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)




-Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

[MAJOR SPOILERS] Where do you hide to have your Heath? At this late date, so much ink has been spilled over this film that I feel an uncharacteristic futility about weighing in. In fact I think there is quite a lot to admire about Brokeback Mountain, despite and perhaps even because of Ang Lee's somewhat middlebrow, foursquare approach to the material. It's a weepie, of course, and as many others have noted Lee emphasizes the soul-crushing agony of impossible love. My main problems with the film have to do with a dissonance between the over-articulation of Brokeback's subtext and Lee's straightforward rendering of the secret gay West. I do think it's to the director's credit that he treats the material with the utmost respect, refusing to ironize Ennis' torment or Jack's more brazen behavior. In fact, Lee's most remarkable achievement is that he and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto explicitly call upon iconic cowboy imagery, Ledger and Gyllenhaal continually posing against the big sky, and against all odds this image-bank is successfully pulled back from the brink of "Marlboro Man" absurdity. It actually works. But this visual material sometimes bristles against the less iconic, more conventionally realist stylistic choices that characterize much of the rest of the movie. Similarly, certain passages of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's adapted screenplay spell Brokeback's themes out in neon ("We gotta ride this out, and there ain't no reins"), and others veer into unintentional comedy ("Jack Twist? More like Jack Nasty!"). These elements clash with the film's most indelible moments, which almost always hinge on the anguish of words left unsaid. I doubt I saw a more potent cinematic sequence this year than Jack and Ennis' goodbye at the end of their first summer together, Ennis playing it cool and tight-lipped, only to end up doubled over in a barn, weeping until he vomits. (As my better half correctly noted, "Heath Ledger acts the shit out of that role.") I confess I was deeply moved by moments like these, susceptible as I am to tales of doomed love. Although Brokeback hits its paces with a ruthless efficiency, and that part of me that fears wanton narrative manipulation craved a cooler, more distanced touch (that of Sirk or his acolytes, Todd Haynes for example), such a complaint would be entirely misplaced. Awkward turns of phrase notwithstanding, that's simply not the kind of movie Brokeback is, just as Schindler's List ought not be condemned for its failure to be Shoah. All that having been said, I still feel that the script's wobbly first act, light on adequate character motivation, bespeaks an odd desire, as it were, to "get to the bad part." If Brokeback Mountain is "going mainstream" with gay love only by thwarting and eventually snuffing it (my mind guiltily flitted back to Daniel Waters's Heathers script, wondering how America would react to "a limp wrist with a pulse"), it does so by operating as melodrama, hitting all the requisite genre conventions. But why do Ennis and Jack get together in the first place? Why does the tough, laconic Ennis cotton to such a motor-mouthed goofball, and how does at least one man with no prior homosexual inclinations come to burst into that fateful tent? I'm not asking for a meet-cute here, just the artful delineation of how this impossible love came into existence. Wouldn't this make its suppression that much crueler, the stuff of epic tragedy? Critics of Brokeback Mountain's politics may have a point, but would do well to zero in on how the film's narrative structure supports their thesis. Gay romance -- not just a furtive, rutting assfuck, but the poetry of glances and gestures that comprise the unexpected accident of falling in love -- remains virtually unimaginable here. Instead it's installed, like a pretext, so that the film can begin the real business of chipping it away. Final note: Nathan Lee, wordsmith of the year.


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black)

[MINOR SPOILERS] Not too much to say about this one, certainly not anything that it didn't go to the trouble of saying for itself. But damn is this thing enjoyable from start to finish. I can see that some might be turned off by Black's nihilism, or the film's willingness to milk brutality for dark humor. And sure, it takes a degree of callousness to properly stage a setpiece like, say, the coffin on the overpass, or devise a running gag like Harry's amazing downsized digit. But it seems to me that Black actually brings it back around to a level of, I dunno, tenderness? Fellow-feeling? Or maybe just chummy affability, a sense that the audience is in on the fun, belying the usual Indiewood hipper-than-thou posturing. (Example: is the film really homophobic, as some have claimed? It's politically incorrect, sure, but Val Kilmer's Gay Perry is one badass customer, and honestly Black's gentle humor at Perry's expense is pitched nowhere near the rampant ha-ha racism of early Tarantino, so easily overlooked by the same critics in the name of transgressive fun. I'm just saying.) Much of the credit for this unlikely warmth goes to Robert Downey, Jr., who is just wonderful in KKBB. He plays the wiseguy as dumbass, the self-effacing, wounded puppy of assholes. His comic timing is flawless, and even if Black's periodic emotional beats feel like mandatory speedbumps to some (and I totally get this; Black even announces them as such), Downey lends them a wobbly, offhand gravity before shuttling off for the next round of hijinx. This film's completely frivolous, light as a soufflé, a movie-movie, practically art for art's sake in its own weird way . . . hell, it's even beautifully shot most of the time. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that if it were called something like Negative Space or Vulgar Modernism or shit, even Movie Wars, I'd have awarded it an 8. See it if you can. Unless, you know, you're the type of person who shouldn't.


Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, Japan)

In addition to being a truly exquisite visual experience, Tony Takitani is one of the most rigorous, intelligent solutions to the problem of literary adaptation that I have ever seen. Traditionally, voiceover narration, especially that which consists of read-aloud portions of the original text, is the last refuge for hapless directors and/or hack screenwriters incapable of translating the lilt of stylized language into plausible dialogue or cinematic imagery. Ichikawa, like a proper deconstructionist, plunges right into the heart of the voiceover problem, coming out on the other side. Haruki Murakami's short story is an ever-present refrain throughout Ichikawa's film, half mumbled half whispered like an incantation. And, in the director's biggest gambit, the narration continually spills over into the diegesis, with actors (or characters? I'm not exactly sure how to read it) picking up dropped lines or completing implied paragraphs. Ichikawa foregrounds his tender fealty to the Murakami text, creating a hushed, hovering poem of a film, one that circles around themes of loneliness, isolation, and the power of unsaid words. And aside from a few missteps, such as an overly literal backstory for Takitani using archival photographs, Ichikawa achieves the perfect tone with every directorial decision and filmic element. The visual style of Takitani unfolds like calligraphy, modular interiors rendered hazy and indistinct via washed-out color schemes and mid-field focus, most shots unfurled via slow left-to-right pans. The overall visual effect recalls elements of Mizoguchi, Hou, and Sokurov, all harmonized through a general sense of always-already-vanishing, forms and words and gestures lightly asserted and then almost immediately rescinded, as if shamefacedly acknowledging their inadequacy to the task. Even Ryuichi Sakamoto's piano score (at times reminiscent of the music of Morton Feldman) seems to dole out notes with a tentative tickle of the keys, hesitant to break the silence. At the center of all this carefully modulated stasis is Issey Ogata, delivering a performance of recessive, dancerly grace. As he did in Sokurov's The Sun, Ogata invests the tiniest micro-gesture, the slightest tensing of facial musculature, with astonishing communicative potential. But as Hirohito in The Sun, Ogata portrayed a sequestered manchild grappling with the fact that history had caught up to him. As Tony Takitani, Ogata is an entirely different kind of hollow man, dedicated to a life of pure surface as a compensatory salve for never having found his place in the world, or recognizing it after it was too late. In short, Hirohito and Takitani are Ogata's recto-verso embodiments of the Japanese 20th century: innocence and experience.




-The Big Durian (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia) [v]

Having premiered at Sundance in 2003 after numerous successful Asian festival appearances, The Big Durian is probably Muhammad's highest-profile American release, and in a way, the form it takes as well as its subject matter make it suited to this reception. As much as I enjoyed this film, and learned from it, I came away with a slight ambivalence, since much of the idiosyncratic wit and essayistic voice that characterizes Muhammad's best work (the earlier 6horts and 2005's pair of medium-length featurettes) is tempered here, harnessed in the service of slightly more conventional documentary exposition. At the same time, this isn't to say The Big Durian lacks Muhammad's playful, exploratory style. He deftly organizes his inquiry into Malaysian nationalism into what I would call a concentric-circles format, with the introduction of a new event or concept rippling outward and reinflecting all that preceded it. Specifically, Muhammad starts by investigating the circumstances surrounding a high profile public shooting (a young Malaysian Army soldier who ran amok with an M16 in Kuala Lumpur), but soon explicates the larger social unrest that gave rise to such an action -- racial tensions between ethnic Malays and Chinese Malaysians, tensions being fought out on the street as well as legitimated as national-front party politics. But, eschewing the usual social explanations, Muhammad doesn't reduce this one man to being just a symptom of the times. Rather, he's both symptom and catalyst, his heinous revealing ideology at the breaking point. This part / whole, hermeneutic-circle approach makes The Big Durian far more compelling than a more conventional documentary on Malaysian politics, but at the same time it makes it a bit harder to follow for a newcomer to the topic (such as myself). It's clear that this approach -- free-form but still tied to certain formal tropes of the nonfiction film -- is quite deliberate, especially since some interviews are highly staged for theatrical mise-en-scène, recalling the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha. I have no doubt The Big Durian would open up considerably on repeat viewings. Nevertheless, compared to Muhammad's smaller, more overtly personal works, The Big Durian ever so slightly subsumes the quirky expressiveness that I find most compelling about this filmmaker and his work. Under the circumstances this is perfectly understandable, so in the end I'm merely articulating a personal preference and in no way impugning Durian, which is a highly accomplished film by any measure.


-Magic Mirror (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

Certainly at this point in Manoel de Oliveira's career, most cinephiles have made up their minds: either you like him or you don't. Granted, his late-career burst of creative energy (a new feature every year) has included some odd lurches into near-accessibility (I'm Going Home) and a controversial travelogue-cum-Euro-comedy (A Talking Picture) whose apparent swipe at Islamo-fascism raised certain hackles in the critical community. But by and large there has been a consistency of quality and style in Oliveira's work since the 1980s, most of his films from this period engaging in variations on a single formal problem: the disparity between the filmic and the literary. Oliveira's exploration of this problem hasn't been quite as severe as that of Straub and Huillet, although there are points of convergence, most notably a rigid, often immobile visual field and a flat, declamatory performance style, both of which emphasize the impossibility of a smooth transition from text to moving image. Like Straub and Huillet, whose last film to seriously make the North American festival rounds was 1999's Sicilia!, over time Oliveira has evolved into a filmmaker so stark in execution, and so peculiarly European in his concerns that it's much easier at this point for programmers (forget distributors) to ignore him altogether. Actually, the same could be said of Raul Ruiz, whose late-90s splash of recognition has all but evaporated. Magic Mirror is not an entirely successful film, and in many respects it is a frustrating and almost anachronistic effort that recalls certain tendencies in both Ruiz and Straub / Huillet. Oliveira's film is an adaptation of a novel, The Soul of the Rich, by Augustina Bessa-Luis. The sprawling yet static narrative centers around Alfreda (Oliveira stalwart Leonor Silveira), a wealthy woman who believes that contrary to conventional church doctrine, the Virgin Mary was born to a rich family. She keeps renegade theologians on call and preoccupies herself by mentally preparing for a spiritual visitation by Mary herself, on the assumption that Our Lady would naturally want to speak to someone of equally noble birth. The film's other protagonist, Luciano (Ricardo Trepa), takes a position with Alfreda upon his release from prison. He tries to engineer a fake Virgin Mary sighting for his increasingly deluded boss, although this subterfuge never really comes to fruition. Around these major poles orbit endless cascades of talk, centering on the Church, the role of the wealthy in society, the archetypal nature of the sexes, and the frequent joylessness of existence. Magic Mirror resembles mid-period Ruiz films such as On Top of the Whale and Life is a Dream, with their determinedly banal mise-en-scène, beige-matte color scheme, and assertive foregrounding of intricate spoken text. Unlike even Oliveira's most uncompromising recent films, such as The Letter or The Uncertainty Principle (which shares with Magic Mirror a character called Blue Bull), Magic Mirror is unleavened by even the driest sense of humor. Be advised, there are no taciturn rock stars, discotheque fires or goofy Malkovich cameos here. In fact, there's nothing about Magic Mirror that is "entertaining," by any conventional meaning of the term. And yet as I hung with it, it eventually won me over with its commitment to pure philosophical abstraction. Even late Godard will offer up seductive cinematography or dazzling montage sequences, but Oliveira reduces the visual field to blank signifiers of decadent aristocratic accumulation, garish fountain statues and gaudy mausoleums. The social critique is clear -- the world no longer needs this ineffectual gentry, or its self-serving claim to have God in its back pocket -- but even more than this, Oliveira's stultifying narrative format serves to embed these people in the screen like frescoes, putting them into an indeterminate historical past until some random clue reveals the fact that no, Magic Mirror is a portrait of the present, a segment of society that can conveniently opt out of time's motility. Magic Mirror really is like watching paint dry, as the saying goes, but its ineluctable weirdness compels and rewards attention to the phenomenon. Over time, the cracks in the wall start materializing, and that seems to be the point.




-Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody? (Miguel Arteta) [s]

Yes, it's directed by Arteta, but this is a Miranda July short through and through. She wrote it, and the bare-bones idea (John C. Reilly holds a clipboard and asks the title question of July, Mike White, and cinematographer Chuy Chávez) is suffused with her moon-eyed, baby doll existentialism. And the truth is, I hadn't realized until seeing AYTFPOA? that Me and You and Everybody We Know has given me a bellyful of July's high-art guilelessness, enough to last me for years in fact. On its own objective terms, it's well-crafted and perfectly inoffensive, but at the same time it seems negligible almost by design. From the Accidental Conceptual Appositeness file: due to a bout of insomnia, I happened to see this short on the Sundance Channel at about 3 in the morning, and watched it without knowing exactly what it was. Only afterward did I discover that it was a 2005 film (it premiered at this year's Sundance) and that, according to my own rules for this site, I was obliged to review it. So, in a way, the film itself sort of stopped me in the street, clipboard in hand, and made a demand on my time, one which then expanded in my own mind long after the actual survey had been completed.


-The Baxter (Michael Showalter)

A perfectly agreeable diversion, I suppose, but it probably could have been a little bit more than that in less inexperienced hands. Showalter is to be commended for sidestepping the brazen goofiness of "Stella" and Wet Hot American Summer (both projects I enjoyed, by the way) and attempting something subdued, even introspective. The biggest problem is, The Baxter is all premise and no follow-through. If Showalter is going to give as a rom-com from the jilted, "wrong" guy's point of view, why introduce Michelle Williams' character, who [is this a SPOILER? Could anyone miss this after the five-minute mark?] is Elliot's right girl, who must in turn leave her wrong guy (Paul Rudd), and on and on? The whole mise-en-abyme of infelicitous coupling is a cute conceit, and might one day be fashioned into a spectacular chamber drama by Michel Gondry. But here it's a violation of the very contract Showalter's set up with his audience. A film that should have been a commentary on rom-com convention (one that would undoubtedly heap humiliation on Showalter's character, and make us wonder as we cringed why it had to be so) wants to have it both ways, and can't shake its own case of the warm fuzzies. The Baxter is not without its choice moments (Elliot giving his rival a lift into Manhattan, most notably), and Williams and Justin Theroux are strong as usual. But let's just say this isn't the best gay-cowboyless American film of 2005, not by a long shot. Oh, and from the Who'da Thunkit File: cinematography by Tim Orr (!!!).


-Cinderella Man (Ron Howard)

Let's give Ron Howard a break, shall we? The American film scene is littered with far less accomplished hackery, but it seems that Howard galls cinephiles because his middlebrow tendencies carry the stench of ambition, an embarrassing lack of awareness of just how limited he really is. It would be easy to counter than no, he really is just aiming low, but in the burnished sepia way that conveys "seriousness" to the cine-illiterate, but in fact I would offer a different explanation. Even more than Steven Spielberg (a movie brat who at least recognized the electric-buzz moments of Truffaut films way back when), Howard embodies American ideologies of the most banal kind, serving as their deft but anonymous instrument. His "mature" films, like this one and A Beautiful Mind, are entertaining, well-acted, and shamelessly corny, but even more than this, they reflect a certain moderate-Democrat worldview so absolutely that it becomes next to impossible for any halfway attentive viewer not to watch the received-idea-machine in motion. I was curious to catch up with Cinderella Man because I recall reading Cannes chieftain Theirry Fremaux's statement (upon unveiling 2005's festival line-up) that this film was the only one he wanted but couldn't get. he probably meant a splashy opening night non-competing slot, but who's to say? Cinderella Man is an exotic curio from our own backyard, as foreign in its uber-Americanness as any Hou Hsiao-hsien film is "Taiwanese," or an Atom Egoyan film is, to the anthropologically preoccupied critic, quintessentially "Canadian." Sure, these kinds of national zeitgeist hunts are fool's errands, and they blind us to many of the peculiarities that make art, and artists, interesting. But if, for instance, French critics could locate a uniquely American infantilism in the oily, doughnut-splooging body of Jerry Lewis, then how can I not take the open shot at Cinderella Man, a film in which our down-on-his-luck boxer hero (Russell Crowe, sans projectile telephone) actually gives his welfare money back when his luck turns around? Or, perhaps even more tellingly, what do we think about an American film in 2005 that creates space in its Depression-era bootstraps tale for a disgruntled dock worker (Paddy Considine) who thinks workers should organize to defend their class interests, only to have his nascent socialism squelched first verbally (Crowe's James J. Braddock asks, "Who should we fight against? Bad luck?"), then physically (he's killed by riot police, poor deluded sap)? If we look at Cinderella Man simply on the merits of its gelded. Tradition of Quality posture, sure, it's pleasurable enough, I guess. The boxing scenes aren't Scorsese or anything, but they're exciting in a meat-and-potatoes way. Braddock's character is a charismatic square, and since he essentially is the film, Cinderella Man almost manages to hit that benchmark itself. But there is something fascinating about Ron Howard's need to stage largely moot arguments about American leftism and its appropriate role (humble, measured, sportsmanlike) for a world that couldn't care less. If we recall that Cinderella Man not only failed at the box office, but was subject to a groveling campaign by Universal that guaranteed moviegoers a full refund if they didn't like it ("spring-loaded uplift or your money back!"), we have to assume that the general public wasn't in the mood for a George Lakoff-style lesson on proper liberal-masculine values. I started by saying we should cut Howard some slack, but I suppose the real point is that he needs to be taken seriously as a director, as a man of ideas even if they're wrongheaded ones. Cinderella Man is a rich text, bursting at the seams, but it's also trying too hard to stake a claim on political territory that has long since slid off the map. If this was intended as Official Art, a sort of Clintonian equivalent to Socialist Realist tractor-pix, sorry, Opie. You're about a decade too late.


-District 13 (Pierre Morel, France)

Originally I'd read that Magnolia Pictures picked this up for a straight-to-video release. Now it seems they're wisely going ahead with a theatrical rollout (it should be at least as successful for them as Ong-bak), and had I known I'd have waited, since D13's virtues would have only been magnified by the big screen. If we stick to the text itself, apart from any political resonances that the picture has accumulated over the course of 2005, we've got a tight little actioner, nothing spectacular but shrewd in its economy. (It just barely clocks in at 80 minutes and has done everything it can possibly do by that point.) Morel's directorial style is a little bit ragged, particularly for a Luc Besson production. The opening sequence is typical David Fincher stuff, with CGI spatial transitions and vibrating visual distortions meant to evoke the boomin' bass. The banlieue gangland stuff is boilerplate, the majority of the Arab-homeboy principals look like they were sent right over from central casting and misted with "sweat" between takes. But the real attraction is, supposedly, the big-screen debut of parkour, an urban-guerrilla martial-arts bricolage that mostly entails jumping over shit and brachiating between balconies and fire escapes. B13's two leads, David Belle (a parkour originator) and Cyril Raffaelli, perform their own stunts á la Tony Jaa, but the sequences built around their athleticism are even less satisfying than Ong-bak's since a less caffeinated shooting and editing style would have better conveyed the intensity of what these men are doing. Also, there are really only two parkour sequences, which is pretty stingy for a parkour movie. Now then, the political subtext. Mike D'Angelo noted after seeing B13 at Toronto 05 that the film's paranoid vision of urban warfare was essentially being played out in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, albeit in a passive, let-'em-die variant. Later in the year, of course, the very banlieues the film depicts (dilapidated public-housing slums mostly occupied by Arab and African immigrants) became a flashpoint, with two weeks of violent rioting / uprising (depending on your political stance) focusing attention on the abject poverty and hopelessness in the banlieues and, perhaps more importantly, revealing the true face of the Chirac government. (Doug Ireland's piece in The Nation is quite revealing on this score.) As The Nashville Scene's Jim Ridley asked, "Who'd have thought that the most politically astute filmmaker of Toronto 2005 would be Pierre Morel?" Naturally a lot of long-brewing tensions have made this unfortunate moment possible, and other, earlier films have addressed the banlieue problems, most notably Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine and Jean-Francois Richet's Ma 6-T va Crack-er. And, if we delve into French urban theory for a moment, we could perhaps even understand parkour itself as an inventive response to French ghetto life. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argued that cities were built by entrenched powers to spatially dislocate the masses. However, in daily life and on the ground, people find shortcuts and tactics for subverting power, in small, isolated micro-practices that, if observed and organized, may one day point the way towards a more thorough form of resistance. If, say, the krumping / clown-dancing phenomenon documented in David La Chapelle's Rize is seen as a creative mode for channeling black urban rage, then parkour surely has its own political subtext built in, with D13 coming along for the ride. A segment of France's disenfranchised immigrant youth has taken to reinscribing the meaning of their own state-mandated homes, in order to show them for what they really are: a series of obstacles to be negotiated as deftly as possible. It would seem to be an entirely logical leap.


King Kong (Peter Jackson, U.S. / New Zealand)

Everybody sing along now: Since he was a boy / Peter Jackson loved the Kong / but why'd he have to go and make it three hours long? / [Jack Black] / Why'd he act so hammy? / [what'd it lack?] / Naomi in her jammies / vaguely racist saga / critics going gaga / King Kong / Now I'll admit / it had a few neat effects / But I don't remember Kong / having to fight a T-Rex / [best scene] / Giant bugs were grody! / [come clean . . .] / TOTAL waste of Brody / why you even tryin' / to one-up Willis O'Brien / King Kong / So after all the hobbit movies Peter's got some juice / but why'd he have to waste it on a monkey on the loose / [Brain Dead] / and The Frighteners were better / ['nuff said] / Put his budgets on a tether / [Glad you're makin' money] / [but your latest film is crummy] / [Bloated action features?] / I preferred Heavenly Creatures / King KONG. [Great news! This review will soon appear on a new CD called "Crit Rock," the proceeds of which will go to aid victims of Compassion Fatigue. My churning-funk rendition of "King Kong" will be featured, along with recent hits such as "Wake Up Arezoo" by Theo Panayides, "It's Still Sokurov to Me" by Mike D'Angelo, and some older classic cuts like Roger Ebert's lighthearted ditty "Wet Hot American Summer," and Leonard Maltin's towering near-instrumental "Transylvania 6-5000." Look for "Crit Rock" wherever snarky fake film critic music is sold!]


Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, Palestine / The Netherlands / Germany / France)

[SPOILERS] It's easy enough to chalk this film's festival success and (relatively) substantial commercial push to its charged subject matter, and to do so wouldn't be wrong. But there's an incoherence bedeviling Paradise Now that is truly bizarre, since it ironically serves to make the film more ingratiating. It begins as a kind of observational master-shot affair, its first ten minutes containing the only striking composition you'll see during the entire ninety. (This is the crooked bumper / boiling coffee shot, which is kind of a silly sequence in any case and, it could be argued although I won't press too hard on this, may have cribbed its visual gag from Suleiman's Divine Intervention.) Then it becomes a flirtation story, and then a procedural, and then a chase film, and then a platform for dueling political position papers, and then a sins-of-the-fathers disquisition, and finally it ends with a twist of sorts, one that actually reverses any logical character development established in the first hour. Although this scattershot construction leaves the analytical viewer with the impression that Abu-Assad isn't a particularly skilled craftsman, in the moment it can almost feel refreshing, as though he's a balls-out showman willing to try anything. I'll admit that the first part of the film rebuffed my attempts at engagement, but then once we hit the martyr-video sequence, Abu-Assad's unlikely gallows humor pulled me in, and I was able to stick it out from there. In fact, this much-remarked-upon sequence almost announced itself as Paradise Now's thematic linchpin -- the unacknowledged distance between representation and reality, and how Islamist dogma, like any ideological metanarrative, imposes itself like a matrix over daily life, eventually effacing the distinction between action and interpretation. But if this were really Abu-Assad's grand assertion, why have his two potential suicide bombers switch places, with Khaled the Islamist rhetor suddenly discovering gray areas, and Said, the more introspective man, becoming the eventual conduit for violence? It's as though each man's encounter with pacifist Western thought (in the form of an attractive, urbane French-Moroccan woman) turns their belief systems inside-out, by magic. How are we to read this film? If Said and Khaled are two men so ground down by the daily violence and humiliations of the occupation that they'll turn their bodies into bombs, how can they be so fickle? In a way, it's almost as though Abu-Assad is depicting a colonization of the mind, giving us a picture of Palestinians so desperate that they can't even maintain coherent beliefs over ninety minutes. But then again, Paradise Now operates as though it's a symptom of that same psychological malady.


The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach)

I originally gave this film a 4, but upon reflection I realized that there are some things I liked about it, including the fluid, intimate Super-16 cinematography and its successful evocation of a time and place (early 80s Park Slope). But even more than that, I found myself trying to mentally mount arguments against S&W and failing. Every potential articulation of its shortcomings seemed like a quibble, with me just trying to semi-objectively justify what boil down to personal preferences. For example, I considered railing against S&W as Baumbach's self-serving evisceration of his parents, who apparently were Me-Generation navel-gazers too preoccupied with their own neurotic bitterness to, you know, step up and be adults. (Jesse Eisenberg's Noah stand-in is shown doing some embarrassing things, some of them outright mean. But he has the ultimate excuse -- he's a kid, and has rotten-to-the-core role models to boot. His parents -- Laura Linney and especially Jeff Daniels -- have no excuse whatsoever.) As vindictive mythologies of poor parenting go, S&W isn't nearly as effective (or as hilarious) as Mommie Dearest. But this really isn't the issue, nor is the film's problem fully attributable to autobiography and its attendant pitfalls. (Although more than once during the screening, I recalled the sage words of Dennis Hopper's self-help guru character in David Salle's Search & Destroy -- "Just because it happened to you, that doesn't make it interesting.") I think the major difficulty here is that S&W is a transitional film for Baumbach, and he hasn't found a cinematic style adequate to his aims. His two previous auteur films, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, relied on a tightly scripted, distanced form of banter. (After seeing these films, I'd recommended Baumbach to friends as "the liberal Whit Stillman.") There was an almost incantatory stiffness to these films, partly connoting young men cripplingly out of touch with their feelings, and partly operating as the driest of farce. S&W represents a lurch towards a more naturalistic style, but remnants of Baumbach's stilted literati mode remain, and often the film feels stranded between muted family melodrama and leaden screenwriterly pronouncements, the kind that glint off the page with the self-satisfaction of a book report submitted by the teacher's pet. At worst, this tendency results in both obvious metaphor (the title) and clunky parallelism that I'm not sure whether I was supposed to notice. ("You don't have to blow your super.") Well-acted, well-shot, although not necessarily well-intentioned, S&W never really convinced me that its private conflicts were portrayed with honesty. (Of course, how would I know? It's possible that the man Jeff Daniels' character is based on really is the world's biggest asshole. But then, doesn't every college professor in the history of American cinema fall into this archetype?) But more frustratingly, Baumbach's film never bridged the gap between the emotional world of the "Berkmans" and my own. In other words, I could tell you some stories about my childhood, but why should I? And what are the conditions under which I could expect you to care?




The Dying Gaul (Craig Lucas)

Considering that The Dying Gaul is a showcase for three of our most gifted thespians, written and directed by a major playwright, one would be wise to enter this film with high and slightly skewed expectations, a willingness to make allowances for clumsy cinematics that serve in earnest to help shepherd over-literate dialogue and powerhouse performances to the big screen, where they probably don't belong. (Sidenote: This sort of thing happens all the time, and while it isn't entirely excusable, you'll have an easier time if you accept it on its own terms. "For what they are," as certain critics like to say, stagy films like The Business of Strangers and Glengarry Glen Ross are quite good, because "what they are" is actor's showcases. This isn't to say it's a great idea to give them a pass as "theatrical adaptations," and naturally critics like me who are most interested in visual construction, mise-en-scène, and cinematic specificity can never really embrace films like this. But at the same time, getting all exercised over it is pointless, and even when films like this deliver their own unique pleasures "for what they are" -- filmed theatre -- it's best just to mentally extract and enjoy the good performances from them, award them a 5 or possibly a 6, and move on.) But actually The Dying Gaul is more frustrating, because the more time you spend in its company, the more it shows its true face. Lucas's film is a secret allegory for the righteous power of words over images, and a sort of playwright's revenge against the cinema (although Lucas stacks the deck by allowing Hollywood to stand in for the cinema tout court). Although Peter Sarsgaard's character Robert is a screenwriter, he functions as a writer first and foremost, and whether or not to change (and de-homosexualize) his script in the face of Hollywood demands becomes the primary dilemma of the film. Campbell Scott's Jeff is a married, bisexual producer who sleeps with Robert behind his wife's back, and entices Robert to turn his autobiographical gay love story into a story between married straights. Meanwhile, Elaine the wife (Patricia Clarkson) gleans what's happening and begins to pose as Robert's dead lover on a gay chatroom. Elaine is a former screenwriter, now a wife and mother, and The Dying Gaul makes it clear that heterosexual marriage and its (necessary?) power imbalance killed Elaine's career, if not Creativity as such. Jeff threatens to do the same for Robert, but in the end Robert turns avenging-angel, bringing decades of repressed gay rage to bear on Jeff's complacency. In a kind of unfashionable Platonism, words in The Dying Gaul maintain a tie to authenticity when they remain close to the author, but become corrupted once they begin to circulate in the world. Or, as is the case with Elaine's chatroom charlatanry, when words are separated from the body, they inevitably dissimulate. Grafted onto this philosophical problem is the sexual divide, wherein heterosexuality (and the Hollywood apparatus that caters to it) retains all privileges, and gay men can assert selfhood only by ceasing the circulation of language, putting thought (say, a Hitchcockian murder plot borrowed from Woody Allen) into action, returning us to the body's facticity, preferably unto death. If, Lucas seems to imply, heterosexist coding of gay life, especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis, equates gayness with death -- the rectum as a grave, to borrow Leo Bersani's evocative terms -- then only by embracing their assigned roles as angels of death can gay men defeat a system that ensures their second-class status. Formally, Lucas brings his play into the "corrupt" world of cinema with condescension, shooting Jeff and Elaine's L. A. home as if it were Nazi architecture, and, in his boldest conceit, letting long passages of uncinematic chatroom interactions lie there on the screen virtually unadorned, as if his own language were too precious to contaminate with bastard images. (Shadows of shadows of shadows, Plato reminds us, flickering falsehoods designed to fool the eye.) In the end, when Lucas has delivered the final blow (via Robert's sudden dip into psycho-sexual vigilantism), we find Jeff curled in a ball, mimicking the posture of the titular statue. "The Dying Gaul," we are told (and despite our glimpse at a snapshot of the sculpture, its function is verbal, an object turned into a Metaphor), was a Roman artist's attempt to elicit sympathy for the enemy. Well, Lucas leaves no question as to who the enemy is, and though the means may be cruel, the film seems to ask us to accept that Robert is right to vanquish him. The Dying Gaul is a filmed play about the repulsive impurity of theatre upon its entrance to the cinema, and the confidence game that ensues when text circulates promiscuously, unmoored from its ideational father. It's pretty much the most self-serving thing any writer could do. The fact that it throws bisexuality into the mix (as equivocation, if not duplicity) is almost incidental.


-Paheli (Amol Palekar, India)

The most critically acclaimed Bollywood film of 2005, Paheli is joyless, plodding, and staged with all the spunk and spontaneity of an actuarial table. I am not familiar with Palekar's previous work, but apparently his background is in Hindi art cinema. Paheli is certainly well-appointed, with striking multicolored costumes and a fluid, swooping cinematographic style that is somewhat unusual for Bollywood fare. But this staging of a classic folktale embodies some of the worst clichés that the phrase "art cinema" tends to conjure in the common moviegoer's mind. Bollywood axiom Shah Rukh Kahn plays a dullard newlywed who promptly leaves his bride (Rani Mukherjee) for a five-year business trip. He's replaced by a ghost who's smitten with Mukherjee's character, the specter assuming the shape of . . . Shah Rukh Khan. The woman soon learns the truth but doesn't much care, since Ghost Khan is so much cooler and more romantic than Business Khan ever was. Plus, the guy's family and friends really like the new Khan, who can solve the village's water woes, produce gold coins out of thin air, and favorably fix the outcome of camel races. It's all silly, and has cuteness potential, but Palekar takes forty minutes to get the premise rolling and, in his worst directorial misstep, keeps cross-cutting back to Business Khan, moping around and poring over ledgers. Who cares? Eventually the stick-in-the-mud comes back home and we get a showdown, with Big B himself popping up to unmask the impostor. But (as is befitting a film with a random, whatever-the-hell plotline that makes Miyazaki look like Hitchcock) the results of this denouement are promptly thrown out the window. None of it matters in the slightest, cementing the impression that we've wasted 140 minutes of our time. Khan and Mukherhee, two of Bollywood's most effortlessly charismatic performers, are like flies in amber here. The dance sequences are as rudimentary as country line-dancing, the songs startlingly unmemorable. The best number, sadly, is shown during the credits sequence and relegated to a tiny fraction of the screen. Bunty and Babli sucked, but at least it made an effort.


-Rize (David LaChapelle)

How do you fuck that up? LaChapelle has successfully turned in the worst possible documentary "feature" (it barely clocks in) that could be generated from inherently compelling subject matter -- L.A.'s krumping / clown-dancing scene. Rize begins with a disclaimer that states that none of the footage in the film has been sped up. And yeah, the krump is a pretty vigorous, body-shaking affair, but come on. It's not super-human or anything, and the disclaimer encapsulates everything that's wrong with Rize. LaChapelle is both a wide-eyed ethnographic gawker trying to "bring back" the krump for (presumably) white delectation, and is given to shameless hype and hucksterism in doing so. At the 30-minute mark, the film features a horrid montage sequence in which these savvy street kids from Watts and South Central are shown practicing in their driveways; this footage is intercut with ethnographic scenes of painted tribal Africans dancing in the bush. Even though one of the dancers claims his talent comes from a kind of black atavism ("I didn't have to learn this. It's in me."), LaChapelle is under no obligation to follow this slippery slope. Later on, Rize will attempt to tie krumping to the emotive gesticulations of the charismatic wing of Christianity. At one point the dancers insist that L.A.'s "ghettos" are their home and aren't as dangerous as white people like to pretend, but later the film depicts life in South Central as one long tragedy, a never-ending drive-by. Even the second half-hour, built around a "Battle Zone" competition between clown-dancers and krumpers is utterly incoherent. We can tell there's a battle, the film keeps an onscreen scorecard, but virtually none of the dance sequences are shown in their entirety, and we never actually get to compare the performances of the two battlers. What the hell is LaChapelle trying to say? It's not as though whole traditions of sports movies, black-kids-overcoming-poverty docs, and dance movies weren't available to LaChapelle as a roadmap. What we have here, I think, is an exemplary symptom of the digital age, wherein all a budding "artist" needs to do is get a DV camera, follow some interesting subjects around for a year or two, and cobble it all together in the editing room. Guess what? Doesn't always work.


-30.40 (James Fotopoulos) [v/s]

One of the strangest and, to my eyes, under-elaborated films of the year, 30.40 is a five-minute video that seems to be in dialogue with certain aspects of the UCLA visual art scene without really making concrete connections. The piece begins with an icy elect(ron)ic blue screen, which serves as the ground for shifting images throughout the remainder of the running time. Several vaguely 3-D figures are superimposed alongside random 2-D images, and they never move. 30.40 is a series of static tableaux presented one after the other. The figures, whose relationship to sculptural reality was difficult for me to determine -- were they completely computer generated, like Shrek, or processed images of actual sculptural models? --, were slightly off-putting naked sex dolls, two large-breasted, clean-shaven porno women (one with flaming red hair, perhaps a nod to hentai porn) and one man with an oversized head, sporting a five o'clock shadow and a toothy, country-bumpkin grimace that reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton mutated in accordance with the facial proportions one associates with Down's Syndrome. Sometimes they squat in pre-copulation mode; other times they just stand side by side, pivoted to show their organs, backsides, or vacant stares. Fotopoulos evinces a familiarity with the distorted pornotopia attitudes of artists like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and especially Charles Ray. But part of the uncanny frisson of these artists' work comes from the fact that, in a gallery, we're forced to coexist with these lacquered humanoids. 30.40 plays like a set of cellphone photo captures, arranged into "video art" after the fact. This piece was commissioned by Mike Plante, shorts programmer for CineVegas, so it's entirely possible that Fotopoulos, an artist whose work I've admired in the past, was exploring a conceptual avenue particular to "Las Vegas" as a construct: sex tourism, random image interplay (cherry-BAR-lemon), and high-sheen artifice. But as shown by his masterful feature film Back Against the Wall, Fotopoulos is at his best when he explores the seamy side of the material world, not its garish faux-idealization.