REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2012
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)
Here's my Nashville Scene review. Although I usually prefer to let such things pass by in silence, I feel I must take issue with Armond White's curt dismissal of this film. He seems to have had similar qualms to my own, in terms of Ewing and Grady ending up at cross purposes with themselves. The attempt to maintain an aesthetic distance does, at times, prevent a more direct engagement with the social issues that Detropia inevitably raises, or grazes as the case may be. But for White, this conflict is little more than a symptom of narcissism and "hipster's indifference." Is it really do easy to suss out the makers' bad faith based on their formal choices? It's almost as though White thinks that political documentary is not the appropriate place for such abstruse monkeying-about, although as is so often the case with White we merely suggests this by innuendo, all the better to maintain plausible deniability should anyone call him on a position to blatantly rearguard.
How To Survive a Plague (David France)
My all-too-brief Nashville Scene review. If there's one thing I want to convey about France's doc, it's that the filmmaker's almost wholesale adoption of a worm's eye view of the epidemic is a risky decision that absolutely pays off. We are thrust into a position of not-knowing, the sheer confusion and terror of the early months of the AIDS crisis, and we watch the activists pull themselves out of fear through knowledge. This has two filmic consequences. One, we realize how much all of us still really don't know about HIV and ARC. Two, we follow the trajectory of a group of men and women undertaking very basic tasks of survival which, under these historical circumstances, become nothing short of heroic. Not to put too fine a point on it, these queer activists provide an object lesson in enlightened modernity, Habermas-style. They defeat ignorance through education, science, and endless hard work. Many of them die doing so, but thankfully (and through their own tireless efforts), some do not. And there's still a lot left to do.
Looper (Rian Johnson)
This is the rare time-travel related film that I feel I should see twice in order to do it justice. However, that's not really because Johnson sets up any particularly complex (read: nerdly) time paradoxes. In fact, he practically goes out of his way to avoid them. (As Bruce Willis tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "we'd be here all day, making diagrams on the table with straws.") No, what makes Looper the sort of film that one wants to return to -- ah yes, cinema-as-time-machine; I want to go back! -- is that Johnson is one of the first post-H.G. Wells artists to employ time dislocation as a conundrum within capitalism. The world of Looper stands to reason entirely. Of course time travel is banned, and only outlaws can "loop." If I could, say, work a 2012 job, and spend the afternoon spending my 2012 earnings in 1970, and if everyone did this, there would be no functioning economy to speak of. Hence, the Looper-verse is a Ron Paul wet dream. All payouts are in silver, except the Big One, which is gold.
What Looper has a somewhat more difficult time explaining, however, is [SPOILER] why, once the Mob is ready to "close the loops" and do away with its time-jumping assassins, it's so imperative that each man kill his older self, instead of sending someone else to do the deed. I suppose if we wanted to get technical about it (and I'm sure this is being dissected on the Interwebs as we speak -- speculative fiction geeks love nothing more than to "get technical"), sending Guy B to waste Guy A with a blunderbuss just creates another killer, who may in turn need to be destroyed at a later date, producing endless ripples in the very system you're trying to curtail. However, I tend to think Johnson hedges his bets on this because these abstract, formal questions are not at all what Looper is about. Much like the crisis it creates in the (monetary) economy, time travel produces ruptures in the economies of desire between persons. How are our very subjectivities formed by the encounters we have, the people we have loved? And if we do certain things to destroy the lives of those we love, are we simply abiding by our own unalterable nature? When Joe (Gordon-Levitt) encounters Sara (Emily Blunt), the tragedy that will befall Old Joe (Willis) and his wife is already latent within him, a "future" that in some sense has both already happened, and lay in wait like a coiled snake ready to emerge and destroy everything. (It's not that Joe can't make different choices. It's that he will continue to make choices from within his own deeply flawed subject position. Can we change, divest ourselves from endless cycles of seemingly inevitable mistakes? Looper gives as a full-on existential answer: You cannot, and in embracing your incapacity, you have.
Cloud Atlas (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, U.S. / Germany / Hong Kong / Singapore)
Here's my write-up for Cinema Scope Online. Must say, I was fully expecting to loathe this and was shocked to find it not all that bad. It suffers from a kind of bloat that has nothing to do with expanding running time or misplaced ambition. Rather, the filmmakers have such an investment in The Project qua project that they cannot recognize that some parts (e.g., the Timothy Cavendish plot) really offer virtually nothing to the whole. In a way, one could say the same about Grindhouse, a project few would likely pair it with. But think about it: both are auteurist double-shots, struggling under the weight of their own conceptual bulk, both probably needing to have their best ideas expanded and, ultimately, set free. The true takeaway here is that the Wachowskis are far too talented to really require the huge budgets they've come to rely upon. They're crack, and they need to detox. Tykwer will just be Tykwer; he'll do some totally random other thing from here, a la Winterbottom.
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
I just happened to watch this film on a lark, and no one was more surprised than I was my its poignancy. Now granted, there is a considerable amount of silly humor one has to wade through in order to get to the good stuff. Frankly, I found just about everything in the Sigourney Weaver subplot to be shrill and painfully unfunny, but I understand why it's there. She's the woman from a previous generation who, we're meant to understand, didn't have feminism to guide her, but rather had to scratch and claw and blaze her own path. So although she made life (and unlife) much more comprehensible for those who came after her, she has now become selfish and imbittered. All the same, Vamps is the sort of film that I feel protective towards, and that I recommend reservedly. It takes a particular kind of viewer, one who isn't waiting to pounce on its flaws in order to cast is aside, but would rather look past its shortcomings and see just how freaking sad it is, how it speaks to history as a set of diminishing possibilities from which we are all excluded, as our reflection in the mirror fades into absolute transparency. Here's my long review for Cinema Scope.
Argo (Ben Affleck)
My review for the Scene. Inevitably minoritarian, and I can handle it. There's no denying that Argo is an effortlessly gripping yarn, but it just seems so, I don't know, stunted. Its mode of address is so firmly inside not only the foreign policy and the defensive jingoism of the late 70s (here comes Reagan...), but it achieves "authenticity" by adopting the cinematic point of view of 1970s Hollywood commercial-thrillers as well. While it may provide a nifty contact high to re-experience the Alan J. Pakula universe replicated with an uncanny knack for tone and detail, it also represents a deliberate choice to jettison all post-Reagan historical vantage. This, sadly, is more than a movie-nerd exercise. It's an act of political amnesia that connects because it reaffirms the "no apologies" counter-narrative even as it tries to give it a hopeless liberal spin. No dice.
Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
I haven't been in the practice of posting reviews of "old" new releases when I catch up to them late. (Aurora was released in the U.S. in the U.S. in 2011, and I never got around to it even though I had a copy since 2010.) But I happened to select it as the subject of my second "Big Ones" column for Fandor, mostly as a way of giving myself the extra nudge to finally watch it. I can't say that I was particularly impressed. Even though I'm in the minority by not considering Lazarescu to be a masterpiece, I certainly recognize its mastery, as well as its audacity.Aurora just seems like a failed experiment, if not an outright stunt. Here's my Fandor piece.
If I'm going to trust the going critical line, the reliable taste of my wife (who is generally a Burton fan), and the ten minutes I saw for myself, then Dark Shadows was a highly polished turd, something of a low for this increasingly rudderless auteur. I suppose I should take the time to discover more fully for myself, beyond those fussy, self-satisfied opening scenes, but there's just too much else to do, and I'm well past completism with Burton (even if I actually did find a bit more to admire in Alice in Wonderland than most other people I knew). I sort of held out hope that a side jaunt back into animation, along with a disinterment of one of his very earliest projects, might result in some sort of jolt of resuscitation. Sadly, no dice. It's not just that Frankenweenie is overstuffed and ponderous. It's that Burton is so blinkered by his own desire to replicate certain tropes and gestures of the classic Castle and James Whale monster movies that he seems to be constitutionally incapable of perceiving just how inert those homage fragments really are once he's plastered them across the screen. The mere presence of "old-timey horror" becomes a kind of self-congratulatory simulacrum here. To say that Burton neglects to make Frankenweenie fun is to state the obvious. But worse than this, his engagement with the empty signifiers of a great tradition is shallow and show-offy, with quotations and style / theme gags that are as pointlessly "there" for their own sake as, say, any time-stamped pop-culture zinger from a Shrek movie. I realize those are harsh words, but Burton is clearly so besotted with his own ability to toy with his favorite film-historical maneuvers (and to play with dolls to do it) that, on the evidence here, he never much cares whether an emotional whole ever coalesces. When we consider that Frankenweenie is a film about the very meaning of mortality -- whether death is forever, and how science can and should defeat superstition but must also monitor its own hubris -- it's simply remarkable just how little Burton puts at stake in this tedious slog of a film. (Compare Frankenweenie with ParaNorman which, for all its problems, actually cares about the social conundrums it broaches.) Even in terms of basic cinematic construction, Frankenweenie fails. The climax is inexplicably leaden, with five separate characters coping with five separate reanimated pets, all in clumsy cross-cut. The cutesy and the irksome (e.g., the unnamed "Weird Girl") are offered as sorry stand-ins for the macabre. And above all, Burton and company show us that 3-D doesn't work without color. The whole movie is a blobby haze, which is a crying shame. Tim Burton managed to coax thousands of young people into their very first black & white film (score!), and it was so cruddy that most of them won't see another one again, at least until college. Boo!