SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 2004
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Hero (Zhang Yimou, China / Hong Kong)
I actually have very little to add to what Shelly Kraicer says here. (However, Shelly doesn't cite one key scene that seems to be to be a vital example for his thesis. The "battle" between Nameless and Sky, dramatizing the mental component of martial arts with a flourish I'm sure made Tarantino drool, clarifies the force of absence and the dialectic between thought and action.) I found Hero utterly breathtaking, but I admit I'm still puzzled by its politics. The overriding theme is clear -- individual needs, ambitions, claims for independence, etc., must ultimately be put aside in favor of "our land" (or, as I'm told the expression should more properly be translated, "all under heaven"). While this doesn't necessarily imply an allegory for Chinese Communism or its claims of national interest over and above the niggling needs of Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc., it's certainly not out of the question. Hero's eye-popping beauty and formal mastery is self-evident, and despite my own political leanings, I am in fact capable of embracing even an outright totalitarian piece of cinema (if that's what Hero is) provided it succeeds on purely aesthetic grounds. But it is a surprising sentiment coming from the man who made Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern not so long ago. It led me to idly consider, just for a moment, that a thin level of irony might be at work. This officially-sanctioned blockbuster sacrifices Zhang's authorial consistency, and four of Asian cinema's most beloved performers, in the service of itself, its sweeping effects and lush color schemes and nationalist message. In the end, the only thing I'm sure of is that Hero is a whirling, kinetic Kantian machine, and it works.
Father and Son (Alexander Sokurov, Russia / Portugal / Germany / Italy / The Netherlands)
I'm tempted to call this one of the strangest Sokurov films I've seen, but then, what would a statement like that really mean? Far more coherent than something like Days of Eclipse, less Russian-stolid than The Second Circle, and not as drunk on pageantry as Russian Ark (the first Sokurov film I really liked), Father and Son seems like an outright bid for arthouse acceptability. Of course, Sokurov doesn't really have it in him to be a middlebrow entertainer, and that's fortunate for us. This lurch toward comprehensibility yields a new kind of oddness, images issuing forth as though their maker were trying valiantly to suppress a trauma and gamely smile through his tears. I'm probably making this film sound cheery, which is a mistake. But it manages to channel loss through tenderness, both in terms of its interpersonal relationships and the warm, yellowy darkness of its images -- like sepia illuminated from within. Much has been made of the homoeroticism between Aleksei (Aleksei Nejmyshev) and his father (Andrei Shchetinin), and there is an amount of naked-torso cuddling that inevitably raises the Western eyebrow. But most of the homoeroticism on display seems to me to simply be the result of depositing two youngish men (three, if you count Aleksandr Razbash's benign interloper Sasha) into Sokurov's aesthetic machine, influenced as it is by Germanic Romanticism and the legacy of Russian virility post-Glasnost. The first scene of the film has Father and Son in bed together, but Aleksei has had a nightmare and his father is talking him down. Yes, in realistic terms, the son is too old to run to his father's bed for such comfort. But Sokurov, risking silliness, is inventing an idealized realm where paternal love can be a world apart from the social demands of masculinity. Of course, this world has to be negotiated through those very social demands. Unlike the idyllic death paean that was Mother and Son -- virtually a Caspar David Friedrich painting on film, with its attendant stillness and posing -- Father and Son does not close its protagonists off. Rather, it is the camaraderie of military service (the Afghanistan War, alluded to but never named) that bonds men, demands fellow-feeling from them, but gives limited vent to those feelings. Fatherhood, as well as male friendship (Sasha's father served with Aleksei's, and has been MIA for years), provides both succor and rivalry, stasis and conflict. So in some regards this really is Sokurov's most conventional film, and more closely resembles the elliptical character studies of 1960s art cinema than it does his frequent neo-Tarkovskian stylings. Most relationships are hinted at and allowed to hang in the air unresolved, all the better to linger on the walls of a modestly appointed apartment, taken an unmotivated tram ride through St. Petersberg, or play a round of sun-kissed rooftop soccer. In short, a tone poem that doesn't hang together but always compels. And with that, it's miles ahead of Sokurov's more coherent efforts. One final note: Aleksei's putative girlfriend certainly gets shunted aside in this male-bonding bonanza, but she and Aleksei do share the single finest sequence in the film. Her conversation with him from outside of his barracks (the first of her two appearances) is rendered in a controlled, exacting montage that pulsates with erotic energy, heightening it by incorporating Aleksei's disinterest into the structure of the encounter. After the single-shot Russian Ark, it's as though Sokurov packed five films' worth of editing prowess into five taut minutes.
-The Foliage (Lu Yue, China / Hong Kong)
This is the second film by Lu Yue, a former DP for Zhang Yimou, and his first film, Mr. Zhao, was a smashing success on the festival circuit, winning plaudits from the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Scott Tobias and earning comparisons to Cassavetes. I myself never saw Mr. Zhao, but I heard quite a but about it, so I filed Lu's name away for future reference. Seems like I was alone. Aside from being selected for the Vancouver International Film Festival, The Foliage has been mostly ignored by programmers, which is odd. A film this sumptuous and well-crafted has no business falling through the cracks, especially when U.S. arthouses are overrun with mediocre Sino-Product-Crud. Chinese cinema expert Shelly Kraicer confirmed what I suspected, that this film represents Lu's entry into "official" Chinese filmmaking. While compromises are inevitable in such a situation, I found myself thinking that yes, by some critical standards for the "art film," The Foliage is rather middlebrow. It is a period piece, centered on a specific charged moment in Chinese history (Mao's "sending down" of young intellectuals into the countryside for hard labor), and as was the case with a film featuring a certain recent Best Actress winner, The Foliage exacts a rather pointed glamming-down from its star, Shu Qi. But both of these arguably dubious moves are so deftly handled by Lu that The Foliage redeems any lingering aroma of mega-production blandness. Shu delivers the most measured, carefully modulated performance I've seen from her so far, as a determined young woman torn between duty to her family and her nation, whose frazzled existence is further complicated by a Communist love triangle. (Even this inescapably clichéd construct -- having to choose between the straight-edge party-line Cultural Revolutionary and the punkish loose cannon -- is hewn with such subtlety that you'll forget what a hoary chestnut it is.) There's a focus on the physical toll that emotions take in this context, with Shu rushing about, struggling to stay appropriately stoic and dedicated as she's coming apart inside. (It's as if Lu is placing melodrama alongside socialist public works in order to show that private turmoil is just another form of work.) But what's really unique about The Foliage isn't its plot. Lu's formal construction is epic in its own way, but eschews the typical shorthand, the usual insistence on reminding us that we're watching Grand Historical Events from a worm's-eye view. Most daring in this regard is his refusal to code the Cultural Revolution as a sick pervasive menace. Rather, he chooses to simply show it as a set of banal historical realities, an everyday set of tasks and obstacles. By adopting this approach, I suppose Lu risks alienating some viewers, coming off like he's too in hock to the Communist authorities to lay it all on the line. But the resulting film bears no hint of prevarication or soft-pedaling. Rather, it shows ordinary people dealing with trying but quotidian circumstances, muddling through and making the best. This strategy rhymes perfectly with Lu's other major achievement, his use of space and color. Thankfully, no one in this film ever makes reference to the title, but that title underscores just what this film is about and how it works. These young scholars are sent to clear out the thicket so roads can be built. Lu's every shot teems with this dense plant life, saturating each frame with a vibrating emerald green. Even better, The Foliage's use of medium-long shots and long master shots, while never overbearing and overly demonstrative, reminds us of how all of the seemingly unrelated romantic and interpersonal intrigue is in large part constrained and generated by this unfamiliar backwater and the challenge it poses. Mao sent these young urban men and women into the underdeveloped heart of China with the expectation that they would receive a re-education. Deftly, without lapsing into didacticism, Lu's film shows us that this land certainly changed them, but not in the way Mao planned.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner)
Grade would have been an easy 7 had I been properly stoned. If you are even remotely considering seeing this picture, chronic is a must. Brilliant in many parts, but slow to build and occasionally taking too long between gut-busting moments. Still, this is miles ahead of the idiocy of Dude, Where's My Car? Also, Kal Penn is a natural screen star and has effortless comic timing. (John Cho, not so much, although he's got the thankless straight-man gig.) Having spent the past several years teaching some seriously privileged 22-year-old dillweeds (they typically comprise about one-third of any given class), I appreciate a comedy this committed to displaying the cluelessness, obnoxiousness, and casual racism of white dudes. But this isn't some multi-culti preach-fest, either. Shit, I can't do this proper justice, so I'm going to turn it over to a bud of mine. He Writes, "this picture is genius in the way it co opts the frat boy humo(u)r to expose the frat boy racicalism against slants and browns. Remember in the beginning seen how it is set up like it is going to be a lame white frat boy comedy about getting Ethan Embree laid and [Harold] is just a comic relief slant character, and then the movie is all about [Harold] and not at all about Ethan Embree. That was so awesome." Yes bud. Yes it was.
Intimate Strangers (Patrice Leconte, France)
Absolutely middlebrow, but surprisingly lively (especially for a Paramount Classics pick-up). Part of its success is due to its willingness to alter the rules of the game. Right at the moments when I found myself thinking, "okay, this ruse has gone far enough," Leconte and company adjust the premise ever so slightly, throwing a slight kink into the narrative just when we need it the most. Performances are strong across the board (until Gilbert Melki shows up, that is), but watching Sandrine Bonnaire invest what's essentially a soap-opera character with such subtle shading -- for instance, watch the micro-physiognomy of emotion dappled across her face when she first confronts William about his deception -- is a heady pleasure. I knew she worked wonders with better material, having seen her in Pialat and Varda films, but here, she raises the proceedings to another level entirely. Sadly, the score is irritating and intrusive, and some of the montage decisions appear utterly random, like they're following the rhythm of whatever the editor happened to be listening to on her Walkman that month. And the final shot is a botch, unless it's intended to signal some sort of disinterested gamesmanship with respect to all that we just witnessed.
The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme)
Strong, propulsive, generally enjoyable, yet oddly strident and declarative. Demme and Co. are so intent on driving home the film's updated political message that they bombard us with neo-Soviet visual motifs and military-industrial-complex blathering, over and over, and it gets exhausting. (The use of a Barbara Kruger-style campaign billboard indicates the ham-fisted, anti-Reagan-80s approach employed here.) The Frankenheimer original wasn't subtle, of course, but it was undeniably elegant. And despite ample directorial mastery (the fragmented editing scheme, the use of blackouts to frequently submerge the audience in a state of confusion similar to Marco's), elegant this ain't. It's a sledgehammer, but it gets the job done, I suppose. Washington and Schreiber deliver incisive performances, but Streep swings for the bleachers, pitching it somewhere between Hillary Clinton as portrayed by her detractors, and, believe it or not, Jack Lemmon (all fast-paced yet halting declamation). It's one of those acting jobs I can appreciate on a technical level, despite its insistence on running contrary to every fiber of my aesthetic judgment.
We Don't Live Here Anymore (John Curran)
Solid acting partially rescuing a mediocre, deterministic script and very poor direction. I liked Curran's last film Praise quite a lot, but here, he takes the material's "adult" nature so seriously, grabbing us gently by the lapels to make sure we respond with the appropriate solemnity and grave nodding. (The camera takes actorly moments that should be little grace notes -- minor details like wiping crumbs off the countertop or walking under a canopy of trees -- and lingers on them, dropping them into the film like anvils. Not quite as leaden as The Hours in this respect, but unnervingly close.) Likewise, the screenplay (another Andre Dubus adaptation) is comprised of tin-eared arguments and interactions, overwritten and telegraphing their intended spontaneity but in fact handed down on stone tablets. Only Ruffalo can really make this dialogue connect emotionally, since he generates his character precisely from the awkwardness and overdetermination of his language. He tends to pause between somewhat smug, overly-premeditated interjections, like a man at one remove from his own life. Watts, Krause, and Dern all acquit themselves nicely, but can't quite overcome the inherent limitations of this Prince Albert Oscar-Bait in a Can. Narrative ambiguity note: at the end, I honestly couldn't tell whether Terry's final remark meant that she and Jack were staying together or splitting up.
-Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit (Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo)
Pitched uneasily between Spellbound and Cinemania (that is, "let's learn about these unconventional competitors" / "check out the obsessive freaks!"), Word Wars satisfies despite itself. Granted, I have an abiding interest in the subject matter, since I've been a minor Scrabble enthusiast for some years. Unlike Spellbound, which coasted on the goodwill generated by its focus on cute kids, one gets the sense from Word Wars that the subjects are generally more complicit in their overall presentation. These guys are weirdos, and, for the most part, proud of it. Marlon Hill is by far the most compelling subject, a self-educated Washington Square Park table-hustler turned tournament contender. (His riffs on language as a reflection of the cultures that speak it, and his occasional dollops of black-radical rhetoric, are especially suggestive.) Without putting too fine a point on it, Chaikin and Petrillo zero in on Marlon's uncomfortable role as an irritant in this mostly-white, geeky-downcast milieu. (After a dowdy-looking Scrabble official takes the podium to announce an interdiction on intimidation and foul language at the tables, Marlon defensively asks, "Why's everybody looking at me?") Oddly, despite such moments of mid-tournament personality-revelation, the first half of Word Wars (meeting the four main subjects) is much stronger than the second. Unlike Spellbound, Word Wars falters when it comes to conveying the mania, the glazed-over tension of mental competition, the banal turned electrifying. Partly, it could just be that there's really no way to make a bunch of guys sitting around playing Scrabble "filmic." In fact, it's at this point that the filmmakers begin to rely on condescending vérité tricks, like showing a bride getting into an elevator at the San Diego hotel where the Nationals are being held. She peers into the room, bemused, gawking at all the geeks hovering over tables. "Look," the film seems to say, "normal sexual functioning with a real live girl! That's what these guys'll never have." (This, after the film establishes that champion Joe Edley's reign may be ending, in part due to the demands of family life.) But does this matter? Clearly, most of these guys are really happy with the tile-intensive lives they lead, but a niggling detail like that won't prevent the directors from goosing the audience with a cheap shot. FALTERING CINE-PURISM ALERT: I watched this on Discovery Times Channel, so the swear words were bleeped out. They were almost always "fuck" or "motherfucker" (usually, but not always, courtesy of Marlon), and they weren't too hard to mentally re-insert.
Collateral (Michael Mann)
Hard for me to understand what everyone's seeing in this. There's a shotgun wedding here between the "freedom" of digital technology (allowing Mann to flatten out his images, glazing them over like a dirty windshield; sorry, but this is an ugly-ass film) and an overbearing script that's constantly striving way too hard for significance (endlessly overwritten "existential" digressions, all wrapped up within a patently obvious narrative pattern where incidental meetings become capital-F Fate). I can see what it wants to do (B-movie poetry wrapped in a sturdy genre husk; an "urban Western"), but for it to work, it would have needed either to be tighter (Remember how Budd Boetticher's best films clocked in at under 80 minutes? He was awesome.) or bombastic enough to inspire some sort of emotional engagement with its functionary "characters" (Even P. T. Anderson's biggest detractors concede that he individualizes his pawns through grand operatic gestures). Gavin Smith's appreciation in the Jul/Aug Film Comment discusses Collateral's focus on professionalism, but even this feels nailed on, like a placard reading, "Howard Hawks wuz here." Expected to be exhilarated, came away bored out of my skull.
Garden State (Zach Braff)
Here's the scene. You're in your second year of college. You live in the dorms, eat at the student union, don't get out much. Some girl you don't know very well comes up and starts talking to you. She's flirty, a little bit annoying, but you're curious, so you sort of roll with it, despite your reservations. You go back to her dorm room. No chairs; you have to sit on the floor. She's rambling on, she's obviously really into her pseudo-Annie Hall quirkiness, affectation upon affectation. By this time, you know it was a mistake. You're not into this. But there's no available moment to extricate yourself. She's telling you about her asshole dad. "Um, I should really go," you say, not as forcefully as you should. "Oh, wait, wait, I've got to play you this song!" She puts on a song you already know, acts like she's exposing you to it for the first time, and you hope that this disc, also in your own collection, isn't tainted by the negative association. She refuses to pick up on your cues, your silence, your fidgeting. Then, a bunch of her obnoxious friends come in, and she's all, "Oh hey, this is [your name here]!" You think you can leave now, but one of her younger-than-you guy friends starts rambling at you about his sub-Sartrean ideas on Life. The girl really feels this connection with you. She and her friends have so much to say, about their dads, their part-time jobs, the coolest concert they ever saw. Oh wait, they have to play you this one other song. Somebody breaks out the drugs. You politely decline, which is a mistake, since the girl and all her friends are even more tedious once they're rolling (and you're not). You've missed dinner. It's 2 a.m. The friends are all counseling the girl on how to win you over, and they think you can't pick up on this, because they're wasted, and they're whispering. It's all so quirky and "deep" and everyone's personality is amplified because they are aiming their behavior straight at you. But the good news is, eventually they fall asleep. It's over. Thank god. You can leave now.
Open Water (Chris Kentis)
There are people -- honest, hard-working people, with a healthy curiosity -- who will see Open Water this weekend and not venture into another "independent" film for years to come. Good job Kentis. The videography is the ugliest I've seen since (let's do the timewarp, fellas!) Some Body. The two protagonists are brainless, pissy, and privileged -- young white America at its absolute worst -- and I couldn't wait for the (real!) sharks to devour them. Occasionally, there would be a brief snatch of abstract, glistening ocean footage (how could there not be?), but Kentis, keeping consistent with his film-school-undergraduate level directorial decisions, would besmirch it with some faux-spiritual choral music from Fiji. Whatever, man. Oh, and speaking of brief snatch, Blanchard Ryan is the worst screen actress I've seen in ages, but at least she was charitable enough to get naked.