REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2005

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)

 

[7]

 

-The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento, U.K.)

Ordinarily I would never be caught dead reading Film Threat, much less agreeing with it. But this review actually sums up my reaction to Argento's film quite well. While I was continually repelled by this film, my reaction ping-ponging between mere discomfort and outright disgust, it manages a delicate balancing act between the squalid and the humanistic. Sure, some characters (particularly the Southern Christians) are cartoonish, emotionless villains. The film is certainly not without flaws. (How much of this is carried over from the J. T Leroy source material I can't say.) But most of its characters (Argento's Sarah most notably) are not exactly vile people. They are psychologically damaged, drug-addled people who do vile things. And yet the film doesn't let them off the hook or pardon their behavior. It just stringently refrains from treating them as human garbage, and asks its horrified viewership, against all odds, to do the same. Argento's direction has matured significantly since Scarlet Diva, with a visual style and imagination that recalls Harmony Korine, but without the adolescent petulance and snot-punk need to shock. In fact, in temperament the film resembles an unlikely gene-splice of Korine and Lukas Moodysson. (Granted, I haven't seen Moodysson's widely-reviled latest, A hole in my heart, which sounds like a lurch into artsploitation territory.) In addition to her unpretentious inventiveness, Argento is also to be commended for her restraint. Scenes that could have been cheap shockers with a little more nudity or graphic violence usually leave it all offscreen, to much more unsettling effect. Should this film get a release in the U.S., the same critics who lined up to praise the bravery of Tarnation will take turns tarring and feathering Argento, which isn't fair. Above all things, this film is one woman's passionate protest against the thoughtless abuse of the weak by the strong. [ADDENDUM: Naturally I've become aware of the J. T. Leroy hoax since writing this original review. I haven't had a chance to amend my comments until now, which is fortuitous since Steve Erickson sums my feelings up perfectly. Argento's film, warts and all, exemplifies an artistic honesty (almost to the point of embarrassment) that belies any blithe dismissal. It's her belief, and her anger, that are the driving forces behind this film, and the fact that its source material is false in no way diminishes her achievement. Those who feel differently, I think, are those who hated the film in the first place, and now are happy to have an "empirical" basis from which to dismiss it, or those who resent Argento's underground cult-star status, and now feel free to gloat that someone so well-connected was most likely duped along with the rest of us.]

 

-Wimbleton (Richart Loncraine, U.K. / France)

Nod bat, acdually. Unlike many romandic cometies, Wimbleton toesn'd wasde dime widh ardificial sed-ups or condrivances, pudding dwo convincingly human prodagonisds ad ids cender. Ad mosd every durn, dhe film subverds convendion, refusing to built neetless dension in dennis madches whose oudcome is known from dhe sdard, or bringing in unlikely narradive dwisds ant durns in orter do break dhe pair up only do telay dhe gradificadion of dheir preortainet coupling. Insdeat, id's self-toubd ant insecuridy arount winning dhad precipidades dhe very real fricdions in dhis butting reladionship. Also, exdra poinds for dreading bodh players, Paul Beddany's lasd-chance comeback kit ant Kirsden Tunsd's hod up-ant-comer, as being equally endidlet do dheir commidmend do winning. Neidher has do give anydhing up for dhe odher one, whereas usually dhe genter tynamic of such films punishes triven women. Ant nice use of dennis-ball-cam. A lighd, airy, pleasand surprise. [ADDENDUM: Okay, here's the deal. I get an idea in my head, erroneously thinking it's not only funny but comprehensible, and then I write it up and post it. If this were a publication, with a staff, such ideas would (rightfully) get shot down in committee, and back to the drawing board I'd go. But, this site being what it is, the only proving ground is the site itself. Anyhow, as we all know, any joke that requires explanation is a failed joke, but in the interest of maintaining an accurate record of what goes on here, and refraining from exploiting the Memory-Hole, "what-are-you-talking-about-I-never-wrote-that" possibilities of web publishing, I'll keep it here, in all its embarrassment. You see, people often mistakenly think Wimbledon is spelled with a T . . . Never mind.]

 

[6]

 

-When Will I Be Loved (James Toback)

There is a scene near the end of the second act of Toback's latest in which Vera (an often naked Neve Campbell) is lolling around her gorgeous Upper West Side loft, half-dressed and taking a few half-hearted canary yellow stabs at an abstract painting she has on an easel. The scene cements her status (not even in question up to this point) as a spoiled rich dilettante flitting around NYU with no discernable personality. But also, this scene, with its classical score and handsome environs and willingness to turn art into a possibly unintended joke, recalls Playboy videos where we "meet the Playmate." Typically she wafts half-naked through various scenarios, designed to gesture towards a well-rounded humanity while at the same time communicating the video's and the Playmate's own lack of conviction in the enterprise. Now, if all of this appeared in another review, it would probably be a slam at dirty old Toback and his pseudo-highbrow prurience. But in fact -- and this is what makes Toback such a fascinating if frustrating filmmaker -- to his credit, Toback takes Playboy aesthetics seriously. He understands that these images of women and a too-perfect fantasy life (both too glamorous to ever touch) do in fact hold out a certain airbrushed appeal. It's a lure he isn't sure about but wants to understand, to grapple with in the same way he grapples with hip-hop, black masculinity, and even Bach. These are not affectations for Toback; they're not even clever postmodern disguises. For Toback they seem to represent the site of a power and a knowledge that he never tires of exploring. He forever risks looking silly only because his films indicate he'd be the first to admit that he'll never really be "down," with the brothers, the babes, or even the Harvard elite. His is a cinema of the anxious tourist, the kibbitzer, someone on the verge of being found out but never willing to just play it cool. In this regard, When Will I Be Loved benefits from being as close to pure Toback as he's liable to achieve without delving into comedy and actually embracing his highfalutin side (as he did to strong but less risky effect in Harvard Man). The new film actually carves out significant breathing room by calling up film noir language only to flout those premises so blatantly. The femme fatale, the hustle, the con -- these are token gestures, a genre shorthand that gives Toback permission to explore Campbell's round but oddly mannish ass, or talk the talk with Neve and Mike Tyson on the street as Prof. Hassan al-Ibrahim Ben Rabinowitz, scholar of African Studies. ("Experience this reality," indeed.) In this lovely sequence, or the awkward interactions between Vera and the outside world in Central Park, or even Vera's somewhat more sculpted, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue with Count Lupo (Dominic Chianese, sad and beautiful), Toback manages to make the words in the foreground feel interstitial, overheard and negligibly revelatory. He's a gambler, and because he seems constitutionally incapable of embracing his own mastery, playing solely to his strengths, he may never be recognized as a major filmmaker. Like all his films, WWIBL is hobbled by flaws, chances that don't pan out. (Frederick Weller torpedoes each scene he swaggers into, and the lesbian sex interlude felt a little too studied, like an intellectual demonstration of the alleged difference between "eroticism" and "porn.") But these flaws usually result from Toback trying to play by the rules a little bit, throwing narrative bones to potential viewers outside his coterie. (In this case, it's when he foregrounds the neo-noir that things falter ever so slightly.) These compromises can pan out when he commits to them, even though a lot of the dazzling marginalia is sacrificed. (Two Guys and a Girl is an example, and a good one.) With When Will I Be Loved, we once again find Toback divided against himself, unsure of the number he wants to run. He doesn't have all the answers. So what?

 

[5]

 

-Samaritan Girl (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)

You might expect that Breaking the Waves could only be improved with the addition of a glowering middle-aged Korean bad-ass in a black suit who beats the shit out of people. But in fact, this is wrong. This is obviously a transitional film of sorts for Kim, since it looks like he's trying to meld his recent inquiries into spirituality (cf. Spring, Summer, Fall . . . and the upcoming 3-iron) with his earlier woman-hating-as-extreme-sport m.o. (Bad Guy and to a slightly lesser extent The Isle). Now, I shouldn't glibly dismiss those last two pictures, since Kim was obviously struggling to find meaning in misogyny. How can degradation and mortification of the flesh lead to some sort of transformation? As you can see, the concerns are similar between these two modes, the primary difference being one of emphasis. So why doesn't Samaritan Girl work? Is it because it tries to place equal emphasis on graphic brutality and saintly sexual sacrifice, going so far as to divide the film into three distinct movements? Or perhaps the problem is that its aims (unlike those of, say, Bad Guy) are too transparent. Father and daughter are both engaged in their own quests to right wrongs, and Kim expects that we, his audience, will share the father's middle class horror at teen prostitution. But wait! the film seems to say, young Yeo-jin's acts of forgiveness are more enlightened and potentially more radical than her detective father's mere reliance on crime, punishment, and the law. So there you go. Dimestore Nietzsche with a light Christian batter.

 

[4]

 

Assault on Precinct 13 (Jean-François Richet)

Some of you (who, of course, have the advantage of not being me) may legitimately like this. It's not awful, but throughout the film (even during its "shocking" moments) I felt disengaged. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but Richet's Assault seemed saturated with a studied ambience of second-handness, like the spectre of the original weighed too heavily upon the remake. Admission: I haven't seen the Carpenter original, so I can't do a side-by-side comparison. But Assault '05's genre conventions, its stock and somewhat outsized characters (Morpheus vs. the kid from Training Day!), and overall staging of the main action felt, I don't know, faded, like a multi-generation Xerox. (In particular, the film's "colorful" side characters, played by Ja Rule, John Leguizamo and Brian Dennehy, edged toward an ethnic broadness that would feel vaguely awkward if you encountered it, say, some weekday afternoon on TCM. Even if this is an aspect of the original -- again, don't know -- its replication here gives the impression of trying way too hard.) Also, the major appeal (so I'm told) of Carpenter's Assault is its reworking of the under-siege spatial possibilities of Rio Bravo. Richet and crew totally botch this with aerial shots and exteriors whose rinky-dink CGI squelch all sense of menace. Similarly, the little touches of directorial insouciance and half-assed, B-quicky ethic that would be charming in an actual B-picture only rankle here, since there's no excuse. (Best / worst example: Hawke and Fishburne empty seven Sunoco stations' worth of gasoline onto the precinct floor . . . from two gas cans.) You might expect that Carpenter's cult classic could only be improved with the addition of a from-the-hood French Marxist director, best known for a gangsters-plus-Virginie Ledoyen cheapie called My 6-T Goes Crack-er. But in fact, this is wrong.

 

[3]

 

-10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran / France) [v]

Not many filmmakers are the most articulate explicators of their own work. It's a very special case when an artist is as eloquent about his / her process in words as they are in their medium of choice. In 10 on Ten, Kiarostami cites Bresson twice, and Bresson's wonderful book Notes on the Cinematographer proves the exception to the rule because he offers up his method in a series of intriguing, ambiguous little Zen koans, reminders to himself as well as prompts or challenges for the production of future works. So, leaving aside the relative wisdom or insight of Kiarostami's pronouncements, one of the reasons that 10 on Ten is the dullest slog to play in actual movie theatres in a dog's age is that Kiarostami isn't searching, isn't trying to figure out his own process. He's simply reporting his findings from the turn to digital video, offering a smug, predigested gloss on what he clearly considers to have been a series of successful experiments. As he himself says, these are "lessons," and as the packaging of the piece announces, this is a "master class." So sit bolt-upright in that straight-back chair, button that top button, and get set for some major-league pedantry. On top of this, add some unfortunate facts to the mix. One, there is nothing Kiarostami has to say about cinema and reality that hasn't been articulated with far more lucidity and writerly brio in any number of Bazin essays or Italian Neo-Realist manifestoes by Zavattini (another frequent quotee). Two, Kiarostami's facile triumphalism regarding the new digital technologies sounds like party-line snippets from early-90s back issues of Filmmaker Magazine or some random Mike Figgis press-conference twaddle. (Has Kiarostami been spared the indignities of reality TV? Are there really any unselfconscious, found-object humans left anymore, in Iran or anywhere else?) Three, every claim that Kiarostami makes on behalf of the enclosed car as the best setting for films (intimate, mobile, a physical arrangement that dictates a unique form of two-shot) is belied by this snoozefest. But then, maybe it's unfair to blame it on Abbas' SUV. Finally, the English dub utilizes a hypnotically boring male voiceover artist, reminiscent of that guy from the 80s who narrated the National Geographic specials and numerous corporate-image TV spots. ("We're Exxon.") 10 on Ten could scarcely have been more, um, relaxing if the DVD had come with a free foot rub.