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)


[NOTE: This section does not include the two Czech films the Syracuse Festival placed before me. Those are here.]




The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving)

It's taken me a while to get around to composing this review, since I'm not really sure how to articulate my approval of this film. I suspect my reaction to it is idiosyncratic, and I wouldn't necessarily expect others to share my qualified enthusiasm since I'm fully cognizant of the film's flaws. They include an overall San Francisco new-agey vibe, a noodly, Windham Hill type guitar soundtrack, and an irritating preciousness that pervades Irving's editing scheme -- a one-to-one correspondence wherein amateur parrot enthusiast Mark Bittner will announce that sometimes the conures do thus-and-so, and Irving always has just the footage to verify the claim. And for much of the film, I was unnerved by Bittner's unabashed anthropomorphizing of the birds and the film's shaping of these observations into character arcs (Mingus, the wild parrot who wants to be tamed; Connor, the lone-wolf blue-crested conure, a strong, silent type defending the flock at a stoic remove like a Clint Eastwood character; Sophie, the frail lady bird who's lost without her mate). But what is pleasantly surprising and ultimately moving about Wild Parrots is that over the course of its running time, Bittner and Irving directly address this problem of ethnographic / ornithological distance. Bittner concludes by explaining that he'd tried to maintain a detached hobbyist's attitude toward the parrots so that he, with his long hair and rent-free squatting and itinerant employment, wouldn't look like a kook. But in relating the story of his relationship with one single bird, he provides a touching argument in favor of abandoning the framework of disinterested observation and allowing the object of your curiosity to really change you. The utterly unexpected final revelation, which at first seemed rather silly and out of place, is in fact a perfect gesture, enfolding Irving's own project into Bittner's insight. Wild Parrots is the rare documentary that is willing to end up somewhere quite far from where it began.




-Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski)

This is a pretty good film, staking out a refreshingly different path from the standard-issue twentysomething gabfests that have clogged the Sundance screening schedule since the indie "revolution" of the early 90s. But I found myself resisting it just as often as it coaxed me to let down my guard. I can't help feeling that it's being overpraised just a bit by some critics because, instead of swaggering along like a sub-Syd Field treatise by a slick, dudish film student, hat to the back and Pulp Fiction Special Edition DVD tucked under his arm, Funny Ha Ha plays by the unwritten rules of highbrow cinephilia. Bujalski eschews cheapy-slick production values by choosing 16mm over DV. It's clear that he has edited on film instead of using Avid or Final Cut Pro. He underlights, giving FHH both a grainy, black-stuccoed texture and an offhanded visual ambiguity that doesn't gladhand to a hypothetically witless viewer. Most telling of all, the surest sign that Bujalski has done his homework, is that the opening title just pops up and then we're off; the final credits roll in silence. That's right -- no well-selected indie rock hit, no ironic use of ABBA. Just silence. Like Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers do it! While I realize I'm casting all this in a rather cynical light, I don't mean to imply that it doesn't work. In fact, I kept nodding to myself while watching FHH thinking, "if I ever made a film, I'd do that too." What gives me pause about the film is that, like its subjects, its form entails a kind of faux-passivity, a willingness to jury-rig various humiliating situations in order to induce the requisite wincing, but does so within a clearly artificial "observational" / "improv" mode that shuffles its feet imploring, "believe in me!" Mostly FHH compels belief, and it's certainly at its strongest when depicting the bobbing-driftwood, la-di-da longing of Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer, preternaturally assured in exhibiting the wounded-puppy sexiness the role demands). Other moments, however "real" they may seem, ask for a level of identification with hipster posturing. The discomfort in doing so is too easily paralleled with its equally unappealing opposite, rooting for needy Mitchell (played by Bujalski). Funny Ha Ha does a terrific job of setting up what feels like a too-neat conundrum for both Marnie and the viewer -- guilelessness or snotty disaffection? -- but covers its tracks with a surface naturalism that tends to obviate any real frankness about its aims. The final shot suspends the question nicely, but I look forward to seeing Bujalski's latest, Mutual Appreciation, to see whether pitch-perfect passive-aggression can give way to a positive assertion, be it a bold leap forward or just a gawky, unpremeditated lunge.


Look at Me [Comme une image] (Agnès Jaoui, France)

A perfectly agreeable middlebrow entertainment, and the clearest evidence yet that the Jaoui / Bacri team have been filling the hole left gaping by Woody Allen's fifteen-year creative exhaustion. No visual style to speak of, aside from long, gliding medium shots that connote the unbroken temporality of theatre rather than Bazinian revelation. The script is overly literate, sometimes veering into a preciousness that the actors can't convey without affectation; while watching, I had a mental image of the screenplay and the performances as two parallel melodic lines that sometimes intersected and sometimes clashed in mannered dissonance. Not much else to say, really. They're getting better at what they do. Nice conclusion. No real reason for a Cannes Competition slot, even in a weak year.


Lost Embrace (Daniel Burman, Argentina / France / Italy / Spain)

My first encounter with Burman, an Argentinean director of some note. (Gotta at least somewhat admire a guy who titles one of his films Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven.) This film was pretty exhilarating right off the bat, since its swervy handheld camerawork and tendency to get right up in its protagonist's personal space called to mind the Dardenne brothers and Lodge Kerrigan. And frankly, seeing this degree of formal audacity, this gonzo willingness to push an audience's comfort level, employed in the service of a relatively lighthearted comedy -- that was a gambit I could sink my teeth into. (Note, Burman's jump cuts and expressionistic cinematography bear little resemblance to the Dogme 95 work the foregoing description may evoke, partly because Lost Embrace is clearly, beautifully, thankfully committed to real celluloid from the start.) Sadly, sometimes form only gets you so far, since Burman's film is pretty much evenly split between wry, well-observed adult humor and rather silly sitcom conceits. Daniel Hendler, who plays Ariel the reluctant lingerie store clerk with daddy issues, fully inhabits this role, putting it across with such seeming effortlessness that he makes even the script's roughest patches believable. Less likely to draw one's focus but equally impressive is Sergio Boris as Ariel's brother Joseph, precisely the sort of family member everyone else relies upon without giving it a second thought -- a true supporting role. Beyond that, well, I can't really improve on the IMDb user who pegs this as "Young Woody Allen in Buenos Aries," because despite the fact that Ariel is equal parts lothario and schlemiel, that's pretty much what it is -- sly Jewish humor in an outdoor mall, shot like Husbands and Wives with touches of Interiors dropped in for heft. It has some narrative missteps, most notably an 11th-hour copout that conveniently evaporates Ariel's resentment towards the father who abandoned him. And be forewarned that the literal title, "Broken Embrace," becomes, in fact, literalized. Despite all this overreaching, Lost Embrace is utterly frivolous, a disposable pleasure.


-Not on the Lips (Alain Resnais, France)

[The essay that had previously occupied this space can now be found here. I moved it because I wanted to attempt a slightly more focused review of the film.] For the time being, I've rated this film a 6/10 because I don't know exactly what to think about it. But days later, I'm still puzzling over it, and this tells me that whatever else the film may be, it is provocative. In fact, Not on the Lips scares me, because it so accurately presents the past (in this case, Paris 1925) as a closed door, something foreign and unimaginable. The original source material is a comic operetta about marital infidelity and intellectual fashion. Musically, it is filled with trite ideas, although the libretto does seem to entail some wit. It's frivolous and playful, and yet Resnais has masterfully transformed this object into a necrology. The dulled candy-colored sets, the too-burnished wooden banisters, and especially the high-sheen, lacquered performances (Sabine Azema and Lambert Wilson, in particular -- the former as a fading beauty whose guileless seduction belies the feeling of her own unremarked-upon age; the latter playing the American businessman as automaton, an anti-Yankee in-joke shadowed by a more sinister reliance on xenophobia and national typology) -- everything in this film as saturated with death. I'm reminded of Walt Disney's early cartoon in which skeletons bound around the graveyard, playing jazz by pounding on their own ribcages like xylophones. It's entirely possible that other viewers have seen Not on the Lips as yet another mild-mannered disquisition on middlebrow French pop culture, a quaint musical from another time, or at its most outré, a study on the dialectic between past and present (cf. Far From Heaven). This last option was my original guess, and intellectually is in keeping with late Resnais. But -- again, this could be a totally idiosyncratic reading, provoked by my own private musings on time, aging, and mortality -- Not on the Lips strikes me as something altogether more horrifying, a kind of ghost dance. I underrate it, I suspect, because this is my rather immature way of coping with just how excruciating this film is. The music, the performances and attitudes, are all supposed to be "bad," but not in some ironic fashion. The characters look into the camera and address "me," but they and I never actually connect. Resnais turns this fundamental fact of cinema into a literalized metaphor for incommensurate planes of existence, all either gone or actively fading. The film, then, is excruciating because it is killing me, turning two hours of my life into a leaden inching toward the grave. I have every confidence that Not on the Lips is a masterpiece, one which I am not even remotely equipped to grapple with.


-Waiting Room (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey)

I am a patient boy . . . Good thing, too, since Demirkubuz's latest is, at first blush, a hard film to like. Virtually all talk, with one recurring symbol so overdetermined (a mama cat has abandoned her kittens) that it hardly inspires confidence, Waiting Room struck me as a desiccated, pseudo-intellectual exercise until well past its midpoint. (If this film weren't by an auteur I'd been interested in exploring, I probably would have turned off the tape.) But over time, the film does accumulate an awkward power, slowly evolving from a study in upper-class stagnation into a portrait of a cruel, solipsistic asshole whose contempt for humanity spreads like a virus. Demirkubuz himself plays Ahmet, a filmmaker working, sort of, on an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Not unlike a Hong Sang-soo "protagonist," we see Ahmet lie his way in and out of various relationships, whose dissolution, development, and consummation are consistently elided with disorienting straight-cuts. (One minute an aspiring actress shows up at Ahmet's door, and in the next shot they are living together and she's bringing him tea. That sort of thing.) Although its initial reliance on spare but well-appointed interiors and fixed-frame compositions inevitably implies a house-bound version of Ceylan's Distant, Demirkubuz eschews his colleague's rigid grace. Formally, Waiting Room is characterized by a tendency towards mismatches that reads at first like lazy ineptitude ("this guy can't do a basic shot / countershot?"), but over the course of the running time becomes visible as a set of deliberate strategies intended to throw Ahmet's social and sexual interactions way off balance. (It's noteworthy that the most beautiful and uncompromised images in the film are still shots of light through curtains, devoid of human despoliation.) Despite some misjudged dialogues about existentialism -- moments that don't "represent" static tedium so much as embody it -- Waiting Room eventually makes a case for its own integrity as a doggedly clunky film about an ugly man.




Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney)

Sure, it does the requisite job of leaving the viewer enraged, which I'm sure is why it's getting such glowing reviews. But as a documentary, if frequently fails in two directions simultaneously. Formally, it panders (cheap, silly music cues; ham-fisted editing techniques; obvious visual metaphors), and yet some very basic aspects of the scandal remain poorly articulated even for a viewer like myself, with a basic working knowledge of the Enron story. How did the deregulation of electricity in California differ from other such energy schemes? What were the loopholes that Enron exploited? How deeply connected to Enron were the Bush family? How exactly did Andy Fastow's fake trading companies manufacture even the slightest air of legitimacy for Wall Street? (After all, Enron had competitors. Calling Lay and company out publicly for questionable practices would have helped the industry at large.) Like The Fog of War, Enron assumes that the common viewer cannot understand all this, so this impenetrability is just represented by a lot of dancing numbers, signifying nothing (except, in this case, "we got screwed!"). And, in its overall effect, Enron mitigates its jabs at rampant privatization and systematic corporate abuse (i.e., what makes Enron just another company) with an unhealthy fixation on Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, as though for employee and viewer alike, understanding takes a back seat to charismatic authority. Some may call this cinematic streamlining, but, as with Fahrenheit 9/11, I call it cutting corners in the editing room to get piggy to market, before "topicality" (the commodity that Gibney's Enron is selling) evaporates. Drama always trumps analysis. In short, it's really easy for pseudo-hardnosed film reviewers (virtually all liberal but ever concerned to appear unswayed by their politics) to mock Robert Greenwald and his super-cheap Un- series (Unprecedented, Uncovered, Outfoxed, etc.), but Enron is in fact no better. Actually, in making its case beyond brute emotional appeal, it's quite a bit worse than Outfoxed. But instead of circulating via and a direct-to-DVD circuit as that film did, Enron has the backing of millionaire Mark Cuban of 2929 Entertainment, who, with his digital studio and distribution arm and ownership of Landmark Cinemas, enjoys popping up in IndieWire every few months to crow about his "vertical integration." (That's "monopoly" in movie-speak.) Apparently Cuban's venture-capitalist Kool-Aid goes down nice and smooth.


Fever Pitch (Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly)

This is the third film drawn from a novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity and About a Boy being the others), and I haven't really liked any of them. He has nothing particularly enlightening to say about male obsessiveness; he just kind of rubs our noses in it, asks us to find it suitably adolescent and sad, and waits for us to cheer when the man-boys join the adult world of family and responsibility. In a way, you can think of this as a parallel to Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, who out of necessity develops a fetishistic relationship with a volleyball. To return to civilization, Hanks has to break his ties with Wilson and reassume a normal place within commodity relations -- volleyballs are replaceable consumer items. Similarly, the music dude in High Fidelity or the Red Sox dude in Fever Pitch has to stop loving these cultural affiliations so much and accept them the way "normal" people do -- as entertainments -- in order to forge human connections. Fever Pitch tries to put a new spin on this, according to hoary rom-com convention -- Drew Barrymore's career woman has to stop being so driven and prioritize her man over her job. In the end, she's revealed as the true obsessive, and both she and Red Sox dude (Jimmy Fallon) have to meet halfway, or something. All of which is to say, I find these "knowing" portraits of arrested development, and their concomitant trumpeting of the need to grow up, highly disingenuous coming from a society that depends for its functioning on the selfishness and immaturity of its members, always fixated on the self and its immediate frivolous wants. The message seems to be, "care enough to keep buying shit, but don't get invested." Some inconclusive jury-rigging in the finale isn't enough to mitigate this message, permeating the Hornby oeuvre as it does. Filmwise: certainly not "the Farrellys" in any noticeable way; the style of screenwriter-hacks / betesticled Nora Ephrons Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz is much more readily apparent. Fallon, a performer I've found too simpering in the past, hones it into actual charm here; Barrymore is completely inert.




-Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, Germany)

Ja! Das ist ein Kitschfest! For a much more considered and comprehensive take on this film, you should really check in with Theo. He's much higher on it than I am, but this allowed him to zero in on some of the same elements that repelled me. First, Hirschbiegel and producer / screenwriter Bernd Eichinger spend the entire 150 minute running time torn between two distinct approaches to the material. One, as Theo rightly notes, is "lurid," deeply in thrall to the sheer perversity of Nazi power. This results in occasional dips into quasi-blackout sketch comedy, with a creepy, "how-deranged-were-these-guys" punchline followed by a crosscut to another area in the bunker or another hapless scene from the Nazis' futile final hours. This angle so desperately wants to break out and dive into the Kafkaesque, or even the style of black comedy that Eastern Europeans have been bringing to bear on the horrors of war for a while now (cf. Jancso, Kusturica). The other approach is official History Channel hackery, sticking closely to the facts and, more importantly, the stolid, sepia-toned mood and fussy art direction that audiences the world over have been dutifully trained to read as "epic historical docudrama" -- capitalism's version of Socialist Realism. (Look at the sweaty Nazis in their period costumes hovering over a map, etc.) The tension between these two tendencies, and between the two very different attitudes toward the politics of representation they entail, was actually quite fascinating, and despite the film's obvious bombast and LCD pandering I was kind of appreciating it as a trashy pleasure. Then I discovered that I'd only been watching it for 45 minutes. Even though the battle between reverence and kitsch rages on to the bitter end, the longwinded pomposity of Downfall has the film implicitly cloaking itself in the mantle of Official State History even as it thumbs its nose at the task. Also, our designated point of identification, Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, is played by Alexandra Maria Lara with the wide, vacant eyes and pursed lips of a Teutonic Realdoll.


-Three . . . Extremes (Takashi Miike, Japan / Fruit Chan, Hong Kong / Park Chanwook, South Korea)

After being decidedly underwhelmed by the tri-continental omnibus Eros, my expectations for its pan-Asian opposite (it could just as easily have been called Thanatos) were pretty low. In actuality, I discovered that my difficulty, my possible inability to give films like this a fair hearing (whatever that means), may have less to do with the multi-director shindig than with my deeply instilled doubts about how much a filmmaker can really accomplish in the form of a narrative short. Three . . . Extremes bears this skepticism out quite nicely, since the first and second panels in the triptych may well have succeeded under different circumstances. // Miike's Box is the best of the three directorially. Although I have been a fan of his work in the past, I am starting to bristle at the willful perversity of his pluralistic style. Virtually every film is radically different in its execution, the oeuvre united only by Miike's off-kilter sensibility. Here, he adopts the chilly, ceremonial ambiguity of Kubrick, filtered through the surreal conflagration of Butoh. Every somber, gliding camera movement promises to hypnotize, and when Miike throws in an unexpected jump cut or a sudden flash of color, the effect is considerable. But Box relies so heavily on tone and atmosphere -- on not only enveloping us but in wearing down our resistance to its weirdness and compelling eventual belief -- that the short form simply can't get the job done. Box whets my appetite for this new cool-headed, Kubrick-and-Kitano approach, but of course Miike will have undergone five more stylistic shifts by the time he and I meet up again. // Fruit Chan's Dumplings is the film with which to test my thesis, since it exists in a feature-length edit. (I plan to see it in the next few months.) The short form of Dumplings was my first encounter with Chan's work. Christopher Doyle's cinematography adds considerable flair to the proceedings, slicing the screen into fragments with windblown curtains or a low-hanging frameline that decapitates the camera's subject. But if any work were capable of calling Doyle's miracle-worker reputation into question, it's Dumplings. Based on the evidence here, Fruit Chan cannot direct. Every beautiful shot is lopped off before it articulates space coherently. Instead, one thwarted cinematic gesture is haphazardly connected to the next. Either Chan is a genius, using Doyle's camera to depict the stylistic equivalent of endless little abortions (you see, the film is about a woman who makes fountain-of-youth dumplings out of aborted human fetuses), or else he is a cheap schlockmeister whose work here receives unjust, artificial elevation from his collaborators. Dumplings trades on the inherent repugnance of its premise, and although it does threaten to go beyond beauty-myth moralizing into honest pathos (Bai Ling delivers a sturdy performance in a role that could have led to disastrous scenery-chewing), it never quite gets there. Was Fruit deprived of the requisite ripening time? We shall see. // Finally, an all-out flop. Park's Cut proves that the director of Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance will sell out his intelligence in a heartbeat if it means he'll be officially crowned the David Fincher of Korea. In a sort of backwards-evolution, Park is making the case that he should be directing Good Charlotte videos instead of working with actors, scripts, and alleged character development. The nonsensical final-minute "twist" is just the buttnugget on top of the sundae.




Crash (Paul Haggis)

Grand Canyon for the era of right-wing talk radio? A feature-length extrapolation of Haggis' redneck interlude from Million Dollar Baby? The worst film of 2005 in a walk? It's not just that this is the worst kind of "screenwriter's movie," with preposterous coincidences and behavior that conveniently dispenses with anything resembling actual human neural functioning. (E.g., a mother responding to unspeakable tragedy by coldly explaining why she plays favorites; the pissiest, most misplaced upbraiding of a husband by a wife since Contempt; etc., etc.) It's that Haggis stupidly assumes that all of these people are equal, and that, say, a young black man complaining about how corporate-sponsored gangsta culture is a tool of the man (cf. Bamboozled) is roughly equivalent to a rich white bitch all but calling her locksmith a wetback, or blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Iranians swapping racist epithets. These things aren't equal, except in Haggis' cordoned-off fantasy L.A. (Some people get huffy when a person of color points out the difference between racism and prejudice, like it's mere sophistry or special pleading. But it's true -- only white people in America are able to systematically reproduce the world in accordance with their own racial biases.) I'd invite anyone who thinks Lars von Trier is a card-stacking puppetmaster, constructing a fraudulent allegorical world jury-rigged to demonstrate his own predetermined assessment of human nature, to dip into Crash and see the real deal, ten times more repugnant because it parades itself as gritty humanism and congratulates its white viewership for not "being like that, oh dear, how dreadful." This film is awful, and it steadily builds in its awfulness over the course of its running time, so much so that it is eventually outright risible. And yet, I couldn't bring myself to walk out. True to its title, I had to hang with it, slack-jawed, and gawk at the wreckage. [NOTE: A longer version of this review may be found here.]