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)




-Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)*

I assume that my tiny readership is well-versed in the ways of Film Comment, Cinema Scope, The Village Voice, and all things cine-indie. I assume you follow the reports out of film festivals such as Rotterdam and Sundance, and if you're reading this and don't fit that description, I thank you kindly, because you're almost certainly my mother-in-law. (Hi, Linda!) But, assuming that you aren't, you'll need little introduction to Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, already lauded as one of the year's finest films, and one of the most patient, insightful American indies in ages. Such descriptions are without a doubt true. Old Joy is a cinematic miniature with a deft, literary attention to the minutiae of human behavior, the awkward hesitancies and interstitial silences that accrue between friends as time and distance wear away at who we are. It's jewel-like in its construction, bursting with the verdant flora of the Oregon forest yet meticulously fashioned and arranged, a rare, effortless-seeming union of the natural and the manmade. Reichardt and cinematographer Peter Sillen (himself no slouch as an avant-garde documentarian) masterfully log the transition from manicured suburbia into the dense thicket around the Cascade Mountains. The film eventually arrives at the Bagby Hot Springs, a transitional space where human intervention has clearly been kept to an absolute minimum. As a pure landscape film, Old Joy yields vast sensual rewards.


But there's quite a bit more going on in Old Joy, and while some of it adds a layer of plangency and depth, other aspects are less formally resolved. Adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymond's own short story, Old Joy examines the brief re-encounter of two old friends, Mark (Daniel London), a seemingly settled man whose wife is expecting their first child, and Kurt (alt-country artist Will Oldham), an itinerantly hippie who has fallen out of touch with Mark. The emotional crux of the film is in its quiet accumulation of silences and unanswered statements, the gaps between these two men and who they've become. (Or perhaps more accurately, who Mark has become; the implication is that Kurt hasn't . . . evolved? No, that implies a greater sympathy with Mark's newer commitments, and although I certainly identify with Mark's character more -- I used to live in communal situations, had lots of hippie friends, and now I'm kind of a low-rent yuppified professional, and one of the few men in my circle of friends to have gotten married -- Old Joy is careful to withhold judgment on either Kurt or Mark.) Reichardt teases perfectly downcast performances from her two leads, although periodically Oldham turns up the intensity, revealing Kurt's manic, needy side. (The ambiguous conclusion implies that more could be riding on this reunion for Kurt than Mark or the viewer realizes.) Compared to the mute presence of nature, Kurt and Mark are as verbose as any Rohmer or Bergman protagonists, but rarely does "conversation" take place. Rather, both men issue brief, ejaculatory statements of purpose, waiting in vain for the other man to pick up the ball, waiting for "connection." Instead, replies tend to consist of "No shit," or "Tell me about it," empty tokens of strained empathy. The loss of connection is the vacuum that Old Joy catalogs but doesn't fill, and even nature, big as life, proves inadequate to the task.


Upon first viewing Old Joy, I was gently nudged into a deep sense of personal loss. I wondered how I might even compose a review that did much more than issue a blanket apology to all those who have moved in and out of my life over the years. A second viewing lowered my estimation of the film ever so slightly, despite retaining its emotional valence. Some aspects of Old Joy feel over-written, too perfectly constructed to achieve its intended impact. If cinema and theatre are media best suited to the power of things unsaid, of the unrelieved tension of hanging pauses, then perhaps some of Old Joy's overdeterminations are the result of its literary provenance. When, during the restaurant scene, Kurt enthuses that "now we don't have to rush, we can take our time," the waitress returns to ask if the men need more time, and Mark says, "No," shoving the menu her way. This is Reichardt and Raymond driving the point home a little too directly. Likewise, when Kurt's dream delivers the meaning of Old Joy's enigmatic title, I found myself resenting these incursions into verbal symbolism. Make no mistake; even these highly directive passages "work," just as Mark's Air America radio soundtrack economically makes its own point about the sense of leftist ennui that bedevils his (and Reichardt's) generation. Even though, compared to most other American films of the past ten or fifteen years, Old Joy is a model of subtlety and finesse, I found myself torn by them, since the film's rolling landscapes and emphasis on the ethics of listening all imply that it is committed to an experimental, open form. In fact, it's heavily controlled. This isn't a flaw in itself (although I'll gladly cop to being partial to less mannered artworks with ample room to move), but it does point to an odd inconsistency in tone. The human drama and the great outdoors promise to become objective correlatives to one another, but actually end up floating downriver side by side.


-When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee) [v]

The assignment -- the moral charge, really -- was to construct a document, a memorial to the human toll of institutional indifference and its continuing aftermath. In this respect, four hours is barely enough, although Lee's film is astonishing in its scope and acuity. Most projects like this tend to serve as externalizations of memory, tools that allow the past to become History and thereby afford us the luxury of forgetting. And usually, we get unctuous myth-making in the bargain, some sort of civically enforced uplift that simplifies human tragedy into heroes and villains, mourning into some idiotic approximation of righteous anger. Instead, Lee complicates matters at every turn. Certainly the Bush administration, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers are squarely held responsible, as they should be. But over the course of Lee's four acts (the hurricane, the flood, the emotional toll, and the ongoing struggle to rebuilt despite the federal government), key figures like Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, and former police chief Eddie Compass get a fair hearing, emerging as imperfect players caught up in a larger systemic failure. (Even disgraced FEMA chief Michael Brown catches a break, Penn Prof. Michael Eric Dyson taking care not to defend him, but making it clear that he was the government's designated scapegoat, and that Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and President Bush should shoulder far more blame.) Lee also takes care to provide the larger context to the Katrina disaster that the majority of media outlets were (and still are) ill-equip ed to face. Yes, it's about race and class, a "Chocolate City" left to fend for itself. (Great Moment in Dark Sarcasm: one survivor's T-shirt reading, "FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run, Motherfucker, Run.") At the same time, Lee and his expert witnesses make clear that New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole, were economically left for dead long before the storm made landfall. In the third and four hour, Lee and company make the case that with its substandard housing and educational system, and with its oil and gas revenues pilfered via governmental tax shelters and offshore accounting, Louisiana has long been America's dirty little secret, an internal colony forced to endure conditions analogous to those in the developing world. So, even if When the Levees Broke sometimes comes up short (for example, hour three's discussion of post-Katrina depression and PTSD is left as an underdeveloped drop-in), for the most part Lee has assembled the definitive record of this dark, ongoing "moment" in U.S. history. And if there's any single filmmaking strategy that seems misplaced here, it's Lee's restraint. Like Oliver Stone, Lee no doubt realizes that he's a polarizing filmmaker, someone to whom a large segment of the population won't listen, just because of who he is. Nevertheless, the film's moments of stark stylization -- Wynton Marsalis singing "St. James Infirmary," or Terrence Blanchard slowly walking down a demolished street playing the trumpet, or the disquieting final credits montage, set to Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans, which clearly owes a debt to Lars von Trier's "Young Americans" sequence at the end of Dogville -- are so powerful that I found myself wishing Lee had gone even further in using expressive filmic means to channel collective rage. Instead, he often subsumes his methods within the translucent cloak of documentary objectivity. This sometimes leads Lee's sensibility astray. (Some zoom-ins on crying interview subjects, for example, felt manipulative and intrusive.) But more often than not, When the Levees Broke reveals Lee's anger by steadily building an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. This is more than an artistic achievement; it's also a deeply humanistic one.




The Descent (Neil Marshall, U.K.)

[MINOR SPOILERS] Making the most of a low budget, Marshall acquits himself quite well and certainly distinguishes his film from the seemingly endless bedpan of horror turds Lionsgate keeps foisting on its shit-hungry demographic. Although the opening exposition is handled with little finesse, and some of those "foreboding" aerial shots of the Appalachians find Marshall and his team a bit out of their depth (sorry bud, you are no Stanley Kubrick), things really start cooking once the six principals zip down the pipe and start spelunking in the Cavern of Destiny. I'm not completely insane and so I'll avoid gratuitous (and mutually insulting) avant-garde references. But Marshall pays considerable attention to the play of sparse light across flat black fields, the craggy textures of the cave environments, and the well-timed deployment of a colored-filter "flare." Given the specific challenge of The Descent's primary assignment -- to generate claustrophobia in a film that, for commercial reasons, has to be widescreen when a tighter aspect ratio would have worked wonders -- the first half of the film is a model of resourceful economy and deft visual shorthand. Also, the damage to the women's bodies (rope burn, jagged fractures), together with Marshall's impressive attention to the sheer arduousness of rock climbing, rappelling, and wedging through the tightest of spaces, is plenty good horror all its own. But, since most commercial filmmakers don't understand that nature is adversary enough, we get the stupid monsters. Things quickly go downhill from there, but some intra-team reckoning actually has more emotional punch than it probably should, possibly by contrast. Oh, and the final scene of the original British edition was deemed by Lionsgate to be too depressing for us Yanks, but you can watch it -- where else? -- on YouTube.


-Lie with Me (Clement Virgo, Canada)

Although I'm not prepared to make any grand claims for Lie with Me, it's considerably more interesting than one would expect given its poor reception at last year's Toronto festival. Furthermore, its distributor, ThinkFilm, sent it straight-to-video in the U.S., setting expectations that much lower, but Virgo's film is worth a second look. At first glance, it appears to be little more than standard-issue softcore, but eventually it evolves into a unique (if not particularly complex) hybrid of high-toned artsploitation (Zalman King, James Toback) and poetically evocative female subjectivity. What's more, in its tone and characterization, Lie with Me melds the confrontational sexuality of Catherine Breillat with the open-form diffusion of Marguerite Duras. The opening shot is a tight close-up on what appears at first to be a dead-eyed sex doll. As the camera pulls back, we discover that it's actually our putative protagonist, Leila (Lauren Lee Smith) masturbating to porn. The first part of the film plunges us into Leila's rather blasé sexual voraciousness, and even by Skinemax standards it doesn't fail to arouse. But Leila's detached sense of control is derailed upon meeting David (Eric Balfour), a vacant young stud Leila needs to possess. If Leila is a somewhat noncommittal cipher whose obsession seems largely unmotivated (inasmuch as she's a recognizable character type, you'd imagine her to be one of those overconfident tramps who boasts about having only male friends, seeing other women as irrelevant at best, competition at worst), Virgo's directorial approach matches this anti-psychological vibe. For the most part, events and encounters just drift by, with the mark they leave on Leila's psyche hard to discern. It's high-toned trash, but at the same time Virgo, Smith, and screenwriter Tamara Berger convey the dizzy, unhinged force of Leila's hyper-corporeality. She muses on the cocks she's known, the ache on the faces of the men behind them, and the way she feels her pussy situates her in the world until, one dark day, this life strategy just doesn't work any longer. As sexual politics, it's shallow and perhaps a bit retrograde. But as filmmaking, Lie with Me possesses a tactile, enveloping quality, one unfortunately suited much more to theatrical exhibition than private, small-scale consumption. Nevertheless, this well-appointed trifle has piqued my interest in Virgo's back catalog. Lie with Me is a tough film to evaluate since, like its protagonist, it treats emotion as an embarrassment to be icily transfigured by casual prurience. Thinking, as such, has very little place, but oddly enough it won't be missed. Consider this review (scattered though it may be) a qualified recommendation.


Miami Vice (Michael Mann)

So A.O. Scott compared this to Brakhage. He's not entirely crazy to do so; there are a few moments that could pass for milliseconds of his work (light ricocheting off a shower curtain, or a second of a shootout scene wherein the fake-blood squib splatters on the lens and Mann and DP Dion Beebe just go with it). But other parts are more like high-tech Kenneth Anger (especially the two shower scenes, yellow and blue light glinting off water like sparks), and actually a lot of it resembles the saturated, high-key videography Godard used in the second half of In Praise of Love. There, Godard was trying to make the world look flat and sickly. Even his luminous Swiss landscapes took on a Coke machine glow. Mann has a slightly different agenda. He's depicting a universe that was essentially made for video, whose quality of light calls out for its searing hues and View-Master planar inscription. It's the electronic blue of a cell phone in a dark backseat; the purple neon of the strip club; the laptop on a rooftop helipad; sportscars with their halogen lamps against the "warmer" amber of highway streetlamps; and the architecture of Miami itself, pearly white backdrops for our two cardboard cutouts Crockett and Tubbs to pose against. (It's the kind of "iconic" move Sergio Leone used to make, when a face could still etch itself on emulsion, crags and all, and command our attention.) So, as abstraction, Miami Vice compels, up to a point. But as it drones on, its formalist bling exhausts itself, forgets how not to reduce itself to a videogame. And, as its conclusion strives for poignancy just because Mann thinks a "narrative film" demands a meaningful conclusion, it ultimately squanders its goodwill and looks ridiculous. I guess too much high-ticket eye candy hurts my tum-tum. At any rate, pairing Colin Farrell with Jaime Foxx (to say nothing of Gong Li) just amplifies his charisma deficit.




-Abeni (Tunde Kelani, Nigeria / Benin) [v]

Although this is the first Nigerian video-film I've seen, even the trailers preceding Abeni on the VCD make it clear that most Nigerian product is slapdash, hackneyed, and rather perfervid in the way it extols the virtues of Christianity over folk traditions. It's fairly obvious that in terms of technical sophistication, thematic approach, and fluency in world cinema, Kelani is a cut above his peers. (One of these days I'll purchase some random, non-Kelani video-film and give it a spin. I'm expecting something like a cross between the Left Behind series and the early works of Mohsen Makhmalbaf.) In addition to leaving Christianity in the background -- firmly present, but just another aspect of his characters' lives -- Kelani seems significant for playing around with the mandatory trappings of genre. It's a basic love story, working the whole star-crossed lovers / disapproving parents angle in the context of strict class division, Nigerian / Beninois cultural tensions, and modern young people's independence butting up against traditional filial piety. But for the first hour, Kelani has fun with it. It's not just that he lays his derivative cards on the table. (Just when you pick up on the trite genre mechanics, Kelani has a minor character call Abeni "Juliet.") And it's not just that Kelani flouts his utter indifference to the pop songs and club scenes he's apparently obligated to include, undercutting his own established directorial competence by reverting to video effects Kajagoogoo would've laughed at in 1983. Like the best of Bollywood, Abeni's top-notch Nollywood finds an auteur expressing himself through attention to space and framing, little shifts in conventional decoupage, and the tonal friction that comes from incommensurable acting styles. Sola Asedeko, as Abeni, comports herself with careless regality and star-quality to burn, while her co-star Amzat Abdel Hakim, as her middle-class suitor Akanni, blusters through each scene with a bull-headed lack of affect. Hakim reminded me of when American football players act, assuming that on camera as on the field, it's all about going big and looking pissed off. (On the other hand, the two hip-hop guys just back from the States and trying to roll all gangsta in conservative Lagos are lovely comic relief; their restaurant scene is a total gem. No small parts indeed.) Abeni is unapologetically soapy, but even on a purely narrative level, damned if it isn't a bit engaging, despite its predictability. (Again, Nollywood / Bollywood, same wood, different tree.) But the joy of the first half is clearly in watching Kelani lavish attention on this most slender of scenarios, attention that from an industrial standpoint can only be described as superfluous. Sadly, even Kelani seems to stop caring in the perfunctory second hour, which is all about a frantic run-up to a flimsy non-conclusion. TIFF's Cameron Bailey generously calls it a "cliffhanger," but it's just a cheap set-up for Abeni II.


-In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson)

[The following is a transcript of a private email exchange, with minor adjustments to protect the not-so-innocent.]


Bud: Hack see Inside Her Shoes.


Hack: Why.


Bud: On account of it is the dorky yet excellently executed chick flick and Curtis Handsome is becoming the interesting Hocksian studio system auteur even though the Auteurist Zombies themselves find him uninteresting.


[seven months later . . .]


Hack: Well no. I will conseed that Inside Her Shoes tends to downplay some of the more obvious chick flick conventionalisms and such. For example Rose's romance with Simon was actually developed at a reasonably human type pace instead of just assumed like a fate accomplee. This reminded me of The Terms of the Endearment which I think is the Golden Standard of the chick flicks in my opinion. However Handsome cannot subvert such whorey chestnuts as the job search montage or the tearful recon-silly-ation. Also much of this film even making the basic narrative sense is predicated on accepting as absolute truth the wrong headed idea that Cameron Diaz is super hot. Although I think she did the fine acting job in this picture I find her so off putting that it was like in The Suture when you are supposed to accept that the black guy and the white guy are "identical twins" except there the fact that it doesn't make any sense is the grand philosophical joke whereas in Inside Her Shoes we are clearly supposed to think "Wow that Cameron Diaz is so hot, I want to be and/or fuck her so bad, I do not care that her character is an illiterate asshole," and therefore the other characters in the film don't care either and it makes "sense." This never ever makes any sense, therefore the picture is urksome and also rather boring.


[two days later . . .]


Bud: Also Hack it is too bad you did not at least sort of like Inside Her Shoes however your reasoning is retarded. It is one thing to say "Due to my personal blind spot for Cameroon Diaz this picture did not work for me" but to say "This picture is fatally flawed on account of assuming Cameroon Diaz is hot" is retarded when you know full well she is considered the international type sex symbol.


Hack: This is the good point bud. I should have copt to the fact that I do have something of the blind type spot regarding the hotness of Cameroon (good one bud) however I have not minded her in films of the cinema such as Charles Has Angels or The Being of Jonathan Malkovich and acting wise as I said above I thot she was fine here too. The problem comes with the fact that in the film Inside Her Shoes her character is given nothing to flesh her out other than (a) she is super hot and (b) she cannot read. But had I not fixatated on the hotness issue I would have noted other things for example that the Colette Anthony character has nothing much to flesh her out either except (a) she is addicted to workohol and (b) she has bodily image issues. I guess what I am saying is Curtis Handsome or no Curtis Handsome this is another under-Written johnra shorthand type piece with the laziness of characterizationalism.


Bud: Also remember how even the apparent hissable-villain type characters like the bitchy stepmom and the cheating boyfriend are given the gracenotes of redemption. That was awesome.


Hack: No. (I do not remember this, and if it was there it was not notably awesome.)


Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay)

The grade may be a tad ungenerous, since this film is hilarious during the 33.3% of the time it's really on. That's certainly a higher percentage than, say, Anchorman, a film whose Robert Goulet-in-polyester charms failed to suck me in. But apart from having a few too many misfires for me to fully embrace it, I'm just not sure about its cultural agenda. I mean okay, the going assumption is that Hollywood and its comic-actor millionaires are going to look down their noses at NASCAR and its fans. They're such an easy target for coastal smartasses (even ESPN's Kenny Mayne once opened his NASCAR coverage by thanking his viewers for having electricity) that avoiding the cheapest-shots seems to be held up as a virtue in this case. But the fact that Talladega doesn't condescend in the most obvious ways doesn't obviate a sense of insular liberal smugness. The film attempts to heal the Great National Divide by largely pretending it doesn't exist. That is, the bigotry and intolerance that politicos have so successfully channeled is characterized as benevolent culture clash. This project is almost entirely pinned on Sacha Baron Cohen's Jean Girard character. (Cohen's performance is brilliant, certainly to be remembered around critics'-poll time. He almost singlehandedly subverts / redeems the film.) A gay French existentialist Formula One driver who comes to America and takes NASCAR by storm, Girard functions in the film to imply that even in North Carolina, meritocracy and a secure sense of self will win out. "Frenchie can drive," as John C. Reilly's character puts it, and so in the world of Talladega Nights little else seems to matter. After a setback, Ricky Bobby emerges from exile to discover that Jean Girard is all the rage, even prompting guys in the stands to hold up homemade placards imploring, "French me!" Along the same track, Talladega tries to take the piss out of asshole-redneck behavior, the sense of white male entitlement that assumes the loudest and strongest possesses inalienable ugly-American rights. Against this, we have Ricky's mom and her values: good manners, church-going, respect for your elders. And so, what does all this mean? I'm not sure, but it seems to be a cracker-ass variation on Chris Rock's infamous "black people vs. niggas" riff, which is now available (minus the humor) in book form courtesy of Thomas Sowell. If boiled down to a thesis, Talladega might go like this: "The urban media, along with the worst elements among our own, characterize us Southerners as crass, intolerant, and mindlessly macho. In reality most of us are open-minded Christian folk, dedicated to tradition but willing to accept difference and diversity." Is this liberal fantasy, or unseen, on-the-ground reality? This is almost beside the point. The people responsible for making this film are so invested in this worldview that they're essentially spackling the flyover states with a thick, gooey utopianism. The surface, whatever's really down there, is hardly matters to them at all.


-Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine)

In the early 90s, California passed a law that auto makers who wanted to do business in the state had to insure that a minimum percentage of their product consisted of zero-emissions electric vehicles. According to Chris Paine's documentary film, the electric car (GM's EV1 most prominently, but other auto manufacturers had their own models) was killed by the auto makers themselves (they lost money on auto parts, since the EVs were too dependable), the oil companies (need I explain?), the government (acting on behalf of big business instead of in the public interest), the California air-quality regulatory body (led by an auto-industry advocate), and the false promise of hydrogen-cell vehicles (costlier and more wasteful than electric cars, but safely decades from final development). Also, to a lesser extent, consumers themselves are to blame, since the electric cars were perceived as too "green" or "European," at odds with the booming SUV craze. So, basically, everyone involved killed the electric car. This concludes my book report on Chris Paine's Who Killed the Electric Car?, a blandly informative, cinematically unadventurous documentary film from Sony Pictures Classics. You should definitely see this film if you care about electric cars and want to know who killed them.




-Havoc (Barbara Kopple)

Not much more, or less, than your average, middlingly bad direct-to-video entry. I mean, it's not really any worse than Catherine Hardwicke's thirteen, which played arthouses and even garnered some acclaim. I guess marketing is everything. Kopple and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan seem to be attempting to take all those outlandish Larry Clark / James Toback moves (rich, clueless wiggas; the unpredictability of culture clash; ripe young boobies) and play them straight. The result is less than a misguided afterschool special. It's more like an unhinged melodrama on the hazards of race-mixing, the sort of thing D.W. Griffith would be making if he were alive. 49% laughable, 51% tedious, a misfire fit to be filed alongside Canadian Bacon and The Dark Wind.


The Night Listener (Patrick Stettner)

This is one of those bad movies that never breaks the mold enough to totter into outright crappiness. Instead, its badness is really just a notable lack of anything remotely good. Robin Williams' performance has already drawn considerable fire, and while he is badly miscast, there's nothing misjudged about his interpretation, such as it is, of Gabriel Noone. It's more like the lack of any discernible interpretation, a series of flat line-readings that connote an almost perverse disengagement from the lackluster material. The script is plodding and clunky, filled with the sort of overarticulated exposition you'd expect from, say, latter-day Woody Allen. And Stettner's direction is inert, a sort of well-appointed, point-and-shoot Miramax style in New York which, upon Noone's arrival in Wisconsin, is replaced by the same lazy, snow-glazed, neon-breaking-through-the-black-of-night ruralisms deployed by Bennett Miller in Capote and Kimberly Peirce in Boys Don't Cry. It's hackwork, in short. Toni Collette gets to chew some scenery, Sandra Oh "gets" (what a privilege!) to call herself "a cute little chink girl," and it's all one big fat so what.