REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MARCH 2006

All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [p] para-cinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

 

[8]

 

Inside Man (Spike Lee)

Inside Man is sharp, slyly hilarious, directed with an almost ruthless efficiency, and manages to smuggle in some pointed commentary on racism in the U.S. So why am I having such a hard time coping with the fact that I loved it? As many other reviewers have already noted, it's possible to consider this Lee's least personal film. (Some have even gone so far as to call its "jointness" into question. Yikes.) This is accurate up to a certain point, but who else but Lee would take such obvious pleasure in (for example) decking Denzel Washington out in a ridiculous white linen suit, or implementing an ambiguous flash-forward structure that at first blush serves to make his quick-witted black cops (Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor) look like smarmy, trash-talking assholes? (It's no wonder Lee took a liking to a script like this, with its family resemblance to certain aspects of Clockers.) And of course, there's the ever-present "people-mover" shot, utterly unmotivated and as delightful as one of your uncle's corny, inappropriate old jokes. Even the resolutely Spike Lee touches that other commentators are (as usual) finding "obtrusive" work in this context. At first I wasn't convinced by Matthew Libatique's jittery cinematography, but it actually operates in a lock-groove with Terrence Blanchard's score. The overall style functions as a kind of bridge between contemporary TV police procedurals and the films and TV of the 1970s, especially the Sidney Lumet canon. The step-printing, the changing film stocks, all of these cheap tricks of the "C.S.I." empire, actually coalesce into something defiantly old fashioned. Lee's attention to the specific spatial parameters of New York City street life certainly helps. As Libatique's camera skitters across the crime scene, Blanchard's blaring horns recall the theme from "Kojak." It's a trip, and Lee never misses a beat, taking his cues from a deft, wise-ass script by tyro scribe [I've always wanted to use that silly phrase] Russell Gewirtz, previously of, um, the TV show "Blind Justice." (Apparently Gewirtz lost his sight, but not his vision. . . .) So Inside Man is an expertly crafted if frivolous entertainment, the best of its kind I've seen in quite some time. So why am I experiencing inner turmoil? It's not just that I'm not sure this is the kind of production I think Spike Lee ought to be spending his time on. I mean, why not? Sure, I prefer the anger and intelligence of Bamboozled, but this sort of mainstream effort is worthwhile, too. No, mainly it's that I don't want to seem like yet another dumbass critic implicitly trumpeting the amazing power of genre to rein in idiosyncratic directors. (This is one critical commonplace that unites broad segments among the auteurists and the Kaelites, two usually-diametrical camps.) This problem takes on particular weight with respect to Spike Lee. How many smug honky critics have endlessly bemoaned Spike Lee's "undisciplined," "in your face" directorial style? Inside Man certainly harnesses his prodigious talents for unique and satisfying ends, but I am in no way joining that chorus of cultural gatekeepers so anxious to see Lee "tone it down" for mass consumption.

 

[7]

 

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry)

Stealthily, and without getting needlessly didactic and leaden, Dave Chappelle's Block Party mounts the best argument I've encountered so far for "conscious" hip-hop as a transformative force. This is particularly gratifying right now, since every season some new outpost of gangsta posturing crops up to cash in. (Screwed-and-chopped H-Town? So five minutes ago.) Chappelle, who recently underwent a well-publicized "breakdown" that by all reasonable accounts was actually the sort of crisis of conscience that the entertainment industry can't accommodate, has taken a simple concept (a Brooklyn block party and free concert) and, without a hint of arrogance, deftly fashioned it into an object-lesson in old-school hip-hop and positive values. The key is, it's fun, and this is Block Party's secret weapon. The going line from big-money hip-hop and the suits who get rich off it is that political rap and soul, anything that so much as flirts with racial uplift, is dry, preachy, and lacks skills. In short, a stone drag. Leading by example, Chappelle clears his throat and reminds us that artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Dead Prez, and Jill Scott are, in fact, mindblowingly awesome, especially in concert. This is a welcome reminder, and if Block Party has any political shortcoming, it's that this pro-conscious argument, with its implicit anti-gangsta dimension, entails class distinctions that Chappelle and the film seem unable to address. Still, the joy is infectious and all-inclusive, and had Chappelle made the political stakes of his gesture more forthright it no doubt would have played into the stereotypes of positive political rap. (All the same, one wonders what this film might've looked like had it been filmed after Hurricane Katrina.) As a filmic document, it's rather transparent; Gondry and DP Ellen Kuras are fluid and on point, but downplaying their personal styles. The film's temporal mash-up editing scheme, presenting the prep work and the show itself as co-present for the viewer, is an admirable formal decision, although it does intrude on the performances. Anyway, this is pretty good shit. Bed-Stuy, y'all.

 

-Election (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)

This is far and away Johnnie To's best film in years, a diamond-sharp actioner that miraculously keeps having it both ways. It's a fairly simple B-picture about a power struggle within the Hong Kong Triads, but To delivers the goods with an expansive, almost epic feel. Election is a genre picture that unfolds into both more and less than meets the eye. To's best films in recent years, such as Where a Good Man Goes and A Hero Never Dies, seemed designed to take John Woo's operatics to the level of Baroque absurdity, with their florid homoerotics and swooping camerawork. But in recent years To has made some clunkers (PTU and Breaking News especially) which have met with inexplicable success on the festival circuit. The failure of these films has been attributable to a shift in To's approach, toward an overweening, almost po-faced formalism. Like a grand master trying to tone it down during a game of street chess, To was too obviously striving to make perfect films that seemed to think of themselves as modest pop entertainments, deliberately dappled with neon and grit. Election actually takes these oppositions and runs with them, makes them productive. The plot could hardly be more basic: cautious Lok (Simon Yam) is voted in as the new Triad chairman, and flashy moneyman Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai) doesn't accept his defeat. While the result of the election is ostensibly binding, the real outcome is traditionally sanctified by the passing down of a scepter, so thugs on both sides race to secure this stubby carved MacGuffin. And that's it. To's achievement here is a thorough commitment to this simplistic material on a formal and a thematic level. Technically, To has seldom produced work with this level of balance and panache. Election almost functions like a hypothetical Johnnie-goes-to-Hollywood crossover, his visual pyrotechnics largely harnessed in the service of a coherent aesthetic whole. (For once, there really aren't that many "Moments Out of Time." It's all of a piece.) But To is still To, and so when we see precision touches like the late night hijacking of an 18-wheeler, or the long shot of the principal players in adjoining cells, they deliver a different sort of surprise. Our eyes don't pop out of our heads. Instead, we experience the cool, enveloping pleasure of shrewd directorial decisions harmonizing completely. This is also the case on the level of theme, since Election is all about two very clear sides becoming muddier and muddier, until this most reductive of plots becomes a study in the whiplash of shifting allegiances. (The beatdown in the field, interrupted by cellphone calls, is essentially Election in microcosm.) So, we get the clash of democracy vs. patrimony and tribal custom (allegory alert!), the conflict between familial duty and self-interest, and finally, crucially, a laying-bare of these contradictions for the purpose of demystifying the Triads, undercutting their rhetoric of honor. They're scum in expensive suits, and holding a little vote every two years certainly doesn't make them anything more than that.

 

In Between Days (So Yong Kim) [v]

[SOME SPOILERS] A fractured narrative comprised of slight, interstitial moments (hence the title), Kim's In Between Days succeeds where so many others have failed, creating a genuinely poetic form of storytelling. This is because she and screenwriter Bradley Rust Gray seem to understand that poetry shapes its events by marking out the negative space around them, the fleeting impressions they leave behind. This is essentially the story of an unrequited crush. Jiseon Kim plays Aimie, a young Korean-Canadian student living in Toronto, cutting class, hanging out and exchanging cellphone messages with her friend Trent (Kaegu Andy Kang), a lanky, uncommunicative dude who, whatever appeal he may hold for Aimie, gradually reveals himself to be something of a dickhole. The film is a bit like Yee Chih-yen's underseen Taiwanese film Blue Gate Crossing, in that both films center on burgeoning female sexual subjectivity and those aimless, drifting moments that expand to accommodate feelings of inarticulate longing. However, Kim's film is the more pared-down of the two. In Between Days eliminates almost all external conflict beyond the stifled Aimie / Trent pas de deux. Yee's film, minimal as it was, centered on a romantic triangle, allowing for hints of open contestation. Not much of that here, and this is all the better to fully immerse the viewer in Aimie's unfocused, melancholic world. Kim interrupts the main throughline with static shots of a Toronto tenement, each one more distant and later in the day than the last. In these segments, Aimie reads portions of a letter to her absent father, and while these interludes are quite beautiful and evince a debt to the work of Chantal Akerman (especially her film News from home), they perhaps go too far in literalizing the sense of loss that pervades Aimie's existence, which is all the richer when read right off the taciturn surface of Jiseon Kim's face. (Although the entire cast is comprised of non-professionals, all of whom bring a bracing unselfconsciousness to the project, Jiseon Kim is the breakout performer, more than ably carrying the emotional weight of the film almost singlehandedly. Her pale, windburned face has that quality characteristic of the great silent heroines of old, Plain Janes whose understated beauty tended to submerge under the weight of worry.) Aside from a few overplayed gestures (the face-slap, the breast-cupping on the bus) that strive too obviously for emotional import, In Between Days manages a pitch-perfect evocation of the wobbly aimlessness we hope to steady by grasping for the unattainable. This would be achievement enough. But in the film's final scene (the only one that departs from Aimie's point of view), we witness a different perspective, that of the woman Aimie ostensibly wants to be. This shrewd modulation raises the stakes, making In Between Days both a poignant character study and a feminist statement, one as quiet and unassuming as the film's protagonist.

 

Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, India)

[SOME SPOILERS] One occasional difficulty I find in evaluating Bollywood films is their tonal inconsistency. Even if the overall thrust of a given film is serious, the musical numbers have to cut in somewhere. So often there's an unwieldy character to these films that, by (utterly inapplicable) Western standards seems like a lack of control. But, if we stipulate that Bollywood fare is usually going to "lose control" (i.e., play fast and loose with Aristotelian unities, span epic time without due attention to character development, skitter across seemingly incompatible genres), the question becomes one of controlled chaos. How effectively does a director negotiate these hairpin turns? I've never really felt the need to address these questions in the past, because with the exception of Mani Ratnam's films, Bollywood has provided me with a generally applicable yardstick: was it fun? Ratnam always seems to be aiming for more, but even the political subtext of a film like Yash Chopra's Veer-Zaara seems engineered to provide a basis for certain crowdpleasing cinematic gestures, more than to change minds in its own right. Rang De Basanti is a wholly different animal, a truly bizarre tract against apathy and corruption that raises the issue of directorial control once again. Is Mehra fully aware of his strange mixed messages?

 

The film begins as white British TV producer Sue (Alice Patten) goes to India to pursue her dream project, a film called "The Young Guns of India." It's a dramatization of the story of Bhagat Singh, the 1930s Indian revolutionary. (In the simplest, most reductive terms, Singh was the Malcolm X to Ghandi's MLK.) Upon her arrival Sue meets up with her acquaintance Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) and starts hanging with her group of male college friends, a hip clique led by DJ (Aamir Khan). The group accepts Sue (her flawless command of Hindi helps), and soon Sue casts them all in her film. But these kids just like to party, drink, race motorcycles, and scam on the ladies. The nationalist revolutionary cant of Sue's script is utterly foreign to them. In time, this white woman (and later, a government scandal that leads to the death of one of the members of the group) radicalizes these "Westernized" kids (i.e., unserious and waiting to catch the first jet to NRI-ville) to a degree almost unthinkable. The fact that Sue's script is drawn from the diary of her grandfather, a British colonial prison guard who oversaw the execution of Bhagat Singh, only complicates matters. What Mehra has constructed here is a kind of double-reverse-colonialism, wherein the white outsider can show these disengaged, disaffected college students how to properly value their own country. Mehta's script and overall narrative trajectory indicates that he has no problem with this -- and that in fact, neither should we; Rang De Basanti, for all its patriotic inclinations, is a sort of post-post-colonial project. These young dudes, who before the intermission looked and acted like they wandered over from a Bollywood remake of The Fast and the Furious, go the distance and then some, taking their lumps at an anti-government protest, then finally staging a staggering protest of their own. (Sadly, Sonia is sidelined at this point; I guess Mehta thinks political violence is still a boys-only club.) In short, there is a high degree of ideological incoherence in Rang De Basanti which, in the usual Bollywood style, is magically reconciled. And yet, there is a very real, coherent anger running through this film. Rang De Basanti doesn't hold up as political theory. How could it, in such a constrained, post-Naxalite era? But the film makes absolute emotional sense, in that it proposes that outsiders may have more access to the big picture than those of us on the ground, and that complacency is a thick husk that can usually be shed only after one undergoes immediate personal loss. Instead of finding its moments of incoherence and confusion troubling, I was shaken and discomfited by the nervous energy animating Rang De Basanti. Although it cannot compare with the films of Ritwik Ghatak or Glauber Rocha (it has one and a half feet planted too firmly in populist entertainment) it shares with those directors an intellectual and political fitfulness, the sense of cinema as a last-ditch act of desperation.

 

[5]

 

-Dallas 362 (Scott Caan)

Here's a film that no one really gives two shits about in the larger world -- it won at CineVegas 03, played Toronto, and slumped into theatres two years later -- but a lot of people in my immediate circle are pretty high on it. I first tried to watch it late last year but turned the disc off at the 30-minute mark. It struck me as way too smug, and its seeming celebration of thick-necked dumbass thuggery turned me off like, well, like a family reunion, if you catch my drift. In fact, the opening minutes were a bit misleading, since Dallas 362 is a movie about Rusty, a young man (Shawn Hatosy) divided against himself, and the film itself reflects this. It's about two-thirds sweaty macho swagger, with Rusty and his best bud Dallas (Caan) getting into bar fights, hanging with lowlifes, and worrying Rusty's mom (Kelly Lynch). But the middle third is actually a thoughtful (if oddly stilted) examination of the same laddishness that characterizes the first and last acts. (Rusty feels loyalty to Dallas but knows he's going nowhere fast, hence the conflict.) Shawn confides in his mom's therapist boyfriend (Jeff Goldblum) who helps out simply by listening. While this emotional conflict at the core of Dallas 362 at least helps me understand what others may be seeing in this film, it certainly isn't enough to elevate this rather awkward, tonally inconsistent film. A friend compared it to Nicholas Ray, and while I sort of see where he was going with that reference point, it really doesn't work. While it's Caan's aim to plunge into the heart of masculine darkness (Goldblum's character, in fact, could be seen as analogous to Jim Backus's sympathetic daddy in Rebel Without a Cause, if he'd had a backbone and if the film had taken him seriously), the outsized caricature and self-satisfied dudishness of Dallas and his world undercut the attempt. Too much frat-boy nonsense, too much Ruben the Roofer, too much Christian the tweaker, and too much of that goddamned wannabe catchphrase. (Don't worry. I won't repeat it here.) Neither a near-masterpiece nor a sub-Guy Ritchie waste of time, Dallas 362 is just another middling Amerindie. Enjoy, or don't.

 

-Magicians (Song Il-gon, South Korea) [v/m]

I have limited prior experience with Song, and in fact I walked out of his film Spider Forest back at TIFF 04, but then really that had more to do with the lateness of the hour than any active dislike of the picture, which was the sort of moody psychological horror piece that (as I think I mentioned to Steve Erickson recently) struck me as the work of a possible former director of commercials or music videos, with its fetishistic surfaces and devil-may-care attitude towards "Meaning" (however you want to define that -- I guess I'm filing Spider Forest with the "Cinéma du Look"), and all told I probably wouldn't have sought out future works by Song but seeing as he contributed the final part of the Asian DV omnibus I was already watching I figured what the hell, and it just so happens that Magicians is actually not so terrible, as it begins with the cool jostling randomness of two old friends hanging out shooting the shit, filmed in a darkened bar spiked here and there with warm colors and piercing light and a nicely controlled hand-held camerawork that moves with suppleness through the narrative space, only occasionally succumbing to the Five D's of Dodgeball; then, a monk comes into the bar and asks for his snowboard and the whole thing seems like it's going to turn into an extended "monk walks into a bar" joke but this is a red herring since he is soon sidelined, and we enter a dreamspace in which the men's girlfriends (who may or may not be alive) become the primary objects of the film's attention, and this dreamspace being the forest of all things, it's not long before some of the more frustrating elements of Spider Forest (stark, evocative visual scheme in the service of diffuse, vaguely Count Floydesque ideas -- veddy spooky!) begin to hold sway, making it apparent that Song has got his craft down-pat but has stranded us in a not-very-mature one-act play wherein writerly sloppiness is hidden behind a scrim of mood and abstraction that signifies considerably less than meets the eye.

 

Sisters in Law (Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto, U.K. / Cameroon) [v]

Previous documentaries by Longinotto, such as Divorce Iranian Style and The Day I Will Never Forget, have fairly strong reputations, and Sisters in Law was selected for Telluride, so I expected something special here. Turns out there's not much to this film other than straightforward gender uplift: as women establish themselves in the Cameroon legal system as judges and attorneys, the laws of the land are more successfully enforced to ensure equal protection. This is encouraging, of course, even if Sisters in Law's stance regarding women's ability to alter institutions by their very presence within them strikes me as overly optimistic. Comparisons to Frederick Wiseman's work are thoroughly misplaced; Longinotto and Ayisi's videography is flat and functional, with none of the visual richness of Wiseman. (Cornell Cinema's cruddy video projection certainly did the film no favors.) Structurally, Sisters is rather basic, with cases presented one after another, and yet even within such a deterministic schema the documentary felt disorganized and rambling. Towards the end of the film, one woman who stood up to her abusive husband and secured a divorce is shown talking with her friends, and all the underlying themes of Sisters are laid on the table. "Women have the same rights as men," one woman states, while another echoes, "Cameroon is a nation of laws, and they apply to all." [Beg pardon; I'm paraphrasing based on my week-old notes.] So the filmmakers essentially summarize the unmissable point of what we've just watched. Although the final moments do offer some poignant examples of the application of "male" vs. "female" approaches to justice, Sisters ultimately falls into that capacious category of the well-meaning but poorly crafted advocacy doc.

 

[4]

 

-20 Fingers (Mania Akbari, Iran) [v]

Mike D'Angelo worried that the debut of Kiarostami's 10 (a film I liked considerably more than he did) would usher in a new era of quick-and-dirty, visually negligible gabfests masquerading as "cinema." I didn't share his concern and for the most part still don't, but Kiarostami's own 10 on Ten and now the debut film by Ten lead actress and Kiarostami protégé Akbari indicate that Mike's dismay might have been prescient. 20 Fingers bears passing resemblance to recent two-in-a-room relationship dissections like 5x2 and (minus the metaphysics) Across the Forest, but Akbari's vision is far more banal than Civeyrac's and not nearly as sophisticated as Ozon's. Part of the problem is that 20 Fingers' didactic battle of the sexes is too rote, too undergraduate, for any two actors to build a convincing film from it. But one of the most troubling aspects of this film is that, for the first time in my viewing experience, the social and sexual morés of the Islamic Republic of Iran result in an aesthetic stumbling block. Akbari clearly takes transgressive delight in bandying taboo topics about the screen (abortion, lesbianism, open marriages), and yes, this film was banned in Iran, so the director's sense of rebellion is not altogether misplaced. But as a film, 20 Fingers tries too hard and (for this Western viewer, anyway) achieves too little. Even compared to a schematic social-problem film like Pahani's The Circle, 20 Fingers deals with women's oppression in a manner that feels quaint, like workshop notes from a consciousness-raising session circa 1969. If 10 and 20 Fingers have provided Akbari with a platform from which to get years' worth of bottled-up longing off her chest, maybe the next film (30 Something?) will prove more revelatory.

 

-Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki)

There's nothing particularly wrong with Why We Fight, at least nothing that isn't also wrong with Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Power of Nightmares or the Robert Greenwald DIY docs. They all employ rather transparent propaganda tactics (cribbed more from negative campaign ads than Potemkin or Triumph of the Will), and as a leftist I always cringe at this blatant lowering of the level of discourse even as I know that It Gets Results, sort of. But I'm beyond caring about any of that. These things are what they are, and it's my fault for even engaging with them. No, the real problem with Jarecki's film is that it's a rehash of information and editorial material that's been circulating for years. Newsflash! Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex! Dick Cheney has peddled his political influence on behalf of his cronies at Halliburton! Wolfowitz and the neo-cons have been "fighting" the war against Iraq on paper for decades, and used 9/11 as a pretext for actually executing it! Essentially this film is a greatest-hits record of (a) the influence of defense contractors in Congress and at the Pentagon; (b) the shift in the media's role vis-a-vis the government from Vietnam to Iraq; (c) how we were all lied to about the WMDs and why. The frustrating thing is that Jarecki, operating with funding from major entities like the CBC and ARTE, gets less done in the way of research than Greenwald's charmingly homemade salvos, and skims the surface of intellectual issues that Adam Curtis at least tried to put front-and-center. (Why We Fight's Reader's Digest leftism makes it go down easier, which is probably why Sony Classics picked it up. They were reportedly sniffing around Nightmares but no doubt found it a harder sell for the same demographic.) So, in short, if you're on the left, hopping mad, and have no earthly idea how we got into this mess, Jarecki's gonna break it down for your uninformed ass. [NOTE: Why We Fight aired on the BBC and so is available as streaming video online. The picture is about the size of a saltine cracker and can't be enlarged, but I found Jarecki's images to be negligible anyway.]