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 Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker, France) [v/m]

About thirty minutes into watching The Case of the Grinning Cat, I realized that I can't really be objective about Chris Marker. Make no mistake, Grinning Cat is an outstanding essay-doc by most any standard, particularly as a model of principled digression. Marker understands that any evolving situation is too messy to adequately convey it in a purely linear fashion, but more than this, his best work stands as a virtual hypertext displaying the shape and pattern of dialectical thinking. As a research method, Marker's approach would be extremely tricky to emulate, and I mean it as a compliment of the highest order when I say that Grinning Cat is like the greatest student film ever made. It's not just its sprawling scope and "lack of discipline;" Marker somehow manages to continually look at his world, his culture, and his times with fresh eyes. There is undoubtedly a "Marker style," but that style is endlessly self-rejuvenating, like the artist is constantly making it up as he goes along, riffing on his basic themes and playing leftist commentary like jazz. And it's not just that Marker's work has been formative for the way I see cinema, although it has. It's that what he does and how he does it has shaped the way I think. Jonas Mekas famously claimed that the avant-garde world of New York became his surrogate family, and as I watched Grinning Cat I realized that while so many major film artists and their work have helped to form me into who I am, Chris Marker is one of the only filmmakers who operate in my psyche like family. He's like the endlessly chatty unreconstructed Marxist uncle I never had, a vivacious raconteur and first-person witness to history in the making. Marker taught me how to hold my convictions without drifting into doctrinaire, inflexible thinking, and how to be open to the alleatory melody of the world. Grinning Cat is about the 2002 French elections, graffiti art, the Bush administration, people who live in the Metro, and of course cats, both living and representational. But above all it's about the new face of protest, which looks a lot like the spirit of the 1960s finding new life in the present moment. Marker simply noticed images of a M. Chat on buildings and rooftops around Paris, and he decided to find out who these cats were. They turned out to be defiantly inscrutable little emblems of anarchy, the sort of spontaneous gesture the Situationists and people like de Certeau wrote about. It's not all fireside chats and cappuccino with Marker, and he can be a stern Dutch uncle when he needs to be. (Marker has no use for glib comparisons to the Nazis, as is the case with all thinking people.) But The Case of the Grinning Cat, like the final hour of Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death (Jacobs and Marker are temperamentally distinct but, I think, formally and politically related -- two vitally avuncular modes), is primarily about refusing despair, locating hope in the youth and action all around us. Like the cats who symbolize it, it's a sharp and unpredictable force, one that you never suspect until it pounces. [This review is dedicated to Hollis, Lemieux, and Ube, the four-legged troublemakers I'm proud to live alongside.]




-Betelnut (Yang Heng, China)

Let's get this out of the way first -- Yang's debut feature is deceptively weird, and my experience of viewing it marked a sort of exponential curve from deep annoyance to sincere approval, admiration, and even pleasure. What's more, at first Betelnut struck me as utterly, painfully familiar, a second-rate gloss on tried-and-true art film methods, and over the course of its running time finally convinced me that it's something altogether different, odd and original and even defiant in its quiet little way. According to Tony Rayns, Yang made some avant-garde shorts prior to Betelnut and this makes perfect sense, although I didn't know this while watching Betelnut and it's probably good that I didn't. Although a few key shots use tortoise-paced circular pans or creep across the landscape in one direction or the other, the majority of Betelnut is filmed with a fixed-position camera, operated by Yang himself. The images looked digital to me, and they are, almost without exception, exquisite, the kind of cinematography from which stills could be excised and immediately hung on a gallery wall. Yang's method of composition emphasizes deep focus, sometimes in the most obvious manner possible -- long shots down alleyways; roads at the base of a hill with action in both foreground and background; riverbank sequences with buildings on the far bank dissipating in the mist. Although comparisons from various quarters of the Asian Master-shot School are inevitable and not off base, Yang's film seems more of a piece with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's recent work, which itself is a kind of gloss on Antonioni's existentialist use of space. Distant could have been an even more appropriate title for this film, especially given that betelnuts are a nicotine-like stimulant; I have to wonder whether Yang's title is some kind of wry, deeply ironic joke. Although to my eyes certain scenes overplay the foreground / background disparity, especially when an actor suddenly steps from off-frame into close-up, the majority of them strike a thrilling balance between deep-focus Bazinian imagery and a rigorous pictorial flatness. Yang's fields partake of the spatial interplay one finds in classical Chinese and Japanese painting, as well as that of Cézanne or Richard Diebenkorn. Just near the end of the film, we are given a view from out of a ferry window, and Yang's camera vertically bisects the landscape into natural and green-tinted segments, a thrilling moment that recalled Michael Snow's filter play in Wavelength.


Yang is a first-class visual stylist, and Betelnut is far and away the most exciting debut film I've seen all year. In fact, it would occupy a high place in my 2006 top ten were it not for the fact that Betelnut's narrative content is frustratingly empty. Yang hangs his formal invention on a narrative that clearly intends to match the minimalism of his cinematic style, but for this viewer the result was frustrating and irksome, so much so that my appreciation for Betelnut is still highly qualified, even divided against itself. A story of two young dudes in the hinterlands of Hunan Province, boosting bikes, cruising other guys' chicks, and either beating the crap out of someone or (more often) getting the crap beaten out of them, Betelnut's story content is maddeningly intractable, almost daring the viewer to give a shit. The problem isn't that the wayward youths of Betelnut are inarticulate, and even somewhat dense. It's that unlike the best stories of restless youth (and more like a visit to an avergae high school classroom), their inarticulateness reveals little about their condition, or ours. Grumpy cinephiles who find Jia Zhangke's films to be populated by vacant drones put in place only to allegorize the growing pains of China in Transition (and I decidedlydo not count myself among this group) will wonder whether Betelnut is actually a sly parody of Jia, or a theoretical attempt to push through Asian ennui and arrive at a kind of Warholian "anemic cinema," filled with half-chewed thoughts, petty concerns, and all the self-absorption so unbecoming in teenagers of every nationality. In short, I cannot recall the last time I was so enthralled with a film's formal approach while simultaneously finding its manifest content so utterly lacking in interest. I have little doubt this is a personal problem, however, and implore you to see Betelnut for yourself if and when you get the chance. As Rayns writes, "It's a poetic film about stasis," and I submit that it's also a deeply ambivalent, even agonizing exploration of what's left and where there is to go when a set of themes, or even the medium itself, become exhausted.


Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong / China)

I know I'm not supposed to like this, but I do. It's obviously trashy, a sort of sub-All My Children potboiler that conducts itself as though it were grand Shakespearean tragedy. But taken on its own soapy terms, it's quite entertaining, in that unique way one sometimes takes pleasure in remaining two steps ahead of the plot instead of feeling insulted. However for me the major selling point of Golden Flower is its gorgeously garish mise-en-scène. Like a vast, operatic Chinese restaurant, Golden Flower is crammed with chintzy, faux-opulent Chinoiserie, decked out in searing goldenrod laced with blaring Chinese red. As much a stained glass window as a piece of cinema, Golden Flower hovers like pure light on the screen in its finest moments, when it accidentally takes some down time from the hurtling plot. (In this regard the rather logy pacing actually helps. Visual pleasure is given a bit more time to marinate, which distinguishes Zhang's film from the Mandarin-language Tang Dynasty soaps on which the film is patterned.) In these dense, ornate optical fields, the introduction of a piercing royal blue or emerald green is a spectacular, breathtaking event, on par with and largely exceeding any given plot twist. A good friend correctly compared Golden Flower to Sternberg, with his gauzy partitions and busily Orientalist spatial arrangements, at it's a sign of global cultural exchange that Zhang is willing to sell these ridiculous fantasies back to the very people burlesqued by them. But this is Sternberg crossed with Mondrian. The master director of Shanghai Express would never settle for the clean lines, rectilinear organization and stentorian CGI of Zhang, and the result is a formalism on the brink of illegibility. If Zhang and his editors understood (or cared) how to connect images in relation to their plasticity, instead of merely for narrative expediency, Golden Flower would be a sculptural near-masterpiece like Hero. But this isn't in that league. As a result, however, it is more conventionally diverting than Hero, which is glorious but often chilly and imposing, especially between fight sequences. Thematically, however, Golden Flower shares quite a bit with Hero, and maybe even vindicates my counterintuitive reading of that earlier film. How cozy is Zhang with the present government? He seems to be sitting pretty, and yet Golden Flower is so brazenly overt about the futility of standing up to entrenched power (Don't rebel. No, really. We mean it. Seriously, we're gonna fuck you up!) that it careens into hysteria. In short, it's a text on the verge of cracking up.


Deja Vu (Tony Scott)

Well, first off I have to thank my Cinema Scope brethren Mark and Christoph for digging this fine film out of the cut-out bin. I admit that I haven't ever really given much serious thought to Tony Scott ("competent action director," and that's about it) but his handling of Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio's rich, complex script manages to simultaneously convey vast, operatic romanticism and icy control. Not for nothing has Vertigo been the favored point of reference among Deja Vu's fans, but actually a literate, wordy actioner like Spartan is just as apt a comparison. While watching (and being thoroughly entertained by) Deja Vu it's difficult not to mentally plug it in to the broad network of "cinema as time travel" films (Le Jetée, Donnie Darko, Je T'aime Je T'aime, just off the top of my head), and unlike those films Deja Vu at least seems to forego doomed romanticism in favor of an approximation of a happy ending. Is this a bit of a copout? Possibly, although on further consideration it may be a rather bold move to suggest that if the very recent past is moving just parallel to our present, we might productively intervene in it. After all, These Dark Political Times provide no shortage of dystopian visions which implicitly tell us that we cannot or will not intervene in our own future, at least not until it bottoms out in an Orwellian nightmare of consumer fascism. A glimmer of hope that committed humans might make things better could be just the kind of fantasy we need more of. And this would square with Deja Vu's more obvious progressive impulses. The film could've been set in any American town with a waterfront, but its use of New Orleans is pointed and poignant. Just as the slain Claire Kuchever's father provides gruff ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) pictures of his daughter in life, planting these images in his brain to "make [him] care," so Deja Vu extrapolates a turn of events which could make even the apathetic Bush government care about New Orleans. Katrina is replaced with terror, but again, in a pointedly progressive move, it's the same kind of right-wing domestic terror that rocked Oklahoma City -- that is, the kind of terror that is unproductive from the standpoint of the neo-con's permanent War on Terror.


The film's political smarts and its sweeping, Vertigoesque pathos are beautifully fused in the pulse-pounding freeway chase, one of the most ingenious action sequences in recent memory. Having fallen in love with the already-dead Claire through images of her emanating from the (still active) past, Carlin uses a remote camera to chase Claire's assailant on the freeway, where he drove four and a half days ago. That is, Carlin careens his hijacked Hummer through the present as he gazes through the viewfinder at the past. He becomes more and more oblivious to the present-day wreckage his actions are piling up around him, and once he's done he nonchalantly radios in for some paramedics to come and clean up his mess. Like Scotty, the present is already lost to Carlin; he's now a near-psychotic for whom the material world is a mere distraction. But in the same vein, Deja Vu depicts a crime fighting mission rooted in the past, always out of sync and largely incapable of grappling with the present as it stands. The fact that the mission succeeds (and becomes a form of heroic suicide) is accurately depicted as little more than dumb luck. As happy endings go, Deja Vu's third act provides the propulsion one expects from a mainstream actioner, but this formal capitulation to genre codes belies a deep, productive ambivalence. Finally, it's taken me a while to realize that I really like Denzel Washington. From his Spike Lee joints to smaller efforts like Devil in a Blue Dress and The Mighty Quinn, he really displays more willingness to take risks than most actors of his stature, not to mention a commitment to representing the variegated local textures of the African-American experience. He's a stealth irritant against crushing Hollywood conformity.


-Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine)

[BALLBUSTING, GOOCH-JOLTING SPOILERS] "This is gonna suck." Not only is this the Jackass boys' constant pre-stunt refrain; it probably echoes the private thoughts of bourgie film critics forced to take this work seriously, professionally incapable of completely turning their noses up at it for fear of looking square but all the while gritting their teeth and thinking of England (The Queen, not Dave). But is it too much of a stretch -- an overthinking of good, unclean fun -- to suggest that the stuntsmanship of Jackass is a kind of metaphor for life itself? I mean, most days suck, most of our time is spent doing sucky things and trying to steel ourselves against the pain. The crass dialecticians of Jackass dive headlong into the pain, making a career out of extreme versions of the kind of scenarios the rest of us studiously avoid (getting kicked in the crotch, stepping on garden tools, eating shit). Like more quotidian versions of the late Bob Flanagan, Johnny "Are You Queer?" Knoxville and his band of brothers take charge of the pain. It never makes it any less agonizing, but it does have a terse, bounded narrative quality to it. This thing's gonna suck, oh fuck does that hurt, let me lie on the ground for a minute, are you okay?, yeah I'm okay, let's grab a beer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Beats the droning all-over numbness of, well, everything else. The stunts themselves are funnier and more effective than the ones in the first film. The proof is in the horse-dick pudding and I spent more than half of J2 doubled over in laughter, which wasn't the case the first time out. I still have problems with the format, since framing every stunt with all the other boys laughing their asses off feels infectious and exclusionary in equal measure. And there was no reason to conclude with a musical number. Just felt like they'd run out of ideas. Also, there's a paradox in the fact that J2's most direct homage to historical aesthetics (the eye-leech, clearly a nod to Buñuel) finds the boys in "more interesting than funny" territory, a danger zone for guys whose unofficial motto (on one of Knoxville's t-shirts) is "Fuck art let's dance." Still, there's no arguing with the "Old Man Balls." Or the "Fart Mask." Or the "Butt Chug." Or "The Gauntlet." Or shitting in (on?) the dollhouse. If this is Idiocracy in action (as that film's "Ow My Balls" segments would suggest), vote Camacho in 2008. It's what plants crave. Final thought: although it would probably be sacrilige to 99% of their fans, the only way the Jackasses could improve their game is by adding a chick. All new orifices!


-Longing (Valeska Grisebach, Germany)

Somewhat in jest, I described my reaction to Grisebach's film as follows: "I really kind of liked it, then I really didn't, and then I finally liked it quite a lot." But the fact is, Longing is a tough nut to crack, partly because its surface naturalism is belied by a deceptive complexity. From the very first shot, we're thrust into a shakycam jumble as Markus (Andreas Müller), a small-town metalworker and volunteer fireman, happens upon a car accident. He helps the motorists as he can, but one is dead on the scene. Soon he learns that they had a suicide pact and careened into a tree on purpose, so his intervention probably thwarted their desire to die in tandem. As soon as medics arrive on the scene, Grisebach settles into her steady medium-long-shots and medium-close-ups, and the "you-are-there" gestures are vanquished. These early moments reminded me of the Dardennes, of course, and in this context it was jarring to discover just how much the brothers rely on traditional dramatic structures as the bedrock for their formal daring. As we slowly integrate into Markus's daily life, it becomes apparent that Grisebach is going to do two things. One, she will afford nearly every action after the accident with equal weight. Two, she will forego the strong linkages that typically forge isolated passages of cinematic material into a narrative. The result is that for the first 2/3 of Longing, only the slimmest story emerges (a love triangle), but it doesn't build. We are hovering in a series of absolute nows, and although they add up to a kind of constellation around Markus's life, they repel connection as if they were like magnetic poles. Part of this certainly has to do with Grisebach's use of non-professional actors. I didn't realize they were non-pros until I read reviews of Longing afterward, but the three principals are exemplary at downplaying tension and anchoring events with a banal gravity, as though they existed in a suspended state between human agency and the natural functioning of the rural landscapes Grisebach lingers over. At the hour-mark, however, a capital-e Event occurs, and then another and another, culminating in an undeniably grand gesture. I found myself puzzled, as though the resolute anti-dramatic formal scheme was some sort of red herring, all the better to unloose muted Bressonian melodrama with full force. But, as it happens, Grisebach has one more trick up her sleeve. How to describe the coda? Is it like a short-wave radio that's been broadcasting the Nouvelle Vague Allemagne loud and clear, only to suddenly tune in Iran? Are the studied normalcies of Longing concealing some mysterious object at noon? I'm still not certain it works, but it makes Grisebach's intentions clear as crystal -- everything will eventually be turned into story, no matter how singular and unnarratable it may be. Ultimately, the irreducible gets reduced, and we move on.


The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, U.S. / U.K.)

[SPOILERS] A charge frequently leveled against Christopher Nolan is that as a director, he's primarily a screenwriter and is about as concerned with visual style and mise-en-scène as, say, Bush 41 was with domestic policy. True, Memento and Batman Begins were serviceable at best in these areas, and my recollection of Following (which is hazy, since I haven't seen it since its 1999 commercial release) is that it employs crisp black-and-white as an affectation and little else. But let's not forget the striking, well-appointed Insomnia remake, whose sharp editing and deployment of vast white Alaskan vistas far exceeded any purely narrative function. With The Prestige, there's no doubt that the film implicitly asks you to let yourself be engrossed in its forward propulsion and, secondarily, its resonant themes of male competition as psychopathology and "magic" of various kinds as a bulwark against the disenchantment of the world. Nolan keeps throwing more and more stuff at you; it's rare to see even a semi-Hollywood production so crammed with vital incidents that it practically screams out for a repeat viewing. But at the same time, The Prestige is characterized by a dense thicket of visual fields, whose precision can escape notice precisely because they are so attuned to the film's ideas and story values. It's a film of cramped Victorian workshops, bombed-out factory spaces and isolated fabrication sites. In its own way it seems to put forth the idea that keeping the production of both magic and radical science out of the public view could be an apt metaphor (or just a special but nonetheless emblematic instance) of turn-of-the-century capitalist mystification.


But what's more interesting than any crypto-Marxist inklings is the fact that Nolan counterpoises these dank thinking / laboring spaces with the stage, only to show how similar they are. Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Cutter (Michael Caine) take their greatest trick, The Transported Man, into a hollowed-out proscenium, dilapidated and nondescript. But as with magic, it's all a question of lighting, angle, misdirection. Any drab, not-yet-razed Victorian holdover can suddenly come to life as a space suitable for showmanship and commerce, with the proper touches. (I was reminded of how any boarded-up inner city storefront can suddenly begin life anew as a Subway or Curves location, with a little money for brightly colored formica and some tracklighting.) To take this idea further, one of the film's key dialectics is between Angier the presumably less-talented magician, and Borden "The Professor" (Christian Bale), the more gifted but less flashy of the two men. The shift from the late Victorian to the early Modernist worldview is largely managed by presentation and promotion, a move from arduous labor and sacrifice to style, flash, and business savvy. (The Tesla / Edison rivalry can be plugged into this equation as well.) Beyond this, The Prestige is a complex and thoroughly engrossing story of the effort needed to reinvest the world, however momentarily, with a sense of mystery and wonder. While Nolan spells this theme out quite explicitly, the Angier / Borden rivalry, with its multiple gotcha! reversals and dizzying heights of toxic macho oneupmanship, also demonstrates a deeper human truth about the desire for transcendence. Death is the common denominator, of course, but it also allows for a direct enjoyment of those transient, material pleasures (what Merleau-Ponty called "the flesh of the world") that for Borden and Angier become mere distractions. With Tesla's help, Angier multiplies his mortality by 100; with the help of his brother, Borden divides his by two. But while both men have devised techniques for transcending space, neither successfully evades time. Love is lost; the footlights fade. Everything disappears.




-Windows on Monday (Ulrich Köhler, Germany)

Not yet having caught up with Köhler's well-received debut feature Bungalow, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from his latest. And while I am overall quite impressed, I'm also left a bit cold, as though Windows is a film whose director had a certain formal(ist) agenda into which jagged shards of narrative could be thrust without complete commitment. Knowing Köhler is considered a part of the "Nouvelle Vague Allemagne" or "Berliner Schule," I anticipated the influence of Maurice Pialat, and indeed his presence is felt almost from the very first shot. Like Pialat, Köhler likes to use stealth jump cuts, seemingly adjoining passages near to each other in time but actually disguising large temporal ellipses. And as with Pialat, Köhler's use of this technique provides Windows with a kind of retroactive temporal action, since the meaning of the event we're watching at any given time can only be fully registered once we figure out where we are in relation to the previous sequence. But whereas Pialat employed this procedure with a kind of ruthlessness, both jolting the viewer and emphasizing Time's brutal sway over his characters, Köhler seems mostly interested in the way that fragmentation can lend an ambiguity to otherwise banal activities and interactions. Nina (Isabelle Menke) sets out to extricate herself from the domesticity that stifles her (her professional life as a surgeon seems more satisfying) and so the first half of the film is comprised of her rather odd road movie / walkabout. Moving outward in concentric circles, she visits her brother and his girlfriend, and then wanders up to a hillside luxury hotel, even stumbling into a creepily inappropriate tryst with former tennis champion Ilie Nastase (gamely playing an icky version of himself). But simple actions like heading for the hotel, or washing a stain out of a blouse, become highly ambiguous and fraught with tension because we frequently don't know how we, or Nina, got to where we are.


The film's second half shifts focus, returning us to Frieder (Hans-Jochen Wagner), the husband Nina left behind with their daughter Charlotte (Amber Bongard). We witness Frieder trying to complete the family's fixer-upper home project, quarrelling with contractors over the windows to be installed, and eventually falling back into a compromising situation with Nina. Whereas Nina's half of the film invests everyday actions with a sense of danger, Frieder's maintains a sense of quotidian rhythm, despite his despair. (Theo Panayides was sharp as usual in comparing Windows to the work of Hong Sang-soo.) The object of Köhler's strategy seems to be a de-emphasis on traditional plot points in favor of zeroing in on nuance, slight gestures, and the interstitial events that define the larger ones. This works, but it also instills a sense of randomness for its own sake, a willful perversity that subordinates its characters to cinematic gamesmanship. Nothing wrong with that per se, but Köhler clearly wants us to invest in Nina, Frieder, and Charlotte, or at least intellectually appreciate his formal barriers to empathy. But one brief scene early in the film, during which Charlotte awakens her mother on the couch and receives a horrifying surprise, indicates just how high the stakes could be for Windows, and how instead the human scenarios are artificially flattened out. One final note, that just goes to the heart of how absolutely accomplished and yet unremittingly odd this film is. Nina's journey is always characterized by a visual frame bisected by windows, the windshield of her car, the glass of the ski lift, et cetera. She is kept apart from that at which she is looking, and Köhler accomplishes this motif with exacting skill. It's interesting that whereas most contemporary films bemoan the modern world's alienation and our inability to connect, Windows shows Nina as a subject who craves more distance, not its transcendence. The fact that Windows can in part be boiled down to this basic thesis, and that much of the film is just a continual iteration of that idea, should feel reductive and even glib. But because this idea allows Köhler to fixate on purely formal problems, without having to engage in any spontaneous human dimension, these passages are among the film's strongest. It's like the film needed a subtext just to prime the pump. In any case, Köhler is clearly a major new talent, and I'm anxious to see his next move.




-Family Law (Daniel Burman, Argentina / Italy / Spain / France)

[SPOILERS] Granted, the "Argentine Woody Allen" tag is rather sloppy critical shorthand, but Burman kind of brings it on himself. Once again, Daniel Hendler does a fine job representing a wayward schlemiel struggling with adulthood, and as more than one review has noted, Family Law is "diverting," and not without a few sharply observed moments. But as with Woody Allen and especially Mel Brooks, Burman's "Jewish humor" tends to entail a rather over-literal juncture between word and image. Our protagonist Perelman Junior's wall-to-wall voiceover typically accompanies the film's showing us precisely what he's sardonically describing. (Another recent film in this mode, Caveh Zahedi's I Am A Sex Addict, wisely adopted the style in order to subvert it, since that film announces Caveh as the ultimate unreliable narrator.) And what's being described is an honest but rather uninspired tale of life in the shadow of the old man, and its attendant anxieties with respect to raising a young son. It's generally too smart to delve into outright schmaltz, but like recent work by Nanni Moretti, it isn't above dipping its toes in that particular pond. Plotwise, Family Law is encased in a frustrating sitcom pretense -- Perelman Junior's office has been closed so he can't work for an extended stretch, but neglects to tell his wife, resulting in a sort of smugly whimsical version of Cantet's Time Out. No strangers to comic conventions, we bide our time until Perelman's found out, but the fact that he never is somehow seems like an even bigger copout. What's particularly irksome about this film is that Burman has a good eye, navigating Buenos Aires with an easygoing realism that actually sports a sly facility with the plastics of the image. The man has talent, but like his protagonists, he seems content to aim low. Barring any reliable news of a breakthrough, I think I'm done with him for a while.


-Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood)

The first half of Eastwood's "greatest generation" diptych ends up somewhere so undeniably moving (a sort of pacifist homage to Takeshi Kitano's beach scene in Sonatine) that I was almost willing to overlook Flags' serious flaws. It's not just, or even primarily, that the first hour is awash in war-movie cliché, right down to the dimwitted hayseed who meets a sad, ugly end on Iwo Jima. In fact, Eastwood's direction of many such hoary chestnuts is so successfully understated that he can almost sell them. If, like jock itch and right-wing talk radio, Paul Haggis is just an undeniable fact of life, I suppose I'm glad that he's so frequently yoked to a director who can contain if not outright defeat him. But, pace the effusive praise Flags has garnered, the battle sequences simply get away from Eastwood. He can never really gain traction in terms of mapping the battlefield space, articulating the individual soldiers within the context of the larger offensive, or just shaping the epic canvas into something that makes coherent sense. As it happens, Flags gets stronger as it goes along, particularly since the "second act," with its examination of the federal stage-management of the famous Iwo Jima flag raising image and the human toll of this p.r. maneuver on its designated heroes, finds Eastwood, Haggis, and co-screenwriter William Broyles Jr. grappling with material they seem much more committed to. The question, of course, is whether any man (and yes, this film is about men exclusively -- reason enough to demur at the knee-jerk desire to see this as Clint's Iraq allegory) can do what is demanded of him, suffer greatly for it, and be expected to live up to the heroic ideal society wants its fighting men to exemplify. But mixed in with this moral quandary is a tussle with the reality of image-politics. The Iwo Jima photo was factually false but socially useful (especially for a nation tired of war), so we see Eastwood and company weighing in on very contemporary matters and seeming to go right to their root.


But considering that this is one of the major themes of the film, its makers have frustratingly little to say on the matter. The limelight, deserved or not, destroyed lives and occluded others. At the same time, the Iwo Jima image helped sell war bonds and rallied the nation behind the Allied cause, neither outcome particularly bad, especially in hindsight. So ultimately Flags finds Eastwood taking a shoulder-shrugging middleground, one that I suppose can be mistaken for humanist complexity and shades of gray. This would all be well and good if claims of progressive politics (specifically an anti-Iraq War stance) weren't being made on the film's behalf. Likewise, its take on fatherhood and masculinity is tentative to the point of tacit embrasure of the status quo. The conclusion finds our WWII veteran / audience identification point apologizing for not being a better father, for being hard and gruff and emotionally unavailable, while his son assures him he was the best father anyone could want, i.e. the best kind of man for the time period in which he lived. So in the end, I'm left wondering: what is it about the Eastwood mystique that so enchants film critics "of a certain age," even progressive ones? Psychoanalyzing one's opponents in an argument is bad faith pure and simple, but as Paul Smith's book put it, Clint Eastwood is "a cultural production," a mythic topos in American life. When Eastwood even appears to be leaning left (as when he films an aging war photographer basically admitting that Vietnam was a bloodbath prolonged needlessly due to misplaced national pride), it apparently holds the same force as when a John Murtha calls for withdrawal from Iraq, or a John McCain denounces the U.S. Military's use of torture. Somehow we've been led to believe that a moral or political argument carries more weight when it comes from a seemingly "center-right" voice, as though those of us on the left really believe in our hearts that we are crazy, immoral, and out of touch, desperately in need of a strong, silent daddy figure to give us the courage of our own convictions. I realize this blatant dip into politics will look unseemly to some, but the trouble isn't even Eastwood and Haggis's conservatism per se. It's the muddle, the unwillingness to systematically work through a position, left, right or center. Perhaps this is the mark of a deepening aesthetic sensibility, but to my eyes it's just fuzzy thinking, a Rorschach blot where an ideology -- any ideology -- so clearly needs to materialize. Despite my own continuing ambivalence toward Eastwood's work, I'll continue to see his films, because at his best he remains one of our finest producers of Republican art. Failure to appreciate, or at least understand, Eastwood, then, means remaining blinkered to a vital, enduringly persuasive way of thinking about the world, one all the more compelling for not being my own.


Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, Mexico / Spain / U.S.)

I'd like to summon up the gumption to confidently declarePan's Labyrinth the year's most inexplicably overrated film. But the praise is highly explicable and I can't avoid copping to the fact that Del Toro's sensibility just isn't one I share. One of Labyrinth's defining moves, and easily its boldest, is the fact that it dares to end up in such a dark, unleavened place, and I'm certain it's this final-reel sucker punch that is sending audiences out of the film in awe, possibly having had its weaker moments summarily erased from memory. The problem, as I see it, has to do with an overarticulated commitment to genre. Del Toro toggles between Ofelia's fantasy world of fauns and giant toads and the grim realities of the Franco regime. But the "reality" is just another movie-world in every way. Sergi Lopez's cruel Fascist stepfather may as well spend every scene twirling and mustache and cackling maniacally. Del Toro has said in interviews that he fears that the new generation, particularly Spaniards, are forgetting about the Fascist past. Very well, but his boldface construction of this period, not yet removed from the living history of many, feels too much like talking down, wrapping a bitter pill in some very familiar bromide of feel-bad entertainment. I regret the fact that I haven't yet seen Soderbergh's The Good German (will it ever expand wide?), because I suspect a comparison with Labyrinth would be instructive. Del Toro's historical Spain bears all the hard outlines and extreme polarities of those 1940s American films that championed square-jawed resolve in the face of the unthinkable. Now, this isn't to sell short the fact that Del Toro does break with the mold here by telling his tale exclusively from an adolescent female point of view. And certainly this factor allows for a reasonably convincing reading of the film's m.o. The equally extreme fantasy world and familial / political horrorshow are two sides of the same coin, a Freud-by-way-of-Bruno Bettelheim nightmare of fatherly desertion, maternal betrayal, and the well-founded paranoia that the adult world holds many secrets that you, the pubescent investigator, are just on the cusp of grasping. See, the whole thing scans quite well, but there's something in the execution. Del Toro's a master when it comes to the pure invention of his creatures (I'd expect nothing less from a former makeup artist), but on a shot-by-shot level, he never quite fashions a spatially expansive (or constrictive) cinematic universe. It functions as a fairy tale, I guess, but that's often a series of disconnected images, and despite the propulsive, almost deterministic narrative, Pan's Labyrinth just hung there for me like pictures at an exhibition. Your mileage, I suspect, may vary considerably.




-Little Children (Todd Field)

Grow up, America. On some level I feel torn, as though I should give Little Children a 3 since it does feature two soild (but unremarkable) performances. As Sarah, Kate Winslet accurately portrays a tremulous, agile mind thwarted by decisions that seem more and more irrevocable by the day. And although Jackie Earle Haley's work is hardly deserving of the Oscar-buzz it's generating, the actor does manage to invest Ronnie the sex offender with a rare combination of damaged humanity and a spooky, inaccessible otherworldliness. But neither actor is capable of gaining much traction, since Field and Tom Perrotta have effectively trapped them and everyone else involved in a smug ideological showcase. It's not for nothing that after the commuter train establishing shot ("we are in the non-space of suburban hell"), we cut to a montage of gaudy Hummels and insipid porcelain gnomes. The characters of Little Children aren't people. Their frailties and stymied desires might be recognizable from actual life, but Field warps them into exhibits in his moralistic condemnation of anyone who doesn't do right by those suffering little children. The vapid, overly regimented playground moms are unappealing in every way. But unlike Sarah, who treats her daughter like a pesky annoyance, or Brad the Prom King (Patrick Wilson), who by all available evidence is a good father but lacks ambition and therefore isn't a real adult man according to the film's harsh, normative logic, those emotionless suburban bitches have it right. They are parents, and it is therefore their moral obligation to subsume their own lives into meeting the socially approved demands of childrearing. No one wants to live their lives, Little Children allows, but look what happens if you don't. At least The Ice Storm had the decency to represent the slide into proper domestic normalcy as a kind of necessary tragedy, hinting that there ought to be a better way for families to exist without complete self-sacrifice. But Field and Perrotta promote a James Dobson agenda, depicting the sad, quixotic quest for fulfillment as the ultimate parental abdication -- Sarah running away from home, Brad trying to skate with the local kids, both acting like pathetic little children and being appropriately jolted into going home, meeting their responsibilites. I could get into the film's ludicrous formal ineptitude -- the faux-anthropological PBS voiceover, making sure we're never allowed to draw our own conclusions; the surface affectations of observational realism, an attempt at disguising a moral vision as deterministic as anything Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke has produced but at a fraction of the creativity and intelligence; the incoherence of asking us to condemn neighborhood-watch panic around the sex offender, but filming him in the pool with a menace that lacked only the theme from Jaws -- but I could be here all day if I really set out to take this odious turd apart piece by piece. Suffice to say, Little Children is so inexplicably pleased with itself, and so out of control of its formal procedures while evincing total confidence, that I frequently wondered if I'd stumbled onto some sort of comedy. At least Todd Solondz gets off a good line every now and then. But this? Yet another sub-Griffith alarmist melodrama for reactionary times. Cue garment-rending, gnashing of teeth. Who'll speak for the children? Think of the children! Suffer little children! Ah, naptime! Ah, humanity!


[NOTE: My award of a 2/10 for this film has been gnawing at me, since I do try to take my grading scale seriously so as not to compromise its integrity. Several notes from readers have questioned my grade, not by way of challenge so much as surprise and respectful disagreement. On further reflection, I've concluded that by any objective standard, Little Children is a touch better than such full-on affronts to humankind as, say, Crash or Boundin', and is more of a piece with garden-variety travesties like Lady Vengeance, Spanglish, Tarnation and Fast Film. My undue harshness came from a very personal place, since I am still grappling with what it means to be a parent, and in certain ways I felt personally attacked by Little Children. This in itself is no crime, since I certainly do not need art to flatter me or my life choices; I think that often the best art zeroes in on our comfort zones and gives them a healthy cudgel-twist. But I felt hectored by Little Children, as though I were being sanctimoniously lectured on morality by some random dude in the checkout lane at Kroger whose moral self-examination starts and finishes with prime time news magazines, Sunday School, and the quaint conviction that if it was good enough for granddad, it's good enough for me. I still say, fuck this film. But with some hindsight, I now see that, for what it is, it makes some bold if wrongheaded aesthetic choices, and remains, as they say, "in focus" throughout. Also, Kate Winslet is pretty good in it. Thank you for your indulgence on this matter.]


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, Germany / France / Spain)

Perfume is a self-satisfied white elephant of a film. What's more, it's ugly as hell, which may be the point (making the slums of 18th century Paris look much better would be dishonest filmmaking), but doesn't make the watching of it any less of a leadfooted trudge. Tykwer certainly deserves credit above all for finding a cinematic style mostly adequate to the impossible task of conveying not only the world of scent and odor. His flash-edits, along with a steady sound design of low, amplified wafts and hisses, don't always work, but are marvels of synaesthesia when they do. What's more, the film does provide a cumulative portrait of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (gaunt British character actor Ben Whishaw) as an olfactorily organized subject, feral and driven by what's traditionally been considered the basest of the senses. Granted, some of this may be derived from the book, which I seem to be nearly alone in not having read. Perfume's champions contend that Tykwer and company score a mitigated triumph by fully committing to patently preposterous material, but for me this commitment read like a smug anti-humanist swagger, the sort of pleasure that adolescent boys (of all ages) take in being politically incorrect for no purpose other than getting a rise out of tightassed adults. Instead of depicting a world in which life is cheap, Perfume prefers to treat life cheaply itself, dispatching minor characters left and right with a cavalier giggle. But more offensive to me (and here is where I fall into the trap once again, marking myself among the humorless mundanes) is the fact that Perfume is a film about a serial killer that in its filming, its rhythms and pacing, its lighting and sound design, takes absolute delight in its killer's conquest. From the early olfactory rape / accidental death, through Grenouille's collection of the essences of beautiful maidens, Perfume is film as necrophilia. It asks us to imbibe and enjoy the sight of deliberately splayed nubile corpses. In this way, it asks more of its audience than mere understanding or even empathy with its killer. The very act of watching makes us accomplices. This in itself would be forgivable, possibly even bold, if Perfume had any moral vision to speak of. But it exists to no purpose. It is empty provocation, wrapped in the hideous guise of a period-film bon-bon. As for Tykwer, he now assumes a place in my mental file for filmmakers who are so untrustworthy, even schizophrenic in terms of the quality and tenor of their output (Michael Winterbottom and François Ozon are charter members of this club), that I'll skip their pictures unless I'm convinced there's a good reason to make an exception.