REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2008
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 Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina / France / Italy / Spain)
[MAJOR SPOILERS] One of the year's most accomplished films, The Headless Woman also had a reputation that preceded it as one of the most mindblowingly incomprehensible. As was the case with another film pre-sold as a brain-busting cinematic salvo, Claire Denis' The Intruder, I find myself at a bit of a loss. The Headless Woman isn't that bizarre, although Martel, moving away from the deft social satire she first broached with La Cienaga and perfected with her excellent The Holy Girl, has for the first time turned to dark surrealist and fantastical elements that explicitly draw on Latin American literary traditions and the cinema of Luis Buñuel. The Headless Woman certainly takes these traditions in an uncommon direction by articulating class conflict with problems of gender, demonstrating the complex ways in which privilege and subjugation write themselves across different bodies in the social sphere. Vero (María Onetto) is driving home down a road alongside a canal when, from inside the car, she and we hear a bump. Through the back window we see some dead thing in the road, and from this point on, Vero begins slipping away, although this event is so early in the film that we don't know very much about her. As she enters a fugue state, we observe her semi-random shuttling between daily tasks -- a hospital stay, followed by an afternoon assignation and eventually her showing up late for work -- from Vero's vacant, disoriented standpoint. Mostly, she moves through these moments of life by nervously smiling and allowing others to cue her. This, of course, is significant, since as Vero's consciousness slowly returns, and her guilt begins to surface (did she hit a dog, or a little boy?), she is tended to by a small group of male relatives and acquaintances who shepherd her through this "situation," fixing the incriminating loose ends as, more importantly, guiding Vero back into the bourgeois comfort zone.
Onetto's performance is first stunningly blank and ingratiating and then vaguely unnerved, as if suffering from a rash on the inside of the skin, and she is the linchpin for Martel's achievement here. But, as so many others have noted, Martel's formalism is in many ways the star here, employing close-ups and rack focus in order to render large segments of the visual field illegible, yet strikingly gorgeous. Unstable fields of focus aren't uncommon in contemporary festival cinema (Hou and Wong jump immediately to mind) but Martel infuses this modernist tendency with a rather unusual sociological valence. Lack of clarity disguises culpability and self-awareness; ignorance is bliss, or at least an ability to function in the world. If The Headless Woman is an impenetrable film (which I don't think it is), it's because Martel adopts a relatively passive stance, declining to dramatize any event over any other. Vero's flat affect spills over onto the narrative structure, while her general air of uncertainty finds its objective correlative in Martel's use of sound and offscreen space. But I came away from The Headless Woman feeling a bit like a headless viewer, wondering whether I missed something, on the edge of my seat waiting for the suckerpunch that never came. It's not that kind of film, of course. Everything it needs to do is right there on the surface, but presented in the subtlest possible manner. And it's easy to miss all of this, because the film drives us to desire something other than what it is. In the final analysis, perhaps that's the point -- that a shattered horizon of expectation, an immediate future that can in no way be predicted by the past, is a state of complete terror, at least for the spectator. Vero, somehow, takes it in stride, and when her broken knowledge threatens her status and her very subjectivity, an effective social apparatus springs to life to put her back together again. We, on the other hand, being Martel's response team as it were, are on our own.
SECOND VIEWING: Coming to The Headless Woman with fewer expectations about what sort of film it should be, I believe I am now able to more clearly see what kind of film it actually is. And in fact, Martel's mastery over the medium is beyond question. Strictly in terms of framing and composition, Martel manages to convey an immense amount of indirect information. Her use of shallow focus is, of course, the most obvious formal device in the film, but more significantly, Martel continually segments the wide frame vertically, into banded bars of mutually exclusive visual data. The dark recesses of a room will be juxtaposed against a strip of blinding white light streaming in from a window, or blocking and mise en scène will cut the frame up into bodies, bookshelves, plants and doorways. The effect is subtle but the intuitive meaning is clear -- nothing connects in this world, even when things are right next to each other. Others have also commented on the tight, shadowboxed framings Martel tends to use in interiors, such that Vero or the people around her will stand up and suddenly "lose their head" to the top or the side of the image. This seems straightforward enough, until you begin asking exactly whose point of view we're occupying. Vero's? Perhaps, but she's often in these compromised frames.
Maybe it's the help, those lower-class citizens flitting around the periphery of The Headless Woman who are, literally, marginal figures. After all, the crux of Vero's mental break has to do with whether or not she killed a dog or a boy. Martel provides numerous visual details throughout the film to register the questions of class antagonism brought to a crisis point by this act of violence. (To call them clues is to cheapen them, and the film, which is not a mystery to solve but a kind of politicized tone poem.) Immediately after Vero's car hits whatever it hits, we see a child's handprints on the drivers' side window. Were they there before? We don't know. But later, we see poor kids playing football in the yard. One of them falls down in a seizure, and off-screen we hear the barking of a dog. Martel is subtly forcing us, and Vero, to contemplate the equation / substitution of peasant and animal. Thinking about this problem, and coming up with a solution, is the start of regaining her sense of who she is. There is a single moment when Vero's total consciousness returns, and the second viewing makes it crystal clear. It's when she's in the public bathroom, at the sink with no water. We and Vero are stunned by a buzzer sound, immediately revealed to be an unseen workman's drill. After this shock, Vero weeps, and asks the worker for water. He obliges, fetching a bottle of water and pouring it over her. At this moment, Vero is re-baptized, her identity returning. But more importantly, she is re-baptized as a bourgeois subject, accustomed to being served by the lower class. It is then that the horror kicks in, she has it "dealt with," and her appropriate bourgeois-liberal response to poverty can reassert itself. She patronizes the car-washing boy with white-guilt charity and procedes to live it up in style, behind the glass.
So, why no change in the rating? Basically I have concluded that The Headless Woman is a brilliant film, but one that is worked-over, planned out and organized to demonstrate a particular set of theses. In this regard it is highly impressive, but it also feels a bit too self-contained, as though there is no real room for discovery or the unexpected. Its aesthetic choices, while bold and startling, are ultimately in the service of its political aims, without any notable frisson between the two. In short, it's all a little too neat. This is much the same way I felt about Haneke's Caché a few years back, a film that actually shares some basic thematic preoccupations with Martel's film. The Headless Woman is the sort of extraordinary film that I cannot embrace entirely as a masterpiece, although I am pleased that other people can.
-Iron Man (Jon Favreau)
Perhaps it's cheating to watch this after The Dark Knight (I was in the middle of moving across the country when Iron Man was in theatres, so I'm just catching up to it), but what a pleasure to see a comic book film that doesn't take itself so bleeding seriously. Granted, there's only so far you can go when you're saddled with characters named "Obadiah Stane" and "Pepper Potts," but Favreau is really all about grace notes under pressure, and that's why Robert Downey, Jr. hits this role right out of the park. He, and the film, are the proverbial velvet fist in an iron glove, and Downey's take on Tony Stark is ingenious and fun. He's like a prep school dandy in a tux fronting Motorhead, and that's precisely what's called for. I suppose one could take issue with Iron Man as a big, dumb summer blockbuster that has its cake and eats it too, since it blows stuff up real good and questions the wisdom of up-stuff-blowing. (Perfect example: the comic asides and all-too-human grunts when newly-Iron Tony gets jostled about in Afghanistan.) But really, Iron Man is pretty post-ideological, more than willing to grant that the U.S. military, when it isn't being manipulated by crooked defense contractors and shady warlords, can be a force for good in the world. If anything, the film, and Tony Stark's transformation as our point of identification with said film, are all about shedding an antiquated American exceptionalism that may have made some sense in the post-World War II, "greatest generation" era, and maaaaybe even up through the Cold War (listen to me -- I'm conceding a lot), but certainly doesn't obtain today. So Stark's number one target "for peace" is, naturally, himself, which he can only fight by becoming an Army of One. Or something like that. On the "Always Nice to See You" Character Actors' Checklist: what up, Shawn Toub and Clark Gregg.
-Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)
As with many HBO-underwritten documentaries, Trouble the Water puts a bit too much faith in obvious musical cues (e.g. "Money (That's What I Want)" in the FEMA line), underexamined vérité stylistic gestures, and a too-clean narrative arc that collates the unruly horrors of Katrina Ground Zero into a triumph over adversity. None of these elements in and of themselves is enough to cry foul over, but by the time they've reached the "HBO doc" circa 2008, they've had their edges sanded down (um, had to struggle to find a way around saying they've been "watered down") into a rather rote, "America Undercover" house-style that militates against complexities rather than opening them up. Having said that, Trouble the Water is a remarkable, wrenching document of two ordinary people, Kim and Scott Rivers, whose systematic neglect by their nation at large (the aftermath of Katrina being only the most egregious example) forced them to become far stronger and more extraordinary than most of us could imagine. Kim's video recordings from the Ninth Ward just before the storm, during and after, are an invaluable first-person complement to Spike Lee's grand vision / postmortem in When the Levees Broke. We follow the Riverses in real time, experiencing agonizing moments alongside them -- the final moments of a wayward uncle, the uncertainty of whether they'll be left to drown in an attic, the joy when a utility company Robin Hood surreptitiously turns on their water, only to have a supervisor come along and turn it off again five minutes later. Other points on the journey are retrospective, part of a healing process and an attempt to simply make sense of what they've undergone and why no one seemed to care. So in the end, when Kim reassumes her persona as Black Kold Medina and stares the camera down, rapping (for) her life, yes, it is the sort of culmination of Trouble's rather suspect formal trajectory, ending on some note, any note, of optimism amidst the ruins. But regardless of how it may have been meant to play on TV, damned if it didn't feel as though Kim earned every last shred of hope.
-Waiting For Sancho (Mark Peranson, Canada / Spain) [v]
Full disclosure: Mark is a friend, and my editor at Cinema Scope. Nevertheless, I do feel I can be fairly objective about Sancho, which is, as the film's subtitle states, "a kind of making of," hovering in the margins of Albert Serra's film El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong), in which Peranson played the biblical role of Joseph. As promised, this is no DVD supplement but a fully-formed work in its own right, much in the same way that Godard's "Scenario" videoworks are much more than adjuncts to the features films they accompany. However, Godard continually blends and juxtaposes images, using video as a kind of magic writing pad, and although Peranson clearly shares with Godard a curiosity about the phenomenological dimensions of the total "scene" of filmmaking, his approach is quite different. Taking cues from Serra's patient, painterly style, Peranson employs video's capacity for long takes and relatively unmediated examinations of both landscape and human behavior. In what is probably the single most penetrating sequence in Sancho, Peranson gives us a handful of long, unbroken takes from the same camera set-up as Serra, facing offscreen right with the camera crew in the middleground behind him, painstakingly coaches a performer in the proper way to deliver a chunk of pivotal dialog. It is "the angel scene," a speech about God's eternal being and the futility of challenging Him. Although the viewer does not realize it until Sancho goes along, Peranson is reversing time, providing a kind of "unmaking" of this scene from Birdsong. First we see the scene itself. Later we see Serra and his crew preparing for the filming of the scene, and then we see the lengthy rehearsal and filming process.
Several things happen here. First, of course, Peranson positions the viewer both back in time relative to the creation of the angel scene, and at a 90-degree angle to its action, setting us up alongside Serra who is regarding the actress offscreen. It is a precise sculptural gesture, highly uncharacteristic of standard making-ofs. Second, Peranson shows us the time and exacting craft that goes into making a "minimalist" film like Serra's, the sort that can appear to the untrained eye to be far more open to chance than it actually is. ("Just because there are more pauses doesn't mean do it faster," etc.) Third, Peranson transfers the exhaustion and mounting aggravation that the performer and the crew clearly feel onto the audience, in near-real time, so that we become increasingly invested in the process, in the actor's successful accomplishment of the task. And finally, we are free to observe the other crew members behind Serra, and watch their subtle play of impatience and ingratiating behavior with him as the process continues. This is possibly the most direct example of something that runs throughout Sancho, a feature of Serra's work that Peranson illuminates from the inside. Like the actors playing the three wise men who lumber about, climbing hills until they're out of breath and then begin the take, we understand that Serra is after the physical weight of existence, a density he wants to permeate each shot and play dialectically against the holy transcendence of the subject matter. In the same way, Sancho provides intensive examinations of Serra and company fashioning their art while combining them with goofy antics in airports and hotel rooms, little jokes in cars, minor squabbles about halting traffic, and other, "smaller" business. It seems to me that what Peranson, himself an editor and publisher of his own "baby," Cinema Scope, understands about Serra and his cohort is that there is a special bond can only develop between people working together to make something by hand. Waiting For Sancho captures this atmosphere, and considerably more.
-Une Catastrophe (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland / Austria) [v/s]
Godard's trailer for the 2008 Viennale is, like so many of that festival's commission's, much more than a trailer. It is a brief work in itself, of a piece with other Viennale contributions by the likes of Agnes Varda and Ernie Gehr, or the Toronto International Film Festival's 2000 anniversary "Preludes," when the participants took the assignment seriously (Maddin, Cronenberg, and Snow). Nathan Lee has already declared Une Catastrophe his #1 film of the year, and academically-inclined film blogger Craig Keller has already parsed this short film with about as much precision as anyone could ask. There is very little I can add to this conversation, despite the fact that I typically feel rather qualified to engage with the infamously knotty "late Godard," or at least as qualified as any non-European in his late thirties could possibly hope to be. But after five go-rounds with Une Catastrophe, and having read Keller's explication of the film, I find that this strikes me as a lesser effort in comparison to Godard's late short video work, not nearly as intricate or convulsive as Origin of the 21st Century, nor as magnificently dialectical in its articulation of abstraction and materialism as the "Hell" sequence of Notre Musique (which owes a considerable debt to Godard's video aesthetic, despite operating within the context of a feature film). Yes, there is a tragicomic power in the opening seconds, when Eisenstein's Odessa steps massacre (and the basic principles of montage at their most authoritarian) are sonically equated to a tennis match. But the movement from this visual idea, through tanks and ordnance, into a slow motion rendering of the gestures of cinematic heterosexual affection (joined to a love poem in low German), form a rather instantaneous unwriting of a thought, one which is mandatory within the one-minute trailer format but whose potency is diminished by its being so hurried, like a crucial but offhand life lesson delivered as someone looks back at you before disappearing down the jetway. "A catastrophe is the first strophe of a love poem." Perhaps. But you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
-Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
The title is a dead giveaway: Herzog is much more intrigued by the bizarre cast of characters that lands up in a place like Antarctica than in (as he puts it) "a film about penguins." This is all to his credit, since the world doesn't need another nature documentary, per se. But the strange push and pull of Encounters works to the film's detriment, since it's only during the interview segments that Herzog and Encounters really comes to life. The great value of Herzog's nonfiction cinema at this point is his curiosity about other people, his openness and respect for what others have experienced and the stories they have to tell. You could set him up in a bus station and he'd come back with a film every bit as electrifying. And so, in a way, the undersea passages of this documentary are a letdown because they are conventionally "beautiful," in exactly the way you'd expect, but they don't give us much of anything else. And more to the point, this natural world of untamed blue pales in comparison to the philosopher / forklift driver, or the Aztec journeyman plumber, or the scientist who traveled in a sewer pipe, or the linguist who scrapped his dissertation. In fact, Herzog's inability to really grasp the Antarctic sublime outside of typical categories is made brazenly apparent by Henry Kaiser's bland, new-age jazz guitar soundtrack, sonic Lunesta guaranteed to turn even the most exotic images into midnight blue pabulum. So in a sense, Herzog's open disgust at the more prosaic aspects of governmentalized Antarctica (Caterpillar tractors, ATMs, aerobics studios) is inadequately contested by the "wild" material he brings back. But the wild denizens of "the end of the world" make his argument far more compellingly.
-Just Anybody (Jacques Doillon, France / Belgium)
In speaking of the latest film by French master Jacques Doillon, one which has gotten only a fraction of the festival exposure it deserves, I want to make one thing crystal clear. It is without a doubt the strangest film I've seen in years (probably since Resnais' Not on the Lips) and I seriously doubt I will see a stranger film in two or three years to come. When I give Just Anybody a grade of 6/10, this is a bit misleading. On the one hand, it does accurately reflect the subjective, visceral impact Doillon's film had on me, from the end of its first reel to the final seconds -- an overwhelming desire to hide from it, turn off the disc, run in the other direction. Just Anybody is a grating, unnerving film. But on the other hand, I have no trouble right here and now declaring that I will probably give it a look in a year or two, maybe more, and find that in fact it's a masterpiece. It's just so offputting, and in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, that one must submit to its rhythms and attitudes with the understanding that many thick skeins of dialectical negativity will stretch between you and "entertainment."
Just Anybody (the French title, Le Premiere venu, more precisely means "the first one to come along") starts with an ambiguous interaction, centered on a key act which takes place just before the film begins. Camille (Clémentine Beaugrand) pleads with young tough Costa (Gérald Thomassin) not to abandon her after a failed one-night stand which, as the film progresses, seems more and more like an abortive date rape. As Camille explains to Cyril (Guillaume Saurrel), a local cop she meets along the way (who turns out to be highly embroiled in the lives of Costa, his ex-girlfriend and daughter), Costa may be scum, but if she can't embrace him as he is, than she's even worse. That is, Camille appears to be an out-of-place college student wandering into the sticks, casting her lot with backwoods criminality and desperation as some sort of whole-hog existential experiment. And, in a way, this is how Just Anybody operates as a film-text. Doillon coaxes oddly mannered performances from his cast, continually pairing them off into highly artificial pairs and triads as they deliver stilted dialog in a register that threatens to teeter over into uninflected naturalism but always retains just the hint of distance, the treatment of language as a dense, sculpted object.
Likewise, Doillon's camerawork, editing, and overall mise-en-scène strikes one as fairly straightforward French-provincial realism, until you realize that he's slicing every sequence, every conversation up into multiple camera set-ups which are unnecessary, from a strictly economical standpoint. While Doillon used this mode in his last film, Raja, to exacerbate distance between socially incompatible lovers, creating space between people who were sitting right next to each other. Just Anybody's m.o. is not nearly as obvious, but Doillon does manage to explode normal spaces into a Cubist field of action, albeit an utterly quotidian one. In the end, as Camille's shifting commitments, to Costa, then Costa's ex Gwen (Gwendoline Godquin) and then Cyril the upright cop and back again, drive the film in various small directions, there is an unnerving sense that her project, which is never debunked or unmasked and in fact finds a semi-permanent home in this milieu (and in fact, may not be a conscious "project" at all -- who's to say people really understand their own true motivations?), dovetails with the fundamental ambiguities of Just Anybody, the lavishing of exquisite formal attention on not very much at all, in the service of a grand philosophical discovery that Doillon has made, but with which I have yet to catch up.
-The Last 15 (Antonio Campos) [s]
I recently had a discussion with a film programmer friend of mine. In the course of talking about other things, we came around to the topic of how short narrative films are pretty much always bad. It's a fundamentally flawed form, since usually there isn't enough time for a director to accomplish much more than showing off his or her technical chops, getting off a lame joke, or at best hinting at the promise to come. Telling a story in the cinema requires time, not just the time for character development and explication, but more crucially, for an environment to fully enfold the viewer, in order to compel belief. So the vast majority of these films are skippable because they are doomed to failure, regardless of the talent of their makers. However, Campos' The Last 15, much like Lynne Ramsay's Gasman a few years back, announces the arrival of a director with a unique vision already in place very early on in his career. Rather like a classic student film in terms of its preoccupations (particularly youth rebellion and the impotent rage to get even), Last 15 employs a chilly, distanced style and sociological / clinical viewpoint in order to bring a fresh, anti-humanist perspective to the family dissolution story. Although necessarily truncated, and a bit pat by the time of its conclusion (Campos' music cues tend to undercut the tension he works so hard to build in the visual track), Last 15 nonetheless finds a fresh entry point into Hanekesque boiling-point banality. Campos is without a doubt someone to watch. Bring on Afterschool!
-Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
Without a doubt the film of 2008 by the biggest name-auteur that no one's really talking about, Miyazaki's latest debuted in Venice to uniformly positive notices and then submerged into the drink. It will be released outside of Japan in 2009, most likely in an English dub, but still, this alone doesn't account for its relative absence from discussions of the major film events of the year. No, I suspect that the cinema intelligentsia who have seen Ponyo, either at Venice or via download (like me) just don't know what to do with it. Apparently Miyazaki's self-conscious attempt to make a more obviously child-friendly form of animation after increasingly complex work in recent years, Ponyo boasts simpler animation (no fussy backgrounds or all-enveloping environments, for the most part) and a basic linear story worthy of Spielberg. Ponyo is a tiny sea creature whose parents as an ocean goddess (enormous and largely absent) and a wicked undersea magician. After getting scooped up in a trawling net, Ponyo is found by Sosuke who keeps her as his pet. Ponyo then chooses to become a human girl, which sets the balance of the planet off kilter, resulting in a near-cataclysmic flood which only Sosuke's heroism, and the sea goddess's intervention, can reverse. As the opening song announces, "bubbles are our language," and the sea creatures are notable for their almost anthropomorphic control over the ocean, which moves over the Japanese coastline in bulbous black waves, complete with eyes and a sentient, herdlike sense of purpose. But apart from certain sequences wherein Ponyo's tiny siblings move in and out of their protective bubbles in whimsical, firefly-like droves, none of the rampant visionary invention of Spirited Away or even Howl's Moving Castle is on display here. Miyazaki's style is so controlled as to resemble children's drawings at times, on occasion rendering the "normal" world of Sosuke's coastal town, his mother's lighthouse and nursing home workplace with the offhand precision of classic Japanese cinema of the 1960s. But everything about Ponyo feels tamped down, subdued, as though Miyazaki suddenly felt like his last few films represented some sort of wrong turn and he needed to literally go back to the drawing board. Granted, even lesser Miyazaki is still better than most things out there, but at one crucial point in the story, Sosuke's mom Lisa comforts him by singing the Totoro theme song. This clarifies where the new film places its benchmark, and underscores the fact that it comes up short.
-Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney)
It's probably unfair to address this kind of extra-textual knowledge in a review, but having now seen Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning examination of the Bush Administration's use of torture as a weapon in the war on terror, I'm rather nonplussed that Gibney saw fit to file a complaint against his distributor, ThinkFilm, for failing to capitalize on the film's commercial potential. Now, ThinkFilm's financial woes are well-documented, and I have no doubt that Taxi was one of several ThinkFilms that got somewhat mishandled in the shuffle. But Taxi was never going to be "the" film that connected with a hungry audience, once and for all, making the case against the Bush years and earning coin in the bargain. Gibney's effort is entirely too scattershot, largely because Taxi tries to take on more than any documentary could reasonably assay in 105 minutes. Ostensibly focused on the sad case of Dilawar, an Afghan taxicab driver hauled in by U.S. authorities on flimsy evidence, locked up at Bagram detention center for five days until he died from having been kicked to death during interrogation, Taxi quickly spins off into an examination of the larger, and indeed pressing, questions of large-scale torture at Bagram and Abu Ghraib, the vague but unmistakable directives from Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales down the chain of command to "take off the gloves" and get savage with detainees, and the military's systematic shielding of officers and cabinet-level officials from any and all culpability. Dilawar returns to the film, almost as an afterthought, in the final ten minutes as we visit his family and his gravesite. Gibney himself notes than in the subsequent media probes of American military torture in the Middle East, Dilawar and his tragic fate were all but lost in the din, a fate Taxi tends to redouble. The main problem with Gibney's film is that, as it stands, too often Gibney assembles knowledgeable talking heads and sinister music to hurriedly make vital points which, as presented, rush by in a muddle, resulting in listener fatigue. There is little time for the full impact of what we're hearing, intellectually or viscerally, to really sink in. To actually accomplish what it sets out to do, in a manner that is both thorough and patient enough to allow pertinent cases to build for the film's auditor, Taxi would need to be at least twice, maybe three times as long, a project more along the lines of Adam Curtis's BBC work. Is this so unreasonable? (What's more, the fact that Errol Morris spent the same amount of time as Gibney focusing, not even on Abu Ghraib per se, but on the photos from Abu, and still made a less informative film, only demonstrates just what a glib failure Standard Operating Procedure was.) I mean, the out-and-out war crimes of the Bush Administration, the death toll and the calculated insistence on forcing poorly trained, overworked underlings to pay the price, is a subject at least worthy of a four-hour miniseries. But then, if commercial considerations really are paramount, then naturally, yes, let's hit that cutting room at all costs.
-The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
Jesus, Darren, even Axl made it to the 21st century. Darren Aronofsky has never been a filmmaker given to subtlety, and so when one considers The Wrestler within the context of the director's other three films (something not that many people seem interested in doing -- Mickey Rourke's performance tends to pull focus away from auteurist concerns), even its bald lunges into cheap pathos look like classical restraint. Certainly this is Aronofsky's least stylistically audacious effort, containing none of the collision montage or physically propulsive soundtrack that characterized the earlier work. In fact, only a slightly glazed, tweaked-neon look to the photography connects The Wrestler to the abstractions of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, films that shoved our faces in film-school bravado in order to conceal (barely) their dearth of serious ideas. Here, working from someone else's script (former Onion writer Robert Siegel), Aronofsky chooses to channel his overweening sense of event structure into a relatively straightforward male melodrama, and the results are a mixed bag. Sure, it's the director's finest hour. And in the title role, as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke lumbers about with no vanity, a ripped, basted steroidal turkey whose freakish presence in every arena besides the wrestling ring -- the deli counter, the barstool, the wintry streets of the economically desolate working-class East -- only underscores the poetic wrongness of his being. The Ram wasn't born, but self-made, to do one thing and one thing only, hence the conflict.
The problem with The Wrestler, ultimately, is that Aronofsky and Siegel, and even to some extent Rourke, favor shorthand and Rockyesque broadsides, which is kind of the point on a metalevel as well. Think about it: The Ram needs redemption, so Cassidy the stripper (Marisa Tomei), his sort-of girlfriend must undergo a patently unconvincing but narratively mandated internal struggle about "dating a customer." Likewise, Randy's estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) must inexplicably give the man One More Chance, with no rhyme or reason for doing so, and then chuck it all after one missed dinner date. These aren't complex emotional conundrums; they're beats, and in a way they're not unlike the torrid, nuance-free domestic dramas that underpin actual WWE rivalries, pitting The Rock or Triple H against Vince MacMahon or whatever. So why regard it as art on a higher, more critically distanced plane? The Wrestler actually shares pro wrestling's lunkheaded conservatism, right down to a preference for unreconstructed Reagan-era debauchery (shit-metal like Quiet Riot and Ratt, plus watery domestic brewski) over "that pussy Kurt Cobain." Hell, even Bruce Springsteen's closing song is just Sting's "King of Pain" with all the metaphors removed. Sad thing is, there's actual material here that could have been provocative had anyone concerned actually thought about it. When we see The Ram getting staples removed from his naked torso, we're asked to think about his hyper-masculine body as an object of display, paradoxically feminized and even penetrated. (Don't forget the injections, or the surgery.) He's an aging piece of meat, just like his 40+ stripper love object, and The Wrestler might have posed the question of what it means, for the sexes and for a heterosexual relationship, for bodies to be socially constructed and constrained in this way. But instead Aronofsky, Siegel, and Rourke are more interested in an all-too-common male strategy: an appetite for destruction.
-Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, U.S. / U.K. / France)
Well, if Bruce Forsyth had designs of burnishing the end of his career with a chummy four-day sit-down with Dubya, only to deliver some unexpected KO on Day Four, the cat's out of the bag. ("Yes, I love doggies and horsies too. Speaking of farm animals, how could you appoint some friend of yours from a horse show as the head of FEMA, knowing full well he'd be incapable of handling a major domestic crisis? And why in God's name did you sit there for nearly fifteen minutes in a Florida classroom reading "My Pet Goat" when the Twin Towers were crumbling? And when did you sign off on waterboarding? Who told you there were WMDs?" etc.) Not sure why contemporary audiences of either the play or the new film Frost/Nixon are supposed to care one way of the other about the rehabilitation of some vapid British chat show host, whose vapidity is in no way challenged by the film or Michael Sheen's doe-eyed depiction. In fact, the entire project, from its title and trumped-up boxing-bout metaphors to its pathetic conclusion (final scene, at Nixon's villa, as the doddering old man in his golf pants bids adieu not only to Frost and his hot continental honey, but to his self-respect), seems designed for one purpose only -- to puncture the gradual, post-Watergate semi-rehabilitation of Richard Nixon as a tragic figure. Even Oliver Stone's Nixon, after all, could not completely condemn this man, whose paranoia and loathing of liberal elites came from a deep-seated sense of inadequacy and the drive to prove himself worthy of those born to higher stations. Nixon, it seems, took all the "wrong" lessons from a hard-scrabble life, and so understanding Nixon might mean understanding (and "curing") that strand of contemporary conservatism that loves Jesus and American might but isn't anti-intellectual.
Let's flip that script , Frost/Nixon seems to say. The man was a crook, to say nothing of a racist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe. Why the tragic-hero fascination? Let's show him (and by extension, of course, his ideology) up as the self-destructive folderol it is, and reduce one of its most eloquent advocates to a sad, lonely man the world justly left behind. Okay, but who's fighting for "our side"? As Frank Langella's Nixon points out, it's David Frost, featherheaded playboy, and a small team of investigative journalists whose visible contribution to the interviews was, even by the film's own admission, reduced to one-quarter, due to Frost's own unctuous, deferential chat-show mien. So in the end, what's the point? That showbiz will win out over substance, because substance will always contain the contradictions that lead to its own undoing whereas vain mass-media narcissism isn't troubled so? That eventually we'd get Pres. and or Prime Minister David Frost in the form of Clinton / Blair, and the joke would be on us? (Although, hard to say if Morgan or Howard feel that way. They scan as safety-zone liberals.) The film itself is preposterous, treating a minor media event / historical footnote as something momentous, chiefly because it laid Nixon low and helped Frost get his table back at Sardi's. (The low point of this kind of spell-it-out "populist" filmmaking, obviously, is the late night phonecall. Worst. Scene. Of. The. Year.) But it's hard not to read this as a kind of hurrah for the total victory of image-politics, that is if it really has anything to say whatsoever. Which it may not.
-Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood's gentle pacing always lends projects such as these a dignity they barely deserve, and Gran Torino is the worst offender in quite a long time. The script is preposterous.Beyond that, I have nothing to say about this film.
-How is Your Fish Today? (Guo Xiaolu, China / U.K.)
A study in fiction / documentary hybridity and metanarrative rumination that is not nearly as complex (or profound) as it purports to be, Guo's How is Your Fish Today? cribs styles and attitudes as wildly as its chief narrator, Chinese screenwriter Hui Rao. Hui is playing a fictional, more blatantly struggling version of himself, a la "Charlie Kaufman" in Adaptation., and throughout Fish, our onscreen writer / narrator / trickster drops allusions to the Italian New Wave (his dead plant was called Fellini), Buñuel (his goldfish is called "Belle de Jour"), Fassbinder, Pasolini, and Rohmer (the directors whose work he shows his college students). In terms of its rather obvious procedures, Fish is a hodgepodge of more contemporary versions of those modernist benchmarks. The writer who imagines a faraway place in his fiction, only to attempt to disappear there by train (in this case, the very real Northern Chinese village of Mohe) recalls Wong Kar-wai's 2046. The frequent disappearance of the film into its own intra-cinematic fiction, wherein we observe Hui's script as he writes it -- a kind of melodramatic noirish thing about a young man named Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang) -- feels a lot like nearly every film Raul Ruiz has made in the last twenty years, although the relative fluidity of the storytelling process does in fact recall Adaptation. or, as Justin Chang noted in his Variety review, Stranger Than Fiction. Guo manages to accommodate some lovely, open-form meditations on the shifting state of Beijing, and a small but exquisite documentary code in Mohe itself. These essay-film elements are Markeresque. But the glib meta-meta-noodling seriously undercuts their power; they arrive too late, after Fish has been out in the sun a bit too long.
-Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
It seems that these days, you can subvert genre only so much. One of this year's most critically acclaimed foreign films, Let the Right One In purports to be a hushed, Scandinavian gene-splice of the high school coming-of-age film and the vampire movie, which it is. But, as is the case with its young vampiric subject Eli (waiflike, otherworldly Lina Leandersson), Right One's mutated genetics result in anomalies which may be strengths in the cover of darkness but assume a self-consuming character in the harsh light of day. The first 45 minutes of the film, in which we are introduced to bullied outcast Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the snow-dusted Swedish outpost where he resides, are simply exquisite. Even before supernatural elements are explicitly introduced, Alfredson employs an ice cold mise-en-scène, deriving particular impact from Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography, which moves at a pace just a touch slower than normal perception. As we observe this world drained of sun and color, always gazing up and streetlights haloing the falling snow, and as we watch Oskar fight his way through the torpor, there is a bizarre sense that we are watching a trance film, something more along the lines of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon or Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass than a standard narrative film, with ordinary people leading lives driven by recognizably human desires. (In My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin describes the chilly oneiric shroud that envelops northern towns in winter, a state I remember all too well, and Right One captures this atmosphere perfectly.) Unfortunately, once the specifics of the Oskar / Eli relationship begin filling in, Alfredson starts making more conventional choices, and the problem -- there's a vampire in town! -- starts dominating the proceedings. That is, the narrative elements clamp down, which is a shame, since they really pale in comparison to the mood Alfredson establishes early on. Even the scene in the final act with the best visual ideas (the swimming pool confrontation, making excellent use of offscreen space) suffers because it basically fulfills a foregone conclusion. There are no surprises left.
-The Ruins (Carter Smith)
[SOME SPOILERS] When you consider just how dire most of today's weekend-counterprogramming horror quickies really are, I suppose The Ruins is a minor miracle. Genuinely scary during its middle section, where it counts, the film ultimately suffers for having no real conclusion. (That horror flicks will have a first act of absolutely no consequence, and one that is in most cases actively grating, is pretty much a given nowadays, since there's no getting around spending X amount of time meeting our callow, interchangeable douchebag youths. One of them will probably be some reject from "The Hills" you never heard of, another one became a sensation on Facebook, you know the drill. They hang out in Cabo or wherever, doing shots and making out, which apparently "humanizes" them. Bring on the carnage, pronto.) Probably the thing that sets The Ruins apart most notably from its multiplex brethren is its xenophobic bait-and-switch. Whereas vile crap like Turistas (organ harvesting!) and Hostel (Eurotrash snuff clubs!) play on Bush 43-era American exceptionalism and the cold sweat that comes with ever breaking out the ol' passport, here the indigenous population living in the Mexican jungle are really not the problem. (Also, the film is not above playing the white tourists' idiocy for grim irony. The party kids can't speak Spanish, but little do they know, neither can this tribe.) But more than anything, The Ruins succeeds because it has a really good "monster," a sentient, razor-sharp rhizomatic vine that penetrates open wounds in human flesh. In a sense, we're in Cronenberg territory, but seldom does his bio-horror ever venture so far into the floral arena. (He prefers untidy bodies interfacing with each other.) So again, seen in the context of its genre and its particular low moment, The Ruins certainly deserves a pass, but it has far too many flaws overall -- lumbering set-up, reset-button conclusion, "final girl" logic determined by actor's marquee value -- to judge it as a good film, and I refuse to grade on a curve.
-Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith)
Okay, so Kevin Smith is improving, but do we really want to grade on a curve? I'd imagine that everybody realizes by now that Smith is a conservative and a traditionalist in indie-hipster clothing, so the fact that he's made a rom-com with porn as the hook shouldn't really come as a shock. But let's give the fellow some credit. It would be easy to lambaste Smith for "jumping on the Seth Rogan bandwagon" or what have you, but actually Rogan is perfectly suited to Smith's demands here, embodying the would-have-been-post-collegiate slacker far better than Jason Lee or Ben Affleck, and in fact Rogan's substantial acting chops manage to convincingly put across even some of Smith's clunkiest quips. Likewise, only someone who incorrectly perceives himself as doodling in the Hollywood margins, as Smith does, would have the perspicacity to award Elizabeth Banks with a well-deserved romantic lead. There's considerably more chemistry here (and quite a bit less sexism, actually) than in the last few Apatow joints. Having said that, Smith is still Smith, and the problem is that he pretty much embodies the Peter Principle in cinema. Like one of your drinking buddies from college who got to make a film, Smith always goes with his first idea and never thinks twice. So we open with Primus's "Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver," or have the film come to a grinding halt for a meaningless dance party set to DMX's "Party Up." It's never not embarrassing. And the main problem is, if there were collaborators who would kick the guy's ass now and then, he could probably have hit on the post-John Waters comedy of humanist embrasure he was clearly going for. There are actual ideas here, after all. It's significant that Zack and Miri is situated in a closed working-class milieu, that eventually they decide to make the porn film after hours in the coffee shop where Zack works (grad students, begin your Debord / de Certeau / Bourdieu inflected dissertations now!), and that [SPOILER] the titular porno (heh heh, he said "titular") never gets finished. It's really about building community in a rapidly narrowing, post-partying, adult responsibility world. So why can't Smith actually achieve any of this while actually, you know, being funny? A question for the ages.
-The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
The whole effort is weighed down with a self-important lugubriousness that the incredibly slight material in no way earns. However, around the time Caroline began unpacking the postcards, I realized that Peter Greenaway could have made a fantastically wry comedy out of it. (Many have made Gump comparisons, but there are latent Tulse Luper elements that could also be explored.) Beyond that, I have nothing to say about this film.
-Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, U.S. / U.K.)
[SPOILERS] You know exactly what kind of film this is going to be in the first ten minutes, when you witness the sea of identical business fedoras filing onto the commuter train. Oh, the hopeless emptiness! Michael Shannon can only do so much to bring the film to life, applying cardiac paddles, as it were, to a tastefully appointed corpse. By the middle of the film, all that's left to do is silently wonder, "Botched abortion, lobotomy? Abortion, lobotomy, abortion, lobotomy, abortion, lobotomy..." and wait for the outcome. Beyond that, I have nothing to say about this film.
-W. (Oliver Stone, U.S. / Hong Kong / Germany / U.K. / Australia)
Oliver Stone films are political junk food, and I'd kicked the habit long ago. Why did I feel the need to go back? As a piece of cinema, W. (by all accounts, we're to pronounce it "Dubya") is pretty much a fiasco, a cheap, only moderately diverting film version of one of those "Bushisms" desktop calendars. And why not? The trouble with the recent spate of biopics, of course, is that they hinge on Rich Little-level impersonation, turning acting into an objective, measuring-stick affair wherein any rube in the audience can evaluate "the craft" based on rank verisimilitude. What's more, these films flatter the viewer's Time / EW-fed knowledge base, hitting the alleged highlights of the Bush administration (or Johnny Cash's life, or Ray Charles's) with a smattering of boldfaced quotes, so we can enjoy the brain-swell of recognition. High art as unfunny "Simpsons" episode, with the obscure allusions shorn away, these films are the perfect Oscar bait in a historical moment that has no use for imagination and would feel much more comfortable with some system for judging creative endeavors in the way we grade gymnastics or math tests. (At least I admit my grading scale is wholly subjective, and nearly meaningless.) So, in a way, we might be generous and say that since George W. Bush is the president of this anti-intellectual, pro-phony-empiricist moment, exemplifying it par excellence (e.g., achievement tests to determine "is our children learning," and cook the numbers until you get the results you desire), W. the movie should stand as a full-on testament to this trend in filmmaking. But no, the film is just as stupid as its subject. So watch with degraded-Brechtian, looky-loo detachment as Bush chokes on a pretzel, stands on the aircraft carrier, calls himself "the decider," notes that "people have always misunderestimated me," and so on and so forth. Josh Brolin does what he can, working against the film's gravitational pull toward idiocy. He portrays Bush as a Man Without Qualities, but when he's called on to writhe in agony over his issues with Poppy Bush, even Brolin can't dig his way out of this deep trench of a film. Most of the cast is, again, playing it with faux-Brechtian relish, telegraphing a palpable contempt for the material that serves only to let us know they were in it for the money. It's strictly amateur hour out there. Only Jeffrey Wright (as official voice of sanity Colin Powell) and especially James Cromwell (as distant, petulant Bush 41) come out ahead. W. is a failed agitprop stunt, with no real reason for being, and you can almost see it withering like spoiled lettuce right there before you on the screen. The film began stale.
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle / Loveleen Tandan, U.K. / U.S. / India)
Am I part of a backlash on this one? Hard to say, since I certainly came to it with full knowledge of its overblown hype, but I was also kind of rooting for Slumdog, seeing as I'm a fan of latter-day Boyle (esp. 28 Days Later and Sunshine). But the fact is Slumdog doesn't deliver on its promise, and it seems to me that it promises quite a lot. Depending on your point of view, the film is a romantic fairy tale of Jamal (Dev Patel), the Muslim slum kid from Mumbai, who makes it all the way to the final question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" all to impress his long lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto). His travails along the way only show the adversity this daring young boy must overcome. But does the film have anything at all to say about India? We get young kids playing on the megalopolis trash heaps, violent outbreaks of the Hindu / Muslim conflict, Oliver Twist-style orphan exploitation, the loss of his brother to mobsters, eventual low-level employment at a call center, and, once Jamal starts succeeding on the game show, torture under interrogation by shady police. The question is, are these moments to be taken seriously, as social critique, or are they just "the bad stuff" that our hero must undergo in order to satisfy his quest to reunite with his beloved? The tagline, "It is written" gives a clue, but these grim interludes take up so much of the screen time it's difficult to just write them off as mere plot hurdles. Boyle does seem to have an investment in showing us hard times in "the real India," but the fairy tale demands of Slumdog mean that these hardships are so overblown (while simultaneously being subjected to Anthony Dod Mantle's aestheticizing, high-neon cinematography) as to ask a Western viewer to recoil, getting our "exceptionalist" hackles up. ("Well, tonight thank God it's them, instead of you....") Slumdog, in its brightest moments and its darkest, never departs from a touristic and yes, a colonialist gaze, even as it tries to be frivolous, frothy uplift. But perhaps more damning still is that Slumdog is a dull slog of a film. Whether this is because Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy cannot ascertain whether or not they are committed to partial seriousness, or if the problem is that the filmmakers simply can't "do" action, car chases, romantic sweep, or the vicarious thrill of being on a game show, I'm not sure. But all of these elements fall flat on the screen, and this is made all the more apparent by the question-by-question flashback structure, since, rather like a Michael Snow or Hollis Frampton film, Slumdog never lets you forget just how much more of its running time you have yet to undergo. But what do I know? Folks are falling in love with Slumdog left and right, so it seems to hit some strange pleasure center that is clearly dead in me. Nevertheless, no excuse for an idiot contrivance like a bathroom break between a question and an answer. Please.