SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff)
Not as funny as I wanted it to
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
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.”
-Finding Nemo (Andrew
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
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.
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.
-Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl,
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
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.)