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)




-Exiled (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)

The mid-00's is proving to be a remarkable period for To, who seems to have entered a classicist phase in his career quite organically, without the self-conscious "subtlety" that usually accompanies such a turn. Granted, his two-part Election veered close to preciousness at times, especially E2's careful doling out of ultraviolence within an otherwise placid framework. But these overintellectualized lapses hardly matter given the novelistic scope and easy discipline of the project as a whole. Even To's less successful recent films, such as Throw Down, are deft and complex and replete with stark, poetic imagery, and not of the sort that strives for iconicity. (That thinking-in-stills problem bedeviled recent duds like PTU and Breaking News, and even qualified triumphs like The Mission and A Hero Never Dies, films so preoccupied with stance and silhouette that they justified Ryan Wu's slagging of To as a graduate of the "Handsome Boy Modeling School.") But Exiled is an achievement of another order. In part its success is due to the simplicity, the vacuity, even, of its narrative means. The Elections were stories To all too obviously felt compelled to tell. Exiled, by contrast, is genre riffing and little else. Two opposing teams of hitmen encounter one another as they stake out their quarry. Upon discovering that a wife and child will be caught in the crossfire, and after a reconsideration of blind loyalty to the crime-boss of the moment, the two groups team up (two and two, plus the target), first to protect the man and his family, then to complete a gold heist they just stumble upon, and finally to attempt to reckon with Boss Fay (Simon Yam) which of course leads to a conflagration shootout. That's it, one, two, three.


In terms of mood, characterization, and plotting of the inevitable, To is very blatantly harking back to John Ford / Howard Hawks Westerns. The setting (1940s Macao) bears the ambiance of the closing of the range, since political shifts are in the wind and all of these men, particularly Boss Fay's man Blaze (Anthony Wong), intuit that their time is up. The gradual shift of the group of working men, from mutual suspicion to conviviality and respect, mirrors Hawks' template, the radical disjuncture between enclosed, besieged locations and the great outdoors speaks to the Ford and Boetticher tradition, and the silly old cop (Hui Siu Hung) who stays on the sidelines and counts down to his retirement may as well be Hank Worden digitized right into the frame. But it's with his visual innovations that To really breaks through here. The man has never been a slouch when it comes to ambiance or mise-en-scène, but Exiled's lighting schemes and use of blocking against slow moving camerawork give the impression of a To / Wong Kar-Wai mindmeld. The amber light that saturates many interior scenes isn't warm so much as electric, cutting through the surrounding darkness. In fact, so much of Exiled is pure, deep black and total shadow that I fear the film isn't entirely legible on home video and requires the 35mm film image to even function properly. A typical shot gives us an almost all-black frame, fragmented with shafts of light which describe hiding gunmen or an odd view of some small sliver of interior space. It would be too easy to read this as somehow symbolic, with allegiances and motivations slowly becoming less and less obscure. Instead To seems to be foregrounding this plasticity of the image for its own sake, giving his formal preoccupations full reign. Likewise, To makes an unusual narrative decision when, just after the halfway mark, the plot brings its only real female character into the foreground. Mrs. Wo (Josie Ho) becomes a sort of Lady Vengeance and, unexpectedly, a key player. But what's more, To takes a break from the testosterone and fraternal struggle to really zero in on this woman's emotional response to the violence around her. (In one tense scene, she has to look at her infant son in a new, jaundiced light. Will he become just another gangster, filling the world with more misery?) In these respects To's adherence to genre codes has allowed him to tweak both their typical gender relations and their formal organization, resulting in a film in which the clipped, monosyllabic poetry of the Western collides with a florid, painterly visual field. Exiled doesn't make its meaning or stake out its importance through complex plotting, the way the Election films did. Instead, it takes the most basic human bonds and subjects them to an audiovisual taffy pull, bringing things together and breaking them apart. The story struggles to assert itself within this restless field of activity, leaving pure cinematic form as the last man standing.


-In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, Spain / France)

Although I will undoubtedly need a second viewing to fully unpack this dense little film, a few preliminary comments are in order. Guerín has more than delivered on the promise of his recent documentary hybrid film Work in Progress, a film which alerted me to the fact that this man is more than just a major talent. He's something of an alchemist. That earlier film does indeed document the construction of a highrise in Barcelona, examining in an offhand, almost incidental way the complicated impact gentrification has on those caught in its orbit. Work in Progress is impressive on its own thematic terms, since it manages to bring together (at least) two related but often opposed perspectives -- nostalgia for a disappearing "Old World" Europe and anxieties about global capital's massive human footprint -- and set them to work on one another in an active dialectic. But what really makes that film feel like some sort of magic trick is Guerín's editing patterns and cinematography. Any given action, such as a master and apprentice going over the proper way to cut wood, is fragmented into multiple interlocking views, formalist framings that snap together like Legos. If Guerín is documenting actual events, how in the world does he achieve such total visual coverage? Something is not right, but the result is more than right. It takes the basic events under examination and punts them into the realm of the hyperreal, as though all of these various human actors are ensnared within some larger, invisible logic. (Which of course they are.)


In the City of Sylvia is clearly a fiction film, although it too is a hybrid, seeing as Guerín consistently makes room for ambient business and street culture in Strasbourg, stuff that does not effect the plot but which, by entry into the film's intellectual function-machine, becomes subject to rigorous examination in terms of point of view, compositional harmony, and deliberately marginal sociology. The film begins in a small hotel room, where an unnamed young man (the exquisitely named Xavier Lafitte) is on the bed working out sketches in a notebook. He has the thousand-yard stare of an incorrigible dreamer, the sort who used to populate European art cinema in its golden age. But he's also a schemer, a systematizer. This tension, which Guerín embodies in his putative protagonist, is the organizing principle of Sylvia. The story, sliver that it is, entails this man's search for Sylvia, a woman he saw briefly six years ago in and around the spaces he haunts in the present -- a café and its surrounding shops and public transit hubs. But the film is fundamentally about the organization of vision around desire, and the pitfalls such vision cannot avoid. The opening shots of Sylvia, which resemble the sunlight-and-filigree compositions frequently found in Nathaniel Dorsky's cinema, show the morning light grazing scattered objects on the table. These are fragments of the quest, but they are also luminous and texturally suggestive all on their own. In a way, one could take this as the undercurrent of Sylvia as a whole. One can give oneself over to the pleasure of looking for its own sake, characteristic not only of the avant-garde and other "cinema of attractions" modes but of a sensual existence rooted in the present, an openness to the haphazard, alive "now" before us. (This is the space of phenomenology.) Or, one can harness one's vision for the sake of a goal, be it cinematic narrative or personal desire and its satisfaction. (This is the hermeneutical world.) Can our young man, and the film around him, allow his gaze to skitter off the surface of things, or will that gaze turn into the tool for hunting his quarry?


An early sequence in Sylvia, which is almost a short film unto itself, dramatizes this dilemma, the tension being tied to the question of what gazes will or will not do. We see the man at a café, sketching and jotting down notes as he observes the life, and particularly the young women, around him. On a purely formal level, Guerín's construction of this extended set-piece is magnificent, employing the same preternatural, almost predestined quality of editing he displayed in Work in Progress. But here, the logic of the gaze, or of multiple gazes, is the passkey for determining what comes next, and what goes where. From shot to shot we are witnessing an accordion-like attenuation and restabilization of the point-of-view shot. The cinematic gaze is sometimes allowed to roam free, following both the apparent thoughts and desires of random others at the café and the open, exploratory mood of Guerín's camera as it welcomes its encounter with a world teeming with life. But just as often, that gaze is recentralized in the eyes and mind of the protagonist, as the film shows us Vision, the general category, becoming His Vision. Nothing signifies this in the café sequence quite as dramatically as when we observe women "of a certain age" engaged in mini-dramas, only for the film to show us the young man looking, and then resituate the composition so that these older women, now hazy and in the foreground, are reduced to obstacles as the man, and the camera, strains to gawk at a pretty young girl. As Theo Panayides has correctly pointed out, this is the struggle of art, played out on the screen before us. Are we to be endlessly open to the world's plenitude, or do we have to organize it into some meaningful form? And if so, what desires will determine the shape of that fully-employed, goal-directed gaze?


As the film progresses, and the man's gaze zeroes in on one woman, a possible Sylvia in a city filled with them as per the title, the decision becomes clear. Sylvia becomes, to a large extent, a film about following, stalking, attempting to assert mastery over space. Upon seeing the film and reading other people's take on it, I was shocked and a bit nonplussed at the degree to which others were hooked into the romantic longing of the young man, taking the film as an at least partial validation of his desire to will the present to conform to the past. Yes, there is a long tradition of modernism that hinges on this disjuncture between the temporality of love and loss and the spatial, material zones of our actual situation. Goethe, Thomas Mann, Proust, Baudelaire, Benjamin, all the way through Visconti, Marker and Hitchcock, all have explored the fate of lost, heartsick wanderers or flâneurs who strike out in search of temps et amours perdu. The most recent variations, like Vertigo, Le Jetée, and even Frampton's (nostalgia), wisely conclude that this quest, taken to its terminus, results in obliteration. But as I watched In the City of Sylvia I was quite sure I was witnessing something altogether different. The Strasbourg setting, the Old World cafés and cobblestone streets, and the eerily feminine, Heathcliff-coiffed artist-angel at the film's center (Lafitte makes Cillian Murphy look like John Wayne), all convey a tone of the already-lost, throwing us back into the stridently possessive attitudes of Le Fleurs du mal or Death in Venice. But Guerín stages this echt-European, high Romantic vision quest as a kind of horror show. This is a film about stalking, and the middle section, in which the young woman under siege (Pilar López de Alaya) employs almost comical, Tatiesque maneuvers to shake the young man, displays the vital stakes involved in this male-romantic mindset. It's as though Guerín were implicitly arguing that the city itself was at some point built to the specifications of male desire, so that the man is able to keep track of this young pseudo-Sylvia beyond all spatial logic. And for her part, she uses alleyways, forks in the path, and the momentary shelter of clothing stores in her (apparently placid but actually quite unnerved) will to escape. There is a classically modernist cinematic spatial-game at work in Sylvia, But only one person actually wants to play.


Slowly, subtly, Guerín is building a case against male obsession. This seems evident, even though the film clearly retains sympathy for the young man throughout. But more than this, Guerín is restaging a kind of primal scene in urban modernity, revealing its horrific gender dynamic, and showing that it simply doesn't hold any longer. This deconstruction would be noteworthy enough if it undermined modernism's male gaze, telling us that the days of scopophilic skirt-chasing were over. But by extension, Guerín seems to be definitively bidding adieu to the romantic notion of Old Europe more generally. The men on the margins of the artist's quest, after all, are Middle Eastern and African immigrants, whose presence cannot register in the lovelorn searcher's field of vision. Only at the end, when he has been (ever so gently!) forced to reassess the accuracy of his gaze, can he acknowledge the multitude that surrounds him. In this regard, Guerín's use of urban space and the fort / da play of the hidden and the revealed is almost like an answer to Otar Iosseliani's cozy, rightward-leaning love letter to Euro-civility, Gardens in Autumn. Where the older director responded to unruly life by tightening his frame, forcing his participants to, as it were, get in or get out, Guerín pulls back, invites the larger world to come flooding in, and in this way gestures toward a future characterized by new desires we can't as yet even fathom.




-Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet)

[MILD SPOILERS] As a heist film, Lumet's latest is slightly better than average, and certainly it can't hold a candle to a deft, crackling effort like Spike Lee's Inside Man, another commercial property by a storied New York auteur which didn't receive the kind of festival-circuit treatment that helps anoint genre films as serious art. (I'm sure it has to do with studio marketing strategy, since it definitely isn't about quality.) If you examine Before the Devil as a piece of screenwriting, there are gaping holes in logic, most notably, even if the mom isn't working at the jewelry store that morning, the old woman who's supposed to be there apparently knows Hank (Ethan Hawke). Will his fake moustache fool the old biddy? Or (more likely) does big brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) simply not give two shits? There are several other little moments like this which pull the viewer out of the narrative, and I must admit that the overall impression is that Kelly Masterson's script feels rushed, like it could have been the very model of economy (if not common sense) with just one more revision to tighten things up. Little glimpses of careful human observation poke through, such as the meeting in Andy's office during which he lays the plan out for Hank. In their tense, terse push and pull, an entire history of fraternal bullying can be felt seething just below. Similarly, the post-funeral scenes between Andy and his dad (Albert Finney, on point but largely squandered), followed by Andy's breakdown in the car to nonplussed wife Gina (Marisa Tomei, also strong but underutilized), hit upon tangible family dynamics that, in their own micro-O'Neillian way, make the heist stuff seem kind of silly. Having said that, I found myself responding positively to Before the Devil, and ultimately putting it in the "win" column ever so narrowly, because of Lumet's surefooted direction. Here's a man who, as far as I know, has no real fans among the auteurist cognoscenti. (Lumet himself has called the auteur theory "nonsense," by the way.) But his handling of space, camera movement, and highly plastic editing single-handedly redeems what would otherwise be a rather bunk-ass movie. To cite only the most obvious examples of this, look at how Lumet and cinematographer Ron Fortunato describe the environs of Manhattan versus Westchester. They use basically the same medium-height, 90° tripod pivot, carving out angular segments of street corners, like a lookout. What this does, ironically, is render the suburbs all that more hazardous for a heist. It's all parking lot and no cover. The squatty expanse of big box retail hits the wide angle lens like a beige UFO that pretty much engulfs the arrogant know-how of city folk, even those who grew up there and should know better. But even beyond this thematic function, Lumet is consistently able to use his plainspoken visual style to generate sturdy images against the frame time and again, with little apparent effort. The film is actually quite lovely, but it never comes close to announcing any intention of trying to be. It's as though Lumet and New York have achieved total artistic symbiosis. That's called being a master.


-The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, Norway / Iceland)

[MILD SPOILERS] Oh, You're So Silent, Jens. The Bothersome Man is in many respects the very definition of an "interesting" film, the sort that is almost designed to be a little, unassuming respite as, say, film #3 in the middle of a five-film festival day. Seen all on its own, it has its charms, no doubt, but the film is chiefly notable for setting up a premise, seeing it through to an ambiguous conclusion, and never really tipping its hand in terms of overall meaning or interpretation. You see, any American remake of The Bothersome Man, much like all the unwatchable studio retreads of Japanese horror films, would go to great lengths to explain why Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvaag) has woken up from an apparent suicide attempt in some kind of static netherworld in which he is assigned a dull clerical job, meets a blandly sexy girlfriend (Petronella Barker) who is obsessed with redoing the apartment, and seems to always be having really bad sex (during which, presumably, he never cums). The conceit, visualized by Lien from a script by Per Schreiner, ironically gives the viewer that uneasy feeling of being strangely familiar and yet different, hard to place. It's sort of like a more jovial, Scandinavian riff on a Buñuel scenario. There's certainly a hint of Kafka, but again, the menace is muted with smiles and false bonhomie. The throwaway joke in Beetlejuice about suicides having to be civil servants in the afterlife is also an obvious point of reference, as is the Patrick MacGoohan TV show "The Prisoner," in which a man finds himself trapped in a tidy, cheery little world, one with sinister undertones only the protagonist can discern. But above all else, The Bothersome Man operates as though it were an allegory for bureaucratic Communism, somewhere between Stalin and Brezhnev, a universe in which slapped-on happy faces and grit-toothed bromides attempt to cover over widespread misery, deprivation and dissatisfaction. Jan Nemec's 1966 Czech classic A Report on the Party and the Guests is the key text here. In Nemec' s film, a picnic in which the revelers struggle to convince everyone around them of what a great time they're having, until one upstart -- a bothersome man -- calls bullshit, to devastating effect. So, as for Lien's film, it has interest value all its own. In addition to a fine central performance which gradually morphs from slack to existential resolve, Bothersome Man also displays a pleasantly sensible, IKEA-like mise-en-scène which Lien wryly spoofs, like his countryman Bent Hamer. But the film is mostly a think-piece because one has to wonder, why would Norway produce a film which is virtually illegible except as an allegory for political conformism? Many of us here in North America tend to make an unfair and most likely false fetish out of Scandinavia, envying what we assume to be a freer, more liberal social order. But clearly that order, or others that threaten it, represent tyrannies all their own. What might those be? We'll have to conjecture, because like a true film-festival director, Jens Lien isn't saying.


-Prosperity for 2008 (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand) [v/s]

Not so much a new work as a video New Year's card, Joe's tiny little one-minute piece is -- whether or not it was so intended -- simply the perfect first film to see for the year. Atune one's senses to the smallest possible nuances -- the basics, light against dark -- and move from there. Chris Stults, who alerted me to its existence in a New Year's greeting, noted quite correctly that untitled recalls the simplicity of Bruce Baillie's All My Life, with its unidirectional movement and subtle musical counterpoint. This may not be a work of art, or even a prelude; perhaps it's not even a sketch or a video notebook scribble. As Wise Kwai implies, it may be more like Joe sending up a trial balloon, since the post-coup Thai government is engaging in greater and greater censorship and online "leaks" may be necessary, vital messages in an electronic bottle. But regardless of the specific context into which Joe has set the film free, it sends up a flare of good hope, or at least a pregnant pause of suspended anxiety, since in this single gorgeous minute, we can forever assure ourselves that it is a launching firework, and not a bomb. [You can watch Prosperity for 2008 here.]


-Radiant City (Jim Brown and Gary Burns, Canada)

[MAJOR SPOILERS] Can we finally stop calling Gary Burns "the Kevin Smith of Canada"? I won't profess to have kept up with the man's output, but on the basis of his very promising debut feature, The Suburbinators, I always thought it would have been a lot more fair to align him with Richard Linklater. Both directors have a knack for the lifestyles of stranded baby-boomer's kids with too much education and not enough to do, and unlike Smith, Burns knows where to put the camera. Suburbinators's low angles and overexposed flatness made the outskirts of Calgary look like a sunbaked planet of tract homes, narrow sidewalks winding through in clean lines that promised clarity but never delivered a destination. I missed Kitchen Party, but Burns's 2000 breakthrough waydowntown threatened to put him on the map a little bit, that is, as much as any second-tier Canadian director can hope for (think Anne Wheeler / Jeremy Podeswa-level). It didn't really happen, and I'll admit I'm not surprised. Despite a suitably smart-dumb premise (office workers never going outdoors, as a kind of "Seinfeld" "Contest" for fresh air and sanity), and Burns's appealing use of flat DV space for a bloodless, postmodern Tati look, the script and performances are painfully unfunny and frequently outright embarrassing. It's a bad film by any reasonable measure, and by all reliable accounts his follow-up, A Problem With Fear, was even worse. This makes Radiant City that much more of a pleasant surprise. Burns clearly understood that he'd reached an impasse and needed to reinvent himself, and, along with collaborator Jim Brown, that's precisely what he's done.


Radiant City represents a prismatic deviation in Burns's authorial concerns; that is, the thinking is the same but the format has changed so dramatically that the content has a whole new meaning. The film takes us to the very edge of exurban development on the outer outskirts of an unnamed Prairie city (almost certainly Calgary again), using the common tropes of late-NFB Direct Cinema to speak with a family who have just moved from the city to the boonies. Only mother Anne (Jane MacFarlane) seems okay with it. Dad Evan (Bob Legare) is coping with his frustrations by organizing a local production of a satirical musical called "Suburb!" And, as you can guess from the above casting credits, Radiant City is a fictional feature, but one that looks like a documentary. But Burns and Brown have more up their sleeve than the usual mock-doc. It's not just that, as one of the actors notes, the suburbs are phony and so a movie about them should be as well. The filmmakers are asking us to think twice about the available scripts that liberal academic culture (especially sociology) provide for understanding how people make sense of the suburban experience. Radiant City includes real commentary by real (mostly Canadian) academics, and has very convincing graphics to provide statistics that confirm our prejudices, whether or not they're made up. (A pedestrian fatality study by "The Center for Walking"?) Radiant City brings Gary Burns's genuine artistic concern with the deadening but experientially unique phenomenon of tract-home / mini-mall life into a new arena, since it no doubt entails a degree of self-criticism. It's rather easy for artists and intellectuals to bag on the suburbs. (And, by extension, it's easy for Canada to blame the United States for foisting car culture on the continent.) What's harder is to imagine a next step, one that takes people's present-day desires seriously. Once you get past the mockumentary silliness and formal gamesmanship, it's clear that this is exactly what Radiant City has on its mind. Based on this substantial creative step forward, Burns appears to be delivering on his promise at long last. At this rate, he may well bypass the Wheeler / Podeswa echelon and move straight into Egoyan / Cronenberg / Maddin territory. Good for him.




-4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

[SPOILERS] After a bit of distance and reflection, I realized that Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner was not an entirely wrongheaded film. In fact, several of its key set pieces are stunning examples of taut economy, slowly ratcheting up the tension to the absolute breaking point. If Mungiu's chief aim was to offer a close examination of the tedious yet anxiety-provoking inner workings of daily life under late bureaucratic Communism, his early sequences detailing the lengths to which Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) must go simply to secure a hotel room or score a box of cigarettes (to placate an angry college professor, no less) display a keen combination of thriller pacing and materialist fixation on the mundane. When 432 first made its splash on the festival circuit, comparisons to the Dardenne brothers abounded, and these portions of the film lend credibility to the those comparisons. Likewise, a late scene in which Otilia must leave her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in the hotel room in the midst of her jury-rigged metal rod abortion so as to show her face at her boyfriend's mother's birthday party, is exquisite in its simplicity. Somewhat resembling the best work of Michael Haneke, the crux of this sequence is a stock-still, straight-on shot of Otilia stranded at the dinner table, surrounded by rather crass revelers who have no idea what's on her mind. These are the elements of 432 that demonstrate what Mungiu the director is capable of, when he wisely restricts his frame of reference and eschews grand statement. The main reason I came away from this film disliking it, with its strongest elements temporarily evicted from my memory, is that Mungiu builds the film around a set of dumb ideas, strident but underarticulated themes, and most damningly an utterly preposterous viewpoint on human behavior.


Now, this could be a cultural difference, one that has thus far compromised my ability to really embrace the so-called Romanian New Wave. Very much like Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mister Lazarescu, which hinged on an entire medical establishment behaving like one big petulant infant, Mungiu's film has at its core some rather ridiculous ideas about women, friendship, and abortion. Do the über-realist styles of these films disguise a subterranean dystopian Expressionism, a la Kafka? Are we supposed to simply accept these premises, based as they are on faulty depictions of human psychology, because they are somehow allegorical or symbolic, in a manner intentionally at odds with the handheld immediacy of the presentation? (The Dogme boys, for example, always manage to signal when things are lurching into the fantastic or dipping into Brechtian demonstration.) I'm not sure, but the overall reception 432 has received indicates that, allegory or no, Western critics are quite happy to read the film as a bracing exposé of life under Ceausescu, or even a preview of our post-Roe v. Wade future. Sorry, but how is it that a young woman like Otilia can be endlessly resourceful enough to survive under the chafing grind of patriarchal Communism, and still be stupid enough to sleep with her friend's back-room abortionist? And would any actual human being, rather than a naive contrivance like Gabita, just allow her to do so? What's more, would any medical professional hateful and misogynist enough to force a young woman to screw him in exchange for an abortion actually risk jail time by performing one? The trouble here is, Mungiu is relying on two vague ideas to carry the day, and their admixture produces fuzzy thinking that does indeed let the plot go forward -- 432 is nothing if not propulsive, the diametrical opposite of torpid "art cinema" -- but hardly stands up to scrutiny. One of these ideas is "desperation," a trope trotted out by liberals, especially, to explain inexplicable behavior. The Other, whether in Watts or Namibia or the former Soviet bloc, is always allegedly desperate enough to do almost anything. The harsh conditions for survival have presumably eradicated that soul's core we think of as interior subjectivity, leaving in its place a frightened rat who will reflexively run into any slot in the maze. It would take a treatise on social theory to adequately untangle this idea, but suffice to say it allows for very lazy art.


Secondly, Mungiu trades on a romantic, second-wave notion of feminism, which in 432 boils down to Otilia blindly following Gabita's lead in bad decision-making, or doggedly working overtime to clean up her friend's messes. In the world of 432, women are always under siege, and therefore are doubly desperate as compared to their male comrades. In short, they'll do anything. While it's true that Otilia does not know, for example, that Gabita contacted Bebe the Extortionist Abortionist (Vlad Ivanov), and naturally assumed that a woman would be helping them out, it doesn't follow that Otilia, clearly the dominant personality in the relationship, would go along, just because "the room is paid for," or even because of Gabita's specific desperation regarding the titular late-term fetus. Are we to assume that Otilia's med student boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean), or some of his connections, would not be the logical option? In Mungiu's ham-handed agitprop world, sisterhood dictates that Otilia trust a stupid woman over a man for whom she presumably has some degree of rapport and respect. Basically, Otilia's total commitment to Gabita, which obviates even immediate, common-sense decisions that would have merely delayed the abortion, is a theoretical construction, one Mungiu clearly intends to be honorable and incisive ("how do women survive under repressive conditions") but actually only insults their intelligence. And so, 432 is an effective action film that, like many action films, has an outlandish premise at its core. But most action films don't purport to be art cinema, much less a politically engaged art cinema whose style and mode of address signal a real-world validity to its message. I submit that Mungiu is an exceptionally talented director, that working in tandem with cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who also lensed Lazarescu) he is able to generate tension and suspense through claustrophobic use of film space, and that his direction of the steely, understated Marinca indicates an impressive way with actors. Nevertheless, I think Mungiu should come to the States and direct films like Vacancy or 1408. He is not really much of a thinker. And 432 is not a masterpiece.


Juno (Jason Reitman)

Neither the winning little indie its early champions claimed, nor the smug, reactionary snarkfest its detractors have tarred it as, Juno is indeed a rightward-leaning, family-values pic, but a disarmingly melancholy one. Now, lest anyone misunderstand me, I want to get this out of the way: I am not saying that a film depicting a pregnant teen's decision not to abort is somehow automatically conservative, or that when one's individual choices and desires happen to line up with the destiny the Radical Right wants for us all, that one is playing into their hands. Systemic freedom, of the sort that allows all women access to all available options, not just in theory (some sort of John Stuart Mill concept of "Freedom") but in economic fact, is after all the name of the game. That said, what are we to make of Juno (Ellen Page) experiencing the Women Now clinic not just as a nervewracking place (how could it be otherwise?) but as a kind of low-class hell, what with goth sluts talking freely about their boyfriends' "junk" and poorly-dressed black women picking their nails, ever more gratingly until the soundtrack explodes in a symphony of trashily-did nails on the chalkboard of slain fetuses? Or Reitman and (especially) screenwriter Diablo Cody's bizarre class politics, wherein Juno and her working-class parents (J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney) always represent good, understanding salt of the earth in a world of predatory yuppie-hipsters (Jason Bateman, embodying quite possibly the worst nightmare imaginable -- the pedophile with an apparent, if circumstantial, preggers fetish) and surly night-school-educated ultrasound-tech parvenus? Yes, the film had to set its plot in motion, but Juno's odd desire to reward her betters with the human outgrowth of her mistake -- to return dignity for shame, I suppose -- is only interrogated in the final moments, when her cross-class, Sisterhood is Powerful bond with Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is established as a kind of human contract, literally the flipside of a Jiffy Lube receipt and in some ways every bit as mechanically grounded.


But what's really strange about Juno and the cultural conversation it's sparked is that one needn't even get into the whole reproductive politics angle in order to lay out the case for the prosecution. Reitman and Cody's (yes, ultimately conservative) failure of imagination is completely summed up in the character of Vanessa, a bundle of stereotyped yuppie tics and by-the-book, barren-womb career-woman malarkey. In this film's world, she is a joke and a one-track mind without the body to match, because if our times have demonstrated anything (provided you ignore the ample counterevidence in the blogosphere), a woman ambivalent about motherhood and the sacrifices it demands cannot be imagined. Where are Vanessa's stifled desires, her old box of silly clothes, and her slowly pruned expectations for the future? Even Judd Apatow's recent films, male-skewed as they were, held a token place for female sadness and loss at the onset of the parental journey and beyond, even if it was just finally being too old to get into the club. But Cody, it seems, is so inside the head of Juno that she cannot really imagine what a real Vanessa might think, or feel, apart from tightly-wound babyfever. This is especially sad since she captures the longing of others with such poignancy. And one more thing: did the Juno / Mark friendship really have to go there? Are all "inappropriate" interactions always exactly what the larger culture deems them to be? I got the feeling Cody was out to bitchslap Daniel Clowes and Ghost World, reminding us that the Seymours of the world Only Want One Thing. And, as any pop culture publication in the United States since September will tell you, Diablo Cody Should Know.


[ADDENDUM: Upon reading this review, Steve Erickson quite reasonably expressed confusion regarding the grade, since I failed to elaborate on what Juno did right. Well, apart from being consistently watchable, I would highlight Reitman's generally unselfconscious sense of place (Juno's bedroom being a chief exception), Michael Cera's heartbreaking, diffident performance as Pauly Bleeker, and the fact that Reitman and Cody allow the film to unfold at a surprisingly depressive, even somber pace, hitting us with a joke now and then (and the cheapest ones are all doled out in advance by the trailer) but mostly letting the overall tone of disappointment sink in, even if it's all resolved a bit too neatly by film's end. Also, I like Kimya Dawson's music, and yes, I realize I am waaaaaay in the minority on that one.]


-Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France / U.S.)

Having only thumbed through Persepolis 1 and 2 in bookstores in recent years, I can't say whether or not the concept necessarily works better in the graphic novel format. But, at risk of sounding heretical, I'm guessing it doesn't necessarily lose all that much in the translation between media and, most importantly, Satrapi's distinctively blocky drawing style -- a think line quality with heavy black / white contrast, almost Expressionist but far too clean, like a Scandinavian graphic designer's clean-up of Edvard Munch -- remains completely intact. As for the story itself, I was practically floored for the first fifteen to twenty minutes by just how sophisticated it was, weaving actual political and social upheaval rather effortlessly into the child's eye view. Little Marjane (nicely voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) has a limited perspective that skews things, and we can see this, but we are never expected to judge her or, by extension, those around her. The best example of this, of course, is Marji's confusion about whether she supports the Shah or the burgeoning revolutionary movement which, at this indistinct moment, was not solely Islamist. The tidy history lesson provided by Marjane's dad (Simon Akbarian) sums up the difficulty with assigning good guys and bad guys in this troubled political landscape, and is actually a damn fine short film in and of itself. Persepolis is at its best when Satrapi and Paronnaud focus on how the individual negotiates radical social change on the ground level, and how this problem is particularly acute for girls, especially in a newly Islamist republic but probably even more generally. (It's almost like a distaff Hope and Glory, in its own unique way.) By this point I was ready to pop Persepolis on my top ten list and declare an unexpected victory for the middlebrows. Unfortunately, once the story shifts into full-on memoir mode, as is the popular fashion, it becomes almost unbearably self-indulgent and largely uninviting. If the point is that Marjane, despite her specific historical circumstances, has to go through everything that any other young woman would have to, fine. But that doesn't make the film's rote coming-of-age gestures any more revelatory. A squandered opportunity, really, although few others seem to see it that way.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, U.S. / U.K.)

I wavered a bit on this one, thinking I was mildly appreciative and then upon reflection realizing that in fact I had a few qualms. After all, Burton and company add so little to Sondheim's Todd that the best anyone could reasonably say about this film is that it's a fine, faithful adaptation of the musical for the film medium. But actually, there are small changes that indicate a bit of pandering and dumbing-down. Pirelli's line about pulling a tooth is missing, presumably because contemporary audiences can't be relied upon to know that turn-of-the-century barbers performed light dentistry. Todd's original line about being held on a "trumped-up" charge is now a "false charge," since we're presumably living in such strict law-and-order times that we can't be adequately sympathetic to a homicidal maniac unless he was locked away for no reason at all. And there are several other little deviations that make Burton's Todd quite a bit less than definitive. All this would be quibbling were it not for the fact that the film's two leads, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, are singularly uninspired vocalists. Depp's Todd is serviceable but strangely bland, given to raised-eyebrow mugging that's really beneath this fine actor. Granted, he and Burton have a concept, that being to draw out the German Expressionist undercurrent in order to locate a cinematic inroad to this highly theatrical property. But Burton's CGI and designer-filth Fleet Street never feels like an organic cesspool and Depp is a bit too much like a sculpted prop in it -- Sweeney Scissorhands, as it were. Bonham Carter hits the acting marks with more aplomb as Mrs. Lovett, but her voice is even thinner than Depp's, so every time Lovett has singing to do (which, in this virtual opera, is 90% of the time), the full force of her characterization is compromised. Granted, some scenes come together beautifully. "By the Sea" is a hoot, largely because it's the only time Burton cuts loose and actually employs cinema in a medium-specific manner. It's a breath of fresh air for the audience, which is clearly the point, but only demonstrates how imaginatively circumscribed the rest of the production really is. On the other hand, Depp and Alan Rickman's excellent Turpin duetting on "Pretty Women" provides a sequence the provokes chest-tightening anxiety simply due to the music's sinister cadence, a triumph of Sondheim's formal savvy. And it's in a moment like this that I have to concede that, although Burton's film is hardly everything it could have been, it's still more satisfying an entertainment than three-quarters of what's out there.




-Big Man Japan [Dai-Nipponjin] (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)

Although Dai-Nipponjin was certainly intermittantly funny as a comedy in its own right, it was far more interesting as an introduction to Matsumoto, a superstar in Japan whose comic persona somehow defies translation and yet, luckily, is legible right off the bat. His dishevelled superhero is like a barely-socialized street person, and Matsumoto's delivery consists of a perpetual haze, almost of the stoner-vibe variety but adjusted ever so slightly, a tad sharper so as to convey a buzzing intelligence that comes across in outward communication as functional retardation. The mockumentary format is, I suppose, the most obvious way to get the job done, and it does afford Matsumoto some nice opportunities for lackadaisical mise-en-scène -- not only Big Man's trashy hovel, but the low-rent city block, and the long shot of the power plant -- that probably would have felt forced in a proper movie-movie. Still, as filmmaking Dai-Nipponjin is pretty slack, and between battle sequences there's an awful lot of dead space. What's more, the Yankee Imperialist conclusion seemed forced, as though Matsumoto realized too late that the on / off non-structure left him without any real way to end the thing. As a sidenote, this was released in Japan the same day as Glory to the Filmmaker! in a much-touted Battle of the Comedy Giants and, um, Matsumoto won, in perpetuity. That's like if there was an American Visionary Face-Off between Southland Tales and There Will Be Blood, I mean jesus.


-Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

The outlandish, altogether regrettable overvaluation of The Squid and the Whale has clearly left Mr. Baumbach with the distinct impression that he is an "important" filmmaker. As such, he apparently no longer feels much of an obligation to be funny. Granted, I suppose some might chuckle at Margot's to-the-core nastiness, its central academic queen bitch (Nicole Kidman, acquitting herself admirably as usual) wantonly destroying lives through some sort of misguided commitment to truth-telling. It's certainly interesting to think about how much less threatening, even buffoonish her character might have been as a man; an abiding suspicion of the female sex seems to be the undercurrent here, since women's intellect is either casually cruel or must be disavowed entirely, as Jennifer Jason Leigh's character seems to do. What's most frustrating is that as pure filmmaking, Margot does represent a quantum leap for Baumbach. Teaming up with Harris Savides was a shrewd move, since for the first time Baumbach is actually communicating on a genuinely visual level. His chilly coastal exteriors and almost illegible, shadow-laden interiors speak volumes about this family's uncertain territory in the world. Granted, I'm not sure the decision to go handheld really added much of anything. Several key compositions are stock still except for the telltale fidgeting around the edges of the frame, and one wonders how much butterfly-mounted exactitude a tripod might've offered. Hell, the film might've been even meaner that way. I'm sure it's juvenile to complain that I miss the warmer abrasions of Kicking and Screaming and the criminally underrated Mr. Jealousy, but I do, and I think it's best of Baumbach and I take some time apart.


-Useless (Jia Zhang-ke, China / Hong Kong) [v]

Despite my having given Useless the same grade as Jia's last documentary, Dong, the newer work does represent a small move in the right direction. Jia takes as his central focus the work of Chinese fashion designer Ma Ke, with examples from her show "Wuyong" (Useless) operating as the midpoint of the film. Ma Ke expounds on her practice, her (rather banal) ideas about handcrafted clothing and the potential for artistic expression through fashion, leading up (sort of) to her show of outfits which had been buried in various rural locales, all the better to soak up the sedimented events and geological memory of the site in question. Around this fulcrum Jia organizes a number of other major motifs, including the physical production of the clothing by (no doubt underpaid) factory labor, as well as the divide between the metropol and Jia's own Shanxi province. This divide breaks down functionally as a mind / body split but in fact disguises the intelligence of the rural communities and the relative vacuity of the fashion world, even among its "thinkers." Jia's long tracking shots and substantial avoidance of voiceover commentary or explanatory text allows Useless to pore over the surface of things, and it seems clear that, as opposed to the shapelessness of Dong, the new film intends to examine the role of aesthetics in documentary. That is, by withholding many of the denotative signposts that make traditional documentaries informative, Jia is asking about the uselessness of his own project. That is, fashion design and documentary filmmaking are paralleled as media which oscillate between functionality and the purposeless thing-in-itself of the Kantian aesthetic. Trouble is, Jia lacks the courage of his convictions. Many sequences in Useless are just blandly informational enough to slip undetected into a PBS "P.O.V." slot, while others are inscrutably vague, clearly there to explore some formal property or to produce a tension between modes. In fact, Useless is just stranded between pure artistry and essay-film explicitness, and to really make all of this thematic richness coalesce into something, Jia would have needed either a lot more outright theorizing and self-examination (the Chris Marker route), or even less of a focus on Ma Ke in favor of total dispersal and a genuine fetishization of the look of things -- the specific gestures of labor, or the unique character of the countryside. As it is, Useless is a muddle. But unlike Dong, which focused on painter Liu Xiao-dong and read all secondary issues through his artwork, Useless does strive to function conceptually. Eventually Ma Ke drops out of the film altogether. But Jia seems incapable as yet of jettisoning the classically humanist imperatives of true documentary, even though it's pretty clear his heart is barely in it.


-Vacancy (Nimród Antal)

No sense spending more time on the review than the makers did cranking it out. I was actually pretty actively annoyed throughout most of the slender running time, but in the end it was a pretty effective 80-minute chase film, and demanding much more from it just seems pissy. Never really bought the wisp of a backstory to this bickering couple, but who's to blame for that? Granted, Luke Wilson can't shed folksy enough to get bad-ass, or even particularly believable as a grieving father, and Kate Beckinsale is never much more than a pair of cheekbones, with very little discernible personality behind them. But with a script that, by the film's climax, consists of little more than "Come here, fucking bitch," it's difficult to fault the talent for not sinking their teeth in. As far as Antal goes, I will say this is an improvement over Kontroll in terms of propulsive entertainment, but that film at least had some secondary pleasures like ambiance and steely, fluorescent-haloed cinematography. Most of Vacancy consists of slivers of visual information in a sea of darkness, and maybe this would've had some sensual charge in 35mm. But mostly the film looks like crap, which is particularly irksome after the nifty Saul Bass style opening credits. But again, I'm just being needlessly picky. As Jen said, "You know what I appreciated about that movie? It didn't fuck around." No. It certainly didn't. All in all, not as strong as 1408, but still better than Margot at the Wedding.




-Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, U.K.)

It's almost as though Mr. Minghella saw Haneke's Code Unknown and thought, "I could make that film again, only this time, take everything structurally complex, emotionally stark and sociologically resonant and turn it into thuddingly obvious pabulum." Seriously, it's all there, from the metropolitan class conflict to the Eastern European immigrant influx to the rationality vs. passion in relationships to the differently-abled children, and where does Minghella take it? Well, thankfully, not to the bank. Apparently even this Miramaxification of the "Crisis of New Europe" picture was too much of a downer to woo audiences. Based on the shoddy release pattern, you'd never know this was the director's follow-up to Cold Mountain. All the performances are perfectly solid, but no one can really escape the schematic plotting and characterizations. Everything is sort of trapped in amber, or displayed in a well-appointed shop window for one's intellectual admiration. Actual involvement is never an option.


-Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, Germany)

I had a hard time deciding whether this film was a 4 or a 5, largely because Gröning's camera frequently captures images of the environment in and around the Grand Chartreuse that are nothing short of breathtaking. Some of these images are fairly simple, such as the repeated motif (almost an architectural money shot, in its own way) of the receding porticos and deep hallways of the monastery, or the midday sunlight concentrated into a piercing beam by a thin opening in the wall, all the better to describe a line across the ancient wooden lunch table or reveal dust particles hanging in the air. I'd even go so far as to say more than half the shots that comprise Into Great Silence are, or have the potential to be, stunning simply on a visual level, apart from any specific information they might impart about the monastery or the Carthusian brothers who comprise it. Trouble is, Gröning has virtually no sense of organization, nor does he seem to be able to distinguish between different orders of imagery, or even the unique textures of film, video, under- and over-exposure. Whether we're watching a monk sawing wood, or preparing breakfast, or just sweeping up, there is a commitment to focusing one's attention across time, and in order to compose a film that seduces its viewer into making that investment, one must be in absolute control of the material at hand. But Gröning is all over the place, using grainy low-light videography in one sequence, then following it up with an uninflected, direct-cinema style view of some monkly activity, then getting all non-narrative with some evocations of pure light, none of which are ever held on screen long enough to savor.


What's more, the editing patterns with which Gröning has assembled his film display no clear logic, either narrative (the change of seasons, for example, or some other cyclical arrangement of mundane duty) or formal. Silence reminds me of a student attempt at avant-garde film, when the maker has only intuited experimentation as a series of injunctions or "don'ts," but has yet to discover the less obvious compositional strategies that give the best a-g work its shape and integrity. In this case it's all the more irksome because the Carthusians are an almost effortlessly cinematic subject. Certain of Gröning's shots capture something of the light and shadow qualities of Nathaniel Dorsky's films, but this seems almost accidental, and the highly deliberate, anti-associational montage style that gives Dorsky's work its hovering, perpetual-present time structure is not in evidence here, to say the least. But more than any other filmmaker I can think of, Robert Beavers is the man who could have taken on this project and brought back a flat-out masterpiece. His concern with the poly-historical textures of the Old World, combined with his fragmentary, almost musical organization of images of concentrated labor, would have been the perfect match. Sadly, that isn't what we got. Oh, and for the record, once I recognized that Into Great Silence wasn't going to be formally illuminating (or even particularly interesting) as a total experience (about the one-hour mark), I started watching it nightly before bedtime, 15 to 20 minutes at a time, to see if it worked any better as an ambient installation work, or a bedside devotional book in pictures. Can't say that it does, but it did allow me to make it through, which I doubt I could've done in a single theatrical viewing.


Into the Wild (Sean Penn)

Not even particularly breathtaking in a purely cinematic, gawk-at-nature's-vast-expanse kind of way (Eric Gautier's cinematography captures so many sun-glints and water drops off chilly flora that at times the film resembles the cover of some long-lost volume of Rod McKuen doggerel), Into the Wild is most disappointing as a directorial statement from Penn. Although I've never fully gotten behind The Pledge or The Crossing Guard (haven't seen The Indian Runner), I've admired their tightly-wound expressionism, which I took to exemplify Penn's simultaneous ability to admire obsessives and retain a cautious, judgmental distance from their narrow worldview. But here, style and form consistently bolster the selfish, immature arrogance of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch). The use of split-screen implies that his restless energy is too explosive to be contained by the film frame, and that this great wanderer is always off on the next challenge in his mind. Eddie Vedder's moaning, bombastic folksongs explicitly strive for grandeur, giving McCandless 's "Alexander Supertramp" the fanfare he so clearly feels he deserves. And perhaps most significantly, each and every colorful individual McCandless meets along the way expresses some doubts about his quest -- Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener worry that his family misses him; Vince Vaughn humors his bravado in an avuncular but skeptical kind of way; Hal Holbrook outright tells him he's wasting his life, and offers him another path -- but in the end (with the possible exception of Holbrook's Ron Franz -- too little, too late) everyone is won over by that crazy little Supertramp. (Dreamer! You're nothing but a dreamer! But don't let them make you so logical, clinical, intellectual, cynical. Well, Chris, I guess you're bloody well right! Take the long way home.) Any sense that Penn as a director or Into the Wild as a text are working to undermine or subvert McCandless's sub-Thoreau hissyfit seem to me generous in the extreme. At best, the film shows him to be a misguided but ultimately heroic young neo-Romantic, perhaps doing the wrong thing but, dammit, for all the right reasons. What's more, like all of the Western tradition's favorite Romantics, Supertramp / McCandless had to die young to cement his legend, and the film, while dutifully mournful about this outcome, also valorizes it, using a crane shot up to the heavens as a kind of belated thank-you for providing such a necessary, mythically appropriate conclusion. After all, if McCandless had grown up, he might have become Ted Kaczynski. But then again, without all that male-ego death drive, he might have become Julia Butterfly Hill -- someone certainly not immune to self-aggrandizement, but infinitely more willing to dip into the unclean larger world long enough to accomplish something tangible on its behalf.


-Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, Taiwan / U.S.)

This won the Golden Lion at Venice? With that Competition line-up? Now, let me go on record as saying, as I think I have before, that Ang Lee gets a bad rap among highfalutin cinephiles. Yes, he is a middlebrow, meat-and-potatoes director whose work is usually only as good as his scripts and his actors. He's no slouch on the visual front -- look at those oddly claustrophobic vistas in Brokeback or the dry-ice desiccation of The Ice Storm's interiors -- but he's a metteur-en-scène of the sort that auteurists, then and now, thumb their noses at. But I concur with Olaf Möller's comment in his Venice wrap-up in Film Comment, that if Lee is world cinema's compromise-auteur, we're really in pretty good shape. Since Eat Drink Man Woman, he's displayed classical skill and discipline, and, as a transnational figure capable of viewing both American and Asian mores from a distance, he's got just a touch of Douglas Sirk in him, always attuned to the ways that social forces demand various types of repression. All this makes Lust, Caution all the more unfortunate, because it's simply lumbering and inert, falling prey to the worst excesses of "historical epic" claptrap. Art directed to the point of taxidermy, failing to adequately articulate its protagonists' private emotional turmoil within actual, comprehensible meanings to the larger history of the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1940s, sweeping without every really getting off the ground, Lust, Caution finds Lee hopelessly at sea. Every scene feels like a stone tablet held up to demonstrate some key plot point, and yet despite this ponderousness, the film remains terminally vague. By the time double-agent Wong (Wei Tang, in a solid but unremarkable performance) becomes embroiled in a rather raunchy SM affair with assassination target Mr. Yee (Tony Leung, lackluster) and shocked at her own excitement by this violation by the enemy, it feels like a last-ditch effort to rescue the film from its somnambulistic stateliness. Many of us were surprised to learn that an Ang Lee film had earned an NC-17 rating. Turns out the title may have been fair warning to the potential viewer.


-Once (John Carney, Ireland)

The music sucked. It looked like it was shot with sub-consumer grade video so everything looked sick, pasty and underexposed. It clearly wanted to be a filmic "short story" but counted on a sympathetic audience to fill in the sketchy outlines masquerading as characters. It evokes the whole New Europe problem with respect to underclassed Eastern European immigrants, but is too committed to its sappy emo-core worldview to really think about it. Oh, and the music sucked. What a pointless little nothing of a film. I would really have loved to have seen anything resembling what Atkinson saw, but I just saw lack, thoroughly confident that its overweening sincerity would ultimately win the day. I guess maybe I just have no soul.




-Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano, Japan)

[SPOILERS] Stupifyingly terrible, and yet, like the fabled car accident of the popular cliché, I couldn't tear my eyes away from it. Many critics and ordinary Beat Takeshi fans found Kitano's previous film, Takeshis', similarly insufferable, but that film represented a sustained intellectual argument regarding Kitano's public image, as well as an interrogation of his legacy as a performer and director. The distance between superstar and shlub, Kitano seemed to imply, wasn't all that great, especially as he gets older and less agile, his facial paralysis etching his brand-name mug into near-literal stone. This self-consciousness seems at first as if it will be Glory's jumping-off point, a kind of comic consideration of Kitano's place in the overall history of Japanese cinema. Early on we see Kitano and his bizarre metal-and-papier-mâché stunt dummy getting a CT scan, and the patient name on the imaging monitor reads, variously, "Ozu, Yasujiro," "Kurosawa, Akira," "Imamura, Shohei," and "Fukusaku, Kinji." But this amusing intro is the sole point in the film at which Kitano's project will evince anything resembling systematic thought. From here on out, Glory unspools in two semidetached hemispheres (admittedly a nifty reference to the brainscan motif), each comprised of tortured sketch comedy and elaborate parody. The first part had Kitano and his equally expressionless he-doll wandering through genre riffs -- a singularly unconvincing Ozu homage, a lame wuxia, some sci-fi nonsense -- all characterized by extremely elaborate mise-en-scène. Clearly no expense was spared on this complex exercise, but every sight gag and conceptual in-joke falls flat, almost as if Kitano were deliberately deflating the idea of "comedy." By the time we get to the second half, which centers on a mother-daughter team in trashy, Cyndi Lauper-meets-Harajuku outfits (including an oddly expressive duck puppet) pursuing the Kitanos for golddigger matrimony, we're stuck in territory as yet uncharted by festival cinema. Glory functions like a random, scattershot Wayans Brothers crap comedy (think Epic Movie, or Scary Movie, or something equally dire), staging stunt after stunt, gag after gag, struggling to find any traction amid the mess. Like I said, it's jawdroppingly fascinating to watch one of cinema's major artists essentially self-destruct; we sit helplessly on the sidelines almost hoping against hope that something will actually be funny, or than one or two of its million-and-a-half ideas might achieve liftoff. But by the ending, which explicitly cites Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part One, it's obvious that Glory to the Filmmaker! is a fiasco for the ages. It's visually inventive in its own wrongheaded way, so it's still miles ahead of an idiotic eyesore like Southland Tales. But with this film, Kitano occupies the same zone that ensnared Richard Kelly's sophomoric sophomore effort. It represents visionary genius fixating on a few fundamentally bad ideas and expanding a universe around them, an auteur trapped in a Fortress of Solitude formed from crystallized shit.




-Joshua (George Ratliff)

[SPOILERS] When is a film productively open-ended and ambiguous, leaving ample room for interpretation on the part of an attentive viewer? And when is a film just lazy, taking a bunch of buzzwords, received ideas, and inchoate fears circulating throughout the culture (or, if you prefer, "channeling the Zeitgeist") and just throwing it all up in the air, letting things stick as they may and counting on a viewer's preexisting prejudices and movie-shaped image bank to give form to something that's mostly a lot of smoke and mirrors? As you can probably tell by the fact that I'm posing this question here, and the '2' grade, I consider Ratliff's Joshua to be an example of the latter category, but I don't take this lightly at all. In fact, although I'm sure an aesthetician could state the problem far more elegantly than I did above, the question of the "open text" is one of the greatest challenges in understanding and evaluating art, and it's something with which any halfway self-critical critic has to grapple, oh, once or twice a month. You see, there's no question that Joshua is a film that touches on some complicated ideas, and does so with a high degree of formal control. It's just that the film is so deliberately indecisive about its stake in these matters that it effectively dumps a lot of undigested intellectual material in the viewer's lap, like an hors d'oeuvre platter from a very stylish Upper West Side soiree. And because Ratliff and co-screenwriter David Gilbert are content simply to leave everything as is, the de facto work of meaning-making is left to film genre (in this case the "bad seed" domestic horror film), which sorts potentially progressive ideas into rather reactionary conclusions.


Precocious little Joshua (Jacob Kogan) not only resents the presence of his new baby sister, as many new big siblings do. He has a clarity of perception that no one else in his family can muster regarding their total situation. With dad (Sam Rockwell) as a shlubby, disengaged workaholic, mom (Vera Farmiga) never fully rebounded from postpartum nine years out, the marriage under notable strain and neither parent setting aside very much time for Joshua as it is, why have a second? In the high-minded intentions of Joshua's creators, this question goes to the heart of the ideologies the film wants to explore. Hovering around the periphery of this central issue are others that pertain just as closely to the dominant ideologies surrounding family and childhood. Do parents and other adults variably deem children "innocent" or "wise beyond their years" as it suits their needs in the moment? Given that religion is not the only way to instill moral values, do parents who forego religion have to make moral education explicit, or can it be absorbed by example? And, by its conclusion, Joshua obvious thinks that it has raised what is not only a very profound question, but one that is absolutely pressing in today's "family values" political climate. Is it possible to reimagine the kinship structure, to rewrite Freud and locate alternatives to Oedipal struggle? By the time Joshua has engineered his mother's loony bin trip and his father's incarceration, we can see that he had an alternate family romance in mind all along. It was never about disposing of the baby sister. Her appearance was the catalyst for Joshua to take action to forge the family he'd always wanted, with his new, appropriate father, the (presumably gay) Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts).


But here's the problem. Ratliff and Gilbert leave so much blank space in their narrative and their characterization that the work they clearly intend to do -- a revision of genre, among other things -- cannot really gain traction. Instead, genre, which is always already in a viewer's mind, swoops in to fill the gaps in signification. Why is Joshua so weird? Why does he play these vicious games with his mom? Why all these shock-cuts and almost magical sudden appearances of Joshua in doorways or behind frightened characters' backs? This is The Omen territory, and Joshua doesn't go far enough to undo this baggage. In fact, by the time the boy is murdering his devout grandma with a highly public shove down the museum stairs, it's almost impossible to think of him as anything other than an amoral monster. And so, once Joshua has goaded his dad into beating him up in the park in front of thirty witnesses, the film and its intellectual agenda are in deep trouble. Let's forget about the massive lapse in logic. (Remember, by this time Rockwell's dad has found the videotape Joshua made, threatening the baby. Handing this over to a child psychologist in parental concern is a more plausible response than fortifying one's own apartment.) Ratliff and Gilbert have, without meaning to, generated a narrative situation that blames a child for his own abuse, certainly a new low in blame-the-victim defensiveness. Granted, the scene is not nearly that simple, but by this point the material has gotten so far away from the filmmakers that they no longer control its meanings. Joshua, in the end, dabbles in hot topics like postpartum depression, ideologies of the family, and gay parenting, but mistakes a massive muddle for complexity. And so, the conundrum: is Joshua oblique or just noncommittal? Obviously this will depend on whether one finds the film's dots worth connecting. But it seems to be that if you just take Ratliff's film at face value, what you have is another cautionary tale about fey little boys, regardless of whether they're born or made. A film like Joshua, clearly made by highly intelligent people, shouldn't fall prey to such a dumb cliché.