REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2005
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Land of the Dead (George A. Romero, Canada / France / U.S.)
It could take you days, maybe weeks, to read Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, Hardt and Negri's Empire, and rent and watch The Battle of Algiers and Gunner Palace. And of course, it would be time well spent. (Well, maybe not watching Gunner Palace.) But you could save some time, and probably have quite a bit more fun, by going to see Land of the Dead. Some reviews are discussing it as if it were an allegory, but I don't think that's quite right. Allegories tend to have one dominant idea to which each character and event in the text refers. Romero's film is more complex, since it combines an indictment of racial and class-based stratification in Bush's America with a thinly-veiled staging of the Iraqi invasion and its ongoing aftermath. The walking dead are the absolute Other, and as such subject to endless humiliation. (For example, a bread-and-circuses street carnival features direct visual quotations from Abu Ghraib.) But slowly, the Undead Multitude rises, gets organized, and goes to work. Like any good political analysis, Land of the Dead forges connections between "here" and "elsewhere." Romero is, in the truest sense, bringing it all back home. Now, one could read all this and think, "Great. This picture's polemics are sound, but it is also a picture." How does it work as a straight-up zombie flick? Well, all I can say is I found Land of the Dead slyly funny and, if never outright scary, certainly grim and brutal. (A scene with a bungled grenade deployment is particularly gratifying.) I've heard complaints that the film peters out in the end, but I think this is necessary and intentional. There can be no conclusive final battle, only a plangent recognition that the struggle continues, that the dead and the living must somehow share the earth. In other words, when it comes to zombies, there's no exit strategy, and no timetable for withdrawal. [NOTE: A longer version of this review is available here.]
The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie, U.S. / Germany)
It's perplexing to me how some critics (Gleiberman, Benjamin Strong of the Voice) think they can so clearly read Zombie's politics and sympathies off the surface of The Devil's Rejects, a film so saturated in end-of-the-world nihilism as to render moot any taking of sides. True, the neo-Groucho Marxist anarcho-satanists (Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley) do get most of the funny lines (and, frankly, just as many clunkers -- I'm not convinced that RZ is quite as clever as he thinks he is). But isn't this just par for the corpse? From Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Hannibal Lecter ("Senator . . . Love your suit!), and especially the psychopaths of Kubrick (Alex, Jack Torrance, Sgt. Hartman), those characters representing the absolute cancellation of the laws of morality have to exhibit a certain seductive appeal. Otherwise, where's the ambivalence? What are the stakes? So I don't see Zombie's film as some kind of "Republican victory lap" so much as a re-exploration of the depths of hopelessness and anti-humanist carnage that in part gave rise to 70s exploitation cinema in the first place. This isn't the Mickey Spillane-meets-Itchy & Scratchy Show posturing of Sin City. It's a ritual blood-letting -- that is, letting the Red States run red. And, in a way, it's the return of the hipster repressed. How do we forge bonds? Well, some of us mock those we deem inferior. But why stop there? By blowing their fucking heads off, aren't the Devil's Rejects cultists being considerably more honest? It hardly seems immoral to explore this problem -- annihilating the other as a form of kinship -- within the relative safety of a cheap but meticulous Z-grade outlaw picture. And if The Devil's Rejects is somehow vulcanized against liberal elitism as its critics charge, this is mainly because it proposes something that the film intelligentsia reflexively rejects from the get-go -- that a man who calls himself Rob Zombie, a man whose rock band came to prominence when Beavis and Butt-Head declared them "cool," a man who demands that we take Lynyrd Skynyrd with deadly seriousness, is in fact an artist.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)
Well, it's a split decision for Big Miss Moviola. Her feature film debut, for all its faults, is sui generis -- I never thought I'd see a Todd Solondz / Fred Rogers mash-up, but to all intents and purposes that's what M&Y&EWK is. Suburban sexual dysfunction, loneliness, and the perverse explorations of under-supervised kids are combined with a warm-fuzzy sweetness that, in its own way, justifies Solondz's bleach-and-ammonia anti-humanism. I guess I should have seen this coming, since, if I'd seriously thought back on July's earlier works, like The Amateurist and Getting Stronger Every Day, I'd have realized the obvious. She's our 21st century Laurie Anderson. But while Anderson's wide-eyed, women-in-technology stance maintained a certain ambivalence, allowing the viewer / listener to accept her warm evocations of American suburbia as straight-up appreciation or as gentle irony, July takes it in an overly earnest direction. The sad-sack shoe salesman, the lady who drives senior citizens to the IMAX, the precocious girl next door -- everybody's just looking for love [sigh]. Easily the most refreshing (at times, even bracing) element in July's roundelay is its positioning of children on equal footing in this quest. This results in some of the frankest, funniest examinations of adolescent and teenage sexuality I've seen in an American film in ages. (It's as though we weren't living in Bush-land, and yet paradoxically it is clearly a direct response to the times, a kind of bashful, ladylike dare.) But unfortunately, July takes all the gooey-eyed idealization that most filmmakers lavish on children and slathers it onto her adult characters, resulting in moony swoony romanticism that practically made me want to bold from my seat, run to the men's room and brush my teeth. Even at their best, July's verbal cha-cha's of seduction call to mind a clunkier, less rigorous Hal Hartley. (But then, that describes even Hartley himself these days; see above.) Despite these excesses, July's direction tips the film mostly over into the 'win' column. There's a primitivism in the way she stages sequences and constructs spaces through editing, not just like a first-time filmmaker but like someone who, in the very best possible sense, doesn't know how to make a feature film. It's the jolt of someone blithely violating rules she's not aware of, like Sam Fuller as an eighth-grade girl. Unfortunately I expect these formal pleasures to dissipate once July finds surer footing in the medium.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton)
It's an almost total fiasco, with virtually everyone working at cross purposes. Burton clearly just wants to have fun, but there's nothing remotely enjoyable about the film he's made. Nothing inventive, just wan outlines for viewers of my generation to fill in with our nostalgic memories, and for children of today to sleep or cry through, wondering why mommy and daddy brought them. Johnny Depp has gotten flak in some quarters for a misjudged performance, but he's far and away the most interesting element here. He's bringing Roald Dahl's rather conservative moralism to the fore, taking the mythos of the eccentric industrialist / self-made man and making it creepy. Depp's Wonka, despite the actor's protestations, is a little bit Michael Jackson, and a whole lotta Howard Hughes. Gene Wilder's Wonka was a visionary, but Depp's is a delusional asshole rich enough to throw Londoners out of work and replace them with South American Pygmy slave labor, and, in the most subversive reading of Dahl's subtext, privileged and smooth-bump neutered enough to stage a worldwide contest in order to asexually reproduce. (Bucket = Blanket.) Regrettably, Burton and screenwriter John August saddle the Wonka character with a dimestore Freudian backstory that both guts the industrial critique and redeems Wonka in the cheapest way possible. Because of this, we're no longer asked to reflect on the perverse, draconian actions of a candy mogul punishing children for not enjoying candy "properly." Still, against all odds, Depp keeps at it. In fact, thanks to Depp's warped-billionaire-manchild interpretation, a minor character in both the novel and the original film becomes the most logical locus for audience identification. Mike Teevee, given to violent outbursts though he may be, is righteously indignant with Wonka's blinkered worldview ("You've invented a teleporter, and all you can think about is chocolate! You're an idiot!"), and so are we. Anyway, none of this pans out since it's all tied up with a rather Spielbergian pro-family PSA, and as a film, C&C Chocolate Factory fails to entertain, much less dazzle. Burton's visuals are butt-ugly through and through, pseudo-Seussian kitsch objects put in motion with crass CGI. Danny Elfman's score is an awful din I found myself physically recoiling from, his usual cartoon-Wagnerianisms submerged in the thunka-thunka we typically associate with an unbalanced washing machine. Outright fun makes its first appearance at the 45-minute mark with the first Oompa Loompa number, clocking in thrice more at ten minute intervals. For providing much-needed respite from the overall unpleasantness, Deep Roy deserves combat pay. [NOTE ON LOOMPA LORE: Never having read Dahl's book, I just learned that originally the Oompa Loompas were little African men, dark as chocolate. In a later revision of the book, they were pretty much de-ethnicized, hence my confusion regarding their continent of origin. Hmph.]
-A Dirty Shame (John Waters)
Sadly, this is perfectly harmless, although it delivers a few chuckles here and there. I fully appreciate Waters' continued desire to stick it to the mundanes ("neuters," as they're called here), but if there's anywhere left to go in the area of outré sexuality, it's not on display here. Instead, the shock-auteur is left banging his head against the wall. Best line by far: "Ever jerked off with your hand when it's gone to sleep? It's like somebody else is doin' it!"
-The Girl From Monday (Hal Hartley)
It's disappointing how completely mixed my reaction to Hartley's latest is; given that he's been one of my favorite filmmakers over the years, I'd prefer to be able to get exercised about it one way or the other. But pretty much every element in Girl From Monday sort of works and sort of doesn't. Hartley labels it a science fiction, but he's clearly got contemporary capitalist America in his sights. Now, leftist that I am, I'm not nearly as allergic to semi-didactic political allegories as other critics, and as these things go, Hartley's is pretty smart. Apparently he's been reading his Noam Chomsky and his Naomi Klein, and he does a nice job extrapolating from our present situation and imagining a mega-corporate future nudged ever so slightly into the dystopic. At the same time, he does such a good job laying out his thesis that there's not a lot of work left for the viewer. I mean no disrespect when I say that The Girl From Monday would serve as a useful conversation piece in an undergraduate classroom. But as art, it doesn't quite engage. At best it elicits nods of assent. Likewise, the film rides the fence with respect to form. At times Hartley's smeared videography is gratingly precious; at other times it gels into a reasonable picture of an uncertain future, the indistinct look of urban terror and fast capital. Hartley attempts to inject a poetic resonance into the political theatre in the form of the alien plot. The girl from Monday serves no clear purpose but does introduce questions of identity and the meaning we attach to sexuality. But again, it just lays there like a thin inkwash. Perhaps Hartley was trying to blend the three distinct styles of his mentor Godard -- we could call them the outlaw, the ideological, and the philosophical -- to make his own, more advanced version of Alphaville. But the result, engaging though it often is, is a hazy intellectual blip. [NOTE: I watched about half of this film a second time, and decided my initial 6-rating was too generous. Leftover goodwill towards Hartley, I suppose. The extensive voiceover, in particular, is painfully heavy-handed.]