SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2003
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)
-Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, France)
Nothing earth-shaking, but an accomplished, carefully calibrated policier in the mold of Nolan's Insomnia remake. Strong points include attention to landscape, characters largely defined by environment, and perhaps most notably, a refusal to turn the story into serial-killer porn. Succo is depicted in a scrupulously anti-psychological manner, as a batshit-insane sociopath who acts out with virtually no discernible m.o. Switching back and forth between Succo and the detective whoís on his trail, Kahn doles out information with precision, making sure weíre never one step ahead of the cops (and thus implicitly identifying with Succo). Even after heís captured, much of the story (motivation, one last unsolved murder) remains a mystery. Oh! Maybe that's why nobody distributed this film in the States.
-Zero Day (Ben Coccio)
Everything Elephant is not, Zero Day plays pretty much like the greatest MFA-thesis film in the history of the world. Damning with faint praise? Hardly. This film is a virtual primer on how to make budgetary and technical limitations work to your advantage. Constructed as the first-person video diary of two sharp but very average nerds who call themselves "The Army of Two" (nice touch, since as we know, an "Army of One" is more than sufficient to wipe out entire countries), Zero Day resists every tendency to veer into gimmickry. The non-professional actors, Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson, only occasionally break the verisimilitude by coming off as a bit too articulate and self-aware, and this is the film's only real tactical error. However, this has the added benefit of making both characters fascinating to watch and listen to. These kids are not monsters, as the film goes to great lengths to point out, but they do share with Hannibal Lecter a giddy, affable intellectualism that managed to make me start rooting for them. Given that the acts committed in Zero Day are directly referencing Columbine, it was chilling to find myself identifying with these kids, and this speaks volumes about the force of charisma and the hypnotic power of cinema. So, while Cal and Andre burn their media collection and tell the diary's viewers that books, music, comics, and videogames had no impact whatsoever on their decision (and to its credit, the film makes this argument very plausible; these characters have more in common with the Nietzschean streak of Leopold and Loeb), the film itself simultaneously mounts an implicit argument in the other direction. Art and entertainment do have enormous power, but their outcomes are as unpredictable and indecipherable as Columbine itself. Where Elephant takes refuge in easy-to-discard stereotypes, Zero Day eschews simple explanations of "them" by showing us a complex portrait of ourselves. (This is driven home by the final shot, an image of our culture's reaction-formations against the anguish of mind-boggling tragedy.) A profoundly humanist film, Zero Day is one of the year's best.
-The Embalmer (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
I'm very sorry to have missed this on the big screen, since it is one of the best-looking films of the year. Its overall style is vaguely out of time, although more than anything, it resembles European art cinema from the 1970s (especially New German Cinema). There is a grainy, faded quality to the film stock, which perfectly underscores its dilapidated vision of urban Italy -- crumbling tenements, empty streets, garish hotels and neon-and-vinyl bars. The film is downright Fassbinderian in its circumstantial intersection of characters: lonely gay dwarf taxidemist, aimless beau-hunk, and steely middle-class sexpot. Mike D'Angelo complained that the film made no metaphorical or allegorical hay of the profession of taxidermy, but I was like, thank god. Despite some shrewd opening moments at the zoo (our mismatched protagonists examined from the animals' POV) and some humorous compositional foregrounding of stuffed creatures, which was reminiscent of Petra von Kant, The Embalmer regards its flawed characters non-judgmentally, refusing to turn them into Sundancy collections of freaky quirks. For the most part, there is an open, ambling atmosphere, giving Garrone's characters room to simply exist, and this allows the roiling sexual conflicts to assume a surprisingly naturalistic shape. Only when the script seems to concoct unnecessary conflict (i.e., Peppino's Mafia connections) does this atmosphere falter, and even a rather needlessly dramatized ending feels far more restrained than it would on paper. A grungy, anachronistic surprise.
Looney Tunes: Back In Action (Joe Dante)
I'm rather ashamed to admit that this is my first Dante film. (In his pop heyday, I mistakenly assumed his films to be "beneath" me -- I was trying to cultivate Serious Cinephile Credentials, so sadly Gremlins 2: The New Batch was off my radar.) In addition to the clever Wal-Mart sequence (which sums Josie and the Pussycats up in three minutes and moves on), Dante's sly anti-corporate humor is most evident in my favorite pair of gags. After the WB executive (played by Jenna Elfman) fires Daffy, she informs him that his identity is the property of the studio. Daffy himself is surprised to discover that he can't even say his own name anymore. In the third act, after Daffy and Bugs have saved the world from the rogue Acme Corporation, Daffy triumphantly refutes the executiveís assertion of intellectual property: "I belong to the world!" This idea also goes a long way to express Dante's apparent attitude toward the Looney Tunes legacy. It's there to tweak, tinker with, enfold into origami pterodactyls of post-postmodern self-reference. It demands irreverence. Even the slightly-off, post-Mel Blanc-era voice talent is less a liability than a signal of changing times and new challenges for the Tunes' all-embracing anarchy. Anyhow, the jokes are a mile a minute, and misfire only about a third of the time. The Louvre sequence is astonishing, the Bugs-Daffy interplay frequently sparkling, Elfman and Brenden Fraser are solid, and Steve Martin quashes mirth with his every appearance. Like so many manic Robin Williams turns, this SM perf is the sort that bears the outward appearance of game dedication, but in reality is unconscionably lazy.
My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn)
I can see why this film is irritating to many. At times, Kahn Juniorís voiceover ruminations about the Father He Never Knew can be a bit much, since the filmmaker never really emerges as a distinct personality. Nevertheless, what really works (for me) about My Architect is that it presents a topic (modern architecture) and an enigmatic figure (Louis I. Kahn), both of which are intellectually intriguing, provides thoughtful and systematic coverage of both topic and figure, but complicates matters with the question of familial obligations. That is, My Architect never merely embraces high-modernist Great Man platitudes, nor does it simply eviscerate them as patriarchal ideology, in the manner of academic cultural studies or identity politics at their most rote and slipshod. Instead, both primary viewpoints -- that Louis Kahn gave to the world, and that his failings as a person are not excused by his artistic greatness -- are presented sympathetically and intelligently, from multiple perspectives. (In this regard, the film's attitude reflects its visual style, as Kahn the filmmaker struggles to render his fatherís complex volumetric spaces in cinema.) In particular, the film interrogates the gender politics of high modernism, without explicitly announcing its intention to do so. Simply by learning of the lives, fates, and structuring beliefs of Kahn's female collaborators / lovers (including Nathaniel's mother, dressed down by her son in an uncomfortably aggressive interview), we leave the film with the recognition that Walter Benjamin was right. Civilizationís greatest monuments also serve as evidence of our collective barbarism, and frequently that barbarism begins at home.
Open Range (Kevin Costner)
For the first hour or so, I was mesmerized by Costner's latest because it seemed like a meticulous recreation of his own idea of the classic Western, struggling to resemble a lost, rediscovered artifact. Costner got all the tropes, camera angles, and stock characters right, and his big-sky shots and languid pace were in fact astonishingly anachronistic and appropriately pleasurable. But still, my viewing experience was strangely subdivided, comprehending Costner's apparent effort, almost seeing the sweat dripping down his furrowed brow, while in reality he was constructing something more like Van Sant's Psycho, a laborious simulacrum that could have passed for a belated entry into the 1989 Whitney Biennial. But over time, Open Range really opens, and it becomes apparent that this is actually Costner's revision of the revision, a less obviously problematized Unforgiven or even his own stab at a Todd Haynes-like metacommentary. It doesn't quite work, but the color schemes (garishly orange-brown, like a neon saddlebag) and studied delivery of baroquely folksy dialogue ("Ma'am, you are the handsomist woman I ever did see," etc.) start to give the impression that Costner is rereading Ford / Mann / Boetticher through Sirk. In the end, it all started to seem like a deeply flawed but awesomely whacked-out mini-masterpiece, and I can't wait to see it again. Note to Jen: I hereby cancel Kevís exile in Chad.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
"Most importantly, have fun!" -- This film is an exactingly crafted, rigorously controlled parade of stereotypes. What I find more irksome about the film is its outward pretext of being purely observational. Since Dardennes-style follow-shots are, in and of themselves, counter-cinematic strategies, Elephant's most salient formal feature addresses the spectator from the phony moral high-ground of "observational cinema," with all the immediacy and authenticity that implies. But of course, the film is really highly composed, structured like a melodrama in fact, with its "bald" presentation of the unexplained "facts" of teen suffering (alcoholic parents, gay panic, bulimia, body-image issues, being a young black male) organizing the film into a series of intersecting semiotic representations. Van Sant hedges his bets in all directions, adopting the trappings of art-film facticity while constantly cuing the viewer as to how to respond. For example, the nerd girl hears the cool girls in the locker room call her a loser; the Harris / Klebold stand-in only hears the roar of undifferentiated din. Ergo, girls individualize and internalize the violence of high school cliquishness, but boys channel it into aggression. QED! The mobilization of stereotypes in Elephant is especially irritating since it speaks to Van Sant's shoulder-shrugging quiescence to the age of media simulacra. Columbine can, of course, only be socially processed through representations. Lunk-headed social watchdogs want to find specific pre-existing representations on which to blame Columbine (the Internet, Nazi imagery, violent videogames -- although now that I think about it, rap and metal music are curiously absent). Elephant trades on the theory of circularity, by generating images of violence which were bound up with other violent images, causality being impossible to locate. But he takes this stance a step further, by portraying (social? media?) types, participating in the cultural constructs that both give rise to, and aim to explain Columbine. Scary-movie music and teen-flick shorthand-characterization insure that Elephant is fully legible to a society capable of thinking only in stereotypes. The film's apparent contention -- that no explanation will ever be satisfactory, or even possible -- actually manifests as an unproblematic embrasure of the culture of surface and image. (As with Lost in Translation, shallow focus is the dominant formal element here, and it is indicative of an intellectual position.) Van Sant is clearly attempting to occupy the tropes of American high school culture in order to investigate their meaning, but instead, the empty hallways suck him into their vacuum. Elephant is undeniably masterful, frequently gorgeous, and as phony as a $3 bill.
-Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, Spain)
One of those extreme borderline cases, where I waver between mild interest and wanting to shut the goddamned thing off. (I am always more likely to turn off a DVD than I am to walk out of a theatre.) Pretty poor writing and direction by any standard, with a televisual sense of editing and a propensity to jigger neat parallelisms and ironic moments just to underscore its already-obvious points. (I am always more likely to be annoyed when the anti-capitalist positions with which I sympathize are reduced to bald speechifying.) But I could not dismiss the thing, mostly because somehow these rote bits of characterization frequently proved to be affectingly plangent despite themselves. (José's displaced-breadwinner blustering at the bank typifies all that is wrong with this film, but his tender reassurance of his wife, self-conscious about her body odor from working all day in a tuna cannery, exemplifies everything that's right about it.) So, if I were one of those 100-point geeks, this would be a 50, right on the line. (I am always more likely to be frustrated by a film which refuses to allow me to like or dislike it outright.)
Bubba Ho-tep (Dan Coscarelli)
It's all premise and no follow-through. Bubba is an ugly film, but not by design, even though the nursing-home thematics would lead you to assume some kind of intentionally pasty look. No, it's just badly shot, trashily assembled, and worst of all, terribly written. Every word, phrase or scenario that you would expect from the premise is there, gleaming in its predictability and irrelevance. (The forced mention of the peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches was particularly awkward.) Bruce Campbell is winning plaudits in some quarters for his Elvis impersonation, which is undistinguished and, when it comes to incarnating the King's decrepitude, downright inadequate. (Campbell never uses his walker like a man with a bad hip. He's just walking normally and putting the thing down in front of him. In fact, he doesn't even seem to recall that his Elvis has an inflamed pustule on his dick. If Elvis could walk that way, he wouldnít need a doctor, if you know what I mean.) Ossie Davis acquits himself nicely, just being his charming usual self. But sad to say, there is really nothing here. Well, okay, hardcore auteurists will appreciate the fact that Coscarelli stages a fight between The King and a giant fake scarab, echoing the director's fascination with small spherical flying death as seen in the Phantasm films. Maybe next time Elvis can battle the Auteurist Zombies.
-Bungee Jumping of Their Own (Kim Dae-Seung, South Korea)
I am hardly immune to the charms of floridly romantic mainstream Korean cinema (cf. Failan, One Fine Spring Day), but in this case, we have the standard Hollywood love-beyond-the-grave tropes (Somewhere in Time, Ghost, Waking the Dead...) combined with an altogether sidestepped treatment of homosexuality, to say nothing of teacher-student sexual relations. Everybody gets a happy ending (well, except for the lead character's wife and child, but the film does not concern us with this), but is it earned? Only in the sense that you "earn" a gumball when you put a quarter in the slot and turn the crank.
-Run Ronnie Run (Troy Miller)
[Cue infomercial music.] What if I told you that Bob and David, the comedic geniuses behind Mr. Show, were going to make a feature-length motion picture, bringing their madcap worldview to the masses? Wouldn't believe it? Well, you shouldn't. [Cue scratched-record sound.] Through the phenomenally misjudged hackwork of Troy Miller, and an allegedly hostile studio (New Line) which mangled the film in post, the Mr. Show movie becomes that most misbegotten of creatures, the SNL 89 minute sketch film. So, it's Night at the Roxbury or The Ladies' Man sent straight down the tubes, not because of its labored unfunniness, but because the larger world doesn't know what Mr. Show is. The few laugh-out-loud bits (Three Times One Minus One, the Ronnie Dobbs musical) are right out of the show, with the exception of the inspired "Ass-Kicking Fat Kid." The latter works, since it allows for the disjunctive foreground / background relationships and bizarre digressions that are the key to Bob and David's humor. Nothing else really does.
-The Cuckoo (Alexander Rogozhkin, Russia)
One of the good-natured jibes that I and other cinephiles get from non-movie-obsessed people goes something like, "You wouldn't be watching that crap if it were in English." (Yes, sometimes they employ the subjunctive mood* correctly. This has been 2003's Moment of Pedanticism.) The thing is, to some extent it's true. I certainly don't give foreign films any sort of free pass on the critical front, and if they suck, I gladly say so. But I am more willing to see a rotten film through to the bitter end if it hails from a country I feel like I need to catch up on. My overall interest in world cinema provokes me to sample various national cinemas, to just drop in to see what condition their condition is in. So, The Cuckoo. This unholy mess was the most critically-lauded of the three Russian films released in the U.S. this year, but now I sort of wish I'd taken a chance on House of Fools (universally loathed) or Tycoon (met with the shrug of "so-so Russian-lingo gangster flick"). In short: the first third employs sharp cinematography and gliding camerawork to keep gesturing toward a close, meditative examination of mundane tasks (i.e., it keeps behaving like it's going to be the sort of arty movie I appreciate), but all this rhythm is quashed on account of the film looks like it was edited by a lower primate. The film is so determined to get the three principals together that it falls back on clumsy cross-cutting that would strike even George Lucas as too overbearing. Combine this with an idiotic premise SNL would reject, and a nonsensical conclusion which strains for transcendence but hits the back wall like an outfielder coming up short, and you've got The Cuckoo, whose only redeeming facet -- its luminous visual wonder in the face of nature -- serves to make it look like Tarkovskian sketch comedy.