REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2013
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME: Here's a link that will direct you to most of my writing on Hard To Be a God.
For a film I like as much as this, it seems odd that I never actually composed a proper review. But I think I wrote about it in little bits all over the place, so I don't feel entirely remiss But one note: this would be an interesting film to show alongside Upstream Color. The recording of ambient sound and its reshaping into structured information, which is small, dialectical refrain in Barber's film, is one of the major strands in Carruth's, so it might give the impression of tilting one film at a kind of conceptual right-angle to the other.
The Great Humanist Database -- This is one of those films that I seem to have written "around," or mentioned in other writings. So it's a bit absurd that I haven't actually written a proper review of it. (I had planned to address Service in my recent article on Kelly for Cinema Scope, but I got so preoccupied with two of his earlier films that I simply ran out of word-count.) This highly unusual work is not only a fine example of the avant-garde "playing dress-up," employing the kind of cockeyed performance values that experimentalists all too seldom exploit in favor of "work upon the image." It's a perceptive act of film criticism as well, all the more fascinating because Kelly takes on a subject whose films tend to receive very little besides unqualified praise. Frederick Wiseman is no sacred cow, by any means. But his direct cinema method seems to confound most critical discourse. This is partly because Wiseman is so skilled at covering his tracks, making it nearly impossible for a viewer to know what aspects of the documentary may have been partly provoked by Wiseman's own presence. But also, even some of the most astute critics seem willing to sit back and let Wiseman drive, taking his carefully articulated non-style as if it were the Last True Window on the World.
As an artist, Kelly finds something else in Wiseman, and shows us his research with Service of the Goods, a short experimental documentary (?) in which Kelly restages key moments from seven classic Wiseman films. For several extra layers of distanciation, to say nothing of the possible preservation of identity (or the gentle mocking of said concern), each participant wears a long white sheet with eye-holes cut out. So Kelly uses these sad looking "ghosts" to create bustling scenes of bureaucracy, or the kind but unflappable confrontations with hand-tied bureaucrats. As we watch clusters of these ghosts shuffle around what appears to be a cheap looking public school classroom, we begin to see and hear the Wiseman material: scenes from Titicut Follies (in particular the Vladimir episode), High School, and Hospital. Despite the cheap get-ups, there is nothing ironic about Service. By removing the individual traits of those "characters" who participated in the Wiseman docs -- their irreducible singularity in the face of impersonal bureaucracy being Wiseman's grand topic -- Kelly shows us things we are usually too sutured into docu-realism to see. There are patterns of bodily proximics that Wiseman favors, particularly agitated groups and clusters from which an individual is eventually singled out. We see the performers "doing Wiseman" and notice recursive gestures and cadences, things that Wiseman the editor clearly pulls from the material and builds upon. Service of the Goods is a great film that demonstrates that cinema itself has its own strain of bureaucratic maneuvers and reflex positions. Once we step back and begin thinking systematically, reality is a highly structured affair.
A poignant character study nearly tanked by a premise so idiotic it wouldn't pass muster on "Three's Company," Enough Said proves once again that Holofcener is an incredibly talented auteur who somehow cannot get out of her own way. When a middle-aged masseur (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets a guy at a party (James Gandolfini) and starts going out with him, only to find that he is the ex-husband of one of her clients (Catherine Keener), you have enough for an awkward romantic dramedy. As Keener's character bitches about all the annoying things Gandolfini did when they were married, Louis-Dreyfus starts to notice them in their fledgling relationship and wonder if she's made a mistake. Point being, someone's subjective view of a human being cannot help influence our own opinion in some way, even when we find their reading flawed or hopelessly tendentious. But then, once our protagonist discovers the connection between boyfriend and client / friend, she goes to preposterous lengths to conceal it. Hijinx ensue. Stupid, tedious hijinx.
If communication is merely a finite set of responses to linguistic cues, then so-called artificial intelligence will not only render human interaction redundant; it will eliminate the inherent friction that generates incongruities in personal interactions, those that produce such anomalies as ambiguities and feelings. The path that Jonze displays in Her is a kind of reductio ad absurdum presented as a logical consequence -- your computer, as a marketed, focus-grouped product, will know precisely how to talk to you, and will therefore become an ideal lover. This is compelling as far as it goes, but Jonze suffers from a lack of imagination when it comes to any real consequences from this turn of events. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn't just discover that "his" OS (Scarlett Johansson) has been stepping out (or across?) on him, playing the field as only a networked cyber-entity can. ("She" can conduct hundreds of conversations simultaneously, so her infidelity is exponential, a sign of her superiority as a being.) He should (but does not, exactly) recognize that this simultaneous multi-partnering (which "Samantha" hides from Theodore) implies that he is in no way unique. However Samantha is programmed to meet his needs, those needs are virtually identical to thousands of others. If Her had been honest about its premise (rather than melancholic bordering on twee), Theodore would have taken his own system offline, if you catch my drift.
Very strange: while there was nothing particularly valedictory about Ruiz's last film, it also fit the bill quite well because, in a way, Ruiz had been making "final films" for the last ten to fifteen years of his career. That's to say, all of them engaged with questions of mortality, and most of them were summative, treating his directorial concerns not as a set of index cards to rifle through but as a massive and complete intellectual apparatus. He chose to wield it in full.
One of Liotta's stealthy miniatures. A look at a Colorado street in a small mountain resort village, a place that has worked to maintain (or adopt) an Old West ambiance. The camera focuses on a real estate office, and we're reminded that everything's for sale, the range is closed, and the West, depending on which side you were on, was "won."
Here's a movie that, in its own bland way, actually accomplishes something rather unique. How can a film so disingenuous be so deadly dull at the same time? That's to say, when virtually every event depicted in Saving Mr. Banks is a distortion of a woman's real life story, why does the end product elicit more shrug than ire? This could be due to "manipulation fatigue," the fact that Mr. Banks is yet another slab of American-pie gosh-darn nostalgia from the Walt Disney Company. But when you realize that the film is fundamentally an object of self-reverence, the tale of how crafty old Walt (Tom Hanks) got that irritating old prig (Emma Thompson) to sign over the rights to Mary Poppins so that Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke could sparkle the eyes of generations to come. And so, John Lee Hancock, the blandest director alive, provides us with Oscar-winning talent bring to life a tale more suited to DVD liner copy. My somewhat less curmudgeonly Nashville Scene review.