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)




Film Montages (For Peter Roehr) (William E. Jones) [v/s]

In this short collection of loops, Jones finds new possibilities in somewhat familiar avant-garde procedures. Film Montages starts out with freeway lights at night, a shot of a gas station sign revolving in the dark, and other interstitial material, each passage repeated four times. These images are obviously taken from a narrative film of some sort, but in isolation their abstract properties come forward, and in this regard Jones' video resembles the work of Morgan Fisher, especially his film ( ). However, it soon becomes apparent that Jones is playing with a somewhat different deck. The man-on-man action -- or, more properly, the moments between the action -- starts piling up, and the material's gestural qualities and musical cadences start battling it out with the irrepressible content. It's a bit like Scott Stark's awesome NOEMA, but even more than the difference in the sex being, um, "interluded" (Stark uses het porn exclusively), Jones' footage is taken from classic gay porn, giving Film Montages the scratchy, grimy texture of celluloid. So, in addition to the repetitions (which achieve a hypnotic power, despite the limited number of iterations), the image quality gives Jones' video a materialist "pastness" that nevertheless overcomes nostalgia. It's like an archive of professional approximations of gay male pre-coital comportment, circa 1976.


[SECOND VIEWING, 4/10/08: It's much more apparent the more time one spends with FM(FPR) that part of the purpose of the increase in repetitions as the piece progresses (from four to six to eight) isn't really to allow more time for the formal characteristics to emerge from shots that contain more and more explicitly sexual imagery. It's to demonstrate the fact that these additional repetitions are inadequate to the task, and that there may never be enough compulsive looping to render, say, a shot of a man grabbing another man's cock through his jeans "content-free." Also, Jones mentioned after presenting the film that the S/M material was intended to invoke a metaphor for the domination and submission implicit in certain forms of austere modernist filmmaking. I think I'd picked up on this intuitively, but hearing him say it made me like the film quite a bit more, since it's a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek consideration of why some of us love "painful" cinema. Pause for a moment and imagine Peter Kubelka as a leather daddy. Okay, don't.]


-Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson)

I suppose there's nothing particularly inventive or structurally daring in Nelson's chronicle of the Jim Jones cult (if I may be allowed to drop the C-word) and its culmination in the mass suicide in Guyana. Nevertheless, Nelson is scrupulous in his reportage, collating some of the most revelatory audio and video passages from the Peoples Temple's extensive media documentation (much of it self-documentation), providing a stark immersion into Jones' frightening world. Even having been cognizant of many aspects of Peoples Temple's practice and protocols from earlier news coverage, I must admit I never realized, for example, that Jones and his followers were instrumental in helping to elect progressive San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who then rewarded Jones with a seat on the Housing Board. (Not to put too fine a point on it, that's a bit like appointing Charles Manson County Commissioner, but of course this is the benefit of hindsight.) Nor did I realize that, preaching from the heart of San Francisco in the 1970s, Jones used his bully pulpit to propound some bizarre theories on homosexuality. (He claimed, and convinced many a follower, that they were all gay or lesbian, whether they knew it or not. Jones, the only true heterosexual, could help his flock, but not before helpfully offering to bugger the men as a helpful way to resolve lingering daddy-issues.) But what's easily Nelson's chief contribution to this material as a filmmaker is the way he provides an uncynical examination of the initial appeal of Peoples Temple. Jones, a virulent integrationist, adopted the trappings of the black charismatic church to propound a form of liberation-theology. His Temple was anti-racist and pro-socialist, and several survivors of Jonestown -- those lucky enough to have been away on that fateful day, but all of whom lost numerous loved ones -- articulate how Jones' overt message was one they'd been longing to hear. That Jones turned out to be exploiting his followers' left-leaning desires, as well as the anomie instilled in them by the consumer universe of the Me Generation, is for Nelson all the greater tragedy. The utopian urge is shown to be a valid and even necessary one, and Jonestown avoids cheapening that need. Instead, it details one man's systematic perversion of that very basic want.


-La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, France)

Author / screenwriter Carrère scores a qualified victory in adapting his own novel to the screen. But unlike so many other literary adaptations from the "Tradition of Quality" onward, La Moustache doesn't suffer because it has been inadequately reimagined for the medium of cinema. In fact, the film is at its best when Carrère restrains himself from undue directorial flourish, since these moments betray his relative inexperience as a director. The use of Philip Glass's 1987 Concerto is needlessly intrusive, and mostly serves to demonstrate Carrère's faux-cleverness at abruptly killing the music in moments of great tension. Likewise, fancy camera moves and superimpositions only detract from what is, at bottom, an exceptionally deft, committed rendering of a familiar psychological premise. Nothing so surprising about a tale of paranoid psychosis that begins as a discrepancy between the protagonist's mirror image and the perceptions of the rest of the world, especially from the culture that gave us Surrealism and Jacques Lacan. But Carrère expands this small tale into a greater existential problem without leaning on silly, schematic explanations (cf. Lemming). The result is a modest, open-ended modernism reminiscent of Ionesco, and when Carrère merely spatializes the written word, it's absolutely captivating. In this regard, even Vincent Lindon's rather nondescript central performance serves the material well, since he "acts" like a third-person Nouvelle Roman protagonist -- distanced, capacious, filled out by actions instead of perceived depth. Less truly is more in this instance, and given the fact that La Moustache's strengths are so fundamentally literary, I plan to read the source novel as soon as possible.


v. o. (William E. Jones) [v/m]

So I watched Jones' video again, and I have to admit I really didn't get it the first time. Partially it was that I was unconsciously trying to divine a loose, fragmentary narrative from the collated audio and image segments. Also, I think I misunderstood the intent of juxtaposing classic gay porn with soundtrack material from the underlit corners of the film canon. (See Zach Campbell's discussion of canonicity and its blind spots; well worth your time.) What seemed to me like an ironic mismatch -- sort of a shotgun civil-union between High and Low -- now reads like a record of a broad sensibility. Jones' video is less about this or that image or bit of text, although portions of v. o. do form intricate webs of discourse. Instead, v. o. is an immersion into a mode of spectatorship. Yes, part of the point is that Jones postulates an all-encompassing, voracious cinephilia that is equally open to the formal pleasures of Joe Gage and Fred Halsted (to say nothing of the erotics of Oliveira, Buñuel, or especially Werner Schroeter). But v. o. also speaks to the way any act of viewing kicks off an unconscious chain of references and allusions, the way it takes a monumental, nearly puritanical act of will for a film viewer to focus exclusively on the material before him or her. The film lover cannot unwatch those previous films in our minds and memories, and v. o. seems to explore what happens when those fleeting associations are mapped out and reified as a text all their own. So v. o. is more about a democracy of the image than its end credits (which do divide the films up into high and low culture) would indicate.


Now, to say that v. o. is about these temporary flutterings of the mind is not to undercut the great care and analytical acumen evident in some portions of the piece. The longest segment, nearly 30 minutes in the middle, is an extended passage from Subway, a tale of cruising in and around the 28th Street station that eventually leads our protagonist into a secret sex society. (Jones never shows us the action, but the tone of the descriptions suggest a low-rent Eyes Wide Shut, or the hidden underworlds of Rivette.) Jones begins the sequence with audio from Rosa von Praunheim's featurette It Isn't the Homosexual Who is Perverse, but the Society In Which He Lives. The discussion decries the willing bourgeoisification of gays while the gritty, poetic cruising scene undermines Praunheim's rant. After some direct audio from Subway, Jones gives us an operatic sampling from Schroeter's The Death of Maria Malibran. This extended sequence not only has its own emotional trajectory -- from tense outsider behavior to an eventual sense of rule-bound community -- but the "structuring absence" of this sequence is Fassbinder, whose own work combined the political and the aesthetic, the ether and the street. (Fassbinder, incidentally, considered Schroeter to be the finest German filmmaker of his generation, and Praunheim one of the worst.) That said, v. o. doesn't completely hang together as a total work, largely because not all of its material matches its highest points. (In addition to the Subway sequence, the opening montage and the "Fuckface / Sucker" dialogue are clearly the highlights.) Jones' use of blackout transitions not only links the semi-detachable episodes; I think it implicitly equates them. So although further investigation clarifies v. o.'s procedures and conceptual approach (one that's unthinkable, by the way, without the influence of Duras, particularly India Song's relative autonomy of sound and image), not all instantiations of that approach are as multifaceted as the others. In this respect, v. o. shares a key characteristic with dreams. They're sometimes difficult to communicate to the world at large. But that friction is just part of the fun.


-Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

[SPOILERS APLENTY] Nearly every review I've read so far parses the multiple meanings of the title verb, which means "to return." I'll spare you, but here's a somewhat more ambivalent take on the concept: Almodóvar has covered this same territory several times over. I suppose that on a technical level he's getting better at it, if by "better" we mean more superficially entertaining, more adept at assembling glossy lacquered surfaces with candy-colored greens and bloody reds. His writing is by turns witty and sensitive, ribald and poignant, and as a director of actresses Almodóvar is without parallel. Even within the rather confining excesses of Volver's main plotline (which is really more Tennessee Williams than Douglas Sirk, with a dash of Mexican-style melodrama thrown in), each performance comes to fruition as deeply lived-in. As an ensemble, they successfully convey the familiarity and frequent irritations of family and life-long friends. So why wasn't I appropriately moved? Partly it's that Almodóvar's most recent trajectory (from All About My Mother to Talk To Her and Bad Education) indicated an increasingly dark, troubled emotional template. With Volver, this is radically simplified. Men are a nuisance at best and lecherous and evil at worst, and the best existence women can hope to eke out is one of insular sisterhood and matriarchy within the larger framework of patriarchal society. Volver is a 1970s-style separatist-feminist artwork coated in contemporary brashness, a sort of Judy Chicago dinner plate with queer-eye touches around the edges. What's more, the playful perversity that is Almodóvar's stock-in-trade is almost entirely put on hold here. Apart from Penélope Cruz's Raimunda rebuffing a final grope from her layabout husband, the only "sexuality" in the film consists of incest and its consequences. That is, perversion in Volver is the most beyond-the-pale sort imaginable. This in itself represents quite a timid recoil from Bad Education, which explored the complexities of pedophilia without ever once excusing it. But even leaving these sexual-politics questions aside, I just had a hard time accessing Volver, except to admire Almodóvar's ability to function as a signature-artist turning out skillful, well-appointed versions of his brand. Even the "show-stopping" performance of the title song left me cold. A few great lines, several moments of structural openness (especially the whole restaurant sequence), a bevy of solid performances, and a sincerely pro-woman ambiance . . . frankly, I feel like a bit of an asshole for wanting more. But I do.


[NOTE: After some discussions with Jen, I really want to see Volver again. She took me to task for harping on the role of sex in this film, arguing that at bottom Volver is a study in the ethic of care. In retrospect I think she's right. From the opening shot of women polishing the graves of loved ones to the role mothers assume (or fail to assume) in their daughters' lives, the film foregrounds the sacrifices people (but, Almodóvar argues, usually women) make for others. I'm not sure this will make me like Volver any more, but it should at least provide a more useful lens through which to view it.] [SECOND VIEWING: And boy, did it all come together quite differently after a second look. It's not just that Volver is significantly less concerned with sex than with familial ties. The film is actually a very logical progression from Bad Education, Almodóvar's dip into noir. Much of Volver's score bears shades of Bernard Hermann's work for Hitchcock, infusing elements such as the murder and disposal of Paco with a sense of tension and suspense. However, Almodóvar maintains that tension even after it no longer makes sense to do so, like when Raimunda begins trolling the neighborhood for groceries in advance of opening the restaurant. So why engage in the mechanics of suspense at all? A few possible reasons. 1) Whereas Hitchcock has been the ur-text for cinema's intersection with Freudianism, here Almodóvar is attempting something else. The numerous returns in Volver pertain to an entire community of women trying to master and recover from major traumas. But where traditional psychoanalysis makes this an individual effort (and Hitchcock's films tend to operate in this vein), Volver demonstrates that living in community means that others are implicated in your traumas, and that overcoming them requires collective effort. 2) The murder of Paco, like the killing of Raimunda's father by her mother Irene, would be considered crimes to investigate and punish in conventional Hitchcockian logic. That is, the social order has been disrupted and the Law must come in to put it right. But as Irene notes, "No one ever bothered to investigate." Almodóvar seems to posit that the "crimes" in Volver were not disruptions in the social order, so must as restorations. The reconciliations, the opening of the restaurant, the reaffirmation of female community -- all of this points to a correct, proper trajectory for these women's lives, ones that they were turned away from due to heinous acts by men. The killing of those men isn't even revenge, exactly. It's a return to the possibility of living full, actualized existence. (Almodóvar encapsulates what's at stake in these battles in a single brilliant shot. As Sole runs away from her mother's "ghost," she escapes into the light, only to be confronted by the gaping maw of patriarchy. Sole wisely opts to take her chances with the spirit world.])




-The Aura (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentina / France / Spain)

I must admit, I was no fan of Bielinsky's previous film, Nine Queens. In fact, I walked out of it about twenty minutes before the end. I found it slick and hollow, and a bit too satisfied with itself. But it's always my policy to give filmmakers a second chance, and given the sad fact that Bielinsky passed away earlier this year, I figured it was the least I could do the check out his final film, The Aura. And although the film certainly has its flaws, I'm very glad I did. Bielinsky was moving in a promising direction, foregoing Hollywood-manqué showmanship in favor of an exploration of light, texture and mood. The story of Esteban (Ricardo Darín), an epileptic taxidermist (and yes, Mike, it is a wee bit overdetermined) who has spent years of idle thoughts planning the perfect heist, but as the film progresses, this is almost beside the point. The story of a man who sculpts dead things, whose wife has gone AWOL for undisclosed reasons, who isn't even allowed to drive due to his medical condition, The Aura is ultimately a portrait of a life limited to spectatorship. Once he stumbles into another man's shoes, he discovers the chance to insert himself into an in-progress casino job. But more than this, The Aura hinges on a turning point for Esteban, one that the shier and more recessive among us can certainly relate to. Has his completely inward, unlived life of silent observation and grand plans been a waste, or has it maybe been a steady build to one crucial moment of action? Those who've mistaken The Aura for an actual heist picture have no doubt been nonplussed by its torpid pace and Darín's careful, barely-there performance. (He's not an especially charismatic actor, but here it works to his advantage. He's like a photosensitive plate, registering the impact of others around him.) Bielinsky clearly had a bit more on his mind; The Aura owes a substantial debt to The Passenger, another film about an observer who slips into the role of a man of action. Esteban describes the sensation of "the aura," his pre-seizure state of heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and motion, and in a way this frozen moment is just the metonymic condensation of his overall existential situation. (Bielinsky does such a beautiful job of conveying the aura -- migraine sufferers have them too -- that it's a shame he feels the need to have Esteban explain it verbally.) In keeping with this theme, Bielinsky employs complex cinematographic compositions, especially in the many scenes in the woods. The frame tends to be dappled with dense shadow and piercing light, so much so that we, along with esteban, often cannot immediately make out exactly what we're seeing. The Aura is ultimately too tied to Bielinsky's earlier populist gestures to be truly forbidding. You can see the better, more rigorous film it could have been had Bielinsky allowed shots to last a bit longer, or used straight-cuts instead of his impact-blunting dissolves. But The Aura has a cumulative effect of having spent time submerged in a developing talent's presence, as he explores film's capacity to generate a sensory sphere all its own. And although the final shot is a bit obvious in retrospect, it's also a lovely tip of the hat to La Jetée. Unfortunate though Bielinsky's untimely death may be, he managed to end his career with an undeniable grace note.


-Changing Times (André Téchiné, France)

Sure, 6/10 is pretty good from me, but trust me, your mileage may vary. I'm kind of a sucker for Téchiné's visual style, the way he bobs and weaves the camera in close proximity to his subjects but always manages to take in spatial and environmental characteristics of the scene, the unique qualities of light in Tangier as it pierces the tops of trees, the blotchy textures of freckled skin, that sort of thing. Téchiné truly exemplifies the camera-stylo concept, which makes it all the more bothersome that Changing Times foregrounds its least interesting aspect -- Antoine (Depardieu) and his romantic obsession with Deneuve's confident, rather chilly matriarch, Cecile. No doubt this is Téchiné's concession to star-power as commercial insurance, which makes it all the more disappointing. The fascinating stuff is in the margins -- bisexual Sami (Malik Zidi) struggling to keep his relationship afloat with depressive, drugged-out Nadia (Lubna Azabal) while trying to look out for their outgoing son Said (Idir Elomri); Sami's evening trysts with Bilal (Nadem Rachati), living in the estate of his absent employers; even Gilbert Melki as Cecile's younger husband shows some spark and wit, particularly in his impromptu meeting with Antoine. In these in-between moments, Téchiné displays a sense of poetry and gesture, a willingness to leave key details merely sketched. At first this is somewhat maddening, but as it progresses Changing Times accumulates a certain force, like a Frank O'Hara poem with its heightened marginalia. And at the one-hour mark, Changing Times stages a radical departure from the style to which the film has acclimated us up to that point. At Antoine's construction site, suddenly we're watching work crews and bulldozers in pixilated step-printing. It seems like an awkward Wong Kar-wai rip at first, but as we begin to see increasingly abstract patterns of falling dirt and pivoting sky, it's as though we're watching Téchiné's take on Brakhage or Svankmajer. This moment above all others points to the vitality still present in Téchiné's filmmaking. But lately he's been subsuming his talents in rather ill-defined melodramas that try to accommodate well-meaning observations on multicultural Europe and the global state of things. The results are vague, and in certain ways Changing Times rehashes themes from the earlier, superior Loin. So in short, this is a good one for Téchiné fans who feel like spelunking in the murk for golden moments. It's not Masters on Autopilot, Part 4, but it's close.


-Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck)

This one's a tough nut to crack. Rating about as close to 7 as a film can on my scale, while still receiving the stingy 6, Half Nelson is certainly one of the most interesting and, in its own limited way, even innovative films to come out of Sundance in quite some time. Obviously Old Joy is more formally daring, but I actually think Half Nelson attempts something bolder and more difficult. Ostensibly this is the story of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an inner-city high school history teacher with a crack addiction, and his struggle to mentor a remarkably self-possessed student named Drey (the amazing Shareeka Epps) while steering her away from her more available father-figure, local drug dealer Frank (Anthony Mackie, also excellent). But there's a bit more going on here. As the title announces, this is a film about immobility and stalemate. Fleck achieves this, in part, by adopting a very familiar movie template (the inspirational student-teacher relationship) and thwarting it at every turn. There is no redemption, and even those little interstitial moments of grace that pop up through the cracks in the sidewalk seem accidental, likely to be missed by these characters, fixated as they are on mere survival. Fleck underlines this problem of immobility by having Dunn prattle on to his students about the dialectic, the opposition of forces that Hegel claimed was the engine of historical change. But there is no change in Half Nelson, aside from tiny, stillborn glimmers of self-awareness. Fleck avoids overt allegory, but Half Nelson could be seen as a statement on the inability of white liberals to actually make improvements in the lives of poor African-Americans, or the failures of the idealistic Left more generally. Moreover, as Jen pointed out to me, this could be a new, self-critical kind of Sundance movie, one all too cognizant of the meaningless marginality of any liberal message it could provide. (As she put it -- I'm paraphrasing -- "Twenty-five years on, and what has Sundance-style American independent film really accomplished?" No more or less than other kinds of film, of course, but the point stands; left-leaning American artists have set a higher bar for themselves, as exemplified by so many earnest Sundance entries, and it's probably a bar no work of art today could ever actually clear.) Despite being a film with so much on its mind, Half Nelson itself gets stuck in the mire of indecisiveness. Mostly observational in style, it also allows for some moments of bravura acting, and even has a few abstract, driving-at-night sequences that flirt with the pure visual poetry of a Hou Hsiao-hsien. But ultimately, this film is a collection of fragments, and it simply refuses to cohere. This formal approach no doubt mirrors its content (a film about stuckness that unfurled itself with triumphant confidence would be fraudulent to the core), but it nevertheless resulted for me in a viewing experience too similar to outright directorial hesitancy. (This fragmentary style is something I could defend on deconstructionist, up-is-down grounds, but as we know, that's a courtesy I extend only to boring, obscure international art cinema.) All kidding aside, Half Nelson is a sharp film, one that has the sense to get out of its actors' way when necessary, and allows the audience to sink our teeth into big ideas. But Half Nelson is a collection of fits and starts. Fleck is so intent on abandoning the phony structures of cinematic uplift that he never quite replaces that armature with anything else. Also, Gosling is quite good in this, but no better than he was in The Believer, The Slaughter Rule, or even Murder By Numbers. I'm just not seeing the breakthrough performance others are, but if it's simply "Gosling's time" I certainly don't object. He's one of our very finest.


-More British Sounds (William E. Jones) [v/s]

A mash-up in the truest sense of the word, MBS is a simple but intermittently effective experiment. Jones pits condensed passages from the beefeater-intensive gay porn video The British Are Coming against a remix of portions of the audio track from Godard's Groupe Dziga-Vertov production British Sounds (a.k.a. See You At Mao). I've shown the Godard film to some of my classes, and Jones makes most extensive use of the sequence my students dubbed "the asshole speech," a show-stopping right-wing rant that just goes on and on, getting more and more outrageous. Jones' use of material from The British Are Coming emphasizes boot-licking and other labor-intensive acts of humiliation, and when combined with Godard's Marxist discussion of class antagonism, a fascinating frisson emerges. Sex looks like work instead of pleasure, and in fact it is. These porno guys are hard at work. Meanwhile, the right-wing condemnation of freedom and perversion is undercut rather than illustrated by the porn sequences. However, like any mash-up, it has one idea and promulgates it to completion, and not all moment-to-moment passages are as suggestive as others. A sidenote: It's weird to see Jones' use of the video bootleg of the not-available British Sounds, just as it's odd to see his use of a bootleg of Ruiz's Of Great Events and Ordinary People in v.o. Thing is, I recognized every 16mm scratch, every washed-out frame and VHS artifact of these things. I don't want to incriminate myself (or my two accomplices, one of whom sadly is no longer with us), but let's just say that you never know what sort of trouble you're liable to start when you connect two VCRs.


The Queen (Stephen Frears, U.K. / France / Italy)

Confession: I sort of went into this film with my knives out. I even sort of composed the review in my head beforehand, since I strongly suspected that The Queen is a symptom of our cultural moment's general disdain for creativity and art. What with the commercial dominance of memoir over fiction, I thought, along with the rise of reality television and the recent spate of Oscar-bait performances that are little more than impersonations of well-known celebrities (Truman Capote, Katherine Hepburn, Edward R. Murrow, Idi Amin . . . you can tell I had a real think-piece going), The Queen would encapsulate this. It's a bunch of mimics re-enacting one of the most media-saturated events in the last ten years. (By the way, my basic argument is elaborated with considerable erudition by William Deresiewicz in The Nation; thanks to Paul Fileri for pointing it out.) Anyway, The Queen turned out to be something a bit different, and more conventional and old-school. It's an attempt to get "behind the headlines," to use dramatic speculation to fill in the bold outlines of Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair, Prince Charles, etc., with the sort of private psychology we can never really know. It's actually borrowing from the media-saturated real world in order to exploit classical narrative values. This doesn't make it any more interesting, but it is effective as far as it goes. Frears offers Blair (Michael Sheen), just a regular fellow eating fish sticks with his family and continually aghast by the inscrutability of those wacky royals. (The film telegraphs this with zero subtlety; Sheen's comments -- "Where do they find these people?!" and "Someone save these people from themselves!" -- stop just short of a spit-take.) On the other hand, the narrative process of The Queen is all about teaching us (along with the disgruntled, post-Diana Brits) how to identify with and even admire the Queen. In this respect, there's an irony to Helen Mirren's skillfully muted performance. She's now the women to beat for the Best Actress Oscar, and she deserves it, but an acting job this quietly inward almost never gets noticed in Hollywood. It's the thaw, along with that reality factor, that's providing Mirren extra insurance. Directorially, Frears keeps it professional and nondescript, and Peter Morgan's screenplay doles out dollops of lumpy symbolism just stingily enough to avoid embarrassment. (Until the buck. Oh, the buck....) And neither gentleman can resist a not-so-thinly-veiled parting shot at Blair, once the golden boy and now W's bitch in Iraq. But the primary thrust of The Queen could be said to allegorize Frears' own filmmaking approach. It purports to be about modernity vs. staunch traditionalism in British culture, but in its flagrant lionization of Blair, The Queen is really a paean to politics by public relations, poll numbers, and stage management. (Why should the Windsors' defiant willingness to make unpopular decisions be equated so casually to being out of touch?) It stands to reason that Frears in on the side of slick pandering in the guise of populism. That's been a hallmark of his last fifteen years of filmmaking.


-United 93 (Paul Greengrass)


America's war on terror had begun. -- the final title card of United 93, excised after the film's world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival


Ryan Wu wisely sussed out the fact that my reaction to United 93 is not unlike his reaction to Dogville. On a formal and visceral level, the power of Greengrass's film is pretty much undeniable. Not since Irreversible has a film rattled me, worked on my nervous system, had me gnawing my nails to the quick. The level of control is astonishing, and on paper Greengrass's method is as simple as can be. The film cross-cuts between the brewing turmoil in the chain of command of the various federal agencies involved and the placid banality of the "normal" flight. We know what's going to happen, and we cannot intervene. As a bureaucratic procedural, United 93 is peerless, and the fact that most of the air traffic personnel and portraying themselves makes these sequences all the more miraculous in their exacting realism. What's more, United 93 taps into feelings of helplessness and confusion that nearly any viewer will have already experienced, but this time asks us to replay those feelings in a context neatly suspended somewhere between action cinema and monument to the fallen. Greengrass's concessions to (or, really, strategic deployments of) the logic of commercial suspense cinema are notable because he withholds them so often. So, when we shift from pure diegetic sound to one of his ominous power chords, it's dirty, brilliant pool. Most viewers will intuitively understand United 93 as the most tasteful version of the big-budget actioner ever made (as opposed to the most shameless version of Dardennes-style realism), and this underscores both its seeming veracity -- it behaves like an inevitable object untainted by the aesthetic realm -- and makes it all the more stately, funereal, a sort of Maya Lin memorial on celluloid. But this only makes Greengrass's offenses all the more heinous. What of the German passenger who not only pleads with his fellow victims not to try to thwart the hijacking, but actually has to be subdued himself? Much has been written about the European "surrender monkey," and even United 93's partisans can't really defend this decision on the part of the filmmakers. There is a defense to be made, since this passenger invokes Mogadishu and in so doing calls on the uniquely European memory of Baader-Meinhof, who were, if nothing else, terrorists in the mold of Western thinking. As such, the passenger points to a pre-9/11 framework, in which terror was meant to radicalize our corner of the world rather than eradicate it. Nevertheless, this man is made to look like a coward, mostly because his widow wouldn't cooperate with Greengrass and his team. How unspeakably fucking petty is that? What kind of monument or memorial tribute divides its subjects into the worthy and the lesser? But hey, it's only a movie, after all, and Greengrass is entitled to employ dramatic license. Fair enough, perhaps, but it has to be one or the other. United 93 is either a fiction film that has no bearing on how we as a culture think about 9/11 and its legacy -- that it, a piece of entertainment -- or else it must hold itself to a higher standard. "Psychological profiling," to speculate who might have done what during the uprising, is ludicrous and insulting. (Good thing there were level-headed white men on board to order everyone around. What born leaders!) If profiling is suspect when applied to criminal analysis, why would it be any more reliable in attributing heroics? But again, as a piece of fiction, the development of the uprising is a fully satisfying story, conforming to pre-existing attitudes we the audience will share, both about film genre and about the real world, gender, race, and class. United 93 is better than a black box. It's American mythology written, as Woodrow Wilson allegedly once quipped, in lightning. I cannot dismiss United 93, or deny the impact it had on me as an audience member. (I trembled, and at times I cried.) No question, United 93 is effective. But in this context, its ruthless effectuality poses a moral question. "Effective" is an adjective more aptly applied to a tax attorney or an antiperspirant. By seemingly setting a much higher bar for itself than most other works of cinema, United 93 cannot succeed on its visceral impact alone. The film successfully conflates how we all felt about what did happen with a socially useful fiction about what might have. Memories like that probably shouldn't be engineered for us.




-Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)

People must be despising this film simply because of what it represents in the current marketplace. I mean, sure, it sucks. Sort of like if someone adapted Todd Solondz material for a TV sitcom, LMS continually knees its hapless Hoovers in the nuts but keeps showing them in a wacky-zany enough light to pass for affection. But a slightly more generous way to think about it may be that it's a big, dumb, endless set-up for a major-league final-reel payoff. And that's what keeps this film out of 4/10 territory for me. Olive's pageant act transcends every banality the movie's been shoveling on up to that point -- the hardy-har profane grandpa, the kinderwhore pageant contestants, the 9-steps nonsense, all of it. To say this moment belongs in a better film is sloppy critical shorthand, but oh is it true. Dayton and Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt lay bare the whole stinking apparatus right then and there, and for that alone, I salute them. (Everything else may be flushed as appropriate. In, say, five years' time people will be wondering why this was such a huge hit.)


-Lemming (Dominik Moll, France)

This film was completely awesome until it became really stupid. I was a big fan of With a Friend Like Harry, Who is Here to Help back in the day, and I still greatly admire Moll's directorial style. He infiltrates upper middle class French life and captures its bloodlessness better than almost any young filmmaker. He's obviously a student of Chabrol and has taken those lessons to heart. Even before things start getting weird (i.e., the dinner party), Lemming's very mode of visual registration -- the lighting schemes that make domestic clutter seem strangely stark; the precise construction of an alienating cinematic space -- serves to throw the rather ordinary suburban mise-en-scène into deep freeze. And as with Harry, Moll is the only filmmaker I'm aware of who can wring any surplus value out of Laurent Lucas, that Gallic chunk of wood. He's a lifeless automaton, a Bressonian model without that little bit of soul most ordinary non-professionals are able to evince. As such, Moll enfolds him into the surroundings like the can opener and the bidet, and in this regard it certainly helps that the first half of the film plays like a bone-dry comedy of embarrassment. (Cf. the Adam Kesher subplot in the first half of Mulholland Dr.) Sadly, Lemming goes south precisely at the one-hour mark, when Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg head to the lakefront house. On paper, what Moll and screenwriter / right-hand-man Gilles Marchand manage to do should be a miraculous little coup de théåtre. They start shuffling the time-and-identity deck a la David Lynch, but without any visual cues or surrealist touches. No blue boxes here -- just the same straight cuts and relatively uninflected tone. What actually happens, though, cheapens the atmosphere Moll's been building up to that point. It feels like tennis with the net down, like nothing whatsoever is really at stake in the world of Lemming. This prompts any concerned viewer to start trying to solve the puzzle, and every possible solution is equally boneheaded. Could we please just go back to humiliating Lucas and his ridiculous flying webcam thingie? Thanks.




-Monster House (Gil Renan)

This may be the new parent in me talking but, um, is this for kids? Pretty intense stuff throughout, and no real tension-release pattern. Just tension, tension, and more tension, and for this grown-up viewer that actually led to tedium more than, say, subversion or sophistication. Also, I couldn't stop thinking while watching that this would have worked infinitely better as a Tim Burton live-action, where the inventive premise might've garnered some plastic traction. Also, non-Pixar computer animation is just never not creepy. Makes Rankin-Bass look squeezably soft.




The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)

It is too easy to laugh at The Fountain, especially if you see it as firm evidence of Aronofsky's hubris. By fixating on elements like his often-ridiculous camera moves (180 degrees . . . upside down!), for example, you can isolate a certain swagger, the cocky graphic-novel geek with empty formal chops but no coherent way of looking at the real world. But as for me, mostly I just felt sad, and bored, while watching this film, since it was an exeprience akin to getting trapped by an overzealous undergrad during office hours. He (and it's always a 'he') has just read Joseph Campbell or Ayn Rand or if he's really precocious, Nietzsche, and thinks he's really had his mind expanded. He can't wait to bounce his way-out theories off you, 'cause it's some really heavy shit. Thing is, this sort of thinking is no real reason to blame Aronofsky per se, since it's largely a symptom of our Oprahfied cultural moment. New Age claptrap is always close at hand, its watered-down Eastern mysticism and half-understood Buddhist precepts congealing into thin spiritual gruel. And if that's all you know, it's going to seem like a matter of life and death. The Fountain is just another product of this muddy brand of thought. Aronofsky is painfully sincere, but intellectually speaking, he's in the larval stage. And I don't really care to wait around for him to grow up. I'm done.