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)




-Europa 2005, 27 Octobre (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Italy) [v/s]

On the surface, nothing could be simpler. This brief video-tract, the couple's last collaborative effort before Huillet's death last year, consists to five semi-circular pans, first to the left and then back again. What we're seeing is an electrical transformer, the warning walls around it, and the cheap council housing directly adjacent to it. Two Arab kids who were being chased by the cops ran into this very transformer and burned to death, setting off the banlieue riots on the date referenced in the video's title. After each of the sweeps across this nondescript suburban byway, the filmmakers gaze at the transformer and finally label it: "electric chair / gas chamber." And that's it. Straub and Huillet's name does not even appear on the video. If you saw this piece on television, you most likely would have no idea what it was. And to a great extent, I think this is the point. Straub and Huillet made Europa 2005 in response to an assignment commemorating the Rossellini centennial. They were asked to imagine a moment in Ingrid Bergman's character's life in Europa '51. Instead, the filmmakers handed in something almost excruciatingly materialist, radically anti-speculative, practically anti-art.


Well, sort of. Let's consider the evidence. Not only does this video turn the commission on its head. It upends virtually the entire career Straub and Huillet had achieved up to this point, in essence ending on a self-immolating note. Consider the facts. It is their first (and last) video, after years of producing works of cinema so distilled and minimal that at times the luminosity of celluloid -- its registration of sunlight on a landscape, or an actor declaiming a text in a near-empty glade -- represented Straub and Huillet's sole concession to "cinema" as practiced by virtually every other filmmaker on earth. Texture and light were the only inch they gave. What's more, Europa 2005 looks at first like an actual repetition of a single two-shot sequence five times. In fact, the exact same camera movements are repeated at five different times of day. Close examination of the shadows and tint of the walls and trees reveals the subtle differences in light quality. But to what end? Whereas filmmakers like Nathaniel Dorsky or Ernie Gehr would have gently foregrounded this irreducibility of a lighted space in time, marking its variations in the manner of Cézanne (a true hero to Straub / Huillet, let's recall), these novice videographers posit a kind of sameness, a drab beige existence whose minor shifts in hue amount to very little. The cramped proximity of shabby apartments to the dangerous transformer not only suggests inhumane suburban planning. It suggests spatial continuity, since both purely-functional architectural vessels (power station / low income housing) contain what the French state considers its necessary fuel (electricity / the immigrant working-poor) and nothing more. In Europa 2005, as in the banlieues themselves, to bracket the lived-in world in order to address it from a purely aesthetic point of view requires an effort so heroic as to border on the perverse. This is not a refutation of the power of the aesthetic, a mode of thought that Straub and Huillet worked through and fought for throughout their illustrious career. It is, however, a rendering of the aesthetic, and in fact all forms of life, at a dead end, electrocuted by state power, a future annihilated. In a sense, this really is Straub / Huillet's sincere tribute to Rossellini, since it is not only unadorned and functional to the point of materialist anti-beatitude, but also self-consuming in every way, a work of art as a comrade laying down its life for the cause. And so, the senseless police-state murders of Zyad Benna and Bouna Traoré become concretely represented by the absence of art or beauty, a picture of both aesthetic and experiential hopelessness -- video as electric death.


[Europa 2005, 27 Octobre can be viewed online here.]




Paprika (Satoshi Kon, Japan)

It's a pleasure to see animation used to create a work of art that could be brought into existence only through that medium. (How refreshingly modernist!) I'm the first one to get nervous when declaring this or that film to be "an allegory for cinema itself," since that can be cheap and easy intellectual shorthand, and besides, I've already done that once this month. (See below.) But Paprika fits the bill, not only because it explicitly conflates dreams with cinematic images projected on a screen, but because the very premise of cinema -- shared private visions, dreams made material reality -- touches on "virtual reality" and "science fiction" from the very beginning. (From the Lumiéres and Méliès to Baudrillard and Virilio, it turns out, isn't so much a quantum leap as a cement splice.) This is a story about a psychological device that allows an individual to enter the dreams of another, a tool intended for therapeutic use. Soon, the device develops its own cognitive capabilities and begins invading the minds of any who've come in contact with it, collapsing the known world into a surrealistic dream / reality hybrid space, a sort of mass psychosis. (The first symptom is that the subject starts speaking in aphasic gibberish, and the film's approximation, at least as transmitted by the subtitles, is a combination of concrete poetry and paranoid animism that would be comical were it not so scary.) As you can see, Paprika is its own sort of hybrid dream, combining preexisting elements from other SF and speculative-fiction scenarios. (The Matrix plus Eternal Sunshine, as my mother correctly intuited from my description, although I'd throw in Tarsem's The Cell, a film I'm thankful she hasn't seen.) Paprika's originality isn't so much in its story framework (which I'm sure contains plot holes if one were to take the time to map it out) as in its limitless visual invention. Kon's fluid dreamscapes are somewhat Felliniesque, but with a technological edge that sacrifices Freudianism for inhuman menace -- walking refrigerators, flower-toaster-men, a parade of semi-sexualized Dutch dolls, or circuses that give way to noirish and Hitchcockian terrors without approximating the solidity of those classically cinematic worlds. Identities are unstable, landscapes are viscous and mutable, and machines are ever anxious to infuse their properties onto their organic nemeses. Paprika may sound like a head trip, but Kon's approach is one devoted to the exploration of a set of unusual aesthetic parameters, never giving himself over to the merely "cool." Instead, Kon's imagery befits Paprika's central conceit. What happens when our most interior visions are exposed to the world? Do they become part of a collective identity, or do they re-enter our consciousness permanently changed? If Paprika gets a little hard to follow some times, it stands to reason. Kon is asking whether cinema may be the most demonstrable symptom of an unchecked universal psychosis. In this regard, DVDs might just be the ultimate accessory for the compulsion to repeat. What then? Is Best Buy just another methadone clinic? The mind reels.


Sicko (Michael Moore)

You know what? He's getting better. It's true, there's no point in soft-pedaling Moore's often-irksome rhetorical bluster, that sense that he's aiming for the rafters and talkng down to his audience as a result. On the one hand, it's completely irrelevant that a British doctor is able to afford a $2 million home while working for the NHS. But Moore assumes (probably correctly) that he has to argue within the terms that the right-wing has set for the debate, one of those being that doctors under "socialized medicine" are prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labo(u)r. Similarly, the structure of the second act of Sicko is highly redundant, since Moore discovers pretty much the same system at work in Canada, Britain, and France. But again, Moore operates under the assumption that a significant portion of his viewership holds less that positive preconceptions about French culture, or more to the point, has never so much as left the United States. So you can see Moore's conundrum: if he addresses his educated liberal base, he's preaching to the choir, and if he tries to meet red-staters halfway, he's condescending. This hardly excuses the whole Guantanamo stunt, which does succeed in showing a different side of Cuban society than we're usually allowed, but does so by implicitly arguing that the U.S. is really, really good to its Gitmo detainees. (I know Moore's making a doc about health care, and has to stay on-topic. All the more reason, then, not to muddy the waters by dragging in aspects of the War on Terror he's not prepared to address.) In spite of these qualms, Sicko works. It's partially because, unlike the scattershot screed that was F9/11, Moore can continually bring the abstract effects of corporate and governmental power back down to street level. When it comes to HMOs and insurance companies, we really are a nation of Lila Lipscombes. Even though the sequences in the three G8 ally nations basically say the same thing, they entertain, primarily because Moore gives us the specific backgrounds that led to universal coverage in those countries, and in so doing he exposes what "American exceptionalism" is really all about. We've been inculcated in the blind acceptance of diminished expectations, social Darwinism, and unchecked corporate greed. No surprise there, but how often do we meet regular international citizens whose incredulity reminds us just how . . . weird we are? Even if all of Moore's facts aren't correct (and let's face it, I'd be shocked if they were), the continual comparison between what the rest of the Western world has accomplished and what we tolerate is more than damning. It's a skillfully anecdotal making-strange of a barbaric system that all Americans have learned to take for granted.To most of the rest of the world, the U.S. may as well be charging for oxygen. Moore shows how we got here (Nixon, the AMA and Kaiser Permanente, basically) and challenges his viewership (the choir and the red-staters) to demand more.


-Strange Culture (Lynn Hershman Leeson)

Lynn Hershman Leeson is very smart. It's obvious from her films. And yet up until now, I've found her work unsatisfying. Films like Teknolust and Conceiving Ada struck me more as ideas for films, in need of careful artistic elaboration that Leeson herself was seldom able to provide. It's too lazy to dismiss these films as dry and academic. But neither could I ever find my way through them as cinematic works of art. In short, they were sketches, illustrated lecture notes, little digital-film-blurbs jotted in the margins of actually-existing-cinema. But Strange Culture is something else entirely, possibly because a real-life situation arose that was cut to the precise measure of Leeson's intellectual skill-set. The case of Steve Kurtz is unfortunate and bizarre, and indicative of the dangers of being smart and contrarian in the midst of a "war on terror." The basic facts: Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble of Buffalo, NY, called 911 after his wife Hope had stopped breathing during the night. Hope Kurtz passed away, and when police arrived at the scene they were concerned about some scientific equipment and petrie dishes of bacteria the Kurtzes had in their home-studio. The Feds cried bio-terror, but in fact the cultures were harmless mutant bacteria the Kurtzes were growing as part of a gallery installation on genetically modified food. Despite virtually no evidence aside from Kurtz having purchased the bacteria over the Internet, the FBI charged Kurtz and his collaborator, geneticist Dr. Robert Ferrell, with mail fraud, as a way to make a terrorism case stick via Patriot Act provisions. As Strange Culture amply demonstrates, a government botch job that should have been corrected is apparently to become a Bush Administration show-trial, since no one wants to admit to having made a costly mistake that grossly violated Kurtz's civil rights and entailed an act as heinous as shipping Hope Kurtz's dead body to Quantico for government autopsy and hazmat testing. So, Strange Culture the movie does a number of things. The case is ongoing and Kurtz is not at liberty to speak as he would in a "normal" documentary. Therefore Leeson orchestrates re-enactments of the ordeal by actors, allowing Kurtz to state his case via indirect, non-actionable public speech. What's more, Leeson and her collaborators -- Tilda Swinton (as Hope) and Thomas Jay Ryan (as Steve) -- take the CAE's work as a model for their own practice, stepping out of frame at various points to discuss the case and their views on it, their perceptions on the ethical responsibility of artists, and the insufficiency of traditional representational modes of documentary when (as a loud fat man in a baseball cap once said, somewhere) "we live in fictitious times." Using direct address, interviews about the details of the case as well as the filmmaking process itself, and graphic inserts such as comic book renderings of FBI's raid on the Kurtz home, Leeson provides all the pertinent facts of a more traditional documentary. But atmospherically, she goes further, conveying a tone of anxious disbelief that the government can take your life taken away over an experimental artwork and a few Chomsky books on your desk. Even the ominous score (by The Residents) emphasizes lurking danger and justified paranoia. Yes, Strange Culture is a call to arms, to help defend Steve Kurtz and the rights of dissenters overall. But it's also a seething doc noir, subtly hinting that in the strange culture of our present moment, even watching this film could be enough to get you in deep trouble.




-Broken English (Zoe Cassavetes)

Although most reviews of this film have praised Parker Posey's lead performance, and quite rightly, fewer have remarked on the impressive symbiosis between actor and director. There's a deceptive simplicity to Broken English, and the first thing one notices, I would think, is just how unnervingly different this film is from most woman-centered American films. Most Hollywood rom-coms are braindead affairs, almost always portraying female emotion of any kind, but especially desire and need, as the stuff of unglued comic neurosis and little else. But sadly, the indie sector seldom fares much better. Part of what separates Broken English from the pack is Cassavetes' jarringly restrained visual style, her very basic set-ups and proclivity for holding shots just a millisecond too long. She also tends to empty the frame of most everything except the speaker, resulting in a film with an unusual amount of negative space. By the same token, Cassavetes' script emphasizes not the unsaid (it's not about silence, by any means) but the unexpected, those moments when a goodhearted, lonely soul accidentally lets her guard slip and, instead of going in for the kill, most people around her admit that they're just as confused most of the time. Broken English frequently looks like it's going to slide headlong into a cliché, but instead it usually just stops short, leaving that wincing expectation hanging there. In so doing, the film manages to shift its protagonist's uncertainties and discomfort in her own skin onto the audience; we think we're dipping our toes into the warm bath of genre but instead find new sensations, some brittle, some exuding an entirely different brand of warmth. And yes, none of this would work without Posey's lovely performance. Most filmmakers have insisted on heightening her ironic edge, but with Cassavetes, Posey instead portrays someone whose whip-smart, sassy behavior is a holdover affect from days gone by. Suddenly, she's the sad woman with the desk job, surprised by a desperation she'd accidentally grown into like an old pair of houseslippers. Yes, as per cinematic custom, she breaks free. But it's bumpier, and far truer, than usual. Sadly, Cassavetes cast the smarmy, irksome Melvil Poupaud as the French whirlwind-romantic so cartoonishly Gallic he may as well have had a baguette stuck down his pants. He takes the film down its least promising boulevards, but even he can't scuttle Broken English altogether. It's far and away the year's best debut film. Apparently, John and Gena raised one who could actually direct.


Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)

Engrossing and repellent in equal measure, Rescue Dawn served to coalesce some of the strange, hard-to-place emotions I've had about Herzog's work, from the earliest short films right through Grizzly Man. Herzog is committed to bringing the story of Dieter Dengler to life, as Dengler experienced it and with nary a consideration for present-day canons of good taste or racial sensitivity. Herzog, and many others besides, would probably dismiss such concerns as political correctness, the simpering of weak minds incapable of staring harsh truths dead in the eye. And the thing is, such a viewpoint is both right and wrong. Dengler, a German immigrant so awestruck by the Allied planes strafing his village that he came to the States and joined the Air Force as soon as he could, is in some senses the perfect Herzog protagonist, not, as one would expect, because of the internal contradictions such a primal past would imply, but precisely because Dengler, by all appearances, completely transvalued that experience into a life of action and pure affirmation of the power that once lorded over him. That's to say, Dengler shed all that crippling modern psychology and reinvented himself as a kind of homespun Nietzschean, the embodiment of power as a kind of unstoppable innocence. The man we finally see in the prison camp, forced to face his mortality, instead seems to radically opt to forget that very basic human frailty. Instead, he becomes MacGyver crossed with Forrest Gump. In this respect, Dengler's understanding of American ideals become something very basic -- the will to survive, an unflagging sense of moral superiority --, ceasing to be "ideals" as such. In short, Herzog finds in American ideology a force that can turn culture into its opposite, masculine self-possession as a replacement for larger communal structures. Atomization ("There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families") becomes survival itself.


And this, finally, clarifies the Herzog problem for me. He's a rugged individualist and libertarian, and this means that the political meanings of his work will always be all over the map, formed by the circumstances surrounding them rather than by some core set of beliefs. Herzog's least compromised recent work focuses on nature, a topic he's very much at home with but which also automatically exempts itself from cultural baggage. Like Nietzsche, Herzog is mesmerized by the beauty of destruction. The burning oil fields of Lessons of Darkness achieve the Kantian sublime not in spite of what they are, but because of it. In the same respect, Rescue Dawn's porous, all-enveloping depiction of the Laotian jungle possesses a luminosity almost completely out of place in a war movie. (Certain passages recall Apichatpong's best work.) True, Herzog knows his way around the jungle and can therefore bring a visual vocabulary to Rescue Dawn that virtually no Hollywood director ever could. But part of the fascination with nature is its destructive capability, and, most problematically, the film carries this over into a realm where it doesn't belong -- that of the Viet Cong themselves. They aren't treated like anonymous mosquitoes the way Michael Cimino or the Rambo films do it. Instead, they are twitchy, reflexive animals, and Herzog lavishes his attention over the violence they commit against Dengler and his friends. They are worse than Commies; they're another natural obstacle. Make no mistake: this is no doubt how Dengler experienced his captors. Herzog remains steadfast in depicting Dengler's subjective world, without concession. But, as is so often the case with libertarian attempts to abjure politics and just "speak the truth," the very assumption that one can opt out of forty years of representational history surrounding Vietnam in order to tell one man's story is in itself the height of privilege. The result is a fascinating, often beautiful work of art, but by all means a deeply conservative one.


In the middle of all this is Steve Zahn, who portrays Duane, a shattered POW who, upon encountering Dieter's optimism, summons up the very last of his humanity in order to join the escape. Bale's performance is fine, if a bit odd, veering not so much between "accented" and "not accented" as between a reading of Dengler who might, under certain specific high-stress circumstances, unconsciously revert to a German-tinted English he'd consciously shed, and just plain old Christian Bale masking the Britishness. But Zahn brings a tremulous depth of feeling to Rescue Dawn. He is the film's soul, a man who could easily have been portrayed as a movie cliché (cf. Jeremy Davies, although I confess I cannot abide Davies under any conditions) but instead stands bare, a stripped-down receptor of all the agony this secret war can inflict. It's a performance that I shouldn't be mentioning as a mere postscript; it's Rescue Dawn's single exceptional feature and sure to be one of the finest supporting turns of the year.


Sunshine (Danny Boyle, U.K.)

I don't have all that much to add to what's already out there on this film. Vivian Sobchack's thoughtful essay in Film Comment covers most of the (positive) bases, noting that Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler (best known for his painterly, fleetfooted work with Lynne Ramsay and Michael Winterbottom) have taken the science-fiction premise of reigniting the sun and allowed to also serve as a concrete meditation on cinema itself. Anyone who knows me personally has heard this anecdote a million and one times, so I apologize in advance. But during a screening of The Blair Witch Project on opening weekend at a multiplex in Union City, CA, the film's highly unusual form was proving to be far more disturbing for the audience than the "actual" horror of the film crew's predicament. At about the one-hour mark, there's an out-of-frame noise, followed by a whip-pan into complete darkness. Heather asks, "What is it?" and a disgruntled patron shouted out, "It's a blank screen!" Laughter pealed through the auditorium, but the guy had a point. The deprivation of the cinematic image, of vision itself, is far more terrifying than some crazy bitch in the woods. Sunshine, of course, is Blair Witch's polar(ized) opposite. Here, it's a surfeit of light that kills, the potential (and the desire) for a cinema that will thrill the eye beyond language, beyond even pain -- that'll just melt your goddamned face off.


In this regard, Sunshine won't make a lick of sense on home video. And this is especially odd because it's obvious that many of its effects are digital in origin. With all the gnashing of teeth about the end of celluloid (and Sunshine is nothing if not the "end of cinema" allegory to end them all), Boyle seems to show us that it's not the genesis of the light that matters, but its mode of delivery. After all, with the sun's eight-minute time delay, we're never really getting the true, Platonic Light. We're perceptual laggards, always, in effect, screening something that's already gone. Now, apart from all the meta-cinematic rumination, Sunshine also offers nearly two-thirds of an outstanding, understated space saga. There's something both economical and incredibly poetic in the way Boyle parses out narrative information. In B-picture style, we mostly get just what we need, but individual scenes and sometimes even single shots are condensed and abrupt, like tight little vacuum-packs of meaning. Paradoxically, this lends Sunshine a patient, glacial feel a la 2001 but without actually protracting time in any concrete, measurable way. It all has a cut-rate grandeur that Boyle undermines only slightly with his music cues and lapses into machine-head fetishism. If he and screenwriter Alex Garland had only managed to stay the course, instead of insulting our intelligence with some third-act monster-movie nonsense, Sunshine would have easily been one of the year's best. In space, no one can hear you flush your ambition down the toilet.




-Falling (Barbara Albert, Austria / Germany)

Some people I know bristle when I trot out the phrase "interesting failure." But Falling is a textbook example, a film that grapples with serious issues -- the passage of time, the social forces impinging on female identity, the erosion of political idealism -- but gets so bogged down in moment-to-moment superficialities that it ultimately cannot make a convincing statement about those issues it raises. Unless, of course, that's the point: that the social leftism reflected in the five women's past and exemplified by their beloved teacher who has recently passed away was itself little more than an interesting failure, and that the replacement of political revolt with personal rebellion and the smallish radical gestures of friendship represent the inevitable trajectory such energies take. This could be the case. Albert's most noteworthy formal strategy in Falling is the introduction of photographic flash-forwards throughout the film. These moments are frustrating, since Albert manipulates the images in smeary, semi-stop-motion ways and accompanies each one with the sound of her cast singing some song from the 60s. Aesthetically speaking, the result is low-rent Breaking the Waves and blunts the power of these glimpses into the immediate future, giving them a sort of migraine-halo of video vapidity. Still, these moments in all their audacity and collapse sort of exemplify the problems Falling presents. Albert seems to be interested in genre hybridity, or at least some sort of Trojan horse operation, smuggling post-68 agitprop into the talky, somewhat frivolous codes of the conventional "chick flick." These women have a shared past that makes the places they've ended up all the more unsatisfying -- faux-successful actress, embittered single-mom-to-be, uptight career woman, self-martyring local activist, and finally, petty criminal and fu ck-up mom. However, instead of interrogating their life paths as problems of a political nature, which Falling's set-up seems to imply, Albert continually brings her rather hackneyed riffs on intra-feminine dynamics to the fore, indulging in scenes (bad behavior at a wedding; drunken bar-ho antics; stilted lesbian overtures) that allow the actresses, and the film, to talk a shallow streak, to "process" but never go anywhere, relationship-wise or sociopolitically. In fact, Falling's final act of defiance (not exactly shown in the film, but foretold in one of those flash-forwards that gestures to a space beyond the film -- sort of a reverse-angle on Hollis Frampton's nostalgia) is stupid in its conflation of the personal and the political, treating friendship as the ultimate revolution. In this regard, Albert takes political thought into a realm that scholar Lauren Berlant has called the "intimate public sphere," a place wherein we represent our desires through our private agonies and the subject-position they carve out for us. In a word, Oprahism. This would be a fascinating indictment if Falling provided so much as an inkling that it, or Albert, were aware of the issue. Instead, I think she gives us Revolution Bourgie Grrrl Style Now! and we're supposed to think we're witnessing the stripping away of conformity in the face of sisterly love. But really, Falling is like that German movie from a few years back about the incarcerated all-girl punk band, only this time it's the BMW set that gets its ya-yas out. Rock on.


[ADDENDUM: One thing the above review fails to account for, and one way in which the above review is misleading and actually just plain wrong, is in its class analysis as stated. In my haste, I forgot nuance, which is pretty freaking important -- that's what keeps any critical lens from devolving into vulgar cookie-cutter kneejerk nonsense. So two of the five characters -- Brigitte (Birgit Minichmayr) and Nicole (Gabriela Hegedüs) -- do not belong to the upper-middle-class. One is an activist who seems to maintain a modest income, and the other is a criminal whose brusque manner, we appear to discover, displays the lack of good breeding representative of her station. Part of why I misspoke above is that Falling operates solely within a bourgeois framework. Albert's view of leftism and utopia would appear to be that it functions as the repressed which always returns, but can never actually be mastered or put into praxis. (Freud wins -- how truly Austrian.) Falling's depiction of Brigitte is an admittedly well-rounded version of the usual humorless-left stereotype. She's more of an introvert than a strident pain in the ass; her political passions did not preclude sexual ones and in fact one seems to have stemmed from the other. But it's still a characterization in hock to stereotype, despite its subtler shadings. Nicole, on the other hand, is tragic and wounded, indefensible and gauche (look it up in French!), and a shitty mother to boot. Albert, in effect, makes Nicole a stand-in not for the working class, but for a particular middle-class liberal-guilt version of working-classness, someone you'd really rather not have around but who it's your duty to defend anyway. (Noblesse oblige!) In fact, Nicole isn't so much a person as an embodiment of why all those ideals failed in the 60s. We worked hard, organized, took to the streets, but in the end, some people just can't be helped. Now, I suppose it's to Albert's credit that Falling sort of rejects this dismal conclusion. But it does so in an act that really does place personal bonds over and above social conviction. That prison is most likely filled with women whose friends aren't as well-connected, or as smugly brash, as the women of Falling. But liberalism will always reenfold rebellion into personal choice, which means you can have only as much anarchy as you can afford.]


-This Is England (Shane Meadows, U.K.)

Although I found much to admire in Meadow's second feature film, A Room for Romeo Brass, I fell out of touch with him, missing his last two films not so much by design as by circumstance. Checking in with him seven years later, I can't say I'm all that impressed. What once seemed like the affectations of youth are now just signs of Meadow's goopy sentimentality and condescending eagerness to please. Brass displayed some of this -- an over-reliance on pop music for emotional cues, an almost rhetorical tendency to provide the film's villains with a scene that displayed their damaged soul, a rhythm in both editing and performance styles that eschewed either long takes or constructivist artifice in favor of a line drive down the middle. But This Is England, which is by all accounts Meadows' most autobiographical film (its young protagonist is named "Shaun Fields," fercryinoutloud), sees all of these simplistic reflexes given free reign in a scenario that required precision, a modicum of distance, and an at least somewhat analytical approach to recent British history. The skinhead movement -- its roots in ska and reggae, its connection to Britain's influx of immigrant groups in the 70s and 80s, its implicit multiethnic riposte to punk's relative racial homogeneity, and its coalescence around anti-Thatcherism -- is an ideal subject for a work of pop-political cinema for the present decade. The infiltration of the original skinhead ethos by neo-Nazis and nationalists, as Meadows attempts to show, speaks to the desperation that systematic poverty and disenfranchisement can generate over the long term, and it speaks directly to the issue of why xenophobia almost always finds an audience with the poorest of the poor. Meadows is under no obligation to deliver a cogent position paper (although his film's rather bald title certainly promises one), but This Is England sacrifices both analysis and dramatic truth in favor of the silly gestures of infotainment. From its VH1 "We Are the 80s" opening montage (Aerobics! Duran Duran! Ronald Reagan! The miners' strike! Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide, Ayatollah's in Iran, Russian's in Afghanistan...) to its insistence on reducing any and all racial and class divides into simplistic personal psychology (the need of a father figure, the desire to be embraced by those who despise you), This Is England never fails to take the easy way out. Its final image, clearly intended as an act of defiance, reads more like total divestiture, a bitter acknowledgement that amid the period detail and Specials records, little if anything was actually said. Meadows should have been the man to take up the social realism of Leigh and Loach and infuse it with fitful energy and a poetry those men seldom permit themselves. Instead, he just really wants everybody to like him.




-Guru (Mani Ratnam, India)

I'm a fan of Mani Ratnam. I still firmly believe that he's not only one of the two or three best directors in the Indian film industry, but an underrated master of world cinema, worthy of consideration outside the typical frameworks / excuses one tends to use when assessing Bollywood. Granted, I have yet to fall madly in love with one of Ratnam's pictures (although with Yuva I came awfully close). But in the four features of his I've seen, his direction has always been muscular and unconventional, forging a fascinating combination of the spectacular and the gritty. Gliding crane shots, wide angles, and bold color schemes collide with the grizzled skin of laborers, the thick dust of hinterland slums. Working with equal skill in Bollywood and in his native Madras, always employing his keen intelligence to subvert the slick demands of industrial entertainment, Ratnam still strikes me as the great hope for contemporary Indian popular cinema to leave something of lasting cinematic value. That's why Guru is such a stunning disappointment. Essentially a rags-to-riches epic about a bumpkin turned polyester magnate (Abhishek Bachchan) and the marriage of convenience that becomes a passionate love affair (the fact that it's with Aishwarya Rai no doubt helps), Guru is a nonsensical libertarian hybrid of Citizen Kane and Scarface, except that Ratnam clearly wants us to think Bachchan's Gurukant Desai is one swell captain of industry and a true son of India. If only there were more guys like him -- self-made, driven, incapable of hearing the word 'no,' and willing to stop at nothing to succeed. In the logic of Guru, Gurukant's ruthless entrepreneurial vigor is good for the nation, simply because his polyester business, Shakti Corporation (the goddess Shakti represents "power," by the way) is a publicly-held concern. That's right! Since Indian investors could buy into Guru's company, and since he built it without any substantial Western investment, his Enron-style rise to the top is allegedly an inspiration to us all. So what, the film claims, if he cuts some corners, like paying taxes or refraining from securities fraud? The Indian government is so hopelessly corrupt, only a renegade corporation helmed by a flamboyant, ballsy CEO can save the country from squalor. (Guru is sort of a Ross Perot / Donald Trump / Ted Turner type of fellow, but by the time he delivers his egregious courtroom tirade, you'd be forgiven for thinking Ollie North.) No Mani Ratnam film could ever be completely without merit; little grace notes like a Rai song-and-dance interrupted by a nighttime escape by bicycle, or an extended series of small flashbacks as the Desais return to the home of their salad days, sharply remind you of Ratnam's talent. But even on the level of pure skill, Guru is lacking, with lapses in exposition and emotional truth that are beneath not only Ratnam but Bollywood itself. Granted, having the severely limited Abhishek as your leading man cuts you off at the knees somewhat. It's jarring how much he looks like his father yet commands none of the Amitabh charisma. But in all honesty, I doubt anything could have made this project less of a slog. For the most part, Guru finds the director swallowed whole by incoherent ideology. If you think you'd be interested in a movie that plays like a two-and-a-half hour infomercial for the Democratic Leadership Council's new Mumbai office, put Guru in your Netflix queue immediately. Otherwise, check out Yuva, Dil se . . ., Bombay, and A Peck on the Cheek and see the master in top form.