REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2007

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)

 

[7]

 

-The Boss of It All (Lars von Trier, Denmark / Sweden / Iceland / Italy / France / Norway / Finland / Germany)

The latest from Lars von Trier is a masterpiece of minorness, and as such, an oxymoron. Many out there on the Continent of Cinephilia consider Lars to be simply a moron; they should consider giving Boss a look since it offers the pleasures of his cinema shorn of the stuf Lars' opponents like to dismiss as empty philosophical grandstanding. But yes, in all the possible senses of the word, including the Kafkaesque one popularized (!!!) by Gilles Deleuze, The Boss of It All is "minor." It's in Danish -- no overreaching three-hour star-studded international production here. It's explicitly genre-bound, an office comedy that, in his arch, self-servingly self-effacing introduction, von Trier assures us will have no real meaning and will vaporize almost immediately from our memories. In terms of its trajectory through the world, von Trier gave Boss a world premiere at the film festival in Copenhagen, and mostly held it back from international fests -- no splashy controversy-courting debut in Competition in Cannes or Venice, no smug Nietzschean pronouncements to the press. All the same, this is a pretty brilliant film despite its dogged determination not to do much of anything (hmm, sort of like your average office worker), just punching the clock and hitting certain marks. Boss flirts with masterpiece status but adamantly demurs to it, precisely because if you or I mistake it for a masterpiece, the joke is on us. On the other hand, if von Trier mistakes it as such, the joke is on him, his hubris matching that of the satire's targets -- namely venture capitalists and misunderstood artist-outsiders. Like such phenomenal anti-masterpieces as Ken Jacobs' massive, potentially endless Star Spangled to Death and William E. Jones' hyper-atmospheric cinemaniac mixtape v.o. (a work that grows not only in stature but in sheer comprehensibility with repeat viewings), The Boss of It All is a self-consuming artifact. It is "about" the illusion of absent authority. (The basic plot: a businessman wants to screw his employees over but still be liked, so he invents an über-boss on whom he blames unpopular decisions; then, in the midst of the company's acquisition by an Icelandic firm, the "boss of it all" must materialize, and is embodied by a vain out-of-work actor.) This illusion, like the mealy-mouthed liberalism von Trier despises, allows tyranny to masquerade as camaraderie and compassion. Likewise, Boss adopts the illusion of absent authority in its very form -- von Trier used "Automavision" to relegate camera angles and framings to a randomizing computer program. So, we get lots of startling, oblique views on rather mundane action. Sometimes actors are cut out of the frame altogether. But this avant-garde gesture (not unlike von Trier's Oulipo-inspired hurdles for Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions) naturally disguises an overarching, more thoroughgoing directorial fascism. Von Trier, notoriously a bastard on-set, but also equally notorious for his highly public neuroses, gets to "abjure" responsibility while actually placing it elsewhere -- in a set of predetermined, off-scene (offshore? outsourced?) decisions that occur well out of reach of his actors, crew, or financiers. It's all so cunning, it's hard not to want to slap the thing onto my top ten. But like Kaufman and Jonze's Adaptation., Boss "cops out," in scare-quotes, yes, but nonetheless in a fully, angeringly unsatisfying way. According to its own internal rules, it almost has to. As Von Trier notes in his concluding commentary, some will get more from Boss than he put there, some will receive much less, and others "will get just what they deserve." I love you, Lars. You fucking asshole.

 

-Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev)

[SPOILERS] It's a rare thing indeed to encounter a debut film whose obvious ambition is generally met with the skill and sensitivity to meet its goals, and despite my misgivings it's vital to acknowledge all that Day Night Day Night does right. Loktev and her remarkable lead actress Luisa Williams together construct a tight, bounded world of enclosures both architectural and psychic (equal parts Dardennes and Laurent Cantet), Williams' tremulous performance as the unnamed "She" providing a master-class in the power of minimalism in the arts. As Williams maintains an overall facial control, a flat affect that once in a while totters into doe-eyed naiveté, she is capable of registering the subtlest flickers of emotion -- fear, ambivalence, loneliness, dread -- with the slightest curl of a lip or lowering of the chin. While not quite an achievement on the level of Falconetti, Williams' work certainly deserves to be discussed in such terms with no fear of hyperbole. To an extent, Loktev is wise to simply give Williams room to work, but it's also the structural framework of DNDN that allows She's smaller gestures to attain a kind of body poetry. As she waits in the hotel room, we watch her clip her toenails, shave her pits, open and shut the curtains, giving vent to an isolated restlessness. This attention to Williams' fidgety form bears resonances with certain strains of feminist performance art, such as Valie Export's Viennese Actionism, or the process-sculptures of Janine Antoni, to say nothing of the cinema of Chantal Akerman; a woman waits, she adjusts and readjusts her body, and the discomfort within her own skin becomes a political issue all its own. Loktev drives home this gendered conundrum with authority once She's terrorist-cadre handlers show up. All men, all covered and completely unseen by She and the audience, they serve exclusively to discipline her body, to rehearse her into the proper vessel for their own destructive ends. This isn't to deny She's own agency in the project, mind you, but to point out, as Loktev and Williams do with admirable delicacy, her 19-year-old female mode of being in the world, which is fundamentally at odds with the disembodied authority of the terror-cell's men. This culminates in DNDN's tensest moment, wherein the leader quizzes She on her new identity ("Leah Cruz") nonstop for a good, grueling five minutes.

 

Nothing else in the film compares with this scene of systematic rebuilding of a psyche preparing to die, although fitting She for her bomb-filled backpack comes close. Many have argued that Loktev stumbles by refusing to reveal who the terrorists are and what they stand for, but this is only half right. No answer would be satisfactory, and besides, one can probably presume from their speaking voices, comportment, and target (Times Square) that they're probably from the radical wing of the anti-globalization movement. (At any rate, they look "black bloc.") The problem with Loktev's strategy isn't so much that she attempts to invoke political action while keeping She vague and therefore "universal." It's that this lurch toward universality, which tends to be the bread and butter of the cinematic humanism that dominates the arthouse / festival world, undercuts the materialist specificity of the first half of the film. Williams' performance and Loktev's representation of it hinge on the particulars of She's body, so making her represent "terrorism" or "the mind of the terrorist" or what have you merely clouds the intellectual rigor of the film. Likewise, that same liberal humanist orientation, presumed by the film and its makers, demands that the audience want to see She abort the mission or otherwise cop out, since Terrorism Is Bad and Killing Is Wrong. All fine and good, but then the second half's cinematic grammar is all about the suspense of the impending detonation, even as we know the film won't / can't deliver it. The tension builds quite deliberately, and we want that tension resolved through an act of violence which the film implicitly chastises us for craving. In this way, DNDN is as much of a finger-wagging moralist tract as anything Michael Haneke has produced, but isn't nearly as above-board about it. In the end, Loktev relies on some eleventh-hour psychology to manage its loose ends, and in so doing spoils the bald, twitchy, unknowable surface of Williams' face.

 

[ADDENDUM: After giving it some more thought, I realized that I was underrating this film somewhat, especially since its overall structure -- absolute control giving way to teeming chaos -- really is the perfect spatial metaphor for the inevitable confusion when fundamentalist thinking, with its tidy ideologies and strict categories, smashes up against the messy plenitude of the larger world. Nevertheless, I still think Loktev has significant trouble articulating this large form (and large theme) with the smaller, more private and more material elements that give Day Night Day Night its moment-to-moment charge. In other words, it's a micro / macro problem. Nevertheless, it's the achievements that stick with me, and that seem most worth chewing on days later. But the martyr-video scene is still dumb.]

 

[6]

 

-Sleeping Dogs Lie. (Bobcat Goldthwait)

[SPOILERS, BUT I MEAN COME ON] If ever there were a film that benefited from the rock-bottom expectations that greeted it, it's the girl-who-blew-her-dog-in-college movie by the auteur of Shakes the Clown. Granted, I have a mildly positive recollection of Shakes (similar to Dogs in its blend of gonzo and genuine pathos), but I have a much more positive opinion of Goldthwait, a comedian who was unfairly lumped in with some unsavory comic company back in the late 80s (Sam Kinison, especially). In actuality, Bobcat used his stand-up persona rather strategically, positing jittery incoherence as a reasonable response to macho ideals most of us couldn't and shouldn't achieve. (I recall one early bit that included a riff on Rambo during which a drunken heckler yelled out, "Stallone's a homo!" at which point Bobcat explained why he'd like Sly better if he actually were gay.) So while Sleeping Dogs Lie. isn't an especially deep or revelatory film (and only nominally "transgressive," for that matter, and all the better for that restraint), it emerges from a place of warm, humanist empathy. Granted, this in itself is usually not enough, and Goldthwait's overriding theme -- complete honesty is impossible, and actually undesirable -- is so blunt as to send the film's more nuanced moments racing from your head as the credits roll, replaced by the lingering afterschool-specialness of it all. (The father-daughter heart-to-heart would have been the appropriate place to end the film. It still wouldn't be subtle, but at least it wouldn't be downright leaden.) What's impressive about Goldthwait's approach is that he and his actors can be so nimble, sculpting moments of sublime awkwardness (John meets the parents) and tinges of the finest neo-melodrama (the confession). Still, the overall project is a tad too deterministic, not unlike certain student films. The diegetic world is governed by a premise, that premise dictates any and all behavior, and plausibility suffers. Would everyone in Amy's life really shun her for having sucked off a dog in college? It's not like she's one of the guys in Zoo. Now, I realize I'm well beyond "tolerant" when it comes to sexual diversity, and I'm sure no one in Amy's life would exactly high-five her for her exploits, but the reactions she receives do totter into contrivance. Did I miss something? Is the real problem that Amy engaged in active rather than passive bestiality? Or is this film a metaphor for child molestation, which is probably the one sexual deviance that would indeed provoke universal shunning? If so, Bobcat owes it to the world to remake Little Children and make it not suck . . . er, blow . . . um, yeah.

 

-The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, Germany / Italy / Spain / France / Ireland / U.K.)

Basically it boils down to this: until there's a Marxist History Channel ("Hi, I'm Eric Hobsbawm, and tonight we'll be speaking with Daniel Ortega about 'The Darker Side of Reagan'"), there's Ken Loach. His techniques are less than radical, he's always willing to employ cinema's shopworn tools of the trade -- brisk pacing, individuated heroes vs. faceless villains, ominous score, and the like -- to get the job done. Of course, I have my problems with this, both aesthetic and political, but when Loach is at his best you can't deny that his work packs a certain punch that rarified art cinema does not. The Wind is probably the best film I've seen so far from Loach. Almost immediately he and screenwriter / schematizer Paul Laverty establish the lay of the land; 1920 Ireland is an occupied nation, the Black and Tans no better than Nazi thugs, brutalizing men, humiliating women, and murdering "dirty Micks" at the drop of a hat. Wind quickly establishes a figure of identification to shepherd us through the militarized mass. Damien (Cillian Murphy, quite impressive) is a young man planning to study medicine in London, and at first it looks as though Loach and Laverty will be taking a leaf from The Pianist's playbook, providing a mostly reactive protagonist whose job is to mostly watch from a distance. But before the end of reel one, Damien is radicalized, and it's clear Wind has a different agenda. Although it would have been both easy and somewhat politically expedient of Loach and Laverty to draw explicit parallels between the occupation and eventual partition of Ireland and the U.K.-supported occupations of today, the filmmakers resist the urge. Instead, The Wind features numerous direct quotations from Rossellini's Rome Open City, and this has at least two effects. One, it draws connections between Britain's internal behavior towards its colonies and the Axis powers its so bravely fought against. Two, it clarifies the Loach aesthetic, which is not necessarily opposed to the cinematically beautiful but will almost always stumble upon it as an afterthought, this artistic absentmindedness a kind of ethical badge of honor. Yes, the film features several glorious widescreen vistas of the Irish landscape, and it's clear enough that Loach intends us to perceive the land materially. This is what these people are fighting for. But the camera never lingers, and it's onto another set-up in service to the plot. Likewise, The Wind is not exactly naive or entirely straightforward in its overall structure, especially as war pictures go. Much of the film is a frantic muddle of overlapping shouts and cries, the dense thicket of actual human conflict. But Loach and Laverty relieve these cacophonies with smaller, more intimate action, so the result is less like a classical narrative arc and more like a continual tightening and slackening of a knot. All the same, by its conclusion The Wind has resolved itself into a fairly unproblematized dichotomy (compromise vs. idealism), and as with any good History Channel production, the issue has already been resolved, even predigested, before the start of the enterprise. It's educational, and undeniably potent. But at times it just seems like Loach and Laverty consider subtlety to be little more than a bourgeois indulgence, instead of understanding it for what it is -- the lifeblood not just of Art but of Thought.

 

[5]

 

-Bashing (Masahiro Kobayashi, Japan)

A frustrating experience, this film, since I was really hoping I could champion it, and reverse a bit of the bashing it's gotten since its 2005 Cannes premiere. No question, there's much to admire here, particularly Kobayashi's direction and visual style. This is the first film I've seen by the director, and a little research indicates that this slightly jittery handheld mode of camerawork represents a departure from previous work. In any case, Koichi Saito's cinematography is sharp and exacting, slicing stark compositions out of the suburban landscape and giving them time to hang there, fidgeting yet maintaining their composure. Likewise, Kobayashi's attention to labor in this film is fascinating. He patiently watches as Yuko (Fusako Urabe) and her hotel co-worker strip and then remake a bed, and later allows us to spend ample time exploring the TV factory where Yuko's father (Ryuzo Tanaka) works, zeroing in on his spot on the assembly line as he gently hammers metal molding around picture tubes. Even the simple act of Yuko climbing the three flights of stairs to her apartment is taken as a meditation on physical effort. In fact, Kobayashi repeats this image throughout the film like a rhythmic riff, demonstrating the increased pull of gravity on Yuko and her world. Unfortunately, this formally accomplished film is an intellectual muddle. Most criticisms of Bashing I've encountered focus on the sheer incomprehensibility of Yuko's ordeal for a Western audience. She was an aid worker in Iraq and taken hostage, released and returned home to Japan, where she was considered a national embarrassment. On the one hand, this lack of understanding isn't necessarily culture-specific, since Kobayashi builds it into the film itself. Like "us," Bashing finds the abuse of Yuko and those like her to be outlandish and cruel, and the film depicts this behavior as alien and random. But as the film continues, I actually detected a shift -- not necessarily an intentional one -- wherein Bashing argues that Yuko's critics may have a point. You see, the film shows us that Japanese culture tends to view volunteer work as dilettantism, and foreign aid work as an implicit rebuke to one's own country which could also use the help. In other words, Yuko's trip to Iraq is seen as an act of selfishness. Eventually, though, Yuko admits as much, and not before becoming increasingly hostile and callous to those around her. Granted, this is no doubt a reaction to the abuse that's been heaped upon her, but we also catch a glimpse that this self-righteous streak may have been at work in Yuko's character all along. So in a way, the film ends up validating the somewhat Nietzschean concept that much so-called selflessness is really narcissism in disguise. An overt exploration of this problem could have made Bashing a much more complex film, but Kobayashi is too busy depicting Yuko's victimization (you'd think she was the town whore in Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692) to realize he's working in two different directions.

 

-King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik, South Korea)

For a much more in-depth and far more sympathetic review than anything I can offer here, I humbly direct you to Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant. I agree with quite a bit of what he has to say -- Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and the later works of Im Kwon-taek were certainly running through my mind while watching King and the Clown. Like those films, Lee's debut uses a focus on traditional performance styles as a lens for zeroing in on larger political shifts and machinations. And, like Chen's late masterwork (one with which I personally have problems both political and aesthetic, but whose undeniable artistry I admire), King and the Clown broaches the taboo subject of gay male desire, although, as usual, it is cast as a class-based aberration. Here, a decadent king (Jeong Jin-yeong) enjoys a dalliance with Gong-gil (Lee Jun-gi), an effeminate minstrel in a traveling company specializing in bawdy political satire. Thus, according to the history handed down to us from the Chosun Dynasty, homosexual desire is a lust that the powerful exercise as a privilege upon the debauched theatrical class. Nothing new here, and in fact almost every aspect of King and the Clown is disconcertingly familiar, which I suppose one should expect from a film striving for such broad mainstream entertainment values. But even as it aims for the rafters, it too frequently comes up short. Unlike such diverse recent, genre-bound efforts as Lagaan, Indigènes, and especially The Host, King and the Clown seldom makes an unexpected move. Its finest and most engaging moments are those devoted to showcasing the troupe's performances -- a high-wire act in the opening scene, with Gong-gil and his co-star / probable lover Jang-sang [Kam Woo-seong] practically copulating in the street via shocking verbal ribaldry, is a standout -- but the primary melodramatic plot is outsized in the worst possible way. It's cartoonish, veering into telenovela territory. Lee's formal inadequacies don't help; his frantic editing and perverse insistence on fragmenting any and all activity into bizarre multiple angles just feels desperate and forced. Again, one is reminded of such Im successes and Sopyonje and Chunhyang, but with Im's stately approach replaced with caffeine and flopsweat. Still, it's propulsive, and refuses to let you get bored, so I guess that's something. But its candy-colored period pageantry is, in the end, a dead giveaway. King and the Clown is an empty-calorie sugar rush, Chosun as an over-lacquered E-ticket attraction.

 

-Let's Go to Prison (Bob Odenkirk)

Subversive doesn't necessarily translate into funny. Certainly weird enough to forestall the dismissals it received, I can't really see it developing much of a cult following either. As with everything else formulated by the team behind "The State" (three members wrote it), a hit and miss affair.

 

[4]

 

-Catch and Release (Susannah Grant)

This is pretty lightweight, forgettable stuff that unfortunately takes itself very seriously. Grant never really sheds the basic rom-com template but because the premise is so downbeat -- a woman (Jennifer Garner) learns more than she wanted to about her fiance after he dies just days before their wedding -- the film comes off more like a cheap, lazy drama than a convention-bucking "chick flick." It doesn't help matters that Garner's role is a non-starter, completely reactive and devoid of any discernable personality traits. Catch only springs to life when Kevin Smith and Juliette Lewis are onscreen (yeah, it felt weird typing that, too), but these passages are like alien transmissions from some other movie. Not necessarily a better one, mind you, but at least one with a pulse. Unengaging in every way. Oh, and one thought: is there some rule that every men-in-the-kitchen sequence in a Hollywood film has to conclude with someone turning on the blender with the lid off? Do people ever actually do this? Is this some sort of rom-com money shot, giving women some sort of gooey, splooshy satisfaction, the pancake batter of male incompetence cumming all over the fellas' faces and dripping down the side? (Shall we christen it the "blender-facial"? Let's.)

 

-The Optimists (Goran Paskaljevic, Serbia)

[SPOILERS] This film is divided into five self-contained vignettes, and they can be summed up as follows. (1) It really sucks to be mentally ill in Serbia. (2) It really sucks to get raped in Serbia, especially if it's by your dad's gangster boss. (3) It really sucks when you come from a family of compulsive gamblers in Serbia. (4) It really sucks to be a little boy growing up in Serbia. (5) It really sucks to be terminally ill or otherwise infirm and get swindled in Serbia. I'd never seen a film by Paskaljevic (although I made it through about ten minutes of How Harry Became a Tree) and figured it was time to dip in. There's not a lot of evidence here that compels further research. I was especially irked with Paskaljevic's clunky visual style, with its wide-angle lenses and slight fisheye bulges in an largely naturalist context, lending everything a carnivalesque "Eastern European" character the director never fully commits to. The result, to my eyes, is little more than third-rate Kusturica. I'm not throwing in the towel on Goran just yet -- I'll check out the acclaimed Powder Keg a.k.a. Cabaret Balkan one of these days -- but I must say I'm not impressed.