REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2007

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)

 

[6]

 

-Election 2 [Triad Election] (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)

It makes perfect sense that Election 2 (or Triad Election, as it's being called in the States) has gained more attention on the festival circuit, and incrementally more traction in the arthouse market, than its predecessor, despite the fact that the first Election is the better film. As I think back on the copious pleasures and frissons of E1, they come to me as singular moments, marvelous shots, thrilling descriptions of space with the fluidity of a mobile camera. The plot, beyond the skeletal basics, mostly escapes me. On the other hand, I have no trouble recalling a detailed outline of E2's narrative, and although the film is certainly constructed with extreme skill and care, it does not impress itself upon the consciousness in jolts or jabs. It's fully organic, even classical, its somewhat demure, downcast stylistics serving to ground its tale of internal triad machinations and politicking-at-gunpoint in a kind of Eastwoodian melancholy. Men are almost always photographed as half-lit shadow figures in smoky brownish-gray interiors. Moreover, while To doesn't shy away from acts of gruesome violence, he doesn't linger on them either, and consistently counterpoints them with the dolorous lento of guitar and tympani. To make a long story short, the first Election film fully adheres to the narrative tropes of the genre but is slightly experimental in its fragmentation, more of a "cinema of attractions" effort that sends out its meanings electrically, in sharp pulsions of light and movement. Election 2 is a Hong Kong action film even highbrow humanists can embrace, since its every burnished frame manages to telegraph its disapproval of its own bloodshed and, by the conclusion, even goes so far as to expand the plight of its reluctant businessman / gangster protagonist Jimmy Lee (the steely, charismatic Louis Koo) into the realm of Greek tragedy. That it does this, and everything else, so plausibly and without obvious strain is a mark of Election 2's indisputable quality as a work of cinema, and To's mastery of the medium. But for me, the thrill is gone, tamped down into an all-over veneer of respectability.

 

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow)

I suppose I could make this film sound more interesting than it actually is with a little up-is-downism. The first half of Knocked Up is, like its protagonists, scattershot, disorganized, and frustrating in its lack of direction. Then, once the pregnancy takes over the plot mechanism (and "mechanism" it is, all premise and not much actual decision-making), things get funnier as well as more poignant, zeroing in on all the painful sacrifices demanded of us upon becoming parents, ones the rest of the world smugly characterizes as "growing up." Problem is, Apatow seems to ultimately agree with this assessment, and in its less sculpted, more offhand moments Knocked Up plays like a significantly more ideologically righteous version of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his non-start-up stoner pals aren't as clever, entertaining, or as sympathetically drawn as the Virgin cohort. Instead, they're cast as, well, dumb white guys in arrested development who really just need to grow the fuck up. (Superfetus to the rescue!) To make matters worse, Apatow's nerdly self-loathing (Paul Rudd's Pete character is most likely the director's diegetic surrogate, since Pete is given Apatow's real-life family) has an unfortunate flipside: nerdly pedestalizing of the opposite sex. Katherine Heigl's Allison is a TV personality on E!, which could very reasonably serve as a target for satire, Hollywood bottom-feeding that it is. (The Seacrest cameo picks this scab but then it's left alone.) Instead, Apatow treats Allison and her ambitions with the utmost respect. This, like so much of Knocked Up, finds Apatow skewering his male characters but mostly giving the women a free pass. The partial exception is meddling older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), but even her shrill behavior and paranoia are ultimately justified. Let's face it, folks: this movie's kind of conservative. Nevertheless, it does explicate certain aspects of the painful transition into parenthood far better than any recent film, and this is partly due to the cultural shift that (for better or worse) has allowed the words "parent" and "hipster" to appear in the same sentence. Oh, and as for the oohing and ahhing over how "now" this film is: looking at a release schedule and seeing what Hollywood tentpole picture will be released the same summer as your own film ("let's go see Spider-Man 3!") is no big achievement. In fact, it's sort of crass.

 

-Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France / Belgium)

Ferran's film strikes out with such originality and downright strangeness that I was fairly confident pretty early on I was in the presence of a masterpiece. But Chatterley takes such pains to eke its way into stodginess and convention that, even though I find the film a significant disappointment, there's a part of me that can't help wondering whether Ferran has an agenda that simply eludes me. For most of the first hour, Chatterley is still, stiff, and awkward, doing everything in its power to drain the Lawrence material of both its upper-class sheen and its anticipatory prurience. Rather than turning the idea of a period piece inside out, the way Patrice Chéreau did with Gabrielle, or marking out subtle, modernist distances from its source material in the manner of Davies' The House of Mirth or Assayas' Sentimental Destinies, Ferran appears to be plunging into Merchant-Ivory mannerism with both feet, in order to arrive at something oddly dead. Much of the film is so quiet it seems as if the soundtrack has dropped out altogether. The Chatterleys' manor, surrounded by rolling hills and autumnal foliage, is photographed in the starkest natural light possible, and the effect is to make the landscape look washed out, flattened, subdued by human intervention, in fact. Close-ups of natural features bear none of the sublimity of a Kubrick or Malick. Rather, plants and flowers are presented baldly, as impervious environmental facts, caring as little about the human drama they envelop as, say, Herzog's grizzlies cared about Tim Treadwell. And yet, bizarrely unmotivated camera movements and edits seem to warp this space, pointing to a brewing restlessness. This approach to sound, cinematography and landscape fits perfectly with Ferran's portrait of Connie Chatterley (Marina Hands), a young woman confined to terminal boredom and enforced stateliness, a mere trophy for her disabled industrialist husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot). Ferran and Hands depict Lady Chatterley as a forerunner to Carol White in Todd Haynes' Safe, a woman so constricted by social convention and the feminine duty to conspicuously consume that she becomes bloodless, a vacant vessel. Of course, Chatterley has a bodily awakening of sorts, one denied to suburban Carol. Her affair with Parkin the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) taps into her inner life, a luxury of her class status, as the film reminds us. What's extremely disconcerting about Ferran's film is that it taps into these questions of class relations (Chatterley is, ultimately, a story about being slightly changed by screwing the hired help) without ever really following through. Likewise, Ferran's subversion of the typical patterns of the historical costume drama also fall away, the film's anomalies getting smoothed out over the course of the director's leisurely three-hour elaboration. For example the weird editing patterns, such as Bressonian close-ups on hands or objects, or unmotivated segmentation of sequences into cubist fragments, simply become more and more normal. True, Ferran drops in a few curveballs here and there, such as a home-movie sequence, or some unexpected directorial voiceover narration. But the overall trajectory of Lady Chatterley is one of increased comfort with the Lawrence material, as well as the habitual ways in which cinema is used to bring it to life. Only a strange ellipsis between the final two shots returns us to Ferran's zone of ambiguity. A Pialatian time-skip? One single ending, followed by a completely different one, reminding us of the different versions of Lawrence's novel? Or just a minor hiccup that looks huge in context, since by this point I was practically aching for a return to bad manners?

 

Ocean's Thirteen (Steven Soderbergh)

On the one hand, O13 is so aggressively featherweight, one may as well review the popcorn or the Milk Duds. It's the same basic set-up: lots of rapid-fire but coolly delivered banter, combined with funky editing and retro-mod movie flourishes, in order to disguise (barely, this time around, as though that's now part of the joke) that there's no there there. You're supposed to just let it all wash over you, so that your logic-seeking left hemisphere gets lulled into a right-brained, soft-serve meta-mush, gazing at the pretty colors, and ooh lookie there, it's George Clooney and Brad Pitt. But at the same time, there's something worth sticking up for in all of this. You could just as easily parse it from the other direction -- Soderbergh uses a three-tiered squadron of hip movie talent and the thin Magic Shell of a heist plot in order to keep making eye candy of the Wong Kar-Wai / late Zhang Yimou variety. Las Vegas is "Peter Andrews'" playground, and O13 treats billion-dollar venture-capital opulence as an occasion to consider mottled gold textures, saturated midnight blue color fields, the ways in which a roving zoom lens (probably with a little digital assistance) can turn a seething wide shot of a gaming pit into a structurally integrated picture plane. In a way, it's Olivo Barbieri in reverse, taking something small (both in terms of meaning and in its direct proximity to the body, its enveloping atmospheric intimacy) and blowing it up, paradoxically atomizing it and reveling in its marble-and-formica impermeability. It's fun, but we run into difficulties when Soderbergh and crew become too pleased with their sleight of hand. An intellectually empty million-dollar art film about little guys fleecing Las Vegas, over and over again, requires no further irony, and in fact is just smarmy enough. But when self-satisfied in-jokes like Matt Damon's fake nose (a nod to the Terry Gilliam / Harvey Weinstein clash over The Brothers Grimm) are essentially equated with faux-Zapatista maquiladora revolts, these insular Beverly Hills leftists are just thumbing their (real) noses at the poor, the "One" campaign as flip-off. (What does this subplot prove? That Soderbergh, Clooney and Pitt can buy and sell Mexican workers several times over? Ha fucking ha.) Also, the absence of Julia Robert and CZJ was something I always assumed I'd appreciate in any film I saw, but here it just ratchets up the insufferable gentlemen's-club ambiance. Throwing in Ellen Barkin as a walking cheap-shot in a push-up bra hardly helps. I suppose one could argue that Al Pacino looks just as bad, all leathery and orange like a dried-out glazed doughnut, thereby giving the lie to Hollywood's age-sexism. But he's not reduced to using this Still-Life-With-Bernie-Mac as a would-be comeback vehicle, flopsweat pooling around the cleavage. It all leaves a bad aftertaste; it's so mean, and casually so. Let's just get back to the decor.

 

[5]

 

-Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré, France / Portugal)

Christophe Honoré is an extremely interesting filmmaker, and Dans Paris is a film brimming with ideas even if many of them don't ultimately pan out. Ostensibly the film is the story of Paul (Romain Duris), an immobilized clinical-depressive who has recently scuttled his love affair with Anna (Joana Preiss), a woman every bit as sensitive and vivacious as Paul is listless and passive-aggressive. As a formal conceit, Honoré contrasts Paul with his younger brother Jonathan (Louis Garrel), a flighty student and all-round cad intent on screwing his way across the central arrondissements. Although these two young men are irksome and problematic to their family in almost equal measure, Paul's affliction and tendency to wall himself off paradoxically makes him the center of the clan, all others held in an orbit that Paul himself wants no part of. This muted family melodrama / tale of heartbreak only hints at what Honoré is really up to, however. Dan Paris is largely a formal experiment in incompatible cinematic styles, the weight of French film history, and the messy collision between direct and self-conscious representational modes. The film opens with Jonathan delivering a direct-address introduction, a la Truffaut, and throughout the rest of the film, Jonathan seems to carry with him the irrepressible energy of the Nouvelle Vague. Garrel's slight resemblance to New Wave axiom Jean-Pierre Leaud is accentuated with a poofy shock of black hair, and his antics -- fast-motion chases through the park, stylized post-coital bickering with a copy of Franny and Zooey in hand, cocky intellectual banter as a mating ritual -- directly allude to Godard. Even extra-diegetic visual cues, such as an intertitle announcing arrival at the Bon Marché, or numerous aerial night shots of Parisian lights on the Seine, appear along with Jonathan, like his "theme." By contrast, when we first meet Paul he is involved in a cruel fight with Anna that eventually ends up with her sexual humiliation. What is Paul's world, in cinematic terms? Pialat, perhaps? Do his fragmented memories allude to Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime? Or is Honoré's point that Paul's depression somehow complicates any attempts to contain it through mere representation, and that cinema's image-bank necessarily fails in the face of inarticulate pain? It is clear that Honoré is working out a complicated thesis here, and in some ways that's the problem. Dans Paris feels like a film stranded between modes. It isn't confident enough in its elevation of concept over drama to push its artifice to the limit. The film clearly expects some level of emotional engagement. But at the same time, its gestures toward direct visceral communication always feel a bit forced, issuing as they do from a confident yet somewhat enclosed space of erudite self-awareness. Granted, I would never want to claim that any film (and certainly no filmmaker) was"too smart for its own good." But there is a sense that permeates Dans Paris, of gut-level punches that fail to connect, and a facility with gamesmanship and pastiche that Honoré seems to feel, for whatever reason, isn't, or shouldn't be, enough.

 

-I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)

After the steady decline into repugnance that was the Vengeance Trilogy, Park was certainly in need to a new direction. The sci-fi nuthouse rom-com, it turns out, doesn't entirely fit the bill, since the specific quirks and maladies of the asylum inmates don't exactly rein in Park's proclivities toward cruel caricature. Nevertheless, for this filmmaker anything slightly better than a cinematic crime against humanity has to count as a qualified victory. Beneath the claustrophobic style (very much of the Jeunet / Gilliam / Kusturica fisheye-wacko-in-overly-art-directed-nightmare school), there is more than a trace of genuine sweetness in this film, even though it's also pretty brazen in its calculation and hardly original. Park adapts certain of his signature moves to the new, slightly more muted context, in particular Lady Vengeance's use of lightning-sketch portraiture and spatial mapping to organize the film's overall field of activity. The Fincheresque CGI scribbles of Oldboy make brief appearances as well, usually as we see the electro-innards of Young-goon (Lim Su-jeong), but the usual Park Chan-wook razzle-dazzle really is toned down considerably. When the second half of the film kicks off with sci-fi killing-machine ultraviolence, it's actually quite a shock. But the real shock, for me anyway, is that Park actually succeeds at seeming frivolous, even sprightly with this film, his own strange version of chick-flick disposability. It's fluff, and reasonably well-crafted fluff at that. Unlike Park's recent efforts, Cyborg is refreshingly frank about its emptiness, and, well, that's OK.

 

[4]

 

Paris, je t'aime (various, Liechtenstein / Switzerland / Germany / France)

Advance word on this omnibus was pretty poor, but I figured, what better way to celebrate the emancipation of the titular heiress than by checking out a film about the city in France they named after her? (Heh heh . . . I said "tit.") In all seriousness, considering the dismal moviegoing options around town I'd feel like kind of a jerk if I didn't at least check out the Nobuhiro Suwa short playing just down the road from my apartment. And while the overall experience was, in fact, indescribably tedious, a few little gems (and one genuine standout) made Paris worth visiting. In my more gung-ho days I would've graded each short individually and averaged them up, taking care to write a little something about every last one of them. Sorry, sports fans, I'm just not that guy anymore. But, in honor of the inherent fragmentation that is Paris, je t'aime, here are a few of the scattered thoughts I had while watching.

 

(1) I never, ever want to see a feature film by Bruno Podalydès.

 

(2) Gus Van Sant 2.0 is nothing without duration at his disposal. No wonder he ended up turning in a cheap one-liner.

 

(3) Sometimes I really want to fly down to L.A., find the Coen brothers, and beat the shit out of them.

 

(4) When one of the most potent, affecting short films in your omnibus is by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, you're in trouble. But their "Far from the 16th" is a lovely little haiku on the pain of an immigrant domestic worker's hard choices. Its tight rhyming structure, as well as its reliance on the talents of a professional actress (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who has a good deal of trouble suppressing her natural glamour, could have undercut the film's sincerity, turning it into glib Benetton liberalism. But Salles, Thomas and Sandino pull it off, in part because the story they tell is so familiar, we the audience have no difficulty extrapolating an entire harried, ambivalent existence from it.

 

(5) I guess Christopher Doyle gets points for treating the shifting multicultural demographics of Paris as an occasion for humor, as opposed to the lackluster earnestness of Gurinder Chadha and Oliver Schmitz. But still, what a bunch of nonsense.

 

(6) I never, ever want to see a feature film by Isabel Coixet.

 

(7) In 2006, executing a project like this without the participation of Guy Maddin is pretty much inexcusable.

 

(8) So, here's Nobuhiro Suwa. You know, this film really doesn't work at all, but it might have actually been truly moving at feature length. Whereas the Salles / Thomas contribution works in the short form because it uses the specific to allude to the general, Suwa clearly asks us to invest, or at least empathize, with the anguish of Juliette Binoche's grieving mother. This effort relies on a fundamental misconception about the temporality of grief. Not to mention surrealism -- the appearance of Willem Dafoe's horseman could only be truly jarring after a certain amount of time spent in the "normal" world. Still, it left me wanting to explore Suwa's other work.

 

(9) Wow, Sylvain Chomet's film is really funny. While Olivier Assayas is clearly bending over backwards to subvert the touristic elements inherent in the assignment and ends up shooting himself in the foot (he even refuses to permit his cinematography the occasional sparkle), Chomet really takes the proverbial sow's ear and makes a sow's ear purse. Somebody had to get stuck with the fucking Eiffel Tower, and Chomet uses it as an occasion to plunge headlong into the creepiest, most nauseating aspects of stereotypical French culture in the global imaginary. Mimes, for crying out loud! Like Triplets of Belleville, it's hideous, and in its own way kind of brilliant.

 

(10) Vincenzo Natali? The Cube dude? Why?

 

(11) Hmph. The Tykwer was almost good. Of course it's too overwritten and self-important to actually break through into genuine feeling, a problem that plagues even Tykwer's best work. But at least he stepped to the plate with an understanding of how to best work in the short form. Also, this is the first time it dawned on me just how annoying Natalie Portman can be.

 

(12) Depardieu and Aubertin. Ouch. Naturally Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara take the excruciatingly middlebrow trappings and undergraduate-level script and put at all over, just by sheer force of charisma. Yet it's troubling to see that, based on this evidence, film culture has enshrined these Cassavetes firebrands as "dignified," even bourgeois. This segment called to mind Jarmusch's "Champagne" short from Coffee and Cigarettes, in which Bill Rice and Taylor Mead are given room too exude the full gravity of the years, the warmth and the debauchery etched on their faces. Haven't Rowlands and Gazzara earned a director of Jarmusch's stature, instead of the team behind The Bridge?

 

(13) And now, the kicker. Holy shit, I was not prepared for the Alexander Payne segment. Trading on both the audience's foreknowledge of his work (and its tendency to sneer), and the incongruity of an inelegant Midwestern American in Paris at this late stage of the game, Payne sets us up for mockery that never comes. Far from it. This film, far and away the finest in the collection and the only one that really transcends the limitations of the project, lays bare a humble life in transition. We meet our letter carrier from Denver at the precise moment when a gutsy personal decision -- to learn French and go it alone in Paris, instead of following the tour group -- provides both the joy and the melancholy self-reflection she didn't even know she sought. Although Payne delivers an achingly unique portrait of one American women who is, in fact, so many American woman (at least so many I've known), he's also providing a kind of object-lesson of a different way for Americans to move through the world -- vulnerable, open, inquisitive, willing to watch, listen, learn, make the occasional fools of ourselves, and become someone other than who we were before.