SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
City (Ernie Gehr) [v/s]
What does video add to the urban sensibility of Gehr’s work? In this case, an inverse relationship between color and depth. This work, a series of stationary shots on Market Street, begins with the shocking oranges and greens of mass transit vehicles and the bright clothing of pedestrians. The views are saturated and direct, but over time, they are replaced by deeper and deeper layers of reflection. The relay of images -- panes of glass seen in other, spatially ambiguous panes of glass – produces ghostly transparencies and discrepancies in scale. (The Gehr film City most closely resembles is 1971’s Still.) But mostly the impression is of greenish-gray inaccessibility, life kept apart from us and itself. Whether it was part of the plan or not, certain stores (See’s Candies, Rite Aid) jump out, video somehow making their presence even more aggressive than usual. We watch a man buy candy through a window with a sign in it – OPEN – and as we see white yuppies and Sikhs and Asians and blacks brush past each other, I realized an irony, that capitalism and commerce is what brings people together in this way. Whether we like it or not, the market economy does tend to produce the most “open,” diverse society. This is a rich and moving work, much more so for me since it evocatively depicts a place I love very much, one I am soon to leave.
Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin)
It’s hard for me to believe that anyone would look at this film and see a bad movie. It certainly has its flaws, but there is so much life and exuberance coming through that I can’t understand how it could be simply dismissed. There is some poor acting (Roger Fan in particular), and the whole conception of Virgil’s character is rather shaky. But more than anything, this film is bursting at the seams. It needed to be a full hour longer, so that (for instance), the rapid-fire descent into hardcore criminality could actually progress, as it did in Goodfellas (an obvious inspiration), so that we could actually encounter these kids’ parents (who presumably play some role in their overachievement), so that the Ben / Stephanie pas-de-deux could unfold more meaningfully. In short, this film has to be under two hours in order to function in the marketplace as a teen film, but it has the potential to be so much more. The finale was a muddled mess, which again just points to the structural difficulty to telling this story in the time allotted. Dare we hope for an expansive director’s cut DVD?
Chaos (Coline Serreau, France)
This is an odd one. Utterly unpleasant to watch, yet compelling and ultimately capable of earning my respect, Chaos is several things at once. It plays like a farce, with breakneck speed, well-choreographed implausibilities, and cruel, stylized dialogue designed to reduce its characters to positions in the game plan. But it isn’t remotely funny. The thing stops dead in its tracks for an extended flashback, wherein the central character elaborates a tale of violence and sexual victimization whose unlikely outcome seems to serve as a big fuck-you to Pretty Woman and its ilk. It’s about female empowerment, but also about how a sexist society produces some women who are so disgustingly Machiavellian that their triumph is little cause for celebration. It’s also an Algerian fantasy, a visitation of sweet revenge upon conservative bourgeois France. It’s Teorema but it scrapes its men off like barnacles. It’s Visitor Q in reverse.
The Core (Jon Amiel)
“And what if the core is made of cheese?” Stanley Tucci, channeling Dr. Smith from Lost in Space, poses this challenge to one of the film’s straight men, Bruce Greenwood’s grim flight commander. This sums things up pretty well. The humor in this film operates on two distinct tracks. First the ensemble, playing it like some sort of ridiculous 1950s drive-in flick. (Tucci and Delroy Lindo are the standouts. Were their characters, like, estranged lovers?) But second, and most significantly, the disaster set-pieces (crazy birds and Rome’s-a-poppin’ in particular) are low-budget, OTT howlers. The ending peters out, and periodic stabs at an emotional core are wrongheaded in the extreme. But when it’s on (e.g., Tucci’s last testament), this thing delivers like peach flambée.
The Good Thief (Neil Jordan, U.K. / France / Canada / Ireland)
Style to burn, lovely to look at, and a tour de force for Nolte. I was with it for quite a while. But if Jordan and company can revise Bob le flambeur’s ambivalent ending (bad move), why can’t it update gender relations past 1967? Nutsa Kukhanidze’s Anne gets most of the best lines in the well-written script, but this ultimately doesn’t compensate for her weakness (drugs, one Bob is able to kick like a tough guy), or the way good criminals go soft after they have sex reassignment. These are the problems that compromise what should have been a frivolous pleasure. Also, at this point I think I could happily go the rest of my life never hearing Bono’s voice again.
The Final Flight of the Osiris (Andy Jones) [s]
This is “The Animatrix,” and I guess if I were one of those dweebs who’s been scouring the Web for anything Matrix-related, I would have seen several more of these. Okay. It presents a little dollop of backstory, but mostly it is there to remind us of the basic tenets of Matrixland (“Look, Sentinels!”) since it’s been a long time. The first half (blindfolded fencing / equal opportunity striptease) would have been sexy if, you know, I were one of those dweebs who got a boner from ink and paint.
Glider (Ernie Gehr) [v/m]
Toward the end of this screening, I recalled that Brakhage had allegedly compared video to sand painting. That’s pretty apposite here, since Glider’s curving, elongated tracking shots across the bowl of the camera obscura at Cliff House (SF) turn the Pacific Ocean and the Great Highway into indistinct, striated bands of extreme horizontality. The camera obscura is fixed, so Glider serves as an exploration of a specific place in the world. And while the horizontality of water is slightly distorted, the hazed abstraction of taffy-pulled coastal buildings is by far the most seductive, disorienting visual motif. The piece is somewhat unvaried in tone and rhythm. This may well be the point -- an extended imbibation in a radically altered vision -- but at the time it made the video seem undercomposed and a bit overlong. In retrospect, I think I still feel this way, but I also suspect the piece could benefit from a move in the other direction. An even longer running time might push our engagement with the images past the point of novelty and eventual familiarity, into a hypnotic, enveloping eye control.
Marion Bridge (Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Canada)
As I was watching this, I thought of Loach’s Sweet Sixteen. The two have nothing much in common, except that they both contain moments of incisive characterization and poignant local color, but smother them within heavy-handed narrative convention. After a while, the vibrant grace notes stopped floating to the surface, and the over-articulated sibling histories and precious family-secret structure won the day. Not bad, just undistinguished.
The Last Letter (Frederick Wiseman) [m]
Good to see Wiseman branching out, but there is a stultifying rigidity to this adaptation of a not-very-interesting-looking stage play. Catherine Samie’s performance is as expressive as it can be, given the dramatic limitations of a one-woman show. There is nothing revelatory about the woman’s Nazi-era tale, however true it may be. Wiseman’s turgid staging (close-up on monologuing actress / long shadow out the door) adds little.
Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
Or: I Was Swaggering, But. . . I open myself to plenty of charges by not liking this one – that I’m an elitist, that I loathe accessibility, that I am biased against American Independent Cinema, etc. But mostly, I regret skipping Real Women Have Curves, which couldn’t have been any more hackneyed or manipulative than this. The difference? Perhaps that most of the critics so enchanted with Victor Vargas are men, who identify with his buffoonish braggadocio. This was sitcom material all the way: silly secondary plot with Victor’s sister and Judy’s brother, the broad old-world ethno-Catholicism of the grandmother, the poppy salsa interludes whose disappearance in the final reel denote seriousness, the elision of actual sex (which I guess demonstrates non-prurient “humanism,” contra Larry Clark). Nice new seats at the Act I Theatre, congrats Landmark dudes.
Dreamcatcher (Lawrence Kasdan)
Nice of the Landmark Shattuck manager to bend the rules and give me a refund at the 55-minute mark. So bad it’s good? No. What it is is a script filled with stylized phrases and motifs (e.g., “fuck me Freddy,” “fuckeroo / fuckeree”), all endlessly repeated, as if they were actual literary tropes instead of a grab bag of sub-literate dogshit. Also, on the way home, I saw an abandoned tamale husk on the floor of the BART train. How elastic has the definition of “finger food” gotten these days? Come now.