SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MARCH 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
[NOTE: This section does not include my capsule reviews of films seen at the San Francisco IFF. For that, you should go here.]
The Son (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)*
It is interesting how many critics have praised this film by saying, in essence, that there is nothing to say, that it is almost too perfect for words. The dumbstruck wonder so many seem to be experiencing before The Son could be likened to the non-linguistic reactions that viewers often have to experimental films. Like a structural film, The Son deploys a closed-off style which determines what can and cannot happen within the film’s universe. At a certain point, its narrative trajectory becomes clear, and the tension becomes not how the narrative will be resolved, but how its necessary resolution will be depicted. Although The Son is significantly different than Time Out and Spider, these films share a sense of absolute completion and self-sufficiency, which for me provoked more intellectual admiration than emotional engagement. Still, the film is a major work of art. Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Mariane deliver exquisite, naturalistic performances. And, as was the case with Pasolini, the Dardenne brothers’ Marxism allows them to create a clear-eyed Christian film, one with both feet planted in the everyday world. [A second viewing cleared up many of my reservations. The moral confusion, the near instinctual propulsive drive of Olivier was more palpable, as were the jarring flare-ups of anger. Olivier does not forgive and then act upon this forgiveness. Rather, his impulse to teach and reshape the boy is a physical one, like righting a badly mitered joint. Depth comes later, and surprises Olivier, Francis, and us.]
Safe Conduct [Laissez-passer] (Bertrand Tavernier, France)
This is the way to make a “traditional” film. Pitch-perfect acting, lavish attention to detail, and a supple pace which turns on a dime from screwball comedy to clear-eyed horror. Most impressive is Tavernier’s visual style. It seems negligible at first, until you notice that the elaborately choreographed air-raid scenes and period interiors are shot with a sort of brownish haze. Safe Conduct stages the past as both concrete and objectively inaccessible. The film also manages to induce a kind of claustrophobia with its camerawork. The fluid tracking shots usually come to an abrupt halt, implying then denying easy continuity of space. The Aurenche / Devaivre parallelism sort of falls apart in hour three, but it was all too compelling for me to care very much. P.S. – Hats off to the German fellow on IMDb who thinks he can read Tavernier’s attitude toward Nazi collaboration straight off the title: “let it go.”
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
In terms of maturity, craft, and especially character-based writing, this is a major step forward from the over-praised George Washington [“the dog humped my leg,” etc]. The central relationship and its breakdown, and most of the peripheral interactions, are generally rich and moving. At its best, it recalls Sam Shepard. But then there will be something utterly jejune (“Did you fart?” – True Stories played that one for laughs twenty years ago) or just painfully conventional (Zooey cutting her hair = trouble). When it had me, it was because of its observational acuity and its bracing honesty. But the miscalculations undercut that good will and made me want to defend myself against it. The manipulative Will Oldham-lite soundtrack, especially, made it all start to feel like a well-oiled machine. Also, its over-dependence on the Southern picturesque started to feel more Bob Ross than Terrence Malick. Why did I like this, again?
Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (André Heller & Othmar Schmiderer, Germany)
Efficient, stripped down, and effective. Some of the bunker stories were familiar and unenlightening, serving mostly to inspire the awe of listening to an eyewitness of the unimaginable. The self-reflexive touches did not really add much complexity (cf. Derrida), but the film wisely deflects attention from Junge’s moral culpability. After a while, we listen to the stories and forget they are about Hitler, so we fall into the “blind spot” ourselves. Extratextual note: the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley was fly-infested. Not only did flies land on the screen, marking Junge’s neat apartment with rot. They also hung out on the projector booth glass, producing large, mobile dark patches, like floaters on the eyeball. Good job bugs.
Willard (Glen Morgan)
Morgan deserves kudos for taking everything just far enough, and not smothering Crispin Glover like some thrift store curio (cf. Bartleby). There is a degree of camp involved in this film, but Glover’s performance transcends it. His creepy nerd shtick continually gives way to genuine horror and pathos. (The scene at his mother’s funeral is especially shocking.) The man has charisma.
Chi-hwa-seon (Im Kwon-taek, South Korea)
For the most part, Im deserved the directing prize he split with P. T. Anderson at Cannes. There is a thoroughgoing assurance here, the camera always in the right place, and the performances almost perfectly controlled. Except when Ohwon is screaming, that is. The major problems with this film are script-based, since the “great man” biopic cannot really convey what it needs to here – that Ohwon was both a revolutionary nationalist artist, and, though it is no doubt a simplification, that he was the Cézanne of Korea, breaking painting apart from literary content. We get ham-fisted disquisitions on the feral nature of his genius, Chinese and Japanese soldiers marching through the streets of Seoul, and other such shortcuts, since the film’s task is essentially impossible. Still, most misfires are not this captivating or visually sumptuous.
Dark Blue (Ron Shelton)
This one had all the makings of a solid B-movie, but Shelton and Ayer oscillated between the best and the worst of genre filmmaking. Russell is strong, Speedman serviceable. The elaborate web of corruption and cronyism is compelling and believable. And the use of the L.A. riots was skillful, more than just a handy historical backdrop for this story. In fact, the representation of the riots (and Russell’s ambivalent position among them) was pretty much brilliant, reminding us exactly what they were – the return of the repressed. The film should have ended there, but instead we get more overwritten speechifying, more screen time with a stolid, vaguely inhuman Ving Rhames, and more triumphant, dawning-of-a-new-day saxophone. In fact, the sub-Faltermeyer soundtrack was indeed this film’s worst offense.
New Guy (Bilge Ebiri) [v]
Full disclosure: I know the filmmaker. Still, this is a very effective, very surprising low-budget thriller. Some of the office humor in the beginning is a bit overplayed, although this does serve to make the film that much more of a surprise given where it ends up. Excellent work by Kelly Miller. Screening had technical problems, sadly. In the audience, one of San Jose’s luminaries, the great Steve Rhodes. He liked it.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, U.K. / France / Germany / Poland / The Netherlands)
Took a while to catch up with this one, but I’m glad I did. The first third is indeed quite wobbly, with dialogues sounding like history lessons for the dimwitted. (“They are building a ghetto in Poland for all the Jews.”) The family dynamics only seem to serve one purpose, that being to clarify the allowances people are willing to make for the geniuses in their midst. The final two-thirds are almost always riveting, with Szpilman kept at a physical remove from the horrors of the Occupation. His various vantage points do indeed serve as a meta-commentary on Holocaust spectatorship and our ethical position as viewers. Brody’s performance is subtle, and most often Polanski employs the actor’s sloping cranium as a compositional device, a sculptural thing carving out space in the frame. [Note: during the screening I was distracted by the fact I had accidentally blown $30 on cabfare to get to the theatre, and would have to blow another $30 to get back. Long story . . .]
Hukkle (György Pálfi, Hungary)
My expectations for this one – a nearly wordless, experimental inquiry into natural processes among the Hungarian peasantry – were sky-high, so a degree of disappointment was inevitable. For the first ten minutes, it really looked like it would deliver, with gorgeous images of ducks, ants, and a hiccupping old man all lavished with equal attention. Sadly, this peaceable kingdom of tones and textures (cf. Blissfully Yours) falls into narrative, and a facile one at that. Turns out most of the goings-on pertain to a fiendish plot amongst the womenfolk, and the film becomes a smug one-liner as told by a swaggering, precocious art student, a pastoral rimshot.
The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce)
I caught up with this one late, suspecting it wouldn’t be by cup of tea, and I was right. Too much literary voice-over and position-paper articulation, too many telegraphed plot points, and, to my eyes, middling work by the two leads. Caine plays Thomas Fowler as a sort of symbol of Euro-exhaustion, whereas Fraser’s Pyle is wooden, an obviously bad liar, and not all that quiet either. I suppose I’m being overly literal with all this, but the film doesn’t offer much outside of the prestigious-literary-adaptation mode. It does improve in the final third, when the ideological showdown is finally underway. But Doyle’s photography is surprisingly muddy, and the camera glides around like it’s lost. I.e., there’s no direction in evidence. I suspect I’m done with Mr. Noyce’s work.
I-San Special (Mingmongkol Sonakul, Thailand)
I actually appreciate this as a conceptual stunt, but I found that it fell flat as cinema. Once you read the description – a cross-country bus trip turns its passengers into a Thai soap opera while the bus is in motion, returning them to their everyday selves when the bus stops moving – you can pretty much envision exactly what it’s going to be like. Very Buñuel or mid-period Ruiz, but strangely unsatisfying and certainly a thing of diminishing returns. I confess, I slept through about a third of it. As a proponent of experimental cinema, my failure to appreciate this, Hukkle, and Penelope’s Wake has me feeling like a bit of a prick.
Spun (Jonas Åkerlund)
I had some trouble at first coming to terms with my dislike for this picture, because it is undeniably virtuosic. Åkerlund is in complete control of the medium and clearly doing exactly what he wants to do. What that is, though, is juvenile, frequently unfunny, and tediously repetitive in tone. The pitch is kept so high at all times that the overload becomes both boring and exhausting. There are a couple of strong, memorable sequences (especially Frisbee wearing the wire and infiltrating Spider Mike’s place), but mostly it’s Eisenstein and Korine collaborating on a feature-length David Lee Roth video. It is impressive in one respect: the film manages to create a context in which Brittany Murphy isn’t strikingly obnoxious.
Eliana, Eliana (Riri Riza, Indonesia)
Basically the thing is this. Were this not from Indonesia, a country with limited cinematic output, this ugly, hackneyed DV production would not be coming within a hundred miles of film festivals. Shrill mother / daughter dynamics would be more at home on IFC, with Parker Posey and Tovah Feldshuh. Utter waste of widescreen.