REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JANUARY 2012

All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

[7]

 

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, U.S. / France)

This may have been the first Wiseman film I've seen that simply overestimated the inherent interest value of the institution under examination. Yes, Paris's legendary Crazy Horse erotic review is an institution, and in a lot of respects the endless sequences of auditions, choreography, and rehearsal directly echo Wiseman's two most recent (and stronger) efforts, Boxing Gym and La Danse. But some of the difficulties that started to present themselves in Wiseman's method in La Danse actually become (how do you say?) gaping chasms here. The fact that Wiseman has developed a keen interest in bodies at work, and the training and discipline thereof, is producing some of the liveliest and most informative (in the broadest, most humanist sense of the word) material of his career. But when documenting a performance troupe, a certain amount of what Wiseman, the environmental completist, inevitably does is to depict the performances themselves. And so, when those acts are dull or contrived, it's hard to avoid the fact that they undercut the power of Wiseman's own film. The pat redoubling of the representation -- watching not a performance document per se but a document of a performance, or something like that -- is only of theoretical assistance, and doesn't mean I don't have to watch "Baby Buns," which is stupid and boring and, as erotic art much less as "dance," really shows its age. At the end of the day, Wiseman can never be less than good at what he does, but he is not unimpeachable. His own sense of what in our vast human world is worth documenting, I think, is becoming more and more of an open question.

 

Tin Pressed (Dani Leventhal) [v/s]

Part of what has been so remarkable about Dani Leventhal's recent video work is that she is uniquely capable of producing dense, evocative juxtapositions through montage. But what makes her editing so unique? Putting one image / sound unit against another has been a fundamental principle of cinema pretty much since the beginning. (Well, okay, that sound part came a bit later. But even Sergei Eisenstein, master theoretician of montage, welcomed the sound era, noting that when applied contrapuntally, the aural dimension could be another element in the clash of sensory dialectics.) Leventhal's work is rare in that she is able to produce relatively short works that incorporate images and sounds that are collected from daily life, as well as material that is rather blatantly staged. However, by treating this material as an occasion for formal articulation -- examining it not primarily from the standpoint of its contents, but in terms of overall shape, movement, gesture, temperature, and underlying tone -- Leventhal succeeds in giving this highly varied footage equal weight. In so doing, Leventhal forms a new context, the piece itself, in which each individual image and sound has a firm belonging that supercedes its denotative content. At the same time, Leventhal does not select or arrange footage in such a way that it actively suppresses content. It's not just that she tends to avoid purely abstract images; it's that the facticity of what's onscreen retains its poetic valence (even as it tends to avoid narrative meanings). Tin Pressed is a perfect example of what Leventhal does. It's a piece that generally operates on a spatial / compositional basis, orchestrating gradual motivic elaboration. For instance, the start of Tim Pressed relies on either a form holding the center of the frame as a nucleus with action swirling around it (as in the first shot of Leventhal on the concrete, being kicked by unseen assailants, and the second shot of wasps inside a yellow flower) or movement around an empty center (as in the fourth shot, with bait sardines whirling in a water bucket). The subtle shift in orientation created by the bobbing fish takes us from circular motion to perpendicular stasis; the brief fifth shot of a Virgin Mary icon is quickly supplanted by Leventhal's bare back as she's mashed into a mammogram machine. This shot holds for quite a while, until it in turn is replaced, by a side of beef hanging in a butcher shop window. (Admittedly, this is a bit too on-the-nose, not the sort of thing we usually see in Leventhal's videos.) Nevertheless, what we see at work in this compact video is Leventhal's ability to ask us to think in terms of shape and form (as well as gently colliding ambient sounds) while forcing us to grapple, in predominantly non-narrative and non-symbolic terms, with the actual stuff from her image-world. Leventhal is essentially reviving a modernist poetic vein in experimental cinema, and the fact that she's doing it with video is, I think, more of a radical gesture than we might initially think. I've compared Leventhal's editing style to Nathaniel Dorsky before, and I stand by this. But Dorsky is the ultimate 16mm diehard, pushing all his films to the limits of the medium's ability to record perceptible light. Leventhal, for her part, certainly explores digital's tactile potentials. (See shot three, the haptic close-up on an elderly neck.) But if Dorsky's adherence to film and its fragile light tends to imbue his films with a sort of holiness, Leventhal's work insists upon its connection to the quotidian. This is bold, in part because it goes a long way toward making poetry "strange." [Tin Pressed can be viewed here.]

 

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, Norway)

Originally that last word was "Goddammit," which New Yorker Films wisely changed for the U.S. market. (I have been noticing lately how children's films and even cartoons were so casual about uttering "Oh my God!" or "Good God," and now everyone is afraid to take the Lord's name in vain in any pop culture artifact. I really wish I'd been an adult in the 1970s instead of this horribly repressed, conservative era. But I digress.) This is precisely the sort of small, well-observed foreign film that barely gets made anymore, and certainly doesn't get released very often, partly because it sets such small parameters. It's closest in kind to our old friend Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love / Fucking Åmål, in terms of zeroing in on a young girl's coming of age and sexual awakening in a lousy little town, and little else. As we know, Moodysson could not sustain a career on such "small" films -- to the chagrin of some, to the horror of others, and to the occasional delight of others still. Hard to know whether Jacobsen will morph into an experimentalist who will deliver something as unhinged as A Hole in My Heart or Container in ten years' time, but for now, her sexual forthrightness and playful sense of humor are more than enough to set her work apart. In the broad wash of festival filmmaking, Turn Me On, Dammit might not seem like all that much. But in general release, and especially when viewed against American cinema and its extreme fear of depicting underage sexuality, this is one firecracker of a film. Alma (Helene Bergsholm) is a young high school girl who lives in a hick town, has her small clique of friends, and is coping with a big problem. She's seriously randy. So much so that, in an early, unforgettable sequence, she's on the kitchen floor having comically inept phone-sex while quite aggressively masturbating in her panties. We get unvarnished glimpses of Alma's random fantasies, which are eventually short-circuited by real-world judgment. (A guy she likes whips out his dick and, when he gets embarrassed, tells everyone that Alma blew him, casting her as the school tramp.) With the aid of newcomer Bergsholm's exceptionally perceptive lead performance, Jacobsen delicately renders the difficulties as well as the pleasures of being a girl coming into womanhood, observing the tortuous dance between natural desires and the social realm's haste to draw lines and form definitions. Everything comes out okay in the end, which may make Turn Me On a bit more optimistic than it has a right to be. But so what? These days, there are worse offenses than utopian thinking, and Jacobsen clearly wants to remind us all that teen horniness is not a crime.

 

[6]

 

The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, U.S. / New Zealand)

There are obviously going to be limits to my ability to "properly" evaluate this, since as a dirty rotten stinking American, reared on "Tom & Jerry" and breastfed on hamburger grease, I was never exposed to Hergé's comics as a child. This is a lapse that I'm correcting as a parent, although I must say, this involves some serious sidetracks into topics that, while not exactly uncomfortable, do provoke questions for which I try my best to have semi-prepared, intelligible answers. (I.e., it's vital to be able to explain colonialism and Orientals if you're reading Tintin with a 21st century child, unless you're some truly warped, white-cotton-suit jingoist.) All that having been said, how could Spielberg have been expected to resist bringing Tintin to the big screen? Hergé represents the kind of 1940s/50s adventures-for-boys serials that thrilled young Stevie back in the movie houses of his youth, only in comicbook form; the parallels to Indiana Jones are impossible to ignore. And yet, Tintin is a young man, not much more than a kid, so retrofitting these stories into a kind of Indy-for-Children is something of a no-brainer. That's what they always were, and Spielberg is merely enacting a giant historical corrective, that decades of American exceptionalism have prevented these Eurocentric tales from gaining purchase on these shores. (It's also possible, of course, that Hergé's right-wing politics were either unfashionable or incomprehensible to American audiences during the comics' heyday. But this seems unlikely to have always been the case.) By the same token, by adapting Tintin as faithfully as possible, Spielberg gives back to the European sources (popular, literary and cinematic) that have always been so much a part of this echt-American master. The Adventures of Tintin wears its action-adventure and noir sources on its sleeve -- a bit of midperiod Fritz Lang here, some French Romanticism there. Spielberg's use of motion capture has been commented upon in most reviews I've seen, in terms of comparisons to Zemeckis's similar efforts. The questions always hinge of character molding and verisimilitude, or more properly, a vague and hard-to-specify issue that I'll simply call "the creep factor." Are these lifelike-but-not-quite-alive physical avatars of Tintin (Jamie Bell), Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis) and Sakharine (Daniel Craig) too far removed from computer animation (e.g. Pixar) for us to identify with, but still nowhere near conventional realism? This seems to miss the point. Tintin finds Spielberg engaged in highly unusual formalist play: not only the compulsive use of mirrors, reflections and distortions, which are exaggerated and plastically manipulated via the mo-cap computer work, but a strong emphasis on shadow, mist, the density of physical space. This is in marked contrast to Pixar's obsessions with modeling 3D environments and forms, making "real" mountains, grass, strands of hair. Spielberg, a filmmaker from the tangible world, working with Peter Jackson, who arrived at digital creations from that same material base, clearly operates with different priorities regarding atmosphere. This made Tintin look dead or canned to many, but I think it may be because we've been trained by so many other contemporary animators to look only at the objects onscreen, rather than around and between them.

 

[5]

 

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (Constance Marks)

Michael find much to smile about in cuddly documentary film. But Michael also think there is much more documentary could say about subject if willing to delve. Michael wonder why Kevin Clash not talk more about pre-Henson shows he work on. Also Michael think that Kevin Clash and filmmakers make serious elision in not dealing with larger meaning of Elmo. Elmo mark major shift in "Seseme Street" from community orientation to one-on-one talking to kids. Academics claim this shift mean Elmo play part in the subtle shift from Henson socialistic values of 1970s to neoliberal consumerist values of 1990s. Michael think Kevin Clash more interesting as part of larger cultural discourse. Marks rather show Elmo give love to dying kid. Hugs! Michael no argue with dying kid love. Michael not mean!

 

The Muppets (James Bobin)

Are you a Man, or are you a Muppet? The ultimatum, thrown down by Mary (Amy Adams) to her endlessly distracted fiance Gary (Jason Segel), implies some sort of classic Old West toughness challenge of masculinty. But as the showstopping number featuring Gary and his Muppet-born brother Walter makes clear, being a Muppet is a hard road indeed, especially when you're born a full 30+ years after your cultural moment. The Muppets is itself beset by this very struggle, which makes it difficult to simply enjoy as a light, unproblematic entertainment. Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (the Forgetting Sarah Marshall / Get Him to the Greek guys) are dedicated Muppet fans, working with Disney / Henson to reestablish Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang for a new generation. This being the era of "reboots" and showbiz metacommentary, the diegetic theme of The Muppets is all about the gang being old and forgotten, needing to reunite in order to save their cherished Muppet Theatre from destruction by a greedy robber-baron (Chris Cooper). This oilman, Tex Richman, isn't just willing to tear down the theatre to get to the oil underneath. He's willing to do a bad hip-hop number about it. Evil!

 

The key to contemporary kiddie-flick "synergy" is that the films are supposed to work on two levels. Kids get the broad, silly humor, and adults pick up on wider-ranging cultural allusions. How often do non-Pixar films resonate on more than two levels? You can almost see a studio exec (say, Mr. Lipnick, the bully-boy studio head from the Coen brothers' Barton Fink) squirm in his padded chair, the very question an affront to the aggressive mediocrity he is charged with defending. The Muppets, whatever else can be said about it, certainly operates on multiple levels. The very idea of reuniting The Muppets, who themselves were an imaginary holdover from a long-dead concept of Vaudeville, now has double- or triple-layered nostalgia in a digital age, when puppetry itself is an art soon to be relegated to street fairs and library story hours. The grand idea behind resurrecting Kermit and the crew is a hope that those of us who grew up with them, many of whom have kids of our own, might share something from our childhoods with our own kids, finding a retro-hipster common ground. But as we know, this is dangerous territory. Not only is the window a narrow one -- when kids even can share with us, before establishing independence by rejecting our cultural artifacts as corny -- but we too may well have a hard time going home again.

 

The Muppets, however well conceived, was a mostly melancholy affair, and not just because Stoller and Segel foregrounded the Martin & Lewis, Mick and Keith style awkwardness of "getting back together" (Kermit finding Fozzie in a dump in Reno; the adamant unwillingness to speak Piggy's name). There were just far too many signposts that "The Muppets" as we knew it are gone, that Jim Henson is really dead and the Muppets died with him. Yes, the voices are all off, but more than that, the humor lacked an ineffable in-the-face-of-whatever optimism, a "show must go on" mentality that was not restricted to showbiz-maxim insularity but was, finally, just an ethos for life more broadly. Maybe it was the British influence, now almost totally imperceptible. Or maybe it was Henson's playful hippie socialism, a belief that things are falling apart every day and you hold them together not with grand designs but with more anarchy, with play. I'm very happy The Muppets exists, and that there is a way to share these characters with the next generation. But the film really served to clarify for me just what we lost with Henson, and what we're losing still.

 

[4]

 

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, U.K.)

There are some opinions that I hold with equal amounts of conviction and reservation. That's to say, I know full well that I am looking as closely as I can at the object under scrutiny and, to the best of my ability, making a critical judgment that also accounts for my gut-level reactions, the pleasures or lack thereof that the artwork in question has provided. On the other hand, I find myself acutely aware that some key element of the object's aesthetic program or raison d'être is very likely eluding me. This nagging sense partly comes from reading other reviews and having discussions with trusted critical minds. But it's also something deep inside the 'text' itself, a "gap of the new," we might call it. In Kill List by Ben Wheatley, there is undoubtedly an aspect of this. To me, this is a fundamentally offputting film. It draws on the genre codes of conflicting forms, and it does so quite deliberately in order to confound the expectations those codes provoke in a prospective viewer. However, more than this, Wheatley seems to dabble in a kind of all-over, highwire tone of the macabre that clearly signals that the world of Kill List is "off," not natural or right. It is this pervasive, saturating tone, achieved through color effects, grain modulation, and a low, grinding sound design, that I found so irksome in Kill List, especially since it tended to indicate that ostensible "normalcy" -- the film's working-class, British kitchen-sink realism in the first 1/3 -- was anything but. Ex-military, now private hitman Jay (Neil Maskell) is tasked by partner Gal (Michael Smiley) to take on a three-target job, but the degree to which things immediately get weird -- the amped-up hostility between Jay and common-law wife Shel (MyAnna Buring); Jay's highly unprofessional, PTSD meltdown during Job #1 -- simply reaffirms that Wheatley had something up his sleeve the whole time. On the one hand, good on him for avoiding facile "twist" plotting, and keeping the fractured-psyche ambiance as the aesthetic and psychological dominant, start to finish and wall to wall. But then, as Kill List moves through its semi-structural second act (the actual "kill list") and careens toward its left-field conclusion, there's no denying a sense that the ugly overtones are window dressing for more genre-play and spot-the-reference shell games. Many people I respect admired Kill List's originality and audacity, especially its self-aware rehearsal of British cinematic history. (All this culminates in a salute to the Isles' greatest cult flick ever, perhaps arguably a traumatic repetition of same...) Kill List could, I suppose, have something to tell us about compromised masculinity (and the Iraq and Afghan Wars), but Wheatley, thus far, seems a bit too stuck in movie-brat limbo to fell that particular beast.