SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [p] paracinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski)
Idunneau, evnthogh I’d hrd on guduthurritty that this wzz a bettr, mur innertaining flm thn I’d evvr havuhrrite t’expect, nothing cudduve evr puppeard me fr Johnny Depp’s ustonushng cmeadic prrformince. Hz Jack Sparruh izza swee junnurus creashuhn, reimagunin pirussy azzuh provinse uvthuh rum-damadged and sexshully ambivvulunt. Huzzah! (Also, Geoffrey Rush finds the perfect can to contain his ham, Keira Knightley’s neck should count as a special effect, and the skeletons were bad-ass. Orlando Bloom is bland, though, and the acting and script were so strong that often the fight sequences were a bore by comparison. Still, a soaring, expertly crafted entertainment.)
Sleepers (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) [v/p]
This is a very simple video installation, showing a young, Middle Eastern-looking heterosexual couple lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. There is no narrative, and it is designed as an environmental work, with viewers wandering in and out of the room. On the surface, this is high-tech, warmed-over Warhol – duration with minimal change in action. But given the nature of this project, Kiarostami has actually produced a pretty brilliant metacommentary on his own work. First of all, this is far more minimal that the narrative features Kiarostami produces, which are decried as exercises in minimalist tedium by their detractors. But perhaps more importantly, this project, produced for Western museum-goers, gives us an extended look at precisely the mundane events that Iranian censors force Kiarostami to elide from his films. We see attractive but very ordinary young people, a man and a woman, being intimate but not sexual. They are in their underwear, and we see flashes of skin. She rolls over and knocks over a bedside water bottle, and sets it upright again. Men and women cannot even hold hands in Iranian cinema, so one could see Sleepers as a real-time interlude, filling in temporal ellipses we’d otherwise not even notice.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, U.K.)
Or, England’s Dreaming and It Can’t Get Up. Confession: I have yet to see any of the Romero zombie movies all the way through. So Boyle’s homages are somewhat lost on me. Still, this film of stock characters and archetypes managed to invest all of them with genuine human interest. (The scene in which Jim finds his parents was unexpectedly moving.) From the opening isolation to the gradual assembly of the team of protagonists, to the final military showdown, this film hit its paces with precision and grace. As some have argued, it can be read as an allegory for just about anything. (My personal fave: British anxiety about its own expendability, the hazards of being a global sidekick.) But any film which conditions its viewer to accept grungy, cruddy DV images, and then provides lush, green 35mm film as the dawn of hope, wins points in my book.
Madame Satã (Karim Ainouz, Brazil)
All of the best ingredients are here. The pageantry and (muted) politics of late Cinema Novo, the troubled masculinity and queer / patriarchal posturing of Fassbinder, and surprisingly enough, Jack Smith’s chintzy, unironic exotica and Kenneth Anger’s fascination with shimmering light. Narratively, the film never goes anywhere entirely unexpected, but it never feels predictable, either. It’s more a case of everything hitting its paces just so. Lázaro Ramos’s central performance is the anchor here. He toggles between João’s feminine and masculine sides with fluidity and grace, which is no mean feat considering how both those sides exist at total extremes (drag performance / kung-fu ass-kickings). Some might complain that Ainouz withholds his story’s gratifying conclusion, relegating it to some intertitles and images during the credits. But this limited triumph, coming on the heels of a nearly two-hour examination of João’s utter disenfranchisement and explosive self-loathing, recalled the end of Beau Travail. Nicely done.
Northfork (Michael Polish)
It’s pretty easy to see why so many people despise this film, and my experience of viewing it frequently entailed a degree of astonishment that things I was seeing, which were so overweening and precious and clever-clever and self-satisfied, things that should have infuriated me or annoyed me, simply didn’t. The silly stuff, like the angelic interludes, were never less than intriguing oddities, which represented an intricate, loving realization of fundamentally bad ideas, ones which any fully functioning idea-and-taste-machine would discard. In the end, the “bad” stuff transcended its badness, because it evinced a level of sincerity which, for me, compelled belief. (This is partly because the angelic stuff has an obvious purpose. The film as a whole is about dealing with death, and little Irwin, lacking adult knowledge, can only interpret death through a fairy tale version of religion.) And then there’s all the stuff that works – the emptied-out landscapes, abandoned homes, the Hopper-plus-Magritte visual logic governing the main narrative thread. Dennis Harvey’s review likens Northfork to the Cremaster films, and going into this film with that filter made all the difference. Like Barney, Northfork subordinates story values to big, overstuffed, almost swaggering visual conceits, a pseudo-mythic pageant which can at times elicit chuckles but is never less than interesting. The script, sadly, is less capable than the images of absorbing the brothers’ self-satisfaction – what to do with a film so heavy-handed as to make a pun about heavy-handedness? – but these slips were nestled against silly humor which leavened the proceedings. And while this is not a film which even allows for strong performances as such, James Woods’ quiet, subtle work offers a sturdy foundation. I would not go to the wall for Northfork. But for all its flaws, it emerges as something honest and true, and that was quite a surprise.
The Present (Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Finland) [s/v/p]
I have been mildly impressed with Ahtila’s work in the past, but have yet to be bowled over by anything she’s done, The Present included. Each five minute snippet was shown on a different monitor, and the noise from one tended to spill onto the others in a very distracting manner. All of the pieces allude mental illness in women, profiling individual women who perform various manias. The best of the group was a wordless scene of a young woman going home to her two-story shack (it reminded me of dilapidated white-trash housing you’d see on the outskirts of Houston), but taking time to lay down in a puddle of stagnant water in the driveway. Others, like the one with a crawl across a bridge or the one with a “wind” which destroys a room in a house, were over-produced and over-edited, each shot a single striking “art” image, but truncated, developing no rhythm across the images. Regrettably, I missed the chance to see these fragments in Ahtila’s longer film, Love is a Treasure. These themes would have to be better realized in the longer form, given how clipped these pieces were, and how inadvertently glib that brevity made them.
-Paradox Lake (Przemyslaw Reut, U.S. / Germany)
I watched thirty minutes of this at the Vancouver IFF before walking, and while I realize I made the right decision that night, I must concede that the film is very interestingly wrongheaded. Its blend of documentary material and inept, nearly laughable fiction clearly has a purpose. The introduction of thwarted romance and racial misunderstanding certainly contributes to a sort of real-world messiness, that the camp is not cordoned off from the larger world and that autistic campers must in turn learn not to be closed off from that world. Similarly, the genre-crossing results in cognitive miscues for the viewer, wherein we are not sure how or why any of what we’re watching quite fits together. Still, with all these potential justifications, it simply doesn’t work. This is partly because the autistic performers end up being cheap window dressing for One Man’s Journey to Self-Discovery, and the flashy stylistic tics only underscore that solipsism. Plus, lead actor Matt Wolff, playing counselor Matt (Big Bad) Wolf, bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Showalter, making things feel like an unfunny, parallel-universe version of Wet Hot American Summer. “Worthy,” I grudgingly admit, but an utter misfire nonetheless.
Close (Atom Egoyan and Juliao Sarmento, Canada / Portugal) [s/v/p]
You walk into a hallway and there is just enough space for your body. A large video image of various body parts is right in front of your face. The video image is seen only as patterns of ben-day dots, unless you look to the far corners. (An homage to Chuck Close?) Sadly, what we get are interminable images of someone clipping his / her toenails into a woman’s mouth, from various angles and distances. On the soundtrack, an embarrassing monologue about luck and rabbit’s feet, something Laurie Anderson might have jotted down in a spare instant and promptly thrown in the trash. I gave it twelve minutes, and went back to Sleepers.