REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2013
All films from U.S.A. unless
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
In a review this long, it's a bummer to still have rather significant elements of the film that went unaddressed. But there was no way I could shoehorn in a mention of Wadjda's ethical dilemma regarding an incident she witnessed at school. Two of her schoolmates are caught by the headmistress applying nail polish in the courtyard, and that nail polish belongs to Wadjda. One girl quickly shoves it under the other girl's chador, which is then mistaken for a lesbian grope. The girls don't rat Wadjda out, but when given the opportunity to tell the headmistress what she saw (and fess up about the polish), she does not, resulting in the girls being publicly shamed as perverts. This is a particularly impressive bit of character shading on al-Mansour's part, since it shows that even the rebellious Wadjda is constrained by the internalized oppression of Saudi-style Islam. This subplot doesn't "go anywhere," but it does show that everyone in this situation has the potential to become like the headmistress, that no one is so extraordinary that we can reasonably expect them to act heroically on a daily basis. Here's my Nashville Scene review.
God Loves Uganda (Roger Ross Williams)
Not a lot to add to my Nashville Scene review, except to say that the film is surprisingly effective when all is said and done. And I say this as someone inherently skeptical of the pat, just-so-story form of PBS / ITVS documentaries. This one makes no bones about its anti-evangelical stance, and I think that's to its credit. Not that I am a fan of "bias," exactly. But I would much rather see a film stake out its position, which its viewers can then take with a grain of salt if they so desire. More often, documentaries hold to the journalistic model of objectivity when they are not objective by any stretch of the imagination, and only through close analysis can you see where their biases really are. In any case, I think there is something to Williams' thesis that evangelical missionaries are treating Uganda as a laboratory for social engineering. (The scene where IHOPpers encounter Ugandan Muslims, and can engage them only with rote platitudes, is particularly revealing. There was never any sense that these young people should be educated in cultural sensitivity, alternate theologies, anything, really, besides the Gospel.) This definitely gives the impression that the Religious Right is interested in empire-building, and is willing to ignore the possible costs. Regardless of where you come down on the LGBTQ rights vs. the Christian Warriors of Leviticus thing (and I think my readers know where and with whom I stand), Lou Engel lost any credibility he may have had by not speaking out immediately against a law that could potentially condemn gays to death.
I didn't feel the need to disclose this in my review, but just for the sake of 100% transparency: Osder and I went to college together in Florida. We hardly knew each other, but we were in some classes together and were on casual, party-nodding terms. I don't think this influenced my response to his film one iota (apart from a fond recognition that a former philosophy major from my alma mater had made good), so I think it's neither here nor there. One thing that I did not broach in the Scene review, partly because I wasn't sure how to articulate in in the space available, is Osder's decision to make a compilation doc, and some of its perhaps-unintended consequences. As former MOVE member Louise James makes clear throughout the post-raid hearing, everything that we see and hear has been conditioned by the System. The hearing itself, what is deemed admissible by White American jurisprudence, and the very texture of American corporate media, are all symbolic forms that militate against certain truths or belief systems making themselves heard. As I watched Let the Fire Burn, I felt my mind changing about previously-held attitudes regarding the 1985 raid. I always understood MOVE to be a Black Panthers-like separatist group with an urban-political agenda, and the Philadelphia action against them to be racism pure and simple. Learning more about them in this film, it seemed evident that, unlike the Black Panthers, MOVE had many of the trappings of a cult. But I also wonder if this is the only impression that can come through when Osder's film is, for the most part, comprised of "official" history? MOVE did not believe in technology, and apart from their semi-literate manifesto, they tended to express themselves in a flurry of F-bombs and epithets. It's possible that MOVE needed to express something that could not be registered within the customary channels of 20th century documentation, and that as a result, Osder could only depict them as an enigma. But it's equally possible that such a claim on MOVE's behalf is special pleading. I just don't know. The review.
Grenier's latest video begins with a wide-angle shot of an active body of water, the titular Fall Creek in Ithaca, New York. We see light glistening off the water, and a rippling current winding its way toward the upper left hand corner of the screen. Although the frame of reference is broadly filled with a uniform motion and texture, Grenier's composition and camera angle are set so that the pull of the creek is drawing the water upwards in subtle ways. That is, one can read the image within a kind of ambidextrous modernism, as a flat field, generative of all-over white and gray patterns, or as a representation of flow, with its particular expansion and drift. Almost immediately, though, something else happens. In the center-right of the image, Grenier begins a slow fade-in from another time (although possibly the same place). This flat gray irregularity in the image, like a liver spot of placidity amidst the undulating waves, grows larger, moves "east" and gradually overtakes the original shot. It is a strangely lovely effect, and it builds on the spatial and painterly concepts Grenier been exploring over the last decade, within many different contexts. But in this case, the movement between fields and spaces is particularly interesting with respect to creating pockets of depth within the image. Because of the overt subject matter (moving water in a creek, in different directions), these depth differentials can be read literally, as encroaching sinkholes or folds in the lake bed (which "don't make sense" but are optically legible anyway), or as pure effects of surface and depth.We may try to move back and forth between representational viewing and abstract looking, or even to hold both sensory attitudes at once. But is this possible? Some of Grenier's most well-composed and potentially revelatory visual connections between textures and spaces rely on fades or superimpositions, and these often feel a bit hurried, as though 'getting somewhere' were as important as an unfolding, meditative experience. To cite another example, a later image-effect such as the reflections of vertical poles in the water, working against the more organic flow of the water, was a remarkable find. The poles set up a kind of architecture that expands or contracts within "pools," one zone bleeding into another but very systematically. The only thing that gave me pause about the piece was that the use of fades was so overt at times that spaces didn't always have time to meld. I realize this might be a minority opinion, but I think this piece could have moved more slowly in places and been twice, even three times the length. But I often think everything should be slower.
Here's my extended review for Cinema Scope. It's very strange that this has proven to be one of Dumont's most divisive films since, on its face, it is one of his most straightforward, "mellow" efforts. But as I tried to show (in my inimitably long-winded manner), there are a lot of unquestioned assumptions lurking beneath the surface of CC'15. And in fact those assumptions serve as the foundation for everything else Dumont (and Binoche) strive to accomplish. It's highly problematic. But of course, it isn't to be dismissed lightly, and that's why Dumont remains one of my pantheon filmmakers despite having made three films now that I really do not like.
After a certain amount of spectatorial ambivalence -- Is this an inept film, or is this a meticulous approximation of the sort of seamy, sub-Hollywood trash that its characters would themselves produce and star in? Is this a cheap-ass B-picture funded by an uninsurable actress on the ropes, or a representation of the inseparable faux-realities of "cheap life" and "cheap movie" for a certain class of L.A. wannabe and hanger-on, their existence drained of all promise and leaving behind only the husk of faded glamour, an infinite sunburned hell? -- I not only got the point. I got genuinely sad. And it wasn't an edifying kind of sad. It was a numbing, unengaged kind of pity, like I was both bored and working overtime to problematize my boredom, the privileged position that allowed me to stand outside the car crash and permit me to look on. Having said that, there is a conversation between Lindsay Lohan's character and her secret lover at the 18 minute mark, taking place (appropriately) on a concrete bench outside at a mall. All the Lohan we've been missing, all the talent and pain and intelligence comes through in this scene, despite hackneyed dialogue and the challenge of playing her scene opposite a chunk of wood. She's still in there.