SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 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)

 

[7]

 

Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff)

Not as funny as I wanted it to be, simply because it really does employ the moments of warmth I’d hoped it would completely eschew.  Nevertheless, I mostly laughed my ass off.  Thornton is on fire.  If you just read the script, it would seem like a string of semi-coherent obscenities, and you would visualize the film exactly as its detractors characterize it – “Santa Claus talks dirty.”  But it’s the pitch-perfect delivery, the way Thornton spits out phrases like “the fuck is that?”, “yeah, I pissed myself,” or (my favorite moment) “think you can make my life any more fucked up? Take a shot!”, that pushes BS into the realm of instant classic.  Also, wow, that kid was seriously fucked up.  (Magic walnut? Wooden pickle?)  Sadly, Tony Cox can’t act, and Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter were not given much to do.  Overall, it’s the sort of grungy, shambling, single-minded whatsit that even as I’m sitting in the theatre watching it feels like something I came across on Showtime while flipping channels and couldn’t turn away from.

 

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)

Saggy in the middle but effortlessly entertaining on both ends.  In addition to the lovely action vs. observation dialectic between Aubrey and Maturin (which is presented with such assurance that I assume it’s an element drawn from the books), Weir and his DP constructed some neat modernist compositions out of ropes and masts.  Weevils wovil, but apparently they don’t fall down.

 

/-Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

This is one I’d wanted to revisit, since I fell asleep on it the first time I saw it. (This wasn’t the fault of the film; it was the end of a long festival day.)  As a result, I wasn’t sure about my original grade, but it turns out I got it right.  There’s much to admire here – even on crappy video, I was reminded of just how gorgeous the thing was, how colored lights can hypnotize, etc.  The long, glassy takes are perfectly keyed to the rhythms of electronica, which is about all-over texture rather than rock and roll’s tension-and-release structure.  It’s a film about drift, aimlessness, inertia, and more importantly, looking back at such non-experiences from a hazy distance.  But the film lacks profundity, or any locatable emotional valence.  It’s about being stuck with Vicky, which is captivating and irritating in equal measure.  As a film about sumptuous, decadent stagnation, MM is a success, no doubt.  I just take issue with the project as Hou sets it out.  File alongside 10 under “nodding admiration.”

 

[6]

 

-Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)

Certainly entertaining enough, but it just isn’t up to the high standards of Pixar.  The humor isn’t really ever funny (de Generes’s memory-lapse shtick is particularly tiresome), and the narrative construction is shoddy.  Sure, it’s an epic journey, so it will be episodic.  But that doesn’t mean the episodes have to be so variable in interest level, or so negligibly strung together.  The switch-back between the Marlin and Nemo threads was handled so much like a TV show, I really began to feel for the first time that the Pixar crew was talking down to kids, assuming that this, their most straightforwardly juvenile fare, need not be well-crafted, ‘cause, you know, these kids watch Yu-Gi-Oh! and shit. The aspect that most undercut the viewing pleasure for me was Nemo’s blatant child-in-peril manipulation.  Is Stanton the Majid Majidi of computer animation?

 

In the Cut (Jane Campion, U.S. / France)

“The best possible treatment of the incredibly shitty material,” says Mike D’Angelo, at that pretty much says it all.  It’s gorgeous to look at, and often sexy, but the whole thing is liberally doused in self-conscious sleaze.  You can see Campion holding her nose throughout.  Strong leads, and Meg Ryan is something of a revelation, conveying Campion’s grand topic – women’s repulsion at brute machismo turning into erotic fascination – with palpable conviction.  But that just adds to the whole head-scratching affair.  (Did we need Campion, Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Jason Leigh for this?)  There is an undeniable directorial mastery involved, but I came away feeling conflicted and sullied, sort of like the way I imagine a john feels exiting a brothel and returning to his car.

 

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)

I’ve been puzzling over this one since I saw it, because there’s quite a bit to admire in it.  Thurman makes a solid action heroine, although at times she is a bit too stiff, like she is struggling to model herself on the “hard”  wax figures of male action cinema.  But then, some scenes are so poorly written and conceived (e.g., the Vernita battle, with its “Music Box Dancer” and candy-colored lawn toys and the crappy hard-boiled post-execution dialogue) that Thurman can’t really rescue them.  When a sequence is simply staged and left alone, like the hospital rape, it becomes possible to really feel the full extent of the horror of what The Bride has been through.  This harrowing, cruel-business-of-revenge aspect of Bill, which is a major point of argument for the film’s most vociferous champions, just feels undercut by QT’s dumb humor (“Pussy Wagon,” the row of sunglasses, “tall drink of cocksucker”), with which I was never remotely in sync.  The jumbled chronology felt half-assed, only having an impact during the extended “wiggle your toes” flashback.  My favorite sequence was the most relaxed and humane (the Hattori visit – Sonny Chiba is awesome in this); the vaunted House of Blue Leaves finale felt awkward and jumbled, like watching onions in a food processor.  The Bride vs. O-Ren was textbook, but at least the winter-garden staging and somber tone gave it a welcome sense of gravity.  Overall, the film is interesting in flashes but seldom thrilling, and I just have to wonder what others are so stoked about.

 

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley & Donnacha O’Briain, Ireland) [v]

As a leftist, I am irritated by how this documentary was assembled, how it fails to interrogate its own procedures, and how it self-servingly foregoes analysis for immediacy.  There are few things less palatable to me than blatant propaganda with which I am in agreement.  From the hurtling, breathless compression of the coup (don’t ask questions, just feel the rush!), to the ambiguous issue of access (we’ve with Chavez, we have a ringside seat! / now we’re up close with the Cardona guys! we’re everywhere at once!), to the preposterous, negative-city-council-ad soundtrack (the coup sounds like “HOMmmmmmm........HOMmmmmmmm”), this is second-rate advocacy journalism and third-rate cinema.  Despite my misgivings, I got to see things and learn things about the political situation in Venezuela that I never would have otherwise.  Also, the film’s examination of the anti-Chavez bias of the Venezuelan private media was fascinating, although it could have gone much further.  (The various pundits’ rather baroque proclamations – e.g., “Chavez has a sexual fixation on Fidel Castro” – make Fox News seem, well, fair and balanced.)  In the end, I have to acknowledge that yes, Bartley and O’Briain were at the right place at the right time, and that counts for something.  But certainly not enough.

 

[5]

 

-Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

I am sorry I missed it on the big screen, since Seidl’s sense of composition and framing is the film’s strongest suit.  As it began, and even up to the halfway mark, I was really with this film, its loose-limbed suburban-ennui amalgam and its drifting spatial interrogation of the strip malls and supermarkets of Greater Vienna.  I even sort of dug Anna the list-making nutcase, whose shtick is sort of Tom Green by way of Tracey Ullmann.  But in the end, Seidl clamps down, generating harsh, implausible narrative arcs designed to rub our faces in sexual degradation, just in case we missed where he was going.  It’s all a bit too “smell-the-Vaseline-oh-look-there’s-a-pube-in-it,” and the last thing I’m in the market for is an Austrian Todd Solondz.

 

Shattered Glass (Billy Ray)

I’m starting to think that this film is being over-praised because film critics are, lest we forget, journalists, and Shattered Glass treats an inside-baseball journalistic scandal as if it were a lesser Greek tragedy.  Peter Saarsgard is low-key and steely as Chuck Lane, the new editor installed under awkward circumstances, who must in fact isolate the popular Stephen Glass like the infection he is.  But Hayden Christensen’s performance (and the part as written) is too transparently mealy-mouthed and ingratiating to imagine any environment in which it would have worked.  On a personal level, I found his petulant groveling and never-ending, 7-Layer Dip of excuses too nails-on-chalkboard irritating to forestall complete disengagement.  It was like spending 90 minutes in office hours with one of my plagiarizing students.  I can get that shit for free.

 

-Stevie (Steve James)

This exercise in redneck exploitation becomes excusable only inasmuch as James eventually relinquishes anthropological distance and gets involved with Stevie Fielding’s life.  This necessary development does not justify certain portions of the film which are clearly there only to show off Stevie’s animalistic debauchery (most egregiously, the “Bubba at a Chicago Rave” sequence . . . Jesus Christ).  The director’s pained voice-overs about his fears of using Stevie for his own gain are somewhat disingenuous, even from a strictly documentary-history perspective.  Postmodern ethnographers, in particular, have staked out this terrain and offered provisional ways out.  The film and its maker do redeem themselves in the end, but if this project were really going to adhere to the ethics it claims for itself, it would remain forever in the can.  (Sidenote: I can now see why Lions Gate dumped Run Ronnie Run onto home video.  It must be awkward to have an earnest documentary and a savage parody both dealing with the same basic subject.)