SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2003
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
The School of Rock (Richard Linklater)
There’s every chance I’m overrating this, but I had such a great time that I don’t care. My one real question is, straight-faced or ironic? In most regards, this is a classic early-80s slobs-vs.-snobs comedy in the mold of Caddyshack or The Bad News Bears. Black’s blustering insouciance is unleashed upon an unnaturally repressed (some gender critics might even say “emasculated”) world of neurotic overachieving kids, their tight-assed parents, numerous sellouts (best friend Ned [Mike White] and school principal Rosalee [Joan Cusack] most notably), ball-busting career women (Sarah Silverman), and sorry-ass wannabe corporate rock. (Loved the dude in the Scott Stapp outfit.) Sometimes the formula was a little too legible right off the surface, but that leads to my question. Is there something about Jack Black that is always already in quotation marks, signaling to the audience that we’re all in on the joke? It seems so, as grudging acceptance of Dewey Finn is bypassed in favor of worldwide embrasure, and parents who were ready to string him up suddenly see their kids in a new light thanks to the Power of Rawk. Growth, hugs, etc. Wink wink? Or is the real message of TSoR that The Man can eventually co-opt anybody, that no amount of dangerous man-child anarchism is too rambunctious for liberal accommodation? Also, I immediately detected the involvement of Liam Lynch (Sifl & Olly), but I’m not sure why Jim O’Rourke was called in.
Home Movie: a diary for my American-born son (Mišo Suchý, U.S. / Slovakia) [v/m]
The strongest, most entertaining of the three videoworks screened by Suchý, as well as the most conceptually rigorous. This is a deceptively simple diary film, examining both Suchý’s identity as an immigrant (coming to the U.S. from Slovakia), and its cultural impact on his family, particularly his young son Miko. Much of the humor comes in the form of deadpan navigations with the fundamental strangeness of American suburbia, in the form of Syracuse, NY. (The tape begins with a lovely tone poem-cum-parody of neighbors mowing the lawn.) The concept of “home” does double-duty, since it addresses both Suchý’s desire to keep his Slovak identity in inside U.S. culture – in particular, maintaining familial closeness “across the ocean,” as he says repeatedly – and the basic chores involved in Suchý and his wife buying their first home. The most striking thing about this film is the way it speaks obliquely to the avant-garde film-diarist tradition. Jonathan Rosenbaum has written disapprovingly of works which showcase male possessions, particularly diary films which seem to lay claim to ownership in the domestic. Suchý, whose on-screen personality is rather stoic in the U.S. and significantly more animated in the European sequences, constantly foregrounds every familial event or decision (purchasing a bed, sitting down to dinner) as a collective decision. Furthermore, whereas diary filmmakers like Mekas, McElwee, or Zahedi emphasize their relative detachment from their own lives (not only through formal choices, but through manifesting the camera as a scrim with which to keep the Other at bay), Suchý’s video frequently sacrifices “clean,” well-composed shots in favor of an obvious engagement with his subject matter, with his life. This is certainly not to say the film is artless. Formal decisions, offhand performances, motifs and repetitions abound. Nevertheless, Home Movie (no better way to say this at present) feels very much alive. Also: awesome closing theme.
In Translation (Sofia Coppola) *
all, this is a film about shallow focus.
An object (say, Bill Murray) looming large in the foreground will be
shot so as to render the environment he’s in as a dark sea of twinkling lights
and swirling motion. The aesthetic
impact of this effect is undeniable, as it flattens out space and reorganizes
it as saturated patterns of light. And thematically it is absolutely
appropriate, since both the language barrier and their general detachment from
life keep Murray’s Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte stuck on the
surface of things. Despite this, I am
troubled by what happens to Japan in the bargain. When broaching the question of cultural exchange, surfaces alone
won’t do. Transcendent sequences, such
as the karaoke scene or the late-night chat on the bed, are matched with broad
ethnic humor unbefitting a film with so much on its mind. It’s another one of those films (cf. The
Piano Teacher, Capturing the Friedmans) where I wish I had access to
a cine-centrifuge, so as to spin out the impurities and cling to the gold.
[Second viewing: Nothing really changed, except me I guess. Perhaps
because I saw the idiotic moments coming, they didn't bother me as much.
In fact, this time I could see them fading into an overall arc of Bob becoming
less of a xenophobic asshole, and Charlotte letting down her guard. So the
movie remains problematic, but I liked it more. I think I'm going soft
here in the 'Cuse . . .]
[Second viewing: Nothing really changed, except me I guess. Perhaps because I saw the idiotic moments coming, they didn't bother me as much. In fact, this time I could see them fading into an overall arc of Bob becoming less of a xenophobic asshole, and Charlotte letting down her guard. So the movie remains problematic, but I liked it more. I think I'm going soft here in the 'Cuse . . .]
Masked and Anonymous (Larry Charles)
It’s been days since I saw M&A, and I am still rolling it over in my mind. If this were only the “vanity project” that so many critics have claimed that it is, my reaction to it would be pretty simple – Dylan’s earned it, let’s move on. But vanity does not even come close to explaining the forensic analysis that Dylan is undertaking with respect to his own mythic status. To many, the plot is maddeningly vague – an America-like nation has been overrun with a Civil War whose causes and grievances are inscrutable, and a Central American-style dictator (the Dylan character’s dad) has been in charge (his presidential portrait painted on every available wall) but is now on his deathbed. But the vagueness is the point, and it makes perfect sense when we connect it back to the issue of Dylan and his assessment of his own meanings. Classic Dylan walked the fine line between overt social commentary and an oblique style more suited to pop-academic exegesis. This is his defining dialectic – poetry vs. activism. Now, looking back, Dylan seems to be calling all of this into question, recognizing that the creative impulse, however vital to his work (and that of others – Elvis, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, and many others come into the line of fire), led to a body of texts which are infinitely mutable. The very vitality of Dylan’s aesthetic, its indeterminacy, turns around and faces him as collection of mythic signifiers. And yet somehow, as an author not-yet-dead, he is held accountable for their true meaning, as well as for the mythic persona he only partly chose. All of this is beautifully defined in the film’s two most affectively potent song numbers. In the first, Dylan and his band deliver a straight, plaintive reading of “Dixie.” The song has the potential to be offensive, but as we listen to it, we realize that the meanings which stick to it are only partially within the song itself. Like most any other text, “Dixie” was taken up and assigned meanings far in excess to its internal signification. Playing for an appreciative multi-ethnic audience, Dylan asks us to hear “Dixie” anew, to recognize that alongside the song’s unavoidable nostalgia for an unjust social order there also lies an affect worth salvaging, a love for the American South that could potentially be inclusive and available to all. It’s the accrued weight of the song’s offensive associations that makes it a free radical, something worth messing with and re-exploring, to see what if anything can be resignified and saved. The second moment, which echoes the first, has a little black girl singing an a cappella rendition of “The Times They Are A’Changin’” for a an attentive but affectless Dylan. The song, virtually the textual opposite of “Dixie,” is showcased here as a protest song, appropriated for the struggle for black civil rights, as well as many other social-justice causes. The girl’s voice cuts the silence like a clarion, stripping away its banality and allowing her audience to hear it all over again. And yet, Dylan’s apathy evinces supreme doubt as to whether the song can truly be heard. As with “Dixie,” one hears the meanings which others have attached to the song, not the song itself. And perhaps most importantly, Dylan’s unwillingness to applaud the little girl – he listens to her and then ignores her – points to his disengagement from the appropriation of his work by others. The song itself has meanings, and has performed cultural work, for which Dylan can take no credit. It becomes an object alongside him. The conventional reading of this situation would be something along the lines of “Dixie” performs bad cultural work, “The Times” performs good work. Dylan wants to presume both songs equally innocent. But in so doing, he must relinquish any claim to the positive outcomes from the protest songs composed by The Mythic Dylan. He steps away from the role of legend or author, in order to assume the role of listener. (Notice how little he speaks in this film.) He would rather attempt to strip away these song’s mythic coatings and see what remains underneath. This is profoundly self-critical film, and in its post-partisan self-assessment and philosophical questioning, it most reminds me of In Praise of Love. In its positioning of the icon as mumbling semi-holy fool, it recalls Keep Up Your Right. And nobody liked those, either.
Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott)
I saw the twist coming a mile away. I couldn’t stand those sitcomesque visual transitions. And after viewing three of his films, I am now concluding that I don’t care for Sam Rockwell as an actor. (I never see any soul or intensity, just “smarmy dweeb.”) Clearly I shouldn’t have liked this picture, but I did. This has a lot to do with its bleached-out, light-saturated visual style, nicely attuned to the theme of dazzling misdirection. But the interplay between Cage and Lohman was absolutely stellar, tinged with father-daughter naturalism but all the while demonstrating a plangent, doomed will to believe.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, U.S. / Mexico)
I strongly suspect this film could have been truly great, since its major flaw is structural and could easily have been avoided. Clearly epic in scope, everything is pinched and truncated to fit the 108-minute running time. As a result, character arcs don’t develop so much as materialize, supporting players get short shrift, and this stunts the potential gravity of all the bad-ass violence. The rapid-fire editing doesn’t help either; even the whiz-bang kineticism of the action sequences would be a bit more potent without fragmenting every gesture into seven separate shots. Nevertheless, Rodriguez makes excellent use of video, giving Mexico the candy-colored, flattened-out look of an elementary school diorama. Compositions tend to be unobtrusively stately before the mobile camera glides them into dissolution. Saturation, on all fronts, is the order of the day. Depp is once again brilliant as the (troublingly likeable) C.I.A. man, but Ruben Blades is also to be commended for a solid supporting turn as a retired F.B.I. man out for a little revenge, but too world-weary to even savor it. Banderas is just striking iconic poses, but what the hell else would we want?
From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium) [v]
Incredibly muddled. On the one hand, Other Side wants to pass as a “normal” documentary, collecting statements from Mexican immigrants in the U.S., Mexicans who’ve been turned away or captured while trying to cross the border, a U.S. border-town sheriff, following some Border Patrol officers on the night beat. On the other, Akerman places her camera along the border, often creating stunning compositions and allowing the temporality of these ambiguous spaces (Mexican or American side?) to unfurl itself. Trouble is, these two aspects don’t mesh, and they fail to comment on one another in any meaningful way. The piece (shot and exhibited on video) begins with both extremes presented at their baldest, and I was certain I did not like it. But eventually, the aesthetic approach comes to life, and even though it grounds to a halt whenever the interviews appear (and with the exception of the San Diego chief of the Mexican consulate, they aren’t all that enlightening), I came to terms with its hesitant rhythms.
Transmitting Baba (Mišo Suchý, U.S. / Slovakia) [v/s]
A sort of prequel to Home Movie, Baba is not quite as rich, but is more directed to a specific purpose. Since Suchý’s son Miko had not met his Slovak grandmother as of the making of this tape, it endeavors to communicate something of her personality to her grandson via video. The catch is, she has to work extra hard to compete with the seductive appeal of children’s videos and American TV. The conceit is clever, and Mrs. Suchý is a bold comic screen presence, flapping her wings and pretending to traverse Europe in giant steps. However, the tape begins to feel a little more like a private conversation, opening less to the viewer than Home Movie. The most interesting element is Miko, studiously ignoring his grandmother’s image, protesting that he wants his Richard Scarry video. Sadly, Miko is not alone in his viewing preferences.
-11’09’01: September 11th (various directors)
Much better on the whole than the bits of Underground Zero I was able to stomach, although the lows here are unconscionably low. The breakdown: #1 (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran)  An intelligent look at global thinking, and the luxury it represents. What can 9/11 possibly mean to young Afghan refugees? Pointed. #2 (Claude Lelouch, France)  A deaf woman ponders her romantic navel while the towers crumble. A cheap joke ostensibly examining differently-abled female subjectivity. Moronic. #3 (Youssef Chahine, Egypt)  Universally reviled by critics, its main failing is its sprawling scope. It bites off more issues than it can chew. Doomed. #4 (Danis Tanović, Bosnia-Herzegovina)  Flawed mood piece, needlessly explaining its solidarity message for western viewers. Rather self-congratulatory in its Eastern European miserablist minutiae. “Stately.” #5 (Idrissa Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso)  Some local kids with problems of their own hunt bin Laden. They want reward money; a Musical Youth video ensues. Frivolous. #6 (Ken Loach, U.K.)  A mini-documentary on the Chilean coup, also a 9/11 catastrophe. More time and insight was needed to forge connections. Impossible. #7 (Alejandro González Ińárritu, Mexico)  Partly an abstract, almost turntablist interrogation into the representation of death. Flash frames show single bodies dropping from the towers. Questionable. #8 (Amos Gitaď, Israel)  Single best Gitaď film I’ve seen, a masterful, Weekendesque tracking shot. The mayhem of a Jerusalem car-bombing, almost made comic. Surprising. #9 (Mira Nair, India)  The most traditional “movie” of the group, it’s content over form. In this context, the result is canned and preachy. “Lifetime.” #10 (Sean Penn)  Dear god, what a dreadful piece of crap this film is. Borgnine a muttering widower, the falling towers providing solace. Unfathomable. #11 (Shohei Imamura, Japan)  Best of the bunch is a fantastical antiwar parable, gently allusive. Veteran becomes snake (amazing performance!) out of shellshocked horror. Conclusive.
-É Minha Cara / That’s My Face (Thomas Allen Harris) [v/m]
A filmwork out of time, sort of a throwback to the sorts of personal-is-political, ITVS-funded, P.O.V.-aired explorations of marginal identity that I saw lots of on the mid-90s. There are lovely super-8 images on display, and Harris mines their surfaces for all their worth. Still, the “poetic” soundtrack and the rather haphazard visual assemblage seem to float alongside each other, with no strong connections. (The theme of “double vision,” the incompatible yet simultaneous existence of two different sets of ideas, could justify this floating mode, but that would be special pleading of the highest order.) The home movies had a built-in emotional and aesthetic valence, and I learned that Tanzania was once a Socialist country, so it was not a total waste. In the end, sort of a cross between Marlon Riggs and Chris Marker, but up to the high standards of neither.
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
In many ways I am tempted to give this film a lower grade, since watching the majority of it was a painful, irritating experience. Despite consistently lovely cinematography and a relatively relaxed pace (until the end), it is horribly written and is filled with Basil Exposition moments and overly precious loquacious working class-as-imagined-by-Brian Helgeland pontification and "subtext" rising from the screen like Braille. The performances (Kevin Bacon and occasionally Marcia Gay Harden excepted) are broad and cartoonish, telegraphed out to the cheap seats. Also when Clint makes clear directorial moves, they are every bit as ham-fisted as the shit from The Hours. Shit like the low angle shot of the boys and the cement with the danger tape bisecting the screen. Or "DA," who only gets to be half the man. Pretty deep. Also with the names. Dave Boyle. Sean Devine. The fucking Savage brothers. (Are you shitting me? Do these devices actually work in the novel?) Laura Linney’s concluding Lady Macbeth speech was incredibly inappropriate and left-field, but at least provided a WTF moment of the highest order in a film sorely in need of the unexpected. But my reaction is mixed only because of the final few minutes after her speech, an emotional climax which really laid me flat. I read the parade sequence as a kind of ideological horror-show, a reflection that a community will close ranks and eliminate anyone who does not live up to its gender ideals, and ultimately this world goes right on as though nothing of consequence happened. I do not think in retrospect that the film earns this commentary or emotional stance in the least but I cannot entirely disregard either. This is a film that is kicked off by the murder of a young woman but in fact does not care about women at all. Only at the end is this problematized, with Harden’s character shoved cruelly to the sidelines. But this feels like a cheap, sudden auto-critique, and despite its cathartic power, I do not trust it in the least.
Pictograph (Lida and Mišo Suchý, U.S. / Ukraine) [v/s]
Shown in conjunction with an exhibit of Lida Suchý’s photographs of people living in the Ukrainian countryside, this video is comprised of stills from that same collection, animated slightly through dissolves and edits. It’s all very skillful, but I found it a bit rote (an audio track providing the expected sound effects to correspond to what we’re seeing, folksongs, etc.). Still, I was tired, and its jarring difference from the other two Suchý pieces screened that night may have resulted in my not giving it the requisite attention.
-Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavani, Italy / U.K.)
A serviceable Euro-thriller that deserved better than it got (i.e., dumped straight to IFC-TV). Malkovich is the perfect Ripley, more suave and steely-eyed than Damon, more convincing than Hopper as a paranoid parvenu. (I love Hopper’s performance for other reasons, however.) Clearly this film suffers when compared to Wenders’ minor masterpiece The American Friend. The emotional stakes are pretty much non-existent here, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. My first Cavani, and she doesn’t really elaborate on crime-movie vocabulary; she does just what you’d expect with Italy’s many villas and porticos. It takes a while for the film to get going (the first hour is pretty tedious, frankly) but it pays off nicely with a series of classy action set-pieces, starting with Ripley and Jonathan (Dougray Scott, inward and hangdog) dispatching baddies on a train. It’s pretty self-effacing stylistically, which would be fine except that it brings the too-familiar story to the fore. Still, it’s a reasonably impressive achievement considering that in many respects it’s a film with no compelling reason to exist.