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)




The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, Spain / U.S. / Japan)

First things first: The Limits of Control really should not, no, cannot be taken seriously as a political film of any kind. The sequence near the end of the film, when Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) breaks into the inner sanctum of some ill-defined Bush 43 operative (Bill Murray, channelling Cheney, Rumsfeld, or both) has been taken to be the ultimate point of The Limits of Control by most, but especially by its vociferous detractors, of whom there are many. Murray's character, listed only as The American, could be some politico, or (more my take) he could simply represent the ugly side of America, closed off, xenophobic, trapped inside its own echo chamber and remaking its soundproof bunker of ideology wherever it goes. In this regard, Murray is a poetic device, since it strikes me that one way to make sense of LoC is as Jarmusch's meditation on the meanings and limitations of his own Americanness. We can think about this extra-textually. When collecting his Grand Prix award at Cannes in 2005 for Broken Flowers, Jarmusch spoke about how the world's filmmakers "are all part of the same tribe," going on to acknowledge many of his fellow Competiton filmmakers by name and eventually citing Hou Hsiao-hsien as his master. If you look at the cast list for LoC, you'll find that Murray is indeed the lone American. When we combine this knowledge with the evidence onscreen, particularly in the film's opening fifteen minutes but really throughout the whole of LoC, we see that Jarmusch is really interested in exploring the problems of transit, betweenness, a lack of destination or settlement. The entire first reel finds Jarmusch and d.p. Christopher Doyle fixating on De Bankolé's slow movement through airport turnstiles, moving sidewalks, train stations, hotel lobbies. The extended shots after his arrival in Spain, where we see his taxi leaving the airport, ask us to look closely at highway underpasses, the graffiti on them, the overgrown weeds, the way these reflect off a windshield at midday. And, time and again, we see De Bankolé, an almost comically stark presence in his blue sharkshin suit, moving through very ordinary cobblestone streets, passing through archways and porticos. In some senses, the visual style of LoC is a formalist refinement of the uninflected, almost functional landscapes Jarmusch and Murray traversed in Broken Flowers. But then, that was the U.S. It seems that in his meditation on glass and stone, nighttime shadow and electric light, and the liminal spaces of the human body's movement through shifting architecture, Jarmusch is actively considering his relationship to the international cinema he loves: to Hou, to Claire Denis, to Olivier Assayas, and actually, in his iconic use of De Bankolé, to Pedro Costa as well. But Jarmusch is also consistently marking and emphasizing his distance from that work, the sense that he as an American can never entirely settle down and belong within European or Asian film traditions. It's not for nothing that the Lone Man's passphrase for his contacts is, "¿Usted no habla español, verdad?"


So, other than a self-interrogating artifact about Jarmusch's place in the filmmaking universe, what is The Limits of Control "about?" This is a frustrating question, but one that requires tentative answers. My primary enjoyment of the film (and, I must admit, an enjoyment that caught me by surprise) had much more to do with visual and auditory repetitions, incantatory movements, pacing and overall atmosphere than any direct interpretation of its motives. And in fact, I think that is the best way to understand LoC, as a primarily cyclical, peripatetic film that has little commitment to narrative development and, in the assassination scene, provides after-the-fact goal-orientation as a kind of 11th hour shine-on. (Why else go for the abrupt joke about Lone Man's break-in, when otherwise his every movement was stitched to the screen in painstaking detail?) But inasmuch as the film's throughline engages with themes and ideas, they are rather transparent, at least on one level. Each of Lone Man's contacts delivers a brief monologue about some specified topic, beginning with the phrase, "You wouldn't happen to be interested in ___, by any chance?" Now, naturally, if there is indeed a covert plot to get the Lone Man up to the American's hideout to kill him, there is no "chance" involved. Every line must presumably be delivered in precisely the manner that it is, either to provide some coded information or just to convince Lone Man that he's dealing with the right contact. And, of course, this elimination of chance coincides with the delivery of lines in a scripted film. It is easy to glean LoC's meaning from the speakers' words, since all are offering variations on ideas concerning infinitude, uncertainty, and multiplicity in the universe, as well as the power of art. Tilda Swinton in a ridiculous wig and cowgirl get-up talks about old movies. John Hurt discusses the idea of "Bohemia." Youki Kudoh talks about science and the rejuvenation of molecules. And so on.


These monologues are innocuous enough, or at least they were to me, but I can also see that they might seem maddeningly obtuse and hyper-literal, if one is hoping to glean the film's primary meanings from these rather banal, unhelpful disquisitions. If we compare them to the Lone Man's solitary, silent engagement with works of art in the Reina Sofia Museum, or his appreciation of music (Schubert, or a flamenco rehearsal), or for that matter his completely nonsexual engagement with the inexplicable Naked Woman (Paz de la Huerta), we see two very different attitudes toward the same material, and they should not be collapsed. While others yammer on, Lone Man enjoys direct contact with the aesthetic realm. What is he taking from all these works of art? Are they "contacts" of a different sort? Art historians like George Kubler and Henri Focillon postulated that art left unfinished problems or traces of ideas from previous centuries which could be reactivated by attentive viewers in the present day, while the Austrian Aby Warburg suspected that, if properly arranged, all the world's images would eventually reveal some vast interpretive secret. That's possible, but then again, maybe the Lone Man's hazily defined "work" is just to move through space and time, gradually perceiving things. I for one found that to be a much more rewarding effort, traveling along with The Limits of Control as a looping, semi-inferential tone poem, rather than trying to lock the film into some sort of absolute missile trajectory. All the same, there's no denying that it does "go somewhere," but I also think it cannot be denied that where it goes and how it gets there is phenomenally silly, if not outright stupid. Here's your Hollywood ending, which is, in essence, the speedy elimination of our only Hollywood star and the film's only recognizably "action" sequence. After accomplishing this relatively minor task, the Lone Man sets off traveling again, in a new guise. Many have argued that the final title card following the credits, "No Limits No Control," is Jarmusch's firm stamp of approval that his merry band of Bohos has brought down Big Bad Mr. Cheney through renegade art. To me, however, it seems much more of a rebuke to narrative-driven meaning-making. The thing is, you found your way into this film. So now, find your way out of it.


-Sutro (Jeanne Liotta) [v/s]

The first time around, I wasn't entirely convinced by Jeanne Liotta's latest work, Sutro, but this niggling doubt lasted all of three minutes (the length of time of my first viewing of the film itself), and was pretty much obliterated by a second, third, and fourth viewing. Liotta's recent work includes the dazzling, meticulously constructed Observando el Cielo, which wedded a scratchy, musique concrete soundscape by Peggy Ahwesh to a dense montage of footage of the heavenly bodies in motion, a constructivist sky mosaic whose light play and filmic tangibility returned a sense of secular wonder to the space above our heads, radically collapsed in time. By contrast, Sutro draws its soundtrack from a single electronica piece by Scanner, and, in its flipping, bouncy gestures and jittery light play, is a film that I initially mistook for a music video. And while it's certainly true that Sutro does not exhibit the complex contrapuntal interplay between sound and image found in Observando, the new work operates on the basis of a different integrity and, once I let my guard down, fully convinced me of its power, on its own terms. It's not just that its counterpoint is a more internal affair (although it is). It's more than that. Jeanne Liotta's getting down. She's getting funky. What the hell was my problem?


Sutro takes its name from Sutro Tower, a San Francisco landmark that is presumably edging toward utter obsolescence as analog TV fades into the mist of history. Liotta's film begins with the title in shimmering disco-sequins, ending the same way (aside from Liotta's customary final signature and date), and in between, against the skittering glitch-techno of Scanner, we see a long shot of the lights of homes on a hillside at night, forming an alternate sky, popping slightly as Liotta makes minor adjustments to the aperture. She then introduces a repeating motif, a ghostly interior superimposition of a purple curtain and a lamp, a vaguely David Lynchian image that modulates in intensity against the multiple points of light scattered across the screen. This variation in scale also operates as a rhythmic device as the two qualities of light play against each other, gently but with a mechanistic regularity, as if they're on dimmers which are being played like knobs by a turntablist. Soon after this, Liotta shows the light patterns jumping from right to left, like rapidly replaced digital codes, the lamp popping in as a periodic anchor. The horizontal motion then gives way to a vertical jump in thirds, up into a blacker portion of the night sky, only the faint lights of the tower breaking through the dark field. Then, a reversal, the city lights shinnying back up from the bottom of the frame, then moving left to right.


Eventually, after Liotta shows the frame moving below the hill line and down to ground level, with homes and a car in the medium foreground, the patterning of hillside lights and superimpositions becomes a tight, unequivocal musical device. The image rolls up over itself, like frames jumping the sprocket holes or tumblers in a slot machine, resulting in hypnotic streaking and a gentle materialist bombardment of the eyes by pure light. Flares and edge lighting find their way in, but mostly, as Liotta adjusts the size and focal length of this barely-legible white-on-black pattern, its generated motion begins to resemble the snowy non-reception of malfunctioning analog TV (what Sutro Tower will soon be "broadcasting," no doubt), a failure to resolve into an image, but a new kind of "image" all its own, a phenomenon resembling the plucking of electrified molecules from the thin night air. That air thickens, fog emerges for seconds at a time, globules of light coagulate into horizontal bands and scatter again, all against the flip-mode assault of a rhythm utterly at odds with some false tranquility the scene seems like it should provide. For the entirety of its three-minute run, Liotta introduces flash-frame compositions that subtly stab at the image with spike-like verticals -- the tower, the lamp, an edge flare -- played off the general horizontal grouping of the lights (sometimes thick lines, sometimes a miasma) in constant flickering tension. Like the two main strands of the accompanying music (sustained minor chords / fractured, hyperkinetic drum machine pitter-pat), Sutro is never not a clash of opposing forces. (A music video? What was I thinking?) Get down with your bad-ass Hegelian self. (You lucky people! You can watch Sutro over and over right here.)




-Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine / Taylor)

Giddily amoral, committed to no style other than cheap, nonstop propulsion, Crank: High Voltage is cinema that feels like you should be snorting it off a mirror instead of watching it on a screen. In fact, this film comes closer to the taboo-busting anarchy of Takashi Miike than any American studio film I've seen, although I never caught Crank 1. From its very opening, when we see the titles and the main character, unkillable Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) descent from the top of the screen within an old-school Atari 2600 videogame universe, with the film's de facto tagline ("Fuck you, Chelios!") scrolling horizontally as a banner, C:HV could hardly be more frank about its preposterousness. But, just in case it needs to be, this title sequence (in essence, an opening "kill screen") is followed up by the least authentic news report ever recorded in any medium, anchored by some Tom Arnold look-alike with a Q-rating of negative-17. He describes the scene we've just witnessed (of Chelios's survival of a fall off a building) as "to say the least, implausible," then goes on to promise further reports, unless the story turns out to be "the bullshit it most likely is." And with that, we're off to the races. Neveldine / Taylor are visual thinkers, given to the sorts of pure-cinema flights of fancy that Guy Ritchie always tried to pull off but failed, mostly because he always wanted us to read his scarequotes, the terminal irony of a man delusional enough to believe himself to be an artiste.


Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor harbor no such illusions, so they're much freer. A phone conversation can be broken not only into splitscreens, but successive splitscreens, with A on the left and B on the right, then B sliding to the left and A popping up on the right, and on and on, for no good reason other than the fact that it juices a purely functional 1.5 minutes of exposition. Or, as Chelios's doctor friend (Dwight Yoakam) tediously explains the mechanics of the electrical artificial heart the Triads have installed, we get a complex diagram. But it's every bit as fast-moving and incomprehensible as the doctor's jargon (not unlike Errol Morris's use of charts and graphs, come to think of it), so the whole thing becomes a clever gag on mutual misunderstanding and useless "illustration." The primary procedural modes for C:HV is videogaming and net-surfing logic, with lots of semi-random elements loosely joined, so tiny, silly snippets of cheesy pop songs (REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You" as Chelios and Amy's recurring "love theme;" "Heard It in a Love Song" for the public sex at the racetrack, etc.) are "clicked on" and "clicked off" with no commitment to the whole. They drop in and stop, just passing through. In fact, that's how most everything functions in Crank: High Voltage, which isn't a bad way to organize a movie about a guy who runs around and fights a lot.


-Migrating Forms 2009 Festival Trailer (Michael Robinson) [v/s]

This is a piece I've been meaning to write about for quite a while, and the fact that I've gotten sidetracked from it, unfortunately, is probably "the nature of the beast" when it comes to trailer work. It's not exactly a stand-alone work, but of course the Vienna International Film Festival has been commissioning short works from world-class filmmakers for its trailers for years now (Godard was the most recent). What's more, the Toronto IFF sponsored short "preludes" from various Canadian luminaries for its 2000 edition, and all manner of not-quite-works, from long-form single-channel installation works to BMW ads have garnered justifiable attention as cinematic efforts in their own right. So really, there's no excuse for Robinson's exquisite new short-short video to have slipped my mind, except for the fact that the several times I'd seen it, I was mousing around for information about the Migrating Forms Festival, and my new-media thickheadedness failed to grasp that I was simultaneously observing a work of promotion and a substantial new addition to the oeuvre of one of our finest contemporary experimental mediamakers.


The trailer, in less than two minutes, encapsulates some of Robinson's primary concerns in a bracingly direct manner, simmering the visual elements down to their most potent metaphoric density. As with earlier Robinson films -- Light is Waiting, The General Returns From One Place to Another, Victory Over the Sun -- the trailer depicts a perfectly banal utopia (and, notably, a feminine one), a cheapened representation from an infomercial that is also in some way an expression of genuine human desire. A young blonde woman whose hair and make-up and VHS dupe degradation place her squarely in the 80s, is having her hair done before a wall of thick glass blocks, a classic "salon" environment. The hairdresser exists only as a set of hands and odd maneuvers, which seem poised to show off the hairdo for educational purposes. The woman spins in the chair and occasionally flips her head up, generating circular and especially vertical motion which interacts with a series of unexpected horizontal "zaps" of ingress lines, video feedback and picture flip from bad tracking.


Soon, Robinson introduces a second element which rhymes with the whirling chair; an hourglass-like and then an elliptical array of yellow lights against a black outer-space field superimposed against the close-up "inner-space" of the hair salon. Robinson collides the mundane and the celestial like semi-charmed particles, but the motion continues. These circular lights -- a landing UFO? signals from a broadcast? -- begin to appear as though they're emanating from the woman's eye, a kind of cosmic wink, that yes, she does "contain multitudes," a promise on behalf of "degraded" pop artifacts but also a kiss-off to the masculinist assumptions that so frequently subtend anti-mass-cult arguments and other ascetic stances against "frivolity." (And I don't excuse myself from this tendency either. Sadly, we all have our humorless-jerkwad moments.) As the woman gives a final spin to display her finished coif, Robinson shows us an abstract vortex (the old CBS "special presentation" logo?) which, in addition to the trailer's vital stats, gives way to a disintegrating quasar, finally resolving into a single drop in a pool of black. A Big Bang in reverse. Infinite image-worlds in the most unassuming of places. If that isn't the promise of an avant-garde, much less a film festival, I don't know what is. [Watch Robinson's trailer here.]




-City of Life and Death [Nanking! Nanking!] (Lu Chuan, China / Hong Kong)

Variety's Derek Elley hit it right on the nose with this one when he noted that like Lu's two previous efforts, it charts an extremely interesting and admirable new third way between art cinema and mainstream construction. Although he didn't exactly elaborate, I think that a great deal of this dialectic stems from a willingness on Lu's part to engage rather directly with melodramatic content without punching it up with the usual gestures of needless pandering. But neither does Lu shamefacedly hold back, keeping a discrete distance from the procedings as the "mastershot school" of Asian cinema. Lu's methods are rather standard, but it's to his great credit that it's only several reels in that we even notice them at work. The Japanese forces' occupation of Nanking and their attendant commission of multiple atrocities against POWs and the civilian population there are dramatized through a broad multi-character arc, but at first Lu just drops us into the chaotic midst of the final battle prior to the city's fall. In fact, his highly unusual use of sound design, editing, and truncated camera movement in City's opening segments significantly unwrite many cinematic cliches of the filmed battle, since our constantly shifting position behind the battlements render all space and action utterly incoherent. At first, this scans as poor filmmaking until Lu's establishment of choppy, shattered rhythms makes clear that he is actively generating this chaos, not simply in the thick of it himself.


Soon after, what appears to be a throwaway scene proves pivotal. Violent Japanese marauders are upbraided by two men who will turn out to be major characters in the remainder of the film, German humanitarian Mr. Rabe (John Paisley), who tries to protect the Chinese civilians while dodging Hitler's orders to return to the Fatherland, and Rabe's Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), a man whose closeness to the diplomat affords him special privileges, ones he will eventually attempt to exploit to his own great detriment. Among the other primary characters in Lu's tapestry are Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), a Chinese social worker who toils alongside foreign nationals in the refugee area to protect as many of Nanking's eventual victims as she can. (Before it is over, Jiang will become a sort of impromptu Schindler, trying to save various men from deportation and certain death by claiming, one after another, to be their wife.) And, before all hell completely breaks loose, we still have the remnants of the Chinese defense forces, some hiding in the protected zone hospital, others impisoned by the Japanese. In City's first sequence to essentially demonstrate what the Japanese occupation of Nanking would entail, all Chinese soldiers in the prison camp are lined up in military formation, ordered to come forward in detachments of about eight by eight, and summarily shot. In one of Lu's most iconic images from the entire film, the second detachment, having just witnessed what has happened to the first group, cowers in horror, until one by one, beginning with the group's defiant Spartacus figure Jianxiong (Ye Liu), stand tall against their captors. Thereafter, the line between combatant and civilian becomes meaningless, with all citizens of Nanking living in a state of siege that culminates in systematic rape and murder of the female detainees. Lu i at his best when depicting this most horrid event ("the rape of Nanking"), because he shows almost nothing of the women's physical violation. Instead. he depicts the mounting tension of the event's perverse, unimaginable prelude, wherein the women volunteer for this "duty" in town-meeting fashion, so as to avoid the all-out destruction of the refugee camp.


Lu's boldest decision in City of Life and Death, and the one that provides an overall shape for his multi-character account of the Nanking tragedy, is the funneling of most all of the film's narrative information through one primary point of view. And that is of Pvt. Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young inexperienced Japanese soldier. He is the somewhat detached, eventually mortified and increasingly traumatized young grunt, a virgin naive enough to think he can woo his "comfort girl" with sweettalk and gifts, and whose naivety extends to his organizing gaze. Usually he stares, wide-eyed in disbelief as he watches his fellow soldiers mete out life and death with utter caprice. Lu's stabilization of the narrative within Kadokawa's imperfect eyes, much like his decision to shoot in stark black and white, represents a formal jolt, because it seems to imply that the humanist values of Japanese modernist cinema's "classicist" wing (Kurosawa and Kobayashi, in particular) are far more appropriate to grasping Nanking than available Chinese models, which often veer between the operatic and the declaratively neo-realist. Lu risks asking his viewers to in some sense see Nanking and its victims through the victimizers' eyes, but instead arrives at a startling conclusion. Only those on the sidelines of world-historical horrors have the capacity, or really, the luxury, of narrativizing them, and drawing them inward for the purpose of a character arc. Everyone else is a radically truncated story, cut short by material forces only partially grasped.


-Tokyo! (Michel Gondry / Leos Carax / Bong Joon-ho, France / Japan / Germany / South Korea)

Yes, yes, we know, omnibus films are a doomed proposition, they are always less than the sum of their parts, moving on. Based on early reports, Gondry's opening segment "Interior Design" was yet another failed cutefest by an endlessly inventive director who tended to run into trouble when distributing his visual ideas across a broader canvas. Now, I subscribe to that viewpoint less than others. Be Kind Rewind and Human Nature may be misfires, but I'll stand behind the exasperating male fantasy of The Science of Sleep. In any case, "Interior Design" begins as a rather straitlaced, decidedly non-Gondrian plunge into urban murk, as a young couple come to town and are forced to crash at the tiny flat of a very reluctant school chum. As the hassle of their presence becomes less and less well-concealed by their hostess, and as the male half of the couple secures part-time employment, his girlfriend (Fujitani Ayako), aimless, unemployed and depressed, recedes further and further into the background until, starting with slats in her chest cavity, she metamorphoses into a wooden chair. In essence, she becomes the embodiment of physical support. While the metaphor is so concrete as to cancel "metaphor" altogether, Gondry handles this shift with a complete lack of whimsy and in fact generates an air of utterly ignored, quotidian tragedy, a kind of deft Kafkaesque miniature denoting a worthy new direction for the filmmaker.


"Merde," far and away the most lauded component of the triptych, is Carax's first completed film work since 1999's Pola X, which is itself cause for celebration. And it is quite probably the most intellectual of the three films, but it also has something lacking, a sense of urgency or discovery, since it contents itself to revel in the pure otherness of an uncontainable force. Mr. Merde (Denis Levant) is a man-monster from the sewers with a bright orange pointy beard and a tight green suit. He "speaks" his own language of grunts and body-slaps, and eats only flowers and money. In time, he commits a terrorist act which demands that he be brought to justice and, in rather direct homage to Oshima's Death By Hanging, neither Merde's body nor his motives can be controlled or comprehended by the society that seeks to judge him. Carax's interest, in part, hinges on the dialectic between Japanese self-hatred and nationalistic swagger, and how the codes of Japanese monster-movies operate in this gap. As many people want to see Merde destroy Japan (a country he hates for its "slanty-eyed people," he says) as want Japanese justice to destroy Merde. Carax has interesting formal tricks up his sleeve, particularly the way d.p. Caroline Champetier's angle on the street when Merde emerges from his manhole makes the screen into a flat brick wall with a metal portal from which madness issues forth. But mostly "Merde" is a rather clear-cut if amusing riff on the cultural underpinnings of the Tokyo! project, the fact that Carax knows he will always see Japan as a cinematic construction, the "truth" of which he necessarily destroys.


"Shaking Tokyo," Bong's contribution, is lovely and art-directed within an inch of its life, and it even has a relatively promising premise. The story of an agoraphobe who falls in love with a pizza delivery girl who passed out in his foyer once upon a time, the film does a good job of filling a dark apartment space with meticulously arranged clutter (dozens of stacked pizza boxes, toilet paper tubes, etc.). Once our protagonist ventures out to find his beloved, the potentially high stakes (an almost global agoraphobia has enveloped the world, it seems) are undermined by cuteness and a lack of focus.


Up (Pete Docter)*

[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] If we can agree that the Brad Bird Pixar films are, from an auteurist standpoint, a different, um, animal, then Up is the first film from the studio that deals primarily with human beings. This isn't to say that other Pixar works lack humanity, or that the other films have lacked recognizably human moments. (To cite only the most obvious and poignant: Jessie's backstory in Toy Story 2.) But one of the reasons I found Up so disappointing was that Docter and crew seemed to find themselves at a loss for how to orchestrate a story based on human lives and emotions. We begin in a cinema, meeting young Carl Fredricksen taking in newsreel adventures of derring-do explorer Charles Muntz, then meeting his future wife Ellie who is also a Muntz / wild adventure fan. Giving us Up's emotional fulcrum very early, Docter provides a clever and at times affecting montage which takes us through Carl and Ellie's courtship and marriage, their lives together, all the way up through Ellie's death. In my view, it is only inside this ten-minute montage that Up offers anything resembling actual human behavior, unmoored from cinematic or pulp-literary convention. We see Ellie's discover that she can't have kids, and Carl sagely suggest that they save up for that South American safari they'd always wanted to take, and then slowly, slowly (but for us, of course, all too quickly) see the demands of the quotidian intercede, forcing dreams further and further into the background. The mundane manner in which this happens for Carl and Ellie is familiar and true.


And so it's all the more frustrating that, when the main story kicks in, we're essentially treated to a slight variation of the "curmudgeon softened by moppet" story, remapped through exactly the sort of second-tier Spielberg that we'd expect those Charles Muntz adventure stories to implant in an impressionable mind. (And why not? Spielberg has long cited his childhood matinee experiences with Alan Quatermain serials as his inspiration for the Indiana Jones series, although luckily Spielberg had the talent and good sense to improve on his forebears' efforts.) When Carl escapes a forced nursing-home intake by spiriting away his old house by helium balloons, he's providing Up with its only real visual idea, one which itself is slightly cribbed from Terry Gilliam's flying-building featurette The Crimson Permanent Assurance. And he's also letting the gentrification problem within Up's diegetic universe essentially solve itself. Nevertheless, his unexpected relationship with Russell, the stowaway Wilderness Scout, follows the Spielberg template in the most basic of ways, giving fatherless Russell the fatherly attention and masculine grounding he needs while providing Carl with the child he and Ellie could never have. Likewise, the house, which Carl has taken to calling "Ellie," must eventually be sacrificed in the name of rescuing Russell, meaning that the old man must let go of the past and embrace his "new adventure" in the present and future. But even more unnerving than these pat male homilies is Up's wholesale subscription to unreconstructed adventure-story tropes. When Carl and Russell find Muntz in South America, he is tended to by canine minions outfitted with collars that translate their thoughts into speech. This is an amusing enough conceit ("Hello, my name is ... SQUIRREL!") but when seen in context, the dogs are Up's rather direct replacement for the horde of natives who'd be tending to Muntz in a similar film from the 40s or 50s.


Nevertheless, Up essentially engineers a MacGuffin (a rare bird) to which Russell takes a shine and which Muntz wants to capture dead or alive, so that most of the remainder of the film can consist of more sub-Spielbergian adventure-book material. Angry dog chases, literal cliffhangers, aerial battles on the outer wing of a dirigible, and a full twenty minutes of Carl and Russell in jeopardy, all of which seemed bizarrely perfunctory for Pixar -- this is where we have to put our "exciting part" -- while being so genuinely nerveracking that I wouldn't show it to my own kid. And part of the reason is that there was so little narrative or character build justifying this sudden lurch into high gear. Really, again, it felt as though Up was simply doing what "these movies" do, and by that point I was well past caring. Even as I write this, I do feel awkward, since I stand alone with the loonies in the critical community in failing to respond to Up. I do trust my own taste, but I'm not usually this out of step. Nevertheless, Pixar's generally high quality of animation will always make their work stand out against the overall sea of mediocrity in a given year's offerings, so perhaps Up is a "2009 thing." I'll be shocked if, in three to five years, anyone regards Up as anything more than a Cars-level also-ran.


[SECOND VIEWING: Not sure what my problem was before -- it's generally okay, and parts (dogs especially) are genuinely funny. But still can't shake the feeling that this is a film for the middle-aged critic in all of us.]




-Impolex (Alex Ross Perry)

You're not going to find many debut features these days as fundamentally gutsy as Impolex, or, in many ways, as intelligent. But there's no getting around the fact that the manner in which writer-director-editor Perry purveys that intelligence throughout the film is bizarre, unnerving, and (in what's becoming popular film-crit parlance) "a tough sit." Impolex took me several tries to get through, and in the course of my ongoing engagement with the film I frequently corresponded with the exceedingly generous Perry, who was willing to provide certain guideposts for understanding without giving the game away. In the end, my perseverance was rewarded, since the film spends its first hour meandering quite literally through the woods (the sundappled forests of Vermont, to be exact) and arrives at a very concrete destination which recodes much of what we've experienced up to that point. And even though I still find Impolex a bit (or more) too perversely obdurate and withholding to get behind without reservation -- substantial segments of the film, especially Riley O'Bryan's mushmouthed lead performance as the soldier Tyrone, struck me as borderline incompetent, until I fully understood the complete fabric Perry was in the process of weaving -- it is indeed a film I recommend.


This is because [SPOILERS START HERE] part of what Perry is examining with Impolex is the basic unfilmability of certain covert military operations, particularly as reimagined by the likes of a mind like Thomas Pynchon. "Operation Paperclip," the effort of retrieving V-2 liquid-fuel Nazi rockets, was essentially a snipe hunt for those involved. When such an action becomes enfolded into a larger, paranoid history of American covert-ops, it will of necessity take on fantastical dimensions. But at this point it also becomes unrecognizable to those whose daily history it actually was. Perry's strange, almost incomprehensible first act is, in essence, a failure of a heroic war story to come into focus. Tyrone, like the rockets he seeks, is a dud, and efforts to narrativize him, such as his preposterously literal, Freudian fetish for the rockets themselves, become laughable failures as well. In the end, when we finally meet the "real" Tyrone and his girlfriend / wife Katje (Kate Sheil), we learn through Katje's exquisite monologue that much of what we've been seeing is her vague, impossible attempt to fill in the gaps of her lover's covert life, even going so far as to script herself into it. It makes no sense, she says, because she is attempting to concoct a world to which she has no access. And, if the preceding exposition fails even to cohere as a recognizable war plot, it's also no doubt due to Katje's gender remove from the domain that generates such heroic tales, written as they are in blood and testosterone. And so, in the end, Perry has very shrewdly created a film that, quite simply, cannot function, much like the fallen rockets which represent its MacGuffin. Do I wish that Perry could have brought these strategies a little more to the fore, so as to make the underlying raison d'être of Impolex more available to us, so that oddball touches like the talking squid (Eugene Mirman) seemed less like cult-film randomness? Well, yes, but I also think that Impolex is admirable and well worth seeing because, flawed though it may be, it's a flawed film of the rarest stripe. It buckles under the weight of its own ideas. [Impolex plays CineVegas; you can read more about it in this interview with Perry.]


-My Magic (Eric Khoo, Singapore)

[SPOILERS, HOWEVER YOU'LL WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GETTING INTO] If, as Stanley Kubrick once said, a director is an idea and taste machine, then Eric Khoo is in need of some serious recalibration. By any reasonable standard, My Magic is a mess. This is largely due to competing tendencies within the film, although those irreconcilable tensions do end up being the most fascinating and productive aspect of My Magic. It's not that spiking a middlebrow tearjerker with revolting body-horror geek tricks is necessarily a bad idea, but Khoo, a filmmaker still (I hope) finding his voice, goes about it all wrong. The film is essentially constructed around the unique talents of nonprofessional / found object Francis Bosco, a Singaporean sideshow performer who really is doing all of the hideous things depicted onscreen: eating glass, puncturing his arms and tongue with steel needles, tugging heavy loads with hook-points in his collarbones as the only fulcrum of weight, and on and on and bloody on. In the midst of this, he's playing a fat, loutish, alcoholic single father to a miserable young son (Jathisweran) who speaks to his dead grandma, wonders why his mother abandoned him, gets bullied at school, struggles to make good grades, upbraids his useless father while cleaning up his puke piles, all to a sappy "nobody loves me" pan-flute soundtrack reminiscent of a 1970s Afterschool Special. It's all more than a little preposterous, and becomes all the more so when a steely-eyed villain -- mwah-ha-ha! -- spies Francis in the bar and decides to take him on for The Ultimate Pain Challenge. (Duh.) However, in the midst of Khoo's comically stunted plotting and fits of hackery we actually find moments of genuine artistry. As My Magic hits its denouement, Khoo gives as an extremely well-crafted montage contrasting Francis's professional and private lives. While his masochistic performances draw larger and more appreciative crowds, he is seen reconnecting with his son by teaching him small, private sleight-of-hand tricks of the utmost delicacy. While this does set us up for some rather predictable concluding revelations (Francis and wife used to be very different performers), it's also a rather pure, affecting coup de cinéma. What's more, Khoo's visual style and grotty, pea-green take on Singaporean space is actually quite interesting. Even Khoo's exteriors are boxed in by walls and alleyways, discolored by putrid fluorescent lighting, providing a succession of set-ups not unlike Tsai Ming-liang's work but far less formalist, self-conscious or, well, funny. And, more to the point, Khoo's tight film-areas don't recede, perhaps a metaphor for life in a claustrophobic city-state.