All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)





Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France / Italy / Belgium)

I finally wrote something on this, for MUBI. It's a bit much, I know. (Plus, a comment thread!)




Four Lions (Chris Morris, U.K.)

This is an instance in which I honestly feel that my Nashville Scene piece is largely inadequate, but I don't think I could add much of value in this space. Frankly, my reticence speaks to the larger problem of why Four Lions is boring as many viewers into a stupor as it's lassoing into the cult following that, I am confident, will be as enduring as that surrounding Brazil or Withnail and I. Adequately unpacking this film would require, at the very least, a scholarly article, and I'm not entirely sure that the film's own aims, lofty as they are, do not themselves require some form of ancillary para-cinematic construction. This probably needed to be a miniseries, but saying that seems to cast aspersions on Four Lions as is. Here's one way to think about it. It galls me that a project as ultimately empty (and empty-headed) as Southland Tales spawned comic books, websites, and other multi-platform detritus, when if any piece of contemporary political art probably needed, and absolutely merited, at least a helpful pamphlet, it's this one. (Oh, enjoy the comments section!)


Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg) [v]

Although I found Malmberg's documentary profile of the singular Mark Hogancamp to be a sensitive and compelling piece of nonfiction cinema in its own right, a bit of time and reflection has helped clarify for me why I think I responded to strongly to Marwencol. (As a bit of proleptic comparison, by the way, I later found myself having a similarly positive reaction to another documentary from this year, Winnebago Man, for similar reasons. I'll be writing that one up a bit later down the line.) The documentary tradition has always had a certain streak (once conducted under the "human interest" aegis) that favors seeking out loveable kooks and harmless eccentrics. This aspect has occasionally been tied to a larger ethnographic or educational purpose, in the Flaherty or Grierson traditions, the understanding being that "other ways of life" are all part of the Great Family of Man, and not all that foreign in the last analysis -- itself a problematic conclusion in its own way, as it harbors colonizing and domesticating undertones or worse. But more typically this impulse has manifested in a kind of reassuring, "it takes all kinds" attitude toward the human animal, seen in Reader's Digest stories and TV shows like Charles Kuralt's "On the Road" and Art Linkletter's "People Are Funny." In light of that kind of snuggly, patronizing humanism, a bitchslap like Buñuel's Las Hurdes, with its nasty insistence on the slumdwelling creepiness of the Other (and by extension, our actual unwillingness to get near enough to them to actually help) was a bracing political tonic. Fast-forward to the 80s, reality TV and the Internet, and the stakes are quite a bit different. I'll spare you the cranky old man spiel, but suffice to say, for every man or woman in power brought low by a well-broadcast gaffe or overheard racial slur, another thousand regular people are being mocked in NSFW YouTube clips, getting "pwned" as they walk into sliding glass doors, rack their nuts or look slovenly while shopping at Wal-Mart. And while actual documentary feature-making may not have sunk quite so low just yet (leave that to reality TV, especially in the higher reaches of the digital cable tunerverse), there is an unnervingly smug, even classist tone in a great deal of contemporary documentary portraiture. Find a weirdo, get them talking, shoot shoot shoot, spend a month on the Avid, and get ready for Sundance.


By contrast, Marwencol does a number of things very differently. Malmberg creates a portrait of Hogancamp which is suffused throughout with clear respect for his art. This in no way sidesteps the hard facts of Hogancamp's unique case: in 2000, four men beat Hog encamp literally within an inch of his life outside a bar in his Upstate New York hometown. His brain damage was so severe that he had to relearn almost all of his motor skills, speech, work and object recognition, and basic vision tracking. Having had the misfortune of being an American citizen, Hogancamp's insurance stopped paying for the necessary rehabilitative therapies well short of any meaningful recovery, and out of necessity and desperation, he developed his own brand of art therapy. He created an alternate universe of Barbie-style dolls and handmade models, at 1/6 human scale, a world called Marwencol. This art- and modeling-intensive sculpture-topia, which Hogancamp fashioned in his home and stationed in a permanent installation in covered areas in his front yard, was a space based somewhat on his own life. (He and his friends, as well as women for whom he pined from afar, would end up in Marwencol as tiny, exactingly wrought effigies.) But Marwencol is also a mirror-world in its own time, oriented, perhaps stuck, in a permanent state of late World War II. Mark and his friends are forever fighting Axis powers in a Belgian village peopled with strong-jawed GI's, noble barmaids, spies for both sides, and an endless formal contest between olive drab and dappled sunlight. Hogancamp's art is a narrative one. Life in Marwencol is forever changing, documented through Hogancamp's own photography Its dramas obliquely mirror some of those muted struggles Mark faces in his own daily existence, his will to heal and its understandable setbacks. However, Hogancamp and Malmberg work together to complexify Marwencol, the film and the project, which makes this a far richer piece of portraiture (and collaborative self-portraiture, a work of exploration and discovery) than so many documentaries content to highlight "primitives" or "damaged souls." While Marwencol may well be Hogancamp's method of working through trauma, Marwencol clearly refuses to differentiate this process from other, more overtly sophisticated art. Malmberg's employment of low-angle photography and natural lighting as he brings Marwencol to life, turning the tableau into cinema through the dramatic grammar of editing and blocking, does not "save" Hogancamp's project from camp. It allows us to see it as Mark does, as a living, evolving art-organism. Marwencol is also very careful to show Hogancamp as a laboring artist, someone who produces with facility and intention. No mindless primitive, Mark can be seen treating cloth and paper to achieve exactly the right tone of weatherbeaten, historical texture, or dragging a toy jeep (on foot) for miles on end, in order to place appropriate wear on the tires' tread. While this effort could be seen as "obsessive," Malmberg chooses instead to cast it with an admirable degree of seriousness, the mark of an artist working for himself and therefore seeing no need to compromise his craft. Finally, unlike so many other examples of found-human-object documentary portraiture (and again, like the equally excellent Winnebago Man), Marwencol concludes by taking a self-reflexive, self-critical stance, rather than simply congratulating itself for taking Hogancamp's art seriously. Does Mark want the attention the film has engineered? Is it good for his life? Mark doesn't know yet, and Marwencol shows him and Malmberg working through that question, of whether the opening up of deeply personal art is necessarily good for its creator. But in posing this issue, Marwencol still steadfastly refuses to treat Mark Hogancamp as a broken man. Like the rest of us, he's fighting his own private wars, and it's never certain if and when we're ready to take on multiple fronts.


Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)

Wake up in the mornin’, ‘cause my name’s Ree Dolly.
Got a meth-cookin’ dad and a burned-out mommy.
Brush my teeth, feed the kids, then I roam the city.
When you’re a squirrel-skinnin’ hillbilly, life’s real shitty.
I’m talkin’ bondsman’s gonna foreclose-close,
Neighbors lookin’ down their nose-nose,
Where’s dad? Nobody knows, knows.
Teardrop’s a little bit shady
But the rest of the fam’ly evades me
When they’re not tryin’ to outright slay
Just stop, skeevy cop, I got a week to find Pop
‘Til then, I’ma run up and down the hilltop
I’ll fight on my own, gotta save the fam’ly home
(N-uh-uh-ohhh) 2x
Now Debra Granik’s first film was Down to the Bone
Which was shot all around my old Syracuse home.
And while that film had a more coherent sense of space,
Winter’s Bone is more successful at evoking a place.
Upon language that’s adorned-dorned,
Poetic resonance is borne-borne,
So it ain’t no poverty porn-porn
Or an anthropological tract.
While rooted in class-based fact,
Winter’s Bone achieves something
[repeat chorus]


[ADDENDUM: Apparently Down to the Bone was filmed on location in and around New Paltz, NY, and not Syracuse, although the locations look identical and I am still quite confident that certain shots really are Erie Blvd. and Granik just isn't coming clean about it. But I figured I should mention it all the same.]




Leap Year (Michael Rowe, Mexico)

[SPOILERS] A film I admired much more for the territory it assayed than any visceral impact it actually had on me, Leap Year is one of those festival items that primarily succeeds, in its own specific terms, by avoiding any number of pitfalls that lie in wait for it. Chronicling, with an impressively dispassionate but hardly callous gaze, 29 days in the life of Laura (Monica del Carmen), a freelance writer hailing from Oaxaca trying to make her way in Mexico City. Stocky, with features both doughy and severe, Laura has the rough but not altogether unattractive bearing of a rural Mestiza, physically at odds with an urban environment even as she hides out in her own nondescript apartment. (Rowe, an Australian ex-pat, is no doubt sensitive to the way country / city divisions can manifest as de facto racial markers.) Leap Year parcels out information about Laura's life at a deliberate pace, not so as to generate false drama so much as to preserve the fundamentally mundane quality of her rising pressures. She wrote an article for a business magazine that had some vital factual errors that were not caught prior to the issue hitting the stands; her editor eventually drops her from the freelance pool. She is also seen existing in an almost total social vacuum, her human contact restricted to anonymous one-night-stands. (In calls to her mother, she lies about her active social life, as well as how well she's eating.) In time, we discover that Laura has a strong bond with her brother, who comes to Mexico City to visit her (and party). And that she is still dealing with the emotional aftermath of her father's death four years ago, on Leap Day, February 29th.


The two things that make Leap Year exceptional are, basically, that Laura takes up with one of her bar pick-ups, Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), and the two of them develop an S/M relationship of escalating intensity; and that Rowe and del Carmen depict Laura's day to day life with an almost documentary flatness, notable for its astonishing lack of vanity. In some way, both of these elements, the shocking, NC-17 sex and violence and the straightforward, uninflected nosepicking and crotch-scratching, are two sides of the same coin. Leap Year is, above all, a film about the rationalization of a woman's defilement. Within the narrative, Laura's complete lack of human aptitude and eventual giving herself over to connection through evacuation (the plan is that Arturo will use her more and more violently, to her pleasure, and then snuff her out in flagrante on Leap Day) is signaled, with the slightest of hints, to be connected to paternal molestation. On a formal level, Rowe is to be commended for abjuring the usual Lifetime melodrama and realistically weaving the past abuse of an incest survivor into her story with a respectful, quotidian facticity. At the same time, this restraint is another way in which "Laura," as a formal element of Leap Year, is expected to bear a certain brunt, for the purposes of Leap Year's hard-nosed, deglamorized gaze. For most of the film, we are either watching Laura submit to Arturo's overt aggression (over which Laura has a considerable degree of control, actually), or Rowe's passive aggression, which is a kind of ugly Akermanianism. It's an extremely deft directorial maneuver, although I'm not certain whether it serves any greater purpose apart from its own claustrophobic audacity. Does Rowe intend for us to recoil at this sense that we may be redoubling Laura's possible oppression? Or is it oppression at all? Are we perhaps complicit in another S/M scenario, this one built on a voyeur / exhibitionist relationship? I would think that I am over-analyzing these imbalances, but the events that Rowe lets transpire (or not) at film's end, on Leap Day, and the great relief they provoke, give the sense that someone felt we were on a hook and deserved, for a moment, to be let off.




Open Five (Kentucker Audley) [m]

1) First of all, it's been quite a while since I watched Open Five, and a number of my specific memories of it are hazy at best. In light of this, I considered taking down the "coming soon" link and declining to review it, but I figured that after all this time that would be churlish at best, disingenuous at worst. 2) If you are really interested in Open Five, or Audley's filmmaking in general, this is not the place you should be looking, and I don't say that with false modesty. Craig Keller of Cinemasparagus, a fine writer and thinker for whom I have the greatest respect, not only admires Open Five quite a lot more than I do, but is exceedingly more articulate (and creative) in his discussion than I could ever hope to be. Check out his analysis before you do anything else Audley-related. 3) As far as my own take on Open Five (which, interestingly, I just mistyped as Open Fire -- I now wonder if that typo has anything to do with the provenance of Audley's unusual, poetic title), I fear that it might end up being more of a review of me than a review of the film itself. There is of course no getting around the subjective element in film criticism, nor should there be. Feigning objectivity is a fool's game, and leads to pompous, on-high pronouncements that accomplish nothing so much as obscuring one's own origins and viewing positions, those things that, if properly deployed, should ideally make a critic more interesting and trustworthy. However, as Adrian Martin recently said in a discussion at Rotterdam, "taste is a prison," and if we give ourselves over to our prejudices over and over, we're not doing our job, not learning or growing. In recent weeks, Joe Swanberg (who is the D.P. for Open Five) world premiered three new films (Uncle Kent, Art History, and Silver Bullets) and the discussion around them was, sadly, unenlightening. The Swanberg haters ripped into them, and Swanberg's fanbase declared them a triad of young American masterpieces. No one budged, like that old Dr. Seuss story about the Zax of the North and South. [yawn] Why should anybody care about my highly predictable two cents? 4) So my reaction to Open Five (the first of Audley's films I've seen) felt very much like my reaction so far to other films from Audley's milieu that I have seen thus far -- earlier Swanbergs, certain very early Andrew Bujalski films, Todd Rohal's Guatemalan Handshake -- in that I felt as though Audley's narrow focus on his own immediate circle closing Open Five off to certain kinds of discovery that were right under the film's nose. The film is in essence a double relationship drama about ambivalence and undefined couplings. Lucy (Shannon Esper) comes from New York to Memphis to find whether her young tryst with Jake (Jake Rabinbach) can thrive beyond its geographical specificity and within Jake's own home field; Lucy's friend Rose (Genevieve Angelson) tags along and takes up with Kentucker (Audley). As with many of Swanberg's films, albeit with a more defined Southern, blues-rock flavor, Open Five centers on four characters whose mode of feeling and expression is so tentative (some would generously say delicate) that as a viewer it is very difficult to cognitivize them into signifiers or representations, to make them mean beyond their apparent presence in the videotaped cine-now. This hovering fidelity to a particular mode of being (which I would argue is generational, geographical, raced and classed) is Open Five's stock in trade, and so when I fail to find it intriguing within its own subset of activity, I do begin to feel as though I'm experiencing a "lapse in taste," a blind spot that I am nevertheless struggling to bore into. 5) However, for me the big revelation in Open Five was, actually, Joe Swanberg. His cinematography is succulent and precise. The opening fire escape sequence in New York finds Swanberg making the most of city lights against a sea of video-black,a potential cliché put to appropriate use. What's more, his work in Memphis employs a subtle, meticulous compositional scheme, in which interiors tend to be vertically striated by dim light and shadow, only to be followed immediately in the editing by a bright, open outdoor shot, usually with a gentle handheld camera. In fact, Swanberg and Audley, to my mind, capture so much in and around the Memphis atmosphere -- an A.M.E. church congregation, guys wandering through the park getting ready to fish, and even Jake cleaning a rangetop at length -- that zeroing in so intensely on narrative concerns (regardless of my personal interest level in that narrative) seems like a foreclosure on cinematic possibility. Nevertheless, those moments of breathing room are there, and those are the reason that I will keep coming back, to see what folks like Audley and Swanberg are up to. Because I'm trying to create a little room to breathe inside my own viewing, too.


Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

I find that more and more I appreciate the idea of Sofia Coppola than her films themselves. This can't help but sound like a backhanded non-compliment, of course.(And even if we don't feel like we have to, we probably should be cautious when slagging Coppola and her films; few directors are dismissed in such patronizing, paternalistic [read: sexist] terms). But the trouble of late is that Coppola has been taking bold, admirable risks which have only partially panned out, and I'm afraid that with the equally admirable Somewhere, the balance has tipped into the red. There's clearly a plan here for a withering look at fame as an ennui machine, for a kind of new style Euro-existentialist collision between a Hollywood Hollow Man (Stephen Dorff) and his young daughter (Elle Fanning), the Brechtian outsider / girl on the cusp of womanhood who forcibly opens him up to recognizable human emotion. But there are a number of problems that plague Somewhere in its bones, even as it really does have some essentially appropriate artistic ambitions. From her near-cold open, which finds Marco driving in a circle (a symbol, you say?) for an unusually lengthy, unbroken shot in a dusty, sunbaked test track, we can observe Coppola gesturing toward a cinema that Gilles Deleuze famously referred to as embodying the "time-image" -- slow, passive-aggressive modernism that does not simply take time but depicts it, permits a spectator to observe temporality in action. But, even setting aside the fact that the racecar image is practically cribbed wholesale (an homage?) from Vincent Gallo's infinitely superior Brown Bunny, there is an overweening sense that Coppola and cinematographer Harris Savides (who knows from slow -- see his work with Gus Van Sant) have arranged the sequence and blocked out its subtle camera movements so as to do everything possible to stave off actual boredom. That's to say, this early shot of Somewhere is a kind of signifier of a "long, difficult art-film shot," rather than the thing itself. And that's really how most of Somewhere feels, on a deep structural level. One of the most notable and talked about motifs in the film has to do with Marco having a pair of peripatetic twin strippers, complete with adjustable folding poles, perform for him in his room at the Chateau Marmont. Johnny is supremely bored, as are the strippers, and Coppola's orchestration of this "fantasy scenario" for maximum erotic detumescence is precisely the point. Mission accomplished; but what the sequences do not achieve is an actual sense of tedium. It's not that the sequences are successful or interesting. They're really not. It's that we continuously feel Coppola's own interest in her sense of accomplishment, a self-awareness of craft that almost borders on self-congratulation. From angle to angle, and as the dancers' bodies entwine and disentangle, the sequence never stops telegraphing just how this unerotic this spectacle is.


By contrast, Coppola and Savides achieve a true time-image when, ironically, Somewhere takes a moment to erase Dorff completely. In a scene in a make-up / FX lab in preparation for an upcoming movie, Johnny has to get molded for a life mask, so that he can play his character in old age. This long, tedious process involves covering the actor's entire head in slow-drying silicone molding, essentially encasing him in a soft boulder for upwards of twenty minutes. (Straws in his nostrils allow him to breathe.) Coppola shows us Marco / Dorff getting in the chair, being prepped for the mask, having the goop generously applied, bulked up around his cranium, and then finally left alone in both sensory deprivation and actual physical isolation. Savides then begins a slow zoom-in from medium-close-up to full CU. Even though it is easy to dismiss this moment as another of Somewhere's hamfisted metaphors for Johnny's loneliness in the crowd, the sheer materiality of this process, observed in real time, separates it from much of the rest of the film's simplemindedness. Likewise, Elle Fanning's fresh, unmannered performance almost thwarts Somewhere's tendencies toward misguided art-film rigor mortis. As Cleo, she displays the uncertainty of a girl of 12 figuring out how to pattern onto boys, adult men, and her largely-absent father. She has the intuition to know that this is complicated by her father's celebrity, the fact that her dad is randomly desired by women everywhere, almost reflexively. (In Hollywood and in Italy, babes hurl themselves at Johnny Marco, almost as though they think they have to.) But she is also capable to trying out different roles with him -- best buddy, dutiful daughter, surrogate housewife, and eventually, family, the only piece of it Johnny notices when he has to let it go. These emotional gestures (significant for Cleo, rather grunting and stunted for Johnny) are undercut by Coppola in what has to be the stupidest, most ill-judged conclusion to a film by a major auteur in recent memory. Was this another lunge toward desert-stranded Antoni-ennui? At least when Coppola made missteps in Marie Antoinette, they felt like bold swings for the rafters, issuing from a confident, developing vision. Somewhere feels like Coppola's just trying to get herself anywhere, when everybody knows this is nowhere.





The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Daniel Alfredson, Sweden / Denmark / Germany)

Yes, that is apparently the official title. Shouldn't it be "Hornets' Nest," though? Did Lisbeth actually find the one nest in all of Sweden that contained exactly one hornet? I guess she's not so tough after all. Anyway, here's my Scene piece. I suppose I should apologize for not taking the assignment more seriously, but I think I probably took it about as seriously as the guy who played Eeeeevil Fredrik Clinton. Also, this review is to be considered a collaboration with Jim Ridley, film editor at The Nashville Scene, in the sense that I was the composer, he the comedic musician. [Five bonus points for anyone who gets that reference, by the way.]




Mamma Gógó (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland) (0:23)

I've seen a few films by Fridriksson over the years and found him to be more of a middlebrow curiosity than a major auteur, although I suspect it's important to place the man and his films in context. He's clearly a key generational figure for Icelandic cinema, the 70s/80s standard-bearer against whom younger upstarts in the industry implicityly, perhaps even unconsciously gauge themselves. Still, on the evidence of his latest, Fridriksson is in a perplexed state with regard to his own legacy, and cannot exactly generate a provocative statement from that presumed introspection. Mamma Gógó is rather remarkable in its combination of obviously personal subject matter with bland, agreeable form. True, I gave up quite early, but it was clear that the film was going to piddle along quite contentedly, until it poured out its canned "humanist" sentiment. Gógó examines a difficult period in the life of "the director" (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who is busily premiering his latest film, Children of Nature. This also happens to be Fridriksson's own 1991 film, an Oscar nominee about senior citizens abandoning a retirement home and setting out on their own. Meanwhile, the director's own mother, Gógó (veteran actress Kristbjörg Kjeld) is becoming dangerously forgetful. She is soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the director (whose film was a flop, and is now having his home and car repoed) must grapple with putting her in a home. Irony, bitter irony, all leavened with the boundless optimism of Mamma Gógó, or so it would appear. But essentially, any which way Fridriksson takes this, its schematism promises dishonesty.