SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 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)
The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph)
This is an impressive, literate film, and it remains so when it doesn’t overreach. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis are both excellent as Dave and Dana, delivering performances which register the full weight of the volumes left unsaid. At first, I was a bit perturbed that the film aligned itself so absolutely with Scott’s character and his mental anguish. But (as Jen pointed out to me), it would have been rather dishonest to do anything else, and upon reflection I realized just how absolutely this film refused to vilify Dana. (Earlier I’d watched Unfaithful, which throws Dentists’ even-handedness into hard relief.) The attention to the minutia of the daily grind of family life is astonishingly spot-on. Even though Jen and I have only cats for children, we frequently nudged each other in amused, reluctant recognition. Most films would deal with “family gets the flu” in a one-minute montage, thereby eliding the most salient aspect of the experience – the distended, bizarre temporality of illness. After a while, though, Rudolph’s less successful choices become harder to ignore. The soundtrack is overbearing, some of the fantasy inserts are sloppy and undercut the sophistication (especially the “Fever” sequence, seemingly there just to give Robin Tunney a big scene), and while I was not as bothered by Denis Leary’s performance as others have been, his continual sneering presence eventually blunts its own impact. These elements – which must work for some viewers – felt like concessions to a hypothetical Someone who needs things spelled out for them. It’s also worth noting that the kids are all wonderfully naturalistic, no preening cuteness anywhere in sight. Since they too have to perform adult-like roles in Dave’s unconscious, lesser actors could have derailed the film. All in all, a very good film with moments of greatness. [Second viewing: The Leary and Tunney portions of the film are indeed blunt and intrusive, bringing too much subtext front and center. But, for what may be purely personal reasons, all the subtleties, all the failures to connect, all the ways Dave shuts down, all the simple management of daily life, far outweighed the demerits. I even liked the soundtrack a little better; the Cat Power and Craig Wedren in particular were not, strictly speaking, necessary, but greatly enjoyed.]
American Wedding (Jesse Dylan)
More a film of set-pieces than of narrative continuity, American Wedding is frequently incompetent by any reasonable standard of commercial filmmaking. (What’s with those weird high-angle shots of Biggs, How High Guy?) But unlike AP2, Wedding manages to strike a good balance between genuine warmth and body-function humor. Eugene Levy is a rock, as usual, but the real surprise here is Seann William Scott. Stifler is a force of nature in this film, and while he sometimes overreaches, by and large this is one of the best comic performances I’ve seen all year. (The gay nightclub sequence, which could have been mean-spirited gay-baiting, gives Stifler enough rope to hang his diva ass. But Scott is at his best when toggling between Good and Evil Stifler from second to second.) Happily, the blandest actors from 1 and 2 are missing, and there is an anarchic, slipshod, balls-out quality which at times resembles John Waters more than Late Capitalist Industrial Teen Comedy. One major complaint: why’s it such a boys’ club? The hilarious opening scene demonstrates that Alyson Hannigan is a comic dynamo when you give her something to do.
Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, U.K.)
My friend Domietta warned me that this movie is “a fable,” and I shouldn’t judge it too harshly for its broad characterizations or failure to conform to narrative plausibility. Fair enough, but why then are some characters, such as Okwe (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Guo-yi (Benedict Wong), relatively well-rounded and complex? This problem underscores the thorough unevenness of this project, from its glamorizing cinematography to its wild veering between dark humor and maudlin emotion. The film behaves like a thriller but talks like a political tract, and the strange thing is, sometimes this really works. (The line about being “the people you never see” was actually affecting, because as performed, it successfully conveyed the film’s strident ambivalence.) Mostly, this film frustrates because it announces itself as so much more than it really is. Oh, and Audrey Tautou sounds like Natasha from the old “Bullwinkle” show. (“Today I bit, Moose and Squirrel. I bit.”)
-Old School (Todd Phillips)
Theo Panayides already articulated many of my objections to this one, proving once again that Theo is much more of a trooper than I am. Actually I'm a bit too depressed at having actually watched it to write a genuine review. (Theo the Cypriot has had more time to adjust to the dearth of viewing options that leads to watching this type of thing.) Nevertheless, it’s also worth noting that no movie should aspire to rip off both Rushmore and Animal House because those two worldviews are incompatible, as well they should be. (See, the trouble is, the men are in grown-up situations which they are not yet emotionally mature enough to handle. But going back to school shows them what’s important. It’s like they have to go to school to learn to be old. Jesus H.)
Swimming Pool (François Ozon, France / U.K.)
I recently saw Sitcom on TV, and having seen the “mature” Ozon of Under the Sand and even 8 Women, I had forgotten how besotted Ozon could be with his own bizarre, half-formed ideas. Sitcom ultimately felt oppressive and smug, but at least in some discomfiting way it was alive. Swimming Pool is the mark of a maverick artist trying to go straight, and that seldom works out for anyone. (Cf. The Sweet Hereafter, Young Soul Rebels, Liz Phair.) Essentially a one-note culture-clash joke (tight-assed Brits vs. Frenchies who let it all hang out), this film nevertheless takes itself very seriously. Charlotte Rampling is wasted as a priggish cultural stereotype, and I wonder if she somehow understood her own performance to be a kind of mannered enterprise designed to elicit audience distaste. Ludivine Sagnier does not conduct herself very convincingly in English, but then she too is more of a pawn than a fully-formed character. (Nice tits, though.) After the thirty-fifth rigid composition or slow zoom-in, I checked out on this, and I’m not convinced anyone who made this Arthouse Respectability Machine cared about it much more than I did.
-Selections from “Underground Zero”
Ordinarily I allot short films and videos full-length reviews, on the premise that when made well, they are every bit as complex and formally rich as full-length features. A short film simply operates within a different set of formal parameters, and its relative brevity or density should be analyzed with at least as much care as one would afford to a more expansive work. A few factors have prompted me to adopt a different tack here. On the one hand, these shorts were packaged together, and so it’s kind of reasonable to treat them as one unified text. On the other hand, I watched the films on DVD, and more than half of the selected program was so irritating or pat or twee or slapdash or repugnant or boring that I could not refrain from flipping the chapters ahead. So I can’t really grade or review “Underground Zero” as a whole, or go into too much depth with the parts I watched. And this may have something to do with the subject matter itself. What can really be said about 9/11 in the short form? I have not yet seen the 11’09”01 omnibus, which at least has formal continuity, whatever its inevitable pitfalls, to recommend it. Most of the entries here (linked, I might add, with the ill-advised tolling of funereal bells) demonstrate, above all, that 9/11 brings out bland, pious images from the cultural imaginary, such as Jay Rosenblatt’s Prayer [3/10], an obvious, signature-style piece from a talented artist who needs to find a new set of tools. Or, we discover what we probably already knew, which is that 9/11 renders virtually any metaphor smug and irrelevant. This is absolutely the case with Caveh Zahedi’s The World is a Classroom [4/10], in which Zahedi’s lazy, “unconventional” teaching antics – which speak mostly to his inability to take responsibility for his academic authority until it can be put to self-serving use – are supposed to resonate with the gulf in understanding between the U.S. and the Arab world. We also learn that it is all too easy to wag fingers and play Monday-morning quarterback, as in Robert Edwards’ dreadful The Voice of the Prophet [2/10]. An interview with a WTC security expert Rick Rescorla filmed after the first terrorist bombing in 1998, the film turns his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy into hacked-up soundbites and staccato ejaculations. Are these ideas cogent, much less prophetic? Hard to say, since the film reduces them to a three minute commercial. That Rescorla died in the WTC in 9/11 (Edwards’ text at the end tells us, but we pretty much already know) makes it all the more infuriating that this badly bungled agitprop film will serve as his last testament. In Laura Plotkin’s 21 [5/10], we see that there are numerous stories to be told about those persecuted in the aftermath of 9/11. While Plotkin’s film basically lets one woman’s testimony speak for itself, it also exhibits a limited aesthetic modesty, chiming in with ominous music while adopting the transparent visual style of political reportage. The result is muddled. This is also the case in Cathy Lee Crane and Sarah Lewison’s Meal [5/10], a short video piece which did not make the main package. Combining lively talk radio with penetrating minimalist video, it begins with acuity and wit, but sadly cops out, concluding as a one-liner. Finally, we come to Ira Sachs’ untitled [7/10], which consists solely of silent, two-second close-ups of images of the dead, taken from the “missing” flyers produced by their loved ones. The subtle differences in the images, how the wedding photos or group shots or casual holiday snapshots become forever transformed, are heartrending, and they truly speak for themselves. Like Ken Jacobs’ documentary Circling Zero, Sachs provides the most potent, disturbing, but truthful assessment of how to make sense of 9/11. It’s important that we shut up and listen to those who have been most directly affected. Most of us have nothing of value to say on the matter, and we cannot simply submit to the nervous urge to fill the silence.