SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JANUARY 2004
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)
-El Bonaerense (Pablo Trapero, Argentina)
I’m sad that I saw this one only on video, but glad to have seen it at all, given that it has no proper distributor. (It played at NYC’s Film Forum courtesy of sales agent / semi-distrib Menemsha Films.) In a more intellectual cultural climate, Trapero’s second film wouldn’t be such a hard sell. It’s offhandedly funny, like a played-straight Police Academy sequel in Buenos Aires scripted by Joseph Heller. It’s visually sumptuous, with nearly every key scene densely underlit. With each new camera set-up, the attentive spectator must squint at the screen for a half-second or wait for some sort of motion against the lighted backgrounds, just to decipher the visual field. In short, El Bonaerense is less gimmicky or obvious than something like Memento but it shares its commitment to a stylistic organization designed to reflect the protagonist’s perpetual grappling for a toehold. Relative newcomer Jorge Román turns in a fascinating performance as Zapa, the dumbass locksmith and part-time petty-safecracker and bagman, who just sort of bumbles into the police force (thanks to a well-connected uncle) after fucking up in his hometown. But Trapero never plays the dreaded holy-fool card. Zapa submits to the puppet strings of immediate convenience with a grimace and a shrug; he finds occasional respite with his drunken co-workers and the middle-aged lady cop who takes a brief but intense liking to his nightstick. Trapero and Román keep everything moving at an economical pace, never giving the viewer a chance to get fed up with Zapa’s passivity. (To do so would have been to make the film’s institutional critique too individual. Note the family get-together finale, how under-drawn it is by the usual standards.) They create a compelling portrait of banal corruption which has greater impact for whirling around a void.
-Cinemania (Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak)
Uh-oh. . .
House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman)
Attention auteurists! Here is an example of how strong actors and an above-average (if implausible) story can rescue a film from the hackish tendencies of its rookie director. Example: Ben Kingsley is magnetic as Massoud the former Iranian colonel, and instead of a mannered display of aristocratic dignity, he gives us a layered portrait of a man negotiating a new identity he did not choose. His relations with his family, his sense of patriarchal prerogative eroded by cultural and economic shifts, recall an angrier Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh. Kingsley’s characterization is enough, but Perelman is not content to leave it alone. He must end nearly every one of Kingsley’s scenes with a low-angle silhouette of Massoud against the sky, striking a stolid “dignity” pose. With regard to the overall structure, Perelman is no better, usually connecting sequences with dark, symbol-for-ominousness shots of creeping fog, dropped in like a helpful Powerpoint presentation. And the film is full of moments like this. A better director might have even found some way to make Ron Eldard’s lunkhead-racist cop into a halfway-believable character. Or, better yet, a more adventurous filmmaker might have realized that the fundamental melodrama of the story (unseen governmental machinations, two humans constrained by social forces, secondary characters as functions of the story’s overall system) could best be realized through a Sirkian lens, ratcheting up the artifice. In any event, the film packs quite a punch, but it could have been something great.
-An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson) [m]
I finally caught up with this one on the Sundance Channel, having missed it in the Bay Area no less than four times. (That's to say, I could have seen this high-buzz item long before everyone else, but ended up being pretty much the last fellow on Earth to catch a glimpse.) Wilkerson's infusion of radical politics into the more sedate schools of contemporary avant-garde filmmaking (landscape study, personal essay) is quite impressive, but I must confess I never fully trusted it. In large part, it was Wilkerson's hard-boiled monotone narration that erected an affective barricade between me and the film. Especially in light of the implication of Dashiell Hammett in the Anaconda / Wobblies struggles, it just felt too studied and deliberate, and it had the regrettable side-effect of prompting doubt when it needed to compel belief. As with much sloganeering agit-prop, some ideas are really no more than phrases which reveal their airy abstraction when examined. ("Without discussion, how can we invent?" Invent what?) All the same, I am grateful that Wilkerson is choosing to make art that delves into America's hidden history of radicalism, reminding us that long before the Sixties and Cointelpro, moneyed interests aligned to decimate not only the far left, but a rich workers' culture. Wilkerson's best strategy is the incorporation of instrumental versions of Wobblies' labor songs, the lyrics flashing on the screen in time. Just as the film's white flash-frames serve to snap the viewer to attention, these mental sing-alongs enfold the sensitive viewer into the emotional orbit of these long-gone miners and their families, and their dreams of a better world.
-Our Times (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Iran) [v]
A shocking, late-breaking contender for my year-end top ten until the last few minutes (an egregious closing-credits montage which pillages the preceding film for “poignant” images, after the fashion of NBC Olympics coverage). Other than that misstep, Bani-Etemad’s structure is impeccable, moving easily from the general to the painfully specific. First, we meet various young people who are involved in the campaign to re-elect President Khatami. We hear defenses of his reforms, counter-arguments (mostly from folks who feel he isn’t getting the job done, not from anti-reformist hardliners per se), but mostly we are shown the exhilarated affect that comes from increased democratic participation. (At a Khatami rally, the Pres throws a flower into the crowd, and Bani-Etemad shows us a young girl weeping like she just caught Elvis’s sweaty scarf.) Then, Our Times shifts focus to women’s role in the 2001 campaign, in particular the record number of women who ran for the presidency. (In this regard, Iran may have bested the U.S. handily, fringe candidates though they may be.) RBE interviews various women candidates, asking them why they thought they should be president, and what the Iranian government needs to do for women. The answers, though interesting, are rather rote – they are leftover campaign promises, after all. Then, in an unexpected turn, the director zeroes in on Arezoo, a disqualified female candidate. We meet her family – blind elderly mother, young daughter, no husband (she divorced him due to his drug problem and subsequent arrest). We follow her as she races against eviction, declined for apartments because she’s a single mother. In the end, Bani-Etemad presents Arezoo’s quixotic political endeavor as a last-ditch struggle to maintain sanity, much less dignity. Despite the film’s formal failings (the closing montage, some ill-advised video effects), Our Times manages what at this point I’d have considered impossible – it delves into Iranian womanhood and finds a new story to tell.
The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, France / Canada / Belgium)
It’s the old Careful reaction again. While watching this super-short animated trifle, I went from bewildered, what-the-fuck astonishment, through physical revulsion, to cackling approbation. But, unlike with Maddin’s equally insular film (which became a top-ten favorite), Belleville ended the response-curve squarely at muted admiration. Chomet’s Betty Boopoid opening (topped off with a jarringly un-p.c. rendition of Josephine Baker’s banana dance) announces his intentions pretty baldly. 1930s and 40s cartoons were so creepily surreal and polymorphously perverse that even Adorno had to give them props. (The Triplets’ signature song is untranslated pidgin-French-cum-nonsense, with lines like “pee-pee, kaka, poo-pe-doo!”) Also, the M. Hulot’s Holiday poster prominently displayed in the sisters’ apartment is every bit as obvious a conceptual passkey as the 2001-sheet in Irreversible, although no one’s bashing Chomet for his pretensions. The sisters’ second performance and the rescue denouement come closest to matching Tati’s dry environmental wit, and along with the all-encompassing totality of the world Belleville brings forth, these strengths are more than adequate to close out on a measured high note.
-Cabin Fever (Eli Roth)
"I wanna feel you from the inside." -- As silly as most of this film is, it's inspiring that a company like Lions Gate could see fit to snap it up and give it a moderately wide release. Aside from a few surprises, Roth adheres to the horror-genre playbook -- isolating its characters and picking them off one by one. The fact that the killer is a disease is a bit of a twist, since the result is rather Bob Weinstein-does-Cronenberg. And that's just fine. A few odd notes: 1) Interesting gender dynamic between Jeff the fey blonde boy (Joey Kern) and Marcy (Cerina Vincent), the hot mama who's nearly drag-queenish in her exaggerated femininity. 2) CF definitely distinguished from other "Midnight Madness" fare by some really striking cinematography (courtesy of Scott Kevan). 3) That Deputy Winston guy was so awesome. "Lucky guy! You're the Party Dude!" Substantial critics' poll points coming Giuseppe Andrews' way.
Stuck on You (Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly)
Its champions are sort of right. The film adopts a warm, humanist tone, choosing to create an almost pathologically inviting community where Walt and Bob are local heroes. There is a matter-of-fact blatancy about their daily lives, the shapes of their bodies, and how they have learned to accommodate the conjoined-unfriendly world. This is the film at its best; the first 45 minutes contain some truly beautiful moments. (My favorite is the burger duet, but Walt getting laid was pretty awesome too.) But then, not content to remain the slight, cheery observational comedy it is, SoY sends the Tenor brothers to “Hollywood,” a crass, exploitative cliché-universe where the Farrellys attempt to unleash their old-style embarrassment humor to flaccid effect. (Also: please, somebody muzzle Cher.) It gets better after the third-act twist, only to dissolve into a pool of sap with a resolution straight out of the rom-com playbook. Does this make it subversive? A sly genre commentary? An incestuous love story? [Cue slavering Film Comment think-piece-slash-rim-job.]
Big Fish (Tim Burton)
This is precisely the sort of film about which I have nothing to say. Too sentimental by half (the finale is effective, all right, but so cheap as to make me resist shedding tears like I was clinching my bladder on a road trip), never as fanciful as it clearly wanted to be, and stacking the deck against, you know, sons who prefer not to be lied to. Albert Finney’s great, all rumpled, ravaged and Southern. His is a new brand of deathbed dignity; all the while I expected him to finally haul off and tell his son to go fuck himself, but his slight, involuntary expressions of irritation always subsided into acceptance of all the consequences, good and bad, of having lived a full life on his own terms. The other performances aren’t bad, but Finney outclasses everyone in sight, save Jessica Lange, who isn’t given diddly-squat to do.
The Cooler (Wayne Kramer)
Why are Hollywoof people frothing at the mouth over Alec Baldwin’s performance? This is the sort of thing he can do with his eyes closed, aside from the character-as-written’s rote, gimme-an-Oscar “complexity.” (He has two sides, don’t’cha know . . .) Jen and I agreed, this was never less than fully watchable, even as the ham-fisted narrative contrivances accumulated like Upstate snow. It’s just an utterly hollow diversion, and there’s no reason for its being taken as anything more.
-The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris)
A sign of the pitfalls of international co-financing? While the film’s numerous champions will no doubt disagree, The Fog of War struck me as, more than anything, what happens when a documentarian is forced to deliver a feature-length film, despite the relative recalcitrance of his subject. McNamara provides about twenty solid minutes of original historical insight on the escalation in Vietnam, and the shift in attitude (if not policy) from Kennedy to Johnson. Otherwise, the film is padded out by giving the man a platform from which to dictate his rather self-serving memoirs. Oh! He stepped down from the presidency of Ford Motor Company at great personal sacrifice, but not before introducing seatbelts! The Cuban Missile Crisis was a very tense time! The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed on the basis of misleading information! None of this is news. McNamara, an engaging enough raconteur, hits all the buttons, but they’re noteworthy only if one isn’t familiar with this well-trod history. His having been there is mined for its authoritative stance, but he evades most any opportunity to provide us with information that only he could provide. (The epilogue is rather frank in this regard, coming down as it does to Morris’s near-pleading for a scoop.) McNamara admits mistakes – his oft-quoted statement about reexamining our reasoning if nations of similar values disagree with us, for example – but largely demurs, reminding the contemporary audience that we can’t recall what the atmosphere was like during the Cold War. (Imagine a petty functionary in a Frederick Wiseman documentary telling the camera, “It ain’t me, man. It’s the system!” and you get the idea.) Perhaps the most dismaying aspects of Morris’s film are its stylistic tics, particularly its visual deployment of charts and statistics. One of the major tropes of The Fog of War is McNamara the Statistical Optimizer, who ruled the Pentagon with ruthless computational efficiency. As he speaks, Morris shows us close-up images of texts, news articles, military manuals, charts and graphs, as the shot lengths get shorter and shorter. We are not meant to examine these artifacts or try to understand them. They’re there to signify “data,” and to bombard us as we watch. In this way, Morris reinforces McNamara’s arrogance, that we are not fit to sit in judgment of his actions, because (as he says at a few different points during the interview) “you don’t know what I know.” This, together with Philip Glass’s uncannily apposite, repetitive-stress soundtrack, all serves to convey an idea of history as a mechanical, inexorable machine, one which we are profoundly unqualified to pilot.
-The Housekeeper (Claude Berri, France)
I appreciate Jean-Pierre Bacri's laid-back acting style a great deal, but Berri has constructed such a skeletal, minor-key character study that it and Bacri hardly even register as presences. In its rather cramped 87 minutes, Bacri and Emilie Duquenne go through their paces, ever so mutedly. A relationship of convenience develops, both for Jacques and Laura, and for the film itself. Trifles are nice now and again, but even The Housekeeper's bitterly symbolic conclusion feels weightless as dandelion fluff. I hadn't seen a Berri film since high school, and I must work to rebuild that streak.
Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella)
Or O Brother Where Art The Thin Red Confederate Line. Most of this film consists of a love story between two ciphers, and its patent lunges for epic significance practically leave stretchmarks. Early on, Minghella gives us a bold, hazy glimpse into the mass pandemonium of the battlefield. Combining visceral impact (the pulpy anonymity of flesh meeting bayonet) and pea-green miasma, it resembles both Terrence Malick and Alexander Sokurov. But this doesn't last, and the effect is undercut (not thrown into relief) by the return to Cold Mountain, where Nicole Kidman's hothouse flower Ada waits for Jude Law to come home. Steve Erickson commented to me privately that he thought most of CM looked like a costume party, and this is especially the case when Ada and the good townsfolk square off against tyrannical war profiteers, all but twirling moustaches. (Watch out for the albino!) Inman (Law), meanwhile, does the picaresque thing, encountering Special Guest Stars both wacky and sad. This introduces yet another rhythm into a film largely characterized by its inconsistencies of rhythm, tone and style -- as if the historical epic were inherently a "big tent" which should accommodate the sprawl. (Literary adaptation trouble?) And then, there's Renee Zellweger's Ruby, who amounts to a soulful variation on Ellie May Clampett. The performance is impressive in its conviction (and for what it's worth, she didn't sound mulatto to me), and frequently hints at a better film that someone somewhere could have made. In the end, her character is deployed as shock value and comic relief, and despite Zellweger's best efforts Cold Mountain essentially makes Ruby a joke at her own expense.
-New Scenes From America (Jørgen Leth, Denmark) [m]
From this brief early evidence, Jørgen Leth “unobstructed” is not such a good thing. This short is sort of a “Day in the Life of America” calendar on film. But even that added time element is not fully exploited, since there is a disturbing stasis to the whole thing; it’s nearly ambient. I once complained that the films of Peter Hutton were like slide shows (I’ve since changed my mind), but at least with Hutton the photography is always rich and evocative. Here, Leth favors shiny still lives and smoky-orange sunsets, making the whole of the U.S. over into a Courvoisier ad in Esquire (the sort Richard Prince pardoied in his work from the 80s). A few Avedon-in-time portraits thrown in (only those of the Sardi’s bartender and John Ashbery are illuminating of their subjects), a tinkly John Cale piano score, and basically it’s James Benning for Dummies.
Monster (Patty Jenkins)
This scrawny wisp of a man, the dean of American film critics, pretty much says it all, and today is Opposite Day. The film itself is hideous and pasty, exhibiting the visual style of an old oil rag. Theron's Rocky Dennis mask was inconsistent and obviated anything resembling actual human expressivity. Also, the "Don't Stop Believin'" sequence was clearly supposed to be a Transcendent Emotional Moment ("More Than This" in Lost in Translation, "Wise Up" in Magnolia, "The Bluest Eyes in Texas" in Boys Don't Cry) and so didn't work. Even Dahmer packed more of a punch, and that's saying something.
In America (Jim Sheridan) (1:20)
I’m told it only got sappier after I left. Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine are good actors, but they are so hamstrung by manipulative direction (everything either hangdog monotone or balls-out screaming) that their skills only occasionally peer out. Djimon Hounsou is wasted, turned into an almost literal Black Angel. But mostly I was driven up the wall by those wise-beyond-their-years kids, always ready to sling life lessons like the Oprah Book Club.