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)




-4 (Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Russia)

[MAJOR SPOILERS, I GUESS . . . ] An utterly perverse film, 4 virtually defies description. In fact, most of the descriptions of it I've encountered tend to try to ground its strangeness with some point of comparison in film history. This is fine as far as it goes, and in many ways 4 seems to invite this kind of spot-the-influence game. Part of 4's perversity is that while it certainly fits into the web of recognizable procedures that collectively constitute the category of "international art cinema," it simultaneously manages to seem sui generis. Moment by moment it seems to be playing by the intuitive, inferential rule book that cinephilia has gradually installed in each of us, but its overall impact is that of a cinematic UFO. So, what is 4? It begins as a meticulous demonstration of the power of the fixed-frame durational shot. (Tati! Tsai Ming-liang! Otar Iosseliani! Roy Andersson!) Khrzhanovsky in effect begins 4 with the best visual trick he has up his sleeve, and I'm not about to spoil it. But after this virtuoso move, which prepares you for a very different kind of film, Khrzhanovsky provides three extended sequences in different parts of the city, introducing our protagonists -- a sex worker (Mariia Vovchenko), a piano tuner (Yuri Laguta), and a severe-looking young man (Konstanin Murzenko) who can only be described as a dealer in antique meats, some up to nine years old. These individuals cross paths only later (Haneke! Egoyan! Kieslowski!), in the fifth extended scene. This passage, which takes place in a bar, purports on the surface to be the conceptual passkey to the remainder of the film, but in actuality is a giant, compelling, convoluted game of Bullshit. (Orson Welles! Joe Weerasethakul!) In addition to the three drinkers pretending to have very different jobs than they actually do, they begin to spin elaborate tales, including one about the mystical properties of the number four. The formal composition of this sequence sets the stage for much of the rest of the film, since there are really only three characters in play; to count the bartender, silent and nodding off at his post, as the nominal fourth is to beggar the evidence, to try to bend perceptible reality to fit a schema that promises to render it not only logical but sane. From this point forward, 4 challenges the viewer to observe quartets of objects, dogs, people, situations (Peter Greenaway! Hollis Frampton!), even though this visual calculus breaks down as often as it bears out. Similarly, the scenes which immediately follow the bar sequence imply that this meeting has been a formal asterisk, a temporary juncture before and after which the three principals are dispersed. True enough, but the second half of the film abandons this structure, casting its lot almost exclusively with only one of the characters. We follow her through a dreamlike, time-looping train ride (Buñuel!), across a mud-caked post-industrial landscape (Tarkovsky! Béla Tarr! Bruno Dumont!), and into a considerably different situation than the one we'd expected. I won't recount the remainder of the plot (or should I simply say "trajectory"); I've already spoiled enough surprises. Suffice to say Khrzhanovsky plunges us into a Russian backwater community whose existence is depicted in a manner somewhere between the brutally anthropological (Herzog!) and the fugue state of a waking dream (Raul Ruiz! Alain Guiraudie!). Although the other two drinkers' stories pop up in the second half (one almost imperceptibly), 4 seems to abandon the structure it has promised, perhaps instead following the logic of heterosexual spectatorial / directorial desire (cherchez la hot chick). In time even this prurient premise is subverted, replaced by the jiggling of elderly flesh (Carlos Reygadas!). So what's the point of it all? In a way, it seems obvious. Life in the post-Soviet era is all about coping with an almost surreal gauntlet of shifting assumptions and frameworks that evaporate just as soon as you've acclimated to them (Jia Zhang-ke! But a whole lot weirder!). By the end, Khrzhanovsky even has the peasantry making commodities out of their chewed food instead of actually swallowing it. But these days, allegories for the failures of capitalism in the Communist bloc are a dime a dozen. What Khrzhanovsky accomplishes that is truly original (Nobody I can remotely think of!) is the structural depth of the allegory. 4 is an experience of thwarted spectatorship, a greased pole for cognition that refuses any but the most tenuous patterns. For the cinephile, Khrzhanovsky provides the frustration of a film that just keeps going off the rails, that just keeps threatening to be the unequivocal film of the year and then throwing it away. Irritating, yes, but at least we get to leave when the credits roll. Some people have to actually live in this movie.


-Masters of Horror: "Homecoming" (Joe Dante, Canada / U.S.) [v/m]

For a more in-depth consideration of Dante's shrewd, on-time political satire than I can really offer, I refer you to Mark Peranson's insightful analysis and Dante interview in the latest Cinema Scope. While I was impressed with "Homecoming," I suppose some of its broader strokes left me a little ambivalent. Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm have produced a classic Juvenalian satire, with impossible-to-miss stand-ins for Ann Coulter, Jerry Falwell, Larry King, and other contemporary unsavories. Despite a few poetic touches (none quite so moving as when an earnest polling-place worker affixes an "I Voted" sticker to the body of a fallen soldier), there is a sense of inevitability to much of "Homecoming." As a viewer I found myself nodding in assent but also acutely aware of the fact that its trajectory and its political takedowns were intellectually preordained. It's as though this film was in the zeitgeist for the taking, and it is absolutely to Dante's credit that he brought it into being. (After Ralph Nader's comment that the presidency of George W. Bush was "beyond satire," it's nice to see someone prove that thesis wrong.) But Dante abandons even the thin metaphorical register recently employed by Romero, scoring direct hits but sacrificing the subtlety that usually characterizes great art. So although I began and ended my viewing of "Homecoming" secure in the knowledge that Dante's point of view is the correct one, the director has perhaps accomplished something else here, implicitly posing a secondary set of questions, reverberating in the shadow of the primary ones. What is art's function in a desperate political present? When are the stakes too high to risk speaking in the ambiguous languages of aesthetic response? What's gained, and lost, when the gloves come off? ["Homecoming" can currently be seen in the U.S. on Showtime On Demand.]


Munich (Steven Spielberg)

Sympathy For a Mensch of Vengeance -- Although I still need to catch up with War of the Worlds, I'm fairly confident in asserting that Munich is Spielberg's best film so far this decade, probably his finest since Schindler's List. I'm a lot less ambivalent about Munich's politics, though, since for the moment, Spielberg is abandoning the moral certitude that inevitably accompanies American considerations of Nazism and delving into the spiral of violence between Israel and Palestine. After a nominal restaging of the terrorist assault and kidnapping that shattered the 1972 Munich Olympics (and for many global viewers represented a first glimpse at Palestinian terrorism), Spielberg drops us into a crisis point in an unofficial history -- Israel's assembly of an off-the-books task force sent on a globetrotting mission to eliminate the parties responsible for the Munich attack. While there are a number of aspects of Munich that bear the marks of Spielberg's worst populist tendencies (blatant exposition, a protagonist with shadowy daddy-issues, and some spectacularly idiotic cross-cutting in the final reel), this is in many respects the most "European" film this director has ever made. Partly this is due to the European locales and his wise decision to supplement a solid if nondescript lead performance by Eric Bana with a host of non-American talent capable of slipping modestly into the demands of their roles with a minimum of star-ego showboating. (Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Marie-Josée Croze, and Michael Lonsdale comprise an estimable ensemble, but wild-eyed Mathieu Amalric, a smarmy, vaguely Polanskiesque dwarf in an ill-fitting suit, effortlessly steals scene after scene.) But mainly Spielberg allows himself to train his technical skills on the articulation of an ever-widening moral quandary, instead of feeding us the usual pat lessons from a smug, secure position. (Co-screenwriter Tony Kushner no doubt deserves a good deal of credit for this as well.) Bana and his team go to work for the long midsection of Munich, a tactical team of professionals out of Howard Hawks dropped wholesale into a Hitchcockian international-intrigue scenario. Eventually, the taut pleasures of watching this unofficial Mossad cadre exact payback for Munich -- as Craig's character states, teaching the world that "you don't fuck with the Jews" -- give way to an exponential, centrifugal mess. On a practical level, righteously "combating terror" leads to more terrorists, more bloodshed, and more trouble. In a rare show of intelligence, John Williams delivers a score that often directly echoes the trademark tacka-tacka-tacka percussion of the Battle of Algiers soundtrack, and Spielberg subtly borrows from Pontecorvo in other conceptually appropriate ways. Like Algiers, Munich adopts a one-by-one annihilation structure, but soon the numbers game goes haywire, and the hit squad has to veer off in unexpected directions. Alongside the logistical problems and perhaps more importantly, Bana's Avner and his crew have to face the consequences of fighting terror with terror, and eventually come to question the lengths that Israel will go to to secure its future. Some have complained that this middle section is "repetitious" and that its action and reflection aspects are poorly integrated. Yes, if you follow Syd Field Hollywood logic. But in fact the repetitive organization is key; Munich operates like a structural film about the gradual erosion of Israeli moral high ground. Granted, there is only so far that Spielberg the filmmaker can go with this. He will always ask us to identify with an individual, rather than interrogating the systems that produce specific subject-positions available to those individuals. In addition to limiting his political acuity, this approach sometimes leads to laughable psychology. (The Munich attack is depicted as Avner's private trauma, endlessly repeated but never mastered. Isn't this how such attacks function socially, as well as individually?) But despite these lapses, Spielberg has generated a productive, provocative political thriller that refuses to condemn Israel (or the United States) from the outside, but instead challenges the retaliation cycle so endemic to modern geopolitics. In the end, Avner opts out completely, hunkering down in Brooklyn with his family. Since we know that the vengeance will continue without him, Munich demands that we take stock of our own position in this system.


The New World (Terrence Malick)

Malick's latest is a consistently riveting experience, but also a frustrating, muddled one. Although I cannot claim to be positive about it on a single viewing, The New World seems to be structured in a number of ways at once, never quite gelling as an aesthetic whole. The story of the British settlers' arrival in Virginia and their first contact with Native Americans ("naturals," the whites call them) is predominately told through a visual language that I can only describe as Heideggerian. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki construct the majority of The New World from wide shots pitched either at high- or low-angle, resulting in stark juxtapositions between the elements at their most primal -- earth and sky, sky and water, and eventually in the battle sequences, earth and fire. This approach, together with the film's deliberate pacing and transportive use of dolorous selections from the classical canon, invests the encounter between these two cultures with a mythic import; in fact, the early sequence of the Europeans' arrival, tall ships silhouetted against the sky while the Natives stare in wonder and terror, resembles nothing so much as Kubrick's staging of the encounter with the monolith in 2001. As the film continues, it becomes clearer that, at least in part, there is a visual code at work, using these sublime images of the Heideggerian "fourfold" to depict greater or lesser connection to the earth and the elements. Colin Farrell's John Smith, for example, tends to be shown against the sky when embodying European ideals, grounded and low when engaging with Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and her tribesmen. This visual syntax, however, is not allowed to carry the day. Not only does Malick disrupt the hypnotic sublimity of his images through overzealous cutting. (Many sequences, especially around the encampment and along the James River, recall Theo Angelopoulos, and while he may well hold his shots too long on occasion, Malick certainly might've erred more in that direction, considering the effects he clearly aims to achieve.)


His secondary schema for organizing the film is at odds with the first. The three main characters, John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe (Christian Bale), maintain internal monologues in voiceover, detailing both their fleeting impressions of the natural wonder of the Virginia colony and their private struggles with what evolves into a distended love triangle. There is certainly something to be said for this approach; it is bold and not always wrong. In fact, the private musings of Smith and Rolfe help to elucidate how blinkered the colonists are in this new "Eden." (For example, Smith imagines that the Native Americans have no impulse for power or capacity for deception. Malick then shows us the Chief and his advisors, some arguing for conciliatory overtures toward the whites, others proclaiming the need to defend their country against the invaders.) On the other hand, Pocahontas' narrative is largely one of deep carnality, her passion for John Smith poetically interlaced with her spiritual connection to the earth. Now, the political and feminist problems with this are obvious; Pocahontas is the repository for Malick's ideal of an undespoiled, virgin land, "woman" and "nature" too neatly articulated in a manner that, in part, denies her complexity. Or better yet, these symbolic connections belie the complex subjectivity that The New World affords Pocahontas at other moments in the film. (Her trip to England is particularly harrowing, dividing her psyche against itself in ways difficult to tidily parse.) So part of the trouble with Malick's voiceover is that in further idealizes Pocahontas by refusing to afford her a margin of emotional error -- the misperceptions that devil the Europeans -- aside from her libidinal investment in John Smith. She is both magnified to the level of spiritual world-consciousness, and trivialized in the main narrative as a woman scorned. To an extent, the film envelops Pocahontas' emotional arc within a rather banal period piece, a third structural level that mostly focuses on the colonial encampment. Crude, squalid Britons with their harsh Protestant justice are almost laughable in this film, and this makes Pocahontas' existence within this nasty, brutish realm that much more of a cruel cosmic joke. Although the film tries to depict her emotional negotiation between two irreconcilable cultures, this too is subsumed within the John Smith / John Rolfe romantic conundrum. It is almost as though Malick believed that his philosophical and poetical gestures would only hold water for mainstream audiences (those who rejected The Thin Red Line in no uncertain terms) with a "through-line" about a woman and her passions. It is possible, I suppose, to read this compromise as the Heideggerian poetic writ large in the film's architecture, the mundane and the world-historical brought together like earth and sky. But in fact the one minimizes the impact of the other, resulting in a contact zone so muddied as to insist upon its legibility through rank stereotype. Ambitious and formally accomplished though it may be, The New World is an intellectual quagmire.




Match Point (Woody Allen, U.S. / U.K.)

It's certainly amusing to watch even Match Point's fans bend over backwards to explain how Woody Allen could have possibly made this film. (It was an old script! It was ghost-written! Actually getting out of Manhattan reinvigorated him! British producers insisted there be no Woody stand-in! Et cetera.) And yes, it was a welcome shock to see the Woodman actually deploy a visual metaphor instead of laying everything out with trowel and spackle. (Mike, I'm assuming the drop-shot reprise was the applause-getter?) But at the same time, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are lots of moments in Match Point where, just like in Melinda and Melinda, or Curse of the Jade Scorpion, or any other lame latter-day Allen film, overwritten exposition and clunky, faux-literary verbosity just land with a thud. Inevitably this leaves Allen's neatly scrubbed upper-crust cast struggling against all odds to wrap their tongues around these starchy sheets of discourse, and they always end up looking like they're doing community service, stranded in some kind of nightmare in which Straub and Huillet are filming an adaptation of six back issues of Architectural Digest. So, on the one hand, Match Point's success has to do with Allen (particularly in the scripting) creating contexts in which these moments of clunk don't stick out so much. (Specifically, the tennis club dialogues and everything at the police station rings false.) Then again, if I may be permitted a little cynicism, could it partly be that the novelty of hearing Allen's cudgel prose emanate from mostly British mouths has disguised some of the unnatural aspects of the dialogue for foreign audiences? (As Neil Young pointed out to me, Match Point's reception in the U.K. has been abysmal.) Nevertheless, yes, this is Allen's most interesting and accomplished (read: not embarrassing) film since Crimes and Misdemeanors, which yes, Match Point resembles. And yes, since Match Point alerts the viewer that it is a mash-up of Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, the film flatters its well-read middle class viewership while neatly analyzing its own status as text. But this isn't exactly a flaw. Most American films avoid engagement with high culture of any kind, so Woody can be forgiven just a little for throwing in some Cliffs Notes. But to me, the most unique aspect of Match Point, the one that I observed tugging and chafing beneath its surface like an ill-fitting suit, is the film's own class anxiety. The explicit subject matter is about a social-climbing arriviste infiltrating a wealthy family. But apart from being rather dim, the Hewetts are a pleasant enough bunch. (Only wife Eleanor is depicted as nasty, lending credence to some critics' charges of the picture's latent misogyny.) Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, cool but bland) is indeed playing the Tom Ripley card, but Allen refuses to make him a psychopath, exactly. In the film's cinematography and mise-en-scène, Allen betrays his identification with the Hewetts, but his script indicates that he set himself the intriguing thought-experiment of counter-identifying with the conniving (and sickeningly lucky) lower-class outsider. (Forget about any racial connotations re: Wilton's Irishness. Nothing is done with it and it's as misjudged as the beefeater shots -- pure intellectual tourism.) On some level, Match Point clearly wants to see Wilton get away with everything, precisely because his dumb luck confirms the mythological, American take on classlessness. It's a perverse bootstraps-thriller. (Hard work, a little luck, and a few well-placed shots, and you're in.) So perhaps this accounts for the disparity in international reception. Match Point may be a film that uses and abuses the popular meme of British class rigidity so that a disaffected American artist can talk back to his countrymen. Does one bad myth deserve another?


-Police Beat (Robinson Devor)

Miles away from Devor's debut film, the faux-hardboiled Patrick Warburton vehicle The Woman Chaser, Police Beat abides by the oneiric rhythms and impressionistic structure one would more readily expect from a European or, fittingly, an African film, although part of the problem lies in an unwillingness to fully commit to this approach. On paper it's simple to the point of obtuseness: Senegalese-born Z (Pape Sidy Niang) is a bicycle cop in Seattle, and his American lover has vanished on a camping trip with an old flame. Z drifts from disturbance to disturbance with earnest concern, but all the while a running interior monologue communicates his lovelorn distraction. The film follows the halting, semi-random ebb and flow of the police calls, some bizarre and others utterly unspectacular. But Devor and co-screenwriter Charles Mudede are clearly allowing these crimes and urban disruptions to function as objective correlatives of Z's psychic state. Within this very successful formal gamble, Police Beat also explores (with admirable subtlety and restraint) Z's slight cultural remove, as well as his ambivalent occupancy of the socially conservative role of police officer. Often the film places the viewer in a spectatorial position analogous to Z's, withholding information or muddying the sound mix just enough to convey confusion and, perhaps even more significantly, the half-conscious drift of emotional detachment, the situation of being on the job and trying to do your best when your head just can't really be in the ballgame. While watching, certain touchstones crossed my mind. Police Beat's genial tone, and Z's committed execution of his duties with just a hint of resignation, suggest an entire film build around John C. Reilly's Magnolia character. And, in its hovering observation of a man at work in the midst of psychological turmoil, this film exhibits strange tonal affinities with Przemyslaw Reut's Paradox Lake, although it bears no hint of that film's misguided pretentions. Sadly, Devor and Mudede do let Police Beat's mood and formal tenor get away from them on occasion. The brief stagings of the crimes and misdemeanors in progress are on the mark about 1/3 of the time, but too often they veer into awkward half-comedy, and their (unprofessional?) performers engage in that odd form of muted overacting that happens when actors are coached to "be natural" but can't help approximating their intuitive sense of what true thespianism looks like. Since, in some way, these events are both "objective" (taken from actual police calls, as it happens) and emblematic of Z's troubled Seattle of the mind, it would take an act of superhuman, pop-Bressonian directorial skill to nail each and every one. The fact that Police Beat is hobbled only slightly by these missteps speaks to the significant level of achievement here. Police Beat operates in a plangent emotional register that most American Indie films (and the twenty-somethings who make them) scarcely know exists. Finally, a memo to Victor Morton: see this film. I can't recall the last time I saw a movie that affirmed conservative values in such a sensitive, intelligent manner.


-SPL (Wilson Yip, Hong Kong)

SPL is a tight little thriller that manages to weave some twists and turns into its rather hidebound genre mechanics. This is the first Yip film I've seen, and as a director he's skillful and a little audacious, but doesn't really seem to be taking a firm stand for himself as an Artiste. He displays bits of influence from Johnnie To and John Woo, but spins them into his own concoction. While Yip lacks To's eye-popping, architectonic way with cinematic space, SPL does play with exaggerated foreground / background relationships, the white heat of overexposed celluloid, and exhibits impressively surefooted editing. And while SPL wisely foregoes Woo's overwrought macho balletics, there is an explicit fate structure at work (the title refers to three figures in the Chinese zodiac) that allows for some sub-operatic melodrama. (In particular, there is a thematic throughline about the duties and perils of fatherhood, and it works quite well.) On an extra-diegetic level, Yip effectively stages his icon-on-icon showdowns without needless showboating. Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and especially newcomer Jing Wu operate as a bad-ass ensemble, supple and organic as the fight sequences build in intensity. (None of the "Handsome Boy Modeling School" posing that Ryan Wu has complained about re: recent To efforts.) If Yip has a directorial flaw, it's that he too often uses unnecessary flashbacks to clarify obvious rhymes and resonances in the plot. Meanwhile, some of the basic story elements of the first half-hour were a tad muddy to me on first viewing. Nevertheless, SPL's solid, and Yip's one to watch.




-Chain (Jem Cohen, U.S. / Germany)

Chain is a film that professes to have something to say about the pernicious homogeneity and economic injustice (not to mention soul-crushing boredom) promoted by the "malling of America" and the rest of the developed world. Everywhere you go, another Starbucks, another Eckerd Drugs, another Hot Dog on a Stick. Chain is also, on an aesthetic level, about really trying to examine the "non-spaces" of commercialized suburbs and their strip shopping centers, the "groves" of trees that line parking lots, the areas under highway overpasses where only sign-wielding panhandlers dare to venture on foot. Even though the point of Chain is nothing particularly revelatory ("some people say that bowling alleys all look the same"), there is certainly room for a clear-eyed landscape study willing to fully imbibe the loneliness of the big-box experience. Cohen, however, unwittingly replicates the very nowhere-aesthetics he seems to want to critique. Some of the most interesting images in Chain are shot inside shopping malls, and the low angle (as well as our foreknowledge about mall security) indicates that these images were made secretly with a concealed camera. But if you really examine these shots, what do they tell us? For one thing Cohen never holds any one image very long, and this abbreviated shot length mirrors the flash-frame consciousness of mall hypnosis. Why is it that everywhere Cohen points his furtive camera, there's a beautiful, well-lit image for the taking? The mall, in a sense, has gotten there before him. It is scientifically designed to create a picture-world for commodities, one we can walk around in. Photographing this world is not only verboten; it's a bit redundant. Granted, a penetrating eye, willing to stare until defamiliarization occurs, could still show us something about how we live in these non-spaces, could actually approximate an Atget for our times. (This is the sort of work James Benning has performed in many of his best films.) But Cohen prefers the glance, moving quickly from scene to scene as if the very architecture were moving him around. (Hint: it is. For the best explication of this argument, I direct you to Anne Friedberg's book Window Shopping.) Cohen tries to complicate matters by infusing the documentary character of Chain with a minimal narrative diptych, to mixed results. His story of "Amanda," a young homeless squatter who at first hangs out in the mall, and then becomes assimilated into its low-wage Borg-world, is just banal enough to compel interest. (For most of the film I was unsure whether this material was comprised of real interviews, and this is certainly to the credit of actress Mira Billotte.) There is a palpable sadness to Amanda, both fully individual and starkly typical of her class position, and although this thread doesn't ameliorate Cohen's formal missteps, it indicates one tack for holding Chain together more convincingly. On the other hand, the story of Tamiko (Miho Nikaido) is probably Cohen's single most inexcusable gaffe. Tamiko is a Japanese businesswoman in the U.S. to do research and meet investors for a shopping mall / amusement park complex. She is 31, unmarried, practices her English by reciting the company's mission statement over and over, and waits in vain for her beloved company to call. Eventually she is a forgotten field agent, possibly laid off without even knowing it. When the company credit card is declined, she charges the hotel room to her personal account. Her loyalty, her complete libidinal investment in the Company-as-lover (they're just not that into her) is a cheap, cruel stereotype of both Japanese-ness and middle-aged career women, proving that there are a lot of things more pedestrian (and more in need of immediate critique) than the sameness of the world's carpet stores. Granted, the end credits reveal that Cohen has in fact engineered a noteworthy coup de cinéma, subtly employing "creative geography" on geographical arrangements whose planning has consciously drained them of their creativity. But the final hour of Chain could quite productively be replaced by taking a drive (or even a walk) of your own.


-The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, U.S. / France)

Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) manage to take a few significant risks with this revisionist, modern-day Western, but considering how conventional it mostly is, audiences are unlikely to really notice. The story of an undocumented Mexican ranch hand (Julio Cedillo) accidentally murdered by an asshole Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper) in Texas, Three Burials begins with some intriguing business, the sort that Bertolt Brecht might have approvingly called "counter-factual." Pepper and his wife (January Jones) look for a home, and when he tells the salesman he's working Border Patrol, the fellow looks like he just might vomit from disgust. (I'm from Texas, and trust me, you tell the average Texan dude that you're defending the border and he'll probably buy you a beer, if he doesn't drop to his knees and blow you. This is, after all the state that gave us "Operation Wetback.") Pepper's Mike Norton character is a misfit even on the job (he uses too much force, even against women), and so when Jones' grizzled cowhand Pete comes a-calling seeking vengeance for his slain buddy, it mostly seems fitting. However it's here that things take an odd turn. While we are treated to flashbacks that articulate the friendship between Pete and Melquiades (and it's worth noting that, to my eyes, this is the first time that Arriaga's nonlinear storytelling actually serves to deepen the emotional resonance of the tale, instead of serving as flashy trickery), there's clearly more going on beneath the surface. Pete's dazed, almost mechanized violence and pedal-to-the-metal rage for justice bespeak a bond with Mel that is homosocial at the very least. That is, the film veers into melodrama that it, and the characters trapped inside it, seem ill-equipped to handle. Eventually things wind down (or up, perhaps) to some mano-a-mano business that strives to approximate the dustbowl-Beckettisms of a Budd Boetticher, but falls well short. Despite the liberal revisionism, and despite good intentions all around, nothing much seems at stake in this film. The ultra-violence that some have compared to Peckinpah is always tinged with a little too much jibber-jabber to really hit you in the gut. Granted, most of the pummeling is visited upon Mike's body, and the grueling physicality of Pepper's performance is quite extraordinary. But as written, his character is too obviously a craven coward, and this makes Pete's punishments seem like second-hand movie gestures, lone justice on the cheap. Finally, Jones' character seems to have claim to the moral high ground over all others in the film, simply because he's a gringo who bothered to learn Español. As we discover, this doesn't give him unobstructed access to the truth. But finally, does it matter for him, or us?




Hostel (Eli Roth)

Obviously dogshit, and utterly incompetent in execution. (Cabin Fever showed such promise. What went wrong?) Apart from the gaping plot holes ("I mean, nobody cares, right?") and the ugly-as-ass digital video ("Hey, man, I was going for that grungy look, you know? Like, seriously Eastern Europe!"), you've got -- I'm not kidding -- an unintentional freeze-frame on Jay Hernandez's face that took me aback until I realized it was a DV-to-computer rendering glitch nobody bothered to correct. While I don't agree with Gavin Smith that Hostel was "hands-down the most hateful film in this year's [Toronto] line-up" (that would be Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and no, I won't let it go), it certainly is pointlessly sleazy and utterly negligible even as gorehound bait. Roth would probably have us believe (and may even believe himself) that he's following the old Hitchcockian procedure of turning away from extreme violence, all the better to let us imagine something worse than anything that could ever be shown. But, one late-reel sequence aside (low-rent Bataille fanatics unite!), Roth just sort of wimps out, clearly finagling to meet Lionsgate's R-rating requirement. As for geopolitical subtext, it's too infantile to really worry with. At first I was kind of hoping that the ugly-American sex-tourist dudes would get a comeuppance just for being randy assholes in backwards baseball caps. But in fact they're actually supposed to be our point of identification. (Their Icelandic buddy is just a gauche wannabe, easily dispatched.) Since Hostel's horrors entail not just loose Eurotrash women but sub-suburban mise-en-scène in and of itself (dirt roads, smokestacks, shared bathrooms), we get a thoughtless, inadvertent condemnation of the old Eastern Bloc for succumbing to free-market pressure in nightmarish, unclean (and completely imaginary) ways. Still, learn Deutsch, my friends! It could save your life. Final note: Apparently at TIFF Roth was showing a DVCAM workprint that still had his verbal directions to the actors audible on the soundtrack. Too bad he deleted them; it could have at least made for a low-rent Michael Snow tribute.


[ADDENDUM: I received an email from Zack McGhee of Dayton, OH (a Google search tags him as a "professional superdork;" join the club, my man) who provided a link to an image of Roth in action. <> It seems to confirm that, contrary to my assertion, Roth actually shot Hostel on film. I should state that I had no particular information regarding whether it was a DV production, but was simply relying on the evidence of my own eyes. The film features extremely flattened space and washed-out colors, usually indicating the use of video. (Compare Hostel's dark, fluorescent-lit corridors with those of, say, Kontroll, and the difference is striking.) Nevertheless, I have certainly been wrong on this score in the past. Although I'd wager good money that Hostel was, at the very least, edited digitally or underwent a conversion into video at some point in the production process, I can't deny that it sure looks like Roth is using an Arri. Anyhow, thanks for the sleuth work, Zack.]




Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, U.K.) (1:23)

Dear Reader, I could stand it no longer. Here's one I was suspicious of, but I gave in to peer pressure. P&P is one of the most acclaimed films of 2005. Now I see why, but I'm not buying it. The assumption seems to be, literary adaptations and period pieces are usually so tasteful, so middlebrow, polished to such a high sheen, that Wright's minor formal innovations gleam like understated genius. In fact, his directorial gestures are fairly simple. He shoots in natural light, with a filter designed to capture the sun-dappled landscape in a manner more befitting one of those American B-pictures from the 1970s that (as we all know) were the pinnacle of the cinematic art. He also stages significant scenes in the manner of a second-rate Altman, using telephoto lenses to radically flatten out space, and cheating on the sound design, giving the illusion of immersing the viewer in an unruly bevy of activity but in fact always tweaking things for maximum legibility. In terms of the narrative, Wright ratchets Austen's character types into bulging caricatures (Mr. Collins and the younger Bennetts in particular), and coaxes from Keira Knightley a wan, lifeless performance. (That it is garnering Oscar talk is just a mark of exactly how much the industry has invested in the white chick from Bend It Like Beckham, and how badly it aims to reap return.) Sorry, but unless the insertion of a medium close-up of a pendulous pair of hog balls represents some level of modernist subversion of the text (it doesn't), what I saw doesn't really merit such universal praise. There's no there there.