REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 2008
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)
When last we heard from Silvio Soldini on these shores, he had a wry little middlebrow dramedy called Bread and Tulips making the rounds. There was nothing radical about that film, except for the fact that it was warm, humane, and often quite funny. Its winning performances and quiet, observational style more than compensated for its frequent nods to the shopworn conventions of Ealing comedies or the small-n, gentlefolks' neo-realism of Olmi and mid-period de Sica. But, modest as Bread and Tulips was, it did that film no favors to oversell it. So I and others gave it the smallish recommendation -- "There's this lovely little Italian comedy playing down the road. I mean, if you're bored." And so, here we are again. Mr. Soldini has made a drama this time, a very grown-up drama the likes of which the American studios are incapable of producing today, what with bloated budgets and ad costs and the eye on the overseas market and its presumed taste for the grand gesture. Days and Clouds is a study of a marriage under siege, first by pride, and then by objectie economic forces, the kind that all bourgeois romantic pieties persist in telling us don't matter. But they do. The film opens with Elsa (the peerless Margherita Buy) successfully defending her doctoral dissertation in Art History, followed by a big party thrown by her husband Michele (Antonio Albanese) The next morning, Michele admits to Elsa that he's been out of work for months, and they're in serious financial trouble. The rest of the film consists of painfully truthful, acutely observed moments in the strain of a relationship, and in the loss of self-worth, that accompanies long-term unemployment. Although a few moments here and there find Soldini artificially withholding communication to further a plot point, or having Michele behave in ways slightly more macho than his character elsewhere indicates would be likely, the vast majority of the film consists of perfectly judged, excruciating detail of the day-to-day struggle to maintain dignity and sanity when you're plunged into an indefinite bind. Soldini plays nothing for melodrama, avoids flashy stylistic touches like the plague, and always elicits sharp,multifaceted performances from his two leads. Soldini clearly felt he could let Buy, Albanese, and the script do the heavy lifting, and he was correct. Now, again, this is a small, intimate film about a large topic. I don't want to hype it into more than it is. But what it is is a devastating portrait of love struggling to withstand the vicissitudes of the material world.
Reviewing a film like Go Go Tales is a bit of a losing proposition in some ways, because much like certain ultra-stringent works of the avant-garde, the films of Abel Ferrara, when they're really "on," exemplify a good many traits that are going to sound like flaws to the unconvinced. Go Go Tales is Ferrara's best film in years, although this in itself is a bit misleading. It aims lower than something like Mary, an altogether more shambolic affair which hits higher highs but also more frequently falls flat on its face. But as a result Go Go holds together, gets it "right" most of the time, and (it's a comedy) turns falling apart into an art. It's film about the frantic flopsweat of putting on a show, staving off the creditors, hustling to keep the lights on, and grinning your way past all that crippling self-doubt. The difference is, Ferrara has actual talent, and yet he's got enough tenderness toward the losers of the world that he's throwing them a T&A fête, creating a little slice of Paradise for them to shine. The film opens with Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) in repose on his office couch, a shot that recurs throughout the film. He's fretting about the dancers walking out (he's days behind in paying them), a bag lady landlady (Sylvia Miles) intent on closing the club, a younger brother / chief investor (Matthew Modine) who wants out), and a lost Lotto ticket that's actually a winner. (He's been buying them by the thousands for years, stuffing them behind every wall in the joint.) Ferrara's gotten a lot of grief over the years for being an indulgent filmmaker, and Go Go Tales won't quell those charges. But it's a film about indulgence as a form of love, the need for small-timers and dead-enders to have a place where they can dream beyond the confines of their talents and good sense. There's a reason this is Ferrara's most obviously "movie" movie in years. It's not just that certain of the go-go passages recall an Exotica designed to skewer Egoyan's pretension. (Cf. "Ali from the Valley.") And of course, Ray Ruby is a riff on Cosmo Vitelli, but Ferrara plays his showman as a noble buffoon, not a tragic hero. (When Cassavetes has Cosmo opine that there's nothing more important than being comfortable, the cruel irony is ladled on. Ray pretty much exemplifies this motto, aside from being strapped for cash.) But above all, Go Go Tales is Ferrara's Altman film. In terms of its diegetic world and the obvious atmosphere of its making, Go Go Tales is about the joy of ambling through Ferrara's icy cobalt blue sets, performing in his rinky-dink, tongue-in-cheek cabaret universe, and (as Ray says -- way too directly) investing. Mutual investiture is what it's all about. Ferrara's humor, his dense, succulent images, his skittering sense of pace, all the aspects of his singular formal approach, ought to be enough to get back from Go Go Tales what you give it. But above all this, the film exudes a scuzzy warmth, like a puppy out in the alley licking up a puddle of spilled Schlitz. Take it home.
After watching this film and being at a loss for how someone could genuinely dislike it, I consulted Steve Erickson's review. And yes, okay, the worst thing you can say about Menzel's striking, rather offhandedly masterful comeback film is that it deals with the 20th century's worst horrors -- the Third Reich in particular -- without having anything much to say about them. But whereas Erickson found this flippancy to be Menzel's exclusively, I denoted a subtle strain of irony running through the material, a parable about how exactly it's possible not only to undergo the Czech century but to profiteer from it, be stripped of one's ill-gotten (and ultimately useless) spoils, and come out only incrementally wiser. Now, having said that, I would not make any great claims for ISTKOE as social commentary, because quite obviously Menzel is more concerned with rhythms and patterns, such as the balletic orchestration of tall and short waiters through a hotel restaurant, or the repeated motif of young, post-coital Jan Díte (Bulgarian comic actor Ivan Barnev, the ideal simpleton) covering his conquests with laurel-leaf bikinis of money and extravagant food. In fact, like his compatriot Vera Chytilová, Menzel lavishes his camera over uniquely decadent European foodstuffs, opulent interiors, and voluptuous bodies, all in highly self-conscious tableaux, with the purpose of creating, yes, sexy and seductive cinema, but an indescribably anachronistic form of sexuality, the kind of misplaced desire that I'd liken to whacking off to pictures of Marilyn Monroe. It's necro-porn, and that's a big part of the point; it's not for nothing that Menzel gives us the frame story of the older Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser, whose name is probably not as ironic in his native land as it seems to us here) alone with his fractured memories, hardly up to seducing the poor hippie girl (Julia Jentsch) sent to Commie prison for enjoying free sex. At any rate, I don't want to oversell ISTKOE, which is a pleasant but conceptually shallow film. Its joy, for me, had much more to do with watching a modern master elicit intriguingly stylized performances and exert control over his mise-en-scène than in any "message." It's a pretty perfectly made film, and I'm not sure why it didn't get more attention from the usual quarters.
Over the years I've learned that this is the sort of film that I have a bad habit of underrating. That's because I go in expecting them to be gutbustingly funny straight out of the gate (probably unfair), they inevitably aren't, and then I assign them a 4 or a 5 that seems remarkably ungenerous years or even months later, when I'm laughing my ass off when I randomly catch them on Cinemax. (Recent specimens include Let's Go to Prison and Blades of Glory.) So this time I'm modulating my fundamentally mixed response in anticipation of the fact that, on third, fourth, or eighth viewing, I won't so much mind the logy expository midsection, with its necessary disruption of the Rudd / Scott friendship and breaking-off of the Sturdy Wings mentorships. (They must re-earn their wings in Act Three, naturally.) Instead I'll be fixating on Jane Lynch, Comedienne from Outer Space, with her random post-addict ejaculations; Rudd's exquisite comic timing, and his character's shockingly belligerent refusal of social niceties ("I don't 'go to dinner.'"); and newcomer Robb'e J. Thompson, who kills every last line reading in what could've been a one-note stereotype role. Yes, the creative-anachronism Battle Royal is overlong and tedious, but I guess that's just what happens when you throw money at The State.
Practice makes perfect, and sometimes a young, attractive performer consistently showcased for his or her eye-candy appeal can actually ripen into an actor of depth and capability. This scenario usually requires a film industry at least somewhat dominated by auteurs who can take a young person under their wing and impart the craft to them as they work in a largely non-industrialized, artisanal environment. Ludivine Sagnier, who just a few short years ago couldn't act her way out of a paper bag, nevertheless had the chance to work with some of French cinema's leading lights -- Resnais, Chéreau, Ozon, Miller, and now Chabrol. And she's definitely picked some things up along the way; her performance here is quite lovely, subtly frayed but never overstated, turning exasperations and eventual power plays into wry, weary comedy, the resignation of an ambitious middle-class woman with desire, dignity, and too-few options. Her Gabrielle Deniege (a weathergirl named "Snow," har har) is something a bit new in the Chabrol menagerie, a self-possessed outcast from the sub-intellectual class (her mom runs a bookstore) who looks upon her time among the monied elite with a degree of ironic distanciation and even humor. Whether intentional or not (and considering what a cinephile cohort Chabrol runs with, it's hard to think it's an accident), Gabrielle is a rather direct revision on Nicole Kidman's white-trash skank on the make from Van Sant's To Die For. As usual for Chabrol, the haute bourgeoisie is rotten to the core but, until a rather shocking third-act occurrenceA Girl Cut in Two almost plays it for laughs, and this has everything to do with Sagnier's careful delineation of the material.
Sadly, much of the rest of Chabrol's project is a major muddle. The character of Charles Saint-Denis is some sort of send-up of the libertine amorality of a certain stripe of literary celebrity, but his fate (and the unresolved question of his actual talent) makes him just another old man in a too-nice house and car, a rhetorical figure with a purpose at once unclear and stereotypically overdetermined. What's more, even when recent Chabrol films have come up short on originality or ideas, they've always compensated with precise, masterful mise-en-scène, complex yet effortless editing schemes and a formally intelligent organization of movement through space. Not so here. Starting out with its simplest if boldest visual idea (a windshield tracking shot to Saint-Denis' house saturated in red), and concluding with its silliest (a lunkheaded literalization of the title metaphor), everything in between is pretty pedestrian. Also, I must say, I think that by any reasonable standard, Benoît Magimel's character would be preposterous, and Magimel's broad performance (miss the barn door and win $100!) does it no favors. But the fact that he's behaving a lot like that obnoxious Jeremy Darling from "Dirty Sexy Money" doesn't help matters one bit. We, um, expect Chabrol to be operating on a somewhat higher plane.
Lakeview Terrace is a fascinating muddle, but also quite a lot more than that. Its script, written as a partial collaboration between the scribes responsible for Passenger 57 and The Passion of Ayn Rand, contains as many trenchant, uncomfortable volleys in the intellectual race wars as it does standard-issue suburban-psycho moves and, perhaps more tellingly, features quite a number of observations on the State of Race in America that just almost hit the mark, but don't. That is, the verbal sparring among bitter cop Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson, actually dialing down the badass routine until the shoot-'em-up finale) and his quarry, interracial yuppie couple Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), frequently clunks mere seconds after it hits the floor, almost passing muster, indicating that just one more rewrite would have really made this film a convulsive little B-movie time capsule for the ages, a snapshot of all that bullshit that rattles around in the back of "other people's" brains. I mean, having Chris listen to hip-hop was a no-brainer, but having the Berkeley boy dig Public Enemy and Black Sheep? Well, what can I say . . . Guilty as charged, and it has as much to do with the type of rap clever and conscious enough to actually appeal to (let's face it) an educated elite (that is, rap made by black members of that elite) as it does with not wanting to look like a dipshit to African-Americans, doing everything possible to play the part of a nerdy white college guy not trying to front.
And, as Lakeview Terrace (and every other iota of extant contemporary culture today) makes abundantly clear, this neurosis, the one driving both Abel and Chris bonkers (Lisa to a lesser extent, or perhaps in a different direction) is one that the generations coming up really don't have, or at least not in the same way. Don't misunderstand -- it's not post-racial utopia out there by a fricking mile, but it isn't neurosis, maybe in part because the 21st century is so tragicomically post-Freudian. In any case, part of this film's rather daring agenda is its casting the conservative-enforcer role with Jackson, but not in an altogether unsympathetic way. Abel's typical cop authoritarianism is blended with a Thomas Sowell-style black right-winger viewpoint (speak proper English, don't embarrass the race), all mixed up with a righteous fury from a life spent observing unchecked white privilege. It all makes sense, but what he simply can't see through his hate-goggles is that Chris, with his carelessly chucked cigarette butts and inconsiderate outdoor sex, is a garden-variety douchebag. (Granted, the casting of Wilson gives audiences a heads-up on this one.) And Chris, for his part, has conveniently surrounded himself with disapproving African-American father figures whose harsh, quite reasonable judgment of him can always be attributed to his skin color. Now, of course there's Lisa in the middle of all this, and one of the major flaws of Lakeview is that it gives short shrift to Lisa's characterization, often making her the nag, the coveted chit, or in the worst subplot, the incomprehensibly duplicitous spouse. This significant lapse on the gender front (oh, an old bugbear when the boys "do race") shows that Lakeview does have a traditional domestic-peril streak deep in its DNA, not just as a tacked-on ending. And, yes, the ending just takes Abel's "reveal" and marches it to the inevitable macho standoff. But even before this, when Abel and Chris sit in the bar and discuss the tragedy that finally provoked Abel to turn a lifetime of silent rage into a side-career as self-appointed Neighborhood Race Enforcer, the conversation frequently rings false, Chris in particular failing to extend the basic gestures of compassion that would be automatic even toward one's worst enemy. Here, another moment that suggests the makers of Lakeview Terrace were cutting corners, or instructed to cut to the chase. Oh, one final thought: this film is directed by Neil LaBute. Some might wonder why he didn't take a pass at the script himself, assuming he could've made it sharper. But considering the "sharp" ideas on display in Nurse Betty and The Shape of Things, I'm quite thankful he didn't try.
What can I say that hasn't been said a million times? Philippe Petit's achievement was indeed singular, and Marsh's doc is quite right to dust it off and rescue it from the inexplicable obscurity into which it had fallen. And yes, MoW does a fine job of capitalizing on the inherent drama of the WTC wire walk -- the stealth prep work, the hundred things that could go wrong, the danger, the clash of egos. But my objections are pretty much the same ones that Mike D'Angelo "Twittered" several months ago after seeing the film. Why is this documentary so singularly uninterested in even broaching the issue of where Petit gets his funding? These projects are clearly pricey propositions. Also, there's no getting around the fact that the use of Michael Nyman's music is as problematic as it is propulsively effective. Many of these symphonic cues are immediately familiar to anyone who's seen Peter Greenaway's films; their collaborations were singular in that rare, Leone / Morricone, Lynch / Badalamenti way. Overall, MoW is effective -- after so many recent Errol Morris duds, it's nice to see someone picking up on Morris's best early lessons -- but ruthlessly so, never really pausing to contemplate its own procedures. Nevertheless, what a much-needed turnaround for Marsh, whose previous work (Wisconsin Death Trip; The King) focused on the ugly side of obsession, resulting in ugly, nearly unwatchable films.
The debate rages on. Is Van Sant a sellout? Is Milk too conventional? Will "mainstream" (read: straight) audiences "embrace" a film about an out-and-loud gay activist? Should the kissing have included more tongue? etc. There's certainly no question that Milk is, by absolute design, Van Sant's most straightforwardly constructed piece of cinema in years. Of course, there are random bits of strangeness no one seems to be mentioning, in all the "standard biopic" hullabaloo. Not just the gaybashing scene reflected in an extreme close-up of a dropped silver whistle (kind of hard to miss). How about Jeff Koons cameoing as Art Agnos? Or the inconsistently applied but nonetheless effective technique of displaying a lot of stock footage (particularly of Stonewall-era police abuse and Anita Bryant / Briggs Amendment classic bigotry) in an anamorphically squashed format, making homophobia look physically perverse? Smart, unconventional choices. But then, as some have pointed out, other sore-thumb elements, like the "I won't make it to 50" prophesy or (ugh) the Tosca passages, are so obtrusive as to practically scan to the art-minded viewer as snide parodies of Oscar-bait obviousness. I'm not sure I'm buying this. I've never been one to find Van Sant a conceptual genius, though, and his "concepts" are often pretty lunkheaded but wrapped in more formalist esoterica. (Paranoid Park's "it's all in the burning letter" reveal and Last Days' dialectic of race and supplication -- Velvets vs. Boyz II Men -- are two examples, neither particularly "deep." But it's okay, Gus, we love you anyway.) So yeah, Milk. I'm not going to claim to be on my formalist guard when I watched it. I went in, cautiously optimistic in some ways, hoping unabashedly in others, in light of Obama's win, but saddened and pissed off by the passage of all the anti-gay ballot measures. But it didn't even take the rousing politics (I knew the Harvey Milk story going in) to get to me. After five miserable years in Syracuse, and five difficult months staring down an uncertain future in Houston, all it took was that first establishing shot of the Castro for me to tear up. (I wanna go home in my opinion.)
Still, Milk inspires, but it doesn't leave much in the way of an impression. It's a kind of contact high, moving us through our emotional / political paces, displaying certain inside-baseball truths about the grassroots process but mostly following its prescribed Trajectory of Hope, one which even Harvey Milk's assassination can't extinguish. In this regard, Milk is clearly designed, and far more interesting, as a highly elevated piece of rhetoric than an aesthetic object per se. As we know, rhetoric can be powerful, when it is properly applied. The emotional appeals of Milk's politics ("pathos") are given here, but the downside is that they tend to evaporate. Actions driven by affect and desire are always unruly, and add in layers of remove, like cinema itself, and possible empathy for "others," and much gets lost in the shuffle. This doesn't diminish Milk, but it might throw its lasting relevance into question. So what? Even Brecht shrugged at those kinds of things. It does function, in my mind, more as grand speech for civil rights than Festival Cinema. (Its world premiere at the Castro, rather than Cannes or Venice, makes perfect since and is not a question of quality, as some have claimed.) And, again as a work of political rhetoric, it matters who is doing the speaking ("ethos"), and Gus Van Sant has the necessary credibility, all that much more burnished in "official" circles when he refrais from being arty, for a presumed higher purpose. For all these reasons, things like Focus Features' post-election release strategy take on heightened meaning, because the conetxt surrounding the film (the rhetorical "kairos") matters even more than the film-text itself. Milk's tagline, "you gotta give 'em hope," sounds like a pullquote from one of David Plouffe's Obama emails. But in the interest of broad electoral appeal, Barack and Joe were doing the old bob-and-weave with respect to GLBTQ issues, and even though Milk, or any movie, would never have changed any voter's mind about gay rights, all those associated with its marketing chose not to muddy the political waters wih a more timely, pre-election appearance. Besides, they had an Oscar campaign to run. I somehow doubt that's the kind of recruitment Harvey Milk had in mind.
[ONE FINAL DROP OF MILK: Some have taken issue with my contention above that Milk's post-election release date represented a decision that was, above all, marketing strategy with an eye to Oscar season. A reliable source in L.A. informed me that at an industry Q&A, this issue was put to the Milk team and their answer was that the film just wasn't ready for an earlier, pre-election bow. Now, given that Milk had its world premiere in San Francisco on October 28, and I heard no reports that the print was dripping developer onto the floor of the booth, I take that response with a grain of salt, but accept it nonetheless. I'm not interested in subpoenaing post-production schedules in order to make a relatively minor point. And let me reiterate, if I didn't feel that Milk the film bore specific and deliberate echoes of our current political moment, I wouldn't press the point. Works of art come into being in their own time, and their capitalist fruition and promotion is an awkward, unwieldy machine even in the best financial climate. However, following Old Uncle Brecht, if you want to be timely, and particularly if part of your gameplan is to trade on being timely, you have to be on time.]
A short story extended just a touch past the breaking point of its credibility, Momma's Man has numerous virtues. These include lovely passages of quiet calm, a clear approach to spatial demarcation as a dimension of character and, in Matt Boren, a lead actor whose very physical being exudes regression to a doughy, malleable state. At its best, Momma's Man allows Mikey (Boren) to retreat into the cramped, curio-stuffed Lower Manhattan wonderland of his parents (Ken and Flo Jacobs) and discover meaningful little doodads that, when isolated by Jacobs' camera, serve as objective correlatives to his retreat into solipsism. But by and large, Jacobs allows Mikey to remain a cipher whose abdication from adult responsibility and increasing need to return to the safety of his childhood home can only scan in pat, male-midlife-crisis terms. The glimpses we're given into Mikey's subjectivity -- his pouring through notebooks of high school doggerel, donning his old plastic Captain Marvel cape, calling up an old girlfriend to "apologize" (seemingly a last-minute reversal upon discovering that Bridget, like him, has a child, who she's brought along for the coffee date) -- all fit snugly into very conservative parameters for understanding the behavior of the family man under duress. And whereas Jacobs and Boren opt for a kind of downcast minimalism in the portrayal of Mikey, as well as his framing and function within the mise-en-scène most of the time, this actually serves to heighten the character's most stereotypical elements, rather than defeat them or complexify them, as minimal style is wont to do in the art cinema. This goes to the heart of my problems with Momma's Man, and Jacobs' directorial style as it comes into focus in this film. (I have not yet seen Jacobs' two previous features, and saw his debut short Kirk and Kerry so long ago I barely remember it.) There's a passive-aggressive quality at work here that is fitting, given the subject matter. And the fact that Jacobs' aesthetic would mirror Mikey's behavioral style is also fitting, since, as evidenced by too many creative decisions to list, we're supposed to at least partially collapse Aza and Mikey. (Flo's frequent serving of pasta at dinner is even, in the end, summed up by the inclusion of Ken's home-movie film Spaghetti Aza, just in case anyone still wasn't clear.)
But how much are we expected to bring to the table? Without substantial foreknowledge not just of the identities and work of Ken and Flo Jacobs, but their personalities, their temperament, who they are, I'm not sure Momma's Man even makes sense. The film tends to offer them character types (gruff, taciturn father and overly solicitous mother) that play precisely as "movie types," and it's only the larger framework of knowing who these people are that deepens their characters, since we (the "qualified readers," as old-geezer literary critics used to say) can read between the lines in a way Momma's Man the film really doesn't. Similarly, the most fascinating elements of the film, time and again, are those moments spent in the Jacobs' company, listening to them talk about their film-son, or painting, or watching Flo draw or Ken work out a Nervous System problem. But this is the marginalia of the film. In fact, Mikey comes in and "lives" a narrative film (sort of), on an expired visa as it were, in the middle of the Jacobs' experimental lives. It's almost as though a rebellious streak is having its way with radical parenting, making its limited interventionism appear loopy, rather than honoring it as a sign of (in the case of Mikey, misplaced) respect. Nevertheless, the Jacobses electrify Momma's Man with their every appearance, pulling the film from the margins onto a more productive track. (Termite experimentalism wins!) Ken's one-sentence confrontation of Mikey's lies slices the film open like a scalpel. But far and away the greatest screen presence in Momma's Man is that of Flo Jacobs, who truly delivers one of the year's finest, most moving supporting performances. Her role, as I mention above, has every potential to veer off into stereotype, but with her vast reserves of empathy, her flashes of self-deprecating wit ("Soup?"), and a timeless, classical visage that was made for the screen (a wise, iconic femininity worthy of Griffith or Dorothea Lange), Flo transforms Momma's Man into pure visual art. And in those moments, I believe we're also witnessing a rare gift, a cinematic love letter to a mother from her son.