SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 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)

 

[9]

 

Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark / Sweden / U.K. / France / Germany)

There are still a few early von Trier films I haven't seen (Epidemic; Medea), but given the strength of his "Golden Heart" trilogy, and the extent to which Dogville surpasses those films, I feel I can say with confidence that Dogville is the director's finest work to date, a near-masterpiece. In addition to its obvious virtues (a three-hour running time that feels like ninety minutes; unique, modulated performances all around, some [Chloë Sevigny, Jeremy Davies] clearly selected for their deliberate irritation value), Dogville represents, I think, a startling shift in von Trier's work, away from godlike manipulation and superiority, and towards a rigorous self-critique.

 

Both Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, the strongest films in the "Golden Heart" trilogy, inspired awe and ambivalence from me in equal amounts, since their emotional assault on the viewer and his / her assumptions about reality (religious faith in the first, radical politics in the second) fell squarely on the backs of women, put through their melodramatic paces for the purpose (in Young Tom Edison's words) of "illustration." Even if one cottons to BTW's rather conservative assertions about human and divine nature, the sexism is difficult to countenence. Seemingly re-reading Fassbinder on the way back to Griffith, von Trier's melodramas imply a critique of the artifice of the genre, only to embrace those conventions, unreconstructed, in the end. (Von Trier's commitment to this project as such is in fact strongest in his third "Golden Heart" film, Dancer in the Dark, even though its sincerity partially torpedoes its success as a film.) With Dogville, von Trier goes back to basics, past Fassbinder, past Sirk, to Brecht, the originator. Brecht's formal techniques of estrangement (actors who "quote" their roles rather than inhabiting them; the combination of genre conventions with disruptive, didactic asides; adoption of allegorical procedures, not to depart from realism, but to break with surface naturalism in favor of the revelation of the deep structures of society) are evident throughout Dogville, but von Trier takes them on with 21st-century skepticism. We cannot be as cock-sure as Brecht was that there are basic mechanisms of society (capitalism vs. socialism; "old" vs. "new" human nature), and von Trier picks these tools up at a point in history when the project of "Brechtian cinema" would seem to have exhausted itself. (I am more forgiving of its excesses than most, but Serge Daney's critique of "Godardian pedagogy" is the key explication of the hazards of this project.)

 

Rather than standing outside of Dogville as its sadistic puppetmaster, certain of the lesson we the audience are to learn at the expense of a purehearted simpleton, von Trier places himself squarely in the middle of things, in the guise of Tom Edison, a would-be social critic who aims to elevate his inferiors via excoriating illustrations ("perhaps even a trilogy," as John Hurt's narrator confides). Tom is a moralist, and like the von Trier of the "Golden Heart" trilogy, he makes the mistake of seizing on Grace (Nicole Kidman) as an opportunity for a moral lesson. He does the thinking for her, even as we the audience see the absolute idiocy and bankrupcy of his "ideas." (As Tom puts Grace in deeper and deeper peril, most of us in the audience howled as the exhausted, humiliated Grace continues to defer to his "wisdom.") There are several key moves in Dogville with which von Trier indicts Tom Edison. In addition to the obvious, naming him after a conniving American capitalist who was physically incapable of listening to others, von Trier problematizes his actions (along with those of all the residents of Dogville, Grace excepted) through Hurt's intrusive, novelistic narration. Whereas von Trier's earlier films demanded a guileless submission to melodramatic emotional cues on the part of the audience (that is, submission to von Trier's will and higher knowledge), Dogville positions Hurt as a mediator between Grace and the audience. We are hailed, in Brechtian style, as critical viewers, and if we are ultimately asked to identify with Grace (the suffering woman, as in other von Trier films), the voice-over keeps us at a distance. Eventually, this distance is enfolded into Grace's subject position ("Grace paused," etc.), and von Trier tips his hand at last. It is Grace, not Tom Edison, who is conducting the moral experiment. (With an abrupt tonal shift when Grace speaks with James Caan in the car, von Trier signals that the film has entered a new, less abstract realm. Grace's "illustration" is in fact anything but.)

 

Now, this reading of the film in no way obviates von Trier's clear intent to indict American culture and its habitual exploitation of immigrants. The concluding montage, while not entirely successful -- it gestures toward strong didacticism but upon inspection is actually quite ambiguous --, seems to simultaneously offer the viewer images of America's dispossessed, and call into question the patronizing liberal impulse that led to thsee photographs' creation in the first place. (Media critics John Tagg and Paula Rabinowitz have both mounted Foucaultian analyses of WPA photos and their ideological construction of the "noble poor.") Dogville is not an exercise in auteurist navel-gazing, but it does launch its attack on new, more complicated grounds. Von Trier, hailing from one of the liberal European democracies, is re-inventing the Brechtian tradition in order to attack patronizing liberalism from inside. But of course, he is also levelling his indictment at the one country which considers itself to be the realization of the Western Enlightenment project, that arrogates to itself the power over global life and death, the privilege to "award" citizenship as a benevolent gift. America's image of itself, as documented by Tocqueville and Weber and as attested to by the New Deal, is one of Christian charity and moral rectitude, but of course this is but one side of the dialectical coin. The puritan tradition is never far behind, and Tom Edison's cruelty under the guise of benevolence is perhaps the specifically American version of a mean streak in the Western tradition, one that von Trier cannot simply stand outside of and critique from afar. This is what von Trier contributes to the Brechtian project -- immanent critique. And this is why facile dismissals of Dogville (esuch as Todd McCarthy's in Variety) completely miss the point. By eschewing moral superiority, condescension, and a kneejerk desire to force the Other to suffer for our sins, Lars von Trier isn't just attacking the good ol' U. S. of A. He's employing harsh self-examination in order to snuff the American within.

 

[7]

 

The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, U.S. / Haiti)

The 7 is a bit deceptive, actually, since it only really pertains to the rather conventional format (another, ahem, "talking heads" doc from Demme) and an abrupt opening that didn't entirely set the stage for the information that followed. Everything else is actually strong-8 territory, edifying and electrifying, largely due to the force of nature that was (and is) Jean Dominique. It's not just his charisma, his humor, or his unflagging dedication to toppling injustice through the sheer power of independent journalism. It's the fact that Dominique, as captured by Demme, represents an inspirational model for the left, unwilling to concede some very basic political demands -- human rights, democratic participation, economic justice. (I was especially pleased to see Dominique press former-President Aristide about corruption and cronyism. Clearly Aristide's administration was infinitely better for Haiti than the Duvalier dictatorships or military juntas, but Dominique still made it clear that "better" wasn't good enough in itself.) Witnessing Dominique's passion and commitment for nearly 90 minutes, I was deeply moved by his wife's on-air anti-eulogy, insisting that Jean Dominique is not dead, so long as Radio Haiti, and ordinary Haitians, continue the fight for justice. My film-studies training makes me inherently skeptical of the hagiographic documentary, treating history as the work of great men. But for the first time in a long while, the form feels entirely justified.

 

The Company (Robert Altman)

A very interesting new direction for Altman, one I applaud but that in this incarnation is not yet entirely successful.  I've seen ten or so Altman features, and this is definitely the quietest one since the days of 3 Women and Quintet.  With its emphasis on the physicality of dance (endless rehearsal, problem-solving, and the occasional snapping body part), The Company turns Altman's signature cross-talk and overlap into a spatial proposition, the stage or the studio teeming with dispersed points of attention. Instead of picking voices out of the crowd and then letting them fade back into the overall din, most of the time watching this film is about taking the titular Company as a solid unit.  Unfortunately, this strategy is undercut by shifting focus onto Neve Campbell and James Franco's characters, singling them out based on the assumption that an audience requires an individual locus of identification.  Many of these sequences were quite lovely (the barroom meeting and the missed dinner date, in particular), and the lovers' gestural language across noisy distances was dead-on, a grace note conveying an Altman's accumulated wisdom about everything that is best in relationships when they are truly working.  Sadly, the downside to The Company's spare dominant mode is that frequently when people do talk (especially Malcolm McDowell's poorly-written and miscast Antonelli), their words cannot sustain the added burden of total attention.  Too many lines are either silly or stereotypical, and although this may have been the point -- that these are people of action, and words only get in their way -- it still pointed back to Altman's legacy of interwoven voices and contrapuntal dialogue, and the pitfalls of stripping it down.  Two of the three major dance sequences ("Tensile Involvement," the opening ribbon number, and the outdoor pas de deux) were among last year's finest moments on film.  But was the "Blue Snake" number supposed to be ridiculous, sub-Cirque du Soleil bullshit, a big-money corporate crowd-pleaser? I ask on account of, that's what it was.

 

Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock)

Having seen this just hours after watching Michael m'Or win the Palme Doore, I was braced for some well-meaning but fatally sensationalistic liberal stuntsmanship. Which it kind of is, except that unlike Moore, Spurlock manages to score his political points with a sense of aw-shucks humility, frequently making himself the big bloated butt of the jokes. The best description of this is Michael Moore + Jackass, where the argumentation is structured within a preposterous, self-imposed physical challenge. I worried, as per McDonald's official condemnation of the film as a document of "one individual's decision to act irresponsibly," that Spurlock's gonzo behavior would in essence disprove his thesis, but the sheer extent of the physical damage, combined with figures on fast-food " heavy users," successfully justified his methods. While the film is no triumph of cinematic art (it's digital and it shows; will likely look better on TV), Spurlock is affable, a natural comedian, and has clearly done his homework, all resulting in a jarring, laugh-out-loud documentary that won me over despite my skepticism. Points off for needless Jay Lenoisms ("hey, man on the street, what's a calorie?"), bonus points for the strategic deployment of Wesley Willis and some well-placed orange vomit.

 

[5]

 

The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich)

Recommended by MoveOn.org! I mean jesus. It leaves no cheeseball cliché unturned (its father-son reconciliation is particularly silly), but I suppose it evinces as much conviction in its liberal politics as you could realistically hope it would. A Cheney-like V.P. apologizes for destroying the world in pursuit of fossil fuels. A New Yorker unabashedly proclaims his atheism while protecting a Gutenberg Bible in the name of Western civilization. Mexican border patrol stops U.S. refugees until the U.S. agrees to drop the World Bank debt. Yadda yadda, the flop-sweat of the left is really showing if we're desperate enough to champion this anemic effort from the Thinking Person's Michael Bay on environmental grounds. Still, the action stuff was pretty awesome. Except those wolves. That was stupid.

 

-Freaky Friday (Mark Waters)

And the Mark Waters Mediocre Film Festival continues. Strong performances from the two leads, tepid filmmaking all-round. These situations of comic embarrassment aren't supposed to feel so mechanical. It just becomes tiresome.

 

-Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (Brett Sullivan, Canada)

Really, the grade is something like 4 for the first and third acts and 7.5 for the middle. It begins like a rather ham-fisted and less-literate retread of the first film, simply making a shift from sexuality to drug addiction as the controlling metaphor for lycanthropy. Karen Walton's curt, acidic writing in the first picture was sorely missed here. Then, GS2 bounces back, turning this minus into a plus. Rather than being driven by banter or sly metaphor, it turns into a near-silent exploration of spatial and bodily confinement. The airshaft scene -- how many of those have we seen over the years? -- was actually startling in its steely claustrophobia. (The sound design helped in this regard, with some disorienting Autechre-like environmental techno, swirling around and making full use of my home-theatre speakers. Must've sounded great in a movie theatre.) Despite some up and down moments in the final third, the film ultimately resolves itself (if I can really use that word) into an extended late-period Buffy episode, complete with irritating, loquacious tween.

 

Living in New Town (Hong Doo-Hyun, South Korea) [s]

If there's one thing I've learned over the past few years, it's that nearly every film out of South Korea is good-looking at the very least.  I can only assume this is due to the training of Korean film academies, which must drill rigorous cinematographic composition into every student's head.  This is good, since a short 35mm piece like Living in New Town, while not a waste of time by any means, is certainly of limited interest in and of itself, and its striking visuals go a long way in elevating it from its modest station. A young girl walks home at night on an abandoned city street (looked like Seoul, but can't be sure) and stumbles on the brutal remnants of a hit-and-run accident.  Virtually silent, doom-laden and intense, there is only so much Hong can do with this arrangement, since New Town keeps pointing to a narrative world beyond mere mood, a place it wants to go but really can't.  Assuming this is a student film (no information about the filmmaker in the usual sources), Hong Doo-Hyun is certainly a name I'll file away for future reference.  Living in New Town reads like a calling-card, and it really is a pretty impressive advertisement for the director's potential.

 

Mean Girls (Mark Waters)

. . . but auteurism be damned, this is Tina Fey's film. Well, okay, Tina Fey's and Lindsay Lohan's and the studio's, since most of the truly subversive elements one would expect from a movie based on Tina Fey's comedic treatment of the source material (Rosalind Wiseman's pop-ethnography Queen Bees and Wannabes) have been sanded down, leaving a strange melange of recycled Heatherisms, sassy pep-talk, and SNL sketch behavior (e.g., Amy Poehler's hip-clueless mom) that outstays its welcome. Lohan is winning, and the film occasionally manages to meld its hard-outline illustration of deterministic behavior with the plastic-constraints of teen pop cinema. (In fact, now that I think about it, its iron law of genre-plus-typology is sort of Lars von Trier for tweens. Bleech.) Scores a few points here and there (especially the whole pretending-to-be-dumb-so-boys-will-like-you thing) only to soften them into feel-good affirmational untruths. (High school guys are really sensitive and just want you to be yourself, wha . . .? Okay.) In short, the film cops out and puts way too much faith in the power of honesty and no-bullshit faculty intervention. If that's all it took, we wouldn't be having this discussion across America. Best stuff, hands-down: Regina's little sister, video ho in training. Funny-scary, like this film was supposed to be.

 

Young Adam (David Mackenzie, U.K.)

This is a tricky film to critique, since its intent is clear and, I think, worthy. But this can't excuse its ultimate failure to deliver on its promise. Ewan McGregor is Joe, not so much a human being as a primal male force. Following his huge schlong (played by Ewan McGregor's penis) into an endless string of Penthouse Forum encounters, Joe seems to embody a certain strain of virility fantasy, recoded as absolute psychopathology. He's "innocent" in a Nietzschean sense, a guilt-free Superman acting without plan and shrugging off consequences. This Adam works aboard the Glaswegian barge the Atlantic Eve, screwing everything in sight, both literally (Tilda Swinton's Ella) and metaphorically (Peter Mullan's cuckolded Les, whose name is pronounced with a distinct, feminizing Z-sound at the end). The rapidity with which women shed their frocks clearly marks this film as some sort of allegory, as does its gorgeously deliberate use of the river, but first-timer Mackenzie loses control of his material. The flashback-subplot involving Joe's girlfriend Cathy (Emily Mortimer) works in tandem with the overall critique-of-the-unchained-male-libido structure for most of the first half -- Joe and Cathy's sex is even more rutting and animalistic than his encounters with Ella -- but these passages veer into the risibly outsized (the bizarre, jaw-dropping custard sequence, successful in itself but belonging in a more psychologically oriented film), culminating in an interminable third-act trial. Beautifully lensed, mostly well-acted (within the limited emotional framework), but shoddily structured and -- worst offense overall -- gratingly scored by David Byrne, obviously trying for "minimalist New Age crime drama," and hitting that dubious mark.

 

[4]

 

Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, Israel)

Phony arthouse sentimentality and forced-happenstance of the highest order. Its family roundelay and syrupy musical transitions are cribbed from latter-day Mike Leigh; the video-as-coping-mechanism from Atom Egoyan; the Haifa-as-a-character master shots and twinkling vistas are pure Hou and Yang; the fear of female teenage sexuality and independence, from too many films to mention. In short, Bergman has cobbled together a cookie-cutter festival film by stealing from his betters, and the results are stultifying and predictable. Avoid.

 

-Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz)

Why did I watch this stupid movie. It was so dumb. I cannot tell you how fucking dumb this movie was. It even ripped off Serene Velocity except it did it inside a home for disturbed women. From the pretty kind of decent The Hate through the amusingly shitty The Crimson Rivers to this, at this rate Kassovitz's next project will be directing I, Retard. (I.e., Kassovitz is getting increasingly retarded is what I am saying.)

 

-My Flesh and Blood (Jonathan Karsh)

I ended up catching this on HBO by accident. It's hard to write about this film, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's virtually critic-proof. The bravery and intelligence of the Tom children (13 adoptees all with special needs and/or terminal illnesses) inspiring to behold. (An entire film about Faith Tom, a vivacious eight-year-old who sustained severe burns as an infant, would be essential viewing should someone choose to make it.) At the same time, this is exactly the patronizing liberal attitude that Karsh and company cynically trade on in this film. Amidst the rambunctious but loving family, there's the "problem child," Joe. It's not the fact that he's dying of cystic fibrosis that is the "problem" in this context (and he does indeed pass away in the course of the documentary), but his near-violent rage. The film tries to construct Joe as a tragic figure but ends up singling him out for his failure to adhere to his mother's and the viewers' expectations about how he should react to his situation. Clearly, in addition to being angry about his impending death, he was frustrated by his lack of attention in a sprawling, noisy, job-a-minute family. Was he wrong to expect more attention than he got? When Susan Tom jokingly claims that after the fifth child, what's eight more, or makes clear her unwillingness to give her older, able-bodied daughter a lousy five minutes for an emotional discussion, the film makes Joe's point for him. The interesting thing, but also the most troubling, about this film is that the children's health challenges eventually seem beside the point. It's the interpersonal turmoil and flawed-pragmatic parenting decisions that take center stage. This is revealing, especially since Karsh seems to make this argument almost by accident. Nevertheless, as filmmaking, My Flesh and Blood skates on the surface, never interrogating its relationship to the children, to Susan Tom herself (whose confessional moments to the camera seem like the worse excesses of reality-TV psychoanalysis), or how the filmmaking process contributes to the zoo-like atmosphere of the household. The attention clearly served a purpose for some members of the family, others were completely unaware of it, but Joe was ambivalent about it at best. (He too turns to Karsh's camera as a confidant, but not before shouting at the cameraman to "stop filming!") I do not mean to critique the dynamics of a family I do not know, although the film itself is so imbricated with them that there is little else to discuss. I do not know the Toms, only Karsh's representation of them. But I come away from My Flesh and Blood sharing the late Joe's ambivalence. How can a documentary like this one refrain from intrusiveness and spectacularization? What do we learn from it that in some way justifies its commodification of private human lives? In 2004, it's beginning to look like the critique of liberal anthropology never happened. These bright, strong, complex children do not owe the rest of us uplift.

 

[2]

 

Meteor (Huang Shi-ping, Taiwan) [v/s]

This abysmal digital-animation short features two punk kids messing with a meteor after it falls on their block.  It is magnetic and turns the wad of junk it attracts to itself into a badly animated robot.  Rudimentary on every level, visually hideous, this video piece has all the aesthetic appeal of a pungent, protein-laden cat fart. Seven minutes in hell.