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)





-American Venus (Bruce Sweeney, Canada)

For several years now, I've considered Bruce Sweeney to be one of English Canada's most interesting second-tier directors. (For those of you scoring at home, Cronenberg, Egoyan and Maddin comprise the top echelon, with folks like Sweeney, Bruce McDonald, Jeremy Podeswa, Carl Bessai, John Greyson, Clement Virgo, Patricia Rozema, Gary Burns, and Anne Wheeler kind of filling out the base. If you need to talk Paul Gross, well, I humbly refer you to Mr. Gravestock.) I couldn't completely embrace the last two films of his I've seen, Dirty and Last Wedding, largely due to some rather garish side-of-the-barn humor. (Even this could be pretty funny, though. I still smile when I think of Benjamin Ratner singing "your love is like a HUR'cane...") But both contained a great deal of observational nuance and unusual actorly byplay, no doubt resulting in part from Sweeney's practice (at the time, anyway -- not sure about Venus) of scripting the films along with his actors through an improv process. Back when Sweeney was in the good graces of the critical establishment, this resulted in comparisons with Mike Leigh (making him, I suppose, the Canadian Andreas Dresen), even though Sweeney's droll satires of uptight West Coast yuppies have more in common with Whit Stillman (minus the conservatism) and Todd Solondz (minus the bitter misanthropy). Sweeney's people are typically moving through the lives that were planned for them by decades of ideological conditioning until one day, the needle jumps the groove. They don't snap, as in the overblown suburban threnodies of Sam Mendes or Augustin Burroughs. Instead, these people become unmoored ever so slightly, a bit like Carol White in Todd Haynes' Safe. Is that my beautiful car? This is not my beautiful wife. Etc.


Sweeney's new one, on the face of it, seems to dispense with all subtlety and go straight for the biggest target of them all: the smug bully who lives to the South. The general critical dismissal the film has received gives the impression that Venus is being mistaken for some sort of commercial venture, an attempt to cash in with a big-name actress (Rebecca De Mornay) and some American money. True, this film will play intermittently on Showtime Next or More Max, and Last Wedding was strictly a Sundance Channel item. But you really have to hang with American Venus to understand just how strange it is, and how Sweeney partakes of the comically obvious, even the obtuse, in order to push past it into a creepy realm of incomprehension. We first meet Celia (De Mornay) as she's coaching her figure skater daughter Jenna (Jane McGregor) at the nationals. Jenna chokes, Celia unleashes her full stage-mom fury, and Jenna quits her professional career. Skipping ahead, we see Jenna struggling to move out of the house, where Celia's smothering mania permits no distance between mother and daughter. Jenna bolts in the dead of night, moving to an undisclosed location in Vancouver. Celia heads north to find her, but not before getting in trouble at the border over the handgun in her car. Celia, you see, is a gun enthusiast, and as she stays on indefinitely in B.C. to try to take Jenna back to the U.S., Celia tries every trick in the book to score an illegal firearm in Michael Moore's favorite nation. This provides Sweeney with some basic humor of incomprehension, naturally, but eventually Celia's gun-nut jonesing becomes something else, an extension of her unwillingness to cede Jenna's existence as an autonomous human being. Celia needs Jenna to be her phallus. She needs to fire guns so she can have her phallus. And, in certain ways, she must flex her American entitlement in a vain attempt to retain her tenuous phallic privilege. However, Sweeney never, ever tries to disguise this. American Venus isn't packing "symbolic" internal meanings so that some eager undergraduate semiotician can go nuts. After all, Celia screws a local cop at a firing range, getting off rounds while he penetrates her. There is no attempt at subtlety here. (And I think that's why lots of folks are seeing the film as a failure.) What Sweeney does here (with the help of a suitably unhinged De Mornay, who actually pulls off a rather preposterous role quite credibly) is that the rest of the world can see right through Celia, but Celia somehow remains unaware of the dangerous fetishes that drive her on. And, well, you can pretty much replace "Celia" with "America" in the last sentence, and there you go.


-City of Ember (Gil Kenan)

I bagged on Kenan's debut feature, the animated Monster House, a few years ago, but on the strength of his live-action debut I think I may have misjudged the guy. Seen in tandem, Monster House and City of Ember show Kenan to be a rare American director making children's films in the European vein. By this, I mean that his stories depict genuine peril, even primal fear, harking back to the dark, pre-Disneyfied tenor of Grimm fairy tales, when kids weren't condescended to with tacked-on optimism or shielded from the uglier aspects of life. Actually, those tales kind of reveled in ugliness, whereas Kenan simply lets dystopias appear dystopian so that the desire to overcome them is felt to be a necessity greater than a mere plot point. City of Ember is undoubtedly "something you've seen before," given that it posits a post-nuclear scenario in which an insular survivalist compound (in this case an all-incandescent, Metropolisesque underground city) becomes a self-perpetuating nightmare of benign oppression. Only when the generators start failing do the citizens start worrying, but not enough to stand up to the power structure (embodied by an unctuous Bill Murray). Ember does superficially resemble the films of Terry Gilliam and (to a lesser extent) Tim Burton, but Kenan actually employs the dank post-industrial mise-en-scène for quite subtle, poetic ends. (As much as I appreciate Gilliam's work, there's nothing subtle about it, and all his jerryrigged metallic gizmos are there to scream, "Look at me! I'm atmosphere!")


To cite only the best example, there is the bicycle-driven magnetic tape loop Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) plays for her little sister, an old answering machine tape of their dead parents. But the emotional impact of the contraption is the focus here, not the mechanics or its outdated weirdness. But over and above Ember's stylistics, the film's meta-allegorical implications were most suggestive to me. Lest that sound needlessly pretentious, let me explain. A society falling apart due to inculcated fear of "the surrounding darkness," one wherein the elders have squandered the future for their own immediate comfort and gain, is a metaphor that could be taken anywhere, and Ember could be read as an allegory for environmental catastrophe, the consequences of Bush 43 xenophobia, or even our present economic collapse. But the meta-structure is much more suggestive here. In discussions of all these things, there is a standard trope: "It is our children, and our children's children, who will pay the price." But City of Ember not only literalizes this empty homily. It shows "the children" as the ones, the only ones, actually invested enough in the future to solve the riddles, uncover the crimes, and fight for it. And, lest this seem like a fantasy out of nowhere, Kenan (drawing on Jeanne Duprau's book) finds the kids picking up the lost thread of activism and revolt that their parents abandoned, through both defeat and accommodation. This is a case of a B-level genre film getting the politics exactly right.


Côte Jardin (Rose Lowder, France) [s]

I am a longtime admirer of Lowder's work, and her latest film, by my lights, is the latest in a long line of brief, punchy winners. But this was the first film of hers to really throw my consideration back upon itself, forcing me to examine my own judgments in a greater overall framework. Côte Jardin represents a noteworthy departure for Lowder, marking a shift in the in-camera focal-length vibration technique that has been the trademark of her mature work (in particular the Bouquets series), however one would need to be rather intimately acquainted with Lowder's body of work to discern that anything unusual was happening here. Lowder's films tend to be close examinations of small portions of the rural French landscape of Avignon, mostly comprised of vibrant flower gardens in the warm color of midday, sometimes incorporating other elements from the lay of the land, such as rivers and bridges. Lowder typically zeroes in on a small patch of blossoming earth with its bright reds, yellows or purples and photographs it in single-frame stop-motion, moving the zoom lens in and out ever so slightly, The result is that the nature studies pulsate onscreen, moving both across time and off the screen toward you as a throbbing optical phenomenon. Quite some time ago, scholar / critic Lisa Cartwright made the observation that Lowder's field studies possessed a feminist subtext, since "nature" in her films, a category often associated with the feminine in various cultures (including our own), was denied the safe passivity of "landscape art." Instead, Lowder showed nature to be a thrumming, even threatening molecular force, active all the time even if not obviously so. I've tended to agree with Cartwright's assessment and have always kept it in the back of my mind while enjoying the sheer "convulsive beauty" of Cinema Lowder.


Côte Jardin retains the throbbing segments, but is also a different animal indeed, since it is the first Lowder film I'm aware of to alternate the fidgets with extended (for her -- 15 or so seconds here and there within the less-than-ten-minute film) passages of unadulterated nature study. Lowder turns her camera onto the garden at midday, and just stares in wonder, letting shadows creep in real time, allowing the flowers to sway gently, not maniacally, in the wind. Lowder is now operating with an internal dialectic, an A/B logic across the film itself, rather than simply employing her signature style as a counterpoint, in and of itself, to the larger image world. This shift is fascinating, since we've never seen Lowder relax like this. "Straight," her images have the temperature and colorist's sense one finds in selected Dorsky rolls, along with an almost Renoirian treatment of the French landscape's easy gorgeousness. Lowder neither downplays it nor does she linger on it like calendar art. Instead she pauses, observing the undulating internal shadows within a flowerbed or a gray, cloudy shot's dour reticence to participate within the film's more joyous stylistic dominant. This shift recharges Lowder's time-tested method to the better. At the same time, as much as I admire Jardin and as fascinating as I find it within Lowder's overall development, this was, as I stated above, also the first film of hers that made me somewhat self-conscious about my admiration for her relatively unchanging oeuvre. The new film's most interesting elements will most likely seem unspectacular to a newcomer to Lowder's work.


The shift between the vibrating shots and the still ones does have its impact, but without having spent years seeing Lowder's Avignon only as a hyperactive flora beast, Jardin's placid camera rolls might well elicit a shrug. And in turn, this consideration led to a larger one about boosterism and partisanship. Every critic has favorite filmmakers whose working practice seems fundamentally on his or her wavelength. In some cases, that filmmaker may have helped shape said critic's sensibility in the first place. This can, in the best situations, mean that the sympathetic critic is a stronger explicator of that filmmaker's work. But I wonder if it can also mean that some basic level of discernment -- not "objectivity," something that is and always was a phantom -- is lacking, leading the critic's audience to find an absence of insight, a reflexive rubber-stamping of pre-authorized product. ("Here is another film by So-and-So. I like films by So-and-So, and I like this one, too. The end.") Of course, there's no law that says a predisposition to like something must result in a closing of the mental faculties, but sometimes we all find ourselves in situations in which we bring so much to the table that it is virtually impossible for the film in front of us to fail. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it is something I feel the need to watch out for in my own work, since part of my effort is and always has been to communicate about avant-garde cinema to both neophytes and the initiated. And, as with any outreach program, basic discrimination, a commitment to point potential audiences toward the very best work and not just the entire daunting corpus, must be a priority, just as much as supporting our community's makers. It's a balance, after all. So anyway, I really like the new Rose Lowder, and I think Lowder is one of our best filmmakers out there. But, for the record, I wouldn't start here.


-Frontier of Dawn (Philippe Garrel, France)

[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] A surprise to some, I suppose, following the grand epic that was Regular Lovers, Frontier of Dawn is a lovely, delicate film that finds Garrel operating in what we might call the poetic short form. Not unlike James Gray's Two Lovers, actually (the two films both played in Competition at Cannes 2008, to some consternation), Frontier invests significant pathos in a rather basic scenario. Francois (Louis Garrel) is a terminally shallow photographer whose life takes an odd turn following an assignment to shoot young, troubled actress Carole (Laura Smet). Although Carole is in a very unhappy long-distance marriage, she and Francois embark on an affair. Her passion, which (as per Garrel) is inseparable from her mental and emotional instability, prompts her to take the union far more seriously than Francois does. In a more conventional film, even a more conventional Nouvelle or Post-Nouvelle Vague film, Francois would be depicted as a playboy, a cad, or some sort of flighty bedroom philosopher incapable of giving himself over to unselfish love. (Louis Garrel, I think, always kind of calls this uber-French, self-serving existentialist to mind, because whether intentionally or not, he operates in contemporary cinema as a kind of hypertextual counterpoint to the film-memory of Jean-Pierre Léaud. Not only his physical presence but his overall bearing draws this comparison, and shrewd cineastes like Bertolucci and Honoré, to say nothing of dear old dad, have picked up on this.) Instead, Francois is almost affectless through much of Frontier, only coming to life (if we can call it that) when supernatural events set in motion his undoing. When Carole is perceived to have been unfaithful, Francois vanishes to "punish" her, but this comes more from a sense of wounded pride or even rote procedure than from any genuine anguish. This act prompts regret, but Garrel, in keeping with Frontier's fractured, gaping-hole image of Francois, leaps ahead with a title card, showing us the young man already settled in his low-stakes replacement coupling with Eve (Clémentine Poidatz), a life which "threatens" fatherhood and family life, an alleged banality that Francois, remarkably, thinks himself above.


In a way, Frontier of Dawn as a text occupies the subjective standpoint of its protagonists, but not completely. Garrel takes Carole's madness and amour fou seriously, even admires it, but also refuses to turn away from its ugliest results. Francois's indulgent conundrums are similarly treated with a respectful gravity, even when the film seems to ask us to take a jaundiced look at this rather flat, indeterminate soul. But even more than Garrel's tone or his narrative construction, his use of light, texture, and editing provide a clear sense of how we might consider the material before us. Garrel is and always will be a Romantic, gripped by the inescapable seduction of doom, and this does mean that in certain ways his films sometimes risk a heart-on-sleeve risibility. If there is a dominant moral or ethical injunction in the cinema of Garrel, it could be summed up thusly: "love hard." Frontier of Dawn is no exception to this rule. As a structure, however, Frontier is actually one of Garrel's least knotty, most uncomplicated films. Perhaps the world-historical grandeur of Regular Lovers -- May '68 as the ultimate act of passion's folly -- cleared the way for this small film-poem, the simplicity of which allows the filmmaker to zero in on his formal vocabulary. Frontier is filled with iris-outs, scenes which, in traditional logic, had in no way necessarily played out but were closing in on themselves with a kind of global glaucoma. The use of rich black-and-white imagery lends the film a temporal indeterminacy, the dark blacks and tactile grain cinveying permanence while the overall ambiance, including Garrel's old-Paris haunts, connote mythic actions out of time. Likewise, Garrel's use of framing and composition, and the dialectic between static and mobile camera throughout this film (courtesy of the great William Lubtchansky) continually finds Francois, the still photographer, on the side of stability, fixity, death. Carole the actress is restless, constantly surrounded by life, life which she eventually casts aside for Francois and which finally becomes too much for her to handle. When she is at last capable of transfixing Francois, seducing him for good, it is as an apparition in a mirror, a fixed framed image. The pre-suicide Carole offered Francois her Being, characterized by manic desire and unreserved need. He did not want it. Eve, in turn, offered Francois a very different form of Being, one of deep attachments, a projection of selves into the future, a mutual nurturance. He rejected this as well. Instead, Francois, tragic narcissist and hopeless fetishist, gave himself over to the dead pseudo-Being of the looking glass. In the world of Philippe Garrel, that makes him a traitor and an enemy of love.


-Two Lovers (James Gray)

Absolutely different from Gray's other films, yes, but in certain crucial ways exactly the same. The Yards and We Own the Night turn very basic, ground-level scenarios into the stuff of Greek drama, but they operate on a much larger canvas, making Gray's outsized gestures somewhat more convincing on an immediate level, at least for those of us inclined to be convinced. They also at least tangentially function as social dramas, purporting, at least nominally, to have some relationship to working class life. They explore the way familial bonds clash with institutional ones when you're a small, lowly individual whose connections to various "brotherhoods" are the only thing making you big. Two Lovers draws on those same questions of family while working on a much more intimate scale. But the way Gray accomplishes this miniaturization of his style is, paradoxically, an amplification of those smaller human interactions. Romantic fumblings and reckless crushes result in convulsive emotions struggling to escape multiple levels of repression and self-delusion; a mere conflict between "the right" and "the wrong" woman becomes, for Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a trip to the edge of madness.


This Romanticism / teen-Goth emotional pitch, with Gwyneth Paltrow as a virtual parody of the damaged woman who needs saving and all that other malarkey, is not only played straight. It's treated with a fascinating dignity, largely because Gray uses it as an occasion to explore another, larger question from an oblique angle. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the "proper" object choice, but choosing her also means committing to the family dry-cleaning business, to Brighton Beach, to following through on his parents' dreams rather than his own. But it goes deeper than neighborhoods and career choices. Given that Leonard's first great love affair ended because of genetics -- both he and his fiancee tested positive for Tay-Sachs disease -- Gray's and Phoenix's depiction of Leonard as a man cracking from the inside, grasping at a crazy shot at some imagined other life, is a rage against one's own destiny, a battle of will against atavism. As Mike D'Angelo has already noted, Two Lovers is a sort of crypto-remake of Dover Kosahshvili's Late Marriage, but now the stakes are even higher. Just as it's no accident that Moni Moshonov plays the father in both films, representing a milieu and set of options, Paltrow's Michelle and her insistence on mediated communication with Leonard (cellphones, texting) and the presence of a mannered, effete Elias Koteas as Paltrow's married lover, point to Michelle as an Atom Egoyanesque figure, representing the lure of some unknown future of scattered, unreliable (postmodern) subjectivity. Leonard's world "smells like mothballs." But in the end, Leonard finally discovers that classic-girl Sandra might bear the fragrance of something older but more open, more mysterious in its own unexplored possibility: the sea.




-Bullet in the Head (Jaime Rosales, Spain / France)

[MAJOR SPOILERS, BUT YOU REALLY NEED THIS FILM SPOILED] 2008's most reviled festival film? If not, certainly close to it, and why? Boring, tedious, a failed experiment, implies but withholds character development, all the usual complaints lobbed at avant-garde films. But Bullet in the Head is not an experimental / avant-garde film in the usual sense, even though Rosales borrows liberally from the vocabulary of avant-garde cinema. What's frustrating is that the New York Film Festival selected this film only to thrust it upon an unsuspecting audience, where it would inevitably be despised. Why not place it in the Views sidebar? Or, better yet, make clear through introductions, program notes, or some extra-cinematic communiqué that this is not a narrative film? Why rescue a movie from obscurity only to throw it to the dogs?


So, basically Bullet in the Head follows a single man in medium long shot for nearly 80 minutes. He goes about his business, having meetings with other guys in cafés, taking his kids to the playground, going on various mundane errands, attending large social gatherings in private homes, until eventually he and an associate begin casing two young guys in a mall food court. They follow the young men, who turn out to be cops, into the parking lot, and once they're in the squad car, they shoot the cops in the head and peel out. At the end of the film, the man needs to switch vehicles, so he carjacks a woman, driving her into the woods, tying her to a tree, and leaving her behind. The end. Oh, and you never, ever hear what the man or anyone onscreen says, except for one exclamation of "Fucking cops!" All sound is ambient.


As you can see, demanding basic narrative information, as well as traditional film grammar, from Bullet in the Head, is going to be a torturous experience. What's more, if you think that the protracted tedium is a build-up for some grand release, like Jeanne Dielman or Beau Travail, you may very well come away not just bored but furious at this film and its maker. Just read some of the reviews. Granted, Bullet in the Head has its flaws, and I'll get to those in a minute. But Rosales does have reasons for doing what he does, and his film provides (for this viewer, anyway) ample sensual as well as intellectual pleasures that make Bullet a worthwhile cinematic gambit. In one sense, Rosales is simply expanding on certain basic ideas in film theory, notably the alignment of the camera with power. Since we are only privy to views of our putative protagonist that would be achievable through basic, in-car surveillance technology, Bullet implicitly allies us with the police. What's more, our viewing the film as some sort of narrative, something that must "make sense" or "go somewhere," is also for Rosales a structure of thinking that emerges at least in part from a position of power. We expect to learn something about this man. So do the detectives who watch him, otherwise he would not be a subject of surveillance. For both audience and police, he is a "person of interest."


So, when the man finally reveals himself to be a criminal (and Rosales has indicated that Bullet is inspired by real-life incidents in of Basque separatist terror and Spanish counter-terror activity). we the audience are profoundly unsatisfied. We don't know why he did what he did, who he is or what he stands for. But from the standpoint of governmental surveillance, the shooting is the money shot. This man always was a criminal, and at that very moment, he reveals himself to be exactly what he already was. What's more, from a legalistic standpoint, it will be up to this man's defense team to "generate a story" out of what we see. All that matters from a prosecutorial standpoint is that he did it. He pulled the trigger and the cops are dead. No "story" necessary.


Now, like I said, Bullet in the Head is definitely a flawed film. Most attempts by narrative filmmakers to adopt the language of the avant-garde yield mixed results. (Look no further than Kiarostami's Five.) For instance, why do these terrorists only meet inside glass-walled modern buildings with all the curtains open? This is a pretty big cheat. Also, the penultimate sequence in the food court is indeed interminable, partly because it is the moment when, after abjuring narrative action, Rosales kind of brings it back, out of necessity. But you don't know that until you've been staring at the same random guys for nearly ten minutes. Nevertheless, Rosales and cinematographer Oscar Durán capture numerous fantastic images along the way, usually employing windows, signs, bus shelters and other linear forms as urban framing devices within the larger film frame. They also make lovely use of color, whether it's the greens and golds of the sun-dappled playground or the muted teals and aquamarines of cars whizzing by on the street. At times, it's almost like an Ernie Gehr gangster film.


Is Bullet in the Head a completely successful experiment? No, because it requires a modicum of narrative anticipation in order to make its point, by frustrating that drive. In so doing, the film risks alienating all but the most patient (some might say indulgent) viewers, those predisposed to find such a project compelling in the first place. Nevertheless, Rosales' achievement cannot really be assessed by the usual criteria, and the NYFF certainly did the film no favors by tossing it into the line-up to sink or swim, a mindboggling UFO among crowdpleasers like Waltz With Bashir and Changeling. There's really only one way into Bullet in the Head, and one way out. That's because Rosales was gutsy enough to put all his Basques in one exit.


-California Dreamin' (Endless) (Cristian Nemescu, Romania)

[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] After no less than three false starts, I finally managed to make it through California Dreamin', and I'm very glad I did. After IFC sent the film to its VOD bush-league channel Festival Direct (i.e., no release to theatres), I felt as though I had accurately pegged its place in the overall scheme of things, but then the IFC Center went and gave it a successful two-week run in January, renewing my interest in giving the late Nemescu's first and last feature another go. Above all, it was the high praise from Maestro Keith Uhlich that made the difference. Now, having seen California Dreamin' in full, I don't necessarily think I was wrong about some of the broader aspects of the humor and characterization that initially put me off, but I now see them in a fuller framework, one in which these gestures make considerably more sense. Taking place during the Clinton era and the height of the Kosovo War, California Dreamin' is either a fairly deliberate throwback to a bygone era in Eastern European filmmaking, or else Nemescu was a highly gifted mimic steeped in the stylistics of outsized Warsaw Pact satire but able to put it to more humane ends. The basic scenario finds a U.S.-led NATO military train stopped by small-town stationmaster Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), a local thug who rules the town by force. As a result, the Americans are forced to disembark and get involved with the local townsfolk, at first romantically, as American GI's so often do, and eventually as political agitators, the hard-nosed CO Cpt. Jones (Armand Assante) stirring up a peasant revolt with the false promise of back-up.


Theo Panayides (he of the late lamented Century of Movies) didn't care much for California Dreamin', but did bring up a valid point. Nemescu revisits U.S. involvement in the Balkans (and the Clinton era) when it's very nearly a settled matter. Does he restage this dark comedy as a kind of eternal-return allegory for the Bushes' abandonment of the Kurds and Shias in Iraq? Hard to say, but Dreamin' does frequently feel like an epic expansion and mostly masterful execution of a pastiche concept, drawn more from Polish and Czech political modernism and its character typologies than from any specific Romanian experience of the collapse of Yugoslavia. It feels like a set of worked-through concepts rather that urgent dispatches from the immediate present. We have silly, mustachioed mayors, burly henchmen, hot-to-trot teenaged girls, their punk-rocker boyfriends.... In a way, it harks back to Ealing comedies, of course, but Nemescu is so indebted to Nemec and Menzel and even Kusturica (although his politics are quite different and his style less bombastic, to be sure) that on a structural level California Dreamin' feels very much like a great first film, the work of a movie brat still trying to locate is own voice. At the same time, this essential familiarity in themes and approach is joined with a rather bracing formal facility that speaks Romanian New Wave all the way. No Kusturica film would ever be shot with such urgent yet graceful handheld cinematography, and Liviu Marghidan's camerawork employs deft, unobtrusive long takes that result in skeins of unbroken space unfurling through a sturdy visual cursive. Likewise, the performances are all pitched at a surprising naturalistic level that belies their frequent genre-defined or iconic status.


This is why the final scenes before the NATO pullout, which are designed to score cheap points against the Americans that the characters and script as defined apparently couldn't accommodate, seem so incongruous. This is the moment when all Nemescu has working for him is that broad Eastern European template. A brief coda represents a slight recovery, but the damage is done. We're sent away remembering Dreamin's widest strokes, and actually closing with the title song doesn't help. (Was that Nemescu's idea, or a bad play by those colleages who completed the film? Because Wong Kar-Wai owns that song.) Nevertheless, when you consider that this is a working edit of a debut feature, all of these faults are explicable, if not excusable per se. California Dreamin' bears the subtitle (Endless) to signify that the film was unfinished at the time of Nemescu's death. Considering how fate intervened, this is a rather mighty final testament; any "man who left his will on film" would be proud of a film this strong. But mainly it's a document of unfulfilled promise, a career that will always be (endless) because it was cut short before it really began.


-The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, South Korea)

[MINOR SPOILERS] Observing my new policy, I'd really planned to let The Chaser zip by without comment, but on further reflection I feel like I have a few things to say. It's highly entertaining, although certainly it demands that the viewer make his / her peace with a fair degree of misogyny even as judged against other serial killer films. It's rather obvious that neither Na nor the film itself endorses the killer's point of view, although a third-act plot twist is so Funny Games-level sadistic that one could be forgiven for harboring doubts. But in the drive to depict a hopelessly sullied, compromised world -- even our putative hero (Kim Yun-seok) is a former police detective now working as a pimp -- The Chaser offers very little outside of its view of woman as victim. A taciturn female detective offers a partial corrective, but she's given little to do, other than remind us of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. And, just as The Chaser offers no real external perspective on its internal dynamics, it seems to me that it functions primarily as an extremely well-assembled composite of ideas drawn from other movies. Jeremy Heilman and Andrew Grant both cite Bong Joon-ho's superior Memories of Murder, a rather direct thematic antecedent. Both films focus less on the killer than the hamstrung police force systematically kept from pursuing its quarry, even when (in the case of The Chaser) it's sitting right there in front of them. There's also a bit of Se7en, since the killer (Ha Jung-woo, last seen as a puppy-dog innocent in My Dear Enemy) turns himself in, so confident is he that the system will break down, that human nature will prod "the good guys" to fall back on their basest instincts and give him the out he needs. So, really, that's the crux of my problem with The Chaser. It's exceedingly well-crafted and never less than compelling, but it feels like a pastiche of serial-killer and police-procedural tropes, and I'm hard-pressed to find a tone or a flourish that Na can call his own. Granted, this is his debut film. But that begs the question: is that what we just expect debut films to do nowadays? Is it a given that any guy with the calling to be a film director is going to be a to-the-bone movie brat, and he just has to get his hermetic "movie-movie" out of his system? Grumble, grumble, grumble, go read a fucking book.....




-Examined Life (Astra Taylor, Canada)

I'll be writing a longer piece on this one for Cineaste, so really, this is just a brief placeholder for that link. But the main problem here is that with this project, Taylor, a learned and inquisitive documentarian, pretty much defines biting off more than anyone could possibly chew. In segment two, Avital Ronell cheekily makes reference to the fact that her ideas cannot be summed up in a ten-minute segment, and she's right, sort of. As is, she comes off like a smokestack churning out groundless abstractions. (Without my background in the post-structuralist black arts, I doubt I'd have made heads or tails of her tapestry of $10 verbiage.) Meanwhile, Peter Singer is way down on ground level, sounding much more like Noam Chomsky back in the Manufacturing Dissent flick, describing the practical consequences of flagrant consumption. In between are all manner of dangling conversations, plus Zizek brought back for a bonus track of fulmination. Only Cornel West gets more than his allotted slot, appearing in the Discourse Cab three times. With good reason! He's the only participant who manages to explicate complex ideas in an accessible manner while avoiding the temptation to streamline them for a broad audience. Really, he should have been the subject of an entire film unto himself. He's the only person on display here who I could honestly see electrifying a viewer enough to prompt her or him to rush from the movie theatre to the library. One idea that keeps coming up is the ethical necessity of incompletion and non-mastery, or putting aside notions of "failure" in favor of the asymptotic trajectory of knowledge's desire. So, Taylor gives us a necessarily incomplete cine-document, a sampler platter of contemporary high thought. It fails to satisfy, but perhaps those kinds of terms imply a framework that's radically beside the point. More to come, as I digest . . .


-Fados (Carlos Saura, Spain / Portugal)

Thoroughly disappointing on most any level, Fados, really, is barely a film at all, in the way we're used to thinking about films. Saura hasn't even made a documentary about fado, the traditional Portuguese ballad which is an axiom of that nation's popular culture. (Its melange of Iberian, African, and Brazilian influences also exemplify the colonial past and multicultural present.) Fados is essentially a performance film, featuring one fado number after another, most staged with Saura's museum-meets-concert-hall scrims and back-projections. Saturated single colors fill the stage, singers move through film and video backdrops, and lithe dancers provide upscale music-video accompaniment. And that's pretty much it. No harm, no foul, except that even on its auto-ethnographical VH1 terms, Fados is rather slipshod. Saura's opening number is the best, and I remember watching it thinking that its good ideas would almost certainly fall by the wayside. In a white-walled museum space with bare parquet floors, fado musicians of all ages dance and mill around in a kind of carnivale. This opening salvo seemed to display a dialectical awareness on Saura's part -- "I am bringing folk culture into the realm of the Official, with the hopes that I don't crush the life out of it." But this self-reflexive moment was apparently an accident. (Although Fados ends with another self-reflexive gesture, a zoom-in to a 35mm camera's eye, it has no discernible meaning.) As it hurtles along, Fados just employs its rather antisceptic environments, complete with post-Edward Steichen "social context" photosilkscreen tapestries and newsreels, as window dressing, a substitute for some genuinely filmic idea. What's more, Saura frequently gets in his own middlebrow way. A song about forbidden cross-class, cross-race love gets smothered by muddled visuals, dancers in flowing gowns being blown up and looped in back projection, filling the stage / screen with Baroque-down folds of flapping silk. Or, when an explicitly Communist fado is matched with protest footage, Saura bungles the opportunity to provide any tangible reaction besides "politics." Considering the complicated role of fado music during the dictatorship that dominated Portugal's 20th century, Saura is remiss in adopting a structure that blandly presents the fados, one after the other, with so little individuation. He may see them as fundamentally equivalent, but Salazar certainly didn't.