REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2006
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)
Brick (Rian Johnson)
If, as some critics have postulated, Brick operates as a "mash-up" of film noir and the high school picture, it's extremely successful, and in fact its success on this score may exceed Johnson's ostensible aims. It's not just the sharp, hermetically serpentine writing, or that fact that Johnson's use of the wide open spaces of suburbia -- empty football fields, vacant areas behind the highway, sparsely furnished basements -- demonstrates that these non-sites are every bit as alienating as the dank cityscapes of Kiss Me Deadly or M. (In its use of SoCal auto-space, Brick is a bit like Double Indemnity with the lights on.) There's a thematic rhyme at work that reveals certain truths about conventional noir logic. As Brick mega-fan Mike D'Angelo has observed, the hybrid "takes" because the culture of high schoolers is characterized by restless, exaggerated emotions. No matter what's really going on around you, it always feels like everything's at stake. Similarly, the relative entrapment of high school permits young people to fantasize both the best and the worst about what's really going on in the adult world. Freud called pre-pubescents "little detectives," anxiously trying to suss out the grown-up realm of sex and other temptations, and although by high school most of those questions have been answered through direct experience, that's not equally true for everyone. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to be an ideal outsider, smart enough to reject the various social scenes and their ridiculous posing, but at the same time too isolated an introvert to actually do much living. So, it all goes on in his head, except that the world of Brick has provided him with a degree of external validation. All the cool kids (including Emily [Lost's Emilie de Ravin], the girlfriend who outgrew him) actually do comprise a complex network of malevolence. Brendan's chaste, straight-arrow detachment allows him to romanticize Emily, and her death only cements his protector-complex. Despite being the smartest kid in any room, including the vice principal's office, Brendan is blinkered by his inability to evolve beyond his patronizing brand of chivalry. While a film like Sin City adopted this creaky noir trope in order to prop it up for our new era of Sexism 2.0, Brick plays it straight and in doing so demonstrates the rather juvenile outlook of unreconstructed noir. Although I was disheartened by the conclusion of Brick, because it fails to subvert noir's most gynophobic tendencies, I ultimately found it apt. Brendan and his sidekick ("the Brain") have assured their own safe return to the library, the back of the temporary buildings, and the hard-boiled genre itself. These zones all share one cardinal rule: no girls allowed.
-Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, Germany / Turkey)
First things first -- don't go see this movie. I mean, it's fine and all, but for the price of a movie ticket in most major markets, you can buy the soundtrack off iTunes, and this is a much better use of your money and time. Now then, as far as Akin's documentary goes, it's perfectly serviceable. It follows Wenders' Buena Vista template almost to the letter -- a well-respected musician goes on a musical journey, acting as the director's on-screen envoy and a figure of identification for the (presumed Western) viewer. I don't even have a problem with that, although it's ultimately not a very persuasive strategy here. The truly curious thing about Crossing the Bridge is that it's so tame as a film. Given that Akin's Ry Cooder stand-in is Alexander Hacke of Germany's blistering noise-band Einstürzende Neubauten, one might expect something a little less tasteful and PBS-friendly. It's as though Akin absorbed the lessons of traditional music-docs so as to help keep his image track from getting in the way. We get numerous panoramic vistas of Istanbul, but they lack the careful selection or unique quality of light that would make them pop. During a chillingly beautiful ballad by Turkish legend Sezen Aksu, Akin actually begins panning across old black-and-white photos a la Ken Burns. It's just odd. But anyway, the performance footage is uniformly excellent, and the soundtrack mix glides much more effortlessly than the images. A true soundscape of Istanbul is, as they say, woven. But having now seen two features and a documentary by Akin, I'm just not seeing a major talent. He's turned in a perfectly competent rom-com (In July) and a reasonably diverting if shallow Goth-drama (Head-On), and now a by-the-numbers pop-ethnomusicology. It's strange -- what on paper should make Akin one of the most compelling contemporary directors (his Turk-Teutonic trans-cultural hybridity) seems to have actually done the opposite. Make no mistake: I am not idiotically bemoaning Akin's "failure" to serve up / embody some authentic Turkishness, or Germanness, or what have you. But he seems to represent the blandest possible aspects of international mutt-culture, a deep saturation in American moviemaking rhythms chief among them.
-Ae Fond Kiss . . . (Ken Loach, U.K. / Belgium / Germany / Italy / Spain)
I've been remiss in keeping up with Loach, since he's never really been my kind of filmmaker. But his recent Palme d'Or win sort of reminded me that no, I can't ignore the man or his films. Although Ae Fond Kiss . . . features some sharp acting and admirably frank sex scenes (you dirty ol' Trotskyite!), it underscored just why Loach ain't my man. This film could, in fact, be framed as the greatest afterschool special ever made, a flatly declarative social drama about a Pakistani-Brit man and an Irish-Brit woman who defy convention by falling in love. Loach makes sly observations in the details, but most of it is broad strokes, and love triumphs just enough to stave off liberal defeatism (keep fighting the good fight, lads!) while continuing to face enough obstacles to maintain the vital "realism" that's Loach's stock in trade. A film well-suited for glancing half-attention while folding the laundry or picking up around the apartment, which is precisely how I watched it.
-Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski)
Despite being duly impressed by the skill with which Bujalski's debut, Funny Ha Ha, depicted its drifting-slacker milieu, I was ambivalent about its hemming and hawing. The film itself, not just its characters, seemed to float between assertions, unwilling to commit to an attitude or a worldview. Bujalski's follow-up, sad to say, finds the talented newcomer regressing, if only by standing stock still. I cannot dismiss this film, since like its predecessor it manages to evoke the fleeting ambiance of shambling, educated-but-inarticulate twenty-something culture with an almost documentary perfection. The shows, the beers, the awkward hook-ups, the way you ended up at some dude's house for a "party" which turned out not to be, and now how do you leave? etc. What Garden State was in overall tone (twee but recognizable), Mutual Appreciation is in specific material form, in careful attention to ineffable minutiae.
But so what?
Let me put this another way. Even when I was a young kid riding around in my parents' car at night, on the way back from the grocery store or my grandma's house or wherever, I was fascinated by the hazy halos around oncoming headlights, or the way the streetlamps would cut a diagonal line through the dark night sky. If I squinted at the lamplight, the diagonals shot out in either direction, like attenuated stars. I spent years trying to draw and paint this private phenomenon of light, or just to describe it in words that could actually convey what these shafts of light evoked for me, all to no avail. Years later, as an adult, I discovered the cinema of Stan Brakhage, and it stunned me, gripped me emotionally, in part because not only had an artist actually attended to this vague but resonant fragment of the world; he captured it on film! So in a way, a big part of what I love about Brakhage's films is the fact that they capture what I'd thought could never be transcribed in any way, what I'd thought was essentially unsharable. But I can fully understand that someone else (maybe you) might read the previous account, or even see a Brakhage film, and think, "Whatever. I don't give two shits about the way light plays off streetlights at night. I want a beer." Or perhaps, "Whatever. If I really want to see that shit, I'll squint my eyes." On the one hand, such dismissals are unconscionably lazy, failing to acknowledge the evident mastery in Brakhage's project. But on the other hand, this hypothetical player-hater has a point. Films like The Arabic Numeral Series or Dog Star Man are so delicate and ephemeral that they elicit a sympathetic look. They cannot convince you of their power, because they are so determinedly non-rhetorical. You can study them, understand them, and learn to love them. But they also "pop" immediately for that small coterie of people who need no convincing, since we were just waiting for those particular films for most of our lives.
So back to Bujalski. Like Brakhage, he's a master at what he does. But to me, what he does is to pinpoint the irksome sense of hanging out in off-campus housing with people who are often drunk when you're not, who turn their entitlement inside-out into deliberate shabby-chic and nerdy-hipster remoteness, talking in cleverly evasive circles, confident that they are the underemployed intelligentsia ("non-exclusive cool people") but seldom willing to demonstrate what makes them so awesomely cool. Mutual Appreciation is a film about people who refuse to give. I spent most of my undergrad years cleaning up these people's puke. So why would I want to deal with them all over again? Granted, part of this is absolutely an issue of my own sensibility. I get that Bujalski is making the cinema that some people -- a fiercely loyal segment of the cinephile world -- have been waiting for for most of their lives. He has a province and he nails it, and yes, part of my problem is that I don't much respond to that "it." But I think it's something more. Part of it is that Bujalski casts his lot with a form of visual realism that is pitched halfway between direct-cinema and classical decoupage. The result is a slippery style that tends to point to its own ostensible invisibility. Like Bujalski's characters, whose self-effacement belies a covert aggression, his cinematic approach feigns humility, all the better to dazzle you with the rhythms and gestures it manages to inscribe. At first I found Appreciation all rather shapeless, as though the inherent pull of The Scene was meant to provide the viewer with the traction that the film's open form withheld. But now, as with Funny Ha Ha, I see an ethos that doesn't just depict but embodies passive-aggression. The characters are representations of individuals working to look as if they are not working to present themselves as representations, and rather than adopting a stance toward his characters -- critical, empathetic, bemused, what have you -- Bujalski's film seems content to preserve them in amber.
Compare this to John Cassavetes, the go-to touchstone when discussing Bujalski's work. Part of the primal power of films like Opening Night or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is that they depict human behavior at its most obtuse, baffling, or unhinged. But they also connect this extremity to the existential struggle of human Being. Myrtle Gordon and Cosmo Vitelli are absolute Others who, by dint of their faults and foibles, connect to us as spectators; we welcome them into the vast human family. By contrast, Mutual Appreciation conjures a realm of emotional pinballs, bumbling their way through half-articulated personal attachments with minimal risk, and even less individual personality. Funny Ha Ha's Marnie at least had to struggle with this problem, but MA's central trio can't be bothered to evince an unguarded emotion. This may well be Bujalski's ultimate point. But like its characters, the film itself works overtime to appear too cool, too detached, to actually take a position on the world it so arduously observes. Bujalski is clearly a major talent, and I still have hope that he'll evolve. But at present I can't help feeling as though his vision is as stunted as the individuals who populate it.
[Final note: I assume that my readership knows better than to use this website as a consumer guide. Some films and filmmakers rub me the wrong way but are still undeniably important, and Bujalski falls squarely into this category. (Cristi Puiu is another.) All of which is to say, I have major problems with this film, but anyone who cares about contemporary cinema should see it, without question.]
The Promise (Chen Kaige, China / Hong Kong / Japan / South Korea)
The strange thing is, The Promise finds Chen returning to his cinematic roots, and the fact that it doesn't really work is instructive in its own way. Over the years, one of the things that stuck with me about Chen's bizarrely poetic debut Yellow Earth is that in a lot of ways, it's a movie that doesn't move. Like its central narrative confrontation (traditional peasantry and centralized, official modernization), Yellow Earth uses the inherently forward-looking movement of the cinematic medium to gaze at a way of life that, while not exactly static, operated on a wholly inassimilable temporal plane. The result was highly pictorial, only slightly more kinetic than the films of Sergei Parajanov. When we rejoin Chen in 2006, we find that his high-budget martial arts fantasy is equally devoid of motility. The Promise seems to move in fits and starts, often doling out only the slightest modicum of narrative data before closing the curtain with a hasty fade to black then moving on. This actually struck me as one of Chen's most intriguing formal gambits, but then who knows; the international version of the film shaves off a hefty 22 minutes, so this could just be a post-editing artifact. Nevertheless, Chen's unease with the material stems from an odd dialectical mandate, one it's unclear he ever fully worked through. A martial arts film relies on ass-kicking kineticism, or at least nominal propulsion. Yet, from its fairy tale premise to its expansive sweep, The Promise is about residing in a kind of mythological non-time. Thus, we have epic battle sequences that read like an ant farm, and long stretches of faux-painterly CGI that gives way to dotty Playstation chintz. Granted, Chen's economical approach (expensive though it may be) does bear more family resemblance to the B-picture craftsmanship of Tsui Hark than the white-elephantitis of Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. But in the end, there's something to be said for carved-ivory opulence, for actually putting the money on the screen. The Promise wants to fly, and it mostly just flies apart.
-Close To Home (Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hagar, Israel)
[MILD SPOILERS] What starts out as a jarring observational piece about the making (and the breakdown) of female IDF officers -- in particular, how they slowly begin seeing their harassment of random Arabs as being a mere bureaucratic matter, rather than a systematic degradation of fellow human beings -- soon devolves into a pat, hoary buddy-cop picture. First-time directors Bilu and Hagar aren't form-busters. From the outset, we're clearly in a zone of semi-transparent, classical film syntax, but with a certain Euro-detachment. (I was reminded of solid, woman-centric entertainments like Italian for Beginners and Bread & Tulips -- engaging, yet instantly forgettable.) The opening scene, for example, draws thematically from the likes of Kubrick, Egoyan, and even Claire Denis, with a slow-burn showdown between military procedure and the incipient dissolution of discipline. Stylistically it's no great shakes, but it prepares you for a study in near-comedic futility. A personal crisis (a checkpoint guard doesn't want to strip-search Palestinian grandmas anymore) momentarily becomes political (she throws open the border gates), and it's promptly sealed over again as the insubordinate upstart is thrown into the brig. As it happens, Close To Home essentially takes its marching orders from the Commanding Officer, since the film never again veers into "dangerous" political territory. (And in fact, as with so much liberal commentary in Israeli cinema, it isn't dangerous at all. Fundamental assumptions are never challenged. Instead, it's little more than a vague, ain't-it-a-shame plea for tolerance, impotent shoulder-shrugging that positions itself millimeters to the left of Labour. Big deal.) Instead, we get the canned warmth of a budding cine-friendship, as brash, impertinent Smadar (Smadar Sayar) tries to pull her new partner Mirit (Na'ama Shendar) out of her shell. They hide from the boss. They window-shop. They follow the cute guy Mirit met at a suicide bombing. They're Laverne and Shirley in Jerusalem, and so when the final scene calls up another act of defiance (this time on the Arab side) only to reduce its significance to literal background noise, it's almost laughably offensive. [IFC Films will release Close To Home in November, and I'm guessing this'll be a "First Take" selection.]
-The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha)
This is an unremittingly ugly film that, when backed into numerous corners of cruelty, lacks the courage of its convictions. In even less elegant language, what we have here is a film that can concoct a broad array of genuinely uncomfortable situations, or accurately depict the way a dysfunctional brood circles its wagons against a stranger's perceived threat. But there is never, ever a compelling narrative reason for why these creeps behave the way they do. Is Bezucha so secure that we, the audience, hate our own families (especially around the holidays) that we'll fill in all the missing connective tissue? At times, The Family Stone seems like the work of an autistic savant, able to successfully ape the genre moves of "cinema" but confounded by actual human emotion. For extra points, he ladles on a not-so-subtext about the dangers of aggressive women. Apparently they're all reliably catty and mean, although unlike the others, the matriarch's cruel but fair. Besides [SPOILER], as we know from My Life Without Me, you have all manner of leeway for heartlessness if you're about to croak. By the end, every last asshole has wound up exactly where they're "supposed" to be, even if that means the grave. Fuck this movie.