REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, JUNE 2008
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)
-Definitely, Maybe (Adam Brooks)
This is actually my one-point-fifth viewing of this film (Jen was watching it in a hotel room a few weeks back while I was dead tired), and I'm ready to conclude that this Adam Brooks fellow may well be a severely underrated pop filmmaker. Several years back he made a now-forgot ted, highly bizarre Cameron Diaz vehicle called The Invisible Circus, in which Jordana Brewster retraced the life-steps of her doomed, dead older sister (Diaz), a crazed, perpetually dissatisfied free spirit who eventually landed up along side Herr Baader and Frau Meinhof. Without putting too fine a point on it, Brooks was providing a kind of (literal) postmortem on the romantic misconceptions and tactical errors of the post-60s Left, but from an inside position. That is, he was engaging in self-criticism in order to reclaim this legacy from the willful distortions of the Reaganite Right. Now, seven years later, Brooks has pulled off another smart, subtle coup, changing the sexes from the previous film as well as going deeper, charting a man's dual romantic / political maturation process. Will Hays (Ryan Reynolds), with the help of his precocious (but never unrealistically so) daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin -- all hail the Anti-Dakota!), is "conducting a recount," as it were. How did he get to where he is in his life? How did one woman, among several choices, become his wife, and was she really the right choice? (Since the film opens with Will and Maya addressing the impending divorce, the answer is obviously no.) This process, of telling Maya the story of his early adulthood and the three women who prominently figure in it (with the constant refrain. "What am I doing here?"), moves alongside Will's starry-eyed move to New York to work for the Clinton '92 campaign as a true believer, through the bimbo eruptions and impeachment hearings, and the eventual discovery that Clinton, Man From Hope, "first black president," is just another liar. Brooks brilliantly parallels the naive faith in conventional, high-school-sweetheart notions of love with liberals' aching desire to believe in Clinton. (What's more, the fact that Brooks got this picture made and released in 2008 is a political coup of the highest order. Perhaps he figured we'd all be dealing with Clinton 2, but in fact his cautionary tale is even more apposite now. What American liberal-to-semi-socialist doesn't want to believe in Obama? All the more reason to remember not to let our guard down and keep fresh batteries in the bullshit detector.)
Ultimately, Brooks isn't much of a visual stylist. Seeing the film in widescreen (rather than Days Inn's pan-and-scan) showed that he and cinematographer Florian "Shut up, Dad!" Ballhaus were far more interested in sturdy construction than communicative composition. The frequent cityscapes exhibit the sort of "good design" you'd find in any upper-division photography class, fine but undistinguished. And some aspects of Brooks' plotting and characterization are primarily about getting the job done. Kevin Kline's blowhard professor, for example, is cute, but he's really a shorthand for telling us that Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz) is the kind of woman who goes for "guys like that." Probably the film's single biggest misstep is the fact that it nails a note-perfect ending ("You.") then squanders it in the name of a tacked-on, happy-ending coda that feels mandated by Corporate. Even taken on its own dictated terms, it could've been achieved with more panache. (Why does Isla Fisher go limp in the home stretch? Somebody seemed to think that was her job.) But this is a romantic comedy that actually explores a recognizable character arc for once, instead of a set of scientifically-derived spectatorial brainwave patterns of tension and release. In fact, the much-maligned casting of Reynolds, chunk of wood that he is, might well be strategic, since he plays Just Do It automatism so well. Maybe in trying to melt a genre so defiantly impervious to the intellect, he needed a real live mannequin. Who knows? This is above all a film about the discovery of uncertainty and ambivalence where you least expect it. The title tells us as much. Hell, when was the last time a rom-com had an actual title, like a real work of art? Brooks even used punctuation!
-Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, U.S. / U.K. / Canada / Australia / Finland)
Much like Daughter From Danang, another ITVS-funded documentary from a few years back, Operation Filmmaker is one of those projects that is fascinating by accident, chiefly because the filmmakers involved thought they were documenting on one kind of situation and stumbled into an entirely different scenario. However, unlike Danang, OpFilm has such a smug, self-aware little twerp at its center that any qualms one might have about exploitation on the part of Davenport or anyone else involved evaporate pretty quickly. The basics: Muthana Mohmed was a young film student in Baghdad, the Allies bombed his school, he and his friends lamented this on an MTV segment, Liev Schreiber saw it and brought the kid over to the Czech Republic work as a PA on Everything is Illuminated, where Muthana proved rude and unhelpful, fucking up every assigned task and then blaming his lack of initiative on "Iraqi pride" and his inability to "be like you." What's fascinating, of course, other than the constant trainwreck of Muthana's bad decision-making, is the endless series of preposterous backflips that well-connected, guilt-wracked liberals, from Hollywood right on down to the documentary crew themselves, with perform to bail the guy out. (Also, Muthana's much more agreeable when dealing with The Rock and his big, dumb action movie. OpFilm treats this as Muthana having learned his lesson, but look closer. Doom is more like what the kid thinks "real" movies should be. Plus, his attitudinizing on Illuminated had more than a hint of sexism and anti-semitism.)
But even more fascinating, and what makes OpFilm a vital cultural document and not just a cringe-inducing real-life Sacha Baron Cohen skit, is that fact that the situation, and Muthana's youthful, blinkered subjectivity, really is such a complicated mess. On the one hand, sure, he's just another 25-year-old dumbass, more interested in going drinking with friends than in completing the gag reel for the wrap party. All over the world, 25-year-olds are much the same; this guy could have been one of those occasional douchebag specimens I encountered here and there among my old university students. Nothing's ever his fault, and hey, can I please get another extension? What's more, he knows how to play these liberals like an all-fiddle orchestra. He's the consummate con man. On the other hand, he has a point -- he really can't be like these bourgeois individuals, who've always had the luxury of living lives based on long-term planning. Like anyone existing under daily mortar fire, or in a ghetto situation, or under any form of 24 / 7 duress, Muthana is a man of the moment, working the system for today. Yes, he keeps getting himself in binds because he really doesn't possess foresight. He's never needed it before. And OpFilm is far more interesting in this regard than I think even Davenport herself seems to realize. (The documentary is symptomatic of her ensnarement in the liberal traps, much more than a critical examination of said position. Her Iraq War metaphors are indeed rather self-serving.) We're supposed to think Muthana is hopelessly naive when he shakes Davenport down for money, noting that she'll make a good deal of money off her film now that it features Elijah Wood and The Rock. (Silly Shiite, this is a festival film!) But Nina Davenport, the hard-scrabble PBS documentarian, certainly enjoys a standard of living several registers above that of Muthana and his family, a fact she recognizes but cannot exactly grapple with. And so, in the end, Muthana does get his 15 minutes, Davenport rises slightly above her station as a second-tier doc helmer, and even the critics get some nice chewy tofu for our think-pieces. Everyone looks like a bit of a jerk, but we've all moved ever so slightly forward, even if only in the realm of self-reflexive representation. >>MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.<<
-Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Never send a structuralist to do a fabulist's job. While Gondry's last feature was held together by some rather interesting duct tape -- the irksome inner world of a self-involved manchild -- this one is just a desultory bunch of scraps casting about for some insight they might convey almost by accident. The title is quite literal: the only way to be decent is to hew to the past or to actively revive it, so that lo-fi VHS school-play re-enactments of little bits of Hollywood product, featuring a cast comprised of your friends and neighbors, becomes the last ethical frontier in a morally degraded image world. Gondry's going back to the Lumières and Méliès, but keeping the possible boundaries of his Passaic, NJ citizens' imaginations pretty much fenced in by the Industry, redoing Rush Hour 2 and Ghostbusters. To what end? There seems to be a class-based critique bubbling up, and there is indeed some kind of perverse, subversive, oddball pleasure in watching major-studio funds go to let Mos Def and Jack Black fuck around with a camcorder using $1.99 props from Michael's Crafts. But as is always the case with Gondry, the meaning enfolds on itself, and instead of a social examination that looks outward we get Moebius cinema that just is, and goes nowhere in particular. The Fats Waller subplot has no connection to anything, although I'm sure Gondry thinks it does. Someone with a mind like Chris Marker's could place these ideas side by side and let the dialectic fireworks commence, but Gondry is simply too far inside his own head to recognize when his obsessions are flying apart rather than melding. In the end, Rewind's only recourse is a Cinema Paradiso-like paean to the power of art and myth. It's cheap, and sappy, and in the end it's difficult not to feel like Gondry is one of those inarticulate aesthetic Luddites who grunt about the "warmth" and "presence" of analog over digital, LPs over CDs, celluloid over DV, and can never back it up with hard facts. I mean, sure, everyone appreciates the handmade, but that doesn't mean you kept everything your kid ever made for you in art class.
-Chicago 10 (Brett Morgen)
When one talks about "political film," one still gets into a sticky wicket, particularly when it comes to the proper way to represent history. Not that long ago, although it certainly feels like eons ago, we had debates from Cahiers, Screen and Jump Cut all the way down into more street-level film criticism. These arguments coalesced around films like Z, The Battle of Algiers, some more obscure titles like Marin Karmitz's Coup Pour Coup, and then, on the "good" side, folks like Jancso, Straub / Huillet, the difficult Godard, and all that Brechtian modernism. What's crazy is that some variations of this argument continue into the present. Most folks understand that these styles have all evolved, and that audiences have evolved as well. This isn't to say that nothing is at stake in the problem of film, politics, and representation anymore, although some pop-culture triumphalists would certainly have you believe that's the case. But thirty-sum-odd years on, we know that there's nothing inherent in a Straubian long take, a Godardian interruption-montage, or a Costa-Gavras left-wing populist thriller that will somehow radicalize audiences, or stultify them per se. The value of these legacies is much more complicated that "what works." It's about creative possibility, the provocation of thought, pattern-disruption, the management of empathy, the strategic entrance into an always-shifting domain of popular media, and a lot of other complex factors that operate, moving inside and outside the film frame. Thomas Elsaesser's recent re-evaluation of Alexander Kluge in Film Comment is a fine example of how the legacy of political modernism can be understood as something both historical and contemporary, not just a quaint failure from the archives. By contrast, Quintín's review of Elite Squad in Cinema Scope uses old terms to bludgeon the film, and although he may well be correct with respect to Padilha's film, the critic doesn't acknowledge that the classic recipes for radical filmmaking might not be so bang-on any longer.
All this by way of prefacing the fact that Chicago 10 really sort of sucks. But a lot of folks seem to think it sucks simply because turning the Chicago 10 trial and the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention into an animated Rage Against the Machine video is inherently inappropriate, blasphemous, or stupid. I don't agree or disagree with this perspective. I think it may well be the case that taking any historical event and "updating" it for contempo consumption by adding Eminem's "Mosh" to the soundtrack is likely to produce a wounded artifact, one that insults its audience and capitulates to the notion that today's proto-radical youth are so solipsistic that they must see themselves reflected in all things, or else it's just useless noise. At the same time, there is a core effort in Chicago 10 that is undeniably valuable. The apparent impossibility for citizens to affect change in the 21st century (even your vote doesn't count) means that radical models are necessary, and any attempt to draw connections to and inspiration from the 1960s, without nostalgia or apology, is a theoretically correct impulse. Aesthetic puritanism ought not get in the way. But taken on its own terms, Morgen's film fails. It's not just that the animated courtroom segments are hideous and performed with the misplaced zeal of community college theatre. (Let's add rotoscoping to the moratorium list, along with Arvo Pärt.) The thing is, a dumbing-down project promises spoonfeeding, a clear, digestible procession of facts, or at least an exhilarating narrative arc to compensate for the lack of historical context. But Chicago 10 offers neither. Despite its chronological organization, it is a terrible muddle. The archival footage from the march / riot has an undeniable affective impact but never really gels with the fragmentary live interviews, animated trial snippets, news coverage from the convention itself. It's as though Morgen decided that the experience of Chicago '68 was "chaos," and chose to transfer that cognitive miasma onto his viewership. (NOTE: Revisiting Mike D'Angelo's pro-10 blog review, I see that this was in fact part of Morgen's intent.) But even so, a filmmaker like Emile de Antonio could bombard a spectator with information "as it happened," and convey as clear a progression as would have been available to those on the ground. Morgen just seems either lazy or inept. What's more, Chicago 10 suffers from its uncertain attitude. The style of the film, above all, tells us that Morgen, from his perch of historical superiority, saw the Chicago situation as theatre above all, and the Yippies and the government stooges (Judge Julius Hoffman in particular) as self-conscious performer-buffoons. But then, why does the concluding footage of the march play like tragedy, seeming to indict David Dellinger for leading his guileless lambs to the slaughter rather than standing down? Is this some possibly-justifiable revisionism, implying that the radicals had the right ideas but the wrong tactics? Does Chicago 10 worship these outlaws, ridicule them, hold them up as exemplars for our own benighted age, or lampoon them as fossils from a less enlightened era? I'm not sure even Morgen knows.
-Summer Palace (Lou Ye, China / France)
The first ten minutes of Summer Palace (which exactly comprise the pre-credits sequence, although of course you don't realize this while watching) represent some of the most visceral filmmaking I'm seen in a very long time. Like the finest passages in Assayas or Desplechin, this opening sequence employs a deceptively assured handheld camera style, one that hovers for a second or two, glancing tentatively at the scene in front of it, before piercing the Z-axis with the sort of physical gestures we typically associate more with painting than with cinema. Lou enters the scene in a manner somewhere between a swooping keel and a surgical thrust. Compounding this nervous activation of the visual field is an editing scheme so ridiculously tight that Lou seems to be using your frontal lobe as his Steenbeck. Watch closely, and you'll see that he's just cutting on an action, milliseconds before it starts or ends, so that you're always apprehending the visual information in a slightly frazzled state. A few years ago in the now-defunct 24FPS journal, Dan Sallitt identified this editing pattern as a major motif of William Friedkin as well, and the fact that Lou would start out depicting the early sex life of young Yu Hong (Lei Hao) in this manner speaks volumes about the amour fou in which she'll soon become embroiled.
So....what happened? By comparison, the remaining 130 minutes of Summer Palace are crushingly slack. The first half of the film, chronicling the Beijing college days of Yu Hong, her tempestuous love affair with the somewhat distant Zhao Wei (Xiaodong Guo), and their circle of friends and lovers in the run-up to Tienanmen Square, is never less than absorbing, but Lou never again achieves the pure-cinema-plasticity heights of those opening minutes. However, for a time, he accomplishes something else that is worthy, even if it succeeds more as a theoretical construct floating alongside the melodrama at hand. Summer Palace's first segment is told almost exclusively from Yu Hong's point of view, and we hear voiceover passages from her diary as she describes the sensation of coming from the Sticks, getting caught up in the rush of Beijing, becoming swept up in a new life and an all-consuming new love. This all progresses, naturally but nevertheless quite frighteningly, into the Democracy Movement and its hazards, but this is Lou's grand theme. Yu Hong's purple prose isn't supposed to be taken at face value per se. But it is supposed to be taken seriously, since youthful exuberance and a fair degree of naiveté, Lou tells us, is a requirement for having the guts to hit the barricades and actually change the world. Summer Palace is clear-eyed enough to see Yu Hong, Zhao Wei, and her polyamorous, bedhopping politico friends as rather doomed in terms of achieving happiness in a radical new lifestyle. But the film, with its swooning camerawork and Romantic strings and dramatic crescendo in the midst of the massacre's aftermath, fully commits itself to occupying this hazy, starry-eyed worldview, the amped-up emotional life of being 25, confused, not knowing who you are, and then on top of that, feeling morally obligated to turn your corrupt nation upside down.
Like I said, this first major passage of the film has the pure narrative force of great TV or a page-turner, even apart from Lou's intelligent strategy. (And compared to such recent vivisections of political rebellion as Chicago 10 or --ugh-- My Brother is an Only Child, this is fantastic. The only film of the last few years to which it bears any real resemblance is Regular Lovers, and although it's nowhere near as successful, how many films truly are?) But the filmmaking becomes logy and televisual. If Lou had been able to keep up his chops, it would have been something truly magical. All told, he'd need Hitchcockian precision to pull off his Romanticist coup. And unlike many of his Chinese peers, Lou really does seem to be trying to work in that florid mode of total eye and ear control. (Considering Summer Palace has numerous censorship problems and the Cannes print had to be smuggled out of the country, it's hard not to think that we may not be seeing the film Lou Ye is truly capable of making under reasonable circumstances.) Sadly, the remainder of Summer Palace does too good a job in conveying the sense of deflation and aimlessness that one quite reasonably would feel after having been a part of a world-historical event such as Tienanmen Square. The lengthy midsection, which finds many of the principal characters studying in Berlin, is a drifting portrait of ennui, and the passionate assignations between Zhai Wei and Yu Hong, along with other more temporary pairings, begin to implode. Lou makes the point that theirs may have been a state-dependent love affair. But the rambling quality of the long Berlin section transfers its anomie onto the audience all too well. It's just boring and unstructured, and without the propulsive political drama, I finally noticed just how little Lou really lets us know about these kids. Considering how much of Summer Palace's effectiveness rides on our ability to identify with the historical correctness of their raw emotions, it's amazing that the film keeps us at arm's length. A tragic event concludes the Berlin segment with a jolt of genuine pathos, and the film rallies a bit toward the end, as Lou provides a modicum of closure for the central couple, several years out. But overall, Summer Palace merely provides an outline of its monumental significance. It delivers an idea of an epic instead of the messy, sprawling thing itself.