Saturday, September 24, 2011


You don’t need to bring any Kleenex to Contagion, but you might want to pack some Purell.

For a story about a brain-liquefying virus that decimates the human race worldwide, Contagion is surprisingly unemotional. As he did in other recent films like The Informant! The Girlfriend Experience, and Che, director Steven Soderbergh films like an alien sent here to create a documentary on the human condition. Even the film’s sickly-beautiful look holds us at arm’s length, its precisely framed, yellow-tinged compositions making most of the environments feel sterile and unwelcoming.

In some ways, the film’s coolness comes as a relief. It’s a pleasure to simply sidestep those persistent disaster movie clichés Airplane! skewered three decades ago: There are no saintly clerics or estranged couples brought together by crisis here, and though there is a pair of young lovers, their separation is played more for dark laughs than for tears. Just a click or two more of empathy might have drawn me in closer to the people in Scott Z. Burns’ script, who are glimpsed in such brief snippets and from such an emotional distance that I never really cared what happened to them.

But it’s impossible not to root for Team Human in movies like this, especially one with such a first-class cast. Soderbergh plays on that instinct with intelligence and bone-dry humor, turning a battle for survival into a morality tale. The pandemic is started by a cheating wife (an alarmingly pallid Gwyneth Paltrow) and cured by a phalanx of noble scientists, including a nurturing and perpetually concerned Kate Winslet; a sly Elliott Gould, his face sagging like a half-melted candle but his wit still sharp; a mostly wasted Marion Cotillard; and a fierce Jennifer Ehle, who steals the stage out from under all the rest as an obsessive-nerd hero.

Paltrow’s Beth may have started the fire, but the real villain is a blogger played by a hammy Jude Law, who’s perpetually photographed by a camera that floats somewhere just under his chin, the better to emphasize a set of jagged prosthetic teeth meant to make him look seedy and unattractive. (Yeah, right.) Profiting off the crisis by peddling misinformation and seeding mistrust of the vaccine our scientist heroes are sweating to produce, Law’s Alan Krumwiede is a proxy for the internet, which is seen here as a 21st-century twist on Newton Minow’s vast wasteland. “Blogging isn’t writing,” Gould tells him, in one of the film’s best lines. “It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

Contagion sometimes seems to be another of the tales our anxious age keeps telling itself about the end of civilization as we know it. It starts in the epitome of pampered civilization, at a bar in a glossy hotel, where the lithe and lovely Beth is rapidly degenerating into a splotchy-skinned, sniveling mess—not to mention, as the probing camera keeps reminding us, a teeming colony of contagion who spreads death every time she picks up a drinking glass or reaches into a bowl of nuts.

From there, we head out into less privileged public places, watching people collapse in planes, on buses, and in hospitals, before retreating into the houses where the panicked survivors hole up, forced to rely on that infernal internet for the human contact they can’t risk getting in person.

Soderbergh and crew do a good job of conveying the claustrophobic comfort of the warrens people create, from the cavernous house where Beth’s widower, Mitch (Matt Damon) retreats with his increasingly resentful teenage daughter to the cramped apartment where Krumwiede hunches in front of his webcam, a great spider weaving its web. But the film’s quick-cutting, episodic approach is less successful at conveying the big picture.

The snapshots we see of panicked crowds making runs on drugstores and grocery stores, two men breaking into the house across the street from Mitch and apparently shooting its owners, and people siphoning gas from cars in a parking lot indicate a total breakdown of civilized society, yet Mitch and his daughter manage to keep going for months in that house. Sure, they’re lonely and antsy, but they seem perfectly comfortable and well fed. Where are they getting food and water, not to mention the money to buy them? Who’s making sure that the electricity and phones are still working?

A more textured sense of that social context, a little more focus on the main characters’ emotions, or both might have turned Contagion into a hauntingly resonant classic. But even without them, it’s an engaging evening’s entertainment—and a creepily effective reminder of why mom was right when she told us to wash our hands.

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

Granito is director Pamela Yates’ attempt to spread the gospel of collective action she learned while making her debut documentary, 1983’s When the Mountains Tremble.

Both films are about the war waged by Guatemala’s government against its own people in the early ‘80s, a ruthless campaign that resulted in the deaths (often by torture) of an estimated 200,000 indigenous Mayans and political activists. The strength of the first flowed from the impressive access Yates got to both sides of the conflict, and from the charisma of gravely eloquent young Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché woman whose personal testimony and historical analysis put the killing in context. Yates bivouacked with guerillas, interviewing shy teenage recruits and their not-much-older commander/comrades. She recorded hundreds of their rural supporters as they emerged into a clearing as if from the mountain itself, filling the field for a few minutes before melting back into the woods. And she gained the trust of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the main officer in charge of the campaign, capturing chilling footage and quotes as she interviewed him or rode shotgun in trucks and helicopters with his soldiers.

Granito begins about a quarter century later, as Yates pores over outtakes from When the Mountains Tremble in search of evidence for Almudena Bernabeu, an international human rights lawyer who is trying to convince a judge in Spain to convict Ríos Montt and other former generals of genocide. (Guatemala refuses to put the general on trial.) Yates works hard to organize her material, structuring it like a detective story (Will Yates find the footage Bernabeu needs in her outtakes? What’s that crucial document someone else just stumbled across? Will they be able to find hard evidence, or will the judge dismiss the case?), personalizing it with a voiceover, and dividing it into three chapters.

The third chapter, Grains of Sand, elaborates on the collective philosophy that is the movie’s real subject. Granito de arena is a saying the guerillas adopted to describe the slow accumulation of effort that gradually brings about change as each individual makes a small but crucial contribution to a communal effort. It’s a humble philosophy, Menchú notes, since everyone is equally important and “there are no heroes.”

It’s also an effective way to keep a broad-based movement going for the years, even generations, that are clearly required if the Guatemalan activists are ever to get the delayed justice they want, as they are pushed back a step for every step they take forward. (A new setback too recent to be mentioned in the film is currently making headlines: Mexican drug cartels have made life so dangerous in parts of rural Guatemala that some people want to vote the military back into office.)

Unfortunately, Yates muddies her own message the first two chapters. This time around, the only inside track she has is with the other educated professionals who are helping to gather evidence, so she gives that group most of the screentime. Besides the director herself, who is often shown noodling with a projector or gazing moodily at the camera, we see a lot of Bernabeu, the Spanish judge, a Guatemalan forensic anthropologist who moved to the Bronx as a boy, and two more New Yorkers: a forensic archivist and a former journalist.

Some of them seem off-puttingly self-involved at times, like when the journalist says she left Guatemala after realizing that the country hadn’t changed despite all the work she’d done there. But the real problem is simply the nature of the medium: People we see and hear more of are bound to feel more important than the people we see not at all or in passing.

Yate’s detective-story scaffolding provides some structure and suspense, but the real drama is in the interviews, either conducted or captured by Yates, of Guatemalans who are working for change. When the president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation matter-of-factly describes the day when 95 people in his small town were massacred, or a young woman whose father was “disappeared” when she was a baby talks about how she dreamed as a child of becoming a butterfly and flying into the dark prisons to find him, tears streaming down her face unheeded, we sense the pain, the strength, and the thirst for justice that motivates them—and, presumably, all their fellow granitos.

Written for The L Magazine

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Help

The Help wants us to feel bad about the mistreatment of black maids in the Jim Crow South while making the white people in the audience feel good about themselves. These two sometimes competing goals make for a bumpy ride that stops considerably short of confronting the dark heart of white privilege.

I wish it were a more historically accurate portrait of racism—and I wonder whether it would be as effective if it were. The feel-good tone I recoil from may be just what has drawn in so many other people, making them comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings about racism online, in long comment threads that have grown up beneath several thoughtful essays over the past month.

The film filters the experiences of African American maids in early-‘60s Jackson, Mississippi, through the pen of Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white writer who collects their testimonials for a book called The Help. Skeeter is an avatar for Kathryn Stockett, the white Southern woman who wrote the novel the movie is based on, and her mediating presence is a problem for The Association of Black Women Historians, which issued a statement saying that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers” and calling it “the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”

That syndrome of using black people’s stories as fodder for a white protagonist’s journey of enlightenment has bothered me enormously in other films mentioned by Matt Zoller Seitz in an impassioned attack on The Help in Salon, but I don’t agree with his conclusion that The Help belongs in their ranks. Basing the pivotal character of Aibileen (Viola Davis) on the black woman who helped raise her, I think Stockett just built on what she knew, focusing on what the maids experienced at work and on the charged relationships they formed there. During their long days in white women’s homes, performing often intimate tasks, the maids form complex relationships with their employers and their children, relationships—like Stockett’s with her family maid’s—that are sometimes infused with real love. True, the movie sometimes veers away from those relationships to focus on the relatively uninteresting problems of the white women. But the black women are not in this story to solve problems for the whites. On the contrary: The white women are there to cause problems for their maids.

In fact, one of the movie’s main weaknesses is that the white women are one-dimensional to the point of stereotype. Even Skeeter never becomes much more than a tomboyish career girl, and the young women in her social set are even more firmly pigeonholed, from queen bee Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) to body image-obsessed ice queen Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly).

Their group dynamics are just as oversimplified, creating the impression that racism in 1960s Mississippi was purely a matter of personal integrity. While Skeeter, the author and audience surrogate, interacts with the maids with an anachronistically respectful humility, the psychopathic Hilly rides herd on Minny (Octavia Spencer), her maid and Aibileen’s best friend, just because she can. Meanwhile, Hilly’s cowed friends all follow her lead, motivated by insecurity and peer pressure.

Sure, there’s talk now and then of the other powerful institutional forces that are keeping Mississippi’s racial divisions in place, including the KKK and the governor himself, but none of that feels as real as the high school clique-like dynamics of the town’s Junior League, or the personal power of the mean girl in charge. And that makes it too easy for white people watching to reassure ourselves that we would have seen the racism that colored everything at the time for what it was as clearly as Skeeter does and resisted it as easily.

What’s more, by setting up a conniving villain as source of the group’s racism, the movie distorts the nature of the insults the maids of the time endured, which no doubt sprang far more often from the thoughtless exercise of white privilege than they did from intentional cruelty.

Misrepresenting the extent to which unquestioned racism underlay every aspect of social relations between blacks and whites in Jackson at the time also undercuts the sense of dread that any maid who dared tell tales out of school about their employers would have felt, which is more spoken of than felt.

But just as you’re starting to slip out of the story, the great Viola Davis reappears and lets us hear the release in the explosive laughter Aibileen lets out with Minny in some white woman’s kitchen. Or she tells Skeeter/us the story of her son’s death, slowly surfacing all the pain she carries with her to present us with a burden that’s almost too much to bear.

Spencer is excellent too, unleashing the ferocious intensity Minny must bury in her interactions with employers in exchanges like her hurried coaching of her oldest daughter as the girl heads to the bus to launch her own soul-bruising career as a maid.

Are moments like these enough to overcome the movie’s many weaknesses? Your answer will depend on how you feel about “the eternal question faced by minority groups who have to fight for space onscreen,” as Dana Stevens put it on Slate: “Do we count ourselves glad to make any inroads we can, or do we demand rich, nuanced, subtle representations right from the start?”

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pianist

Tonight, MoMA kicks off a comprehensive Roman Polanski series, running through the end of the month, with The Pianist. Oddly for a retrospective of this magnitude, the filmmaker himself won't be on hand for the opening night screening, but star Adrien Brody will be there to introduce.

Much as I hate edicts about what kind of art people should and shouldn’t make, I’m sometimes tempted to go along with Claude Lanzmann’s that no one should make fiction films about the Holocaust. Especially in a world where Holocaust deniers are looking for any excuse to say the whole thing was faked, it seems irresponsible to falsify any facts about it, or to try to make its savage lessons go down easy by breaking them into easily digestible bits. As Alain Resnais argued so ferociously and prophetically in Night and Fog, unless we look squarely at what the Nazis did, acknowledging the human impulses within us all that allowed the German people and the Nazis’ many collaborators in other countries to help perpetuate Hitler’s Final Solution, we’re doomed to repeat that hellish slice of history—or something very much like it, as we already have in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, among other places.

But the line separating good and bad Holocaust films is not drawn between fiction films and documentaries. Rather, it separates films that help us understand something about that massive crime against the very concept of humanity from films that cheapen their subject, usually by using it as the backdrop for some photogenic protagonist’s tale of suffering and survival—or, worse yet, spiritual growth.

By that standard, The Pianist is one of the best Holocaust movies ever made. Director Roman Polanski grew up in Poland during WWII, where he was on his own for much of his childhood after his mother was killed by the Nazis and his father was sent to a concentration camp. After becoming a director, he looked for years for a Holocaust story to film. Then he found a memoir published by Wladyslaw (“Wladeck”) Szpilman in 1946, which went out of print soon thereafter. Polanski gravitated toward the book, he says in a DVD commentary, because it was “extremely accurate, and that’s because it was written immediately after the war,” while the author’s memories were still fresh.

This is not only one of the best Holocaust movies ever made but probably the film Polanski was born to make. The closest he’s ever come to making an autobiographical movie, it combines the best of his other best work, including the slowly accumulating sense of menace of Knife in the Water and the breathlessly casual cruelty of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, whose protagonists are also fighting for their lives in opaque power structures presided over by ruthless psychopaths.

If there were an antonym for sentimentality—a word that describes a compassionate but clear-eyed view of the human condition as devoid of mawkishness as it is of cynicism—The Pianist could be its dictionary illustration. When the movie opens, it’s 1939 in Warsaw, and the city is literally exploding outside the sound booth where Szpilman (an admirably reined-in Adrien Brody) is playing Chopin for a radio broadcast. Wladeck and his fellow Jews are about to be systematically stripped of all their rights and possessions, stigmatized, corralled like so much livestock into an increasingly filthy and overcrowded ghetto, and ultimately killed by the millions. Yet Wladeck has a sense of himself, and a sensitivity to the humanity around him, that not even six years in Nazi-occupied Warsaw can extinguish.

Polanski’s determination to be faithful to the book extended to the pianist’s empathetic attitude, which colors the story. That allows The Pianist to document a steadily escalating parade of horrors without resorting to nihilism, adolescent revenge fantasies or sentimentality.

The film also steers clear of the simple-minded, good-guy Allies vs. bad-guy Nazis dichotomy that characterized nearly every movie made about the Holocaust between the war and the turn of this century, a period during which filmmakers and audiences were presumably far enough from the war not to remember it with Szpilman’s accuracy yet close enough to need to comfort of self-flattering assurances. (I mean, good people like us would never go along with anything like that, right?)

There’s no need for fictionalization in this gripping story, which also includes the Warsaw ghetto uprising and Szpilman’s eleventh-hour discovery by a Nazi officer who becomes his unlikely champion. Rather than sell the drama or pathos, Polanski and team go for a painstakingly detailed, consistently underplayed sense of realism, recreating the ghetto’s crowded streets and peopling them with a vivid collection of lost souls, including a woman driven crazy by grief and a starving man who wrestles an elderly woman for her gruel.

Some of the most “cinematic” scenes in the film, like the woman who meekly asks a Nazi where he is about to take her and is answered by a bullet in the forehead, are taken from Polanski’s life rather than Szpilman’s, but they all happened to one of the two and made enough of an impression to be remembered years later. That may help account for how many scenes from The Pianist are burned into my brain, like the sight of a woman shot in the street as she runs, who drops to her knees and then folds forward onto herself, as if she were suddenly sleepy. Or the little square of caramel Szpilman’s father buys with the family’s last coins as they await their final deportation, carefully dividing it up into equal bits so they all get a precious piece.

Meanwhile, we see so many Jews killed in so many ways that we start to understand the inexorable yet random nature of the violence—and the numb silence with which the starving survivors eventually face the sight of another dead or dying comrade.

No movie could ever make us fully understand what they went through, of course. But this one, like the frosted windowpane in one of Szpilman’s hideouts with a hole he peers through, gives us a vivid if limited view of a terrifying world—a place we may need to study for all the clues we can get.

Written for The L Magazine

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Happy Anniversary, NJFF

Crazy Beats Strong Every Time is a powerful 24-minute, black-and-white short about the dilemma faced by Markees (Dante E. Clark, pictured), a young African-American man who finds his estranged African stepfather passed out on the doorstep when he comes home one night with friends. It’s also the second short film by Moon Molson, whose Pop Foul made such a strong impression on me at the 2007 South by Southwest film festival that I recognized his name in the credits of this one even though I hadn’t read anything about him or seen anything by him in more than four years.

In both films, Molson plants us at the intersection of poverty and inchoate machismo in an American city and then watches closely as his frustrated characters get sidetracked by the threat—or, worse, the reality—of a life-threatening beatdown or gun battle. Crazy Beats Strong never leaves any doubt as to what Markees is feeling, yet it creates an unsettling sense of uncertainty. As in certain charged moments in real life, we feel as if anything could happen at any time, creating a tension that pulls us deep inside the story. The acting, cinematography, sound, and other technical elements are also impressively assured and nuanced, especially considering that they're being overseen by a relatively inexperienced director.

You can’t see Crazy Beats Strong Every Time in a theater or on DVD, but you can catch it on September 9, when it opens the fall 2011 New Jersey Film Festival with Molson (one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2007) in attendance. This is the festival’s 30th anniversary, making it the state's largest and longest running non-profit film program as well as one of the first film festivals to run nearly continuous programming year-round, according to founder and executive director/curator Albert G. Nigrin.

Nigrin started screening films on the Rutgers campus as a graduate student. Enamored of movies in general and the French New Wave in particular, he was frustrated by the lack of local alternatives to the big Hollywood movies on the big screen. “The Garden and the Montgomery had just one screen each then, and there was the Brooks in Bound Brook, and that was it,” he says.

Using $300 of his own money, Nigrin launched a free film series in “a smelly classroom,” equipped with uncomfortable plastic chairs and without a proper screen. The next semester, the school gave him a small budget and he created the Rutgers Film Co-Op, bought a screen and projector, and moved to the more hospitable graduate student lounge.

At first, he showed just old classics like Man Ray movies, Man with a Movie Camera, and Metropolis, but he soon started mixing in first run movies that weren’t going to make it into an area theater. After VHS, DVD, the Internet, and cable movie channels started making it much easier to see old movies, he changed the focus once more. He still shows a few hard-to-find classics, like Dreams That Money Can Buy, a personal favorite that he screens at the beginning of every season. But mostly, he shows small independent films, many of them experimental and many of them short, that have never been shown in a commercial theater and probably never will be.

Nigrin calls his series a film festival because filmmakers so often attend the screenings and because the offerings are submitted by filmmakers and chosen by judges. The committee picks 30 to 40 films to show out of the several hundred submitted each year.

One of the best in this year’s lineup is Sandman, a surrealistic subtitled German feature about an arrogant stamp store employee who slowly rediscovers his humanity, with the help of a waitress in the restaurant downstairs. Mixing tones in a movie can be tricky, but Sandman pulls it off, balancing gracefully in an absurdist sweet spot somewhere between humor and pathos.

More uneven but ultimately fascinating is In God We Teach, a homegrown documentary about the battle over teaching religion in class that played out recently in Kearny High School. The conflict started when 10-grader Matthew LaClair made an audiotape of one of his teachers, David Paszkiewicz, proseletyzing about Christianity in history class. LaClair took the tape to the school board, asking it to put an end to a practice that he knew was illegal (LaClair’s father is a lawyer) and believed was inappropriate and coercive. Instead, most of the members of the board turned against LaClair and his parents. So did his fellow students and the town as a whole, ostracizing and demonizing him and even issuing death threats.

LaClair makes a surprisingly unflappable and articulate spokesman for his cause, his poise trumping the acne and braces he sports at the start of the film. Helping make his case are powerhouses like Alan Dershowitz, Barry Lynn of Americans United, and Anderson Cooper, who covered the situation on his CNN news show.

Paszkiewicz, who had chosen not to speak about the charges before the movie was made, preferring to “let the community speak for me,” offers the camera his side of the story as well. Good-looking and soft-spoken, he seems reasonable and likeable too, so at first, as Paszkiewicz denies having said what LaClair keeps saying he said, this looks like a he said/he said standoff. Then the camera catches the teacher in action, talking at his church about his obligation to evangelize wherever he goes and leading the kids in the school’s Christian Club by the nose in a faux Socratic-method discussion,.

Clearly, Paszkiewicz is using his classroom as a pulpit, and he’s clearly convinced that he’s right to do so, even if it violates the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. “I don’t believe that my religious beliefs trump the constitution, but I do believe the word of God does,” he says.

This is, of course, a widespread view in the United States these days, and In God We Teach debunks it with the speed and precision of a sushi chef assembling a tuna roll, cutting between Dershowitz and Lynn as they explain what we mean when we talk about academic freedom and the separation of church and state, and why the founding fathers thought they were needed.

On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the World Trade Center towers, the festival will show a pair of documentaries about the aftermath of that horrific day. New York Says Thank You documents a program of the same name, in which New Yorkers grateful for all the volunteer help the city got in the aftermath of 9/11 take time off every year in September to help victims of other U.S. disasters (mostly tornadoes), joined each year by people from the places they went to in previous years. Too many of the same points are made too many times, and there’s too much talk about how paying it forward this way is “what America is about,” as if nobody in other countries helps neighbors in need. But some of the stories survivors tell of the disasters they lived through are inspiring, as is the generosity and grace with which they respond to adversity.

So are the projects we learn about in From the Ground Up, all created by 9/11 widows, which include helping orphans and funding group homes for autistic children. After getting over the shock and initial paralyzing grief of losing their husbands, these women set out to serve their communities. Their achievements may be remarkable, but they treat what they do with a lack of self-importance that is just as impressive. As one of them says, the best way to honor the dead is not by devoting your life to mourning them; it’s by doing good works in their name.

Molson’s is not the only interesting short on the schedule. Enter the Beard uses blaxploitation-style music and a charmingly goofy lead character to explore the oddball world of the 2009 World Beard and Mustache Championship. It may end with flags and fireworks too, but it does it in an un-self-serious way that’s a refreshing contrast to the jingoism the 9/11 films occasionally lapse into.

Other strong shorts include The Confession, a touching tribute to the kind, beautiful women who soften and brighten a sensitive young Latino boy’s life, and Melt, a beautifully shot performance by dancers, choreographed by director Noemie LaFrance, who perch on ledges attached to a cement wall below what looks like an elevated train track.

“There are so many films out there now, with the digital revolution in full swing,” Nigrin says. “Our mission is to try to find a really original film that we think is deserving of an audience.“

Written for TimeOFF