REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2004
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)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson's fourth film isn't so much a rehash of The Royal Tenenbaums (as many critics have claimed) as a do-over. Some of the most devoted denizens of Wesworld will shudder at the thought, not because Anderson's biggest fans want to see him grow (they actually don't), but because they tend to see Tenenbaums as a more adult Rushmore, and that's about as much adulthood as they care to see from this filmmaker. (In other words, It's the whimsy, stupid.) I was ambivalent about Tenenbaums, because it seemed to me that Anderson's overweening perfection and insistence on cutesy little details was in direct conflict with its attempted seriousness. How can one film contain both the matching track suit / Dalmatian mice visual shtickiness, and Richie's suicide attempt, and expect us to switch gears enough to actually give a shit? (It takes more than Elliott Smith on the soundtrack to make this work.) But even more than the tonal whiplash, Tenenbaums' emotional moments were compromised by Anderson's fussy design and tight-assed direction. It works for the properly storybook elements, but when it comes to catharsis, it's a bit too much like Anderson's grabbing your head by the ears and shoving your nose in a construction-paper diorama of his deepest fears, shouting at you, "Care!"
The one free radical in the whole Tenenbaums scheme was Gene Hackman. Like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, who was able to almost single-handedly defeat the Coen brothers' leaden determinism, Hackman set his own pace, injecting a much-needed sense of play into the film. He didn't replicate his role like a puppet or a wax dummy. He riffed on it. (To Anderson's credit, Royal Tenenbaum's character was one whose narrative function was to shake the family out of its funk, so the director appears to be cognizant enough of his dominant current to build in its own resistance.) With The Life Aquatic, Anderson has harnessed the anarchic energy of Hackman's character and distributed it throughout the film. Rushmore and Tenenbaums seem moored to the shore by comparison.
On the most basic formal level, Life Aquatic's success is so simple. Anderson moves the camera. Sure, Rushmore and Tenenbaums has carefully choreographed camera maneuvers, designed to connect different components of the dollhouse. But here, the bobbing and weaving of nautical life becomes a thin pretext for a shockingly free, mostly hand-held style. (Even, for example, on the pier at the Zissou compound, the face-off between Ned and Klaus (Owen Wilson and the superb Willem Dafoe) is shot as though the cameraman were standing on a buoy.) Before writing this review, I posted a note that indicated that virtually all of the criticisms that other writers have leveled at Life Aquatic are exactly right. Yes, by comparison to Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic is shoddy, half-assed, half-baked, lacking in rigor, and in many respects telegraphs a certain inconsequentiality. Bill Murray, having demonstrated his "gravitas" moves in Lost in Translation, here occupies a strange in-between zone, regressing to a state before, where he is still the snotty frat boy only beginning to recognize his aging frame. (Anderson even slips in a Stripes reference.) Murray's Zissou is a man who's been stuck in a rut, phoning it in and yet flying above it all, until he has to stare death and middle-age in the face. But instead of this theme walloping the audience with its serious-actorly character as a "problem," Murray's insouciance allows it to wash over us as open, undirected human comedy. You could say Zissou's character arc is about moving from one to another, deeper, more thoroughgoing mode of not giving a shit, from frat-boy unreflective to existential embrasure. The beauty of The Life Aquatic is that Anderson allows this attitude to pervade the film as a whole. It's loose, it's ramshackle, it contains several key missteps (Owen Wilson's Kentucky accent, most notably), but it demonstrates such a free-wheeling commitment to all of its elements that the film never feels nailed down the way Tenenbaums is. Instead of forcing us to lavish our spectatorial attention on every directorial decision, like a grade-schooler with his crafts project shouting, "Mommy, mommy, look!" here random details waft in and out. Henry Selick's costly animated wonder-fish just randomly show up and disappear again. (Even the pivotal "jaguar shark" is only on camera for a few seconds.) Whales and dolphins deliver cameos in the film, as, respectively, momentary background decoration, and a cheap throwaway joke. (I was reminded of the Bresson anecdote, about how his scuttled adaptation of the Book of Genesis was supposed to have pairs of animals on set, but only their footprints would make it on camera.) There's even the whole dollhouse thing, with the patently artificial cutaway set of the Belafonte. But instead of forcing us to gawk at it over and over again, imbibing its perfection, Anderson shows it off as a nifty visual gewgaw, and moves on. In sum, what we have here is Anderson and company having a high old time, exploiting a really large budget for homemade, personal filmmaking. The Life Aquatic is indulgent in all the right ways. It's a $25 million Max Fischer production. Bravo.
Cowards Bend the Knee (Guy Maddin, Canada) [v/m]
MILD SPOILERS -- Am I growing weary of Guy Maddin's shtick? I don't think so, but there was something incredibly exhausting about Cowards, the fact that, in true melodramatic style, it is crammed with incident and struggles to keep, um, multiple balls in the air. Makes sense, given that it's a cautionary tale about male infidelity, "Guy Maddin"'s inability to keep his errant penis from getting the better of him. (Ever flirted with a hot medical assistant during your girlfriend's abortion? Cowards is a pretty scathing indictment of some uniquely male pathologies.) Interwoven through this narrative are the sort of themes we'd expect from Maddin, but delivered in new ways -- phantom control of one's will, Oedipal strife, hockey as masculine proving ground, and perhaps above all, an inquiry into whether "Canadian masculinity" is hopelessly oxymoronic. (The ease with which "Guy Maddin" slips from hockey star to hairdresser, all in the vain hope of getting laid, seems to foreground this problem, as do the unleashed-id locker room hijinx, "two long, two short.") The conclusion does add a level of poignancy to the mayhem, but I was still left feeling rather browbeaten, held prisoner by the most extreme expression yet of the director's sensibility -- this may not be Maddin's masterpiece, but it's certainly the most intensely "Maddin" thing he's done -- and by the end, I wanted to stumble back into the light, have a Coke, watch some TV, and rejoin the 21st century.
Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
It's often tough to see films late in their release, since by that time I already have a sense of what to expect from them from other people's reviews. Plus, a lot of the fresh insights are already taken. For instance, most of what I could say about Distant by way of praise is nicely encapsulated by Mike D'Angelo here, right down to the disclaimer about its formal elegance in no way blunting its comedic value. It's frequently very funny, more so than you might expect. But I do part company from Mike's viewpoint when I say that the final shot is not overwhelming. In fact, I found it precious and arch in a way that nearly recoded the entire film for me. But not exactly. You see, I mostly felt, well, distant from Distant, all the while marveling at its obvious mastery. In fact, its mastery is painfully obvious. The film offers frequent pleasures and perceptual disruptions and is never less that achingly beautiful. (The film oscillates between cramped interiors and stunning, wide-angle panoramic shots of the cityscape and waterfront of Istanbul which in themselves are worth the price of admission. This film must be seen in 35mm on the big screen.) And yet, its plant-and-payoff spatial humor, its emotional growth in the form of subtly switched identities, its numerous riffs on the concept of distance -- it all felt too neat, like an airless essay on modern loneliness, City Mouse vs. Country Mouse in the Existential Wasteland. I've gotten a reputation among my friends for being a sucker for formal rigor in cinema. It's a fair rap to an extent -- I tend to prefer clean minimalism to sprawling, anal-expulsive punk emotionalism. But it has to be said: there's rigor, and there's rigor mortis. Distant, don't get me wrong, is far too alive to be dead. It is frequently fleet of foot (the car-alarm and Tarkovsky jokes are amusing and deftly deployed), and its characters do emerge as complex, well-rounded human beings. (The two leads are responsible for this to no small degree. Muzaffer Özdemir's Mahmut, the urbanite photographer with failed high-art ambitions, is hangdog-to-slowburn, and looks like a meld of Ron Silver with Amitabh Bachchan. The late Emin Toprak, as drifting Yusuf, beautifully conveys the struggle to embody ambition when hapless shambling -- cigarette dangling from the lips and held in place by random spittle alone -- constitutes the true core of your being. The actor resembles a Mediterranean John Cusack with an errant lump of flesh colonizing his left temple.) As much as I enjoyed Ceylan's film, I also felt that I was watching a work of art whose fussed-over meticulousness had driven it just a smidgen over the edge into dry demonstration, the illustration of a watertight thesis. In this regard, the final shot was an all-too-logical conclusion to a film that in some ways is hobbled by its logic. Distant works very carefully with the balance between near and far, between stillness and motion, but too often, motion comes to feel like a necessary evil and a niggling irritation. For better and worse, a film written, directed, shot and conceived by a photographer.
-S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, Cambodia / France) [v]
The majority of Rithy Panh's documentary is a fine study of exactly how one should both learn from, and amend, the Claude Lanzmann paradigm. Following the complex template of Shoah in a fraction of the time, S21 is not as exhaustive as Lanzmann, but gains a different kind of power in the bargain. Its impact is sharper, at least for the first hour. The problem of representing the Cambodian genocide is brought front and center: Nath, the painter, narrates his memories of torture as the camera pans over his Leon Golub-like artwork as "evidence;" Chum Mey, the other survivor in the film, breaks down in tears, noting how hard it is to force himself not to forget; Panh shows us the physical decay of memory, as he pulls apart crumbling, water-damaged photos from the S21 archive; and, most remarkably, Panh takes one of the former guards back to the cellblock and asks him to recount his daily routine, his descriptions soon giving way to lusty, horrific pantomime. Whereas Shoah gradually accrues cumulative effect, serving as a slow, furious meditation on the unthinkable, S21's relative brevity splices all such evidence together, letting it fall like truncheon blows. At the same time, Panh's method has two notable drawbacks. First, it spends the majority of its running time eliciting self-serving pseudo-apologies (rationalizations, really) from the numerous S21 personnel participating in the film. The two survivors are shunted aside, and while it stands to reason that Panh, like Lanzmann, wants to give the Khmers ample rope to hang themselves, the effect is, ironically, to indulge in a fascination with violence, as though survival were dull by comparison. Second, this lopsided attention results in a rather aimless final half-hour, turning the horror into something tedious and bureaucratic, but not in the "banality of evil" manner you might expect. The result is that Panh implicitly answers the problematic he sets up -- the inadequacy of representation and memory in the face of mass genocide and nationalist insanity -- by backing away from the issue with a shrug.
Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, U.K. / France)
A woman's work is never done . . . Could we call this one fine wine in a pop-top can? Leigh's film is exquisite in its construction of detail and attention to procedure. He lulls you into a level of warm acceptance, all the better to implicitly ask us to consider his mother's generation which, for reasons of patriarchy and the state, had to forge a continuum between acts that we have the luxury of mentally separating -- putting the kettle on for a soothing cup of tea, and inserting a rubber hand-pump syringe into young women's uteruses to inject soapy water for the induction of miscarriage. As Vera Drake herself continually iterates to her questioners, she "helps." Whether it's her family or female strangers from the lower classes, desperate to circumvent (Leigh pointedly names the statute three times) "the Defense of the Person Act of 1861," Vera acts out of a genuine desire to serve others, though Leigh is careful to make clear that it is never an ideological desire. Rather, Vera's commitment to providing abortions to those in need, free of charge, is an engrained part of a particular historical, gendered habitus. Vera is an organic part of a larger network of women and lower-class subjects who mustn't grumble, who have to muddle through. Leigh constructs a total environment for this unseen world, with its postwar tenements and burnished oaky pubs and pantry shelves lined with biscuit tins and cans of corn and beans. And within this warm, experiential world (worn and lived in, like a pair of boots or your grandma's baking apron), Leigh makes room for Imelda Staunton to inhabit Vera Drake, motherly, cherubic, with untold history written in the wrinkles of her hands and the socially-forgotten depths of her own body. While Staunton anchors every scene with one of the year's best, most subtly modulated performances, the entire ensemble is unobtrusively bang-on, with particular note due to Eddie Marsan as Reg, the shell-shocked orphaned veteran Vera brings into her family orbit. Even when Leigh goes overboard in the scoring of a political point, as in the characterization of Lily, Vera's go-between, Ruth Sheen manages to occupy the role with a minimum of hackneyed villainy. And still, this brings us to some of the things wrong with Vera Drake. Leigh, no doubt impassioned by the times he's living through, often cannot help himself when it comes to scoring rhetorical points, such as the ease with which the daughter of an upper-class woman -- whose home is cleaned by Vera, no less -- procures a safe, illegal abortion from a male doctor. Granted, Leigh puts these points across deftly enough to almost allow the viewer to forget that a protest placard is being nailed to the screen. But Leigh's more inexplicable offenses are purely formal, decisions that indicate a lack of faith in his viewership. Despite the pitch-perfect acting and art direction saturating the film, Leigh gets in the way with clumsy directorial decisions, such as Andrew Dickson's maudlin, lives-of-the-saints score, and an irritating habit of underscoring every pivotal emotional scene with a slow zoom in. Likewise, Leigh's editing scheme often feels haphazard, tottering uncomfortably between conventional film grammar and awkward showiness. (Given the fact that similar problems bedeviled Leigh's last film, All or Nothing, I am beginning to think it's time to revisit Leigh's 80s work, to see if my high opinion of those films holds up.) Despite these difficulties, Vera Drake is unassuming enough to sneak up on you, reintegrating "the unthinkable" into the domestic domain of the in-fact-very-much-thinkable, the necessary and the routine. In so doing, Leigh (who dedicates Vera Drake to his parents, a doctor and a midwife), ever the good leftist, pays clear-eyed homage to the quiet heroism of the last generation, as well as reminding us what's in store if the newly-emboldened social forces currently gathering momentum are allowed to turn back the clock.
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)
Is Marty toying with us? The film is so thoroughly dazzling, visually inventive and effervescent for the first 45 minutes, it's almost like a bear trap set for critics, just to see how many will write something like, "flies high before crashing to earth." What's frustrating about the remainder of The Aviator isn't just that it falls back on hoary tropes of the period biopic -- solemn, driven men standing around in double-breasted suits, making Important Decisions; highly-paid actors called in to perform Rich Littlesque impressions of famous personages, for added veracity (Cate Blanchett does all she can, but it's still just a Kate Hepburn Animatronics show). It's that Scorsese seems to be fishing for mainstream accessibility by dunking his film in the Magic Shell of pop psychology. Scorsese is much more of an intellectual director than Spielberg and Lucas, but you wouldn't know it from the final 1:45 of The Aviator, when, for instance, Howard Hughes' shorthand-stereotyped characteristics, the handwashing and the ritualistic behavior (the stuff any random 45-year-old is expected to know about the man, his Trivial Pursuit traits), are given the worst sort of speculative back-shadowing ("he was OCD before they knew what that was, poor bastard!"), or neatly explained away with dimestore Freudianism (the film is bookended with Mama Hughes deliberately instilling germ-phobia in little Howard). This struggle for easy causality just seems like playing to the cheap seats, especially when the first third of the film (everything up to the first test flight) is straight-up, unapologetic movie-brat pleasure. Like a multi-million dollar Guy Maddin film (and knowing Scorsese, I'm sure the DVD commentary will acknowledge a conscious debt to his colleague from Winnipeg), The Aviator employs a stripped-down, red and green faux-Technicolor visual scheme, looking not so much like two-strip Technicolor but a contemporary evocation of it, its artificiality (and hence, its historical distance) foregrounded. The Coconut Grove sequences are like museum installations, formally controlled collisions of the luminous and the matte. (In this regard, Blanchett vs. DiCaprio serve as well-selected physical icons.) Similarly, the editing crackles during the Hell's Angels scenes (both on-set and in the screening room), zipping us along at a sure-footed, classical pace. It's pure fun, and it's obvious that this is really where Scorsese's affection for the man lies. The remainder of the film has its strong points, to be sure. (The final scene is actually quite haunting, against all odds.) But apart from my own feeling of exhaustion by the end of the film (which really hit critical mass during the congressional courtroom-drama showdown, an exemplar of blustering tedium), I couldn't shake the sense that Scorsese was reversing himself at our expense, like he enjoyed giving us our dessert first when Mom wasn't looking, and suddenly felt like a bad parent, grounding us at the table until we finished every last overcooked veggie. Since when are Martin Scorsese pictures the place where fun goes to die?
House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China / Hong Kong)
It seems to me that whether one prefers Hero or House of Flying Daggers will depend on whether you prefer sculpture or wallpaper. That sounds snidely dismissive of Daggers and I don't exactly mean it to be. But Daggers is a White Elephant of the highest order. If I were at home with my books, I would pull the exact Farber quotation about "a frieze in an all-over pattern" or something close to that, because Zhang's visual M.O. here is the repetitive strafing of the screen with thin trees, or bamboo, or strands of tall grass, all in medium close-up, turning nearly every shot into a field of undulating vertical stripes. The strategy tends to backfire, since a painting wouldn't implicitly chide you for your inability to apprehend the color-field immediately. Paintings, naturally, don't move, but Zhang is always hurriedly moving us onto the next ostentatiously splendid set-piece. The bombardment eventually exhausts the eye, whereas Hero's reliance on primary colors and volumetric shapes allowed an abstract world to develop, rather than a throbbing curtain. What's more, Zhang's hyper-realistic autumnal landscapes were so "perfect" as to no longer be beautiful. Like the backdrops my family and I used to get photographed in front of at Olan Mills Studio, Daggers' canned simula-foliage veers into kitsch. What's good about the film, actually, are the moments that embrace visual and narrative stasis, in favor of straight-up pageantry. The "echo game" is a gorgeous highlight, balletic and making the parsimonious most of its Matrix-time CGI cribbings. And while there isn't a fight sequence anywhere in Daggers that compares to the perfectly parsed choreography of Hero, they do provide reasonably successful kinetic diversion, a whirlwind of sharp green dowels and stubby glinting computer blades. The storyline, despite essentially being [MINOR SPOILER] a rehash of Infernal Affairs circa 850 A.D., hit its paces effectively, except that its overwrought, stuck-in-a-moment-you-can't-get-out-of romantic interludes brought Daggers to a screeching halt, once again flattening the film into orangey gauze and forcing us to contemplate the status of our own vision, stuck to the image like flypaper.
-I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (Mike Hodges, U.K.)
[SPOILERS] Like Croupier, Hodges' latest strikes a humble, non-auteurist pose, opening with a co-credit: "A Mike Hodges / Trevor Preston Film." Screenwriters should rejoice at this, but the irony here is that Hodges' steely direction overcomes numerous script problems. For example, the flat, repetitive declaration of Davey's rape clearly intends to both convey Will's fixation on vengeance, and to allow other characters to mirror their horrified reactions back to him, but instead it crosses a line into non-diegetic signification, awkwardly signaling the outright obsession that some critics claimed was the subtext of Spike Lee's 25th Hour. Preston lets things veer into the male equivalent of a Lifetime movie, particularly when Will actually visits the therapist as suggested by the coroner. I don't mean to sound dismissive, since even the idea of making a male Lifetime movie is pretty inventive. But naturally it's a tight balancing act, and when Will actually elicits an explanation from Davey's attacker (a cagey Malcolm McDowell), it's all screenwriterly contrivance. Nevertheless, Hodges' subtle direction, his languorous, mournful pacing and willful subversion of the Death Wish template, serves to create a palpable, after-hours atmosphere, like waiting on deserted London streets for a mate who will never show up. Clive Owen's work here is every bit as inward and placid as his turn in Croupier was brash and smarmy. (I didn't like Croupier, incidentally.) He carries the film, along with Hodges' understated mastery. It's great that you want to share the credit, Mike, but there is such a thing as misplaced modesty. Dude, you're the man.
-Jandek on Corwood (Chad Freidrichs) [v]
The 6 is a bit misleading, since . . . in a world . . . where every imaginable topic . . . is explored by someone with a camcorder . . . with no concern for aesthetics . . . WHATSOEVER! . . . Freidrich's inquiry into the secret world of Jandek is something of a marvel. Jandek, for the uninitiated, is a musician somewhere in Houston, making about two albums a year of complex / primitive atonal blues-folk. No one knows for sure who he is, and his records emerge from the mysterious, P.O. Box-and-nothing-else Corwood Industries. Freidrichs has an obstruction on his hands that outstrips anything Lars von Trier could devise; he's organizing a documentary profile around an absence, a subject who refuses to appear. The danger in assembling various critics, DJs, and avid fans is that the whole thing could take on the character of a UFO story. ("I think I saw him once!" "We believe in something the rest of the world hasn't experienced," etc.) Instead, Freidrichs takes several bold tacks, and not all of them completely pan out. For one thing, his formal compositions of empty rooms, vacant lots surrounding cement factories, Wal-Mart parking lots and the like, serve at least two functions. They foreground absence, of course. But they also emphasize the disjunction of Jandek's output and his (presumed) environs. If you've never been to Houston, trust me. The idea that any white person there would be capable of dredging up death-rattle pathos that truly moves the listener, that registers as anything other than stripmall-culture belchings and New Country hat-act bullshit, is kind of astonishing. It's like discovering Jessica Simpson has a soul. Secondly, Freidrichs adopts a bizarre visual tactic that I can only interpret as being an equivalent to Jandek's alternate tunings. Freidrich processes his images ever so slightly, blanching them so as to make interview subjects -- the normal talking heads of any such doc -- barely visible video "hot spots." Basically, the white balance on the camera looks like it's off, and, like Jandek's playing (is he a meticulous genius, or a nutjob without even the most rudimentary skills?), one can view the entirety of Jandek on Corwood unsure of whether the white-out is unintentional, a result of a copyguard flare-up, or some sort of aesthetic decision. At times, these decisions are a bit overbearing. Text on screen becomes nearly impossible to read at times, an admirable but frustrating gambit. And on occasion, Freidrich's evocative images go too far. One too many shots of the moon, including one with (the presumed) Jandek's face computer-reflected in it. But the film lets the music come through, and provides the larger context in which so many are capable of finding meaning in it. The conclusion, a recording of Jandek's only known interview, is all the more potent for being withheld. When you hear the man speak, he is articulate, though reticent, and provides the viewer with the ultimate satisfaction, one to which we may not have been entitled. We know for sure that Jandek, and Freidrichs, aren't pulling our leg. [NOTE: The ever-reliable cstults has informed me that the screening of this film at the Wexner Center had no such washed-out quality. Uh-oh, I done made aesthetic arguments based on a technical fuck-up. It was bound to happen sooner or later.]
-Throw Down (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
As the title card announces just before the closing credits, Throw Down is To's tribute to Akira Kurosawa, "the greatest filmmaker." (I always enjoy when folks are capable of circumventing the usual hand-wringing over hyperbole that keeps critics in check, and just haul off and make a statement like that.) To's film is a direct tribute (not sure, but I don't think it's a remake) to a lesser-known early Kurosawa picture, Sugata Sanshiro. Although I haven't seen the earlier film, it strikes me as an inventive place for To to stake out his homage, since it is an underexplored work by a revered master that is itself a judo picture -- that is to say, a martial arts film about what may be one of the least obviously cinematic of the martial arts. I haven't had much use for recent To, finding Breaking News shallow and by-the-numbers, PTU far too pleased with itself and its "evocative neon" and "striking compositions." But it seems that working in deference to Dojo Kurosawa agrees with To. Instead of struggling to impress, Throw Down drops the viewer into a world of inscrutible alliances, former judo masters and the whippersnappers ready to call them out, mentally touched manchildren and reluctant hookers with pop-star dreams. In fact, in a manner oddly reminiscent of (don't laugh) Claire Denis' L'Intrus, Throw Down is so confident in the mnemonic power of its genre tropes that it leaves a lot of conventional exposition untapped. So, I guess what I'm saying is, often this picture makes no sense, at least immediately, but it moves you pleasurably through its paces with enough offbeat details and unobtrusive style until you become acclimated to the specifics of the narrative. At times Throw Down is as random as a Takashi Miike picture (gangster heavies kicking ass and then declaring it "tea time;" interlacing conversations staged and edited for repetition and musicality, like a bizarre form of verbal Bressonianism; impromptu classical Japanese singing while nighttime judo transpires in a cornfield), but in keeping with the Kurosawa-derived tone, the nonsense is proffered gently, lending it a dignity and an appositeness that belies the WTF factor. Points are deducted for the fact that To stages a gorgeous final scene for Throw Down's three central characters (the balloon in the tree), only to let the picture drone on for another ten minutes. But in the end, the film's somber treatment of mano-a-mano grappling points outside the film to possible auteurist concerns. To is calling Kurosawa out, knowing full well the master will have him on the ground in no time flat.
Veer-Zaara (Yash Chopra, India)
This picture (mega-producer Chopra's first directorial effort in nine years) opens with Shahrukh Khan (Bollywood's official Bad Boy, he of the acid-washed jeans and vaguely Jay-Z-esque visage) traipsing through country roads, singing to his beloved in flowery fields, often anchoring the foreground in close-up while amber waves of the Motherland sway on the other side of the screen. In short, it's insipid, the sort of sub-Celine Dion video imagery that reflects certain unkind stereotypes regarding Indian musicals -- "our' silliest pop images, from twenty years ago, unwittingly appropriated and played straight. (I cringed at having brought Jen and my mom to the theatre with me to witness this dreck.) And then, with a literal bang, Chopra reveals this overwrought fantasy for exactly what it is. Surprise -- the joke's on us. Veer-Zaara is replete with little moments like this, in which Chopra employs the swoony, no-kisses-allowed romanticism and florid mise-en-scene Bollywood's famous for, precisely to reveal its hidden paradox. A love lost, a dream deferred, takes on epic, overblown proportions in the mind, especially in the absence of any humanizing element within the material world. At the same time, I would be remiss if I gave the impression Veer-Zaara treats its Hindustani Romeo / Pakistani Juliet story with ironic detachment. Even when it flies in the face of good sense, Chopra embraces his doomed lovers with generosity and absolute sincerity. They sing about their land, and how much it looks like the other's land, as swooping, angled crane shots fill the frame with otherwise nondescript rural meadows. The point is clear -- what keeps Veer and Zaara apart is artificial, because religion and the India / Pakistan partition are just ideas, belied by the physical continuity of the earth that reared them. In a similar spirit, Chopra offers a surprisingly nuanced feminist stance, showing how women on both sides of the border become constrained as the bearers of tradition, and yet manage to assume new roles through a balance of hardheadedness and careful negotiation. It does no good to overstate Chopra's political accomplishment here; he represents the liberal wing of Indian culture, similar to the way Spielberg represents American liberalism, with all its attendant pitfalls. Nevertheless, it's in the narrative contortions and earnest speechifying ("you've taught me a valuable lesson, and so I'm giving up my law practice"!!) that Veer-Zaara demonstrates its beautiful belief in its own escapist premises. Women's rights can be won, and the India / Pakistan conflict overcome, in fantasy first, simply by believing it could be so. In dance numbers, it seems, begin responsibilities.
A Great Wonder (Kim Shelton) [v/m]
-Lost Boys of Sudan (Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk)
Although Lost Boys has essentially been the "winner" in this Battle of the Concerned Liberal Profiles of Sudanese Refugees, the two films are actually of equal quality, and in many ways fill out each other's omissions. Send tapes of both to a skillful editing doctor (like Nick Dorsky) and you could come up with a hybrid much stronger and more penetrating than either film is on its own. Lost Boys's success has to do with two vital institutional facts: it is feature length, whereas A Great Wonder clocks in at 62 minutes (a problem for conventional film distribution channels), and the Mylan / Shenk team has the backing of PBS, which counts for a lot in the doc world. Produced for P.O.V., Lost Boys exhibits all the stylistic hallmarks associated with that series' perennially bland output. It's all shot on video, subjects are coached to ignore the camera, and an air of liberal, multi-culti self-satisfaction pervades the project, as though profiling Peter and Santino and their hardships in the States will sufficiently enlighten viewers so as to justify the film as an activist act in itself. A Great Wonder isn't immune to these pitfalls, but it certainly has a smaller, more handmade feel to it. Mylan and Shenk's resources allow their film-journey to begin in Kenya, where we see Peter and Santino leaving the refugee camp and heading for Houston, TX. Shelton's project can only provide an introductory text and some step-printed file footage, and then we're already in Seattle with her three relocated subjects, Martha, Abraham, and Santino (different man). These limitations point out the complementary differences between the two films. Lost Boys is capable of providing a more thoroughgoing social and geopolitical context than Great Wonder. And yet, the focus on three Sudanese individuals, in depth and in close quarters, allows Shelton to explore her subjects as psychologically complex beings. Martha, for example, explains her problems with not fitting into her host family, and we see that trekking one thousand miles across the African desert to avoid being exterminated does not in itself obviate the fraught dynamics of late adoption. (Often refugees are presented in the media as being so lucky to be alive that they can't be bothered with petty emotions, like the desire to be loved. I could expound on this all day but I will spare the reader any undue pontification. Suffice to say, feelings are not solely the province of the bourgeoisie, but that's a dominant American fiction.) Similarly, Great Wonder's Abraham is seen near the end of the film trimming hedges outside his family's suburban Washington home, as punishment for speaking Dinka instead of English. "I feel like I am the slave," he says, while his adoptive mother insists that he needs more discipline. Lost Boys tends to address racism, cultural displacement, and the American church's role in the Lost Boys' lives, but does so in a more sociological manner. We see Peter talking to a Christian social worker or praying with a bible study group, but his own relationship to Christ (and his ideas about the Christian / Muslim civil war in his homeland) is left unexplored. In essence, you learn more about The Sudanese Conflict from Lost Boys, hard facts you can bring into an intelligent discussion at work. But A Great Wonder compensates for its lack of broad context with a more obvious engagement with the people living inside this "issue." Probably the biggest difference, though, is Shelton's decision to profile Martha, one of the approximately 400 girls / women who made it out of Sudan with the 30,000 boys / men. In a telling sequence, the Lost Children meet at an official reunion in Seattle, and a dignitary welcomes "the lost boys." As he stands on the dais, oblivious, about seventeen young ladies yell out to him from the back of the hall, "what about the girls?" A Great Wonder attempts to answer this question, one Lost Boys of Sudan chooses not to pose. Final note: both docs make the tactical error of subtitling the refugees' fully comprehensible English, and both waiver between correcting their grammar in the subtitles and presenting their words as the speak them. But only Lost Boys of Sudan is insensitive enough to continue labeling its two subjects throughout the running time ("Peter" / "Santino") every time the film moves between their stories, apparently assuming a viewer incapable of telling these two young men apart. The benevolent racism of the crunchy-granola, bike-riding NPR set tips its hand.
Kinsey (Bill Condon)
A Beautiful Fucking Mind (or, How Many Times a Day Do You Oscar-Bait?) The antisocial Man of Science, so fixated on The Work that he forgets about Love. The Helpful Wife, who leaves behind her own career to work at her husband / former teacher's side for The Cause, and to teach him about Life. Oh, and there's a Surrogate Son, who the Father Figure makes out with. So sure, there are curveballs, but essentially what we have here is the most conventional, aesthetically conservative treatment of a radical thinker since, I dunno, this past September (The Motorcycle Diaries). In essence, Condon is going the Michael Moore route, dumbing it down and ramming it down our throats. The reasoning, I presume, goes like this: we are in the midst of a conservative backlash; the gains of the 60s have been discredited by the Reagan Revolution. So let's go back to the 50s, and make a film that pulls out every Hollywood cliché in the service of Sexual Liberation. It's a worthy cause, but the strategy is complete hackwork, all great-man pontification, hoary bio-pic tropes, Avid-mangled montages, and tin-eared, declamatory screenwriting. A few little grace notes emerge from the Prok / Mac relationship (Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are both solid but nothing extraordinary), but mostly, it's presuming a viewer who needs Winning Over to the Cause. Yes, of course, sexual variety among consenting adults is a good thing. But frankly, anyone who needs to be convinced of this rather obvious point is not likely to see this movie. And such puritanical mugwumps (like the one Tim Curry plays in Kinsey) are, in every conceivable sense, not worth fucking with.
Spanglish (James L. Brooks)
Adam Sandler is pretty good. But for the most part, this film is bullshit. (For a slightly more nuanced engagement with Spanglish's ethnic politics, consult Jennifer Wingard's new blog.)