REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Phineas & Ferb Across the 2nd Dimension (Dan Povenmire & Robert S. Hughes)
I haven't got a lot to add to my Nashville Scene review, except to say that seeing the disparity between the critical response to Senna, on the one hand, and that of what, for lack of a better term, I will call the "documentary establishment," is rather jarring. With the emergence of the Oscar Documentary "short list," and the new regulations regarding eligibility (you've got to have a commercial run and published reviews -- what a crock), there's a lot of concern that the race is now a popularity contest. But a film like Senna, with its tight narrative arc and slick construction, seems a bit too much like the Prom King for some purists. Just saying. Anyway, I like it quite a lot, even though one should view it with some suspicion. It's fully estate-approved.
Trypps #7 (Badlands) (Ben Russell) [s]
As an inveterate Russell fan, I never find his films anything less than intriguing. The Trypps series is, at this point, rivaled only by David Gatten's Byrd films in terms of being the most significant ongoing project in experimental cinema, and each new entry is sufficiently different from the previous ones that they both recode the earlier Trypps and, by fiat, redefine our notion of what it means to work "in series." Trypps #7 is the first film since numbers 1 and 2 by which I am not completely convinced, although having seen it now three times I find it consistently hypnotic and suggestive. It is a film in which I feel I am observing Russell's thought process, a sort of conceptual
As a staunch supporter of both Ad Lib Night and (especially) My Dear Enemy, I have a strong commitment to Lee. Despite the fact that the reports were unencouraging from Berlinale 2010, where this film played in a somewhat unexpected Competition berth, I wanted to be surprised, or at least to be able to identify some offbeat charms that might be the sort of things that tend to go unnoticed in the crunch of film-festival viewing. In other words, was my suspicion correct, that Lee was simply, endemically, a filmmaker whose work required breathing room? Hard to say, really, based on the evidence available here, because the Berlinale notices (and strategic silences) were completely accurate. CR, CS is a deeply flawed work at best, and although there are aspects of it that nudge me toward labeling it a misstep, I prefer to think of it as a transitional film that displays growing pains too plentiful to ignore. This is, without a doubt, the darkest territory into which Lee has ventured yet, both thematically and formally. At times it truly feels like the work of a different filmmaker. Within the first 15 or so minutes, it's established that the central couple are splitting up. This comes as bracing news to the man (Hyun Bin), since his wife (Lim Soo Jung) rather casually drops the bomb without fanfare during a long car ride at the start of the film. (Neither of them is ever given a name, one of Lee's many overdetermined, para-Bergmanian conceits.) The vast remainer of CR, CS takes place within the couple's somewhat dark, well-appointed modern home. The stainless steel kitchen, with its somewhat fragmentable space due to a central island, ample cabinetry and multiple foci, is the primary location, since the preparation of a couple of meals (they have a shared interest in Italian cooking) allows for both tense silence and Brechtian gest-activity. This is an example of what Lee gets exactly right about the final days, even hours, of a long-term relationship -- that sense of maintaining normalcy in lieu of any other comprehensible option, while understanding that every banal activity is time-stamped as being The Last. "The Last plate of spaghetti," "The Last time we put away the silverware," etc. Likewise, Lee's mise-en-scène physicalizes the impending loss, not only with the stacks of boxes, some still being filled; and not just with a half-emptied home still being occupied, a scenario we all recognize, since it essentially reduces us to ghosts of ourselves. But more than this, Lee emphasizes, through object placement, close-ups and blocking, the tyrannical heaviness of objects, both their material and metaphysical weight within this particular time-space. The best portions of CR, CS find Lee and cinematographer Jang Hyeong-wook slowing tracking through the house, adopting odd angles as if we were observing the break-up from the point of view of the rafters, the marble countertops, the chrome fixtures. The overall impact is objective and glacial, a suspended and psychological time that recalls Nobuhiro Suwa's films. So why does the film go so wrong? Well, it's almost as though this strange new mode of distance, the genuine slow-motion train wreck of minute human sadness, started to give Lee the jitters. So he gilds the lily, as it were, with some tin-eared movie conventionalism that just breaks the spell he's worked so hard to cast. These elements range from the merely misjudged (a neighbor as 3rd-party interlocutor) to the hacky (a 3rd-act conversation that exposes far too much) to the downright schlocky (an ongoing trope of a missing kitten). (Yes. A missing kitten.) Why these needless intrusions? Growing pains, or a true failure of nerve? It's hard to say, but it's difficult to see a director so close to a breakthrough into true mastery, just not capable (yet) of making it there. The critics are right. There is a good, possibly even a great movie in raw form somewhere inside Come Rain, Come Shine, but as it stands, it's a failure.
One of those films I'd originally planned to pass over in silence, Midnight In Paris has become such a hit with audiences and critics alike that I feel somewhat obliged to weigh in. I'll confess to never having been a particularly big fan of Woody Allen. For many young cinephiles he seems to be a touchstone, a middlebrow (or retroactively-perceived-middlebrow) way station onto more challenging fare. But since I came to cinema via painting, a lot of canonical material escaped me. This has been particularly true of directors like Allen who, by and large, cinematically intervene at the script level first and foremost. Woody is not a visual nincompoop; he knows his way around lovely images. (My favorite Allen films, apart from the staggeringly well-written and constructed Hannah and Her Sisters, are two of his most visually textured efforts, Manhattan and Zelig.) But a lot of the time his filmmaking is strictly functional, in that matte, plan américain manner that so often excites the French. ("Classicism!")
Now that the Woodman is taking Godard's sage advice and building his desired travel destinations into the fabric of his films -- so long, New York! Hell-o London, Paris, Barcelona . . . -- and wisely teaming up with ace D.P.s like Darius Khondji, there's a certain automatism to the production of rich images in these latest "comeback" films. It's hard to shoot ugly 35mm in Paris. Nevertheless, Midnight maintains a degree of lazy imagemaking, concerned as it with with delivering a parable and flattering its audience's presumed undergraduate education. Allen again places screenplay above all else, including performance. (Owen Wilson is pleasant enough but he plays Gil mostly just as a shambling innocent. Rachel McAdams's clipped, bitchy aggression is so cartoonishly unbidden that her Inez reads as little more than a repository for Allen's misogynistic bile.) When frustrated writer Gil wanders Paris at night, he is transported back to the turn of the last century, enthralled at the chance to consort with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Kathy Bates, Thérèse Bourou-Rubinzstein), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) (who, contrary to legend, was indeed called an asshole), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and a whole Trivial Pursuit edition's worth of other modernist icons. Lest I sound needlessly flippant, it's Allen's deployment of them as mere emblems of Roaring Twenties / Lost Generation modernism that is truly dismissive. Considering that Gil's encounter with these artistic giants becomes Midnight's thematic dominant, it's thoughtless the way Allen reduces them to a veritable pack of trading cards for the cocktail banter set. Most are set-ups for one-liners. Gil explains his predicament of being transported through time every night, and Dalí and Buñuel (Adrien de Van) aren't fazed. "Of course," Gil remarks. "You're Surrealists!" [rimshot] Or, speaking of his encounter with Djuna Barnes (Emmanuelle Uzan) on the dancefloor, he comments afterward, "That was Djuna Barnes? No wonder she kept wanting to lead!" [wah-wah]
Many viewers and critics I deeply respect have been duly charmed by Midnight In Paris, and one, who I shan't name for the sake of not rekindling a firestorm long subsided, offered a fairly straightforward defense of Allen's use of these high culture gags. "They're funny," basically; moreover, being overly irked by their shallowness is, in a way, to demand far too much from comedy itself when it takes figures such as "Tom" Eliot and Henri Matisse as its subject. Why can't Woody riff, along with his self-selected coterie of fans, on the contents of a liberal education? I suppose there is a double standard implied. The average joke about, e.g., Orrin Hatch or the Octomom or greasy Jack in the Box tacos asks little more than that we get the reference and move along. But then, that seems like a rather low standard by which to judge someone who, by the estimation of many, is one of the greatest comedic filmmakers in the medium's history. As I mentioned above, the upshot of Midnight In Paris is broadly allegorical. It could be boiled down to a "grass is greener" parable regarding nostalgia and historical hindsight. Gil, the psychologically disheveled postmodern man (forced to ply his trade as a script doctor, if by "forced" we understand that we mean "seduced by material comfort and the approval of his shrewish, highly incompatible wife"), looks back on 1920s Paris as a Golden Age, when unbridled creativity was in the water the way fluoride and fiscal conservatism are today. But surprise! The expat modernists and especially Gil's 1920s sweetie / free-floating muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard) all concur that the Belle Époque was where it all came together, and "now" (then), they're all just muddling through a period of sad decline.
It doesn't seem much of a stretch to detect in this Zen-historicist koan a partial rebuke from Woody to his critics. Those who chart his decline from Annie Hall onward will be revealed to lack the proper perspective! Which is, of course, both true and false. (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion shall be vindicated by the test of time! Ha ha ha no.) But again, this brings me back to the fundamental problem with Midnight In Paris, its shallow regard for the accumulated weight of the artistic traditions it riffs upon. Back in the (Reagan) 80, Allan Bloom published the controversial and to my mind deeply problematic book The Closing of the American Mind, which among other things promulgated the need for a shared "cultural literacy." He even included quizzes in the back of the book. But his primary point was that broad knowledge of canonical Western subjects was declining, and this meant trouble not only for the future of the humanities but for a common concept of American identity. For a conservative like Bloom, high culture transmitted values as well as expanding the mind's capacity for abstract thought. So you should at least know about it. You might not need to know The Waste Land by heart, Bloom essentially argued, but for the sake of a stronger, more cohesive culture, everyone ought to know that it's a long poem by T.S. Eliot, a masterwork of modernism, and some pithy summation of its theme (e.g., the destabilization of modern man in the wake of God's death). Woody Allen would no doubt recoil from Bloom's politics, and would probably scoff at his cultural agenda as well. But in its own way, Midnight In Paris is a film that behaves like a cultural literacy test. Only, instead of doing so in the service of pedagogy and overt nation-building, as Bloom did, Allen's film operates as an instance of cloistered badge-flashing amongst the arthouse bourgeoisie.
Was I too harsh? Glee, to my mind, has only worsened, and the smugness I diagnosed (and tried to puncture) has only swelled. (There is no limit to Ryan Murphy's ego.) So no, Glee had it coming. Sorry, Gleeks.