SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Stan’s Window (Stan Brakhage) [s]
Of the final few Brakhage films, this one affected me like no other. In part this is because it is a self-portrait in a very direct sense. For the first (last) time in many years, we see Brakhage’s face, an eerily flattened-out form hovering in the darkness. Much of the film centers on the extreme ends of photographic light, with Brakhage straining film’s very capacity to register concrete images. Passages are dense with blackness, with only the slightest hint of an object piercing through to vision. Then, just as our eyes are adjusting to this, the film cuts to a radiant window or light emanating from a hallway. Very basic effects, in some ways, but for me, simply devastating. A final testament to the value of being alive in the world.
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)
Not as affecting as Drifting Clouds or as jarring as The Match Factory Girl, Aki’s latest is still thoroughly impressive and was gunning for a 9 until the ending, when the whole thing is undercut by fairy-tale cuteness. Still, one rarely sees this level of formal control and unpretentious literary wit. And like Kaurismäki’s other films, this one manages to make the world of the poor somehow radiant without soft-pedaling or glib romanticizing. I smiled my way through in my opinion.
Panels for the Walls of Heaven (Stan Brakhage) [m]
Brakhage’s last long film, Panels is intended to serve as a hand-painted conclusion to the “Vancouver Island” series. Its use of placid oceanic color, interrupted by jarring passages of fiery red or yellow, rhymes in part with the photographic color schemes of The God of Day, the only other film in the series I’ve seen. Panels is in many ways a summary work, incorporating most of the styles and shapes his hand-painted work has assumed over the years. Like many such summary works, it is a bit too ambitious at times, anxious to move from one visual idea to the next. Its breadth prohibits it from hanging together as well as it might. But there are stunning passages, such as the slathered-on, icy blues forming planes like European stucco, and the repeated motif near the end of dense weaves of color giving way to lone strands of yellow or green dangling in the projector light. The repetition conveyed a sense of someone dragging out a story, because they don’t want to leave.
X2 (Bryan Singer)
What a pleasant surprise. Despite some draggy parts toward the end, mostly related to tying up its too-many loose ends (Wolverine vs. his military creator, Pyro joining the dark side), this is pretty much exactly what I want from a comic book / superhero movie. Most of the characters are engaging, and those who aren’t (e.g., Storm, Cyclops) are kept to a minimum of screen-time. More emphasis on world-domination plots, less focus on hand-to-hand combat – the security that viewers today won’t just walk away from something that doesn’t look like a lame-ass HK knockoff or a videogame. (Cf. Matrix Reloaded.) A lot more time with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ Mystique is a good thing. She’s a fun, intriguing character, and Singer even managed to work in a brief Femme Fatale reference. In short, this was a really fun time at the movies. Ich bin ein geek.
Down With Love (Peyton Reed)
And up with Sarah Paulson! Having seen Pillow Talk, as well as less direct sources such as Sex and the Single Girl, I enjoyed Down’s recreation of the candy-colored Battle-of the-Sexes insouciance of those films. And this script was super-sharp – had me in stitches throughout. And yet, all the money, all the mise-en-scene, and all the self-conscious whimsy couldn’t disguise the fact that the whole thing is just a tad sloppy. Every two scenes that crackle are matched by one that’s pitifully slack. Bottom line: this is a project that’s simply beyond Reed’s grasp as a director. And as usual, I just don’t see anything in Renee Zellweger. Her performance is too labored, which is all the more noticeable because McGregor, Pierce, and especially Paulson are aces.
Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
This movie is a slippery one, given that its power (such as it is) exists so completely in the memory. Thinking about Turning Gate afterward is proving to be a far more rewarding experience than actually watching it was. In fact, I found most of the first hour so deadly dull as to be amazed at the film’s high reputation. What the film does do very well is demonstrate the performative aspect of everyday life, the way we quote ourselves and others while purporting to be spontaneous and natural. The same lines are recycled, the same professions of love are used from city to city and lover to lover, and the repetition of a gesture can rekindle long-forgotten feelings. (“History repeats, the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.” – Elvis Costello) Some of this is extremely potent, like Seon-young’s impromptu dance recital. Other parts are just so sublimely revelatory as to be embarrassing, like when Kyung-su shows Girl #2 his “move,” and demands to know, on the spot, “Does that feel good? Do you like my move?” (I think I tried that “move” recently, to relative success, but now I think I will quietly retire it . . .) The fact is, in recounting this film’s highlights, I am almost convincing myself that I have severely underrated it, but there is simply no getting around the fact that so much slow-building set-up is required in the beginning, and (unlike in the similar Divine Intervention) it feels very much like dead time. I have no doubt a second viewing would enrich these early moments. And yet, the ambivalence permeating the film is no less deflating for being theoretically correct. The two men’s shoulder-shrug about the titular landmark is telling – they could see it or not, it doesn’t much matter. The purpose, of course, is not theirs so much as Hong’s. There’s a myth there, and hearing it is about as good as actually seeing the goddamned thing. Having the myth laid out allows Hong to restage it in his final rain-soaked shot. At first I was irritated by the archness, but then it became clear that Hong was simply subjecting himself to the same critique, showing that all he can do is quote, like any of the rest of us. Yes, fine, but it’s a bit like someone turning their pockets inside out and announcing, “Sorry bud, it’s the Postmodern Condition. I got nothin’.”
Waiting For Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania / France)
I realize that for many viewers, this film would be deadly boring, slow, utterly unengaging. And yet, it seemed to me as though Sissako set out to make the most accessible, ingratiating “slow Third World art film” ever. For every bit of careful examination of everyday details, there is an equal, if not greater, amount of cuteness, sentimentality, and eye-candy exotica. The “poetic” structure is really more semi-Faulkneresque, in that Sissako continually moves us between different characters, all rooted in a particular place. In this respect, it’s only really “abstract” in the sense that there are no final-reel link-ups or coincidences. In fact, the shifting from scenario to scenario felt irritatingly random, and throughout the film I wanted to feel a firmer directorial hand. The strongest sequence (Nana’s devastating European flashback, step-printed and beautifully grainy) is immediately followed by one of the cheapest (the photo session). All in all, I was consistently entertained, so I liked it. But it’s clear that Sissako thought he was accomplishing more. One final note: the endless close-ups of worn-out shoes in the sand, okay, we get it, you’ve read Heidegger, thanks.
The Chinese Series (Stan Brakhage) [s]
A brief and lovely film, quite reminiscent of Len Lye’s late testament, Particles in Space. The particular quality of the emulsion scratches in 35mm is very fine, not unlike a Franz Klein painting in reverse. There is a halting flow to the marks and their movement, although as a work it does not hold together as well as one might hope. The markmaking has a power that the overall composition does not. Given the circumstances of its creation – Brakhage carving into black leader with his thumbnail, on his deathbed, with the film ending along with its maker;s life – it seems in poor taste to point out that it is not among his best abstract works. Then again, to ignore this would be an equally inappropriate response, given the magnitude of Brakhage’s artistic achievement. There is no reason to expect that this film should be his finest. And yet, even a somewhat scattershot effort by this great artist yields substantial rewards.
Manic (Jordan Melamed)
Really quite strong about half the time, with strong performances all around and a loose, Cassavetes-like faux-observational style. But the rest of the time, it follows the worn grooves of genre formula, especially at the end. Absolute highlight: “shared music day,” which becomes an impromptu mosh-pit and anger-orgy. Called Assayas’ Cold Water to mind. Good job First Time Director.
Charlotte Sometimes (Eric Byler)
I really wanted to like this one a lot more, since I could so plainly see what it was trying to do, and I admired that aim so thoroughly. But the lovely, unforced moments in which everything came together (mostly centering around Jacqueline Kim’s fabulous performance) made the clunky first-film schematism more evident elsewhere. It wanted to be an Asian-American Hal Hartley film, but it didn’t have the patience. (Less cutting, slightly longer awkward pauses, please.) It wanted to be an elliptical, suburban L.A. answer to David Gordon Green, but it didn’t have the dough. (So many dark compositions would have been achingly beautiful on film, but just looked cruddy on video.) More than anything, the soundtrack torpedoed many potentially moving moments. Still, I hope this finds its audience so that Byler won’t have to compromise next time.
A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest)
This film was edited by Robert Leighton (A.C.E.). He has an impressive middlebrow resumé, including Rob Reiner’s two best films, This is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride. So, why can’t this fellow construct a reasonably convincing shot / reverse-shot conversation at a boardroom table, using basic over-the-shoulder shots? Jesus Christ, if it’s going to be that hard (and it shouldn’t be), tell Begley and Balaban to keep their hands in neutral positions. Anyway, this film was painfully obvious and unfunny for the first half and then suddenly got pretty good. I went to see it with an interest in confirming a thesis, which is that Guest’s dominant topic is the unique embarrassment of middle-class whiteness (e.g. British heavy metal, community theatre, over-investment in pets, and now folk). It’s borne out here, but the approach is thankfully leavened with genuine affection we haven’t seen since Tap. The Folksmen are actually a pretty good group, which is why we heard so much more of them than Mitch & Mickey, despite M&M’s plot centrality. In short, wryly funny when truly occupying folk culture, sadly rudderless when standing smugly outside it.
Proxy (Mark Hejnar) [v/s]
Um, that was kinda fucked up. (A few days pass and I decide . . .) This is a disturbing work, mostly because of its inclusion of medical footage of children undergoing inscrutable tests, seizures, even autopsies. It called to mind Sharits’ Epileptic Seizure Comparison, although it’s nowhere near as complex. Basically this tape is too muddled to be successful as experimental video or as a documentary, and it pales beside Hejnar’s far more eloquent 1999 tape Jeff.
Man On the Train (Patrice Leconte, France)
Absolutely winning performances from two fine actors (and I might add, their iconic quality is largely wasted on me), all in the service of what? A dunderheaded script intent on piling on implausibilities like toppings at the salad bar? A schematic structure which veers from silly contrivance to poetic, possibly metaphysical hooey? Pervasive directorial hackwork, the nadir of which is the use of dueling theme music (rockabilly for Hallyday, classical for Rochefort)? This makes me second-guess my appreciation of the last two Lecontes I’ve seen. Also, a blue filter does not equal visual style.
The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers)
Tedious exposition, tedious exposition, tedious exposition, pontificating Fishburne, tedious exposition, VIDEOGAME! Repeat seven or eight times.
Sogobi (James Benning)
I am a great admirer of Benning, and I hate to jump on an already-sizable dogpile. But each film in the “California trilogy” has resulted in diminishing returns, Sogobi being the weakest. The 35-shot, 2 ½ minutes-per-shot schema doesn't really work here, because most of the shots are still, unadorned nature images. In almost every case, concentrated (or more accurately, elongated) temporal attention does not expand the viewer's relationship with the filmic space. I sometimes think Benning is unfairly held to a higher standard than other avant-garde filmmakers, because of his decision to make feature-length works and his open political concerns. He has as much right to make rarified, apolitical Art as anyone. Sogobi does lack the sense of social critique that suffuses the other two films, but to my eyes it also fails as a nature study. Many shots are hazy and wobbly, and with a few exceptions (such as the train sequence, or the military caravan) the careful juxtapositions of the previous films are sorely lacking. Hard to know what to take away from it, other than a basic “this is what we need to preserve from the cold hard grasp of capital” sentiment, better argued elsewhere.
The Shape of Things (Neil LaBute)
Mr. LaBute is an intellectual infant. While every self-satisfied frame of this film evinces his firm belief that he has provided us with an excoriating disquisition on art and ethics, in fact it is closer to a shit-pantsed tantrum. Also, the musical upgrade (from Corgan to Costello) is wholly undeserved.