SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JANUARY 2003
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)
Un crabe dans le tête (André Turpin, Canada)
A visually rich, well-written and subtly acted film which feels more French (cf. Assayas, Desplechin) than Canadian per se. Occasionally stumbles in its need to spell out certain plot points and parallelisms, and this is all the more noticeable because of the careful little dollops of exposition elsewhere in evidence. (For example, the phone rings at Sam’s place, and the lamp flickers. Momentarily just a bit of visual oddity, until you realize a second later . . .) I found this film refreshing in its ability to depict a complete cad with one-third sympathy and two-thirds contempt, never validating his lily-livered behavior but refusing to make him a LaButesque cartoon twirling his mustache. David La Haye carries the show with authority, but is nicely bolstered by strong supporting performances. The real star is Turpin’s camera. Jarring angles or shifts in light which should be obtrusive or ham-fisted are in fact unfailingly graceful. This isn’t a brilliant film, but a fine, intelligent, and entertaining one. The French-colloquial title must be the only thing keeping distribs from biting. Even Miramax could take this all the way.
Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe)
Yes, on a certain level, this film is unabashedly pro-Gilliam. But in subtle ways, the directors make it clear that Capt. Chaos is hardly without blame. Note the disconnect between his early meeting with the crew – “You need to tell me when I ask for something impossible” – and his refusal to smell the proverbial coffee. More significantly, Fulton and Pepe evince genuine sympathy for Assistant Director Phil Patterson, whose unwillingness to force Rochefort to suck it up threatens to make him the production’s sacrificial lamb. Basically, the documentarians happened upon a compelling story and they tell it well, succeeding in being plangent but clear-eyed about the Great Film that Never Was. Also, my mind kept darting back to Herzog in Burden of Dreams, thinking, “That production nearly cost some Amazonians their arms and legs, and the asshole still got his film made!” Terry, my man, it just ain’t fair.
Narc (Joe Carnahan)
Really just a solid, effective, well-written police procedural. Liotta was excellent, and even when the script edged his character into melodramatic territory, he modulated it back down to gritty realism. Given my pet peeve regarding clumsy exposition, I appreciated that it was only about midway through that it was made clear that we were in Detroit. So much better than having a sergeant announce, a propos of nothing, “One of Detroit’s finest has fallen” or whatever.
-The Slaughter Rule (Andrew & Alex Smith)
I saw this on TV, and even though I liked it pretty well, I’m not sure I need to resee it when it opens theatrically next week. (Sorry, Cowboy, your radical new release strategy has backfired.) Despite a lovely visual style which finds firm footing in the Montana landscape, it is mostly the Morse / Gosling / DuVall show. Morse is awesome, repeatedly bringing his Gideon back from the edge of self-parody. One soon realizes that whether or not Gideon is “gay” in the conventional sense is only part of the point. The film is also about Gideon’s fetishization of a mode of hyper-masculinity from which he has been sidelined. It is sexualized, but it is also just a glittering prize, like an unaffordable car or a coveted job for which you lack the qualifications. That Gideon is able to bring young men into his strange world, however momentarily, points to the lack that that very masculinity so often strives to occlude. Gosling, who impressed me so in The Believer, is solid but undistinguished here. DuVall is strong, doing a lot with what could’ve been merely a token turn as Marginalized Femininity. [Note: After trying unsuccessfully to watch the execrable World Traveler last night on DVD, The Slaughter Rule looks even better.]
25th Hour (Spike Lee)
Coming soon – I want a second viewing.
About Schmidt (Alexander Payne)
I recently had a minor tiff with my mom about this one. Sez she: It is about discovering that even though you may not be making a difference in the immediate world around you, you might be effecting great changes elsewhere in the world. Also, our vision of stultifying flyover life, when placed in the context of the larger world, is greater than we know. Sez my gal-pal Jen: it’s a skillful cinematic rendering of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Sez I: it wavers between rigorous examination and bloated unfunny condescension, but the strongest moments are indeed a tale of Schmidt’s recognition of his own mediocrity, and perhaps even more importantly, that of his daughter. (Dancing badly to Album Rock in her wedding dress, Hope Davis’s shipping clerk fits right in with the Waterbed King and his brood.) Last scene is pathetic, not transcendent. The African mission may or may not be a scam, but Ndugu is definitely a Symbol of the blinkered limits of self-satisfied Republican charity. I kept expecting to hate it, but came away thinking it was mostly just a squandered opportunity.
Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)
A fun, affable film which really needed more of a bite. The scenes between Leo and Walken were far and away the film’s best moments. It needed to end about fifteen minutes sooner than it did. Abagnale’s eventual fate as a wing-clipped civil servant should be played as minor tragedy, but Spielberg can’t resist treating a return to normalcy with partial approbation. Why did the con-man cross the road?, etc.
City of God (Fernando Meirelles / Katia Lund, Brazil)
Actually, it breaks down as a 4 or a generous 5 for the first hour, and a solid 7 thereafter. That first hour was so skittish about actually committing to anything other than its own caffeinated cinematics as to make me want to walk. Then, in time, the film not only begins to tell several complex stories in a coherent fashion. It actually begins to care, and so did I. I appreciate the film’s managed mode of dispersal. Rocket, the ostensible center, is more like a half-hearted gesture to those who would deem him a structural necessity. Scorsese and Tarantino influences in evidence, especially in terms of grounding action within the possibilities of a specific locale. (The repeated elevated-perspective shots of the slum were like periods at the end of each chapter.) The gay panic of Little Zé was almost overstated. The yellow-orange haze lent each image an indistinct quality, as if the scenes before your eyes were beyond any possible intervention.
Cremaster 3 (Matthew Barney)
A bit of a disappointment, since C2 was a minor masterpiece and a mindblowing visual free-for-all. C3 is neatly bifurcated, perhaps too neatly. The first half, in which Our Hero flouts Otis’s invention and climbs the Chrysler Building’s elevator shaft the old fashioned way, was more intellectually than filmically interesting. The duration was necessary, of course. The time and labor of Barney’s art, his unadorned macho struggle, must be felt. But it was all too unvaried, switching between the demolition derby (with its literal smashing of the Creative Spirit into a bite-size John Chamberlain capsule) and the vertical adventures of MB. Only just before intermission, when Matt takes the metal in his mouth and shits teeth, does the stage feel set for something truly unique. (Note: the first ten or so minutes, with Celtic giants and dwarves, was goofy fun.) After the break, it’s all about climbing the Guggenheim, and while each of the different floors contained a fascinating tableau, the relations between them were virtually nil. (It wasn’t even like a videogame, where one is defeated and another arrives. He kept shuttling back and forth, with no spatial or performative logic.) The main event on this card, of course, is Barney vs. Serra. All the frou-frou and sexological mysticism of Barney’s work is revealed as the latest stab at literalizing sculpture. Instead of steel slabs which concretize the materiality of art, Barney’s work depicts the effort, machismo, and rejiggered Romanticism that still undergirds even the most reductive post-post sculptural intervention. Instead of “here is the thing,” it’s “here is my work.” Again, great on paper, but unlike Serra, Barney tells this story without much of a phenomenological charge. It is literal, sure, but it could stand to be quite a bit more physical.
A House Built on Water (Bahman Farmanara, Iran)
Even more so than Smell of Camphor, Farmanara’s new film is like an Iranian Woody Allen production, with all the highs and lows that implies. For every instance of sharp verbal wit and jaundiced humanism (“We’re in a world of shit, when I’m somebody’s last hope”), there is an equal measure of hackneyed imagery and ultra-literalism. (The old woman who actually knits the fabric of fate, leaving her balls of yarn all over the place, seems like a bad idea one could imagine popping up in, say, Shadows and Fog.) Most notably, Farmanara’s approach to Islam is eerily similar to Allen’s love / hate relationship to Judaism. The dichotomy between the little boy’s appreciation of the sheer beauty of the word of Allah and the violent extremists hunting down our Westernized protagonist is a little too schematic. But still, doesn’t it seem like something Allen would do? And given the ability of many critics, especially European ones, to forgive Allen such indulgences, isn’t it odd that an Iranian film so clearly in his thrall would be finding next to no support, even on the festival circuit?
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney)
It was evident from the outset that Clooney the Director is a Soderbergh protégé, and mostly that’s a good thing. The film was almost always stunning to look at, and its pacing, while a bit sluggish in places, refrained from pandering to the A.D.D. crowd. But the film’s shortcoming (and since I haven’t read the script, it’s hard to know who is to blame) is that it panders in nearly every other way. The fabled Newlywed Game clip is thrown in. Latin lounge music is included only if it’s been safely broken in by car commercials or other filmmakers. “Later, Lee! Take care, Jack!” In short, the film’s relatively obscure subject matter gave the filmmakers cold feet. The whole project’s a risk, so why cop out? (If the Press Your Luck movie ever gets made, I hope they don’t follow the same path.) Sam Rockwell is good, but not the revelation that Hollywoof might have you believe. Also, more Jamie Farr footage, please.
Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller)
It was crap, then it was good, then it was okay. But you already know this. I was amazed at how the voiceover stopped being irritating and precious, once the Delia story ended. (It was just an aristocratic downward gaze at the Feral Poor. Shut up, Mrs. Day-Lewis.) Posey is great as a woman trying not to drift out of complacent happiness. And Balk conveys genuine emotion despite the fact that her segment is overwritten, its theme of determinism rather suffocatingly handled. Why is Ellen Kuras hailed as some sort of DV heroine? The images were undistinguished Sundance shaky-cam, and the freeze-frames were, well, embarrassing.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, Australia)
It simply should not have been so boring. One-third in, the chase begins, and things should heat up, but they don’t. There seem to be unintentional narrative and spatial ellipses, truncating the journey and making it seem to have no real stakes whatsoever. (My suspicion is that the film would have had to have been nearly twice as long to really work. And can we really expect that from the director or Clear and Present Danger and his scissor-happy American distributor?) Learning in the epilogue that the journey actually happened twice (!) and that the family was forever decimated by Neville’s policies only makes the cavity onscreen that much more of a waste.
Bemani (Dariush Mehrjui, Iran)
Ugly and out of control, even downright lurid. But not in a Sam Fuller kind of way. The disconnected first story was sort of random and gross, with bizarre stylistic choices (e.g., the young girls screaming into the camera like a commercial for I Think Your Dad Knows What You Did Last Ramadan). Mehrjui’s interviews with characters were also half-hearted and not carried through to any logical conclusion. (The best practitioner of this device is Peter Watkins, because he always creates a rigorous context for it.) The final two-thirds became increasingly painful and its methods more and more inarticulate. Also, why self-immolation? If we can’t alter the plight of rural Iranian girls, should we at least offer them more sophisticated methods of suicide? They don’t use razors, they don’t use pills, they use gaaaa-soline...
The Hours (Stephen Daldry)
Jesus, where shall I begin? The score was atrocious, a musical violation on its own terms, and a clumsy, hackneyed way to bridge the three separate segments. I really don't like Philip Glass, a millionaire who has been writing the same piece of music for forty years, but even by his low standards this score was tripe. The dialogue consisted of a bunch of people very clearly and directly delivering thesis-like ideas which in a real work of cinema or literature would be relegated to subtext, and revealed carefully through attention to detail and subtleties of characterization. This is a total Dubya movie -- "no viewer left behind." The film is both facile in its New Historicism ("yes indeed, this is what those boys who just fought World War II have coming to them, quaint American suburbia! Too bad I'm a woman, stifled in the home . . .") and virulently anti-historical in its collapse of women and their problems across the century. (Virginia Woolf was not a Victorian "rest cure" victim, but no matter . . . Woolf, Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton -- the film assumes that anyone who took a Women Writers class in college will get them all mixed up inot one big oppressed, repressed-lesbian jumble anyway.) Also, this may be the worst-edited big-budget film of the year. Again, the fear of confusing even one single simpleton in the audience is palpable. [FLOWER VASE 1920s / FLOWER VASE 1950s / FLOWER VASE 2001] And the perfromances? Ed Harris overacting and bellowing, like the Angry but Entitled Great Man of Letters. Julianne Moore on autopilot, like she's in some sort of sub-Stepford student performance-art piece in an undergraduate women's studies class. ("Mommy's going to bake a cake for Daddy!") Kidman doing a decent job of disguising the fact that her Woolfian dialogue is undeliverable (and as her reward, getting an Oscar Clip Speech so detachable it looked like a perforated Coffee-Mate coupon), but mostly acting haughtily "Victorian," a job any Masterpiece Theatre vet could've nailed in her sleep. Meryl Streep, like Kidman, does her best with an unplayable role, acquitting herself admirably until she has to have one of her ridiculous breakdowns. The whole 1950s segment, by the way, raised my estimation of Haynes' achievement in Far From Heaven, and underscored the difficulty of not looking down our collective nose at this moment in U.S. history. Everything in The Hours's treatment of the 50s was a sop to our stereotypical image of the era, and our feelings of superiority to it. If this wins major awards, it will confirm that in America, the definition of popular art is the ability to take complex ideas and boil them down until they are nothing more than a bland, tasteless jelly, devoid of the slightest lump. What a victory for feminism that it gets turned into meaningless, consumable pabulum for the middlebrow moviegoer. What garbage.