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; (-) a new symbol you hopefully won't see very often, one that signifies my having seen more than half of the film in a movie theatre, only to have the screening halted due to a missing reel; I watched the final hour on pay-per-view a week later, and boy oh boy was it worth it)




-Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France)

[MILD SPOILERS] "Hard to believe this was made by Gaspar Noé's significant other!" Whether or not the reviews come right out and say it, they frequently imply it, as though there's no connection to be drawn whatsoever between Hadzihalilovic's feminist parable and Irreversible (the very mention of which prompts these same critics to pinch their sensitive noses in "p.u." formation). Come on! The two films not only share certain formal traits, such as the opening and closing images of roiling elements (water here, light in the Noé film) or the menacing use of lighted tunnels that threaten to suck their victims into a malevolent parallel universe. Innocence could serve as a virtual prequel to Irreversible, which in this context becomes "experience," the horrific consequences of the polarized gender training Hadzihalilovic observes with such clinical detachment. A perfectly executed cinematic fairy tale, the kind that postulates a hidden world of psychological molding under the cover of sugar and spice, Innocence has a discomfitingly one-track mind. As many who saw the film at Toronto 04 noted at the time, there's a clear allegorical structure and it offers no real surprises; it stays the course to the bitter(sweet) end. In its own way, this adaptation of a Frank Wedekind story is saturated with a turn-of-the-century modernist flavor that practically makes the film feel like a recovered artifact, and this seems appropriate and part of the point. Why feminist dystopia now? Well, look around -- a better question is why not? Confinement narratives are a staple of psychological fiction, from Bluebeard and "The Yellow Wallpaper" to The Handmaid's Tale, but Hadzihalilovic's contribution is an unwillingness to turn the little girls' finishing-school novitiate into metaphor. Sure, there are metaphors, like the dance instructor's butterfly fixation. But the "subtext" is so upfront that in fact what we're observing is gender role ideology made concrete and physical, Free to Be You and Me's "Girlland" as conceived by Kafka or Foucault. With the exception of the young girls' arrival in coffins -- the one metaphor that, though straightforward enough, remains on that level alone -- every ostensible secret or hidden agenda turns out, upon revelation, to be obvious. Not "obvious" in the sense of leaden narrative contrivance, but in the way an aspect of an ideology is revealed. The girls' condition becomes clearer both to them and to us, and by the time these nymphets are deemed ready to fly into their next (final?) confinement, Hadzihalilovic makes it clear that what we've been watching is not safely confined to some mythological past. We've all been to one school, or the other. The final dedication, "à Gaspar," sends Innocence off as a kind of lover's note: This is where I was while you were learning to fight.


-Seven Swords (Tsui Hark, China / Hong Kong / South Korea)

[NOTE: This review will not include the word "fanboy." That is my promise to you, my long-suffering readership.] Well, you wouldn't have to look far on the Internet to find folks who'll gladly tell you I don't know shit about Asian cinema. (URLs by request.) But I'm still a little perplexed that Seven Swords has gotten such a drubbing from those segments of film culture that, for better or worse, tend to serve as the tastemakers for martial arts cinema. I suppose the problem, or one of them, is that the fight sequences just aren't kick-ass enough. And I guess that's true; only once did I actually smile with glee at a piece of Tsui physical invention, and that was two hours and fifteen minutes in. (For what it's worth, I'm referring to the narrow corridor sword fight.) But it seems like that's a fairly limited criterion with which to relegate Swords to the dustbin. What we have here is "late Hark," a fine piece of big-budget studio filmmaking that, as a result of its sheer scope, lacks the madcap charm and pure inventiveness of Green Snake or the Once Upon a Times or even Time and Tide. Swords is glossy and overtly epic, swinging for the rafters -- Kurosawa especially, but also Kobayashi and King Hu -- and not fully achieving that level of mastery. But there's more going on stylistically that complicates this film, making it more than just an homage that fails. Tsui manages the epic scale of his forebears but infuses it with an overly detailed, almost hyper-real texture recalling certain passages of Terry Gilliam and especially LOTR-era Peter Jackson. This serves as the home base against which Tsui frequently flies into high abstraction, at times recalling the recent martial arts forays or Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, at other times delving into pure plastic light a la Wong Kar-Wai. But through it all, images are articulated with a fractured, multi-perspectival sensibility that is Tsui's alone. As a narrative, I suppose it lags in the middle, but I honestly didn't care all that much, since the film continually unfolded according to its own rhythmic logic, stately and them kinetic again. Also I realize that certain story elements were not fully fleshed out in the classic style (for instance, we didn't meet every single member of The Seven in plodding succession), but Tsui's riffing on one of the absolute classics of martial arts literature, so it doesn't strike me as a cardinal sin if he cuts a few corners. (I mean, I didn't know the story's particulars and I was certainly able to follow. Comparisons to Ashes of Time are way off-base.) So in the end, the worst thing I can say about this highly accomplished film is that its director indulges in some tonal inconsistencies, relying on the high production values and expansive scope to tie things together; the result is a broad, populist entertainment with stretches of fitful idiosyncrasy. I would've expected it to be embraced as a somewhat conservative but nonetheless worthy addition to Tsui's distinguished oeuvre, snatched up by Sony Classics or "presented" by Quentin Tarantino. Shows ya what I know.


-Tokyo Magic Hour (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia / Japan) [v/m]

Muhammad's experimental-video love poem has screened at the festivals in Rotterdam, San Francisco, and Vancouver as a pair with The Year of Living Vicariously, and although the two videoworks are completely different, they form a telling diptych. Whereas The Year foregrounds common everyday language, particularly as it's used to parrot received ideas, Tokyo is about the deeply felt, intensely crafted language of love. Muhammad compiled footage shot by various videographers around Tokyo, subjecting it to heavy processing along the lines of early video-synthesizer works by Scott Bartlett and Ed Emshwiller. His role is both editorial, piecing the footage together in rhythmic, contrapuntal ways, and painterly, working and overworking the "surface" of the video images. Muhammad pushes many sequences to the very limit of intelligibility, resulting in color whorls recalling Jordan Belson or the jagged stipple-scratches of Brakhage. But Muhammad's approach is quite different from the American avant-garde, in that he allows a dense, intricate soundtrack to hold the images together. Clanging electronica and ambient sound combine with the dominant refrain, a suite of short poems detailing the spark, crescendo and collapse of a love affair between two Muslim men. This provides Tokyo Magic Hour with a narrative thrust that is typically missing from "true" experimental cinema, at least in its North American variety. In fact, Muhammad's work has more in common with British experimental film and video work. Derek Jarman has been a frequent, apposite point of comparison, but David Larcher and Christopher Petit are touchstones as well, artists whose approach to Brakhagian "first person cinema" has been filtered through both video art and European art film, resulting in a more catholic attitude toward sound / image relationships and media hybridity. Muhammad is a worthy heir to these artists' tendency toward grand, cosmological gestures, but what's truly remarkable about Tokyo Magic Hour is the way it harnesses both non-representational imagery and the poetic tropes of doomed forbidden love to comment on the unique erotic prohibitions and possibilities of the Islamic faith. Implicit in Muhammad's tape is an assumption of travel or exile as both the specific conditions of the men's homosexual tryst, and as an example of a global homelessness. (TMH begins with an epigram by Jalal Toufic: "All love affairs take place in foreign cities.") Moreover, Muhammad seems to imply that the proscription of homosexual love in Islam (or any religion) in its fundamentalist incarnations is at least partially belied by the homoerotic demands of loving God. One poetic couplet ends, "The prophet Mohammad loved Allah / because you were not there instead," explicitly conflating sacred love with profane desire. Although my limited exposure to Amir Muhammad's work prevents me from making broad claims on his behalf, the evidence of Tokyo Magic Hour suggests that, apart from being a first-rate video artist, he is also calling on the powers of the aesthetic to formulate a radical new theology.


-The Year of Living Vicariously (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia / Indonesia) [v/m]

Ostensibly less radical than Tokyo Magic Hour, The Year of Living Vicariously is more directly engaged in the immediate demands of the social world. If TMH could be seen as a partial extension of certain tendencies in Chris Marker's work, such as the "Zone" segment of Sans soleil, The Year combines elements of Marker's behind-the-scenes looks at filmmaking, such as A.K., with leftist documents like A Grin Without a Cat. A one hour documentary presented in split-screen, The Year examines, on the one hand, the production process of Riri Riza's film Gie, a dramatization of the life and death of Soe Hok Gie, a radical student activist and anti-corruption crusader in Indonesia. Although we see brief clips from the film, mostly the filmmaking is kept as a kind of background, against which Muhammad interviews various Indonesian citizens associated with the production of Gie. Muhammad's half-and-half method, although it lacks the formal interplay of Tokyo, dramatizes a paradox. While the Indonesian film industry is pooling relatively huge resources to fund a film lionizing a radical dissident (and Gie is Indonesia's official submission for the 2005 Foreign Language Oscar), many of those people who are involved with making the film express ambivalence about the transition between Sukarno's authoritarian leftism and Suharto's right-wing dictatorship. In fact, those who don't shrug politics off altogether tend to concede that Suharto was tough to live under, but got things done. While most interviewees stop short of outright nostalgia for the Suharto regime, it's hard not to think of Fassbinder's conversations with his mother in his segment of Germany in Autumn, in which she expresses longing for a kindly fascist despot. Muhammad tends to stay out of things, his voice audible on the soundtrack only once. But as a Malaysian observer, he clearly conveys a sense of wry detachment, trying to decipher Indonesia's troubled political history as it played out on the ground. Although The Year is too open-form to draw firm conclusions, Muhammad implies that like his split-screen technique, authoritarianism works because when you try to look at your own situation, you are always implicitly forced to look at something else. Muhammad lives vicariously through the Indonesians, working out a sociological and creative problem by considering their lived history. Likewise the Indonesians he interviews appear to experience their own political past as vicarious experience, whether or not they are involved in the making of Gie. Whether Riza's film will serve as a bulwark against amnesia, or amnesia's official manifestation, remains to be seen, but Muhammad is staking out a more direct strategy against forgetting. [NOTE: The previous draft of this review contained some factual errors which Mr. Muhammad kindly brought to my attention. My thanks to him, and my apologies.]




Good Night, And Good Luck. (George Clooney)

Squareness certainly suits Clooney the director, and GN,AGL. is as square as the G-Man's jaw. I found a lot to admire in Clooney's directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but I was also irked by it. The wild-man bravado of certain auteurial touches was consistently belied by a random bit of pandering, a Lee Harvey Oswald joke here, the infamous "Newlywed Game" clip there. But the Murrow / McCarthy film gets by, and thoroughly entertains, just by playing it clean. Most often its crisp black-and-white cinematography, its overlapping conversations from men (and one woman) in smart black power suits, and its ever-presence of cigarette smoke swirling high up into the studio lights, all collude for an old fashioned "Playhouse 90" feel, Clooney helming it like classic, no-frills Lumet or Frankenheimer. It's only later on that one notices suave focus pulls, or a sudden slide of the camera hitting its mark like a bullseye. Then you realize, by God, Clooney's got some Orson Welles in him too. It's long been assumed that Clooney is a Soderbergh pupil, and GN,AGL. bears traces of Soderbergh's chameleonic film-bratism, the exacting ability to slide into another stylistic skin and make it his own. The performances are uniformly superb, but David Strathairn as Murrow? The ultimate casting coup, not because I think he was hard to land -- unfortunately I'm sure his schedule was wide open -- but because like Murrow's clipped, hard-bitten professionalism, Strathairn's acting style is, and always has been, simultaneously tough and self-effacing, dedicated to getting it right with a minimum of fuss. Strathairn has long been a consummate utility player, always just kind of there. In fact, one could draw a parallel with the jazz band who pop up throughout GN,AGL. as punctuation. Clooney implicitly make the point that, while all these serious Anglo men storm around the newsroom making history just by doing their jobs, there is also black America -- sidelined in a separate sphere, but always alongside the world that cannot quite accommodate them. This speaks to the film's strengths, but also to its undeniable shortcomings as well. If Clooney and company are here to remind us of broadcast journalism's finest hour, and a triumph of righteous liberalism, what is that lesson exactly? It's that liberals are patriots too, that "we" (an allegiance presumed by the film) love our country, hate Communism (or now, fundamentalist Islam) just as much as the right wing does, but "we" will stand for Principles and Ideals, against the homegrown terror of red-baiting and demagoguery. All well and good, as far as it goes. (In contemporary terms, it could be summed up by the cautious, measured bumper-sticker slogan, "Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home.") But what about actual Communists, or Socialists, or members of the Wobblies, an affiliation with whom Murrow categorically denies? As Bill Paley (Frank Langella) himself points out in the film, why didn't Murrow correct McCarthy's false claims regarding Alger Hiss, "a known Communist"? To Clooney's credit, GN,AGL. broaches these topics, and casts some doubt on Murrow's loyalty to his team by depicting his rather brusque, dismissive treatment of Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), a newsman who had been targeted as a pinko. But none of this obviates the dramatic thrust and formal organization of the film, or Strathairn's performance as rectitude incarnate; there is no mistaking that GN,AGL. is intended as a lesson for our times, a model of what dissent (in the media and elsewhere) can achieve. And like so many object lessons from the past, Clooney's film succumbs, at least in part, to a nostalgia that leaves things in a muddle, that cannot fully and systematically account for how things have changed, and how we need to go much farther than the 1950s allowed. Sure, this seems like a hefty demand to make of a work of cinema, but it's impossible not to hold GN,AGL. to a higher standard than just any old movie. It aims high, as should all of us, especially now.


The World (Jia Zhangke, China / Japan / France)

It would be entirely too easy, and wrongheaded, to blame The World's shortcomings on Jia's entry into "official" Chinese filmmaking. It's certainly Jia's most accessible film, with its focus on two couples in varying degrees of distress being firmly grounded in one big honking metaphor for Globalization and Its Discontents. But if anything, The World's turn toward straightforward narrative and telegraphic sociopolitical symbolism is really just an expansion of both Jia's best and his worst traits. Like World Park itself, The World is classic Jia, but on a slightly different scale. The very existence of World Park ("See the world without leaving Beijing!") embodies Jia's anxiety regarding China's position in the new economy, that of a burgeoning 21st century powerhouse nonetheless leaving most average citizens behind. This in itself probably made World Park an irresistible locale for Jia to explore, critique, and lampoon. But I wonder whether Jia should have resisted. After all, the cultural dislocations and theme-park-as-spatial-montage (slow pans from "Paris" to "Egypt," etc.) provide steadily diminishing returns as both bemusing comedy and cinematic theory-nuggets. And to his credit, Jia seems to realize this. The jarring juxtapositions of World Park eventually give way to a more neutral treatment of it as a workplace, one that (unlike, say, Disneyland) is willing to divulge its secrets. But World Park's economic ironies are underscored by some rather labored scripting, prompting Jia to lapse back into his frequent brand of folksy didacticism. The relationship between Tao (Tao Zhao) and Russian-in-transit Anna (Alla Shcherbakova), for example, underlines Jia's geopolitics with a lack of subtlety that matches World Park itself. In fact, The World is full of such pointed little bits of business, things that were frequently left unsaid or lying in the background in Unknown Pleasures but here are unavoidable. It's to Jia's credit that he often succeeds in creating a convincing context for these koans of leftist wisdom. The "Little Sister" story is a textbook example of Jia dramatizing Chinese capitalism's flagrant disregard for workers' rights -- he even borrows the people-shortage joke from Blind Shaft -- and despite its instructive function it is one of the most affecting segments of the film. But ultimately Jia's global awareness is not as emotionally satisfying as his attention to private moments between young couples, particularly Tao and Taisheng (Taisheng Chen) as they spend interstitial down-time negotiating their love affair. We see them in underlit hotel rooms or in various employee areas of World Park, just hanging out but often struggling to figure out how to be in relation to one another. This is the rambling, open-form Jia, and while The World splices these moments with his macro-politic with some success, the overall orchestration of the film is disconcertingly conventional, with its animated sequences and grating, sub-Moby techno score, too obviously moving us from segment to segment in the manner of episodic TV. Or, for that matter, a theme park, with its Muzaked monorail shuttling us between attractions. So while there is a great deal to admire in The World, I come away thinking that the metaphor took on a life of its own, inadvertently setting the limits of Jia's project when he so clearly strives to be a director without borders.




-Far Side of the Moon (Robert Lepage, Canada)

Looking over the available reviews, I seem to be virtually alone in not really liking this film. On paper it's the sort of conceptual piece I ought to groove with, but I think that's a large part of the problem -- Far Side exists almost exclusively on paper, a film made from a play about a thesis that is told from the perspective of a frustrated academic trying to defend his thesis. It's hard to pull this kind of thing off with the requisite finesse, since there's always the danger of the film appearing a little too eager to display its superior intellect. Like fellow Canadian cine-philosophes John Greyson, Jeremy Podeswa, and Jean-Claude Lauzon, Lepage commits to certain conceptual structures (space program as metaphor, actualized vs. overly introspective brothers) and won't let go, even when the material calls for a lighter hand. Even the stylized visuals are plodding and deliberate, especially the play with scale and graphic-match transitions. On the level of mise-en-scène as well as performance, Far Side is wall-to-wall Lepage, and there's not a lot of breathing room. Given that Lepage wrote and directed, even adapting from his own one-man stage play, it makes no sense to say he miscast himself, but here's a guy who would pull focus upon entering any room, and as Philippe the academic he's apparently supposed to be well-nigh invisible. Lepage plays both brothers quite deftly, although his doughy Jeffrey Jones presence sticks out in nearly every context, drawing attention to itself as an awkward physical fact. And complaining that Lepage made a film about his own dual performance is equally redundant, since Far Side is explicitly about narcissism. See? He's got every base covered. In this regard, a third Lepage is ever-present, the one who is straining to whip his conceits into an emotionally plausible framework. Far Side struggles for fanciful weightlessness but for me there was only the leaden, deeply etched intaglio of whimsy, along with the obtrusive force of preordained reconciliation. Lepage has fashioned the perfect film for anyone anxious to spend 105 minutes orbiting the earth with proliferating metaphors that never so much as threaten to touch down.


-In Your Hands (Annette K. Olesen, Denmark)

We're pretty late into the Dogme 95 enterprise, and by now it's no surprise that it's possible to adhere to the "Vow of Chastity" and still make a film that formally approximates conventional narrative cinema. This isn't a problem in itself, of course; any innovation tends toward a sanding-down of rough edges, integration if not accommodation. The strange thing about Olesen's film is that in many ways she seems to be bristling against the constraints of Dogme, striving toward an even greater assimilation. Her hand-held camerawork is well suited to the story being told -- a tentatively redemptive encounter between new prison chaplain Anna (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) and just-transferred prisoner Kate (Trine Dyrholm). The prison setting mirrors the tight confinement that Dogme's intimate cinematography tends to favor. But Olesen's editing scheme is restless, evincing an unwillingness to trust her actors' self-effacing naturalism to carry the day. It's possible Olesen's lack of confidence stemmed from a recognition that her script, once the players are in place, tends to follow rather predictable pathways, ultimately resembling high-minded TV drama. Had Olesen modified her approach in either direction -- either elevating the material with bold choices or simply getting out of her actresses' way -- In Your Hands's modest ambitions might've been more satisfactorily realized. Or, in less pedantic terms: when you're making what amounts to a gene-splice between Italian for Beginners and The Green Mile, jazz it up, play it straight, or don't play it at all. Also, I completely agree with Mike D'Angelo that the ending is bracing and pitiless, but I don't think it compensates for Olesen's other less imaginative moves.


-The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (Adam Curtis, U.K.) [v]

Possibly the most provocative documentary currently riding the festival circuit, The Power of Nightmares is, without a doubt, worth watching if you have any interest in the intellectual underpinnings of the fundamentalist Islamist movement and especially the Bush 43 administration's response to it. Regardless of the reactions it generates, it's one of the year's most incessant conversation pieces. According to Curtis, the "war on terror" has actually been a long-germinating theoretical poli-sci project on the part of neo-conservatives, 9/11 serving as the starting gun for a real-world rollout. As with Fahrenheit 9/11, which Nightmares resembles, Curtis's television program (a three-part series produced for the BBC) makes sense as far as its formal limitations will allow. As cinema, or even as above-average TV, Power is subject to cheap formal shortcuts, particularly argumentation-by-montage. It frequently plays like a Craig Baldwin parody of an Errol Morris parody of a Michael Moore film, with B-movie footage of Ali Baba or bug-eyed foreigners unleashing blood-curdling screams, placed smackdab between file footage clips of Rumsfeld or Sayyid Qutb. But Baldwin would have made a more adventurous political statement (see Tribulation 99) and, more importantly, would have permitted his own subjective position to emerge. Sure, Curtis's parade of out-of-context interview clips and sub-Carl Stalling sound effects (BOI-ing!) mostly just mark Nightmares out for what it is: well-researched television, above average but not above certain specious claims and convenient conceptual coincidences. The most "controversial" claim Curtis makes, however, and the one that has served as its pull-quote and calling card -- that "Al Qaeda" as such does not exist -- is actually more plausible than it might at first appear. It's also a deceptively modest claim, that bin Laden isn't so much a mastermind in constant contact with "cells" from Algeria to Buffalo, but that relatively independent actors petition him to fund terror projects, resulting in a "network" that is actually more like an Islamo-fascist version of the Guggenheim Foundation. (At any rate, the best refutation of Curtis's thesis that I've encountered, although not itself airtight, has been Peter Bergen's article in The Nation.) The main problem I have with the film, unlike the work of Baldwin or even Moore himself, is that Curtis, for all his showy crosscutting and single-author voiceover, implicitly adopts the mantle of objective newsroom reportage, never tipping his hand and making his position explicit. Certainly the intelligent, attentive viewer can suss out Curtis's political orientation; if you need help, his last major project, The Century of the Self, explored how Freudian psychoanalysis has, depending on your viewpoint, been either perverted or followed to its logical conclusion, in the creation of bourgeois interior subjectivity as a set of private needs sated only by consumer culture. So, take this perspective are read it back into Nightmares. Yes, the neo-conservatives and the Islamists both agree that postmodern society has become unmoored from traditional values, has no core beliefs, and will atomize into decadent consumerism and false pleasures. Okay, but Theodor Adorno also believed this, as, it seems, does Adam Curtis. But he never announces that he is attacking two modes of social theory from inside the trenches of a third: a flexible, humanistic version of materialist leftism. Given that I tend to share his perspective, I'm rather galled that he doesn't cop to it. Those who find this position anathema will, unfortunately, consider Curtis's coyness a flat-out dealbreaker. [NOTE: If you have broadband and a whole lot of time (say, the overnight hours), you can download the entire program from this public-domain website. Despite this, theatrical distributors are still circling, and Nightmares is slated to open commercially at New York's Cinema Village in December.]




Capote (Bennett Miller)

The fact that Capote is one of 2005's major year-end releases is a stark indicator of just how middling the Oscar crop really is. Hardly a terrible film but certainly unremarkable, Capote's biggest flaw is the self-importance permeating every frame. It works extra hard to stake its claim on significance, what with Miller's static slide-show of prairie vistas, his cloven delineation between urban bon vivant decadence and square-jawed Kansan fortitude, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's fey, lacquered impersonation, conjuring Truman Capote as a helium-lisped Max Headroom. It's not a bad performance, but there's no room in the film for any discovery or spontaneity on his part. Like so many other "stately" prestige films, Capote flattens moral complexity, serving up a predigested version of it. Here, it's an oscillation between A and B poles: compassionate identification vs. self-serving dissimulation. One holds sway, then the other, and back again, until the "ambivalent" ending when B is saturated with a listless anger at itself for not being capacious enough to accommodate more A. It's a consumable version of serious moral drama; like Capote's writing, it won't risk an open ending. Miller, for his part, conveys gravity mostly by telling his tale more slowly than Hollywood normally does, underscoring death-row friendlessness and ambition's folly with appropriately plangent piano music. It achieves its own brand of qualified success by never failing to do exactly what you expect. If there's an irony here, it's that Capote, once the toast of the New York intelligentsia, is today largely forgotten as a writer, remembered mostly (if at all) as a celebrity. Apart from being a noteworthy line on Hoffman's resumé, Capote is destined to be forgotten as well.


(-)The Edukators [Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei!] (Hans Weingartner, Germany / Austria)

This movie's stupid. And it's not just that its politics are facile and the film seems designed to highlight that fact. It's that Weingartner is so obviously in thrall to all the crass, superficial shorthand he's imbibed from slick Hollywood pseudo-indie filmmaking. Whether it's a wallpaper-hanging-cum-paint-fight montage that serves as the meet-cute, or the hand-held, oh-my-god-run! propulsion of the break-in scene, or a fifteen minute coda that hangs everything on one rather wobbly peg of a torch song (Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"), The Edukators is awash with relentless hackwork. And its social agenda? Mostly it takes solid, righteous ideas and makes them seem silly. The Matrix is name-checked, if that gives you an idea of the level of discourse, and although I certainly appreciate the urge to extract the anarchy from Fight Club while jettisoning the lunkheaded machismo, the end of Weingartner's film is a straight-up crib. Bad form, my man. In the end, The Edukators (whose German title is demoted to a tagline in America -- "your days of plenty are numbered") comes off like Third Way center-leftism as an aesthetic choice, the work of a fellow who got sick of having to watch Fassbinder and Kluge films in college, or heard one too many stories from his uncle about the glory days of Baader-Meinhof. And then, to add a further layer of futility, The Edukators slinks into the States, where the anti-establishment radicalism it depicts speaks to no shared political history, no similar experience of compromised institutional leftism. So it mostly serves to help us laugh at those annoying punk kids who make us feel bad for trying to shop at Niketown. If you think that sort of sneering is a worthy goal, well here you go, have at it.


-Gilles' Wife (Frédéric Fonteyne, Belgium / France / Luxembourg / Italy / Switzerland)

[MILD SPOILERS] I found myself watching Gilles' Wife with the level of detachment that I experience when visiting an Arts and Crafts museum. I'm fully capable of noting the skill and workmanship involved in this piece of furniture or that woven tapestry, but there's usually no way in for me, no emotional frisson. So I can understand why Fonteyne's film would have its ardent admirers. It is beautifully crafted through and through, borrowing many of the stylistic tropes of early silent cinema to convey the dissolving inner life of Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos), a housewife for whom self-abnegation becomes an absolute existential commitment. Fonteyne has created a hybrid work that draws on usually incompatible elements: Eisenstein's flattening of space and image into hardened, interlocking icons; Murnau's collision of individual interiority and mythic typicality; and Griffith's domestic chamber dramas and fixation on the expressive female face. Devos is wonderful, shifting her features with a precision that hovers between the subtlety of modern acting and the telegraphic signification of the great silent heroines, especially that of Mae Marsh. Fonteyne's silent film syntax is matched, interestingly enough, with an artificial treatment of color, reducing tonalities to the muted matte finish of hind tinting. At times these flat colors, even lighting, and frontal compositions turn Gilles' Wife into a sort of shadow-box, its performers and environments taking on the texture of modeling clay. There are points of comparison for this type of mise-en-scène -- some late Resnais films, portions of Guy Maddin's oeuvre, Veit Helmer's contemporary silent Tuvalu -- but none of these captures the vexing contradiction of Fonteyne's approach, which seems aged in oakwood casks and at the same time obviously digitally enhanced. There aren't other films like it anywhere for miles, and for that reason alone it is worth a recommendation. However, its exquisite surface and Devos' virtuoso performance all struck me as rather fussy and overdetermined, and this sense of estrangement was only heightened by the story and its commitments. Elisa is a sort of anti-heroine Kate Chopin wrote about, a protagonist taking the absurdity of her own choices to the brink and beyond. It's an inward, feminine rendition of the sort of anti-heroes one finds in Camus or Dostoyevsky -- the absolute, unswerving devotion to a decision that, once taken, precludes reconsideration. Apart from being troubled by the perverse-feminist premise of Gilles' Wife (a tale, it's worth noting, created in the 1930s), in which a woman's greatest deed is her own disappearance, I have always had a problem with this variety of existentialism. Tenaciously holding fast to one course of action, it seems to me, precludes learning; I have always preferred Sartre's version of the human event, wherein the choosing subject acts, and then chooses and acts again. So no matter how carefully wrought the film and Devos' character may be, I find myself with a political objection -- why this tale, now? -- and colliding with a personal bête noire I just can't find it within me to sidestep. In sum, Gilles' Wife is undeniably accomplished but to my mind thoroughly wrongheaded, and your mileage, as they say, may vary.


-Wild Side (Sébastien Lifshitz, France / Belgium / U.K.)

Usually when I label a film a "disappointment," it's because I've grown to expect great things from a certain filmmaker and, in a particular instance, found them off their game a little, or a lot. But Wild Side is disappointing because the last Lifshitz film I saw, Presque rien, held out hope. It was a film that at least attempted all the right moves -- loose structure, observational style, a non-doctrinaire approach to depicting gay characters and others at the margins of so-called mainstream society -- but it wasn't very good. Clumsy execution and an inability to exercise discernment between good and bad ideas ultimately hobbled that earlier film, but those are the sorts of rookie errors that a promising director can and should outgrow. So, Wild Side delivers sad news, that Lifshitz simply lacks ability as a filmmaker despite the fact that once in a while he'll accidentally stumble onto something that works. Wild Side's best scene is its opener, which has no direct relevance to the plot. We see a nightclub audience, including the film's transsexual protagonist Stéphanie, née Pierre (Stéphanie Michelini), listening in silence to Antony (of the group Antony and the Johnsons, winners of this year's Mercury Prize) perform an a cappella version of "Fell In Love With a Dead Boy." It's fragile and evocative in a way the rest of the film strains to be, failing for the remaining ninety minutes. Lifshitz has a promising premise -- an elective family / sexual threesome reckons with simmering tensions as a result of an unexpected interface with the larger world -- and as I watch I clearly see what the director wants to do with it. Basic narrative information is withheld, and expressionistic reverie weaves past and present in an indeterminate manner. But each individual sequence is graceless and overburdened with demonstrative value, ideational signposts attempting to pass themselves off as free-floating observation. Even more damningly, Lifshitz seems to be at odds with Agnès Godard's cinematography, unwilling to recognize and benefit from her superior talent. It's not just that her painterly treatment of urban Paris and its tranny scene, her frank sexual images, or her peerless, Vermeer-by-way-of-Van Gogh rural landscapes are abrasively truncated by Stéphanie Mahet's editing. In one of the most bizarre filmic decisions I've seen in ages, Lifshitz seems to digitally recrop Godard's framings, bobbing and weaving with -- how do I even describe this? -- a virtual traveling-matte, to keep actors in the center of the frame at all times. The film is in 'Scope, but within the widescreen framings there are joystick-driven pans within pans, two visual intelligences (or honestly, an intelligence and an idiocy) fighting it out on a shot-by-shot basis. (Can others confirm this? It was so weird I began to think it was some sort of artifact from the DVD, especially since Wellspring's discs are notoriously lousy.) The impression, finally, is that Lifshitz hired Godard on reputation and, seeing the final result, decided she shot Wild Side too artily, and set out to extract pedestrianism from her efforts at all costs. In light of this, and the fact that the film does squander what promise it had, I wonder: can Godard take the actors and the premise to André Téchiné for a do-over?