SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MARCH 2004
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)
Lenten Light Conversions (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s]
[NOTE: Each of the four pieces by Kirby I'm describing below is related in some way, so I may not be doing them adequate justice in discussing them separately. However, I'm assuming that anyone interested in reading one review will most likely read them all.] I've watched LLC three times now, the second time to verify that I had in fact just seen a flat-out masterpiece, the third time just for kicks. This piece is a hybrid work, shot on film and edited on video, but unlike so many other artists working in this way, Kirby turns this intersection into the occasion for the rigorous examination of her means. Kirby begins by making a site-specific, cameraless film. In this case, she exposed raw film stock to the available light at San Francisco's St. Ignacius Church, during the forty days between Lent and Easter. The resulting film consists of pure fields of color, pastel hues as well as rich, saturated frames of red and purple. Scratches, grooves, glimpses of handwriting on the header and tail, as well as patches of uneven exposure provide concrete artifacts of LLC's origins on film, even as we know we are viewing them through a scrim of digital video. But Kirby's startling innovation is to introduce the language of digital editing into this filmic array. In description, it's all very simple. For instance, she will show a red frame, then a yellowish one. Then, she will letterbox the red frame, cropping it on all sides, as if placing it on a layout table. In other parts, she bounds the video frame with a static vertical stripe of yellow, while the remainder of the frame changes colors and exhibits the scratches of film in motion. In less than two minutes, Kirby orchestrates her souvenirs of pure light into arrangements resembling the "zip" paintings of Barnett Newman, or even populist sources like New Order's album sleeves. The closest cousin this work has in avant-garde film history would be the monochromatic flash-frame works of Paul Sharits, films that exploited the projector's frame rate to pit opposing colors in struggle on the retina. Kirby is restaging this battle, only this time it's between film and video. But the truly remarkable thing is, LLC does not feel even remotely like a combative or argumentative work. In keeping with its origins, there is a structured allowing-to-happen, an almost Zen receptivity to the work. Video enters the temple of Cinema, and it gets converted.
Poised for Parabolas (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s]
A slightly earlier work than LLC but part of the same series, Parabolas has a slightly more film-based aesthetic to it. Somewhat longer passages of imageless, exposed film (this time recording the available light at the Golden Gate Bridge) pass through the video work, relatively "unmolested" by digital processes. If you look closely, there are sly color-reversals, such as when strips of leader with discrete markings suddenly allow a different tone to shine through. There are video-feedback passages, horizontal and vertical stripes resembling Op-Art. Parabolas also contains more inconsistencies resulting from the exposure process. A particular sequence has celery and eggplant colors conjoined on a single strip, separated by a wavy boundary line. As with LLC, the eye-popping hues Kirby captured are mesmerizing, and Parabolas' seemingly less analytical editing strategy gives us more direct access to these visual pleasures. However, near the end of the film, we see a black blob, a sort of round oblong knob that curls down and flares out on either side. It's abstract, but it just offers the suggestion of an ambiguous bust-shape, long head and sloping shoulders. In the midst of the fully abstract environment Kirby's film creates, this semi-representation is jarring and a little spooky. This may be the point, since Kirby indicates that she wanted Parabolas to serve as "a memorial to the people who have died off the bridge, in construction and through jumping." In this way, pure light becomes recoded as haunted light, the registration of energy across time.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
Mental plastic surgery: it's such a brilliant conceit it's amazing no one's thought of it before. Sure, you have the amnesia movies and the new-identity movies and the eternal-return movies and the cyclical narratives. But what Gondry and Charlie Kaufman create here is a banal medicalization of the whole thing, the erasure from the mind of what, around the eyes, are euphemistically called "character lines." Naturally, the pain we experience makes us wiser and, I'd contend, more interesting. But in a society that both fetishizes youth and values the unexamined optimism of naïveté (the Forrest Gump Syndrome), it stands to reason that ignorance would become more than bliss, but almost virtue. This innocence / experience dialectic (made clear enough in the quotes Kaufman selects, from Alexander Pope and especially Nietzsche) is all best left at the level of subtext, since it's trading on implicit emotional knowledge we all have about our memories, and how the larger world doesn't have time for them even if we somehow do. Sadly, Kaufman (true to form, really) feels the need to make this dichotomy explicit, by contrasting the slightly older leads (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) and their tale of damaged romance with the more obviously frivolous youngsters working to erase Carrey's brain (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst). Some friends and I have been arguing about the function of the Lacuna employees in this film, and structurally it comes down to this -- does this or any film really require counterpoint? Why couldn't the film focus exclusively on the Joel / Clementine story? The argument against this proposition is that it would have kept the film at too manic a pitch, resulting in something overbearing (á la Terry Gilliam). But was the inside of Joel's mind really so frenetic? For one thing, this is not your little nephew's Jim Carrey, channeling Robin Williams and talking out his ass. His plangent, downcast performance as Joel (easily the best thing he's ever done) is so recessed and palpably despondent that he disappears fully into the role. I could have gladly spent a while longer with these scenes. Similarly, Winslet and her Manic-Panic hair color absolutely embody that girl we've all encountered who sweeps men (and sometimes women) up into their orbit of confusion and sex. Every moment of their relationship rings true, right down to its eventual car wreck; this is an intense fling with an expiration date stamped on the can, and that's the tragedy of it all. By comparison, seeing young people undergoing what reads to me as first major heartbreak is a bit unnecessary, even if Dunst's Mary does become more than meets the eye. The drafting lines show through on these characters; their schematic function in Kaufman's grand design is all too clear. Given the visual invention and the poignancy of the main story thread -- among the finest moments of cinema I've seen in quite some time --, did we really need these stage-whispereed hints? A final note: after the sad stumble of Human Nature, Gondry has harnessed his astounding facility with mise-en-abyme visual paradox (evident in his peerless music videos) to become a world-class director.
A Good Lawyer's Wife (Im Sang-soo, South Korea)
Mr. Im Sang-soo has an unfortunate name; imagine a young American director called something like "Paul Thomas Scorsese" and the implicit comparisons the mind would involuntarily make. Nevertheless, Im acquits himself nicely on his own terms, working in a deceptively accessible, populist mien only to jerk your head where no one has jerked it before. Gently, he weaves a farce of two young professionals juggling work, parenthood, failing marriages, dying parents, and extra-marital affairs, and how attention to one aspect of life necessarily falters when emergencies flare up in another. For the majority of its running time, Lawyer's Wife recalls mid-period Blake Edwards (10, S.O.B.), a caustic yet genially bawdy film in which everyone is two-timing everyone else, but no one is a villain, everyone is charming, and we care about the scrapes they get themselves into. A Hollywood film (like, say, American Beauty) would purge goodwill with a smug moralism, but Im reminds us that in real life, people can be seriously flawed while remaining essentially decent. Midway through the final act, however, Im delivers a twist so sadistic I almost walked out in a huff. (Imagine a hypothetical world in which Kim Ki-duk had directed the final reel of Yi Yi.) But what looks at first to be the work of a vindictive director-god smiting his characters for bourgeois decadence (like, say, The Ice Storm) in fact becomes a new beginning. Im doesn't belittle tragedy, but enfolds it back into the texture of things, producing an unlikely synthesis of warm humanism and the cinema of cruelty.
Intersection (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s]
The title is a pun, since Kirby exposed raw film stock to available light outside her home, at a city intersection in San Francisco. But this work also initiates the intersection between film and video that really comes to the fore in the later pieces in this series. This is also a clear pivot point between a work like Out of Step and the later pieces, since Intersection contains much more of the digitized, micro-modular style of transition between fields. Kirby subdivides the screen into patches of Cubist video noise which accentuate the surface of the image. The colors, scratches, and blobby organic forms of celluloid (including a dense, frayed circle resembling an ovum or a sun) are visible only by consciously looking through the video raster, but it keeps asserting itself. So in essence, this work addresses the realities of watching any film on a video transfer. Given that surface / depth relationships and medium-specificity are two of my favorite things in the whole wide world, Intersections is right up my alley. It's hard to know what a casual viewer would make of it, but hey, that's your problem.
-The Italian Job (F. Gary Gray)
Haven't seen the original. A much better multi-celebrity throwaway entertainment than Ocean's Eleven. Actually manages to go through its paces without a hint of sexism, which is refreshing. No doubt more enjoyable on the big screen. The ending was unnecessary, though. Mini-Coopers are cool.
Kitchen Stories (Bent Hamer, Norway)
A sturdy work of Scandinavian craftsmanship worthy of being projected on the far wall of an IKEA showroom, and not just because of its household-related subject matter. Like the basic shape of an ironing board or a dinette set, Kitchen Stories feels vaguely inevitable. It plunges into certain intellectual strains (male stoicism as a barrier to bonding; uptight Swedes vs. laid-back Norwegians; the postwar interest in domestic science; the quixotic hilarity of Taylorization; the collapse of the observer / observed dichotomy as the end of modernist anthropology) and fully commits to them, braiding them through to their logical conclusions. Part of why this relative predictability feels comforting rather than irksome is Hamer's strong visual sense. Compositions are unerring, adopting the static high and low vantage points dictated by the story, with minimal fuss. This, combined with a color palette borrowed from Oster and West Bend (taupe, almond, and especially avocado), give the impression of a lovingly assembled light comedy gently mocking its own antiseptic organization. (For contrast, as you watch the film, you can imagine what a skull-thumping megalomaniac like Terry Gilliam would have done with the material, and heave a sigh of relief as Hamer refrains from slapping you silly.)
Out of Step (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s]
Another single-channel work derived from a larger installation, Out of Step is intensely involved with digitization of natural images. Kirby divides the frame into an inner rectangle and an outer border, with the two echoing one another's imagery by a split-second, usually oscillating back and forth for about ten seconds until a new pair of images is introduced. The piece adheres to a three-part musical structure, with a medium-paced opening, a super-fast central movement and a concluding adagio. We see colors of the natural world (bright greens, woody browns, grassy yellows, with the occasional human figure) turned into geometrical chunks of video information, not unlike what your picture looks like when digital cable goes on the blink. The piece successfully instills a desire for direct access to what looks like a lovely déjeuner sur l'herbe, all the while leaving us banging our heads against the cold, hard fact of DV. (I was watching this in a screening room at SU, and a random student came in and watched it too. After learning the title, he said, "That makes sense. There's a slight lag time between the inner and outer, so maybe the middle square is like a brain, processing information from the outside world, taking a while to register." "Wow," I said, "that's a pretty good interpretation." So I'm stealing it here.)
Spartan (David Mamet)
A fast-paced, highly intelligent spy thriller unafraid to buck movie conventions in order to reflect the dangerous messiness of real life -- who'd have thought it possible in this dday and age? And who'd expect David Mamet to be the one to deliver it? Part of what makes this taut little beauty work is the relative dearth of clipped, stagy Mamet-speak. (It stands out when it appears, like during the interrogation of the agent off his post, or Val Kilmer tersely explaining to rookie Derek Luke how to perform a sensory scan of your surrounding area.) Instead, Mamet sends his "language" underground, into the very rhythm and pacing of the film itself, its limited exposition and brusque editing. Kilmer hasn't been this good in a long time; how interesting that just a little fine tuning shifts his demeanor from glazed (The Doors, Masked and Anonymous) to robotically hard-boiled. Some are finding a scathing political indictment here, and while it's a little too shallow for such big claims, Spartan does take aim at the callous moralism beneath the society of the spectacle. Still in today's environment, a little kicking against the pricks, however broad and paranoid it may be, is greatly appreciated. Loses points for some third-act boldface explanations (e.g., William H. Macy's villain-soliloquy), but this is high-caliber, thinking-person's entertainment. See it quick before Warner Brothers flushes it down the toilet!
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, U.K. / France / Italy)
This film prominently features some music by The Doors. When I watched the credits, I saw that only one Doors song, "I'm a Spy (in the House of Love)," was actually included, but it seemed at the time like the film was teeming with Doors music. Then I realized that The Dreamers is just steeped in that sweaty, smarmy, creepily "transgressive," dallying-with-incest vibe that I've always hated about The Doors. Bertolucci has re-envisioned his youth as a kind of house-arrest at the Morrison Hotel. Yuck. Nevertheless, I found The Dreamers oddly compelling, and enjoyed quite a lot of it even as it was inducing cringe after cringe. On the one hand, Bertolucci depicts cinephilia as a kind of incest, a refusal to open out onto the world, a blinkered turning-inward into a cult world of quotations and fixed images. As much as I wanted to reject this portrayal, I felt looped into the main characters' fucked-up world every time I guessed one of their movie quizzes or recognized an interpolated shot from a classic film. And I think that was the point; Bertolucci is both flattering and indicting his own fan base. Likewise, the unheroic trio of decadent youngsters at the center of the film have created a cult of three, and the power, such as it is, of The Dreamers is Bertolucci's success at drawing us into their secret world, including us in their private games, and simultaneously making our skin crawl as we fumble towards the nearest exit. Granted, I'm a little biased. Back in college, I was the strait-laced guy always on the periphery of free-love-and-radical-aesthetics cliques, nodding my approbation in theory but never quite feeling right about diving in. The Dreamers captures the appeal of shutting out a world that refuses to adhere to your ideals, but it also drives home the point that only by engaging with the messiness of the social world can we play any role in real (not reel) history. Nevertheless, despite the film's strengths, the saturated atmosphere of exhibitionist sex and frying eggs is too pervasive to really function as a critique. I haven't read the Gilbert Adair novel The Dreamers is based on, but it seems safe to say that the film version is muddled because the material is clearly so close to Bertolucci, and immanent critique is really hard to pull off. In the end, the film feels too besotted with the possibilities of its moment to fully face up to its failures. (But even this is excusable in a way, given the times we're living in. I don't know how much say, if any, Bertolucci had over the design of The Dreamers's website, but it tips the auteur's hand by placing the film's images of May '68 against footage of European and American protests against the Iraq war. In the face of inexorable odds, a little Deleuzian delusion might not be such a bad thing.) One final point: Michael Pitt captures the American outsider quite well, coming off as a well-meaning but inarticulate doofus; Eva Green is fantastic, nailing Isabelle's sophisticated dress-up act (even if the emotional place Bertolucci has her character end up is a rote, thankless task); but while Louis Garrel acquits himself nicely, the film skimps on fleshing Theo out. In true Euro New Wave fashion, Bertolucci is too fascinated with the mysteries of female sexuality to explore Theo's conflicting desires. He should have been the focal point, since his youthful sex-is-politics brio would be Bertolucci's most logical point of identification. Again, in The Dreamers, what's closest to the director ends up seeming way too far away.
-Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen)
After the unqualified disaster that was The Ladykillers, I wanted to catch up with the Coens' previous effort, just to see if they were on the sort of wholesale decline (cf. Woody Allen) that lets even us closet-auteurists off the hook for bailing. Not so. There is half a strong Coen entry here, all of which falls apart in the third act. (Clooney's character, smarmy divorce attorney Miles Massey delivers a changed-man speech to an assembly of lawyers in Vegas; this is the precise moment when the shark is summarily jumped.) Most critics of Cruelty and even some of its champions have called Catherine Zeta-Jones out for failure to conform to the Coeniverse -- no comic timing, too relaxed, etc. But I think this works well, since she's the straight woman and the axis around which the zanies can safely orbit. Clooney is reprising his O Brother character, sans drawl -- no problem here. Geoffrey Rush, Paul Adelstein, Cedric the Entertainer, and especially Billy Bob Thornton offer solid support. I'll gladly admit that there were only a few times I laughed out loud (the opening scene, which has to be an intentional screwball riff on a key scene in Mulholland Dr.; Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy; the Gus Petch video), I was mostly "with" it, nodding silently to myself that yes, that was funny. And so was that, etc. And theoretical jokes inside a slick genre-aping mechanism, well, that's all I've ever asked for from the Coen brothers. When I get more than that (Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski), I consider it an awesome fluke.
-The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (Ann Marie Fleming, Canada) [v]
I've been following Fleming's career with considerable interest over the years, mostly because of two early shorts, You Take Care Now and New Shoes. The first is a hand-processed autobiographical sketch, the second a miniature portrait film focusing on a single harrowing incident, and both are worth seeking out on video. Of the ten or so Fleming films I've seen since, none have really compared. As was the case with her rather mawkish 9/11 short Blue Skies, Fleming often gives in to a rather unexamined emotionalism that deflates her work if the audience isn't already on her wavelength. Pleased to report, Long Tack Sam, her second feature-length documentary, is her best work in ages, and in many ways her most accomplished effort yet. It's a personal piece, documenting not only the hidden history of Fleming's grandfather, a legendary Chinese Vaudevillian, but Fleming's own process of excavating this part of her heritage. We hear stories from Fleming's relatives, both in Canada and across Europe and Asia, and along the way we learn about Vaudeville, the history of Chinese acrobatics, and the shifting fortunes of a Chinese immigrant married to an Austrian woman, with two mixed-race children. As a film, Long Tack Sam comes on like gangbusters, with Fleming throwing in all sorts of inventive visual flourishes (a first-person Long Tack Sam talking comic book; animation of archival photos; unexpected twists in the tale, courtesy of each new relative). For the first third, I actually expected this film to end up an 8 or even a 9. Sadly, these same techniques are repeated throughout the remainder of the documentary, resulting in diminishing returns for the viewer. (Even a late clip of Orson Welles singing Long's praises, something numerous reviews have mentioned, felt like an anticlimax.) What begins as a summation of the first half of the last century through the eyes of a born conjurer becomes, by the end, a rather conventional essay in ethnic studies. Not bad, certainly edifying, but I found myself wishing Fleming had a few more tricks up her sleeve.
Osama (Siddiq Barmak, Afghanistan / Ireland / Japan)
My rating dings it a little bit for its clipped running time, which results in a first half so crammed with incident that the rhythm it should establish -- day-to-day tyranny under the Taliban -- instead gives way to point-by-point demonstration. In most other regards, however, Osama is far superior to recent work covering similar territory (Baran, Kandahar, At Five in the Afternoon), in part because it feels less conflicted. I do not know about Barmak's own religious convictions, but his film presents a thoroughly Western perspective even as it interrogates the Taliban-era from the inside. Not only does Barmak refuse to contextualize the regime's sexism; he actually addresses the instability of gender identity that the girl's transformation implies. We experience this from the girl's perspective (her own idealized male other, who she repeatedly fantasizes outside herself, freely skipping rope), and from the regime's (the creepy mullah in the bathing scene). Naturally, Barmak's angry vision plays a bit like a sop to "civilized" Westerners predisposed to outrage at Islam's most conservative sects. Greater context would have enriched the film intellectually, but it also would have blunted its immediacy, so in the end Barmak's gambit produces a stronger piece of protest cinema, despite my misgivings. He also receives points for his depiction of the girl's judicial sentence, which at first looks like a directorial cop-out until you realize there may well be fates worse than death.
-Marathon (Amir Naderi)
A semi-experimental, semi-narrative hybrid that doesn't have the courage of either conviction, Marathon is nevertheless strangely engrossing. The story, such as it is: today's the day that Gretchen (Sara Paul, who resembles a slightly younger Tina Fey) spends 24 hours riding the subway and trying to work as many crossword puzzles as she can, attempting to beat her personal best of 77. Much of the film (shot in crisp if unspectacular black-and-white video) consists of well-composed views of the New York subway system, tunnels, tracks and trellises, resulting in a brief piece stranded between a solo portrait of tormented private compulsion and bland city-symphony. The puzzle contest is intriguing due solely to Paul's performance, since the joke (I suppose) of the film is that we're watching someone do something utterly uncinematic. She carries it off, wavering between OCD satisfaction and total psyche-out; regrettably Naderi adds needless layers of faux-complexity, especially the repeated intrusion of Gretchen's mom's voice on an answering machine. All the same, being a person with my own compulsions, I found it hard to fully divest myself from the minor drama of Marathon, and I did appreciate its ambivalent conclusion. Worth 75 minutes on the Sundance Channel, but probably missable when it opens at the Quad in NYC next month.
Starsky & Hutch (Todd Phillips)
[In honor of this film's basic structure of juiced-up pointlessness, I have decided to do a "remake" of Maitland McDonagh's lukewarm review, with unfunny jokes, obvious jabs at period styles, and random sniggering at homoeroticism thrown in. Let's see how it works!] (Back in the 1970s, when perms on men seemed like a good idea -- snort!) Starsky and Hutch helped refine the mix of action, wisecracking and intense male bonding (snicker!) between mismatched partners that made buddy-cop pictures what they are today, and it went The Mod Squad's "one black, one white, one blond" formula one better, adding a redhead — the cherry Ford Gran Torino that hogged the spotlight like a beauty queen. (You haven't lived until you've ridden inside "her," wink wink...) This feature-film ups the comedy, tones down the violence and makes hay with the homoerotic subtext that led in-the-know types to dub the original series the gayest thing on prime time — though The Six Million Dollar Man gave it a bionic run for its money. (Omigod! Lee Majors running in slo-mo was like, so totally gay! Hell-O!!) By the book, second-generation Bay City detective David Starsky (Ben Stiller) is so irritating that he's run through 12 partners in four years. (Little Davy has some mommy issues, boo-hoo.) Malibu Ken Hutchinson (Owen Wilson, what a doll -- get it?), "Hutch" to his friends, is so laid back and lackadaisical about rules that he supplements his income robbing bookies in Chinatown. (It's like Felix and Oscar, who were, like, so gay. Tony Randall? He's, like, such a bitch. ANY-way. . . ) Their antics have landed both on exasperated Captain Doby's (Fred Williamson) personal blacklist (get it? nudge-nudge), so he makes them partners. A body in the bay and a tip from Hutch's flamboyant snitch, Huggy Bear (Snoop Dog, who abandons Antonio Fargas' camp mannerisms in favor of his own brand of retro mack-daddy cool -- bow-chikka-BOW-BOW, somebody call the Mutha Ship to retrieve this intergalactic soul daddy!), puts them on the trail of big-time cocaine dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn). (God, Maitland, enough with the plot summary, already -- yawn!) Feldman and his partner, Kevin (Jason Bateman), are about to flood Bay City with a genetically altered form of coke that fools drug-sniffing dogs and experienced cops alike into thinking it's just artificial sweetener. (Just try putting it in your coffee -- ZING!) Starsky and Hutch's unorthodox attempts to get the goods on the drug lords, whom everyone believes are respectable Bay City businessmen (Bay City Rollers, if you will, and you should see their jive asses on Saturday Night!), get them into further hot water... especially the embarrassing floor show they put on for freaky jailbird informant Big Earl (an uncredited Will Ferrell) and their undercover infiltration of Feldman's daughter's Bat Mitzvah, which ends with Starsky killing her pretty pony. (My Pretty Pony? What's next? Her Strawberry Shortcake doll? Or breaking her "Operation" wacky doctor's game? "It takes a very steady hand . . ." BZZZ! "Butterfingers!" etc.) Director/cowriter Todd Phillips' relatively clever conceit involves playing the dated material straight while subtly undermining it; the sappy '70s love songs that underscore the detectives' scenes together are a pretty good running gag. (The film opens with Barry Manilow. Like, that's just a gimme on account of that dude's music is SO GAY!) But Stiller's performance throws the whole enterprise out of whack — he's a grotesque mass of tics, twitches and swaggering macho shoulder action (ooh! Rough trade with Tourette's!) — and too much of the script relies on smug, lazy strip-mining of second-rate pop-culture sources for no better reason that to give hipsters an opportunity to snicker at disco fashions. (Men in sweaters with belts! Historical hindsight has rendered me so hilariously superior to these hideous clothes and haircuts! The shenanigans of these winning lead actors have left me agreeably entertained! Ah, the 70s . . .) — Maitland McDonagh and Michael Sicinski
The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, Canada / France)
A few years back, during an argument about the scum-rabble depiction of the sans-cullottes in Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke, my right-wing buddy Victor Morton urged me to "embrace [my] inner reactionary." Okay for the distant past, or for an aesthetic challenge worth rising to, in the case of a master like Rohmer. But any film that asks me to join in the present-day mockery of every tenet of social theory I hold dear had better be well-written, sardonic, and revelatory enough to generate insight amidst the nonstop coal-raking. Instead, Arcand delivers a truckload of cheap shots at willfully distorted targets. Rémy (Rémy Girard) is a dying, mediocre academic, surrounded by his faded-libertine friends. As Rémy's son (Stéphane Rousseau) keeps laying out the cash, the patriarch prattles on about all the failures of the 60s generation, as Arcand surrounds him with grotesque caricatures of any and every liberal social institution. In this film, lefties and everything they stand / stood for (including, but not limited to, socialized medicine, greater power for unions, Marxism, deconstruction, Godard, and liberal sexual morés) are depicted as wrongheaded at best and idiotically self-delusional at worst. What does Arcand offer in their place? Money, xenophobia (a recurring and unproblematized motif of Islam and other immigrants as the titular "barbarians," an implicit rebuke to multicultural Canada), and the redemptive power of family. I repeat, any of this might've been tolerable had it been sharply scripted or remotely witty. Instead, Arcand wraps everything up in sentimental pieties and Hallmark moments, fraudulent mutual lessons and heart-of-gold junkies. I will happily grant that the film features some strong, muted acting (especially Rousseau and Marina Hands), and its sure-footed, unassuming visual style (close-ups anchoring sturdy, flattened-out widescreen compositions) kept me in my seat. But by the end, I found myself exhausted, willing to do whatever conservative thing Arcand wanted me to do, just to make it stop. (Hug my local commodities broker? Stop an Iranian at the border? Send a thank-you card to my HMO?)
The Ladykillers (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
Startlingly, excruciatingly unfunny. When a "comedy" is so thoroughly inept, why even broach the topic of racism? Some argue this film is a collection of buffoonish stereotypes of Southern blacks and Asians, but I think the truth is, we read them as stereotypes because like all the characters, they are an assembly of tics and quirks with no central motivation, no humanizing pull. Nothing new for the Coens, but usually they don't bring ethnic minorities into it, and usually (see Int. Cruelty above) they are at least theoretically amusing. More than a racial divide, Ladykillers wants to exploit a double-talking, slick-and-edumacated vs. salt-of-the-earth, all-I-need-to-know-is-in-the-Bible dichotomy. That is, for even these crumpled husks of humor to connect, we have to believe, at least tacitly, in the old saw that simple people are pure of heart and the more book-learnin' you get, the sneakier and less genuine you become. In other words, this is Gump in reverse. Only, not funny. Tom Hanks, as Col. Sanders Who Swallowed the Kentucky Fried Thesaurus, is actually decent enough, slipping into the mechanics of a non-human Coen role. Except when he laughs. Then, it's like, "Look at Tom Hanks doing that micro-managed Coen thing." On the other hand, I found the Coens' direction (co-credited, for the first time) and Roger Deakins' cinematography to be utterly amateurish, like third-rate hacks trying to imitate the Coens' style, with sudden zooms and canted angles more befitting a Nickelodeon cartoon. I don't know what else to say. Even if you consider references to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (with sound effects!), "hippity-hop," and Bob Jones University the height of sophisticated wit, Ladykillers, while not technically incompetent, is a pale shadow of what we've come to expect from the Coen brothers just on a formal level. How in the world did this get selected for Competition at Cannes? It makes Intolerable Cruelty look like freakin' Sturges.