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)

Note: my comments on the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston exhibition Fade In: New Film and Video, can be found here.




Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles)

Or My Old Man Can Lick Your Old Man and the Whole Motherfucking System Too. There's a compelling tension at work in Baadasssss!, one that ultimately overcame my reservations about the project. It's a film about filmmaking as radical racial politics, 70s style, filled with manic energy and black-cowboy bravado (Melvin describes Sweetback as a "ghetto Western," and the same could be said of this film), and no small amount of macho posturing. And yet there's an undercurrent of tenderness, emanating both from the production's homemade, hand-crafted feel (the most traditional-looking scenes, like the poolside meeting with Adam West, ironically look more porno than Sundance), and from the sheer conviction of its intra-familial mythmaking. Yes, Melvin Van Peebles' film changed the face of cinema in ways the white establishment still hasn't fully acknowledged. (It should be regarded as a touchstone equal to Easy Rider.) But the power of Baadasssss! stems less from its film historical counter-narrative and more from the complex, heartfelt tribute Mario constructs by stepping into the old man's shoes, chomping his unlit cigar, and trying to re-envision his own childhood with the benefit of maturity and understanding. (In this regard, the film resembles Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence.) Mario lived through the dress rehearsal so he could give Melvin his close-up.


Control Room (Jehane Noujaim)

Very successful as an analysis of media bias and its role in maintaining American hegemony, but sadly, not all that informative about the al-Jazeera Network. This could just be a result of Noujaim's commitment to direct-cinema principles, providing only a few introductory titles to set the scene. What Control Room does best is convey the depth of the cooperation between two allegedly independent institutions, the media and the military. Everyone involved (al-Jazeera reporters, military spokesmen, members of the Arab audience) comes off as smart, savvy, and sensitive, even if they continually bump up against the prevailing ideologies of the institutions they occupy. (Well, okay, Rumsfeld comes off like a raging asshole, which he is.) It's almost touching, rather than enraging as one might expect, when the CentCom media liaison can't understand why al-Jazeera reporters might not settle for the party line of American "liberation" of the Arab world. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Control Room is that it makes a brilliant case for why an English-language al-Jazeera should really be on every American cable system. This will never happen, of course. We need to believe that real live Iraqis spontaneously tore down the Saddam statue, or that smart-bombs don't really blow up kids. (For now, though, there's the invaluable website, which hasn't been shut down lately.)


Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber)

Quite a surprise. A slow starter, with a 20 minute prologue that inspires the occasional wince, Dodgeball hits comic paydirt with the appearance of Rip Torn as Coach Patches O'Houlihan, and never lets up. Physical gags or verbal throwaways that you'd expect to die on the vine just give and give. Also, you can keep Fred Willard and Jim Piddock; I'll take Gary Cole and Jason Bateman. Remember how nobody really got Office Space when it opened, and then people wised up and it became a rightful comedy classic? This movie is that awesome.


-The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol, France)

Recently I was reading Film Comment's interview with the late Maurice Pialat, and his comment about the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers came back to me while watching this film: "Among other things, they never had the necessary ruthlessness to truly become artists. You know what I mean, the type of intensity that someone has in an important soccer match, the temperament of a fighter: the killer instinct. They didn't have it, not for a second." Pialat died prior to the release of The Flower of Evil, but it seems like exactly the sort of film that proves his case. Like Rivette's Story of Marie and Julien, Chabrol's latest is a chilly, exacting demonstration of an old master's skill. Formal control is everywhere in evidence, and Chabrol gives his favorite themes another well-executed airing. I can see why some critics would dismiss this as Chabrol on autopilot (and I suspect Flower's unexpected inclusion in last year's New York Film Festival inflated expectations a bit), and it's true that passion of any kind is not on Chabrol's agenda here. Yet I found Flower seductive, placid even, like watching a Michael Snow film. It does one thing, does it masterfully, foregrounds structure and obviates surprise. I don't yet buy the argument put forward by some that auteurs naturally get better and better as they mature. But Chabrol has clearly become more and more himself, without apologies, and even if I partially agree with Pialat's point about a pronounced lack of rage (today's Chabrol certainly lacks the eye of the tiger, if he ever really had it at all), the same could be said of many admirable works of art. The Flower of Evil isn't there to move you (although on occasion it flirts with outright titilation). It's like an Ellsworth Kelly canvas. It just is.


A Thousand Clouds of Peace Encircle the Sky, Love: Your Being Love Will Never End (Julián Hernández, Mexico)

Given that I've fallen a bit behind on my reviews lately (mostly due to travelling, and the attendant shift in my moviegoing fortunes; I'm actually seeing them faster than I can write about them for a change), I probably should have prioritized this one. After all, it's getting critically trounced by a lot of second-stringers who don't seem to even understand what Thousand Clouds is trying to do. It's being written off as a pretentious, almost adolescent narrative film, whereas it's actually a hybrid of narrative art-cinema and a certain historical strain of avant-garde film. Let me break it down in a few plain-as-day numbered theses, so as to obviate any mystical shit on my part that would only further hurt Hernández's cause. (1) This is not a tormented coming-out film. Gerardo's impassivity is not the result of a damaged psyche, but rather the mythologizing of a particular encounter. Clouds is a portrait of longing, and of a sexual relationship that becomes an inescapable pattern of desire for every subsequent encounter. It's a paean to the one that got away. (2) This film is an attempt to expand the vocabulary of the avant-garde trance film. The best-known example of this genre is Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, but Hernández is harking most explicitly back to films like Kenneth Anger's early Fireworks and Gregory Markopoulos's Twice a Man. These films are about external events, but only insofar as they have been filtered through a single character's completely subjective point of view. (3) The slowness and repetition of Hernández's film, whatever effect it might have on its viewer, in integral to the logic of the trance film. Time is not linear; it's looping and yet static, as though forward movement will always yield only a repetition of what went before. So, there can really be no narrative development in the traditional sense. (4) Gerardo, like most of the other characters in Clouds, are not really characters in the usual sense. They are archetypes. Gerardo's psychology, such as it is, is comparable to that found in ancient myths or epics. He is recognizably human, but he does not grow. He is The Lover, and this single trait determines everything we see of him. (This aspect of the film owes the most to Markopoulos, whose adaptations of Greek myth were considerably more explicit.) When we meet Gerardo's mother, she holds forth unnaturally, not because her acting is laughably wooden, but because she is The Mother. Naturalism would break the spell. (5) The film is not always successful in cross-breeding its avant-garde aspirations to its art-film expansiveness. When it wants us to enter the subjectivity of other characters (such as the waitress), it feels forced. (6) Part of Hernández's accomplishment -- what's most successful in the transplantation -- is the unexpected orchestration of a mythical, high-Romantic fugue state in urban Mexico City. This may be one reason why the film has faired only slightly better with the festival elite than with critics (that, and its ghettoization as a "gay film," which probably explains why so many first-string critics passed on it). We have been conditioned to expect either gritty neo-realism, or flashy Mexican New Wave sleight of hand, but not washed-out pool halls and hazy bridges over silent traffic, all barely registering on the celluloid, a sort of disembodied, emotional barrio. (7) This film is slow. Very slow. In fact, I almost nodded off a couple of times while watching it, despite the fact that it engaged me completely. This is not a flaw in Hernández's design, but an integral part of it. We are supposed to be taken outside of conventional temporal organization and suspended in a zone of hypnosis, even slumber. This is a film during which you could nod off, and this would not disrupt its flow or its cumulative power. If you think a film is always supposed to achieve a level of engagement such that exhaustion or sleep-induction are de facto flaws of the text, Clouds will seem like a preposterous disaster. But I think that view is short-sighted, and fails to understand the trance film's noble heritage. (8) The film's un-marquee-able title has been reasonably truncated for U.S. distribution. A Thousand Clouds of Peace, with optional ellipses. But part of the fabric of Hernández's aesthetic is the title's unwieldiness, the fact it can't stick in memory, much less fit on a ticket stub. It's a swooning and yes, somewhat adolescent petulance, implying that the film contains emotions that cannot really be contained. The title is only slightly shorter than that of Fiona Apple's second album, and there's a shared spirit of defiant belief in the power of the jejune. (9) The final line is a heartbreaker.


Yuva (Mani Ratnam, India)

SPOILER WARNING. Ratnam is one of Indian cinema's oddballs. Usually working in Tamil (his native tongue) rather than the standard Hindi, he's also tended to create bizarre, fascinating hybrid films, shoehorning political content into the Bollywood formula. The three other Ratnam films I've seen have all been near-misses, since he didn't find a way to keep his tonal shifts and cross-purposes from centrifugally unravelling the films. (Cf. A Peck on the Cheek, with its implausible melodramatic touches alongside doctrine-spouting, all-singing, all-dancing Tamil Tigers.) Yuva (Ratnam's first mostly-Hindi film since Dil Se) is the most fully-realized, structurally complex work I've seen from Ratnam. Part of its strength as cinema comes from the fact that Ratnam has recognized the unlikelihood of a complete synthesis of his ambitions and integrates this problem into the construction of the work. Yuva begins with dizzying cross-cutting between multiple, as-yet-unintroduced characters, hurtling toward a pivotal event that brings the three principals together. Then, we enter a tripartite structure that provides the backstory for each. But this isn't just a nifty directorial trick. Ratnam ever-so-subtly codes each of the three segments with a distinct directorial and writing style. The first is a gangster tale, crisply directed and paced, shorn of the stilted performances frequently endemic to Bollywood gunplay epics. (In overall tone and approach, it reminded me of City of God.) The second part follows a student activist as he tries to unseat a corrupt local politician. This segment is most of a piece with Ratnam's usual style, foregrounding hard-hitting political content and the random violence that the elites use to confuse and frighten the peasantry. The third segment is full-on Bollywood, showcasing a lovestruck playboy who can't move to America as planned after meeting Kareena Kapoor in a club. While the first two sections incorporated music (all by the peerless A. R. Rahman) in a rather subdued fashion, part three has synchronized dancing, a silly number at the beach, a token genre nod to generational conflict -- in short, it's a frivolous, well-crafted entertainment. Each segment features the characters from the other two in background roles, recalling Belvaux's Trilogy without the ostentatiousness. All three character-studies are of equal quality, which makes it all the more disappointing that Ratnam concludes the film with a 30-minute integrative coda. Yuva loses steam at this point, and the narrative wrap-up feels labored and a tad awkward, a bit of a backslide to the structural difficulties of Ratnam's earlier work. But I don't want to overstate the coda's faults; it's merely okay whereas the first 120 minutes of Yuva are awesome. One final thought -- Ratnam's earlier work has been overly ambitious, and as a result has felt overstuffed. But there was always a devotion to very specific social, political, and ethnic problems. Yuva is an altogether more elegant film, skillful, exacting, yet breezy. (Some critics' comparisons to MTV are appropriate for the third section but otherwise off-base.) But Ratnam's new-found assurance as a director ironically comes in a film where political matters are toned down and generalized; it's about an election, not a revolution. I'm optimistic, however, that Ratnam will continue to find new ways to keep his dialectic in motion.




Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch)

This is basically the equivalent of a prolific rock star's "odds and sods" collection, a bunch of B-side scribbles presented as nothing more. Trouble arises when Jarmusch tries to elevate the procedings to a singular, coherent work (repeated comments regarding Tesla coils, admonitions about consuming a healthier lunch, etc.), but mostly JJ remains true to form, simply presenting the variations on a silly theme ("check out my hip friends while they fuck around") that he's assembled over the years. I had seen the first three before, and only the Tom Waits / Iggy Pop sequence stands up to a second look. As a well-calibrated comedy routine on the egos of the nominally famous, Waits / Pop far outshines Molina / Coogan; the turnabout at the end of that one is far too precious, unwilling to let cruel humiliation just lay there on the floor unleavened. Other highlights: RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray (which proves that the arcana of Wu-Tang's world is sufficient basis for any aesthetic project); and the elegaic conclusion with Bill Rice and Taylor Mead, the perfect vehicle for Jarmusch to proffer sincere respect to his elders. The worst: hard to say, but a toss-up between Blanchett squared, the White Stripes, or Descas / de Bankolé (although the last was merely pointless, compared to the obnoxiousness of the first and second). So, the final analysis: we begin with shitty double-espressos and American Spirits, hit an early high point (IHOP and Chesterfields), sink back into Maxwell House and Camel soft-pack territory, hit a higher plateau followed by an unqualified zenith (MJB / Marlboro Country), and are finally sent into the night, reflecting on the lingering effects of intoxicants far stronger than coffee or cigarettes. [Postscript: I have changed the word "dick" above to "fuck," in recognition of the fact that I unconsciously cribbed from Mike D'Angelo's Toronto report. Nice of him not to mention it.]


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón)

A hard-core auteurist's dream, this one. From shot to shot you can pretty much see a talented film artist's skewed vision (light glinting off rainwater pouring down a dark wall; brave young adults dwarfed in a threatening natural landscape) banging up against the Iron Law of Genre (a jaunty-fantasy music cue; some CGI beastie). Cuarón has undoubtedly made the most filmically interesting Potter installment to date, so a 6 may seem disingenuous in light of my 7 for Sorcerer's Stone. And while this is far more successful an auteurist outing than, say, Ang Lee's Hulk, there's no shaking the feeling throughout Azkaban that Cuarón has more important fish to fry. He doesn't evince this through lazy direction; instead it's his total commitment that feels misplaced, as he shuttles through our mandated Bill & Tedesque conclusion, or tries to smuggle in some fourth-quarter lycanthropy-as-homosexuality metaphor, with overcoats flying back into a closet-like steamer trunk. A valiant effort, but I'd almost always rather see an artist given freer reign.


The Mother (Roger Michell, U.K.)

A much better film in reality than on paper. That's because Michell's direction -- a tendency toward visual enclosures and deliberate framings-within-framings that initially registered as trying way too hard, until I found my place within its rhythms -- and Anne Reid's quiet performance -- alternately dignified and petulant, sometimes both at once -- go a long way toward tranforming Hanif Kureishi's schematic script. Recalling Tokyo Story and All That Heaven Allows during its opening half-hour, The Mother soon develops into a rather rote orchestration of family dynamics, a polite, well-scrubbed version of British miserablism. It's true that it ultimately goes someplace a bit different from that -- our identification with May / The Mother becomes considerably more problematic over time, as does our pigeonholing of Paula (Cathryn Bradhsaw) as a self-absorbed, overgrown adolescent. But this can't entirely compensate for Kureishi's reliance on old saws abour repressed middle-class Britishness, the inability to see our parents as sexual beings, and the appeal of enigmatic drifters who allow us to project our fantasies onto them. Also, the piano score was irritating "smooth jazz" in and of itself, but one could hear Michell's thought process in its every note. ("If I use no soundtrack at all, it will look like I'm trying to do a stark, Euro-Dardennes type thing, and that will seem leaden and pretentious, so I'll just drop a little of this here, and here, and here...")


The Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada, Japan)

A movie painted in broad strokes, the way studio pictures often are. (I haven't kept up with enough recent Shochiku product to know how emblematic it is of their output.) Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada, in an achingly restrained performance) is himself the "twilight samurai," a meek civil servant who must go straight home to tend to his daughters and senile mother. All around him, we see the larger historical picture, as the close of the 19th century brings about the twilight of the age of the samurai. And that's about it, really. The thing is, the schematic organization of its theme provides a sturdier dramatic armature than you might expect. The film is lovely and engaging, while never showy or even "exciting" in the convention sense you'd expect a samurai picture to be. There is an overall flatness of tone, but it registers as evenness, and not as a flaw per se. Only the climactic final showdown -- reminiscent of Unforgiven, but more explicit, an outright interrogation of an all-but-irrelevant code -- breaks with the controlled placidity to become a jarring, masterfully constructed showpiece. The Twilight Samurai is old-fashioned, in all the best senses of the term, but still a bit too sure-footed to ever really break a sweat.




-Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill)

Four films watched, and the conclusion seems clear enough: Nick Broomfield is a bottomfeeder. His faux-naïf with a boom-mic act is tedious and transparent. It's amazing anyone takes it seriously enough to trust him. However, unlike such exploitative exercises as Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, Broomfield's second Aileen Wuornos film is actually built around a kernel of truth. Wuornos is clearly insane, and if the death penalty is held to any standard whatsoever by its proponents, she should not have been executed. Trouble is, her desperation and increasing psychosis made her her own worst enemy, violently sabotaging all efforts to stay her execution. At the end, Wuornos was careening headlong into death as the only way out of her train-wreck of a life. Since most of the film consists of the final interviews with Wuornos, Aileen pivots on a duality otherwise absent in Broomfield's procedures. The force of her bipolar ravings cuts through any self-serving scrim Broomfield can erect, while at the same time implicating the viewer in the very exploitation Broomfield claims to be above. This ambivalence is summed up near the end, with Broomfield speaking to the media assembled for Wuornos's execution. He uses the moment to decry the state of Florida's murder of an unbalanced woman, but one wonders whether he has a moral obligation to avoid any further spectacularization of Wuornos, however well-intentioned it may be. In the end, Aileen represents the most humane work that anyone could accomplish using Broomfield's methods, and it's still not enough.


Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore)

Manipulative to the point that I half expected it to pull some single-frame subliminal imbeds, F911 really is not much more than a feature-length campaign ad. The fact that it seems to be working like gangbusters (at least at the box office; too early to see if it gives Kerry a boost) depresses me. As both a leftist and a media scholar, I hate to see the level of political discourse sink to cheap cross-cutting and ominous minor-chord villain music. It's hard to evaluate F911. Does it try to do too much, or is it exactly the scattershot, poorly argued heartstring-puller Moore wanted to make? Formally, it bears all the hallmarks of a rush job (horribly botched music cues, poorly fleshed-out reasoning, no segues to speak of most of the time), but would extra time in the editing room have made a difference? Maybe, since the much-vaunted Lila Lipscombe sequence, on a grammatical level, is almost Spielbergian in its sudden reliance on plant-and-payoff and paternalistic storytelling values. Moore gets some things right almost despite himself. The reminder of who is actively recruited to serve in the armed forces, and why, is timely and well-handled, although it needed to go further, such as addressing Republican-sponsored cutbacks to financial aid and tuition hikes at the community college level, where many of these young people otherwise might've ended up. Similarly, the mass media montage showing the journalistic enthusiasm for the Iraqi campaign was damning, but it didn't go far enough. Why not explain exactly how "imbedded journalism" works? But the cheap shots and random assertions ("fine French linen;" the "Shiny Happy People" montage; the rather random and all-too-dismissable stories from Life Under the Patriot Act) come close to eviscerating the film's positive achievements (such as the cigarette lighter revelation, or the "Greatest American Hero" sequence, silly but at least original). This is the most conflicted 5 I've ever awarded, because on a filmmaking level, F911 is mostly crap. But I'm not immune to its emotional appeals. I'm not somehow standing outside of its ideology like a computing machine tabulating points scored for both sides. I kind of hate this film, and am begrudgingly glad it's out there, even though I wish the world were such that something so willfully idiotic didn't have a job to do. So I hold my nose and watch Moore go, just like I'm going to hold my nose and vote for Kerry in November. But I can't help but wonder -- if I continue to live in the U.S., will I ever have that hand free? I think I might need it for something else someday. [Postscript: I just read David Denby's review in the New Yorker, and surprisingly, it summarizes most of my qualms exceptionally well. Check it out.]




-Fuse (Petr Zalica, Bosnia-Herzegovina / Germany / Turkey / Austria)

A stereotypical Balkan film. Imagine the zone inscribed by a triangle, comprised by the following three points: (1) the bawdy, envelope-pushing sexual politics of Makavejev; (2) the ethnic-hatred-as-surrealist-carnival atmosphere of Kusturica; (3) the clear-eyed, plangent irony of Tanovic. Zalica's film occupies the centermost point in this triangle, but creates a vortex of clichéd stupidity that generates a downward conic pull. No, wait. That implies a third dimension, doesn't it? This is the type of movie that introduces white-slave prostitutes only so as to facilitate a crisis of conscience for the man who smuggles them. Also, the Clinton thing is "resolved" with the single biggest narrative cop-out I've witnessed in ages. Note to the New Directors / New Films selection committee: get off the crack.


The Terminal (Steven Spielberg)

After two affable entertainments in a row, the Capra of Late Capitalism ladles on faux-Chaplinesque cuteness in the form of an Old World naivete I thought Andy Kaufman had rendered permanently obsolete. (The sad-sack foreigner from an imaginary Eastern Bloc country beats the system through cracker-jack ingenuity, earning his [temporary] place in the USA.) The film assembles a bunch of obligatory types (wily immigrants, a government hard-ass, a pointless Catherine Zeta-Jones as Damaged Goods), their inevitability covering over the gaping holes in plot logic. Not even an especially good-looking film; the airport should be overlit and hazy and disorienting, but it's really just yellow and grainy. As I grew more and more bored, I became a little offended by this film's shameless pilfering from Jacques Tati, recreating his aesthetic as a surface affectation shorn of all rigor and purpose. Hey, Steven! Why not do Bresson next time? I'll bet you could give Balthazar a real three-hanky backstory.




The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz)

"Feminism" is no longer on the word list. This film is beneath contempt, much less critique. But suffice to say, Joanna is now a ball-busting corporate bitch who really deserves her lobotomy, and seems to think so herself when challenged on the point. Fortunately, her willingness to sacrifice herself for her poor, downtrodden man's happiness brings about a reversal of fortune -- think Abraham and Isaac, only with robots. Oz, Broderick, Midler and Walken have all made loads of crap over the years, but Kidman should truly be ashamed of herself.




Carandiru (Hector Babenco, Brazil) (0:27)

I'd been warned. But I thought I'd take a shot. (I sort of liked Kiss of the Spider Woman back in the day.) I pretty much threw up my hands when The Good Liberal Doctor (in a white suit, no less) rode home on the subway offering helpful interior-monologue narration. ("These men had done terrible things to end up there. But society has enough judges. This is not my place.") Jen was ready to go even sooner. This is a worthy souvenir from 2003, the Worst Cannes Ever.