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)




-The Duchess of Langeais [Ne touchez pas la hache] (Jacques Rivette, France / Italy)

At the risk of stating the obvious to the point of appearing obtuse, Rivette's films have always been primarily about performance. Here, courtship, flirting, and the ironclad strictures of upper-class manners essentially turn a love affair into a stage, a contest of wills between the titular Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and General Armand Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu). The trouble is, the General isn't performing, at least not at first. The Duchess of Langeais finds Rivette gently twisting the prism, locating yet another triumphant permutation within his master template. His deft, flexible adaptation of Balzac's story has grounded his phenomenological explorations in human behavior and the self-conscious presentation of self, within a specific diegetic context that provides heightened emotional stakes, but without compromising his customary theoretical rigor. In this case, even more than the mere thrusts and parries of a chaste love affair, Rivette is staging a confrontation between the late Victorian and the proto-Modern sensibilities. In Raymond Williams' terms, we could call the Duchess' coquettish demeanor "dominant," Armandl's gruff, straightforward ardor "emergent," in that the rule-governed high society the Duchess represents was increasingly effete and on the wane. Rather than demarcate this shift politically, Rivette inscribes it upon his frustrated lovers' bodies, and at a precise halfway pivot point, the balance of power is irrevocably shifted. This shift displays the rise of middle-class values over Old World courtly ritual, as well as the evacuation of the slender but effective modes of power that women could wield within that structure. Patriarchal prerogative no longer needed to hide behind chivalry codes. But Rivette brilliantly exhibits these cataclysmic rifts in both history and desire as coups de théâtre, in that Armand can only attain power when he stops being sincere and finds his own proper "actorly" mode. At this point, the Duchess' defenses are shattered. In a paradoxical courtship structure wherein romantic ardor is expressed most extravagantly through its ironic presentation, the Duchess is forced to bow to Armand, the better thespian, whose subsequent callousness only further validates his irresistible impenetrability. In the end, the Duchess's sole Knight's Move is the cloister, the inviolable will made brick and stone. (At the risk of putting too fine a psychoanalytic point on it, the [short-]circuit of desire Rivette traces through Balzac is identical to that of Lacan's objet petit a, that indivisible remainder that keeps seeping out from behind the edges of the masks of social comportment.) Rivette's use of cinematic space to unfurl long, scroll-like swaths of unbroken mise-en-scene again point to the scene of desire as a theatrical space, such that when Rivette does cut, or when William Lubtchansky does abruptly stop moving his camera, it represents a harsh punctuation, as though just for a second the lovers suddenly encountered one another in a frighteninglyu nmediated way, just prior to their continued retreat into total performance. [NOTE: I discuss The Duchess of Langeais a bit more below in my review of The Last Mistress, and will be writing a longer review of the film for an upcoming issue of Cineaste. When it appears, I will link to it here.]


-Import Export (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

Although the formal, internal merits of Import Export, as both a piece of cinema and a social intervention, are numerous and will receive ample attention from me below, I cannot separate my positive reaction to this film from my predominantly negative responses to the two earlier Seidl films I've seen, his 2001 feature debut Dog Days and his 2003 documentary Jesus, You Know. Both of those films were undeniably accomplished, demonstrating a keen compositional eye and a structural rigor worthy of the Austrian tradition, from Schoenberg and Loos to Kubelka and Haneke. And both films displayed a widespread, modular approach to social engagement, choosing to cast a wide net over human relations and draw careful parallels and conjunctions rather than merely explore psychologically-based character logic. But to my eyes, both films also exhibited stark, needless cruelty. Seidl seemed to use his stylisitc rigor to pin subjects to the screen like still-wriggling insects on a display board. Dog Days reveled in sexual degradation and wanton abuse of the mentally ill, while Jesus, You Know, despite early promise, devolved into a collection of some of Austria's most pathetic worshippers, captured in moments of such excruciating vulnerability that it was hard to fathom what if anything Seidl expected us to learn about the people involved, or human nature more generally. Instead, both films always pointed back to the man behind the camera, his apparent delight in applying such formalist rectitude to an endless wallow in the muck. In fact, these two Seidl films reminded me of the work of the late avant-gardist Kurt Kren, except in reverse. Kren filmed (rather silly) Viennese "Actionist" performances of men smearing naked women with shit-like chocolate and feathers, and then subverted the material through meticulous mathematical editing. By contrast, Seidl seemed to start out with a rather tight-assed, constricted view of the world and then slid the abject inside, practically chiding it for failing to measure up.


Import Export simultaneously represents a simplification of Seidl's means and a radical leap forward. The title announces exactly what the film will show you: two opposing movements, each defining the other dialectically. The "import" is Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a nurse from the Ukraine who leaves her child and comes to Austria in search of better-paying work. After a cruel false-start as a live-in domestic, she ends up a cleaning woman in what appears to be a state-run nursing home. (God help us if the "care" on display is what money buys you. In fact, Seidl's depiction is, sadly, a lot like Roy Andersson's.) The "export" is Pauli (Paul Hoffmann), a young fuck-up who can't cut it as a security guard. (A group of his peers assault him in a parking garage, perhaps resenting his newly-minted semi-authority status.) Pauli teams up with his stepfather (Michael Thomas) and heads to the Ukraine to assist with the delivery of some videogame terminals. The two individuals never meet, of course; the film cross-cuts between their individual journeys and the social circumstances surrounding them. That's it. What's remarkable about Seidl's film is that this minimal, A-roll / B-roll schema permits him to bring his documentary training and sociological insight to bear in a fictional context without the formalist aggression or supercilious gamesmanship of Dog Days. Instead, Seidl's camera (with the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Ed Lachman) adopts wide, low-angle shots of stark Ukrainian tenements, factory blocks, or hospital corridors with the objective, symmetrical eye of Edward Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky. In fact, Import Export always privileges the open, static documentary view, one only just slightly more organized by human agency than a blank-eyed surveillance image. He then orchestrates the fictional action through these slabs of reality, lending uninflected performances (in Rak's case) or twitchy hysteria (as per Hoffmann) the quality of a demonstration, not a replica of human behavior but a model for its examination in context. The director brings the Foucaultian intelligence of Frederick Wiseman together with a highly deliberate, discomfitingly legible "scopic regime," paradoxically employing artifice in order to allow power to practically write itself into the image.


One of the most obvious conclusions at which Seidl arrives is that the dialectic isn't stable, or anything close to evenly matched. Gender is a major factor. Olga is blonde, willowy, awkward and deferential, and so at times she will be treated as a prized object, as when one of the dying patients in the nursing home offers to marry her to give her Austrian citizenship. But she is always treated as an object nonetheless. Pauli on the other hand, powerless though he may be, will always have a spastic aggression at his disposal, and this can at least temporarily throw danger out of his immediate orbit. Olga, despite her intelligence, can only affect stoicism as a defense. But apart from any individual characteristics, of course, Like Wiseman, Seidl is primarily concerned with how institutional structures define those trapped within them, and how human beings, while not helpless, are hopelessly constrained. Pauli's semi-Oedipal, class-bound inability to "act like a man," whatever that might mean, certainly shows this, but Olga's experience, naturally, highlights it all the more. The Ukrainian carries this stricture on her body far more than the Western European. She wants to care for the patients but, as a maid, isn't allowed to touch them. She's briefly hired as a live online sex worker, but is tripped up by her inability to master the German phrase for every conceivable perverted act. ("I said, stick your finger in your asshole!") And, most importantly, she and her labor power are the circulating commodity, but her child cannot circulate along with her.


But perhaps even more important than the plight of these two (fictional) individuals, and anything they might represent, is all the actual life and death that engulfs them. The nursing home scenes, in particular, have drawn fire for the fact that Seidl is showing us actual Austrians in substandard elder care, many of them in states of dementia so advanced as to preclude their informed consent. (Again, Wiseman is a key touchstone here; his first film, Titicut Follies, is an obvious inspiration.) Had these scenes, which are indeed horrifying, appeared in the earlier Seidl films, I might have balked at their alleged callousness as well. But in the context of Import Export, Seidl is doing something quite different. He is depicting inhumane conditions with a palpable tenderness for those trapped within them. Yes, the camera is watching death at work. But it is also capturing an artist's rage and, in certain moments, even brief moments of the victims' rebellions against their degradation. It may well be too late for these bed-soiled pensioners who, Seidl dares us to consider, may be dead even as the film unspools before us. But there's still hope for the Olgas and Paulis of the world, if, for starters, we can bear not to look away.


-The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China / Hong Kong)

One of the wonderful things about Jiang Wen's films, formally and intellectually, is that they treat history as a kind of beehive, skittering with a productive but manic energy that we in the present have to struggle to keep up with. It goes without saying that this approach runs counter to the more conventional methods of displaying the past through cinema, which typically have more in common with the wax museum than the funhouse, and which implicitly stoke a conspiratorial pleasure through film and viewer's presumed mastery over the decaying past. In many ways, The Sun Also Rises is an expansion of procedures already at work in Jiang's controversial second film, Devils on the Doorstep, a fierce, caffeinated black and white war satire that cast the Sino-Japanese War as hinterland carnivale. (Now that it can be compared to Ang Lee's excruciatingly tasteful treatment of the topic in Lust, Caution, Devils looks even more insane, like a Saint Vitus' dance to Lee's rigor mortis.) Jiang's third film is initially shocking because it applies much the same jarring visual style -- oblique angles, funky, disjointed editing, crisp focus and exceptionally dense use of lights and darks -- but introduces a highly charged color palate. Although the tonal ranges are extreme and as such never become normal to the eye, Jiang has flawlessly incorporated them into the overall tapestry of his uniquely expressive mise-en-scène. If some critics ended up citing Kusturica as a touchstone for The Sun Also Rises, a comparison which doesn't really hold (Jiang is the more careful materialist, injecting dabs of magic-realism into otherwise realistically depicted lives), they can be forgiven for the inaccuracy; no one else is making films like this, and Jiang's vision of Chinese history is an implicit rebuke to the hands-off Bazinian master-shot school. Jiang, an artist who came of age just as the Cultural Revolution was winding down, seems intent on retaining whatever may have been of value in post-Maoist Chinese thinking. His films display a concern with historical dialectics in particular, and the axiom that reality (to say nothing of our representations of it) is a deliberate human product and as such, more artifice, not less, will reveal the true nature of things.


The Sun Also Rises is comprised of three interconnected stories from the late Cultural Revolution period (Cristian Mungiu might have called them "tales from the golden age"), and a final sequence twenty years prior. Lest one's shoulders tense at the very thought of such a structure, it seems that Jiang is not overly concerned with whether one links the tales. The first two look entirely independent, while at the very start of the third the connections are immediately obvious, so there is no gamesmanship at work. While the details of the individual stories entail a degree of whimsy (the first has a young man trying to control his mother's madness, which takes the form of wrongheaded civil improvement projects) or tragicomedy (Anthony Wong plays a schoolteacher whose life is ruined when he's falsely accused of groping a woman doctor at the movies, a lie perpetrated by a married colleague to cover up his own affair with the doctor), Jiang's real interest is in social dynamics, and particularly how the isolation of outcasts and the destruction of lives had become so wanton and commonplace under Mao that any real sense of disruption by individual tragedy had been all but lost. Two of the tales end in suicide, one ends in murder, and the final sequence, which sets the others in motion, is a birth which, in its own way, speaks to a loss, since the young mother must give birth alone on a train after her abandonment (or the death -- news she doesn't believe) by the child's Soviet father. Although Jiang does not rub our noses in his symbolism, he's asking us to reconsider Chinese Communism and its hysterical excesses as the product of a kind of incestuous isolation, an insularity that generates its own circular answers to questions it cannot face. The third segment, which ties city and countryside together, focuses on Tang, a sent-down urban teacher (Jiang), the same one who had the affair with the doctor. He and his wife (Wei Kong) must report to the Team Leader (Jaycee Chen), the son from the first segment. Once the young peasant and the middle-aged wife have had an affair and Tang exacts revenge, we see that the Maoist fetish for the great unwashed has resulted in a sort of virtual incest (the wife and the boy's mother are definitively doubled in the final sequence), and the impotent or perverse intellectual regains his virility, but not in the manner intended. So yeah, now that I think about it, forget Kusturica. In terms of his uncanny ability to articulate the hidden libidinal stakes within overtly political scenarios, Jiang is actually a rather direct heir to the great Italian masters, Bertolucci and especially Fellini.


There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Did anyone really expect Anderson to deliver the best Stanley Kubrick film of 2007? If I have any niggling doubts or ambivalences about There Will Be Blood, a film that spreads its epic mastery across the screen as effortlessly as most of us mere mortals smear warm butter over toast, they pertain to this radical shift in Anderson's filmmaking. Has he achieved a creative breakthrough? Or has the nature of the project, an Upton Sinclair adaptation steered through an inhospitable landscape by Daniel Day-Lewis (delivering just the sort of performance people think of when trotting out "tour de force"), allowed the director to lose himself in historical and mythic processes larger than himself? Sure, it "works," no question. But apart from "I drink your milkshake," where's the quirk? Nothing like the "Wise Up" sing-along or the magical harmonium is anywhere in sight, and no, such fanciful touches would not have served this story in any way. Still, I'm always a bit nervous when talented, idiosyncratic filmmakers shed their signature affectations only to find themselves lauded for having "matured." (Cf. The Sweet Hereafter, Caché, every third Spike Lee joint.) What's more, stylistically and thematically There Will Be Blood so blatantly (and successfully) harkens back to certain titans of American cinema that it seems rather premature to assume that Anderson has arrived at a new style per se. That is, the grand gestures of Blood's approach are so inseparable from the tale of capitalist accumulation it conveys that we can't rule out deliberate postmodern pastiche as a narrative strategy. Anderson draws on Kubrick and Welles most clearly; some have identified strains of Malick, but Anderson's engagement with the primordial materiality of the earth is anything but mystical here. It is brute, obstinate, a challenge to the will, but unlike Malick's Heideggerian naturalism, There Will Be Blood never once presents the earth in an unmediated state. It is always already owned, a sullied, for-money proposition. At any rate, Anderson may well be (I might go so far as to say probably is) donning the stylistic masks of his forebears, implicitly telling a tale of modernity and, running on a parallel track (and with apologies to Hong Sang-soo), a tale of cinema. Kent Jones's essay in Film Comment has already pointed out that the historical period covered by (in?) Blood, 1898 - 1926, is roughly the same as the beginning and end of the silent film era. Taken together with the film's astonishing delay of the introduction of speech, the instant emotional rupture Daniel Plainview (Lewis) feels toward his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) once the gusher accident renders him deaf, and the way in which Plainview's antipathy toward Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is exacerbated by observing the power of his sermon, with its snake-oil verbosity, it's hard not to think that Anderson is exploring the possibilities of word vs. deed, silence vs. speech, intersubjectivity vs. isolation. All this is admirably plain to see. There Will Be Blood is, like Plainview, paradoxically both endlessly complicated and incredibly transparent. It has ulterior motives, but it's plainspoken, like an oilman. You can parse it, but there's almost no need, because the dialectics that drive it -- human beings against the unforgiving earth; capitalism vs. religion as two equally pernicious forms of charlatanry; nation-building vs. paternal nurturance -- are right there for all to see. And yet, just as Anderson is able bite Citizen Kane and somehow, by God, totally pull it off, There Will Be Blood is able to lay its cards on the table without seeming artless or didactic. And perhaps this is Anderson, once again, finding a style that is perfectly apposite to his subject matter. Like Plainview himself, the director seeks currency in the American landscape. Only, Anderson's stock in trade is mythic meaning. He surveys the territory, finds it, extracts it arduously from the ground, brings it to market, and that's that. No fuss, no haggling over polysemy or endless semiosis. The film basically gives itself over to one basic set of interpretations, yet feels no less rich for that singlemindedness. The going rate is a one-to-one equivalent, and we marvel.




-Laaga Chunari Mein Daag: Journey of a Woman (Pradeep Sarkar, India)

Oh, those scalawags at Yash Raj Productions! Who else would ever think to remake Ritwik Ghatak's The Cloud-Capped Star with a happy ending? Okay, that's not precisely what's going on here, but as with Ritwik's masterpiece, LCMD is a story about a dutiful daughter (Vibha, played by luscious superstar Rani Mukheree) who sacrifices pretty much every scrap of selfhood in service to her family. This being Bollywood in the 00s, however, there is redemption and reconciliation. Whereas Ritwik's Nita has a brother who, in the end, thanked her for her efforts by calling her, "idiot," Sarkar and his team from the Yash Chopra stable outfit Vibha with an altogether more sympathetic younger sibling, Chutki (Konkona Sensharma), who singlehandedly lifts Vibha out her shame. Oh, and did I mention, Vibha went to Mumbai to try to get work on a film crew, was summarily dismissed from several jobs due to her lack of experience and poor command of English, and then essentially gets tricked into becoming a high-class call girl? Uh, yeah. But here's the thing: gotta give props to this all-pro team for taking material so utterly preposterous and putting it over not only with effortless aplomb, but with a sincerity that (yes, dear reader) had your hardened Hack wiping away tears by the preordained conclusion. As for the gender politics, it's muddled, to say the least. Vibha (who becomes Natasha in her "Mumbai's Favorite High-Waisted Escort" guise) essentially goes to the big city to spite her father (Bollywood axiom Anupam Kher), a retired bureaucrat fallen on hard times because apparently he was the only one not on the take. Having only two daughters, Daddy claims that if he'd had a son, life would have been better, so Vibha is determined to go and be that "son." Once the cash starts flowing back home, no one seems to care how it got there; at first only the mother (Jaya Bhaduri) knows of her eldest's secret life. Is this a warped, postponement tale of female self-determination? LCMD seems to want to play it that way, even though Vibha the bumpkin is clearly victimized and only afterward chooses to "own" her victimhood. What's more, both sisters marry up, effectively giving Daddy the sons-in-law and stature mere daughters couldn't provide. So, here we have a typical Bollywood entertainment, rather Janus-faced politically, but compellingly illegible. After all, the center of the secondary story is an ad campaign aimed at sussing out who exactly is the modern Indian woman. Laaga Chunari Mein Daag is a fascinating symptom of that obviously unsettled question, but no less affecting for that confusion.


-The Last Mistress [Une vieille maîtresse] (Catherine Breillat, France / Italy)

Now that Rivette's Duchess of Langeais is entering commercial release, a number of commentators are going public with what at the time was a widespread complaint (and, in my opinion, a justified one). Why, exactly, wasn't Rivette's film in the 2007 New York Film Festival? Was it really considered inferior to, say, that made-for-HBO Don Rickles special? But now, I think I might hazard a guess. Obviously, due to internal politics and whatnot, the FSLC couldn't jampack the slate with IFC releases, and the Hou, Van Sant, and Mungiu were pretty much locked in. But the Breillat film was the wild card, and even if it hadn't been carried by the same distributor as the Rivette (holy shit, this company has exquisite taste), it would have been a tad . . . awkward for both films to appear in the same small showcase. In a weird way, they're almost the same film, with Breillat, naturally, turning in the distaff version.


Now, of course, they aren't the same. Temperamentally, Balzac is, to say the least, a very different author than Barbey d'Aurevilly, whose novel Breillat adapted, although it should be noted that the echt-realist and the Romantic were writing the works in question only fifteen years apart. And I don't want to take the comparison very far, for fear of doing disservice to Breillat's extremely intelligent, skillful film, which merits consideration in its own right, which it will promptly receive below. But my main point is this -- both films are chiefly about singular figures out of time, beacons of a kind of rootless modernity who are not properly inculcated into the shallow rites of society and manners which, in both films, are the markers of an aristocracy on the wane. Rivette's Armand, a conquering General, is a man of action who returns to the world to find his desires unexpectedly stirred, but he also lands up in a foreign universe of posing, gamesmanship, and social theatre -- in short, inside a Rivette film. But naturally, when Breillat takes up a similar mien, gender is front and center. If The Last Mistress has won the director some new fans, it's most likely because this film finds Breillat in a pensive, nearly academic mode, bringing out certain latent aspects of the source material through staging and performance decisions, resulting in a film which has more in common, oddly, with a work like Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley than her own gonzo-guerrilla-girl efforts such as Anatomy of Hell. (Some would no doubt find Last Mistress's unadorned lighting schemes and functional mise-en-scène prosaic in comparison to the Ferran, but to me Breillat's plainspoken approach trumps Chatterley's tentative landscape studies and fashionable semi-spiritualism.)


On paper, the textual "work" of The Last Mistress borders on the comically blatant: stick Asia Argento in the mid-19th century and watch her bluster about like a she-bull in history's proverbial china shop. ("She cusses! She snarls! She smokes cigars!") But, as with the Rivette film, The Last Mistress is about a kind of time lag, one that we the audience are asked not to judge so much as observe. This isn't a "presentist" film that mocks the manners of an earlier time, but it is an examination of Argento's half-Spanish, half-Moor ("ugly mutt") courtesan Vellini as a figure who doesn't fit, in precisely the ways that any halfway modern woman wouldn't fit if cruelly teleported into the rule-bound, backbiting world of the late French aristocracy. What's more, Breillat (again, like Rivette) isn't judging or condemning the figures around Vellini per se (although their casual sexism and fetishization of her uncouth ways is rather disgusting), but she does make it clear that they are, from a materialist standpoint, on the "wrong side of history." This is a class on the decline, and the fact that Vellini, while hardly triumphant, is capable of sabotaging the marriage of her social-climber lover Ryno (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to the appropriately chaste Hermangarde (Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida), demonstrates the inexorable pull of her vulgarity, a pull that will ultimately force "the gutter" and "the beautiful people" to meet in the middle (class). The fact that Argento is playing virtually the same character she played in Coppola's Marie Antoinette, with an almost exact difference of one hundred years, is suggestive, even if it's most likely coincidental. Certainly not coincidental, and an obvious dig at Our Present Moment on Breillat's part, is the proud declaration by the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute) in reply to a ribald detail in the story of Ryno and Vellini: "My child, we weren't as narrow-minded in the 18th century as in this one. And believe me, I have remained ferociously 18th century!" And, luckily, Breillat has remained ferociously in the 20th.


-Mad Detective (Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, Hong Kong)

He's the Rapper, I'm the DJ -- To has been such a force to be reckoned with lately, you figure that if he's teaming up with Wai again at this point he's probably trying something a bit different. The two men haven't co-directed since 2003, when they capped a run of early-00s winners with the balls-out Andy Lau costumer Running On Karma. Their collaborations don't exactly lack seriousness per se, but as compared to To's solo work, Wai does tend to bring an offbeat visual imagination and an ability to introduce what might appear to be gimmicks and then naturalize them. So, part of what ultimately makes Mad Detective so successful, although on an admittedly more modest level of achievement, is that it finds To's craftsmanship and chiseled male angst offset by semi-surreal inventiveness passed off as no big deal. Mad Detective, then, is the story of a mad detective. When we first meet Inspector Bun (Lau Ching Wan), we see him in the final days before his forced retirement. He has a young underling zip him up in some luggage and throw him down the stairs, because you see, Bun the Mad Detective solves impossible cases through supernatural empathic powers. (The victim, in the case above, was shoved in a suitcase.) At the retirement party for the chief of police, Bun offers him one hell of a Van Goghing-away present, slicing off an ear in the middle of the squad room festivities. And, officially anyway, that's pretty much it for Inspector Bun's mad but brilliant career. Of course, he's reluctantly brought out of seclusion to solve a cop-killer mystery by Detective Ho (Andy On), a young officer who considers Bun his master. As with many of To and Wai's genre efforts, Mad Detective is heavy on the plot mechanics (I usually don't spend so much time on summary), but it's also characterized by a geometrically fragmented, almost schizophrenic visual style. Longtime Milkyway cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung tends to follow wide angles with awkward camera movements or slightly cramped, off-kilter framings. Nothing so new for a To film, but Mad Detective takes place mostly within tight interiors made all the more alienating by this spatial discombobulation. What's more, the skewed perspective of Inspector Bun entails special problems in the construction of point-of-view, since (without giving away some of the film's coolest visual gags) the man sees something completely different than everyone else does, in exactly the same space. Sharp use of reverse-angles and, at the climactic showdown, a long mirrored wall (shades of Lady From Shanghai), turn the whole thing inside-out. But apart from these formal shenanigans, what's ultimately most bizarre about Mad Detective is its ebb and flow with respect to narrative convention. At times, anything goes, and then of course certain questions have to be answered, and genre tropes snap into place. But it keeps flying apart, as though the film itself were "mad," engaged in its own little tug-of-war between Toian sobriety and Waiesque insanity. By the conclusion, one has clearly won out, and it does, as they say, make "emotional sense." But I'm not sure I could tell you how we got there.


-No End In Sight (Charles Ferguson)

This is such an old-school, no-nonsense documentary that it's actually kind of refreshing after all the post-Michael Moore / Errol Morris fixation on pizzazz. Ferguson does just what he needs to do -- meticulously assembles the most damning case possible against Bush and the neo-cons. Some of it wasn't exactly news, of course, but like many people I glean my information on current events in discontinuous fragments, so having it all lined up as a single, harrowing dispatch is invaluable. Still, despite the near-unanimous assent NEIS has garnered (this is, after all, one of the year's most acclaimed films and a sure-shot to win the Oscar), I do have my own reservations. For one thing, isn't it just a bit too neatly constructed? This isn't so much a film-form question as a concern with argumentation. Compare Ferguson's film with the four hours it took Spike Lee to fully exhaust the ins and outs of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and I have to wonder whether 105 minutes is really adequate to explain the U.S.-engineered disintegration of Iraq. Secondly, Ferguson seems to have won most of his acclaim by appearing evenhanded, being sure to pull in insights from moderates and former Bush advisors, all presumably well to the right of Michael Moore. But this evenhandedness has a few odd consequences. One is the familiar lefty self-hatred problem. We don't really trust the rationality of our own discourse, so if we can get Richard Armitage to say it, it's probably a lot more plausible. But beyond this, Ferguson's approach means that he can never exactly raise the $64,000 Question. Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq? Instead, NEIS becomes the saga of the criminally irresponsible manner in which we did it. It's a tale that must be told, but of course it's only half the story. Oh, and one more thing. The closing montage was not only unnecessary; it was the first time the film's tone dipped into outright pedanticism. Listen, Chuck: if I want a "Hey, kids! What did we learn today?" remix, I'll watch Yo Gabba Gabba.




-Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia / France)

[I'm in the process of composing a long-player for Cinema Scope, for which I'll provide a link when the time comes. But for now, just some preliminary observations.] Sokurov's films seem to be getting more and more accessible (his video work is another matter), but scratch the surface and they're actually quite bizarre. First of all, the obvious: Alexander / Alexandra. The title character, a fusty grandmother played by opera legend Galina Vishnevskaya, is clearly a stand-in for the director himself. Since the film is primarily an examination of the Russian boys stationed along the Chechen line, the incongruity of the old woman's presence allows for awkward interactions which in themselves force a self-consciousness about the day-in, day-out grind of the military project. But the sex-change of the film's point of view (or, technically speaking, its point of enunciation) permits Sokurov to gaze at the young boys' naked physicality, their buzz cuts and tattoos, their worn-out fatigues and wind-burned skin. The director isn't particularly interested in Chechnya per se, but in the toll of long-term war on body and soul, and so in a way, Alexandra is sort of a clipped, faintly diegetic variation on his Afghan project, Spiritual Voices. The relatively compact running time (95 minutes) and far more conventional shot length and editing coverage imply greater accessibility, and by the time Alexandra has ventured into the Chechen marketplace to interact with an elderly merchant woman there (who, I'm sure, hopes the Russians love their children too), it's hard not to think we're in the presence of a kinder, gentler Sokurov, making a warm, even sappy humanist statement within a relatively conventional form. It is true that the man's decoupage has been so casual of late that even an attentive viewer might not even notice it at first. After the no-cuts stunt of Russian Ark, Sokurov's organization of The Sun and now the newest film follow largely narrative demands as opposed to experimentation for its own sake. It's almost as though his video work has become the province of such unrestrained temporal distension and fixed-gaze concentration that celluloid can now be reserved for more Constructivist matters.


All the same, Alexandra charts a motion toward easy homilies and hard-bitten wisdom, only to take a hairpin turn in the third act. What makes Sokurov's film so bizarre is that when it actually confronts the Chechen War head-on -- something Sokurov was obviously under no obligation to do -- his thinking and his film short-circuit. For the most part, the film retreats into the safety of the Russian camp, with Alexandra sharing moments of tenderness as well as rancor with Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), her soldier grandson. In short, Alexandra becomes Grandmother and Grandson, a sudden third entry in Sokurov's highly insular mytho-Oedipal family series. But not before Alexandra is escorted back to camp by a bright but edgy young Chechen. "I know you can't do anything about it," he tells the Russian woman, "but please, give us our freedom." At this point, Alexandra sternly lectures the boy from on high, telling him that he and his people should pray for intelligence rather than freedom. Although the exchange is most likely meant as a call to lay down arms, Vishnevskaya and Sokurov's thoughtless imperiousness is unmistakable. It is possible, and maybe even correct, to read this as a moment of conservatism. (Sokurov told Cahiers that he considered Chechnya part of Russia, end of story. But one got the sense that he didn't mean this in a Putinite way, so much as that Russia ought to be culturally capacious enough to accommodate a Muslim minority without oppressing them.) But more than this, I see it as exemplary of the hysteria that bedevils Sokurov's work time and again, where the Freudian / family order clashes with a social reality he cannot really face. Alexandra encounters the Other and immediately has to slot him into the "naughty grandson" role. Soon, she and Denis are back in the tent, wondering how those awful people can do such mean things. And then, it's back to family matters, and Alexandra takes the train home. And so, the political present is broached, covered over and subsumed within quaint family role play. What's more, even if Sokurov is content to conflate the familial and the geopolitical spheres, there are still family secrets he cannot acknowledge. (There is a missing patriarch here, and the would-be subject of the director's fourth dictator profile: Putin.) Sokurov, to his credit, is an intrepid filmmaker, always willing to go where he clearly feels he doesn't belong. His project, it seems, is to test his Russianness against various foreign situations. In the end, of course, he always has to reassert himself, but in the conflict we the viewers can see something considerably more interesting than he can. Like many conservatives, Sokurov provides the rest of us with object-lessons when the world fails to conform to his needs.


-Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil)

What?! This won the Golden Bear at Berlin? But it's an infomercial for fascism! (The wailing and gnashing of teeth is nicely summed up by my politically starboard homie Victor Morton, a gentleman who knows from South American fascism.) Obviously Padilha has turned in the sort of slam-bang anti-art film that would have rankled the festival crowd, regardless of its apparent slant. If the clearly pro-favela City of God had won a major prize somewhere, folks would've been angry that it won, too, mostly because its shake-n-bake camerawork and hack-slash editing is always going to seem like bad manners to some. But Elite Squad is another matter altogether. Kneejerk dismissals of the film as far-right claptrap are simply wrongheaded, and not just because Padilha made Bus 174 which in itself should clarify his own position on the spectrum of Brazilian politics. Thing is, Elite Squad is a problematic film because Padilha is actually attempting something extraordinarily complicated, something that he and the film can't really pull off. In fact, if Elite Squad had succeeded in being the film I think Padilha clearly wanted it to be, it would be the film of the year.


For the first seventy minutes of Elite Squad, we are firmly ensconced in the point of view of Nascimento (Wagner Moura), an officer in Rio's BOPA tactical squad. The culture of Rio, as articulated by Nascimento's perspective, is rotten to the core, and the man barely stops short of calling, Travis Bickle style, for a great rain to wash all the scum off the street. The favelas, of course, are controlled by gangs and drug-runners, and the drugs are smoked and snorted by lazy liberal college students. (And, apparently, no one else.) But the targets of Nascimento's ire include those above and below him in the police force since, by his reckoning, everyone is on the take except the BOPA. This first part of the film serves several key functions, not least of them introducing us to sly Neto (Caio Junquiera) and left-leaning law student André (André Ramiro), the two men Nascimento hopes will eventually replace him on the BOPA team. But more than anything else, Padilha uses the first half of the film to align us with Nascimento's worldview, in which law and order must reign at all costs. His measured, even mournful tone, as well as his dual identity as a family man, lull the audience into complacency. The film makes the right-wing perspective seem reasonable, and the fact that the BOPA kicks ass only helps us want to identify.


Then, Padilha pulls the rug out. We see Nascimento begin the training of new BOPA recruits, and we see him for the fascist he really is. Or, more to the point, we see the structure of the BOPA as one of unbridled psychosis disguised as fraternal bonding and integrity. We see beatings, near-sexual humiliation, and hazing rituals that border on brainwashing. Padilha's point is clear. This is the true face of the BOPA, the elite squad given near-total dominion over Rio, including over the other police. So, when we see them in the field at the end of the film, and find that André's transformation has been nearly complete, we shouldn't be surprised, but neither should we in any way assume Padilha condones those actions he depicts. Elite Squad, then, is attempting to operate in the territory of Michael Haneke, Paul Verhoeven (especially Starship Troopers) and even Kubrick. (In many respects, the film is Full Metal Jacket in reverse.) But those filmmakers all understood that audience response is so unpredictable, and the line between critique and capitulation so razor-thin, that they adopted a chilly, abstract style that functioned a bit like a laboratory, keeping human relations and their meanings under meticulous control. Padilha is attempting something far more radical in that he's trying to perform the same subtle maneuvers within a hot-media, docu-realist format. But it doesn't quite work. Granted, Padilha provides some awfully large clues -- André's sociology class is studying Discipline and Punish, and by the end of the film, whether or not cops should outright murder gang members isn't the issue. It's whether or not to desecrate their corpses. (The final shot implies that André votes for splatter justice.) But the fact of the matter is, the film's form gets in the way of Padilha's intellectual project, almost winning violence back from moral ambivalence in the name of movie coolness. It's not quite that slick, but Padilha does seem to lose control of the material a bit, especially when we see a bit of gangster violence that breaks with Elite Squad's careful orchestration of point of view. It's gratuitous, and implicitly argues that André, or even Nascimento, could be right. This isn't fascism, mind you. It's a cinematic problem. Letting the messiness of the larger world into one's political film is admirable in the extreme, because it's inherently honest. But it also demands an even more stringent social analysis, and Padilha is a bit too much of an intuitive artist to keep from flying off the rails. Nevertheless, Elite Squad is more valiant for being ramshackle, and ought to be one of the key talking-point films of the year.


-A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan)

My first encounter with Yamashita doesn't necessarily confirm the rumors that he's a major new voice in Japanese cinema, but neither does it actively contravene that opinion. (I still have Linda X3, No One's Ark and Matsugane Potshot Affair on my desk and have every intention of making my way through them.) There's certainly a lightness of touch here that all but evaporates in its effort to embody a style befitting that English title, but at the same time, that completely-bearable lightness only makes it all the more awkward when Yamashita stumbles. The film takes an awfully long time getting off the ground, almost as though it's defying its audience to discount it as some kind of dull rural paean to bygone days. The joke is that, in many ways, that's precisely what it is, except for the dull part. Although the film zeroes in on a tight-knit group of village kids who are, in fact, the only non-adults in the town, Gentle Breeze soon settles its primary sights on a budding flirtation between Soyo (the mono-monikered Kaho) and Osawa (Masaki Okada), the surly young man who's just moved to the sleepy berg his mom abandoned for Tokyo years before. After some highly composed long shots of the rural landscape, Yamashita treats us to some very conventional City Mouse / Country Mouse typology, and it's only after we get past this rather challenging twenty minute wind-up that Gentle Breeze really hits its stride. Minor characters reveal subtle shadings of desire and doubt. Soyo observes and frets over possible impropriety between her father and Osawa's mother, who, it turns out, was an old flame of his. A younger brother graduates from the one-room elementary to the one-room middle school, leaving only two maturity-mismatched girls in the primary grades. All of this atmospheric business is rendered with great attention to the tiniest nuances of emotion, time and space. Yamashita shows a capacity for incisive humanism in the Renoir / Ozu / Kiarostami / Yang mode.


The absolute apex of Gentle Breeze is a class trip to Tokyo, during which the Soyo / Osawa relationship is tested by the boy's sudden reacquaintance with old school friends and a swaggering comfort in his own element. One key moment in particular, which appears to be a nasty kiss-off to Soyo for overstepping her ambiguous-girlfriendly bounds, turns in a split-second into a moment of unthinking warmth and consideration on the boy's part. Trouble is, Yamashita cannot withhold his more sentimental tendencies here, and so a perfect conclusion is smudged by the addition of a needlessly maudlin coda. This is to say nothing of the film's twee, tinkly soundtrack. What's more, the goodwill Gentle Breeze has amassed by its conclusion can't entirely compensate for its dawdling opening passages, which play so readily into the bucolic stereotypes of "rural charm" cinema. And this is a reflex Yamashita can't help repeating, as when Soyo's encounter with the Tokyo subway is depicted as a set of fast cuts and fragmented signs and bustling limbs, a sort of "Andy of Mayberry" visual code. In his depiction of the village, Yamashita shows mixed results. Sometimes, like when we see the kids buying watermelon from the fruit stand, the sharp progression from close-ups to long shots masterfully places the members of this community in relationship to one another, and the environs that have had such a hand in shaping who they are. But then, sometimes the bland symmetry of a cottage against a mountain, with a telephone pole alongside it, just seems like Yamashita's signpost for rural banality. At these moments, I found myself wondering about context and reception. From a Western art-film perspective, Gentle Breeze seems like an unusually accessible, open-hearted version of rigorous Asian modernism, but I couldn't help but wonder if I might actually be watching a rough Japanese equivalent to a "suburbs" comedy, like Thumbsucker or TV's "Weeds." Just how charming one finds the rolling hills will, of course, depend on how long you've lived there, and how much you might want to take the train to the city and hit some decent department stores.


-The King of Kong (Seth Gordon)

I have to give it up to Gordon for crafting an exceedingly entertaining documentary about a topic -- the competitive circuit for classic gaming -- in which I had less than zero interest. But, as was the case with Ondi Timoner's Dig!, another film centered on the rivalry between two men in the same scene (in that instance, indie rock), I feel like Kong's construction and presentation of the relationship between the men, their respective camps, and the narrative arc of oneupmanship, all seem waaaaaaaay too convenient for me to trust. After all, could anyone really be so lucky as to have one of your two subjects (Billy Mitchell) not only be the world's biggest douchebag, but the world's least self-aware douchebag? What's more, could Steve Wiebe really be as guileless about the standing animosities within the videogame world as he claimed to be? Kong's case as presented, of nice, normal family man vs. slick, deluded manchild asswipe is just too good to be true, and so even though it makes for undeniably good cinema, I simply can't relax and enjoy the ride as Gordon has orchestrated it. All the same, one aspect of Kong is undeniably fascinating, and is so blatant in every interview and every sequence involving the Twin Galaxies gaming community that it simply cannot be a projection on Gordon's part. The rampant distrust of Wiebe is, to some degree, a topsy-turvy nerd cliquishness, wherein the rather normal-looking beefy blonde guy with an attractive wife and two kids has to be an outcast. Where are your action figures, dude? Where's your blow-up sex doll lounge? Where were you on Global Galaga Day, you Muggle?


-The Man From London (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky , France / Germany / Hungary)

Few things rankle even a part-time contrarian more deeply than having to acknowledge that the conventional wisdom is correct. But alas, The Man From London, despite its undeniable ambition and the fact that it contains some of the most arresting images committed to celluloid in the past several years, is a flawed film, and the Tarr team's most significant stumble since the uneven Family Nest back in 1979. Now, I will be the first to admit that I am working at a disadvantage, having seen the film on a screener video. Its strengths are its sumptuous visual textures, naturally. But I'm taking this into account, and even on a degraded medium, those aspects of Tarr's work shone through like a beacon from another era, or even another world. The opening sequence, which finds gruff, uncommunicative galoot Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), the nighttime railway switchman manning an elevated control tower, gazing down at an obscure, nearly illegible crime scene on the docks below. Tarr's staging of this extended sequence, with uncharacteristically metrical, claustrophobic cinematography (courtesy of new chief D. P. Fred Kelemen) is nothing short of masterful. Our field of vision inches up the side of the ferryboat, and into Maloin's control area. Then, we see a radiant shaft of light illuminating the path between the ferry and the adjoining passenger train, shown in a distant long shot that carves human figures into the scene as mere shadow puppets. This proscenium displays the routine of disembarking passengers from the ferry, all the while Kelemen's camera sliding back and forth in Maloin's booth window, the vertical slats breaking up the image at regular intervals. That is, Tarr is giving us rhythmic motion in two different directions, and at two different speeds. Then, the action moves past the ferry dock and into a row of warehouses, where we witness the strange tussle and dance of an eventual murder. This part of the scene is illuminated only by the single lamps on the tops of the individual warehouses, of which there are three; and so, on the left hand side of the screen, this vital story element is staged in a kind of slow motion as a slipping in and out of three small spotlights in a diagonal, lower-left to upper-right arrangement. Again, this visual maneuver is sliced into vertical segments, like photographs on display in a gallery setting, by the breaks in Maloin's watchtower window.


In these rapturous fifteen minutes at the start of The Man From London, it seemed clear to me that Tarr and editor / co-director / right-hand Hranitzky were taking the very idea of film noir apart, and creating something more along the lines of Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9. The theatrical lighting and deliberate, otherworldly choreography of this inciting incident -- the crime, after all, in a Georges Simenon adaptation, filmed in the noirest of noirs -- treat the mundane industrial world, not to mention the world of the crime drama, as an occasion for a kind of sculptural investigation, an engagement with the plasticity of both the metallic objects on display and the chiaroscuro of the celluloid itself. Alas, Tarr eventually begins to dole out bits of narrative, and it becomes clear that London is actually going to be a film divided against itself. Tonal inconsistencies abound, not least among them the film's treatment of the Maloin character. Is he a paranoid, petty-tyrant in the home, with an unhealthy sexual fixation on his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók)? Or is he more of a hapless, drunken shlub who stumbles upon a chance to get rich and ends up way out of his depth (more of a Magyar cousin to No Country's Llewellen Moss)? Tarr veers between seeming uninterested in the details of the Simenon plot and dutifully rolling them out like a chose. On occasion, the unique friction that animates Tarr's best work appears here, as we see in a café scene midway through the film. Kelemen's roving camera and Hranitzky's subtle decoupage allow Tarr to deliver a substantial expository payload in surprisingly engaging, highly cinematic terms. (Sound mix is particularly vital here.) But other moments simply signal a somewhat hurried or improperly digested adaptation, sore-thumb elements that might make more sense in the context of Simenon's original text. Maloin and Henriette's visit to a pair of fur salesmen, for instance, scans like a stray scene from a Terry Gilliam remake of Jud Süss. And Maloin's shrill, Fassbinder-by-way-of-Tyler-Perry arguments with his wife (Tilda Swinton) break London's hypnotic spell like an air horn. In fact, more than any single formal flaw in Tarr's film, the horrid choice of Magyar overdubbing for Swinton simply eviscerates the film's credibility each time she speaks. Even as the sympathetic film viewer understands the constraints of an international cast, there's no getting around the fact that Swinton is a world-renowned actress. We know what she sounds like. If The Man From London has any hopes of seeing a commercial release (which it most certainly deserves, in spite of its flaws), having Swinton re-dub her own performance in phonetic Magyar is a must.




-Atonement (Joe Wright, U.K. / France)

I'm still on the fence about this Joe Wright fellow. According to his fans, his stock in trade seems to be injecting a certain wry modernity into British literary adaptations which customarily foreground prim, tea-and-crumpets historicism. I can't say I saw the thrill in his light-bathed but oddly kitchen-sink riff on Pride & Prejudice. Wright's attempts at scraping off the fustiness (a close-up of swinging hog balls!) struck me as rather desperate. Atonement is miles ahead in terms of technique and confidence, partly because Wright is improving and partly because to a significant degree, the first half of Ian McEwan's story is fundamentally about the tension between uptight post-Victorian manners and the social and sexual shake-up in British culture between the wars. So Wright's dynamic tracking shots through the Tallises' manor, or his use of propulsive, staccato musical accompaniment within an otherwise staid environment, conspire with the looping, multi-perspectival time structure to dispel the quaint comforts of well-appointed surface realism. In fact, taken purely as filmmaking, this early section is aces, and the only big problems are imported directly from the McEwan novel. (I'm speaking, of course, about the fact that so much of the plot is set in motion by a convenient but almost completely implausible epistolary mix-up. Only in literature.) Once things start to unravel, and Robbie (James McEvoy) has been spirited away by the false testimony of young Briony (Saoirse Ronan), Atonement becomes so self-consciously "epic" that it can't help but fall back into the same old habits Wright ostensibly wants to thwart most of the time. In fact, apart from an overall tastefulness, the final two-thirds of Atonement are all over the place tonally, Wright flailing about trying to find something that sticks. The worst offense, of course, is the "bravura" single-shot Dunkirk sequence, which has no place in a film like this, sticking out like a particularly showy sore thumb. In itself, the shot-sequence is rather obnoxious in that it works overtime to provide a snapshot of 1940s British laddishness, Our Boys Over There reveling, puking, crying, singing dancehall numbers, and defending the Union Jack until time to head home. With its slight fisheye distortion and human-panorama pretensions, it's like Emir Kusturica doing Ealing, and as such, not something anyone particularly needed. By the same token, Vanessa Redgrave's at-the-buzzer appearance, delivering some gravitas and a heart-tugging, bitterly ironic ending, "works" for a split second, until you recognize just how manipulative it really is. Again, Wright is stuck parsing McEwan's dubious valedictory gesture, but this hardly makes it less mawkish. In fact, it raises the age-old question: do we really need hot-property literary adaptation?


-Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier, Belgium)

I didn't really like Ex Drummer very much, but I'm torn, because I'm fairly certain that Ex Drummer is a film that really didn't want me to like it. It's filled with paradoxes. The emotional core of the film, and the only part of it that, for my "money" (which is zip, I downloaded it illegally, ha ha ha), really worked in any unproblematic sense, is the "climax" (of sorts -- it really isn't that kind of film), when The Feminists, the scum-rock band whose semi-turgidity and dehiscence is documented by the film, take the stage at the Battle of the Bands and actually tear off some old school punk. Everything else is always looking in two directions at once, both actually repulsive and offensive and Euro-designer repulsive and offensive, a tweaky, snot-nosed intellectual idea of what could and should epate some hypothetical bourgeois. It's hard to believe that Film Comment Selected this, but Chris Norris's far more sympathetic review will tell you everything you want to know. Me, I'm almost afraid to explicate certain key scenes just for fear of making them sound cooler or more transgressive in the description than they are onscreen. Norris is a maniac with upside-down vision if he actually sees in Mortier's artschool gleet anything approximating the formal or philosophical rigor of Haneke or Noé. But he's right that Ex Drummer is complicated and in many ways excruciatingly unlovable because it's it never stops indicting itself. Dries (Dries Van Hegen), the famous author called in by the scum of the earth to round out their band, is indeed a monster, all the more so for being the easiest point of identification. He looks just like Russell Crowe, has a hot Eurotrash girlfriend, and speaks with a measured, ever-so-reasonable tone that is a sonic respite from the other men's anguished shrieks. Still, there's a half-assedness to Ex Drummer that can't be entirely attributable to the punk ethos or to its point of view being triangulated through an apathetic cad. The "handicapped" trio are more like Freudian rimshots than actual human beings, and Koen (Norman Baert) in particular is a character who strains Ex Drummer's distinction between "misogyny" and actual, straight-up misogyny. (The assault sequence that introduces Koen looks like an outtake from The Free Will.) So basically, it's a split decision. Ex Drummer is a film (and clearly, Mortier is a director) bound and determined to outsmart the viewer at every turn, and never lets you forget it. And it fails to do so, and you cannot help but mark this strained failure as you watch. This doesn't prevent other minor amusements from poking up out of the flopsweat, but you almost certainly have better things to do with your time.


-Lost In Beijing (Li Yu, China)

After some reasonably good notices (particularly Derek Elley's in Variety) and an unexpected pick-up from the increasingly-discriminating New Yorker Films, I figured it was time to take a chance on Ms. Li, whose third film apparently made good on the promise of festival-circuiteers Fish and Elephant and Dam Street, as well as being steamy enough to rankle the Chinese censors. (Although let's face it: what doesn't rankle those gelded, self-serving bureaucrats?) As it turns out, Lost In Beijing is "accomplished" enough. In particular, it's exceedingly well-shot, which is no surprise when you learn that Li's D.P. is Wang Yu, probably best known for his sumptuous work with Lou Ye on Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly. Here, Li and Wang explore Beijing's linear, mid-period modernist skyline, its Lego-like undulations and circuit board exactitude. Flawless compositions are almost offhandedly plucked from the Beijing environs, on the freeway, on the street, in the slums or the high-ticket business district. Part of the irony, it seems, is that a place so meticulously organized through concrete, glass and steel can have such sloppily operatic emotional turmoil going on underneath. (But then, isn't that kind of the perennial "stories of the naked city" paradox? Nothing new here.) And oh, what a soap opera it is. The first ten minutes are nearly comical, almost suggesting a Russ Meyer / Sam Fuller mash-up, and it was here that I held out some awkward hope. Was Li subverting the urban miserablism so typical of recent festival films? In quick succession, we see a sweaty man winning a pot in a gaming pit, a middle-aged tramp cozying up to him, and the potential sugar daddy issuing a stern warning. "Careful, honey! I have AIDS!" "Oh, baby! That just means you're sexually virile!" Next, two young girls on a highway overpass talk about an impending sexual encounter, and how to fool the boy into thinking she's still a virgin. "Go and buy a cherry. That's what all the girls do now."


See? It's rather ridiculous. But, alas, Li settles into a more conventional (and utterly soapy) love-quadrangle. Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka Fai, aka "The Other Tony Leung"), the boss of a foot massage parlor (wink wink) has some afternoon delight with an employee, Liu Ping (Fan Bingbing) who he doesn't know is married. (If he knew, of course, she couldn't work in what's essentially a gentlemen's club.) Her husband, An Kun (Tong Dawei) is a window washer who sees the two of them in a second semi-rape / semi-tryst, and busts in to break it up. A pregnancy ensues, An Kun wants to blackmail Lin Dong, but Lin Dong and his wife Wang Mei (Elaine Jin) have been unable to conceive, so they want to pay An Kun to treat the distasteful matter like a surrogate situation after the fact. Wang Mei suggests that An Kun get back at Lin Dong by screwing his wife, there's bribery with the blood test, and oh so many more preposterous twists and turns. To the credit of the director and cast, all of this is played somewhat convincingly, and it's even rather engaging on its own nonsensical terms. However, the film wears out its welcome and, by the end, there are a few too many last-minute grasps for introspection, appropriate to the art-film that Lost In Beijing most certainly is not. Still, Li concludes with an unexpected, possibly even poetic image, one that returns the whole sordid affair to the bustling city whence it came.


-Yella (Christian Petzold, Germany)

[SPOILERS] Having now seen two of Petzold's films, I am not entirely sure what to make of him. By any truly meaningful criteria, he is an excellent director. He possesses a remarkable facility for investing the drab, boxy spaces of late capitalist Germany with an otherworldly precision that quite simply turns those spaces into a world apart, one that draws meanings and social reference from the actual world but invests it with purpose and clarity. The empty plazas, glassy office parks, and exurban no-zones of both Ghosts and Yella worked to crystallize certain abstract human relations, rendering them both awkward and politically legible. He's ice cold. Really, only the Laurent Cantet of Time Out even comes close to what Petzold can do with editing, framing, and mise-en-scène. However, in both cases, I ultimately came away feeling as though Petzold's ample skill was being lavished on some rather obvious, half-baked ideas. Ghosts simmered its mother-daughter melodrama into a thin gruel of class resentment, and Yella seems to exist solely to display the self-serving, boardroom-to-bedroom calculations of the high finance set. Yella (Nina Hoss) is a young, rather attractive female accounting exec who has accepted a job in what was West Germany, apparently fleeing a failing company in the former East. She's also attempting to make a break from her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), a flop in his business and a guy who's taking the split with Yella, um, rather badly. Numerous commentators have compared Yella to the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, but hell, unfortunately you don't even have to go back that far. If you take your mind back (sorry to have to do this) to Vanilla Sky, let's just say Ben pulls a Cameron Diaz, and the results are pretty much the same. The various events that happen following the car wreck, which Yella appears to survive, center on shaking her sense of economic and professional mastery, and her tentative, nearly hysterical power moves to regain it. So, the job Yella's going to claim doesn't actually exist, and she's given a somewhat Kafkaesque bum's rush, followed by an indecent proposal aimed at reducing her assets portfolio down to the T&A level. A set of strange business triumphs and affiliations follows, mostly due to her encounter with financier Philipp (Devid Streisow, also currently in The Counterfeiters) who takes her on almost as an accidental protégé. Nothing exactly follows a clear narrative trajectory; Petzold and co-writer Simone Baer are obviously relying on tone and texture to hold it all together, and it almost works as a kind of poetic reverie -- film viewing as a float in an isolation tank. But by the conclusion, there's simply so much less than meets the eye that it's hard not to wonder exactly where Petzold is coming from. After all, anything Yella could tell us about the cutthroat business world has been communicated much better in any number of nonfiction films by Petzold's associate Harun Farocki. What's more, the fragmented, high-sheen modernist tone poem of bad love in the age of venture capital is a film project that, for better or worse, has already been covered by Olivier Assayas. We didn't need a chaste, sullen demonlover.




-The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, Austria / Germany)

I have to say, it's unbelievably cocky of Sony Classics to open this film the weekend of the Oscars, as though they're just assuming a Best Foreign Language win, after which they can waltz The Counterfeiters into theatres like a victory lap. Then again, their confidence isn't exactly misplaced. It's exactly the sort of middlebrow, Hollywood-style dramatization of a little-known tale from the Holocaust that AMPAS voters lap up like grease-piss gruel from a dented metal bowl. Other than the story itself -- the tale of Operation Bernhard, the Nazis' counterfeiting operation designed to destabilize the Allies' economies and then, finally, to finance the last ditch war effort -- there's nothing new on display here. Hard to know why Sony slapped a pluralizing "s" at the end of the international title, since the film definitely focuses on and channels all information through the perspective of one man, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), master forger, bon vivant and non-observant Jew who lands up in Mauthausen until the Nazis need to assemble a team at Sachsenhausen (the Club Med of concentration camps, as Ruzowitzky depicts it) to exploit his talents. The moral question is obvious: are these Jews no better than intellectual Kapos, aiding the enemy in their own destruction? What's more, they are given preferential treatment, a fact they must put out of their minds lest conscience become crippling. Pretty much every cliché rears its head in the ninety minutes that follow Sorowitsch's arrival at Sachsenhausen. One Socialist prisoner (August Diehl) keeps thwarting the effort to copy the U.S. dollar and acting as the group's relentless, unwanted Jiminy Cricket, reminding everyone of the misery other Jews are experiencing. There's a young boy (Sabastian Urzendowsky) for whom Solly feels a fatherly tenderness. (Do you think he'll survive?) And of course, the morally ambiguous Nazi (Devid Streisow) who runs the program and even has some of the Jews convinced that he's "saving" them. Look, there is absolutely nothing revelatory or even interesting here. Ruzowitzky, director of Anatomy 2, is quite good at keeping things brisk and snappy, but that just begs the moral question of whether the umpteenth meticulous reconstruction of the camps, with artificially emaciated extras being beaten to a pulp in the background, is really suitable entertainment for civilized people. Isn't anyone even slightly offended by the fact that a film like The Counterfeiters observes the injunction to "never forget" in such a lunkheaded, prosaic manner? The film may as well be holding up a cue card reading, "Don't forget about the dead Jews!" In its own way, The Counterfeiters itself is phony as the proverbial three-dollar-bill. It will indeed circulate, and it will just be business as usual.


-In Memory of Me (Saverio Costanzo, Italy)

[SPOILERS, BY GOD] In was considered a bit of a scandal by some that the 2007 Competition line-up at Cannes featured no films from Italy, for the first time in many years. But honestly this was just an unusually public acknowledgment of a fact that the cinema world surely must recognize: Italian cinema has been in desperate straits for quite some time. In Memory of Me is a perfect case in point. Costanzo's film is essentially a Bellocchio-lite examination of faith and identity set over several months in a coastal seminary. The film focuses on Andrea (Christo Jivkov), a particularly blank young novice who appears to be entering the priesthood in order to flee the pressures of a well-heeled playboy lifestyle (although this is only implied). The first third of the film builds to a classroom sequence during which one aspirant (Fausto Russo Alesi) delivers a sleep-deprived, incomprehensible report on freedom and responsibility in place of the terse, basic Scriptural exegesis the assignment clearly demands. To Costanzo's credit, the scene does build to an admirable tension; after all, everyone has botched a homework assignment but in doing so we usually aren't ostensibly disappointing Jesus Christ. Humiliated, he starts skulking around the vaulted halls of the dormitory while Andrea watches from the shadows. Once we see Fausto banging his head against a wall and mumbling some cant about mortification of the flesh, it seemed pretty clear we were moving into Full Metal Cassock territory, with Andrea as Joker and Fausto as Pvt. Pyle. Luckily, Fausto's inevitable exit is more Survivor Island than Parris Island. But the remainder of In Memory of Me circles around a second fellow novice rival, Zanna (Filippo Tama) and Andrea's observation and eventual goading of the man's crisis of faith, prompting a predictable and not particularly revelatory narrative-of-attrition structure that is rather crimped and deterministic but at the same time oddly desultory. I suspect the film's highbrow fans may be able to overlook Costanzo's blatant melodramatic contrivances because the narrative movement appears so fitful on the surface, almost like a memoir piece although so far as I know it isn't. Costanzo simply adopts the relative shapelessness of one. By the end, the epiphany (or punchline, depending on your level of sympathy for the project) is one we could all probably see coming -- that Andrea, the nearly-pathological blank slate, is the man best suited for the priesthood, his more intellectually turbulent brethren less so. Obviously this isn't a very nuanced or insightful position, and again, I can only imagine that Bellocchio might have tackled the problem with far more, well, grace.


-Quiet As Kept (Charles Burnett) [v/s]

This latest short by Burnett is a bit difficult to assess, partly because I'm not even sure how to judge its status as a piece of cinema per se. So far as I know, it exists solely as a supplement to the DVD edition of Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, but it is categorized in the (scant) liner notes as a 2007 Burnett short. What's more, Burnett has been known to generate exceptional work in the narrative short form, a feat that, in my opinion, precious few filmmakers ever accomplish. His 1995 film When it rains is a remarkable study in community ethics, made all the more potent because, in tone and execution, its profundity is offset by a sense of offhand, on-the-fly craftsmanship. Among his early works, 1969's Several Friends and 1973's The Horse stack up alongside the best. But Quiet As Kept is another matter. It's clearly conceived as something of a bulletin from the Katrina aftermath, and as such, possibly something other than a "work of art." What's more, the cast is comprised of the Lees, an actual family of non-professional performers, and although I have been unable to find press materials or explanatory notes to confirm this, it seems obvious that this family was actually displaced by Katrina and is, in some sense, representing a more scripted, declamatory version of itself. This is admirable in the extreme, for many reasons. It not only demonstrates Burnett's engagement with a proud tradition of experimental, politically engaged modernist cinema, an undercurrent that includes, but is hardly limited to, the work of Peter Watkins, Jon Jost, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and, more recently, Pedro Costa. What's more, it's entirely possible that the project was conceived in order to secure funding which Burnett might then funnel to the family themselves, a sly variant on Hock, Sisco and Avalos' classic "Art Rebate" project. Nevertheless, the video as scripted finds Burnett and the performers moving far too quickly through too many concepts and ideas regarding the black underclass in America, including the dearth of popular entertainment providing accurate representations of their plight. The result is a stilted muddle, one that comes across like the first draft of a rather freighted position-paper, too brief and blunt to function either as art or agitprop. I'm still on Burnett's team, and I have my fingers crossed (hesitantly) for the upcoming Namibia epic. But there's a reason why critics are keeping quiet on this one.