SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2004

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)

 

[NOTE: This section does not include my capsule reviews of films seen at the NYFF "Views from the Avant-Garde." Click it and see.]

 

[8]

 

-Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chanwook Park, South Korea)

After my lukewarm response to Park's Old Boy, which I found skillful yet overbearing, I went about checking in with his previous film with that ambivalence unique to cinephiles -- "I'll see another one by this guy to confirm my suspicions, then I'm done." Instead, I was blindsided by one of 2002's best films, one that completely alters the stakes of the so-called Korean Cinema of Cruelty (Park and the old, pre-Zen Kim Ki-duk being the chief exponents). It's difficult to describe what's so overpowering about Mr. Vengeance, mostly because its most startlingly masterful "gesture" isn't really a gesture at all. Park's film lays out a set of hoary art-film tropes -- the kind-hearted but benighted deaf-mute, the fundamental agony of class differences, and most of all, the power of coincidence, that old saw about how we're all interconnected in ways we'll never fully understand. But instead of weaving them together into a chain-mail tapestry of narrative closure and gamesmanship, a la Kieslowski, Egoyan, or lesser talents like Jeremy Podeswa, Park leaves them suspended in a kind of vague indeterminacy. We're always aware that we're watching a narrative film, and that the events we witness will have consequences later. But at the time of watching, each moment seems like a disconnected slab of time, a perpetual present not hurtling, but slinking into a future that is always just barely beyond the control of our protagonists. (When things go horribly wrong, as they do with aching regularity, it never feels like the grinding inevitability of a director's master-plan. Instead, it's like that split-second moment when, as the car door shuts, you realize your keys are inside, but physical action lags just a millisecond behind consciousness, squelching actual intervention.) This treatment of time, of the world created by our bad decisions, and those decisions dictated by our place in the social order, is perfectly conveyed by Park's visual style. Images are flawless -- deep focus compositions, sickly color schemes, a sort of too-deliberate clutter of set-dressing -- but that physical perfection is ruined by action of any kind. Every move realigns the limited options for the next one, and while this is certainly true of any narrative film that adheres to the laws of causality, Park's visual inscription of this existential problem (each choice results in future choices winnowing away) is indescribable. (Actually, the closest comparison I can draw would be the dolorous social collapse in Roy Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor, but Mr. Vengeance does not remotely share Andersson's invisible-cause explanatory atmosphere.)

 

Many critics have compared this film with Kurosawa's High and Low. This is instructive up to a point. But unlike Kurosawa's film, class antagonism is always in the background, ingrained in the texture of Mr. Vengeance. This is quite a feat, given that the film features actual left-wing activists. But instead of the seething resentment of the kidnapper in High and Low that leads to elaborate scheming, Ryu, the deaf-mute kidnapper here, seems to be bumbling and flailing through his own plan, and this is because he doesn't have the luxury to nurse a grudge or theorize his actions. He's trapped inside the logic of an emergency, and in fact when a tragic turn (the first of many) dissolves that logic, he barely knows how to think or respond any longer. And while Mr. Vengeance does borrow High and Low's template of subtly shifting sympathies, the radical shift here actually transcends the relatively conservative humanism of Kurosawa. Like so many other Korean directors, Park gives us a film cloven in half, but uses this technique not so much as an allegorical North / South split as an experiment in filmic codes of identification. Suddenly, a purely functional character (Chairman Park, an executive with the factory from which Ryu was fired) steps into the limelight and becomes an emotionally complex figure in his own right. And this is where Park attains a new level of achievement. Like a less smug, more melancholy Gaspar Noé, Park immerses us into the cruel, soul-crushing senselessness of revenge. (Imagine if Irreversible had asked us to consider La Tenia's point of view . . .) While the film does veer into escalating, systematic violence, this isn't the Grand Guignol that many have claimed it to be. Certainly this film is not for the squeamish, but the violence is clinical in its application. It is joyless, bled of all spontaneity, and this is precisely why in the end Park's ultraviolence is so mournful. The penultimate act, between a grieving father and the man inadvertently responsible for her death, hits a resounding pitch of misplaced justice, mechanistically administered. But just as we aren't in the realm of wanton, impulsive Wild-West violence, neither are we witnessing a legal penalty, like the flip of a switch, carried out by an impersonal bureaucrat. There is an inexplicable tenderness as well as grim reluctance in Chairman Park's vicious act, because by this point we, and Chairman Park himself, understand it to be part of a necessary but futile ritual. (Mr. Vengeance's coda also operates in this vein, although sadly Park disrupts our engagement with the scene by adding a useless explanatory voiceover flashback, the film's single most egregious misstep.)

 

Perhaps a deeper understanding of Park's accomplishment can be read right off his film's title. At first, it strikes Western ears as a mangled translation, one of those too-literal, tin-eared efforts familiar from the VCD bargain-bin in Chinatown video shops. If anything, it seems to obviate all ambiguity, plastering the film's theme across our consciousness like an obnoxious roadside billboard. But the longer we roll this phrase over in our minds, the stranger it becomes. Who is Mr. Vengeance? Obviously Chairman Park, avenging his daughter, but eventually Ryu's class resentment manifests in a similarly futile, equally methodical killing spree. Even Ryu's girlfriend, Cha Yeoung-mi, is a Mr. Vengeance of sorts, encouraging Ryu in the direction of his nearest class enemy. By the end, vengeance is harder to place in one single person; it's an impulse equally distributed across society's chessboard, and in every instance, it is an outgrowth of a general malaise, of outdated gender and class roles, of the yoke of social expectation. And in every instance, it is executed like a hollow chore. If "Mr. Vengeance" is less a single character than a social force, a macho zeitgeist run amok, than perhaps the film is asking us to consider substituting sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. After all, Park shows us that everyone has their reasons, however inscrutable, ineluctable or ill-conceived they may be. The Korean Cinema of Cruelty may already have its fair share of Artaudian splatter-punks, but in Chanwook Park it appears to have found its Renoir.

 

[7]

 

Birth (Jonathan Glazer)

Hard to imagine that some of the same critics who are turning their noses up at this have praised fuckwits like Shyamalan and Amenábar for their "mood pieces." Until its narrarive resolution -- disappointing but not a dealbreaker, given the corner the scenarists had painted themselves into -- Birth is glassy and hypnotic, visually warm and emotionally frigid. Glazer has learned all the right lessons from Kubrick: the hazy amber interiors, the airless corridors of idle wealth, the way a subtle move like a straight-cut between a zoom-in and a zoom-out can frizzle-fry the nerves. Even though Birth's flaws are, ultimately, script-related, credit is due to the screenwriters for the film's biggest gambit. Whereas a lesser film would have Anna (Nicole Kidman) conceal the strange intrusion in her life for as long as possible (due to some silly notion that the keeping of a secret is a universal generator of suspense), here it is all laid out in the open from the start. A little boy arrives, and he says he's Anna's dead husband. Then, the remainder of the film focuses on how those in Anna's rarefied milieu cope with this odd, downcast bombshell. Kidman is marvelous as Anna, an emotionally stunted executive whose belief in a one true love threatens to eviscerate all prudence and (perhaps more frightening) all decorum. But Danny Huston quietly steals the show as Joseph, the trophy-collector husband-to-be and a creepy sadistic-rationalist straight out of Ibsen. (His mannered breakdown at the pre-wedding chamber concert is a showstopper.) Sadly, the film goes on about ten minutes longer than it should, resulting in a uselessly summative voiceover and an emotional catharsis that tonally contravenes all that came before it. Even the spell we're under, I suppose, had to be broken in the end.

 

I ♥ Huckabees (David O. Russell)

Unlike the excruciating Waking Life, Huckabees has the decency to be intelligent without taking its cosmic pronouncements seriously. In fact, the film is so determinedly goofy that at times I bristled at its whimsy. As a humorless academic leftist, I expect the problems of Big Oil, suburban sprawl, and eco-friendly corporate posturing to be treated with the appropriate reverence, so Russell's calling-forth of these issues in order to deflate do-gooder self-righteousness was a welcome punch in the face. And yet, where does the film end up? After showing the havoc wreaked in individual lives when progressive action and personal identity get all mixed up, Huckabees winds down in vaguely circle-of-life mode, hinting (like the old AA slogan) that analysis may in fact be paralysis. But isn't it analysis, in the form of social theory, that allows us to not get conned by the Brad Stands of the world? What's more, painting Brad's pretty-boy corporate maximizing as the pitiful crying-on-the-inside of a scared little boy just won't cut it. Nevertheless, Russell's film succeeds because it does the seemingly impossible -- it treats heavy social and philosophical issues with a light touch. Rather than providing answers, it's content to "stir the pot," and to give a silly but respectful platform to some secular cosmologies that can certainly use the airtime. Also, let's not forget that according to a preview article in Variety, Huckabees was yet another film offered to the Competition slate at Cannes 2004 and rejected. Apparently Fremaux prefers farting green ogres. Sidenote: After struggling lo these many years to explain dialectics, and the whole "everything is different forms of energy in continuous motion" thing, now I can just show the floating-particles clip.

 

Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, Hong Kong)

[MINOR SPOILERS] Easily one of the most accomplished police-actioners of the last few years, Infernal Affairs treads a thin purple line between pomposity and grace. Its dramatic camera angles, thunderous faux-Wagner score, and icon-vs.-icon face-off all incur ample potential for self-parody, but the film's humor, narrative fleetness, and above all its heavy / light tone serve to keep it all together. It's hard to explain -- and maybe this is why HK fanboys see this trilogy as a return to form for the floundering industry -- but Infernal Affairs maintains an awareness of the showy gimcrackery of its premise, the surface-skimming of its Taoist tropes, and yet it clearly believes it its world, refusing the knowing wink of irony. In fact, the determinist overtones of the film's religious pensées lend an unusual dignity to the mandates of genre. When only two men hold a vital secret and one of them dies, this event hits us with the force of tragedy rather than narrative contrivance, turning our hero into a lone-wolf Cassandra rather than a prop for further sequels. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Tony Leung and Andy Lau perfectly matched as yin (hangdog gravitas that must find its inner bad-ass) and yang (pretty-boy insouciance gradually locating its ethical center). But Eric Tsang gives a particularly inspired performance as Sam, the crime boss whose every violent outburst barely conceals the pleasure he takes in his own power. [A minute ago, I had written that Tsang "is fantastic as Sam," an unconscious blunder that carried unwanted associations.]

 

Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal / France)

[SPOILERS] Much like the Kaurismäki renaissance a few years back, following The Man Without a Past, this sudden feting of the (say it with me now) "81-year-old Senegalese master and father of African cinema" is a bit odd. Moolaadé is another fine film from Sembene, but not overpoweringly better than his last few efforts, Faat Kiné or Camp de Thiaroye. Those films enjoyed minor success on the festival circuit, but were largely ignored, probably because their topics (Senegal's place in the global economy, and the legacy of French colonial violence, respectively) don't come pre-sold with a sense of moral outrage and (to Western eyes) clear-cut right and wrong, the way female genital mutilation does. In fact, Moolaadé's most obvious success, and the reason it seems to be registering as a revelation for Western viewers, is the manner in which it refuses to fully demonize those traditionalists holding fast to the old ways. That is, the West assumes this issue can only be treated as a heroes-and-villains scenario, and finds itself surprised by Sembene's ability to grant the tribal matriarchs and patriarchs their humanity while still striking a resounding note against the mutilation of girls. And here, we see perhaps most strikingly the importance of cultural auto-critique, of listening to Senegalese women and letting them set the terms for global intervention, rather than continuing the colonial project under a paternalistic Western guise. So, in a way, Sembene may have triumphed most decisively in training his Marxist-humanist gaze on an issue the West thinks it knows, but grounding it in the specific, complex history of African Islam and its imbrication with earlier traditions. The film communicates through images that are far more potent than the discourse that surrounds them. The red cord of the moolaadé, which goats, children, and eventually the grown-ups blithely step over, speaks volumes about the nature of belief made concrete. It's the perfect Brechtian symbol. Likewise, the rhyming of the opening and closing shots serves to display progress and victory over superstition, and yet Sembene clearly intends it to be an ambivalent image, a sign of hard-won connection to the larger global community, with all its attendant gains and pitfalls. Where Sembene stumbles, I'm afraid -- and I hate to say this, or see these words of mine reflected in print, mirroring my skepticism back to me -- is in his projected faith in collective action. While it's true that he is examining a very specific cultural milieu, wherein the defiance he depicts may be both possible and necessary, Sembene underscores his point through an upbeat dishonesty. But by keeping Mercenaire's death off-frame, or having Collé's husband suddenly achieve raised consciousness not long after savagely beating his wife in a kind of public-square show trial, Moolaadé stacks the deck. Strangely, this seems to be an inversion of Brechtianism, which historically would offer us a jarring but apposite negative outcome, demanding that we, the audience, leave the realm of art and go make our own "happy ending" in the real world.

 

Primer (Shane Carruth)

[SPOILERS] How do you look at a Cubist painting? Do you groove on the fragmented surfaces and planes, or do you mentally struggle to decode and reassemble the floating bits into a coherent picture? (Cf. Huckabees.) Primer is a sci-fi logic puzzle that some folks are having a high-old-time trying to solve, and I can certainly see the appeal. Like a good puzzle film, slowly accumulated information constantly shifts the information from earlier in the film that you thought you had, or took for granted based on the basic rules of narrative. And, at least from one viewing, it appears pretty airtight. If you charted out the different structures of recursion and paradox, it would probably yield a fully functioning algorithm worthy of its writer-director, an engineer who seems to have rigged this device up in his own garage during the off hours. (Insert "cinema = time machine" comparison here.) Always tottering on the edge of being too clever for its own good, Primer never stumbles. It obviates smugness by dint of its extreme modesty. It's ruthlessly economical, thoroughly interrogating a specific problem without clubbing you over the head with the Implications, confident that the audience will figure that out for itself. And, perhaps most importantly, Primer offers enough awkward visual seduction (a grainy, fluorescent-green tint, like the whole thing is overbaked from too much cubicle time) to keep us along for the ride, even when we're blanking on the storyline's mental calculus exam. Super-16mm film has this remarkable, transportive quality that the glut of ugly, half-assed digital "films" will never approach, showing the value of deferred gratification, of slowly assembling an object from the mechanical leftovers of the last century. (Insert "cinema = time machine" comparison here.) Primer is a fractured object, but our engagement with it is elicited in a tangible way, because it's recognizably assembled from the real world and its detritus. Either you groove on the fragmented surfaces and planes, or you mentally struggle to reassemble and decode the floating bits into a coherent picture. Or I suppose you could divide up the task . . .

 

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, U.K.)

Swell character study, skillful, low-key comedy, and great to look at to boot, with a stealthy, unobtrusively exacting visual style. Sadly, it stumbled a bit when it came to articulating its broad zombie humor with its moments of emotional gravity. Depending on which came first, the plays for pathos began to look like set-ups for cheap gags, or the shambling, laddish humor ended up lopped off in mid-joke. (I was particularly soured on the epilogue for this reason. No real ramifications, after these life-altering events? Leave it to sitcom writers . . .) Still, Shaun is mostly aces, even without a discernable subtext. Well, then again, there is the scene where Shaun (the meticulously shlubbish Simon Pegg) and his mate Ed (Nick Frost, a big farting chunk of a bloke) try to fell the zombies by hurling Shaun's LPs at their heads. Shaun balks at the suggestion he give Purple Rain or Sign 'O the Times the Chinese-star treatment, but lets fly with the Batman soundtrack. The moral? There's only two ways to kill an auteurist zombie. 1) Aim for the head or disable the brain. 2) Maintain the power of discernment with respect to the oeuvres of world-class artists, allowing that even the greatest creative minds are entirely capable of producing substandard work from time to time, and bearing in mind that the placement of that anemic effort within the context of their career as a whole, while possibly "interesting" from an academic standpoint, in no way increases the purely aesthetic value of said artwork. Well done lads.

 

[6]

 

-Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (Robert Greenwald) [v]

Surprisingly effective when it focuses on one specific problem (Fox News' Republican bias), but its title and opening section promise some sort of concrete exposé on Murdoch himself. Outfoxed wisely avoids this tack, but why should Greenwald (the director of Xanadu) and producers MoveOn.org frame the issue that way in the first place? It's a sad old chestnut of the muckraking left to try to find The Man Responsible; power just doesn't work that way anymore, if it ever really did. The "film" isn't much more than a glorified PowerPoint presentation / Media Literacy 101 primer, and it falls into the traps of quick-and-dirty agit-prop (ominous music, highly selective collision-montage, gloom-and-doom graphics) that it chastises Fox News for exploiting. But its middle hour is terse, gratifying, and surprisingly entertaining. It's like I just took a shot of foul-tasting GOP wheatgrass juice, getting four years' worth of Fox bullshit all at once. The upshot: they're even more brazen than I thought. It's almost comical. (Memo to Bill O'Reilly: shut up.) The piece sort of falls apart at the end, with its upbeat talking-head media activists set to the third movement of "Layla." Why do these things always have to conclude with some sort of forced optimism? Can't they just let the outrage hang in the air for a while?

 

-Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China / Hong Kong / France)

It's tough to fault a film for seeming constrictive when, in essence, it's a film about constriction, the inexorability of social roles, having to come to terms with the choices we've made. And yet, Tian's claustrophobic Kammerspiel manages to envelop even the great outdoors in a tight-fitting hairshirt of inevitability. Springtime operates with suffocating restraint on every level. It's almost completely tonally static, with a drunken birthday celebration serving as both the narrative turning point and the sole departure from the film's demure, languid drift. Its adherence to melodramatic conventions -- silent suffering, repressed desire, characters as schematic positions on a graph rather than full-bodied human beings -- is no doubt adopted wholesale from the 1948 Mu Fei original (which I have not seen). But after the initial title card, explaining that the producers of the new film aim to pay homage to the greatness of Chinese cinema's past, it's difficult not to recognize a sense of rote, desiccated replication permeating Tian's film, a donning of the yoke of history that is so absolute as to obviate any invention or dynamism. (Considering the fact that this film represents Tian's return to filmmaking after a nine-year ban by Chinese authorities, the hemmed-in ambiance almost starts to feel allegorical.) The film's strongest elements are its gentle, muted performances and its visual style. Of the five central actors, Jun Wu is particularly affecting as the sickly, emasculated Liyan -- especially in the final half-hour. (Only Sisi Lu, as the chirpy Little Sister, hits obviously false notes, although the spike in tone they provide makes her appearances paradoxically welcome.) And Mark Lee Ping-bin, the brilliant cinematographer whose images almost always tend to generate a supernatural internal warmth, is certainly working up to his usual level here. But compared with the subtle bobbing and weaving of his camera in Hou's Flowers of Shanghai, or the visual glissandos of his follow-shots in Wong's In the Mood for Love, Lee feels thwarted here, nudging this way and that within cramped rooms, all to reframe characters whose movements themselves tend toward the static. (Only with the exterior tracking shots across the dilapidated manor does Lee's usual sensuality fully shine through, and ironically, the dominant feature of these shots is a cluster of barren shrubs and weeds in the foreground.) There is, without question, a great deal to admire about Springtime, and I've been questioning my resistance to it, since it so successfully conveys its desolate emotional state. Despite leaving me cold, this film is clearly a "masterwork" -- that is, it's controlled and meticulous and clearly exactly the film Tian wants it to be. But there's rigor, and then there's rigor mortis. In its style as well as its theme, Tian's film is pervaded by a downcast, fist-in-pocket need to serve, to bite the lip and kowtow. I'm confident that Tian's own springtime will come, and with it, a thaw.

 

[4]

 

-Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, Japan)

Definitely one for the "interesting failure" file, but a failure nonetheless. It's stranded between theory and practice, genre and experimentation, and neither side wins. You can see Shimizu working it all out on paper -- "What if we made a minimalist horror film, slicing away all the exposition and connective tissue, leaving only an inexplicable malevolent force that acts through disturbing, decontextualized imagery and jarring sound effects?" And yet the project itself is such a delicate balancing act that it would take a master filmmaker to even come close to pulling it off. (Paging Kiyoshi Kurosawa.) In point of fact, Shimizu is such a novice that he falls back on shoddy hackwork and shock-edit gimmicks that had whiskers on them back in the 1930s. The interconnected stories try to function modularly, like panels in a potentially endless mosaic. But the return of characters we never really got to know only underscores how little is at stake here.

 

-Saved! (Brian Dannelly)

Most teen films are stupid and formulaic, but this one adds smugness to the mix. Too liberal to be scathing, too conservative to truly question the whole born-again thing. Michael Stipe executive produced -- doesn't that tell you everything you need to know? Also, memo to Dannelly for (shudder) film #2: real teens are a lot more circumspect when they're hot for someone. Your couplings here smack of plot contrivance. Get it right next time.

 

-A Snake of June (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan)

[NOTE: Shit. I could've sworn this was listed as a 2001 production, which would have placed it outside my three-year rule for reviewing films as "new releases." But now it's consistently listing as 2002. I hadn't seen anything by Tsukamoto yet, and was curious, since he has a decent reputation as an artsploitation director, and major festivals like Toronto have given him consistent support. In fact, I had a ticket for his latest, Vital, at this year's festival, but skipped it due to exhaustion and bad buzz. Based on this, I can't say I'm sorry, since here Tsukamoto confuses incoherent, what-the-fuck imagery with avant-gardism, remote controlled vibrators and an offensively cursory breast-cancer subplot with female empowerment, and an overall blueprint-blue wash and non-stop cascading rainwater with visual sophistication. So I'm frustrated that now I have to review this mess, which I thought I could sample with impunity thanks to my new subscription to Nicheflix. Oh well, rules are rules.] This film sucks ass.

 

[3]

 

Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette)

"The film we deserve," opined cstults after the screening. I don't mean to get all Armond White here, but it's hard for me to understand why people are falling for this hapless piece of charlatanry. Caouette has no feel for the medium, basically putting iMovie through its paces and performing every faux-cool trick in the book. What's more, these "experimental" elements are tied to an autobiographical narrative, the sad tale of a fragmented subjectivity, so apparently that makes it all okay for viewers who would never be caught dead seeing a real avant-garde film. (It's like those idiotic claims that Van Gogh had an optical disorder, that if you can normalize formal experimentation or at least categorize it as a comprehensible pathology, you can then, and only then, admire it for its "diversity.") And in case you have trouble following this story, Caouette emblazons baldly descriptive, third-person captions across the screen, helpfully changing the font point for emphasis. While watching Tarnation, which has been feted far and wide across the festival circuit, I thought of all those folks lambasting Vincent Gallo for his narcissism, then nodding with eggheaded approval as Caouette turns the legacies of Kenneth Anger, Tom Chomont, Jack Smith, and even the Maysles brothers into the ultimate visual expression of Oprahfied navel-gazing. "Jonathan," our tragic hero, occupies nearly every frame. Yet there's no critical distance, no working through the images from an adult, aesthetic perspective. This doesn't make Tarnation "raw;" it leaves it pitifully half-baked. (Not to mention creepily auto-pornographic. Caouette cannot get enough of his own shirtless, eye-linered underage image.) In the end, Caouette's "healing process" takes us from luxurious wallowing to petulant rage, wherein he exacts revenge on his brain-addled mother (a cruel freak show) and his grandfather. (Charges of abuse and neglect are notoriously difficult to prove, and as a result it's almost always the most responsible thing to give the victim the benefit of the doubt. And yet, Caouette does nothing in Tarnation to demonstrate that his grandparents willfully abused his mother Renee. In fact, quite the opposite -- they seem only to have made the mistake of trusting the mental health establishment, which is demonstrably more culpable for destroying Renee's life.) What we see, finally, on both the emotional and the creative level, is an un-reflexive portrait of arrested development. In a society that uses its vast social, political, and interpersonal resources to infantilize its citizens, and more importantly to coach us on how to infantilize ourselves, Tarnation is a stark symptom, but little else.