REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2005

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)

 

[8]

 

-Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea / France)

[SPOILERS] Tale of Cinema represents a breakthrough in Hong's work. It finds the director embarking on a new visual style that, in its own way, serves as a correlative to the "comedy of embarrassment" that characterizes his narrative predilections. Whereas Woman is the Future of Man, to my eyes, represented a level of self-effacing technical mastery on Hong's part, using the camera unobtrusively and in the service of his bungled trysts and communicative misfires, here Hong both amps up the delusional haze of his male protagonists and implicates himself in the joke. While there are a number of formal elements in Tale of Cinema that are new in Hong's work, the most obvious change is the introduction of doggedly deliberate zooms within single-shot scenes. The zooms are impressive, given the degree of coordination they clearly require. And yet there is a bizarre gracelessness to them. They operate at a medium pace, evincing neither Tarkovskian temporal distension nor the shocking, almost incriminating velocity of a Fassbinder zoom. In fact, usually Hong is merely taking us around a scene, using the zooms in place of conventional edits. The result is an awkward consciousness for the viewer, not only of the point of enunciation (that is, Hong controls the horizontal and the vertical, denying his diegetic world the plainspoken realism of a typical film), but of our attention being directed in a highly artificial way, much more so than even a static master shot. Such focal aggression almost instinctively promotes a kind of mutiny of consciousness on the part of the spectator, a sense of Hong closing down his own cinematic world and curtailing our (presumably) free engagement with it. And this, in fact, is Hong's diagnosis of the cinema, his association of cinematic storytelling with neurosis. Whether it's the stylized, inscrutable suicide pact of the film-within-a-film, or the autistic blustering of failed filmmaker Tong-su, who so identifies with his mentor's student film that he cannot summon up the most basic social niceties, Hong's latest protagonists are altogether more pathological than his usual egocentric male assholes. This is because they go one step further, operating within solipsistic film-worlds in which they are the stars. In the first part (the "film") this is simply odd, but in the second part (the "real world") it is a full-blown illness. Hong amplifies this solipsism with his zooms, which strand us in a world impoverished by Tong-su's narrow priorities. Only in the final moments, when an unexpected voiceover tells us that we, like Tong-su, have two choices (think or die), does Hong propose a way out. And yet, this way out probably requires the dissolution of cinema itself, or at least our pathological identification with it. Whereas most of the first part of Hong's career has been devoted to a deconstruction of masculinity through the cinema, Tale of Cinema essentially collapses the two, and in so doing has turned the tables on himself. [NOTE: An expanded version of this review can be found here.]

 

[6]

 

Corpse Bride (Mike Johnson and Tim Burton)

This one's almost a casualty of its own perfectionism. From the get-go it was exactly what a paying customer would expect: a mash-up of late Victorian Gothica (especially of the Gorey and Beardsley varieties) and classic Rankin/Bass style claymation. And as such, it functions quite well, but even though its stiffness was exaggerated to prove a point (the Land of the Dead is a whole lot more fun), stiff is stiff. Things take an upbeat turn once Emily the Corpse Bride shows up; even with the stink of rot, she's considerably more appealing than mousy Victoria (which, again, is sort of the point). But despite the gorgeous effects generated with light and shadow against the puppets (exploiting their sculptural value to emphasize that there are some things computers will never achieve) and some genuinely moving moments (Emily's wedding present, in particular), Corpse Bride remains stuck in a virtuosity that isn't exactly leaden but prevents the eruption of any true whimsy. As such, even the film's scant 70-minute running time felt a little long. Part of the problem is the songs -- Burton affords Danny Elfman entirely too much leeway here -- but mostly I think what I'm missing here is the light touch and visual invention that Henry Selick brought to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even allowing that these films are two very different projects, I still feel Selick might have mitigated Burton's fetish for the uncanny spectacle of moving Plasticine, investing these inert objects with the requisite spirit.

 

Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan, Canada / U.K.)

There's so much truly wonderful stuff in this film, and the moment-to-moment experience of watching it was compulsively enjoyable. It was a hell of a ride. Wish I could give it a 7. But no dice -- there are just too many obvious problems, Alison Lohman's mousy performance chief among them. Whatever balls-out gravitas the film had gathered around itself evaporated every time she opened her mouth, but it's not just that. It's that the sharks-in-Botany-500 world that Egoyan so successfully evokes would see right through Karen in a heartbeat. Morris & Collins would cut her to shreds; that much is certain. But aside from this casting blunder and some needless, anticlimactic plot twisting, Where the Truth Lies is my kind of movie through and through. Egoyan masterfully raises the spirit of the jet-setting 1970s, when flying First Class meant hobnobbing with famous people, Szechwan cuisine was still exotic, and the height of super-cool showbiz heroism was . . . the Labor Day Telethon. In today's sneering hipper-than-thou pop culture moment, it's all that much of an achievement that Egoyan plays it straight, highlighting the differences between then and now without breaking the spell. We want to throw back G&Ts with Lanny and Vince because, like Blue Velvet's Ben, their just so fuckin' suave. Although Egoyan deserves much of the credit for the stuff that works, Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth are both superb in this film. Bacon's Lanny nails the insecure, lubricious need for acceptance that makes Jerry Lewis's shtick such a compelling form of psychosis. And Firth, as tortured straight-man Vince, is even better, not really doing Dino so much as channeling a Cary Grant wracked with self-loathing and whacked out on pills. Unlike Lohman, Bacon and Firth are completely on Egoyan's wavelength. His direction has never been so effortlessly jazzy and media-hot. What's interesting is that periodically he'll drop in elements from his chilly, academic side, and some of them actually work. The "White Rabbit" sequence is a stunner because it's unhinged in an ever-so-precise manner, sort of the drugged-out flipside to Sarah Polley's song sequences in The Sweet Hereafter. It's the sort of surreal gambit only a filmmaker as idiosyncratic as Egoyan would attempt. Likewise, his roving, scattershot attention to Morris & Collins' lounge act speaks to the director's interest not just in performance, but in the performer / audience dynamic. Firth's scat-singing nervous breakdown is the sort of tour-de-force any other director would shove our faces in; Egoyan allows it to anchor the background. Not all of the signature moves work in this context -- the surrogate-fathers angle falls a bit flat here, but not egregiously so, and as wonderful as it was to see the old gang for a minute (Arsinee! Gabrielle! Don!), there's no real reason for it. So I suppose in the end there's no denying that the whole thing's a bit shallow, that Egoyan's working a bit beneath his station. And yet, after the grinding rectitude of Ararat, I'm excited to see Egoyan putting on his old, ill-fitting leisure suit and hitting the town. He elevates this E! channel pulp, not by taking it seriously, but by allowing his formal chops to go wild, get instinctual, to swing. World-class auteurs should go slumming more often.

 

[5]

 

5x2 (Cinq fois deux) (François Ozon, France)

Mom . . .Dad . . . I'm heterotextual. Ozon is a strange case for auteurists, and despite its relatively placid surface, 5x2 just keeps the mystery going, but not necessarily in a positive way. It isn't hard to detect certain thematic continuities across Ozon's films, but stylistically he's all over the place, producing serious-minded, adult drama with hints of Antonioni (Under the Sand), candy-colored Sirkian comedy (8 Women), Fassbinderian examinations of sexual sadism (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, actually adapted from an early Fassbinder play), or superficially chilly bourgeois thrillers a la Chabrol (Swimming Pool). Even though he began his career with Gallic versions of John Waters shockfests like Sitcom and Criminal Lovers, and now he's moved his focus from incestuous unions to the middle-aged married couple, Ozon doesn't make it easy to identify an evolution in his style. Like Patrice Leconte or Michael Winterbottom, Ozon adopts a new directorial mask at nearly every turn, and lately I suppose his work represents a new "maturity." But what is it? A maddening remoteness, mostly, an ability to ape the surfaces of the classic European art cinema while leaving his audience in a state of puzzlement. It's not just that watching 5x2 will prompt Ozonites to spend half the running time trying to pinpoint just which auteur is being appropriated this time. (Woody Allen? Bergman? Chabrol again?) It's that even though Ozon's mastery of the medium is evident throughout, I'll be damned if anything ever really appears to be at stake. It's gamesmanship standing in for insight. 5x2 deconstructs a failed marriage, offering five reverse-order segments in the manner of Pinter's Betrayal. While the title seems to promise an x-ray of a couple distinguished by their typicality, Gilles and Marion (Stéphane Freiss and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) are anything but. As this love affair rewinds, we soon realize that this isn't a relationship that any non-sociopathic viewer could be expected to identify with. Marion is human enough, albeit with a masochistic streak that is occasionally belied by her fed-up assertions of selfhood. But Gilles is, by and large, the worst imaginable husband ever committed to celluloid. And while the only halfway reasonable explanation of 5x2 is that it is shown from Marion's point of view, a kind of low-light reel of Gilles' stunningly callous transgressions, this non-typicality has precisely the opposite effect than you'd expect. Instead of making the couple, the story, and the film compelling in its psychological foreignness, Ozon's artfully depicted egregiousness just sort of plays out like a didactic lesson for no one, a tragedy left over from some shadowy corner of the Greek canon that, in fact, doesn't speak to Human Nature through the Ages, but some perplexing pocket of cruel prerogative that may as well issue from another planet. The only moments in 5x2 that so much as attempt to assay Gilles' cowardice are troubling in their prescriptiveness. In the second sequence, Gilles tells his brother and his younger male lover about his polymorphous adventures at an orgy, while Marion looked on. Does Ozon want us to associate bi-curious sexual ambivalence with a larger unwillingness to commit to the life you've selected? Probably not, but it's hard to cast this suspicion aside since Gilles' sexual confession is the only real interiority 5x2 grants him. And if the trouble lurking at the heart of 5x2's pairing is attributed to weak ego, an openness to persuasion, what does this say about Ozon's stylistically impressionable, queerly ambivalent cinematic practice?

 

-Jericho's Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land (Liz Nord, Israel / U.S.) [v]

This short feature profiles the punk scene in and around Tel Aviv, and successfully shows an often-forgotten segment of the Israeli population -- those liberal young people committed to peace and accommodation with respect to Palestine, but still maintaining faith in Israel's future as a positive force in the world. Being "punk" in Israel, then, often (but not always) means being a free thinker and refuting the Likudite worldview. (As the chorus of one song puts it, "I'm a Jew, but not like you!") Echo really takes off when it evolves away from its focus on music per se, opening up to allow these articulate young people a space to air their grievances. Not much else to say; I saw this on assignment since I was asked to interview Nord for the local alt-weekly. (That can be found here.) Also, the bass player for Va'adat Kishut? Way cute.

 

Junebug (Phil Morrison)

[SPOILERS] Junebug begins quite promisingly, almost announcing itself as an example of the "primitive art" that plays such a vital role in its plot. Shortly after a fixed-frame night shot of a bank of receding trees (the sort that one frequently finds between suburban homes in the South, that to the untrained eye could be mistaken for an actual forest), Morrison gives us a credits sequence that is both intrusive and out-of-joint. We see art dealer Madeline (Embeth Davidz) and George (Alessandro Nivola), the man she's just met at an auction, giggling and making out in close-up against a gallery wall. Meanwhile, the red boldface titles strewn across the tryst outlast each shot by about half a second, refusing to correspond with the diegetic edits. Morrison gives us two different rhythms (a sexualized, urban one, and another cataloging some of the others we'll soon be meeting) playing against each other. It's a creative yet rough-hewn way to announce that Morrison's filmmaking, in its very form, is about disphasure, two incompatible tempos for living. Regrettably, Morrison's subtlety with his filmic materials is matched throughout the course of the film with some incredibly simpleminded ideas about the human character; at times he's practically a southern-fried Solondz. Madeline is a pure plot construction, her inability to read the most basic signals of human interaction inching well past pathological, with her kisses on the cheek and her parading about in skimpy night clothes. And while George's family (especially his mother and younger brother) are truly unpleasant in their own ways, the film ultimately contorts itself in order to both justify their xenophobia and to offer these Christian red-staters a modicum of redemption that is thoroughly withheld from the jet-setting European interloper. It's telling that the victim of Madeline's cruelest, most self-involved slight is Ashley (Amy Adams), the film's doe-eyed innocent and the one family member unreservedly willing to embrace her. In Junebug's moral universe, being an overly career-driven city bitch is less forgivable a transgression than, say, beaning your brother on the skull with a socket wrench, since this violent expression of sibling rivalry is, at the very least, an automatic response, strangely pure in its brute spontaneity. The same could be said for the primitive religious art Madeline has come to North Carolina to pursue. Its power comes from its undomesticated worldview, a cosmology that becomes more and more frightening the more you learn about it. And yet, its bizarre honesty allegedly becomes a virtue in itself. (To paraphrase David Cross, "there's a racism and hatred in the South that is so steadfast, so true, that in a weird way you just have to say, hats off.") And despite my many misgivings, there is a power to Junebug that I'd be crassly doctrinaire to deny. Morrison's film is filled with images of haunting fragility, scenes and environments that speak deeply to my own Southern upbringing. Shots of isolated rooms in the family house, with their wood paneling and late-70s Levitz furniture, are imbued with a suburban stillness, family history practically hanging like an aroma in the air. When Morrison feels like being generous to his characters (or allowing them to be more than plot devices), one cannot help but be moved by the dignity and communal spirit -- the church hall dinner, for example, with George leading the assembly in a hymn. The finest moment of the entire film, however, belongs to Ashley. Shocking in its frankness, this isolated glimpse of a woman's forlorn erotic fixation on an irretrievable past represents a Proustian cinematic evocation worthy of Wong Kar-Wai. And yet, Morrison's ample talent is reined in time and again by his home-grown separatist politics. (Thought experiment: how would the film play if Madeline were black?) In the end, by squinting at the screen, one could almost give Junebug a pass, as it seems to want us to decide that its culture clash was a red herring, that we were actually watching the story of two people as they suddenly, silently realize that their relationship has an expiration date stamped on the can. But this is too little, too late. Morrison has by this point already cast his artistic lot with the good ol' boys, and hasn't even done it honestly. The game is rigged.

 

-Last Days (Gus Van Sant)

Last Days is a film sure to be sprinkled liberally throughout many year-end top ten lists, "one of this year's indisputably great films" according to Manohla Dargis. But based on the evidence, how could I not dispute its greatness, and why aren't more people doing so? It certainly strives for greatness, but mires itself in ill-conceived mythology. Likely to be my single biggest disappointment of the year, Van Sant's latest represents a slightly different solution to the creative problems he assayed with Elephant, and yet it is every bit as problematic. Whereas his previous film was more formally assured in every way, and at times managed to achieve conjunctions of sound and image that were hypnotic and undeniably breathtaking, Elephant as a whole felt overdetermined, too willing to play into stereotypes and Gap-ad airbrushed surfaces instead of simply turning the audience loose to contemplate the horror it orchestrates. With its ominous sound design and gathering clouds, Elephant subtly told its audience that Van Sant didn't really trust our intellect enough to set us free in the halls of "Columbine." We might get lost. In Last Days, oddly enough, Van Sant's formal chops are considerably diminished (despite what you may be reading, the film's use of follow shots, slow tracking shots, and looping chronology are quite clumsy here), providing fewer purely cinematic pleasures than the somewhat questionable aestheticism of Elephant. But this doesn't result in greater freedom for the viewer. Instead, Van Sant dips into sturdy conceptual tropes borrowed from Hollywood melodrama to make sure we don't wander too far off the hiking path. Blake (Michael Pitt) is the mythical artistic spirit too sensitive for this world, subject to the blithe indifference of his inferiors and hangers-on. He wanders through a decrepit early-century hunting lodge whose peeling walls and stripped mahogany are the too-perfect objective correlative for Blake's heroin burnout. (Van Sant may as well hang a sign over the door: "Welcome to the Hotel California, Seattle.") In Last Days' most obvious thematic dollop, Boys II Men's video for "On Bended Knee" is contrasted with the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," a platter spun by a member of Blake's mooching entourage. Van Sant is clearly playing on the irony of Kurt Cobain and the form of integrity he represented. Both of these songs are about humility and submission. Lou Reed's paean to masochism is, of course, the number with more automatic street cred, especially for the Nirvana set. But wait, Van Sant seems to say: Boys II Men, commercial though they may be, represent a romantic ideal permeated with a spirituality that Lou Reed and the Warhol set made it their job to vanquish. And while Blake / Cobain (or William Blake for that matter) occupied an appropriate position for the artist in the West -- that of the self-destructive visionary who stares into the abyss, laying bare the emptiness of existence -- in the end it is no more authentic an expression of love for humankind than Boys II Men's reflexive piety. More succinctly, Kim Gordon drops by to ask Blake if he's apologized to his daughter "for being a rock-and-roll cliché."

 

So, does this sound heady and philosophical to you? Personally I find it too symbolic, too literary for a film that purports to be a "tone poem" or some other kind of non-narrative exploration, a slice of looping free-range time. And although Last Days has passages of stately beauty (such as Blake's acoustic rendition of "From Death to Birth," or the driving shot with Ricky Jay and Ryan Orion), and even some successful comedy (Yellow Pages guy: yes; Weezer guy: no), there's still a maddening half-assedness to the whole thing. Van Sant keeps getting his formalist chocolate in his mythopoetic peanut butter, and the two never gel. The film provides the Chantal Akerman reference, with Blake in the kitchen pouring Cocoa Krispies, but none of the intellectual purpose or spatial integrity of Jeanne Dielman. Blake isn't trapped in stultifying ritual; he's hungry and wants some cereal, and this in itself is apparently supposed to be vaguely pathetic. (Kurt! Eating cereal!) Similarly, the reverse tracking shot away from Blake's rehearsal space is not only poorly executed but wrongheaded. I think it's supposed to render Blake's creativity mythic or unknowable, but all it really does is point to Van Sant and DP Harris Savides' own sense of what a "good idea" it is. Its formal audacity doesn't gel with the subject matter, or the unique properties of this particular filmic moment. It's as though they just wanted to do a zoom-out somewhere, so they could check off the Michael Snow reference. Ironically, the DVD provides a deleted scene that shows an alternate view of the same scene, a fixed-frame shot form above. Less ostentatiously "virtuosic" than the reverse tracking shot, it actually provides a better sense of Blake as a working body, moving around, figuring things out, no more or less unknowable than anyone else. This is rigor, anti-humanist style. It displays creativity as work, and shows the man doing it as equally capable of catatonia and clarity. This clear-eyed, warts-and-all approach is telling, because it points to what Last Days might have been. But it seems that Van Sant simply can't maintain this kind of objectivity when dealing with the overly-loaded content of real human beings. If for some tastes Elephant was too hard (and I personally don't think that's what the problem was), Last Days is certainly too soft. Only Gerry approximated the cruel, unforgiving formal power of Snow, Akerman, and Béla Tarr. That's because the two Gerrys were fictional pretexts, giving Van Sant the freedom not to care for them protectively, to strand them (and the audience) inside harsh compositions and tracking shots -- that is, inside formal problems. Van Sant's artistic rebirth isn't over, not by a long shot. But I think he's moving in the wrong direction. To operate on the level of his cinematic heroes, he needs to temper his reverence for mankind and locate his inner formalist hard-ass. Then again, it's entirely possible that my preference for cool rigor is a cliché of a different sort, and that Van Sant is just driving in my blind spot.

 

-Methadonia (Michel Negroponte) [v]

Honestly, now, this really isn't so bad. But Negroponte's documentary of 18 months in the lives of a handful of methadone addicts has drawn fire from the cinephile community for its inclusion in the typically ultra-exclusive New York Film Festival. I wholeheartedly concur that Methadonia has no business among the rarefied company of NYFF, and most likely its inclusion was economically motivated. (This year HBO has come on board as a major corporate sponsor, and Methadonia was produced by HBO Films as an "American Undercover" segment.) But even if we agree that there is no way on earth that Methadonia is one of 2005's finest films (the implicit promise of NYFF's exclusivity), it certainly has its virtues and is a cut above many such made-for-cable productions. (By the way, just for some perspective, no one had much of a problem with NYFF 2002's inclusion of Jennifer Dworkin's tedious, voyeuristic Love and Diane, which I turned off after sixty of its 150 minutes.) Negroponte's major directorial strengths in this piece are access and an obvious camaraderie with his subjects, men and women not so different from the lost soul Kerrigan and Lewis create in Keane. Negroponte makes it clear, particularly near the conclusion, that methadone addiction is not a narrative, and we won't be getting tidy stories of triumph or the usual cautionary tales. And yet, he doesn't eschew triumphs (major and minor) when they occur; they feel both hard-won and achingly tenuous. The intimacy Negroponte conveys through the time he allows us to spend with his subjects almost compensates for his off-the-mark stylistic choices. His frequent fades to black or dropping out of sound in mid-sentence borders on the disrespectful, but the director is clearly trying to approximate the addict's experience of lost time. It doesn't work, nor is his lite-jazz interlude music particularly savvy. (If bebop is the sound of heroin, then methadone sounds like somber Kenny G?) Moreover, Negroponte's narration (apparently written by Nick Pappas, although the credits leave this point ambiguous) wavers from the pointed -- the man behind the camera positioning himself vis-a-vis the problem of addiction -- to the faux-poetic. More often than not, it's an overwritten distraction and a directorial fumble. Negroponte, a member of Ross McElwee's Boston direct-cinema cohort, is wise to avoid Wiseman-style objectivity, but at least from the evidence here he lacks McElwee's skill for essayistic engagement with the world he's filming, and the language he uses on the soundtrack inadvertently dips into plangent liberal condescension. This is all the more unfortunate since the interviews themselves give no hint of this. So, in sum, there's no denying that Methadonia doesn't belong in the NYFF. But it probably would've been a worthy enough inclusion at TIFF or on the next Film Forum calendar. Let's all put our hackles down, let the healing begin, etc.

 

[4]

 

-Walk on Water (Eytan Fox, Israel)

In case you haven't heard, there's a crisis afoot in the world of U.S. distribution of foreign films. We've got Rivette and Akerman titles going straight to video, Palm and Wellspring making like classic Miramax and flushing their acquisitions down the toilet, and in the midst of it, those foreign titles that do make it to theatres are crashing and burning at the arthouses, stomped by documentaries and English-language Indiewood fare. Of course, this is overstating it a bit, and the "crisis" is, unfortunately, probably more like what economists call a "market correction." The relative bounty of 2000 or 2001, when new films by Imamura, Ruiz, and Sokurov were opening commercially in major cities, when knotty crowd-displeasers like In Praise of Love were booked for at least a week and Sony Classics was plunking down for stuff like Va savoir -- all of this was an anomaly of the dot-com economic hangover. American cinephiles hadn't had it so good since the 60s, but sad to say, it's over. All this by way of explaining my qualified interest in Walk on Water, one of the few foreign-language "hits" (relatively speaking) of 2005. (It even opened in Syracuse and Ithaca, where I ignored it.) What accounts for its minor success? Sadly, it's a dismal confluence of factors that are guaranteed to gall all but the most middlebrow film lovers. Three strong lead performances come just that close to redeeming a script characterized through and through with hackneyed emotional cues, plot-propelling contrivances, ham-fisted psychology, and fraudulent, muddily liberal politics. (Late Marriage's Lior Ashkenazi is particularly impressive, doing all he can with the role of Eyal, history's least professional Mossad agent.) All of this locks quite nicely together to form numerous life-altering epiphanies and the sort of cheaply uplifting hope for the future that can only occur when real, complex social problems, hundreds of years in the making, are sanded down, slotted into neat little boxes and magically resolved as beach-reading. (Adorno's phrase "reconciliation under duress" comes to mind.) Walk on Water is a slick, earnest but featherweight pop entertainment, but it takes itself quite seriously. In form (total Hollywood), in ideology (summed up by three spins of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"), it's quite a bit like the high-minded trash Wolfgang Petersen likes to trot out. Its politics are safe as milk. (Who can fault Nazi hunters? And the conservative Eyal softens his hardliner stance a bit in the process.) It finds room for some gay content, allowing it to tap multiple niche markets. Oh, and more than half of the film is in English. And there you have it: the formula for a successful foreign film in xenophobic, cash-strapped 2005. As in so many other fields of endeavor, a little underachievement goes a long way.

 

[3]

 

Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe)

Honestly, I'm at a loss for what to say about this film, at least without letting myself fly into a vituperative rant. It's not just that Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom, a charisma-free he-mannequin who should be promptly returned to the Abercrombie stockroom) is utterly vacant, or that Crowe simply assumes his target audience will identify with him because, well, he's a young, white go-getter. (Hey! Worked before!) And it's not just that everything about this film, from its gratingly effervescent love interest (Kirsten Dunst) to every single moment in Kentucky (watch the villagers magically point the way for our weary hero!), speaks to a thoroughgoing egocentrism, a "world" that exists only to shepherd you through it and teach you valuable lessons along the way. What's really mindboggling about Elizabethtown is the way Crowe has so completely mythologized middle-American mediocrity, turning it into something virtually archetypal. In interviews, Crowe refers to this attitude with words like "optimism" and "wonder," and lashes out at critics for their "cynicism." But in reality, Elizabethtown is the product of a vision hermetically sealed in privilege, one that offers movement between two very similar poles of experience -- slick frat-boy faux-hipsterism and naive album-rock tackiness -- as some form of redemptive picaresque, instead of what it actually represents, a journey from A to A'. If I'm jaded, so be it. But most of Elizabethtown is simpleminded, processed cheese, and ultimately I found it insulting.

 

[W/O]

 

Thumbsucker (Mike Mills) (0:30)

Not completely dreadful, although Keanu Reeves is atrocious and jesus lord why would anyone do anything with the Polyphonic Spree other than pelt them with garbage. But Mills' visual approach ("suburbia is alienating . . . but strangely lovely, too!") and the general tenor of Sundance self-importance made this a film I had no business sitting through. Your mileage may vary, depending on your personal threshold of twee.