SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2003
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)
Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chin-yen, Taiwan)
Stylistically, the very definition of subtle, a film which at first seems technically shoddy (“Was this shot out of focus?”), then just negligibly “realistic,” with no discernible style at all. But soon, you realize exactly how much control and expression Yee is bringing to bear, with shallow focus lending most everything in the frame an internalized glow, as if conjured from a warm memory. Yee also undercuts the surface realism with masterful staging of actions which mutate unexpectedly into something else (e.g., Kerou and Shihao scraping the pilfered mash note off the playground floor with their feet, a gesture which becomes an awkward, vaguely chicken-like pas de deux). It recalls the unobtrusive formalism of early Edward Yang; tonally, it’s the kind of film that Lukas Moodysson’s fans claim he makes, but to my mind really doesn’t – open-hearted, tender, and generous with every last character. At times, it even exhibits shades of Hal Hartley, with its deliberate blockings and repeated, circular dialogue. All the performances are distinct and exacting, especially the two leads. Kerou (Guey Lun-mei), like Hartley’s male heroes, is driven yet impassive, nearly blank. This deadpan strategy plays perfectly against Chen Bo-lin’s Shihao, the affable cool-guy-bad-boy whose reserves of feeling and compassion seem to surprise even himself. Not perfect (a major plot development was so unexpectedly elliptical as to make me wonder if a reel was missing; I’m still on the fence about the tinkly piano score), but a wonderful surprise.
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
Jarecki stumbled upon such an amazing, terrifying, convoluted story, about a tortured, pitiable man and the destruction he accidentally unlooses on himself and his loved ones. But because the tragic grandeur is contained in the material itself, Jarecki only sabotages it when he tries to make it into art. Mournful music and slo-mo shots of the commuter trains really only get in the way, and show how much this story, these individuals, require directorial humility, not bungled Errol Morris stylings. As Charles Francois has said, the greatness of Friedmans is the way it plays out like a real-life version of an Atom Egoyan film, with the participants mediating their disintegration through recording technology. Yet oddly, Jarecki doesn’t ever interrogate this aspect of the story, and how this fascination with images might relate back to the case. Also, withholding the gayness of Arnold’s brother was a serious misstep. All in all, an absolutely stunning tale unearthed by a filmmaker mostly, but not completely, up to the task of conveying it.
Manito (Eric Eason)
The film and its titular character sort of end up following the same path. So gripping and so incisively observed for nearly its whole running time, how can Manito manage to fuck it up in a mere 75 minutes? Much like Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, the answer comes in the form of a narrative plotted so deterministically as to beggar belief. And, like the Loach, this is all the more frustrating because of the unforced naturalness, the exacting faux-verite, of so many moments. (The graduation party is a highlight, especially the heart-wrenching montage of toasts. Anyone who comes from a milieu in which “college” is an almost magical ticket out will understand immediately.) Had it not turned into a kind of miserablist telenovela, I might have managed to let its first-film rookie errors slide. (Why the canted angles? Why no feel for the properties of DV?) Basically this will be the best thing on TV whenever it premieres on Sundance Channel, and I can’t not recommend it. But still, sort of like Manny himself, it ends up hanging there, an emblem of unfulfilled promise.
Marooned in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran [Kurdistan])
Weird film. All middle, with a beginning so slapdash and elliptical as to challenge comprehension (especially the second reel or so, where the three principals seem to get arrested, or robbed, or something) and an ending so abrupt as to split into three separate threads and leave two of them dangling. The music’s cool, and there are occasional dollops of humor, coming from the sheer absurdity of conducting everyday life in a dilapidated war zone. But the overall feeling was poignancy, resulting from finding things other than what you set out to look for. (Sorry to be vague, but it’s fading from memory fast, despite its obvious strengths.)
Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link, Germany)
One of several films I’ve seen this month which contains quite a lot of excellent stuff, but is partially torpedoed by some really dumb artistic choices. I was surprised by just how gripping this film is. Excessive voiceover narration is a pet peeve of mine, but Nowhere’s incorporation of Regina’s novelistic observations added a resonant layer of retrospection to what we were witnessing. Still, the film fails on some basic levels. It is as though Link has decided that she must make An Epic Motion Picture, even though her material would best be served by an unobtrusive realism. She can’t seem to resist unnecessary crane shots, pulling away from the isolated bungalow and giving us Figures in the Vast Landscape of History. Nor can she seem to stop making the music swell. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film so dependent on its score to smooth out every edit and transition. The principal actors are all quite good, even inflecting Link’s sometimes schematic script with significant depth of character. Juliane Köhler and Sidede Onyulo are particularly excellent. But as entertaining and moving as the story and performances may be, Link’s direction frequently leaves all concerned stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Respiro (Emanuele Crialese, Italy)
For its pleasurable first half, Respiro was sort of an Italian neo-neo-realist Woman Under the Influence, with Grazia’s unusual, patriarchy-resistant behavior serving as the lightly bobbing anchor of a poetic, observational film, in no hurry to hit predetermined plot points. But, like Grazia’s family, Respiro clamps down. But instead of introducing narrative economy or character-motivated outcomes, the film seems to take forever to do its thing, and it becomes increasingly far-fetched and mechanical as it plods on. (Good: the interludes with little Filippo scolding his sister and aunts, showing the pervasive reach of male arrogance. Bad: the men on rooftops, materializing out of nowhere, guns already cocked. Suddenly, it’s the Borg of machismo, and downright silly.) Step-printing, slow motion, and “quiet storm” jazz are all ill-advised. Golino delivers an impressive performance, exuding both self-confidence and a general befuddlement at the out-of-proportion response of those around her.
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, Canada)
My first exposure to Maddin’s work was Careful, several years ago, and it was a truly rare experience. I went from being so deeply irritated with the film that I wanted to walk out, to deciding at about the midway point that it was one of the most amazing, sui generis things I’d ever seen. While I haven’t liked all the Maddin I’ve seen (Gimli Hospital left me cold), I consider myself a partisan. So I was pretty disappointed when Dracula initially struck me as twee and half-baked, and kept proving me right until the end. The main problems are formal. On paper, wedding ballet to silent cinema is a stroke of genius, but Dracula has mediocre ballet at its center, and surrounds it with numerous visual effects which felt as if they were deployed by some kind of randomizing computer program. Irises, three-stage zooms, and grainy close-ups merely clutter the work. Considering how masterfully Maddin composes such elements in his best work, the overall flatness of Dracula just doesn’t make sense. It has a few high points – the flashback recounted by Jonathan, which recaps Nosferatu almost in its entirety, is particularly strong. And Zhang Wei-Qiang is simply riveting to watch as the count “from the East.” But sadly, for the most part the obvious joke truly applies. Insert it at will.
Hulk (Ang Lee)
Going into this one, I had read several negative reviews (Mike D’Angelo, Lisa Schwarzbaum, A. O. Scott), most of which contained some variant on “this movie takes itself too seriously and is not pure unadulterated comic book fun in our opinion.” Now, I don’t read comics, and if I did they wouldn’t be superhero comics. So I don’t give a fuck about the source material or the film’s fidelity thereto. (I sort of enjoyed the TV show in the 80s, however.) No, the main problem with Angst Lee’s Hulk is that it’s a movie divided against itself. (This could lead some wrongheaded soul to provide a compelling interpretation about how the film’s form mirrors the tormented schizophrenia of Bruce Banner / Hulk him/it/themselves. No.) The first 30 to 45 minutes, I was just grooving on the pure formal trickery of Lee’s transitions, graphic matches, focus pulls, and gee-wizardry, neatly moving us from scene to scene, sometimes shot to shot. The slowness others are complaining about does not in and of itself conflict with the story’s very rudimentary emotional spectrum, and the visual play of the transitions manages to leaven things. But the film introduces wildly inappropriate, outsized villains, who don’t torpedo the seriousness so much as pre-emptively mock it, so the audience doesn’t have to. Nick Nolte is the main culprit. His performance as David Banner recalls Dafoe’s turn in Spider-Man, which would be great, were Hulk committed to being that sort of movie. Sam Elliott’s tin soldier and (worst of all) Josh Lucas as a rival scientist, behave like they’re in a cartoon. The whole thing ends up so incoherent, you’d be forgiven for thinking it lost something in translation from the original Mandarin. As for the CGI Hulk himself? I liked how he bounced like a Superball from mesa to mesa, stopping every now and again to offer tortured, soulful looks. Ooh. Poor misunderstood Hulk. Please cut back to another Connolly close-up. Thanks.
Suddenly (Tan de repente) (Diego Lerman, Argentina)
This was one of those rare instances in which my estimation of the film fluctuated with virtually every new scene. (6! 3! I am going to walk out! Wait...a 7....no! 2! etc.) So in the end, I come down right in the middle. Despite the promulgation by highbrow festivals and critics, I haven’t been really impressed with recent Argentine cinema. (Note: I still haven’t seen Trapero’s films.) Suddenly is no exception, really. It exhibits self-congratulatory cuteness one minute, becomes a low-rent lesbian Jarmusch picture the next minute, and then will haul off and plunge into sexual predation, daring us to keep watching as a host of unappealing characters behave like rude, horny teenagers. Of course, it all comes back to a sort of “look at our unconventional family of outcasts” conclusion, as so many Gay and Lesbian Festival films do. But all the nastiness and mugging and stolid non-communication that came before it just makes its faux-ingratiating terminus seem like just another irritating point on the journey. Thing is, while actually viewing this film, I was mostly confused about how to feel about it. But now, it’s all rather clear, and a 5 seems rather generous.
Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz)
Okay, this was made for cable TV. But did its structure have to seem so schematic? (I could not help mentally inserting commercial breaks.) I guess I may as well note that I was on the defensive with this film, given that my first attempt at viewing it was thwarted by smug Berkeley liberals, laughing derisively at the dumb Texas rednecks and their political incorrectness. The film itself sets this up to an extent (e.g., the cheap shots of misspelled marquees). But more than this, Blitz seems to constantly imply some kind of social or political meaning, in order to lend his fluffy doc some gravity. Yet he refuses to follow through. In retrospect, it’s clear that the film came into shape following the win of a particular subject, who the film then surrounds by his / her opposite numbers, to show (I guess) that working class kids don’t really have a prayer, but (relax) rich kids can’t exactly buy the bee outright. Hooray for the immigrant middle class. Look at the weird white kid from Jersey. In America, if you work hard you can accomplish (almost) anything. Cut to big American flag in the lobby. No child left behind. Four more years.
The effects were dumb, the jokes weren’t funny, and when a certain key cast member from the last film showed up, and things started to look really promising, he’s quickly dispensed with. Musical cues follow the logic of late-night talk show bands (surfing scene? “Mizerlou”!, etc.), and where the first time it felt like Drew’s wacky mix tape, this time it was strictly by committee. What can you say about a film which uses a Rage Against the Machine song to accompany the annihilation of scads of Mongolian heathens? Or that shows the villain getting a bit Sapphic just before she’s slain? A pretty neo-con idea of frivolous fun.
Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt)
The worst of both worlds, really. Too corporatized to exhibit the subversive elements that make B-grade horror worth checking out, and too low-budget to have, you know, real actors, or a DP who can shoot a dark forest without turning it into a unwatchable gray mess. Also, the potentials of the inbred hillbilly trope are left sorely unexplored. Why not have these guys do some really disturbing shit? I mean jesus Rob, we’ve seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. (Have you?)