November 2012

Top of This issue Current issue


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Tristana (1970), directed by Luis Bunuel, is not the master's greatest movie: its story is rather realistic and constrained, but as a psychological study of love and hatred, it is powerful. Fernando Rey becomes Catherine Deneuve's guardian. He is a nihilist, she is an innocent. He has sex with her; seduces her doesn't seem like the right word, as she simply cannot say no and does not try. The result: he falls in love and becomes a sensitive, suffering moral individual; she becomes a monster. It is classic Bunuel in the one sense that every scene involves the noise of footsteps, canes, hammers, tapping, and people rushing somewhere. There is a repeated shot of Rey's head serving as the clapper of a huge bell which is the only surreal touch in the movie. Though I wondered about a moment where, if you look closely, you can see that the sugar cubes priests are dipping in their coffee are the size and shape of slices of bread.

We went to the Hamptons and Woodstock film festivals, a week apart, and saw two movies in each. The one we liked best was Refuge (2012), directed by Jessica Goldberg, a very sweet and intelligent story about three difficult children whose parents simply abandon them one day, sending a postcard from a Florida vacation they are never coming back. Of course, they already had other problems, someone says, and that is all the back story we get or need. The oldest daughter steps up to become the parent of the other two, and when the film begins, we see her, exhausted, gamely carrying on because no-one else will, seeking a little solace from a one night stand that becomes something more, as the young man contemplates the idea of acquiring a ready made family. It is sweet but unsentimental, and always, when at a plot cross-roads, makes the unexpected choice.

Putzel (2012), directed by Jason Chaet, is an engaging comedy about a hapless, rather nerdy young man who stands to inherit a smoked fish emporium on the Upper West Side. He has a form of agoraphobia which prevents him from leaving the neighborhood (he is physically unable to cross 59th Street or 116th Street). There is a girl, who, as my wife pointed out, is a bit more of a wish fulfillment than an actual character, and who will liberate him at the end. It is an unforcedly funny movie which is expert in the small choices--a child on a leash passing by in the foreground, a song Putzel's uncle composed thirty years before.

I didn't much care for Between Us (2012), directed by Dan Mirvish, though it was well written and constructed. Two privileged couples bicker and confront each other in two meetings some years apart. Putting aside the inevitable "Virginia Woolf" comparison, I found it fell into the dreary basket of most such films--it is hard to watch upper middle class people experiencing existential angst and feeling sorry for themselves. Also, the deck was stacked: there were two photographers, one who pursued his art into poverty, the other who sold out by taking a job in advertising, At the end the latter is clearly demonstrated to be the superior human being, because he is able to support his wife and child, while the artist can't. The last shot of the movie: a check for $50,000 he has written to pay the artist's debts, lying on a coffee table. Making me think the author of the play it is based on works in advertising, feels sorry for himself but simultaneously thinks he's a hell of a fellow.

Wild in the Streets (2012), directed by Peter Baxter, is a documentary about a crazy English town which still plays an ancient game called "mass football". Three or four thousand people come out once a year for two days and attempt to carry a large leather ball to either of two goals three miles apart. There are no rules except you can't take the ball in a car (but when you find out that the other side has sneaked the ball a mile closer to the goal, there is no ban on putting a few score of your own team members into buses to go retrieve it). It was mildly interesting as a sociological study, the spectacle of people in a failed industrial area (the Nestle's factory closed years ago) deriving meaning via an annual scrimmage. Anybody who ever scored a goal is a celebrity for life. This film actually reminded me of "The Blood of Heroes" (1989), written and directed by David Peoples, about a post-apocalyptic sport, in which a character says the memorable words: "Lord Vile, I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, left the ground behind me wet with brains. There's nothing I wouldn't do to win. But I never hurt anyone for any reason other than sticking a dog's skull on a stake."

The Armada (1952) by Garrett Mattingly is unusually well-written, accessible professional history, not just of the naval assault but of the complex politics of the war between Spain and England, the presence of Henry III of France as a weak ally always threatened by replacement by the more intemperate forces of Catholicism, the spectacle, so interesting from a free speech standpoint, of a situationally weak king forced to tolerate outspokenness. And then, as the naval operation neared, the powers of ideology and self-delusion, and as with all battles, the role of chance in definitive outcomes.

Eisenhower: The White House Years (2012) by Jim Newton, is a thorough but not very discerning look at a President who, through the lens of sixty years, seems very kind and moderate for a Republican, lacking the mean deviousness of his own vice president, Nixon; one who actually cared about people and saw government as a means of helping and relieving them; who was very weak and cautious about civil rights and afraid of offending the South; a powerful proponent of nuclear peace, who declined several opportunities to use the weapons in small conflicts, such as those over Quemoy and Matsu; but whose main legacy of his country seems to have been (a point Newton softens or spins) his endorsement of covert action to overthrow the democratically elected leaders of Iran, Guatemala and the Congo (the Bay of Pigs invasion also began preparation on his watch). In a way, the whole later poisoned history of American secret action in Laos and in Chile, begins with Eisenhower, and follows a through-line to black jails, extraordinary rendition and water-boarding after 9/11.

God's Jury (2012) by Cullen Murphy, is a rambling, overly journalistic history/essay on the Inquisition and the ripples it sends through modern life. Murphy can't really call himself a historian because when he wants to express himself in shorthand: he interviews historians of the Inquisition and tells you what their eyebrows looked like as they answered his questions. But he reveals some things about the historical event I never knew (the history of early Spanish New Mexico is almost entirely drawn from Inquisition documents) while drawing some interesting parallels to Guantanamo and modern surveillance culture.

Chasing Mavericks (2012), directed by Curtis Hansen and Michael Apted, is a saccharine, New Age-y surrogate father-son story posing as a surfer adventure. Actual thrillers in this genre need to give you a big wave every five or ten minutes, but the guru and neophyte spend most of the middle of this movie training for the mystical big wave by paddling paddle-boards very long distances on flat water to acquire strength while talking about the universe. It is the kind of movie in which every-one, including the putative bad guy, turns out to be rather angelic. The strongest thing about it is the idea, which I fervently believe based on personal experience, that family is where you find it, not based on blood but on discovering those people with whom you are completely safe, who will show up for you no matter what. Based on the life of a surfer who drowned at age 22, the movie also, perhaps unwittingly, models as philosophically ideal a dangerous life-style and even communicates that living only 22 years is fine if you live fully.

I loved the novel and was worried that the film Cloud Atlas (2012), directed by the Wachovski siblings and Tom Tykwer, would be a travesty. It isn't; in moments it fulfills the book gloriously, as in the farcical "ordeal of Cavendish" section. It is always visually striking and fast-moving, and the performances are adequate to fine. The spectacle of a movie which spans history from the 1800's to the very distant future is novel (its as if the Wachovskis made a Terrence Malick movie in "Matrix" style). The saddest thing to say about it is in places it changes David Mitchell's endings; I think Son Mi found out her entire life and rebellion were staged by the rulers in the novel, but here she is an authentically free and Christ-like figure. The we-all-escaped-to-another-planet-and-had lots-of-adorable- children ending of the last narrative is also rather unbelievable and flat (where could a colony sit which could see a normal size quarter moon but a star-sized earth?) Mitchell said we are doomed, trapped in chaos, but have love and art; but this movie claims that A Better Future Yet Awaits.