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 reviews of films seen at "Views from the Avant-Garde." For those, push the little linky and make 'em come up.]




Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, Canada / U.K. / U.S.)

I have a deep aversion to contemporary films about human trafficking, mostly because they invariably lend themselves to garish melodrama, but also because they allow (predominantly) Western filmmakers to demonize the men of the former Soviet bloc. These thugs become the equivalent to bug-eyed African Americans or swarthy Middle Eastern sultans in earlier films -- i.e., stereotypical Others upon whom a culture can foist its own anxieties about women as property. Of course, the great boon of lawless oligarch rule in Eastern Europe is that Hollywood can have its mustache-twirling villains while dodging charges of cultural insensitivity, since the men in question are white. What's more, the victimization depicted is usually a vicarious movie-thrill, and audiences are let off the hook for our desire to see women degraded by the filmmakers decision to couch the events in a liberal problem-picture. So I was very pleasantly surprised by Eastern Promises, a film that does have many unexceptional characteristics but, along with A History of Violence, may firmly establish Cronenberg's new m.o. Why make "weird" pictures and "normal" pictures when you can shoehorn latent weirdness into your mainstream vehicles? True, the basic themes and plot mechanics of Promises are no great shakes -- one concerned woman stands up to the Mob; honor and duty vs. doing what's right. And, much like Spider, Promises lays its mytho-Freudian preoccupations rather thick. (Whereas the earlier film was fully edible Oedipal, this one raises as much Cain as it's Abel to.) But what's truly unique about Cronenberg's take on the material has to do with his representation of the traffic in female bodies. Of course, no director is more preoccupied with bodies and what they do, and we see the young mother / enslaved sex worker die in childbirth in one of the bloodiest such scenes the movies has produced. But after this, we don't get flashbacks, and apart from one pivotal scene that establishes the differences between Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and Kirill (Vincent Cassell), women's bodies are noticeably absent. The dead Tatiana hovers above the proceedings as a voiceover, her diary providing both narration and counterpoint. But, in what almost has to be a conscious nod to Laura Mulvey, the Woman as Sex Object is never seen. Instead, Cronenberg gives us a hyper-visibility of male flesh. Yes, the naked knife fight in the bathhouse stands out as a bit of self-consciously bravura filmmaking, but from the role of tattooing to the looks that Kirill lavishes over Nikolai's body before jolting himself back into gangster mode, Eastern Promises is fundamentally about organized crime as sublimated male-male desire. The thesis isn't new, but Cronenberg's matter-of-fact examination of it does cut to the bone. In this way, Naomi Watts' Anna character is not just risking her life in trying to protect a newborn baby girl. She is struggling to maintain a place, any place, for female dignity in the world.


-The Shock Doctrine (Alfonso Cuarón / Jonás Cuarón / Naomi Klein, U.S. / U.K. / Canada) [s]

It's not only a little hard to know exactly how to evaluate this short film; it's perhaps even more difficult to decide whether or not to evaluate it. Commissioned by Penguin U.K. as a stylish infomercial for Klein's new tome (which I've just started slogging through), The Shock Doctrine film was nevertheless a late add to the official slates at Venice and Toronto, indicating that tastemakers in certain circles are regarding it as something more than a teaser-trailer for one of 2007's major nonfiction titles. Yes, this has everything to do with the involvement of Cuarón pére et fils. but to be fair, this short film is considerably more accomplished than the average promo film. It skillfully combines post-Baldwin / Rosenblatt found-footage editing with an overall Adam Curtis vibe, punctuating its thesis with speculative C.I.A. handbook drawings that recall the work of Leon Golub or Robbie Conal. Of course, Klein's main point -- that the radical free market initiatives prescribed by Milton Friedman and his acolytes can only be activated in times of massive crisis and disarray -- requires more than six minutes to expound, and when the film tries to give you hard facts they often whizz by, leading to an uncomfortable shell-game feeling. But, you know, that's why you're supposed to read the book. I must say, even though I am sympathetic to the political slant of both this film and Klein's work, The Shock Doctrine short does stand up as a miniature piece of avant-garde agitprop, and frankly I didn't know either Cuarón had this kind of skill set. Certainly worth six minutes of your time. [The Shock Doctrine can be viewed here.]




The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)

Paul Greengrass is forging a new syntax for the contemporary action picture, I guess, but that doesn't necessarily mean I have to like it. I mean, a lot of it does work, particularly his use of actual locations and keen ability to navigate cameras through actual crowds. The real world could potentially engulf the film, which is interesting. But his editing often works overtime to make sure this doesn't happen, and while you'd expect this to provide increased clarity, sometimes it only adds to the muddle. So, in short, it's the decoupage and not the teeming humanity that makes Bourne 3 such perceptual whiplash. What's more, Greengrass doesn't seem to know what to do with himself when he's doing an action sequence. Expository segments are mercifully brief, but he could have lent them United 93's bobbing agita but instead settles for flat handheld coverage a la recent Michael Mann. For all the hosannas, the Waterloo Station chase sequence felt a bit too reliant on zooms and quick cuts which didn't fragment the space with Cubist purpose so much as abandon bordering on apathy. (It was also a bit too much like a similar scene from Minority Report, one with far greater control of tension and release.) By contrast, the final chase, earthbound as it was, felt far more taut and managed to organize spatial relations without drawing us a tedious, classical-style roadmap. So I see what Greengrass' partisans are talking about; I just wanted to see more of it. Also, Theo is exactly right. The next to the last shot = perfect ending. (That sudden shift in expression! Stiles turns on like a halogen lamp.) The actual last shot = stoopid.


-Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)

It's been quite a while since I watched this film, so I've had some time to mull it over. In its own bizarre way, Secret Sunshine is, I suppose, the masterpiece its proponents claim it to be, but this in itself doesn't ameliorate the overriding bad taste Lee's film left in my mouth, that of having been had, not so much by a flashy showman as by a grim, calculating moralist. Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I have pretty much always had major problems with the hairpin tonal shifts that in some respects have become a hallmark of Korean cinema, particularly works by directors who operate on the more accessible line of the art / populism divide. (I'm thinking of Park Chanwook, Boon Joon-ho, Im Sang-soo, mid-period Jang Sun-woo, as well as Lee.) This tendency has always struck me as a way to address the wide spectrum of actual human emotional response, while simultaneously reducing it to formalist shorthand, a neat little narrative curlicue which derives authority from the very polychromaticism it schematizes. So, when I state that perhaps Secret Sunshine is a kind of genuine masterpiece, I'm being sincere. It's just that Lee may have constructed the tonal-shift film to end all tonal-shift films, or better yet, a highly theoretical tonal-whiplash metafilm. Comparisons to Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence are not offbase, and Jeon Do-yeon's emotionally-Cubist embodiment of arrogant, multiply bereft Shinae is certainly every bit as accomplished as Gena Rowlands' performance in Woman. But Lee is in many ways the anti-Cassavetes. The earlier filmmaker was a "man of the theatre," but not in the conventional sense. Rather, as one would expect from a contemporary of R.D. Laing and Erving Goffman, Cassavetes understood "theatre" to encompass the totality of intersubjective human relations. Who we are, and how we present ourselves to others -- the moment in all human behavior when existential being inevitably lapses into semiotics -- this is the dialectic at work, or under siege, throughout Cassavetes' mature work. But Lee is in many vital ways a writer-turned-director, and some of the difficulties of Secret Sunshine really clarified key tendencies in his films. The epic sprawl of Sunshine allows the film to accomplish its seismic shifts in a more attenuated timeframe. We move from comedy of embarrassment through tragedy and aftermath, through religious awakening as sublimated self-righteousness, concluding with rebellion veering into outright insanity and a tentative denouement of settling in for deadened mediocrity.


But there's something painfully deliberate about these maneuvers, and that's partly because Lee's approach is besotted with the tools of cinema (especially performance) and the perceived advantages they have over fiction when it comes to emotional control over an audience. When Lee has Shinae's little boy pretend to go missing in the second reel by hiding behind a door, that's leaden literary foreshadowing. But when Shinae's irrational behavior (which often challenges our belief in the character as a unified subject and may well be intended to do so) is unified only by her air of superiority, and the machinations of the film are legible only as a thoroughgoing, attenuated process of stripping her of that air, as if by divine fiat, it's difficult not to feel as though Lee is putting us through the wringer in order to demonstrate a stone cold thesis about "cinematic identification," or "the mechanics of genre," or something equally abstract. In this case, perhaps we're supposed to find Shinae's cruel education amusing, and together with the constant disruption of narrative codes it forms scathing black comedy in Lee's mind. (You could read this attitude back through Lee's filmography. Oasis, about a socially retarded ex-con who rapes a woman with cerebral palsy, is probably also radical anti-humanist comedy, and hell, maybe Peppermint Candy's good man cast about by the uncaring forces of History is instead some benighted Candide, and meant to elicit bitterly ironic snorts of "what fools these mortals be.") It's a rigorously intellectual project, that much I can't deny. But by the end I can't shake the feeling that Lee is the thinking person's Kim Ki-duk, or better yet, Lars von Trier without the chops. In one of those truly bitter ironies of world cinema, Lee's perfectly functional grasp of film language, shorn of bells and whistles and therefore "in service to the emotional truth of the story" or what have you, conveys a sincerity no one would ever grant von Trier (nor should they). In simpler terms: Song Kang-ho's grinning-idiot nice guy could well be Secret Sunshine's true center. He waits, and watches almost like an inside-the-film audience member, as Shinae goes through tribulations beyond all imagination. His prize for waiting it out is a fragile, post-nuthouse Shinae with an exhausted, broken spirit, one who will finally embrace his blandness as the apex of stability. Funny, huh?


[SECOND VIEWING, 4/9/08: Looking over the above review, I still fundamentally agree with my earlier assessment. But this time around I find that I don't so much mind Lee's manipulations. On second look, I think I see them as part of an overall novelistic sweep that is still weighed down by a sense of conceptual demonstration, or a tendency for the grand-scale to run roughshod over the poetic detail. (Of course, you could say the same thing about The Magic Mountain or Crime and Punishment.) But what Lee achieves is a broad arc that is, in part, about the fantasy that one retains in painfully ordinary circumstances, that you yourself are somehow extraordinary. Shinae realizes this fantasy as inverted nightmare, and this displays certain characteristics of the so-called ordinary Miryang. Perhaps the flipside to this, the example of the mundane gradually training itself to become an altered, "improved," but no less thoughtless mundane, is Jong Chan the "helper guy" / hapless suitor. Yes, he is clearly trying to be someone he isn't in order to woo Shinae. But by the end of the film, his act has become second nature, such that he keeps going to church for a sense of "inner peace," even after Shinae has declared war on God. So as much as anything else, Secret Sunshine may be about urbanites' contempt for "bumpkins," in itself a kind of willful forgetting about how profoundly we're all shaped by habit. Still, the film is more like a knotted rope than a sine wave; Lee can't make things flow through purely cinematic means, and leans way too heavily on Jeon's performance as a unifier. So I still have some major qualms about this film.]




-Blades of Glory (Josh Gordon and Will Speck)

Um, it took two guys to direct this? Or is that just some sort of mens'-pairs in-joke? It's kind of amazing all the real-life figure skating legends they got to appear in this film, considering the upshot is something akin to, "this sport is, like, beyond gay." As I recall the film its failures come flooding back far more than its successes, particularly its criminal underuse of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as fey caricatures. But anyway, it seemed painless enough as I watched it, even though I don't think I actually laughed once. It's already fading from my memory completely. Wait a minute. There. It's gone.


-The Ex (Jesse Peretz)

Leave it to music-video gadfly Peretz, who so angered the den mothers of Bayonne, New Jersey, with his homoerotic high school clip for Nada Surf's "Popular," to draw upon nominal Indiewood resources and old favors from longtime friends to bring his unlikely vision to the screen -- a biopic profiling the rise and rise of Dutch anarcho-punk legends The Ex. Some straight-edge purists will object to casting above all else, but let's give Peretz some credit before the knives come out. Amanda Peet, with her marble-pixie features and cheerleader-on-meth affect (used to little effect by Aaron Sorkin on the now-out-of-its-misery "Studio 60"), is a bang-on choice to play Katherina Ex. The twitchy swagger is calling card enough. But Peretz's riskier decision to slot newly-sought-after snarkmaster general Jason Bateman (a performer I quite like, but let's face it, a limited one) as G.W. Sok is, while wholly counterintuitive, an arch success, and one that looks ahead to Todd Haynes' multi-actor deconstructions of Dylan. Bateman is so completely not G.W., Peretz seems to tell us, that he will push the not-being to the limit, going so far as to confine Bateman's Sok to a wheelchair and replace the Angry Dutchman's ubiquitous mic-stand with an eerily priapic phallus. Strange stuff, and not entirely effective, but certainly a gutsy move, which is more than can be said for much of the rest of Peretz's picture. The screenplay by first-timers David Guion and Michael Handelman feels like it was tenderized by script doctors like a piece of veal, and perhaps this is the price for shepherding such an uncommercial picture through the system. (It used to be called Fast Track, incidentally, a pun on The Ex's playing style which, I suppose, makes a little more sense in the script's original French.) One can clearly see the outlines of searing social commentary worthy of the Nederlander upstarts. Venture-capitalist hippies and their faux-radical office rituals, the difficulties of career women transitioning into motherhood, the passive-aggressive "nurturing" of judgmental lactation Nazis, and even the schmaltzy humanist tendency to assume that the disabled are necessarily more noble than we are -- all of these worthy targets are in the line of fire. But the approach is scattershot and the satire cannot withstand the leveling tendencies of the off-Hollywood money boys. In an egregious (and uniquely American) misreading of The Ex's politics, all of their ferocity has been reconfigured as a generalized nastiness. Instead of seeing a theme or concept through in any meaningful way, The Ex just bounces back to inscrutably hateful human behavior, and in so doing wastes such supporting actors as Charles Grodin, Amy Poehler, and even genial Paul Rudd. In the end, however, no decision indicates the fraught nature of the production quite as much as the misbegotten casting of Zach Braff as Terrie Ex. I suppose on paper it made a kind of fuck-you sense, having Capt. Emo, Voice of the Douchebag Nation, stand in for a collectivist whose musical ideas shove against the very notions of solipsism. But when he and Peet move into their new Ohio home and Braff launches into a feeble rendition of 1983's "Squat!" (from the classic Tumult LP), singing his suburban-white-boy heart out into the handle of a garden hoe, we know we're in trouble. When a nonplussed Grodin ripostes with "Pep Talk" (from 1982, and with the original lyrics), we glimpse the shards of greatness, and wish this project had gotten off the ground decades earlier. Alas, it was not meant to be. Oh, and for the first time in recorded history, Peet's breasts remain clothed from start to finish, which must be an in-joke on the politics of nursing a baby in public.


-Klimt (Raoul Ruiz, Austria / France / Germany / U.K.)

While Klimt is mostly undeserving of the toxic buzz that's dogged it since it premiered last year in Rotterdam, there's no point in pretending that it's "good" in any meaningful sense. The film falls squarely alongside Ruiz's other compelling misfires like Shattered Image and (although this is a minority opinion, I suspect) Three Lives and Only One Death, works that try to shoehorn the director's usual fascinations into ill-fitting receptacles. In the strictest sense -- actual funding, casting, dubious use of English -- Klimt is Europudding all the way, but what's truly bizarre is the fact that Ruiz decided to take Gustav Klimt on in the first place. Modernism only seems to work for Ruiz when it allows him to engage in narrative sleight of hand, as was the case with his master Borges; the rest of the time Ruiz seems much more like a man of the 17th or even the 16th century, someone who should be adapting Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms instead of filming John Malkovich in a silly goatee cavorting around with dual-identity countesses and the like. Granted, the film exhibits a clear respect for Klimt's art and his forward thinking, but in this regard the film would probably have needed to be handled by Peter Watkins in order to really amount to anything. As is, Ruiz's scrambled-chronological reveries, deathbed visions, and syphilitic fantasias seem silly, never structured enough to actually build any momentum or playful enough to overcome the stiff costume-drama-on-the-cheap mannerism. In short, it displays flashes of ideas but is mostly half-assed, leaving me to wonder whether this was a project for which funding was available for some reason, an opportunity Ruiz saw, took, and couldn't really capitalize on. Klimt the man simply feels trapped in a fey middlebrow biopic that lacks the courage of those watered-down convictions. And Malkovich, at this point, is already a parody of himself, the Christopher Walken for the Euro-auteur set. He's not even trying here, but unlike his recent work with Oliveira, doesn't evince being in on the joke himself. Not a complete waste of time, but absolutely a wasted opportunity. And, since Viennese Modernism is one of my pet topics, I probably got more out of it than most people will, since I could fill in Ruiz and Gilbert Adair's pencil-thin sketches of Adolph Loos or Egon Schiele with extra-textual knowledge. A task like Klimt didn't require a doctoral thesis -- see Derek Jarman's impressionistic but intellectually careful Wittgenstein for a far more deft glimpse of the age -- but it does need, you know, context.


-Ploy (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)

How frustrating -- a film that has all the outer vestments of a masterwork but has fuck-all on its mind. In terms of sensuous surfaces, tightly controlled camerawork, and all-pervasive mood, Pen-Ek's latest is an unquestionable achievement. This is only the third of his features I've seen (I missed Invisible Waves and Monrak Transistor), but Ploy is a giant leap forward in terms of directorial skill, from its use of audio compression in the opening airplane sequence to its razor-sharp framings in highly confined environments. Pen-Ek plays out most of his stilted bizarre-love-triangle scenario in a single hotel room, and only Fassbinder at the height of his powers could have successfully generated as many unique, emotionally suggestive compositions within such close quarters. What's more, Pen-Ek perfectly captures the antiseptic ennui of travel and its attendant non-spaces -- hotel bars, airplane cabins, the backseats of taxicabs. Again, though, the hotel room, with its ridged translucent partitions and matte-metallic surfaces, all bathed in a uniformly chrome gray, is a testament to the communicative power of mise-en-scène. Only Safe and Time Out come to mind as matching Ploy for reflecting the steely vacancy of postmodern environments. All of this makes it all the worse, then, that Pen-Ek gives us so little in the way of ideas or human insight. The married couple, Wit and Daeng (Pornwut Sarasin and Lalita Panyopas), have lost that lovin' feeling. They quietly bicker in punishingly banal exchanges, and then deal with the problem of young Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), who Wit invited up to the room to freshen up while her mother's on her way. There are surprises, and I won't give them away, but those surprises only lead you to hope that, when the film takes its final, endless, idiotic turn, you too will have the chance to wake up. One final note: the prominence of English bilingualism in the film really forces me to consider some sort of allegorical import to the character names (Ploy? Wit?), but my lack of familiarity with common Thai first-names forces me to hold back.


-Sevilla --> (∞) 06 (Olivo Barbieri, Spain / Italy) [s]

Few recent filmmakers have staked out one definitive style and worked it to death quite like Barbieri. He hasn't just got a shtick; he's got his very own technical innovation which for all intents and purposes is his style. Barbieri shoots aerial studies of various international cities from a helicopter using a specially designed lens which generates a telephoto image with extremely sharp focus in the center and a sort of rounded haze on the edges. This, along with the parameters of light Barbieri selects for collecting his footage, results in a series of images that make actual locales look like miniature models come to life. Like an old-school exponent of the cinema of attractions, Barbieri produces work whose primary elicited response is "wow, that's cool," and there hasn't been much more to his work thus far. Sevilla gets interesting when the camera is trained on certain structures (stadiums, gravel pits, etc.) that produce volumetric protrusions, depressions, or divots in the landscape, since they break up Barbieri's generalized blanket of wee cars, roads, and tract houses. These are the moments when the film describes complex space rather than just unfurling its tourist-board tapestry. As with the earlier efforts, Barbieri is still just showing one thing after another, delivering a photo-essay in time rather than a film that communicates on the level of editing, pacing, framing, and the like. And again, I find this deeply frustrating, as though Barbieri is just content to play with his optical toy and assumes his audience will be content just to watch him play. Up to a point he's right -- he's one of the most successful contemporary non-narrative filmmakers around -- but there's a certain lack of compositional integrity that always shows through with folks not versed in the a-g canon, and I'm always a bit stunned when this isn't obvious to all and sundry. His films may as well be showing up to a wedding without pants.


-Smiley Face (Gregg Araki)

In a perfectly admirable curveball pitch, Araki follows up Mysterious Skin, his dark and quite lovely "mature" film (shades of Almodóvar and Todd Haynes), with a straight-up stoner comedy. I can't really say it works, or that it doesn't work, because in actuality Smiley Face scans like a film made by people trying to disguise the fact that their genuine affection for nonintellectual stoner comedies (the Cheech and Chong classics, along with recent entries like Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold and Kumar) is inevitably processed through their intellectual faculties. Why try to hide this? Probably because nine times out of ten, the connoisseurship I just described gets mistaken for irony or slumming, so at times Araki and company undermine the necessary effortlessness a film like this demands with the strain of trying way too hard to show they're having a good time. Quite possibly the clearest example of this problem is also potentially the single most innovative aspect of the film. Smiley Face is about the misadventures of a pothead chick, played for all it's worth by a game Anna Faris. Not unlike one of those awkward moments at work where you try to describe a minority employee without mentioning their race, Smiley Face does next to nothing with the gender-switch, with the exception of giving Faris's Jane a nerdly puppy-dog helper guy (John Krasinski) or making her the object of a split-second sexual reverie by a fellow she briefly meets (Harold's John Cho). Otherwise it's business as usual, or not even that. The opening sequence implies a clever A-through-Z motif the film might've followed, which would have been a nifty correlative to that stoned, conspiratorial, "everything's connected" feeling. But nothing comes of it. ("I was gonna organize my mainstream comedy like a structural film, but then I got high...") Likewise, the business with The Communist Manifesto was occasionally funny, but it seemed like it was mostly there as a way of saying, "hey look, it's still Gregg Araki back here doing this thing." (Same with the brief Weekend-like traffic jam. Or starting the film with Anna on a Faris wheel, har har.) Granted, when it hits, it hits hard -- the laundry room scene is hilarious, as is Jane's cluelessness about the biker chick. The "Garfield" riff is priceless. And all props to Faris, who lets herself look pretty gnarly throughout the film, shelving all vanity in the name of 420 authenticity. She's blossomed into quite the comic talent. Don't get me wrong; Smiley's just fine for what it is, and certainly doesn't deserve to go straight-to-video as it appears it will very shortly. But it's not a radically subversive piece of pop art, either. Puff, puff, pass.