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)




The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller)

Truly a strange and offputting experience, and yet one for which I have a stunned sort of admiration. I've seen various movies over the years that have touched on certain aspects of my personal life -- for example Laurent Cantet's Human Resources, with its tension and mutual misunderstanding between a working-class father and his college educated son; or certain films which have dealt with the consequences of impairment from a stroke, such as Bernard Émond's Summi Circle. But neither my wife nor I were quite ready for the coldcocking effect of seeing very precise conversations, arguments, and situations (some pleasant, mostly not) replicated almost verbatim in this dramedy from the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The five long yearswe spent in Syracuse, during which Jen attended grad school and I worked at various academic appointments, were the nadir of our lives, largely for reasons that The Five-Year Engagement articulates rather well. Granted, Jen and I were already married. But that feeling of despair, isolation, and the seeming endlessness of it all -- of a lopsided sense of purpose, constantly threatening to capsize an otherwise healthy relationship -- is real. And since it was all splayed across the screen so blatantly (which is not to say artlessly or without keen observation), I can only surmise that this sort of banal horror happens everyday. One false note, though: the film pretty clearly goes out of its way to refrain from referring to its dismal frozen wasteland as Ann Arbor, which it is. (Stoller just shows lots of snow and tiny shops, and calls it "Michigan.") This must be because, if the film were honest, we'd have to acknowledge that Ann Arbor really isn't so bad. I've been there, and while it's no San Francisco, it's still pretty charming. In fact, I know of a much worse place.


Meanwhile (Hal Hartley) [m]

Depending on your viewpoint (and arguably Hartley's own, about which I have no special knowledge), here we have either a once-major American auteur, seemingly lost in the wilderness of late-career irrelevance; or, a man who has established himself so thoroughly, and has achieved such a significant level of comfort both with his art and his place in the strange firmament of contemporary film culture, that he feels free to "be minor," to make what he wants when he wants, irrespective of whether there is a significant audience for his wares. I speak as someone who has been a great admirer of Hal Hartley for many years, who counts Simple Men among my very favorite films, and was a defender of late-career efforts such as Fay Grim (a notable return to form, I thought) and the widely dismissed Icelandic monster romp No Such Thing. (If one had to mark a turning point in Hartley's international fortunes, 2001 would be the date, when No Such Thing debuted in Cannes and a critical establishment moved in for the kill, almost univocally.) Having said all this, Hartley has made shorter digital works in the intervening years that I have not found particularly rewarding, and these are the works that have occupied his time since Fay Grim in 2006. (He has also held a teaching post or two.) Point being, there has been a retrenchment of sorts, an apparent decision to work small and abjure "masterwork" ambitions like those quite obviously on display (and indeed realized) in a work like Henry Fool.


This latest featurette, Meanwhile, pretty much announces with its title that it is an intermediate work. But what does it exist "between," exactly? There isn't an indication that some grand opus is forthcoming. And the creation of this work was itself funded through Kickstarter. No, Meanwhile seems to speak to Hartley's new way or working and thinking now, and it's his best film since Henry Fool. Most of my critic acquaintances had no idea it even existed. I didn't know there was "a new Hal Hartley film" until it showed up unannounced on my VOD platform. It played a festival or two, but mostly snuck onto the scene with little fanfare. It is just under an hour long. It is a thoroughly complete work at 56 minutes, but Hartley could easily have eked out another 14 and crossed the magic line into feature length. Naturally, this would have improved Meanwhile's commercial and festival fortunes greatly. But Hartley distinctly chose not to. This is also a film notable for finding Hartley adapting his style to accommodate several brand new collaborators. Most notably, this is Hartley's first film with cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff rather than longtime d.p. Michael Spiller. One can sense subtle but distinct differences in Meanwhile's Manhattan cityscapes. They are not as flattened, a bit more cloaked in sunlight, than Spiller's images. But, apart from Hartley's wife Miho Nikaido, all of the supporting roles are cast with actors working with Hartley for the first time. (Some of them have only a few credits to their name. Perhaps they are students?)


But the "star" of Meanwhile is a Hartley veteran. It may take even longtime fans of the director a little while to realize it. D.J. Mendel receives his first starring role after appearing in five previous Hartley joints, in small roles like "Lawyer," "Teacher," and "Agent." Here, Mendel and his rumpled fedora play Joe Fulton, a Renaissance man who can fix a sink, generate capital for an import / export scheme involving bringing vertical, "European" style windows to the Manhattan construction industry, and sometimes help you get your indie feature off the ground. He also wrote a novel. The crux of Meanwhile, though, is that Fulton's near-omnipotence is matched only by his poverty and lack of stable success. (Hartley helpfully provides Fulton with a younger brother as a foil. He "works in finance.") Whether Joe consciously abjures money is an open question, although the sexy naked lady whose sink he fixes (Danielle Meyer) tries to slip him some cash. Joe surreptitiously hands it back. More to the point, Joe is a "connector," the type of guy who puts the right people in touch with each other, who moves things from one place to another, but does not necessarily leave a physical substrate of his contribution. In short, Joe is a manager, maybe even a producer, but he works out of the limelight. To a certain way of thinking, Joe would be a mere middleman or even a hanger-on, someone who merely orbits the lives of creative types. But Meanwhile indicates the exact opposite. Joe's absolute generosity extends to his own (lack of) ego, his being content to serve as a fixer and a conduit. The history of the arts is full of these unsung impresarios, whose importance is disproportionate to what they leave behind with their signature. (In the avant-garde, think of Bob Fleischer, Piero Heliczer, Jerome Hill . . .) Hartley, who now makes smaller films and must explore unconventional means to get them funded, has given us a miniature paean to the hustlers who really hold everything together but most of us never see. Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the ur-text for this mode; recent examples include Ferrara's Go Go Tales and Amalric's On Tour. Meanwhile too occupies this rare class of "hustler" films, but as befitting its director, it's charmingly light on scuzz.




Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy)

Is Caesar Must Die a disappointing Golden Bear winner? Sure. There is no question that in comparison to many of the films it was competing against in this year's Berlinale (Christian Petzold's Barbara, Ursula Meier's Sister, and especially Miguel Gomes' Tabu), the Tavianis’ film is somewhat underwhelming. Still, its absence from the Toronto IFF was strange. (It will have its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.) However, when considered alongside obviously "better" films that wear their mastery like a cloak, if not a shield, maybe Caesar Must Die has a bit more to tell us, in its deficiencies, yes, but also in its genuine modesty. Perhaps it excluded itself from a “Masters” section by being willfully clumsy, exploratory, not purporting to have all the answers. While it is true that, in its combination of documentary and “fiction” (a production of Julius Caesar and its attendant rehearsals among the inmates of Rebibbia, a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Rome), Caesar Must Die borrows liberally from recent Iranian cinema – Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi, in particular – it is a work that is in no way aiming for bracing originality. In fact, the very selection of one of Shakespeare’s most over-performed texts would seem to signal to us that we are not supposed to be on the lookout for innovation.What Caesar offers instead is a glimpse of a very ordinary process, one of edification within extreme restraint. Theatre director Fabio Cavalli is working with the inmates in order to help them spend their time in the creation of something meaningful. How will Julius Caesar become meaningful to these men? How does it become meaningful to, say, contemporary high school students? Cavalli, and the Tavianis, do not take this for granted. In watching the men audition – giving their name and town of origin, first angry, then crying – we see a wide range of mediocre acting. Why should any make-believe emotions be able to compete with the convoluted psychological situations in these men – murderers, gangsters, thieves, drug-runners – actually exist?


What Caesar Must Die shows the inmates, and us, over the course of its brief running time is that the mere act of learning and reciting the words of another, of pretending to be someone else, can not only serve as a much-needed respite from a brutal reality. It can also be clarifying in terms of one's own choices and values. (This was the impetus behind Brecht's theory of the "social gest.") Some have criticized the film's blunt delivery of this message, as when Salvatore Striano, the actor playing Brutus, pauses at the line, "Rome, a city with no shame," to note, "You too, my dear Napoli, have become a city with no shame. Excuse me, Fabio, but it is as though Shakespeare had lived on the streets of my city." Whether or not the Tavianis have coached this inelegant Brechtian moment, and whether or not it works vis-a-vis their own film, is open for debate. But what seems more significant is that Caesar Must Die foregoes sophistication in order to accurately capture the manner in which performing Caesar has provoked epiphanies for these men, most of whom have had no real engagement with literature or the arts. Naive, yes, but unworthy of our consideration? Hardly. Then again, the Tavianis ask us to remember that enlightenment (small- and capital-E) cuts both ways. The last line of Caesar Must Die comes from Giovanni Arcuri, the performer who played Caesar. We see him puttering nervously around his cell, and in voiceover he laments, "Ever since I became acquainted with art, this cell has become a prison." The process, as depicted by the Tavianis' film, has resulted in a hard lesson, and we are left with the deep ambivalence that exists at the heart of any self-aware act of humanism.




Bernie (Richard Linklater)

One of the year's bigger disappointments, Bernie is one of those films that has all the right elements but lacks that crucial X-factor. In many such cases it's difficult to identify just where the work falters, but with Bernie it seems fairly clear, even if it's rather subtle, so much so that the film's formless, burbling presence doesn't seem to be bothering anybody very much. In recent years, U.S. film culture in particular has been infiltrated with its own version of the cinéma du look, whose chief exponents were the Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas. While neither director was particularly enamored with slick surfaces, what they did seem to fixate upon was a rather hypostatized, spectacularist approach to cinematic time. Everything was organized around the setpiece, the pop song construction, the "clip." As it happens, both directors have matured well beyond this structural approach. And for his part, Richard Linklater always tended to make films in a somewhat different mode -- the mosaics of Slacker, Waking Life, and Fast Food Nation, or the close-quarters neo-Rohmerian Before films. (His best film by far, A Scanner Darkly, combines the multivalent roundelay and the talky-literary impulses to bracing effect.) But what we see in Bernie, rather surprisingly, is a work of cinema that treats not only narrative construction, but every filmic element, as a relatively autonomous entity. There is nothing new, we understand, in a film that is driven by its lead performance, be it charismatic or overbearing. In the case of Jack Black's work with Linklater on The School of Rock, his performance as Dewey Finn / False Schneebly could be said to be both at once. But his performance as Bernie Tiede walks a narrow line. He is in some senses a caricature, but that's because Bernie was an overly gregarious man, managing his demons through civic engagement and upbeat religiosity. Black was "restrained" (and dull as dishwater) in Margot at the Wedding, but seldom has he been this focused, locked into a character whose mid-decibel boisterousness is his own form of repression. It's Black's finest work. But again, the problem isn't that Black runs roughshod over the rest of the film. Matthew McConaughey's work as the flinty podunk DA is equally inspired, and Linklater's decision to round out the cast with actual citizens of Carthage, Texas (who also address the camera in faux-interview segments) is indeed rather inspired. They tell us a great deal about the town where Bernie Tiede committed murder, simply with their hand gestures and facial expressions. (The only really "bad" part of Bernie is Shirley MacLaine, and it's possible her Town Harpie role simply didn't afford her much in the way of latitude.) No, the problem is, each of these "parts" hovers in orbit around one another, never gelling into a singular film. In other words, Linklater neglected his directorial role as traffic cop, leaving Bernie a largely underarticulated series of "true life tales." The aforementioned interview segments are inspired, and frequently funnier than any of the scripted material. For instance, one guy's impromptu dissection of the multiple cultures of Texas based on region, delivered from his table at the barbecue joint, is not only highly amusing; it's a sharp little bit of cultural anthropology. Bernie's opening lecture to the mortuary class; Bernie's rescue of a "dying" eulogy; Danny Buck (McConaughey) cross-examining Bernie on the stand about "life in first class," for the benefit of the rednecks in the jury box . . . The film is nothing if not a series of highly successful vignettes, well-written and performed. But there is no convincing connective tissue, no coherent sense of place. The camerawork is flat. Much of the staging and direction consists of the narration telling us what is happening, and the film's visual track "illustrating" it in the least creative manner possible. Truly it's as though Bernie were not quite finished, or Linklater believed that the true-crime angle of the Tiede story would, in and of itself, provide ample plot motility and compositional shape. What we have instead is a kind of matzo ball soup, with memorable words, images, and expressions, floating in a thin, clear broth. I can't help but feel confident that Linklater knows better, so I wonder. Was this a botched attempt at a filmmaking as "plain-spoken" and doggedly unfancy as the people of Carthage?




Compliance (Craig Zobel)

[SPOILERS AND LOTS OF 'EM] "But it actually happened!" This has been a frequent refrain among those (critics as well as lay viewers) with whom I've been arguing about Compliance, our Movie of the Moment. The film does indeed dramatize real events, in which a prank caller to a McDonalds posed as a police officer, told the middle-aged shift manager that a young female employee had stolen money from a customer, and essentially "deputizes" said manager over the phone to deal with the girl until authorities can arrive. Through the perverse wiles of the caller and the gobsmacking idiocy of the fast food manager, the guy was able to coax her into stripping the young worker naked and sexually molesting her. As Zobel not so subtly announces with his title, one may well debate whether idiocy, as I put it above, is actually at issue, or if in fact compliance -- a deeply inculcated submission to perceived authority, particularly among certain subsections of the population -- is the greater sociological subject of our inquiry. One cannot watch Compliance, or read about the cases on which it's based, and not think of Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments at Stanford, whereby he convinced psychology students to administer painful electric shocks to test participants, because he told them that they had to. (The shocks were fake, of course, and the folks making the decision whether or not to zap their fellow humans were the actual subjects of the experiment.)


But here's the problem. Compliance, as conceived by the clearly very talented Zobel, operates very much like one of those secondary Milgram experiments, except without a control group. The film is hermetically sealed, and we are invited through very deliberately formal means to sit apart from its follies and watch in horrified judgment. From the opening shots of northern suburban midwinter vulgarity (e.g. the shopping cart frozen into the mount of plowed snow), to the overly precious art direction of the fake ChickWich chain, right down to all the interstitial shots of cascading French fries and customers filling their faces, Compliance continually signals an air of ironic detachment. In light of this, it can hardly be coincidental, or a mere directorial failure, when every hole or inconsistency in "Officer Daniels'" (Pat Healy) procedural rhetoric jumps out for the listener in the audience. (If the ChickWich regional manager is "on the other line," why not patch him through for a 3-way call? If "we've got the victim right here," why doesn't anyone ever ask to speak with her? Etc.) This staged obviousness is eventually bolstered by Zobel's decision to show us "Daniels" in his den, clearly getting off on his superiority. So it's difficult not to immediately see shift manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) as a dimwitted rube who either has no logical capacities, enjoys degrading young Becky (Dreama Walker), takes pleasure in identifying with the cops, or some revolting combination thereof. Compliance never ever tries to create the perceptual circumstances in which we could understand what it was like for her to be manipulated by a con man. As if this particular lily required further gilding, Sandra's "fiance" Van (Bill Camp), one of three men asked to guard the naked woman (!!!), is shown to be a monosyllabic mouth-breather, who molests Becky under orders from the crank caller and then mutters to a friend, "I did a bad thing..." Who are you, Carl Childers?


Ultimately, the problem with Compliance, apart from its rather clear disdain for its working-class subjects, is the fact that on some level its makers seem to themselves believe that "this actually happened" is an adequate defense for anything and everything the movie can dish out. In turn, it implicitly asks its viewers to believe in its virtues because of its connection to real events. How can we complain about the implausibility of a grown man making a 19-year-old stranger do nude jumping jacks, to see if a wad of cash suddenly falls out of her asshole? It happened! But representation, and creating a set of representations that form an artwork -- these are different matters. Aside from affording us the opportunity to stand in judgment of these underpaid, under-educated sad sacks, what does Compliance actually accomplish? It could've provided analysis, some sociological context, a Brechtian disruption of the scenario, anything. It could've tried to establish a set of relationships between these events and others that might've impacted them (widespread unemployment, for example, or maybe micro-class resentments between Sandra as a ChickWich "lifer" and, perhaps, Becky as a transient on her way to other things). But in just restaging The Incident, Compliance really doesn't do much of anything, Sure, it offers some Dreama Walker sideboob. And in this respect, Zobel has made something as lurid as its true-life source material, despite that chilly aesthetic approach of his. Compliance is a dirty film, even though it tries so hard to wash its hands before returning to work.


The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Peter Hedges)

My Nashville Scene piece tells the tale. But I should say, I'm rather impressed that this film flopped. Some folks actually lost money by trying to shamelessly emotionally manipulate the American public. "Hey! I got an idea! What if Simon Birch . . . wait for it . . . was actually a BIRCH?!"