SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2004
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)
Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Aside from a couple of expository missteps (the older thief in the café scene; the fate of the delivery boy with the cool sneakers), Panahi's latest is pretty much perfect. The film is both an exacting character study and an incisive depiction of the insignificant slights and oblivious wounds to fragile pride that are the real stuff of day-to-day class conflict. Hussein Emadeddin is the best non-professional performer to grace movie screens since L'humanite's Emmanuel Schotté. Like Schotté', Emadeddin is a mostly reactive, inward figure whose blank indignation at the world around him registers for us, makes us viewers equally over-sensitive to banal daily insult and the soul-grinding accumulation of subtle signals that others send us, to remind us that we don't really belong in the world the way we think we should, that we are over-reaching or gazing well beyond our assigned station. The film has a precise visual style, capturing urban Tehran as an example of that postmodern anomaly, the "glittering shithole." (Cf. Tsai Ming-liang's Taipei, or Martín Rejtman's Buenos Aries.) Amidst dingy storefronts and office buildings and miles of asphalt, bright colors pierce the field of vision -- a blue awning at a restaurant, or the sea-green trim along the bottom of the freeway. Panahi's images are crisp, sturdy, and carefully lit, but never ostentatious, providing the perfect stylistic bedrock for the film's examination of the little events that happen in the interstices of conventional "realism." While any of Crimson Gold's brilliantly observed set-pieces illustrate this principle beautifully, none is as heartrending or well-orchestrated as the night-time party raid. In addition to giving us a look at an outrageous police action that, in remaining unexplained for uninformed Western viewers, takes on an almost Buñuelian quality, Panahi demonstrates the interwoven threads of authority and submission, class resentment and mutual incomprehension, throwing it all into relief by adding Hussein into the mix. His gesture of distributing the pizzas indiscriminately among the assembled (the cops, their prisoners, concerned parents) not only shows him making the best of a stupid situation (a petty martinet of a squad captain interfering with his ability to perform his crappy job), but adopting the only available position of relative power, the power to give. (At that moment, Hussein becomes the Pizza Man in an almost Sartrean way, moving through the crowd offering succor, because it's the only way to maintain his dignity.) While nothing else in Crimson Gold quite equals the magnificence of this sequence, the entire film is subtle and exacting, conveying Panahi's outrage at a society more concerned with adherence to picayune codes of religious decorum than Tehran's blatant stratification and lack of concern for its veterans. It's a message that speaks loudly to the U.S. situation, and fortunately Crimson Gold itself is allowed to enter our borders, even if Panahi himself is not. The Bush administration hasn't yet started demanding that "enemy films" submit to fingerprinting at Customs.
-Ali G Indahouse (Mark Mylod, U.K.)
This film is incredibly stupid. But it also happens to be funny as fuck. Basically this is the same film as Chris Rock's Head of State (here, Ali the straight-talking but dubiously qualified homeboy becomes an MP), but this film replaces Rock's attempts at commentary and racial-uplift discourse with jokes about poop and gay sex. The jokes do not go where you expect them to, and this one-note premise surprisingly provides 87 minutes of mileage. But I am still a little ashamed. Filmically this is garbage, but I laughed my ass off. Recommended, but you didnít hear it from me . . .
-Journey Into the Unknown (Kerry Laitala) [s]
This is a 2002 film that I caught up with on the new Other Cinema DVD Experiments in Terror, a group of short films loosely related to horror themes. I've seen about five of Laitala's films, and they're all distinguished by her seemingly effortless knack for generating lovely images. But for me, they remain very vaguely in mind afterward, as a set of hovering impressions that evaporate as the lights come up. Given her titles and ghostly themes, this seems to be very much by design. Journey Into the Unknown is actually a bit more concrete than the other films of Laitala's I've seen, in part because of its image bank. It appears to be composed partly of Technicolor separation strips, possibly printed in color-reversal, resulting in glaring neon hues that approximate altered perception. Within this dominant structure, she gives as a study of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, followed by an examination of the "China Girl" color-test strip. In a way, Journey is a bit like a remake of Owen Land's Film In Which There Appear Sprocket Holes . . ., but it re-imagines that structural film as a sort of ghost story. Instead of an industrial artifact, the China Girl might be a long-suppressed energy, continuing to haunt classic Hollywood cinema and the movie palaces where it's worshipped. But given Laitala's style, this film is far too elusive to narrativize, and that too may well be the point.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino)
Despite some shaky moments (most everything with Michael Madsen; the B-noir opening monologue), QT pulls it together here. It's slower, more methodical, and better-made than the first half. Actual moments of beauty emerge. (Looking back at my KB1 review, I recall that the Hattori sequence was the high point for me, so given that KB2 favors that sly, relaxed tone, it stands to reason that I'm siding with the Highbrows over the Fanboy Nerds on this one.) The fight sequences in this volume are brilliant precisely because they keep finding new ways to withhold the assumed pleasures of cinematic battle. The Pai Mei sequence is deadpan, Jimmy Wang Yu-style classicism that retains the fundamental strangeness of its sources, and the Bride / Elle Driver face-off is such shrewd asskickus interruptus that I laughed my ass off thinking about all the chop-socky geeks going home with blue-balls. The burial, one of the finest sequences of QT's career, is the apex of KB2's negation-aesthetics, containing about a minute and a half of black leader that sent a chill down my spine. Thurman is, despite what you've been hearing, okay in this one, but it's true that in most scenes requiring emotional heft, she's outclassed by Carradine. Imagine a grizzled, avuncular country asshole with awesome dignity, like Christopher Walken as a full-fledged human being. I sincerely hope he's remembered at Oscar time. Also, the RZA is such a fucking genius. [Note, 4/28/04: I've been contemplating downgrading this, mostly because the conclusion has lingered in my mind as something of a botch. I've been wanting to see it again and haven't had time, but I just can't deny it anymore. No gravity, no ambivalence, just . . . a perfect movie send-off, when it needed to be more.]
-Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad / France / The Netherlands)
The most noteworthy aspect of this film is its visual style. As if setting out to confound Western conventional wisdom regarding African cinema, Haroun leaves his copy of Bazin's What is Cinema? Vol. 1 at home. He opts instead for a deliberately orchestrated color scheme, with piercing hues issuing from clothing, random objects, and especially the artificial, midnight-blue moonlight that comes in the boys' bedroom window. Abouna emphasizes the artifice by placing its two young protagonists, Tahir and Amine (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid) in the same bright button-down shirts -- blue and orange, respectively -- throughout the entire film. Ostensibly the tale of a family coping with the fact that their father has skipped town without a word, Abouna at first feels warmly observational but too slight to make any great claims for. Eventually, after a naive dip into juvenile delinquency, the film tips its hand and reveals itself as child's-eye coming-of-age story, the natural world taking on a vaguely enchanted air reminiscent of Night of the Hunter. What had seemed underdeveloped in the film is actually just mirroring the boys' perspective -- simple, guileless, and free-associational. This quality evaporates in the final act, however, when Haroun strives for more significance than his tale can bear. The conclusion is not only jarringly hackneyed. It also rules out women's strength as a foundation for shaping sons into good men. Final note: be it Irreversible or In Praise of Love or The Triplets of Belleville or this film right here, using posters from other people's movies, as either tributes or as thematic hint-dropping, is a pretty cheap practice. Moratorium, please.
Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (François Dupeyron, France)
First, a note on the title. I'm being pedantic, sure, but I'm following the Mike D'Angelo Rule: whatever is on the screen as the title is the title, and Sony Pictures Classics' truncation in U.S. publicity doesn't change the fact that the above title is right up there for all to see. Anyway, despite several reviews that made this look pretty sappy, I checked it out mostly because I was curious about Dupeyron. I missed his last film, The Officers' Ward, which played in Comp at Cannes 2001 and was reasonably well-liked by some folks I trust. Imagine my surprise -- on the evidence of Ibrahim, Dupeyron is the French Spielberg. (Or is that an oxymoron?) Shot through with sepia-toned 50s nostalgia, with bouncy rock music holding it together, and at the center of it all the worldly education of an adolescent boy with daddy trouble, it's pretty spot-on. Formally, Dupeyron favors the sort of chipper, boppy pacing and unobtrusive but acute visual style of an enjoyable trifle like Catch Me If You Can. The goodwill generated by this approach, combined with the film's unwillingness to tax us with self-importance, put this one in the win-column until a bizarre third-act spinout. It becomes more ambling than Amblin, a sort of unshaped comparative-religion seminar, followed by an almost willfully perverse narrative clampdown. In other words, it's Lesson Time, but Spielberg tends to accomplish this sort of bourgeois uplift with a level of conviction that Dupeyron can't muster. Pierre Boulanger is winning as young Momo, but Omar Sharif hams it up something awful. Then again, when you have to deliver the same dumb line four times, I'm sure it's hard to find any fully satisfying tack.
13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick)
As most reviews will giddily tell you, Jennifer Garner sparkles in this. She is now officially a movie star. Yes, it's Big for Girls, but whereas Tom Hanks just woke up as an adult alien out of time, Garner's Jenna Rink is more of a Rippa Van Winkle / Ebby Scrooge figure, entering her own shrewish adulthood in medias res. The first two-thirds of this film struck every goofy nostalgia note and mean-girl bitch-slap effortlessly. Despite my reservations, 13 provided unbridled joy until the painstaking, leaden third act, which doles out its Syd Field rom-com clichés like a series of compulsory floor exercises. Sorry, but genre conventions are for losers, especially when they show through as nothing but. Still, against all odds, the not-really-necessary-but-deemed-so-by-the-powers-that-be conclusion is presented through a jarringly perfect edit, hurtling us across time and space with unexpected precision. When did Tadpole Guy learn to direct? Also, I would like to buy Mark Ruffalo a beer sometime. He's cool.
Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
Subtext is for wimps. Blam blam blam, etc. I'm glad Hollywood screenwriters like Scooby-Gunn are getting mileage out of the whole "metrosexual" thing. All the pleasures of gay-baiting, none of the guilty aftertaste! (I mean, why not just name the guy Dr. Zachary Smith and be done with it?) A reasonably effective B-picture, but like a shout in an empty mall, it rings hollow. Also, why the fake stores? Part of the fun should be watching actual Starbucks, Sports Authority, Toys 'R' Us, etc., getting messed up. SHOT IN CANADA BUT NOT SET IN CANADA ART-DIRECTION FUCK-UP: Life Brand bandages in the first-aid kit, and a mashed-potato tub from PFK. They don't speak no French in Milwaukee, son.
Hellboy (Guillermo Del Toro)
Wish I'd liked it more; the set design and color scheme get an 8, but the story and script . . . It's trying way too hard for those unfunny hard-boiled asides. But really, the problem is this: the characters of Hellboy, Abe, and Liz are sympathetic and compelling, and I wanted to spend more down-time in their company. Instead, the tedious, cockamamie Nazis-and-Rasputin-unlock-hell's-portal comic-book plot kept lumbering to the fore. Who gives a shit? Consult Spider-Man on how to get the balance right. (If there have been ten more sleep-inducing minutes of film so far this year than Hellboy's WWII prologue, thankfully I haven't seen them.) I'm cool with a Ron Perlman's physical performance and the fact that Jim Hoberman could compare him only to tandoori chicken. (Doesn't that sound good right now? Better than the crap teriyaki I had at the mall.) But it just doesn't come together like it should.
-Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, Canada) [s]
[Note: I was watching this on crappy streaming video, so the rapid-fire edits mostly turned to blobby black-and-white, like a digitized beer logo on Cribs. Still, if Maddin authorizes the on-line put-up, it's fair game.] In the past, we all know that Maddin has done wonders with the short-form. The Heart of the World is a flat-out masterpiece that gives and gives even after 10+ viewings. Odillon Redon was suitably intricate and mysterious, a hazy homage to GM's surrealist forebear. S-B S-P is just a lazy, one-joke affair, a sketchpad trifle more akin to how feature directors tend to treat short filmmaking. It trades on Maddin's frequent ambiguously-gay ambiance, but then turns into a rather transparent treatise on the homoeroticism underlying the martial arts genre. (Still, as Commentaries on a Disreputable Genre by Eminent Intellectual Auteurs go, it's nowhere near as bad as Hal Hartley's abysmal short The New Math.) Fey and smarmy where it thinks it's ironically deploying the tropes of "feyness" and "smarminess," it's partially rescued by a great sight-gag at the end. Do you need a permit to park your bicycle like that?
Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, U.K. / Luxembourg)
Y'all all remember Theo's review of Shaolin Soccer? Why drag soccer into it? Here, I say, why drag art into it? Much like Shakespeare in Love, this film trades on a vague, middlebrow notion of creative genius. The assumption is that it must be linked in some fundamental way to nascent modern sensuality, presumed to be a more compelling subject for Pearl Earring's target audience. All the better to reduce actual artistic labor to a skimpy pretext for the rote exploration of stifled passion and upstairs / downstairs machinations. Why actually show Vermeer painting, when you can just reveal the painting as a multi-stage fait accompli, a time-saving montage? For that matter, why bother examining what Griet has to do all day? Her labor is the force of her character, and her position the yoke under which she bristles. But who cares? Bring on the sexually-frustrated wife, the treacherous Anna-Paquin-in-The-Piano daughter, the lecherous upper-crust art patron, etc. For all his pedantic windbaggery, at least Peter Greenaway genuinely cared about Vermeer's art. Webber meticulously copies the surface -- the film is gorgeous -- but illuminates nothing.