we knew she was an unstable alcoholic, and a fool for getting involved with a married man, but for her to turn into a raving wreck feels unconvincing...and so very “Fatal Attraction." I don’t know what it says that the only American character in the story is also the least sympathetically treated. Not that the other women in the film fare much better: both Chloe and her mother come across as pure products of their class, Chloe by turns stifling and conveniently dimwitted, her mother a snob who gets nasty when she’s drunk because, unlike Nola, she can afford to.

With no opponents of comparable mettle, Chris is the only character the audience can really root for—and that’s something I simply couldn’t do. Even then, I suppose I might be more favorably disposed towards “Match Point” if it were original in its subversiveness—but it isn’t. Notwithstanding the high-culture polish and self-conscious counterpoints provided by the operatic interludes and the references to “Crime and Punishment,” the film doesn’t seem to have all that much to say about luck, skill, conventional moral expectations, and the unconscious allure of the leisured class that “The Talented Mr. Ripley” didn’t say better and more incisively. (And with better dialogue: what “Match Point” lacks in Allen’s self-absorption it also lacks in wit, and a distressingly high percentage of the lines—clearly written to advance the plot rather than to elicit a laugh—are real clunkers.) “Match Point” is watchable, no doubt about it. But it isn’t much more than that.


Capsule review:


directed by Lasse Hallström
starring Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin

A thoroughly absurd, wildly overplotted, and unexpectedly delightful soufflé of a movie—worth watching if for no other reason than Heath Ledger’s deft, dashing turn as the legendary lothario, which serves as a perfect counterpoint to his equally remarkable performance as the tormented Ennis del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain.” I think the two films should be featured as a double bill: seen back-to-back, each highlights the impressiveness of his achievement in the other. Indeed, I almost prefer the “Casanova” performance simply because he's clearly having so much fun with the role. The rest of the cast is suitably entertaining, including Jeremy Irons playing a humorless inquisitor in a dreadful orange hairpiece, Omid Djalili deadpanning it as Ledger’s Sancho Panza, Oliver Platt rather painfully sacrificing all semblance of dignity in the name of opera-bouffe style comedy, and, of course, current It-Girl Sienna Miller, who almost lends credibility to the risible chick-lit fantasy that Casanova’s heart could be captured by a frizzy-haired bluestocking whose pen was only slightly mightier than her sword...and no, you freaky Freudians, I mean nothing sinister by that cliché. For, despite some risqué innuendo that makes for some over-the-top hilarity, “Casanova” is at heart a rather sweetly sentimental film—sweeter than Hallström’s bland “Chocolat,” and an essentially innocent, rather than guilty, pleasure. Call me crazy, but I’ll take “Casanova” any day over movies of purportedly greater “substance” that fail to deliver one-quarter of its silly, rollicking fun.


From ratings to grades

I have decided to switch from giving the movies I see star ratings to giving them letter grades. On some level I hate doing this, but it seems less absurd than drawing distinctions based on quarter stars, or even, in some cases, a third of a star. Roughly speaking, the following equivalencies apply:

A = **** (Outstanding)
A- = *** 1/2 (Excellent)
B+ = *** (Good)
B = ** 1/2 (Decent)
B- = ** 1/4 (Some merit, but seriously flawed)
C/C+ = ** (Mediocre)
D = * (Awful)
F = No stars (Unwatchable)

I realize the above isn't exactly to scale, but it reflects the fact that most movies I see are going to fall somewhere in the B range, that is, between 2 and 3 stars. That's just the way it usually works out.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Top Ten Films of 2005

Happy new year! Don't know about the rest of you, but I have to say 2005, while not a bad year for me personally, pretty much sucked nationally and globally. I really can't think of another year in recent history where so many people died senselessly, whether by an act of God or men who like to play God (incompetently).

So perhaps it's only fitting that 2005 should be a banner year for intelligent, politically minded films with something to say---usually indirectly rather than directly, but no less powerfully for that---about the current state of affairs in Africa, the Middle East, and the American media, and, by extension, throughout the world. But even as 2005 films thought global, they also acted local. It seemed like every other indie or quasi-indie film to get any press was about a maladjusted and/or dispersed family in a small community. There were so many of these I didn't see half of them, and still don't have my Chumsuckers and Thumbscrubbers straightened out. However, at their best ("Junebug" being the exemplar, as the film that slowly crept up on me the more time passed), these smaller-scale features depicted such family dynamics with a nuance and sensitivity that rendered them no less memorable or "significant" than the pictures that took a wider canvas.

So here they are - my top ten films of 2005:

1. 2046
Hauntingly beautiful dream of a film about the emptiness of broken hearts and the persistence of memory; nominal sequel and perfect companion piece to director Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love."

So quiet you don't realize its depths until some time after viewing. Lovely, truly understated exploration of the silent connections that draw a family and a community together, and keep the outsider out. Funny and sharp-eyed, yet tender and compassionate rather than satirical, not a bit snarky - unlike so many other movies that tackle similar subject matter.

A whip-smart and despair-inducing study of the forces that perpetuate the world's dependence on oil. Those who yammer about the film being liberal propaganda probably didn't understand it. Well, to be fair, it *is* complicated.

Spare, well-made movie about media courage and integrity in the face of paranoia propaganda masquerading as patriotism. Ring any bells, anyone?

I know I'm an outlier on this one, but for me it really *was* the perfect myth of superhero origins. What stuck with me wasn't the action sequences (which were fairly mediocre) but the atmosphere of moody, broody intensity that surrounded Batman's genesis, and the icy eyes of Cillian Murphy as the best Batman villain in years.

Ineffably poignant tale of love repressed and denied, it's also a stark depiction of the society that helped suffocate it - a society that, alas, still exists today.

Thoughtful and disturbing examination of the cost of prying open a soul to scoop out its story - and the fundamental mystery of human evil.

Taut yet somber story of revenge and its ultimate incompatibility with peace (individual or international); probably the best Hollywood treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we're likely to get in a while.

This Hungarian movie about a ragtag subway crew and the mysterious assailant who terrorizes them is a bit half baked, yet something about it - its subterranean imagery, its vaguely existential and metaphysical vibe, its loopy juxtaposition of angelic and infernal motifs - still lingers with me, long after more fully conceived films have begun to fade.

Peter Jackson's latest labor of love may not require quite as much of the viewer's brain as the other movies on this list, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it is 187 minutes of pure escapist entertainment. Depends a little too heavily on CGI, but uses it twenty times more fluidly and effectively than any other action/adventure film in recent memory. (Ahem! Paging George Lucas!)

Caveat: I have not yet seen "Caché," "Match Point," "The New World," or "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," and I regrettably missed "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Grizzly Man," among many others, earlier this year.

Footnote: Curious how much dirtier "Chumsucker" sounds than "Chumscrubber," or maybe that's just my inner 14-year-old thinking aloud.