REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 2008
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)
-Mukhsin (Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia)
[MINOR SPOILERS] I've been at a bit of a loss to explain just exactly what it was about Mukhsin that gradually blew me away. As I've allowed my reaction to Ahmad's film to steep like tea in my mind, I've started to realize that my difficulty in articulating the precision and wonder of Mukhsin directly pertains to Ahmad's status as a criminally underrated international director whose earlier work I must catch up with immediately. Mukhsin is characterized by patience and restraint; there is nary a close-up in the film, and most of the action occurs in medium-long master shots that often render the film's two young protagonists hazy and even somewhat "typical," in the lit-crit sense. But this set of formalist remarks could be attributed to any number of Asian films of the last twenty to thirty years. This is not to sell Ahmad short; she displays subtle, exquisite handling of cinematography and mise en scène. Interiors often bear an off-kilter Ozuian rectilinear depth; slight camera movements and graceful readjustments within close quarters echo Mizoguchi without any ostentatiousness; her outdoor shots effortlessly embed her figures in radiant magic-hour landscapes, demonstrating a tactile yet quasi-spiritual treatment of light that would indeed hold its own alongside Apichatpong. But as you watch Mukhsin, you actually have to actively attune your mind to these formal elements, since they are so organically woven with Ahmad's story values. And this, I think, is why it's possible to watch Mukhsin, and possibly other Ahmad films, without really seeing them. Her directorial touch is light and supple, defined by what it doesn't do. Mukhsin never swaggers across the screen like "art cinema," even though it is incontestably a cinematic work of art.
In narrative terms, Mukhsin is a story of puppy love curtailed. Again, this in itself might send serious film critics moving in the other direction, although Ahmad's sensitive, intelligent treatment is more Blue Gate Crossing than Shunj Iwai. Orked (Sharifah Aryana Syed Zainal Rashid) is a tomboyish 10-year-old who takes a shine to the new boy, Mukhsin (Muhammad Syafie bin Naswip) after she chunks a football at him hard enough for him to let her join an all-boys game. Their hesitant blossoming friendship, with walks and bike rides and Koran study and Mukhsin staying with Orked's hip parents for dinner, serves as the fulcrum around which Ahmad organizes numerous other bits of narrative coloratura. Operating in a nearly Renoirian register, Ahmad grants all of the film's marginal business a remarkable depth of implied social and emotional context, to say nothing of an abiding generosity of character. Orked's "differently ambitious" musician father and outspoken, British-educated, English-speaking mother, for example, flout conventional Malay gender roles as well as ethnic codes of decorum. Neighbors remark on this, and Ahmad allows this to become a source of tension at certain moments in the film. But for the most part, this "issue" is left unresolved, since it is not an issue, as such. Likewise Mukhsin's acknowledgment of liberal Muslims' conflicts with tradition, and Malaysia's overall grapple with modernity in all forms; the tensions between ethnic Malays and ethnic Chinese; and the need for frank, open discussion about sexuality, in particular among women. Ahmad never drops these very real social concerns into the film as "topics for edification;" instead they emerge naturally, as they would in the course of daily life in a culture in transition. Ahmad activates a field of complex questions, without ever purporting to supply answers.
Mukhsin dramatizes, within the drama itself, the very real social forces that impinge on and swirl around two young people simply trying to grow up, learn to write their school themes, steal a kiss, put a bully in his place, or conceal an embarrassingly inopportune erection. I do not want to make grandiose claims for Mukhsin, not because the film cannot withstand them -- the film is excellent -- but because Ahmad's craft, her art, is premised on a fundamental humility, and to overburden the film with theoretical grandstanding runs counter to its very nature. (Then again, its the very unassuming quality of Ahmad's mastery that seems to be preventing the film intelligentsia from taking this film as seriously as it should.) But so-called Transnational Feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad's work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections. At Mukhsin's conclusion, Ahmad delivers a voiceover that informs us that she was Orked, and that she found love again later in life. The film is in part a dedication to Mukhsin in hope that he did too. And so, among other things, Mukhsin is Ahmad's absolutely specific examination of a moment in time from the subject position of a 10-year-old girl, with the recognition that whatever time, tide, and patriarchy may have done to Mukhsin, he was there in the thick of it alongside Orked, a comrade in the fight just to become. This, in addition to being profoundly moving art, is a dual triumph for feminism and humanism, one in which neither sells the other short.
-Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, U.S. / France / Spain)
[SPOILERS] Here's a film that has been rather unfairly maligned, largely, I think, due to Chinese Democracy Syndrome. It's been fifteen years since Swoon, Kalin's early entry into the New Queer Cinema sweepstakes, and in the interim he's made mostly short art videos but no feature until 2007. In light of this, Savage Grace is a very odd comeback. Until the very last moments of the film, any thematic or sociological connection between the two films is undetectable, so much so that when that connection emerges it almost recodes everything you've intuited or processed about Savage Grace throughout its running time. I am fairly certain this is by design -- the film is based on the true story of the Tony Baekeland case, a fact that the promotional materials surrounding the film do not try to hide. And ordinarily I would unreservedly champion such a formalist sleight of hand, particularly where it concerns traumatic events and spectatorial identification. After all, Kalin, like the NQC class of the 1990s (Todd Haynes, Mary Harron, Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki), had some familiarity with issues of film theory and psychoanalysis. The Freudian concept of trauma is a radically destabilizing one, and it operates on a temporal structure all its own. Trauma has a kind of reverse action, going back and revising what came before it, a lot like the crime at the end of Savage Grace does. The film's stilted, at times agonizing banality, punctuated by Julianne Moore's Barbara sudden slides into mania, speaks directly to the illegible surface of repression that makes sense only after one vital piece of the puzzle falls into place. And as viewers, we're a bit like those on the periphery of the Baekelands' social circle, not quite sure what to make of this unholy family. (In time, we get way too close, and learn far too much.) All this having been said, the structural correctness of Savage Grace, or the justifications I can make for it after the fact, don't exactly mitigate the sheer discomfort and frequent unpleasantness of actually watching Kalin's film. Sure, one can dabble in highfalutin metaphorics. (These heirs to a plastics fortune sure are stiff! And yet, oddly brittle too, etc.) But the film tends to lurch from scene to scene, decade to decade, with no discernable direction or purpose. Unlike Swoon's Brechtian rectitude, Savage Grace has no obvious style apart from "wan period piece," its cinematography and mise en scène being purely functional and undistinguished. Sure, the film compels, in a kind of inexplicably skeevy way. But ever after it deals its final blows, I find myself hard-pressed to discern any real purpose to Savage Grace. Other than Kalin's own long term, admirably un-p.c. fascination with gay psychopathology, what does this story or this film have to tell us?
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Admittedly I'm a little squeamish delivering anything less than a stone rave of this thing on the Internets, since the fanboys are issuing fatwas left and right. But, um, yeah, whatever. Christian Bale's Batman does not strike me as a provocative, morally ambiguous antihero so much as an inexpressive chunk of plastic who pops up to dominate the widescreen frame every so often before something blows up or some loud piece of machinery starts running over other, less sophisticated machines. Meanwhile, Ledger's Joker is an interesting creation within the context of summer comic-book blockbuster films, but as an actorly feat unto itself, it's not exactly all it's cracked up (har har) to be, and this isn't just because Ledger's tragic death has placed undue pressure on this role as a celluloid epitaph. It's that the Nolans' script is so weighed down with explicit subtext, most of it spoken it painfully blatant terms by The Joker himself, that it's hard for Ledger to really get a fire going. He's always hamstrung by his position as a walking symbol of chaos -- the literal Wild Card. And he will tell you as much, over and over again. I realize that the film's legion of fans will note, quite rightly, that I'm just not accepting The Dark Knight on its broad, iconic terms, and that as an outsized work of Greek proportions, figures like Batman, The Joker, and Harvey Dent should not be expected to hew to conventional depth-psychology. They Represent Something. But once you get that Something, I would counter, there's not much left for a non-fanboy to do but wait for the damned thing to unfold as preordained, and it's more than a little tedious. Now, on the other hand, I think Nolan gets a bad rap as a director as far as his ability to orchestrate action sequences. The thing is, he stages them the same way he stages everything else, and actually I find this leveling impulse highly admirable, especially in a "costumed crime fighter film." Nolan does in fact make about the finest film from this material that it's possible to make. I simply remain unconvinced as to its shattering profundity. [Jokr326@aol.com, kill at will.]
-The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, U.S. / Canada)
This film, which is half-assed and uninspired in every way, is the last refuge that demonstrates that Chris Carter is an irredeemable scoundrel. It's not just that X-F: IWTB is just a padded-out late-period series episode rather than a film per se. The first X-Files movie was much the same, and as episodes go it was certainly no great shakes. But here, Carter is so utterly incapable of flexing the slightest creative muscle that instead of the readymade richness one ought to expect from characters we've known for fifteen years, we have comically trowelled-on subtext and dunderheaded signposting that I assume is supposed to resonate with some hypothetical ticket-buying doofus who has no idea who "Mulder" and "Scully" are. And so, as Mulder becomes obsessed with tracking down a missing FBI agent, Scully chides him that doing so won't bring back his alien-abducted sister. [CLANK!] On the flipside, Scully's troubled skepticism in the face of a morally compromised psychic (Billy Connolly, in a thankless task) forces her to sally forth in her pursuit of medicine, a means with which to square her analytical mind with her Catholic faith. [THUD!] (They both want to believe, you see.) Meanwhile, only one other series regular appears in the final reel, which is either a stern refusal to throw a bone to the fan faithful, or a sign that even that Lone Gunmen won't return Carter's calls anymore. Instead, we get Amanda Peet as "Agent Dakota Whitney" (I shit you not!), an obvious Carter flak-jacket wet-dream straight out of a ski brochure from Olivia Travel. The plot, such as it is, appears to be about one thing, and then "twists" into something else just as stupid. Don't bother, please.