REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2008
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)
1. Childhood is a constant drift between wonder and disappointment, the buoyancy of whimsy and the flat gravity of the everyday. Most artworks can't really handle this drift, and this includes the admittedly lovely 1956 Albert Lamorisse original, Le Ballon rouge (a film that treads a thin line between poignancy and sap, and one that helped to form my own nascent cinephilia as a preteen). Instead, childhood is almost always narrativized in a linear fashion, either as the movement from innocence to experience, or as an epiphanic recapturing of the magic of youth. Needless to say, no one really lives like this, least of all kids. While it's true that children do move through developmental stages, it's never a clean path, and certainly on a day to day basis, the process of making sense of the world is one comprised of equal parts interior projection and wary accommodation to the reality principle. Put another way, your socks are always going to feel bumpy, and sometimes you can strip them off an run barefoot. But sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and keep them on. Hou's patient, observational look at Simon (Simon Itaneu) perfectly captures the drift of an introverted, highly sensitive young boy coping with circumstances that, while hardly intolerable, allow few opportunities for him to exert control. The balloon hovers outside the skylight above his bed, or over the glass ceiling of the museum, an objective representation, even a thought bubble of sorts, giving shape to the small space of private imagination and unreality that Simon protects, all for himself.
2. At the same time, Hou brilliantly uses the red balloon exactly for what it is -- a formal element. In the midst of a bustling Metro crowd or a Parisian skyline, Hou drops the bobbing and weaving balloon, a round red blob that offsets the drab everyday colors around it. That's precisely its function. The balloon is an internal framing device that allows the quotidian to "pop," to become visible as something worthwhile and even marvelous. It's like a big red stripe down the middle of a Malevich canvas. In fact, later on in the film which Hou's diegetic stand-in, student filmmaker / nanny Song (Song Fang) explains how she'll move a red balloon using a kid in chroma-keyed green, who'll be digitally removed in post-production, Hou is taking a leaf from the Soviets' playbook, "baring the device" a la Vertov or Medvedkin. Hou doesn't make a big deal out of this "political" intervention. But it does speak to the kind of filmmaker he is more generally, one who is determined to reconcile the sensual and the intellectual dimensions of the cinema.
3. Hou's formal control, along with Mark Lee Ping-bin's exquisite cinematography, provide another formal correlative to the problem of adaptation or homage. How does Hou's filmmaking translate into the context of French culture? The results are more than just a "tourist" or a "stranger" wandering around getting his bearings. The specific maneuvers within Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) and Simon's apartment provide a clear sense of how Hou understands this new cultural space. The apartment is a mess, clutter filling every last corner, shelf and surface. Suzanne, a puppeteer (another riff on "adaptation"?), has books, papers, and tools of her trade everywhere. This is a bourgeois-bohemian space, without question. The apartment itself is an old, craggy one, wooden moldings and a breakfast nook, stairs up to a loft bedroom area which looks to be more of a platform. It is an echt-Parisian abode, and yet Hou and Lee station their camera in classic mode. They emphasize deep amber lighting, the recessed portal of the kitchen area (shades of Ozu), and the flat frontality of what's actually a much more complex space. In fact, as the film progresses, Hou will suddenly reveal entire portions of the apartment we had no idea existed -- a second flight of stairs, or an off-to-the-side washroom. The tight visual construction / constriction of space in Flight of the Red Balloon confounds the viewer's sense of place, mirroring Hou's directorial dislocation in a concrete way, one that not only unfolds across time, but detonates in a series of shocks and wonders, like a surprise around every corner. This is transnational filmmaking, without leaving the house.
4. It's almost too easy to say that Hou has made a film that "hovers" or "floats." But how else can a dedicated modernist internalize an aesthetic dominant as fundamentally preposterous as that damned red balloon? Hou faces a challenge not unlike that of the "New Crowned Hope" filmmakers or those contributors to the "2000 Seen By..." series, working within the narrow strictures of an assignment that prevents simple habit. But those guys had broader and more philosophically elevated parameters (Mozart; the millennium) and still largely ignored them. But Hou, ever the trooper, really thinks about what a balloon is. So, Flight of the Red Balloon is a film that finds many intersecting concerns already up in the air -- the start of a new job; a tentative new relationship between a boy and his new nanny; a harried mother whose overscheduled mania is a passive-aggressive form of selfishness in response to a life she feels affords her little control; the ins and outs of a puppet show; a pending eviction; the relationship between a boy and his older half-sister, someone he wants more permanently in his life; an absent father; reflections in shop windows; pinball versus PlayStation; being "in" one's life versus reflecting upon it as an artist. None of these threads is "resolved," and there's no reason why they should be. Instead, Hou allows this gentle cacophony to swirl in a series of in-transit, mid-story passages, placed against one another at oblique angles. The result is the rare narrative film that truly operates like a long-form poem. Flight is unlike anything else in Hou's filmography, but going out on this particular limb has yielded unimaginable rewards. The film may well be a quirky one-off, but it's no less of a masterpiece for that.
Apart from being a good film by any meaningful measure, Hutton's At Sea is somewhat difficult to evaluate. This film marks a rather startling departure in Hutton's work, the two chief carry-overs being the filmmaker's exacting eye for composition and his stately use of absolute film silence. Earlier Hutton films focused on strikingly individualized, painterly immediacies, captured in a cinematic "now," and organized through editing schemes which underscored rhythm and spatial elaboration but gently militated against narrative elaboration. One shot followed the next as a series of formally interlocking aesthetic objects, each of which maintained its own integrity apart from conventional filmic logics of temporal succession. As such, one always feels as though one is co-present with a Hutton film, not mentally transported to some time and place anterior to the screening situation. Not so with At Sea, which in many respects observes the rules of documentary elaboration, and does so with extreme care and open-eyed wonder. A three-part film clocking in at exactly one hour, At Sea begins in a Korean shipyard, with Hutton adopting a series of wide-angle views of the process of building an ocean freighter. We see workers welding, fashioning sides and deck, we see painting, we observe labor in the hot midday sun as well as inside a giant hangar, all from a set of stock-still, fixed camera shots, most lasting between ten and thirty seconds. The bright grays and yellows of the ships assert themselves in the sunlight, and this makes for a contrast all the greater once part two begins. Here, we're on a freight ship, watching the waterline bob up and down or, more often, looking out from an aerial deck over a mass of huge identical metal cargo containers. We see them glow at dusk like gold bullion, or fizzle out their forms in the rain. Here, Hutton is closest to his usual working method, using similarity of shape to emphasize differences in light and texture, and although the impact is not as dramatic as in earlier, more variegated films of his, the Carl Andre-esque organization of section two points to new possibilities in his thinking. Finally, section three arrives on a Southeast Asian shore, where old, rusted-out ships are meticulously, dangerously broken down for scrap, by hand, by impoverished villagers of various ages. Toward the end of this segment, Hutton shifts from color to black and white, and his camera set-ups allow the workers to peer into the lens and interrogate the filmic apparatus. So, what's most bizarre about At Sea is that, by Hutton's standards, it is a synthetic and highly allusive effort. Part one bears the color palette and working style of James Benning, but, actually resembles the recent Manufactured Landscapes, pointing to a global-lens influence from the likes of Peter Mettler (the d.p. on that film) or certain works by Johan van der Keuken. Part three is, almost undeniably, an homage to the late Mark LaPore, and so ending At Sea on this note adds an elegiac narrative strain to the already present birth-life-death trajectory. The strange thing about this rather conventional Hutton film, however, is that by being so conventional in so many respects, At Sea paradoxically heightens the disconcerting power of the filmmaker's decision to shoot silent. By now, Hutton's fan base expects nothing less, but by making a very different kind of silent film -- a process-oriented world documentary that, apart from its shattering muteness, would be enjoying its two weeks at Film Forum right now -- Hutton has renewed his baseline and made it something risky again.
[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] The anxiety of influence can be a good thing. Hammer's debut feature is immediately striking for its sense of place, the cool, almost shellshocked manner in which the camera navigates the swampy outskirts of little towns on the Mississippi Delta, with their flat country expanses punctuated by the occasional double-wide trailer or roadside convenience store. There's a sense that all the action, and all the lives, depicted in Ballast are stranded in a kind of twilight, kept apart from the certainty that things just might be different tomorrow. But just as immediately, in fact from the opening frames of Ballast, Hammer is already tipping his hand, providing clues to his own initial disorientation. The first scene of the film, one which has put off more than a few potentially sympathetic viewers, finds sad, lumbering Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith) numbed out in the immediate aftermath of his brother's suicide. (Brother Darius's body is still slumped in the bedroom, Lawrence having made no calls to the police or the morgue.) Their friend and neighbor John (Johnny McPhail) comes over to try to help, and before long Lawrence is staring silently at the TV, and then wandering out into the yard to make his own passionless, zombie-like suicide attempt. Although we eventually learn a bit more about Lawrence and his relationship with Darius which allows the man's devastation to make more sense, there's still an awkward architecture visible in this opening sequence, as though Hammer is following a kind of post-Bressonian template for the mechanized tamping-down of dramatic events. Once Lawrence gets home from the hospital (considerably thinner, as would certainly be the case -- well played, all), and the primary action commences, there are still these moments which draw undue attention to Hammer's cinematic models. The Dardenne brothers' Rosetta, in particular, is visually quoted twice, once in the framing, organization and mise-en-scène of Lawrence's land, with its butane and septic tanks, and second when Lawrence's nephew James (JimMyron Ross) goes down into the water to pull up a makeshift trawling line.
But the Dardennes themselves embarked on their finest work with an impulse to rewrite Bresson, and here, it's almost as though Hammer needed these earlier models just to help him provide an initial shape to such rich, fecund material. Because before long, Ballast has become its own film, its characters emerging as complex and subtle in construction. James is a wayward youth, angry at his father's perceived neglect. His mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs, delivering the standout among the film's non-professional performances) is a determined, working-poor mother who, perhaps not without some justification, blames her late husband and his brother for her woes. The remainder of the film consists of the pull and tug among these three troubled individuals, their struggle not only to move on with life but to decide whether or not it's in their best interest to try to form a new family unit or go their separate ways. Although Hammer never makes this explicit, this struggle has an objective correlative in the film in the form of Darius and Lawrence's family store, a midsized convenience / gas station off the state road that has been idle since the suicide. While Lawrence broods, Marlee (who, as a mother, has no such luxury) takes it upon herself to reopen the store, figuring things out as she goes. In time, Lawrence and Marlee are working together to insure that she can take over the business. But really, what Hammer accomplishes here is a demonstration that he isn't just namechecking the Dardennes anymore. He has taken their lessons and made them his own. The second half of Ballast, after all, as with Rosetta or The Son, is about work, and how the process of work both reveals and conditions the personalities behind those deeds. Marlee sussing out how to run the register, or Lawrence showing her how to use the credit card machine -- these acts of labor, and not the bickering or the misplaced pride, are the acts that hold the potential for healing and growth, without unnecessary psychobabble. When we see James doing his homework at the store, it speaks volumes about a new sense of home and belonging, all built around a site of work and its personal investment. So that by the final shot, Hammer can provide us with a hopeful, utterly minor glimpse of a possible family-to-be, without saying a word. And so, like his characters, the director has ended up somewhere very different from where he began, and has taken bold steps in clarifying just who he is.
It had to be some kind of cliquish Indiewood bar bet. Who could take the basic premise of a notorious turkey, that tanked the careers of all involved, and refurbish it into a subtle, seriocomic work of populist art? "Ooh! I'll take Hudson Hawk!" cries Bart Freundlich, but he never gets it off the ground and goes back to pondering his own linty navel. "I call Three's Company," offers Tom McCarthy, and his buds quickly point out that Three's Company made megarich superstars out of everyone involved, except Joyce DeWitt, but McCarthy, seeing it all more as a matter of bad taste, persists until he develops The Visitor. Allison Anders promises to reconsider Heaven's Gate with an all-female cast, just as soon as she can raise the funds. (This, of course, will never happen.) And clearly, Peter Hedges selected Hello, Larry, the god-awful, short-lived 80s sitcom in which McLean Stevenson played a widowed father of two who worked as an advice guru. Larry was a radio host, and inevitably, a caller would demand his council for a problem which later in the 23 minutes Larry himself would face with his own offspring and, wouldn't ya know, Larry never seemed capable of taking his own advice! Hijinx ensued, tempers flared, miscommunications were sorted out, hugs dispensed, lessons learned. Utter bullshit.
And so, miraculously, we have Hedges, writer-director of the insufferable indie comedy Pieces of April, tricking out the same concept with an air of relaxed dignity and warmth, adhering to basic narrative pattern, not avoiding certain contrivances, but somehow investing both the set-ups and the consequences with undeniably human responses. Interactions are haltingly awkward, but not in the Office / Larry David manner of cruel discomfort. Instead, we have Steve Carell as Dan actually demonstrating the accelerated-hangdog pace of living inside of grief, four years out, when you've got three daughters who are very much alive and keeping you on your game. The extended family dynamics could have been outsized and mean, a la that miserable piece of crap The Family Stone, but instead, Hedges takes a wide view, Renoirian not necessarily in attitude but in framing and distance. The bustle is the thing; the family is so large and filled with youth (and parents chasing after it) that it makes sense that Dan's needs get lost in the shuffle. Even the obvious literary borrowings (there's a pretty clear Cyrano angle here) are unobtrusive, woven into the overall texture, so that while yes, one sees exactly where Hedges is going at all times, his guidance is gentle and patient enough to justify contrivances that elsewhere might seem like cheap shortcuts. In a way, it's almost as though Hedges's formal plan was, simply, to inject Juliette Binoche into the American comic idiom and let her European energy shift its metabolism, and the result is actually quite lovely. Joe Leydon is dead-on in his Variety review when he says that this feels more like a Daniel Auteuil vehicle than a Hollywood "laffer," but this also speaks to just what a soulful, versatile performer Carell really is. This is a small, warm film, but it won't "change" you in any way. It's like a nice cup of tea.
I think people are looking at this thing all wrong. Yes, as a Wong Kar Wai film, it is indeed pretty lame. The English dialogues have a tendency to spread thematic material out on the counter like so much Cool Whip, particular every time Jude Law's cafe owner Jeremy opens his mouth. And yes, it's true, as an ostensible protagonist, Norah Jones's Elizabeth / Beth / Lizzie is something of a blank slate, although, as Kent Jones's post-Cannes piece in Cinema Scope pointed out, some will claim that Wong's characters have always scanned as somewhat flat to speakers of Cantonese, and that English language critics are just now figuring this out. (Note, Jones brings this issue up in staking out a position against the film-critical oneupmanship such territorialism provokes. Hear, hear. As long as any critic is absolutely up front and appropriately humble about his or her shortcomings in grasping the nuances in a given language under consideration, and others are willing to open the floor to honest, productive debate on the subject, we can all just put our hackles down and do our jobs.) But her job is really one of an internal narrator or presenter, not a dynamic story-shaper, and even within those parameters, Jones acquits herself rather well as a performer. Still, even apart from that, I would submit that Wong's work has never been about "character" per se so much as image-of-character, a kind of iconicity that reverberates in the memory after loss. So flatness, or at least a partial flattening, or a tendency toward subsuming the character into the role of a figure in a painterly landscape of the mind, hardly seems damning in the context of a Wong-goes-to-"America" project. No, what matters is that everything is rather frothy, even the moments of poignancy. The pie filling is canned, not fresh. (Doesn't this tell us something concrete and specific about the connections between American culture and life in Hong Kong?) So for instance, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz) offers a rather wan emotional-breakdown speech, but almost immediately Wong offers us a near-still image of Sue Lynne standing beside her convertible, just before she blows town. This is the kind of perfectly etched encapsulation of neon-Hopper Americana that poor, hapless Wim Wenders would give his left nut to be able to generate these days. Only Wong, with his smeary, saturated visual sense that somehow combines the irretrievable glow of dreams with a brash electric nowness (thanks again, production designer William Chang), can pull this off, ridiculous though it may be. So, when Wong decided to make an English-language "American" movie, what did people expect? Seen in the context of a frivolous sellout, not to mention a 95-minute cine-confectionary diversion (ice cream in a popcorn world), Blueberry's fine. Not great, won't stick with you, but just fine. And if every mainstream chick-flick was as gorgeous and intelligent as this, well . . .
The surface-text of this lovely film, a frivolous little tale by Honoré d'Urfé of misplaced jealousy and star-crossed lovers reunited, hardly matters at all. Yes, its innocence exudes a certain undeniable charm, and its nymphs-and-druids atmosphere allows for a strangely earnest form of acting that, by committing to the story, underlines its unbridgeable historical anteriority while nevertheless allowing us to become invested in the narrative itself. I suppose I could compare it to children's theatre, although the unabashed lust that Céladon (Andy Gillet), whether in male garb or in drag, inspires in nearly all he meets would hardly suit the ankle-biter set, to say nothing of the casual nudity and naive semi-lesbianism just before the conclusion. But as one watches Rohmer tackle this anachronistic material, it's hard not to think of Straub and Huillet, who might've adopted a similar text at one point in their careers but would have rendered it leaden and static, all the better to draw out latent Marxist-materialist aspects unavailable to d'Urfé. But even more than Straub and Huillet's work, the recent cinema of Eugène Green may well have been in Rohmer's sights. Green's neo-baroque style tends to flatten out performances and compositions in favor of a dry, declarative mode. I tend to find Green's approach glib; others do not. But in either case, Rohmer's treatment is miles away from Green's, carefully articulating long-gone styles of being and thinking without pressing them under glass. If there is any real comparison for the atmosphere Rohmer generates in Romance, it's actually a left-field one -- the late 50s / early 60s films of Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs. Of course, content-wise, and budget-wise, these men are literally worlds apart. But like Jacobs and Smith, Rohmer creates a dress-up world that somehow communicates belief while remaining perfectly frank about its absolute terminus on the outside of the frame. Rohmer's film is one that attempts to take its participants out of their own time and into a wholly different one, one whose radically different possibilities for love and meaning might illuminate unspoken difficulties in the present. But as I say at the start of the review, the text of d'Urfé's novel is almost incidental to this process. More than that, it's the enveloping soundscape, the distant rushing river or wind through the unseen trees. It's the faint crunch of shoes on grass just after someone has exited the frame, or the intensity of light with which Rohmer saturates his outdoor shots. It's in these aspects that, despite his more conventional editing and camerawork, or his much more conservative worldview (which, coming through as the ideology of unshakable romance, seems rather benign here), Rohmer is indeed closest to Straub and Huillet. He understands the film frame not as a flat, dead plane for the point-by-point unraveling of a teleplay. He sees it as a vortex, a living space whose energy draws you in from all sides and compels your belief, apart from any mere narrative logic. The Romance of Astreé and Céladon is a truly sylvan film. It draws its viewers into a temple clearing and gently invites worship, simply at what cinema at its most basic can do.
"Stephen Chow is a man of the people." Honestly, what sort of statement could possibly ring more hollow, especially during an election year (for my country) in which phrases like Outsider Status™ and The Audacity of Hope™ are bandied about like new flavors of chewing gum? But Chow is the real deal, and this is perhaps why his latest film is a bit of a head-scratcher, especially for Western fans who've only recently discovered his work with the international mega-hits Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Look back throughout Chow's filmography, as a comic performer (sometimes, very misleadingly, called the "Jim Carrey of Asia") but particularly as a writer-director. One finds numerous high-concept, persona- and genre-based riffs, as well as Chow's unique brand of verbal-nonsense comedy which, regrettably, non-Cantonese speaking audiences just have to accept on faith. But underlying it all is a truly anarchic class consciousness, a joint commitment to stick it to the man and genuinely explore the day-to-day muddling-through of the working poor. This streak in Chow is, of course, straight out of the Chaplin heritage, but it's also absolutely Chinese. Yes, say what you will about the U.S. being a class-stratified country with no class consciousness (true), but Chow's films emerge from a cultural milieu with the remnants of a "peasantry," in the classic, pre-Industrial Revolution sense of the word, and so naturally when the man does battle against avaricious street gangs or takes potshots at the vapidity of celebrity, it carries a somewhat different charge. With this in mind, the shift of Chow's filmmaking away from straight-ahead comedy and into explicit Spielberg territory makes more sense. Chow's audience is the largest ethnic population in the world, and so setting his sights on the world's second most successful director (after Lucas) would seem to be a natural fit. And in fact Chow has the artistic chops to carry it off most of the time, stumbling only when he perceives dull, quiet moments and fills them with substandard slapstick. Perhaps fearing Kikujiro Syndrome, Chow wants to explore the power of schmaltz while at the same time transcending it. He doesn't want to pander; instead, he wants to strike those chords of genuine emotion that allow the best of Spielberg's work -- from E.T.to A.I. -- to connect with simple, everyday feelings and fears. Are we doing enough for our kids? How will we cope with the loss of a loved one? Can the power of childhood fantasy point the way toward a better life, or is it just an immature distraction from the real world? Chow overliteralizes much of this by centering his film on "CJ7," the low-rent outer-space fuzzball on whom little Dicky (Xu Jiao) pins his hopes. The closer Chow comes to the letter of Spielberg, the further away his effort seems. But between those broad strokes, in the relationship of a father and his son, or the comic, stylized cruelty of schoolchildren (shades of I Was Born, But . . .), Chow successfully captures the spirit of the great big humanist populism for which he's so clearly aiming. CJ7 is a strange film in that it wants to seem utterly trivial, but in truth its maker is pretty clearly swinging for the rafters. And he comes close.
I suppose by most objective standards My Brother Is an Only Child is a "good" film. It's well written, features two subtle, comfortably lived-in lead performances, and manages to examine the shifting politics of Italian youth culture from the end of World War II through the start of Red Army Faction militancy in the early 70s, all the while filtering these social upheavals through the lens of family drama, fraternal rivalry, and sexual coming-of-age. What's more, the film is fairly engaging, it doesn't drag, and, as is the fashion, tends to favor Coca-Cola pop attitude over Marxist stridency when it needs to get itself out of a narrative jam. There's nothing much wrong with My Brother, but I'm not sure there's all that much right with it either. In broad basic template and in micromanagerial style, this is a film we have all seen dozens of times, from dozens of New Wave cinemas but especially from Italy, where mapping the intersection of troubled male lust and ideological commitment is as much of a national specialty as minestrone. Luchetti co-wrote the script with the team of Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, two men who began their careers working with Nanni Moretti. This goes a long way toward explaining My Brothers's warm fuzzy humanism, which can't even bring itself to condemn its Fascist protagonist as much more than a wayward lad. The whole thing plays a bit like The Best of The Best of Youth, a 90-minute encapsulation of the political conflict that traversed that epic work, also written by Petraglia and Rulli. Accio (Elio Germano), the younger and less attractive of the two Benassi brothers, eschews the family's leftist ways and goes Brown Shirt, mostly out of defiance, but also because, as the younger, less attractive brother, he isn't getting any tail. Meanwhile, pretty boy Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a party leader, mostly because he is too dumb to do much more than follow the apparatchiks' directives. Also, he's oversexed, so he can be down with the masses with the ease of a worker completely at home inside his own skin. Herein lies the problem with My Brother Is an Only Child, if it can accurately be described as a problem. The film depicts both politics and relationships in canned, conventional ways, a series of self-delusional movie clichés. But, in the usual post-ideological mode, Luchetti seems intent on accurately representing a moment at which both politics and romance were all just a bunch of male-swagger bullshit. And so, the film falls into hollow forms and rote gestures, most likely because that's what its makers think about the era under examination. I suppose I comprehend that the Italian nation needs to keep domesticating the 60s, especially now that Antonio Negri is out of prison and all. But do they have to keep portraying the exact same male-centered sentimental education? For my part, this is the type of film I need to be much more ruthless about just turning off after twenty minutes. It's fine, but unnecessary.
At this point it seems that Hamer is Norway's leading auteur, which unfortunately isn't saying a whole hell of a lot. Following his sojourn into Bukowski-style low-rent Americana with Factotum, Hamer is back on his home turf. O' Horten has nabbed a slot in Un Certain Regard at this years Cannes, so Hamer appears to have recaptured the attention of some of the tastemakers he first won over with 2003's droll, sturdy arthouse comedy Kitchen Stories. But although the new film exhibits a relaxed, uncluttered pace and a typically clean visual atmosphere (not nearly as fussy as Kitchen Stories, but then again not nearly as precise), there's nothing at all unique or distinguished about it. It's basically another "pensioner's progress" film, as we follow one Odd Horten (Bård Owe), forty-year veteran of the Oslo commuter rail system, on his last day as a conductor and the subsequent couple of days spent wandering around drinking, meeting unlikely people, and narrowly avoiding trouble. We've seen variations on this film, from Ikiru through About Schmidt, even up to last year's Czech entry Empties, although Hamer's subtle compositional eye and dry wit does get him a little further than most. (He's really a bit like Kaurismäki, but with Aki's bitterness replaced by a puppy dog's ingratiating will to please.) All the same, the director is not above employing a wistful music cue, or exploiting an excruciatingly obvious extended metaphor for living life with gusto. (Horten's now-senile mother was a ski jumper. You can fill in the rest from there.) O' Horten is pleasant enough, and Owe in particular is fine as the reserved senior citizen slowly reclaiming his own life. (Up to now, the actor is probably best known for playing creepy Dr. Bondo in Lars von Trier's The Kingdom.) But the film really is completely forgettable, and hardly Cannes-worthy. Still, you know, high profile European showcases require at least the appearance of basic national parity. Whoop whoop, Norway reprazent.
Better dead than spread. . . If it weren't so hysterical, Princess might actually be relatively successful as the right-wing work of art it wants to be. The film, a no-holds-barred screed against the porn industry, is an alarmist potboiler that trades, quite unfairly, on our most primal child-in-peril spectatorial reflexes, but does so by raising what could . . . could, possibly, in a highly attenuated set of circumstances, be a fair question. If and when there are children around the world of porn, what becomes of them? (As you can see, I'm bending over backwards to give Morgenthaler's rather outlandish, Jenna Jameson-meets-Majid Majidi premise the benefit of the doubt. Are there really lots of despoiled tots scampering around the backlot of Anal Debutantes 17? Doubtful, but the film covers its tracks by showing its jeopardized child in utero while mom's getting double-parked in some preggers-fetish porn. Given that "Princess" is clearly 8+ months in this scene, the film is basically shrugging, as if to say, "Hey, they can't abort them all. Now, on with the show.") Morgenthaler is more interested in conducting a Death Wish retribution fantasy as righteous holy cleansing, and in so doing he not only cuts corners in the narrative; he resorts to out-and-out pulp fiction, making his entire enterprise look all that much sillier. (Why is Christina, the sister who becomes porn queen Princess, such a vulnerable emotional wreck? It goes back to a childhood incident....[BZZT!] Why does her brother, August, now a priest, feel somehow culpable for her downfall? He was a budding filmmaker who kept his camera trained on his benighted sister all the time....[BZZT!]) The thing is, Morgenthaler is playing dirty and so, in a lot of ways, Princess is effective in ways I simply can't deny. Yes, as a father of a young girl I may be going soft, but I defy any viewer to observe the emotional scarification and sex / love confusion of four-year-old Mia and not find it excruciating to behold, cheap though it may be. Given that Morgenthaler is hardly above heart-tugging appeals (think of the children!), his reliance on preposterous splatter-justice is all the more indefensible, and his conclusion even more unhinged. Princess has little of what I would call "redeeming merit," but it does pack a wallop, ironically not unlike the very stuff it aims to indict. The final scene takes place in heaven, scored to the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." So this shows you where the guy is coming from. Okay, okay, but dude, a little anger management would go a long, long way.
[BIG-ASS WHOPPING MEGA-SPOILERS, BUT REALLY, DON'T SEE THIS FILM ANYWAY] Breath is a strangely engaging film, considering the fact that it is undeniably lousy. Kim, who's certainly doing his dwindling fan club no favors by cranking out films like this, either seems to be settling into autopilot mode, or has become so convinced of the validity of his own auteurial preoccupations that he can simply plonk them down like slabs of prefab concrete, graceless and insight-free. Does he actually believe that his mute protagonists are mysterious any longer, and not merely risible? Doesn't Kim realize that in order to avoid self-parody, he has to create a delicate balance between pure gesture and physicality on the one hand, and something resembling actual human life on the other? And that it's not a good idea to keep those realms absolutely separate, for no apparent reason? Granted, Kim's previous film, Time, was a high-decibel gabfest of nearly Hong Sang-soo proportions (some have hinted it might've even been intended as a Hong parody), and the extra verbiage didn't make for a more sophisticated project. But there are actually points of connection between the two films. For one, Time's preposterously ugly sculpture garden finds its analog in Yeon (mono-monikered actress Zia) and her prison house performance art pieces. At first, I enjoyed these breakout moments in Breath, because for the first time in eons, it seemed as though Kim was infusing actual humor and irony in his work. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that these four-seasons romantic respites the otherwise-mute woman offers death row convict Jang Jin are intended to be moments of heightened emotion. (Chang Chen plays the convict, mute throughout -- all in all, Hou Hsiao-hsien did a better job of addressing linguistic difference in Three Times. This will be the last time I ever compare Kim Ki-duk with Hou Hsiao-hsien, although I will say that apparently Thierry Fremaux made the same comparison in assembling the 2007 Cannes Competition line-up, and found Hou wanting. Unfathomable.)
There's a lot that Breath leaves unexplained, but unlike a successful art film, we don't come away caring about these "ambiguities," or even frustrated by these lapses in narrative closure. Why, for instance, does the prison warden allow Yeon to break every rule of prison protocol, with her elaborate props and close contact with the felon? The film makes a point of showing him overrule his subordinates, and in fact he's watching the entire drama unfold on CCTV. We see his face only as reflected in the monitor, and in fact the warden is Kim himself. Was Yeon somehow connected to Jang Jin's victims, or the warden himself? Is this simply a sly self-reflexive joke on Kim's role as warden-director? Who gives a shit? By the time Breath has achieved its thematic culmination -- and yes, there is a single point to which the whole film is leading -- you realize that the exercise is more than pointless. It's downright offensive. You see, Yeon's husband (Ha Jeong-woo), we learn about midway through, had an affair. Yeon has selected Jang Jin as her revenge-fuck after seeing him on TV, but in the end, she has been setting the inmate up for his own demise. In the end, Yeon returns to her husband and daughter. See? In order to heal her broken family, Yeon had to displace her rage onto someone so much worse than her husband that he could, basically, die in his stead. (And he was going to die anyway.) The prisoner becomes a tool for social repair, not unlike if he had been subject to experimental vaccines. Kim, clearly, feels fine with this moral. The film communicates the return of appropriate bourgeois harmony. While I was trying not to vomit, I thought back to Nagisa Oshima's masterpiece Death By Hanging, a film that not only speaks out against the cruel absurdity of capital punishment, but analyzes the way that societies mark out criminal deviance so as to normalize their own bureaucratic cruelty. (This will be the last time I ever compare Kim Ki-duk with Nagisa Oshima.) In Death By Hanging, a murderer agrees to die in order to implicitly indict the state that killed him. In Breath, Jang Jin lets love in and is tricked into dying (after three suicide attempts are thwarted -- you will not master your own destiny) so that a nine-year-old doesn't have to face the pain of divorce. Kim's work has always had a mean streak, but it seemed like he at least had enough of a taste for the bizarre as to avoid simplistic right-wing moralism. I guess I was wrong.
I get the sense that a lot of folks in the film world have it in for Harmony Korine. The typical bitching and moaning applies: young hipster on the make, too much success too soon, more bullshit artist than visionary, and even a lot of people who got behind Gummo promptly hopped off the bandwagon after julien donkey-boy. I'll admit, I'm not a huge fan of either film, but I admire significant portions of each, and I feel the same way about Mister Lonely, a film riddled with as many good ideas as shoddy ones and in its own weird way all the more admirable for being such a sincere, ramshackle piece of junk. Korine is a film artist whose career, it now seems obvious, is defined by a particular tightrope act, falling squarely between narrative and experimental cinematic traditions, but committing to neither. This almost never works. It requires some additional "hook" to put that kind of in-betweenness over, something like scads of high-ticket fabricated objects (Matthew Barney) or an innate sense of how to bring the irrational back into contact with lived, shared culture (David Lynch), or a fundamental belief that under intense scrutiny, reality itself will eventually reveal the avant-garde sublime (Korine's mentor, Werner Herzog). Korine, meanwhile, just sort of tries to hammer these things into being with cheap dress-up and a total, gung-ho commitment to his ideas, be they grand, half-baked, or frankly stupid. Beneath all the art-damage, Harmony Korine is a lot like his brother-of-another-mother David Blaine in that he consistently displays an almost inadvertent working class ethic, a plodding, nose-to-grindstone fortitude that's often misguided, since it firmly, foolhardily believes it can make art take shape by sheer force of will.
Mister Lonely evinces this will, to the max. Diego Luna is a Michael Jackson impersonator, rescued from Parisian street life by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) and whisked away to the Scottish highlands where she lives in a commune for celebrity impersonators. Never mind that this sounds like a rejected "Spitting Image" script from the 1980s. Korine doggedly pursues this premise, not only behaving as though it has something to say about the nature of self, the tragedy of complete self-hatred, and the eventual, hard-won determination to strike out and discover who you really are. He tells you all of this, ad nauseam, in the course of the film, just to make sure you haven't missed anything. But what's particularly irksome about this misbegotten conceit is that, once inside of it, Korine manages a number of rather affecting moments of poetry. It's as though his plan all along had been to shift the terms of "reality," well into the ridiculous, so as to see what kinds of emotion would still obtain within this warped framework, and which would simply fall flat. Luna's "Michael" visits a (real) Parisian nursing home and exhorts his audience to "Live forever! Don't die!" And this is comic, but it's also just so bracingly honest as to be genuinely rousing. Likewise, when the communards -- a foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln, some rather sad looking Three Stooges, an improbable Red Riding Hood (she's a celebrity?), et al -- discover that their collective fantasy won't protect their flock of sheep from scrapie, Korine is really getting somewhere. It's as though he himself is displaying the limits of his own feeble premise. But, in the end, Mister Lonely really is too bound to simplistic ideas -- that a Marilyn impersonator must share her fate, or that Charlie Chaplin looked a lot like Hitler and so a Charlot impersonator would probably display this Janus-faced sadism. But above all, Mister Lonely presents one overriding, overbearing theme: the desire to freeze the image of Michael Jackson in the Thriller / Bad era, pre-pedophilia scandal, as a broad cultural metaphor for arrested development. This last idea isn't simplistic at all, but in order to be something other than a larky bunch of nonsense, Korine would have had to devote the time to really work it through, to explore Michael Jackson as a totemic presence in our culture in a manner analogous to what Todd Haynes did with Dylan. Korine just doesn't have the discipline to do this. And that's okay; it makes him the sort of stubborn, fascinatingly wrongheaded phenom that he is. But it also means that it's unlikely that all his sincere effort will yield anything truly great.
I hate McSweeney's, and I think now I understand why. Here's a group of writers and would-be social commentators steeped from birth in snark and flippancy and, god bless 'em, desperate to find a way out. But the sarcastic reflex, that too-cool-for-school post-boomer mode of making sure you turn the tables first so no one gets the emotional jump on you, is so engrained in this generation's DNA, that they can't just let down their guard. Instead, snark itself becomes the weapon of sincerity. That is, a snide tone carries an "unsuspecting" (but actually quite well-versed) reader-consumer into a tale of everyday preposterousness, and then, almost as an afterthought, boom, the sucker punch of sincerity that somehow apologizes for everything the text couldn't just say outright. It's passive-aggressive in the extreme, but usually ends by dealing with some universal human tragedy that allows us to walk away, shaking our heads, thinking, "Shit...." The Mosquito Problem is basically this kind of essay in documentary form, a wacky-town moment that, lo and behold, turns sinister, and does so by cheap manipulation of the basic rules of film. (We get brief, meaningless flashes of our serious protagonists early in the film, their presence unexplained until it serves Paounov's jack-in-the-box narrative purposes.) A tour of the Bulgarian town of Belene, on the southern bank of the Danube, population 9,826, The Mosquito Problem plays like early Errol Morris or mid-period Ulrich Seidl, but with a jovial, eastern-European oompah sensibility that Kusturica might enjoy. So many funny ways to kill those pesky mosquitoes! Oh, look, the nuclear power plant never opened, but they've got all those neatly painted commissary dishes with the atomic logo on them. And here are some guys eating lunch, and here's an Italian priest, and a fellow playing the piano, and we know they're goofy, because Paounov has framed them inside absolutely symmetrical compositions. So, by the time he lowers the boom and we find out [SPOILER] that Belene was the site of a major Communist concentration camp for political dissidents, and we zero in on an aging female prison guard and her daughter, it's next to impossible not to feel as if Paounov has been setting us up all along. Thing is, he gives us his best joke at the very beginning of the film, from 0:00 to 4:35, during which we see no fewer than nine individual production logos. (ARTE, Sundance Channel, Film Four, ZDF, etc.) Maybe the mosquito problem isn't the biggest one facing a Bulgarian.
I get the impression that all but the most hardcore devotees of Kawase acknowledge that The Mourning Forest does not exactly represent her finest work, and I certainly have no intention of writing her off. (Her previous film Shara is generally considered a far more potent statement of purpose, and I plan to catch up with it soon.) But the experience of viewing this film has left me in a bit of a muddle, one to which I'm generally unaccustomed when viewing and writing about so-called "high art" festival cinema. Usually, even if a particular film or filmmaker rubs me the wrong way, I can comprehend what there is onscreen that is garnering the acclaim. That is, I can intellectually place myself into the mindset of a viewer who values vastly different aesthetic elements within the cinema than I do, such that a film like Sideways or the collected works of Amos Gitai could seem hypothetically worthwhile, even revelatory. But over the course of the 96 minutes of The Mourning Forest, I found myself nonplussed, thinking there was simply no "there" there. The film is too slow and plodding to be a populist New Age work along the lines of Mitch Albom or Deepak Chopra, but it's entirely too intellectually logy and slack to function as a challenging slice of observational neo-modernism. Kawase's treatment of landscape is pedestrian to an almost consumer grade, point-and-shoot degree, typically starting out with super-wide establishing shots of well manicured fields along a tree line, then pretty much hitting ground level with no real sense of organization, none of the poetic suppleness one would expect from a film ostensibly about the relationship between spirit and space. Once our two protagonists are lost in the forest, undisciplined handheld camerawork reigns, mainly keeping our subjects in the frame but offering little in the way of spatial byplay. Yes, there is often the warm spackled glow of sunlight through the trees. But other than Kawase wisely selecting her Magic Hour, how much of this beauty is attributable to anything in the film's specific structure? Light through trees is easy; you can find similar wonders everywhere, from Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers to the Beastie Boys' video for "So What'cha Want." As for Kawase's themes of healing and grappling with the past, they too fall prey to a style that seems at once too deterministic and too lackluster. Once we recognize that grieving mother Machiko (Machiko Ono) is going to make ridiculously self-destructive decisions based on a comically frank Freudian desire to restage and master the trauma of her son's death, there's not much for a viewer to do but sit back and let the unidimensional events unfold. Likewise, it doesn't take long to realize, on some level, what Shigeki-san (Shigeki Uda) is carrying through the forest in his oversized knapsack, and so again, the viewer is somewhat excluded from this healing process since there is absolutely no subtext. And so, with very little in the way of aesthetic or intellectual embellishment, The Mourning Forest starts to feel like a self-help video with small, ill-suited dollops of "art" thrown in. But even that doesn't quite work. One such moment, the conversation about "there are no formal rules, after all," actually felt too much like a studied attempt at a loose, "talky bit" from the official art film playbook. In the end, The Mourning Forest feels utterly unformed and amorphous, as though, in today's anti-rigor world, the way to make a film about getting lost is to actually get lost, to make a point by having to point to make.
Just Add Water. In trying to describe Sciamma's wholly undistinguished debut feature, I initially came up with "Catherine Breillat directs an episode of "Gossip Girl." But that would be misleading, since Breillat possesses formal chops, and a sly, nearly surrealist sense of humor that Sciamma simply lacks. Essentially a female sexual-blossoming film with amateur synchronized swimming as its hook, Water Lilies stages highly predictable mispairings and tentative relationships of convenience. Young, shy Marie (Pauline Acquart) is an outsider and a swimfan who's content just to hang out in the edges of the pool gawking at queen bee Floriane (Adele Haenel). She's the leader of the swim team who is reputed to be a slut and, with her over-made-up air of 15-year-old pseudo-sophistication, is the perfect candidate for Marie's budding lesbian crush. Marie's slightly overweight friend Anne (Louise Blachère) has a thing for Floriane's boyfriend, and Marie somehow tacitly understands that in order to get closer to Floriane, she must scuttle her relationship with the "immature" Anne. Sciamma unfurls these mean-girl scenarios in rather predictable ways, her only real surprise being a scene of semi-intimacy between Marie and Floriane that, while mildly disturbing, falls flat as an emotionally shattering centerpiece. Sciamma has none of Breillat's dialectical ability to convey both the shrill urgency of post-pubescence and the cunning intellectual distance necessary to subject it to feminist analysis. Instead, Sciamma just stages scene after scene, hoping something "character-driven" will emerge, without ever breaking out of well-worn stereotype. What's more, she has no visual sense. Many scenes are just underlit to the point of illegibility, and even the dominant tropes of the movie -- the swimmers, the pool, the rigid formations and their breakdown -- are put across in a rather negligible fashion. So, girls can be nasty to each other, and adolescence can be very confusing. How many more times do we need to make this film? Final note: the original French title, Naissance des pieuvres, translates as "The Birth of the Octopi." Did I miss something?