Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cleaning Up the Mess That Is My Desk

Maybe I should just forget the month of December happened this year. I certainly have seen movies this month, but I might as well have stayed home, given how much writing I got done.

It wasn't all for naught. You can read my Jewish Week reviews of Valkyrie here and my review of Good, which opens today, below.

It was a terrific year for film, despite what many have said to the contrary. I won't post a final ten-best list until the Iras, sometime in March, but a list of some of the movies that impressed me is a long one:

Beaufort (Joseph Cedar)
Tehillim (Rafael Nadjari)
The Witnesses (Andre Techine)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu)
A Secret (Claude Miller)
The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)
Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov; his best film since Russian Ark)
Married Life (Ira Sachs; I seem to be the only person in America who liked this one)
Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo)
Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant)
My Father, My Lord (David Volach)
Warsaw Bridge (Pere Portabella)
Razzle Dazzle (Ken Jacobs)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
"Mother Economy" (Maya Zack)
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
A Christmas Story (Arnaud Desplechin)
The Man From London (Bela Tarr)
Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-Wai)
Return to the Scene of the Crime (Ken Jacobs)
News From Home/News From House (Amos Gitai)
One Day You'll Understand (Amost Gitai)

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When a film is titled Good, it takes all the self-control a critic can muster not to spend most of a review playing with the title. Mind you, Good, the new film by Brazilian director Vicente Amorim, is much too somber a work to lend itself to any sort of playfulness. Given its subject matter, the ease with which a man of good will can be seduced by Fascism – the title is clearly meant ironically – there are not, understandably, a lot of belly-laughs on offer, and the film’s sobriety is at once both its greatest strength and its principal weakness.

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen, looking disturbingly like the young Kirk Douglas) is a professor of literature, who we first encounter in 1937 when he is called to the Reichschancellory, where he is asked, on the strength of a novel he wrote years before, to prepare a paper in defense of euthanizing the “chronically ill and disabled.” Then we are thrown back into 1933, where Halder is juggling his teaching, cooking for his two children, caring for his aging mother and catering to his neurotic wife, a pianist. Back at the university, he is teaching Proust when his department head, apparently Jewish, informs him that the French novelist is now on the banned list. Outside his classroom, Nazi students are burning books. In the meantime, a fetching blonde student, Anne (Jodie Whittaker) is taking a rather unacademic interest in him. Soon he finds himself immersed in an affair, drifting away from wife and slowly making accommodations to the new political force sweeping Germany. Needless to say, his best friend, a Jewish fellow WWI veteran and psychiatrist, Maurice (Jason Isaacs), is less than enthused.

Once the film has made good on the initial connection between Halder’s novel (about which we learn surprisingly little) and his agreement to write the paper, it drops the to-and-fro narrative line, reverting to a straightforward chronology in which we see Halder become increasingly immersed in the Nazi hierarchy, becoming an SS “reserve” officer, then being ordered into the streets on Kristallnacht and finally being sent to the East to report on the “relocation” of the Jews for Adolf Eichmann. His mother finally dies, he divorces his wife and marries Anne, Maurice is swept up in the maelstrom of Kristallnacht and disappears into the concentration camp system.

Screenwriter John Wrathall and Amorim have adapted C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play of the same name by excising all the theatrical elements and giving it a disappointingly conventional narrative structure, then dressing the entire enterprise up in nicely observed period detail. Their mistake lies in the belief that because film is “a more realistic medium” than theater, it has no room for artifice. As a result, the film is stodgy and predictable, a situation that is not helped by the plodding rhythms Amorim imposes on the material.

The one element of stylization they have retained from the original is that Halder hears Mahler being played by the people around him at key moments in the film, a motif whose payoff comes at the end when he follows the music, one last time, only to realize that this time it is coming from a real orchestra, the inmates of the concentration camp he is inspecting. As Mortensen stammers in disbelief, “It’s real,” and the camera dances crazily around the madness of violence, frenzy and chaos that surrounds him, finally halting on a long shot in which Halder is barely discernible, the lone still point in a Brueghelian nightmare panorama. It is one of the few outstanding moments in the film, a directorial coup de theatre of the sort that Good desperately needs more.

But even as a character study, Good makes little sense. Although Mortensen struggles mightily with the material, there is no center to Halder. We don’t know enough about his earlier life to understand why he wrote his novel or why he proves so susceptible to the Nazis’ flattery. Without some sense of the man’s inner life, his slow descent into the criminal enterprise that is the Third Reich registers as completely arbitrary, rather than as the slow slide down the slippery slope that it is intended to be. Consequently, Good fails a profile of the banality of evil, as a drama of the ease with which some people can compromise their morals and as a piece of spectacle. Instead, it becomes merely one more soap opera about the Nazis, the latest in an ever-lengthening line.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

This Time, There's a Reason for the Long Silence

I'm struggling with router/adapter problems that have made it impossible for me to get on-line for almost two weeks. I can get a few hours a day on Margo's computer, but running up and down stairs between our offices, juggling files and so on have made it a damned nuisance to do anything more complicated than checking my e-mail.

However, I have not been totally idle. My piece on Adam Resurrected, including a few brief excerpts from my interview with Paul Schrader, can be found here, and when I get these idiotic computer problems resolved, I'll post a lot more from that interview, as well as several reviews of new films.

And in a few days -- technology permitting -- I'll be expanding the George Robinson Communications empire, adding a blog dedicated entirely to Jewish music.

Rupert Murdoch, giu la testa!!!