SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, SEPTEMBER 2003
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 Toronto IFF. For those, lookie here.]
American Splendor (Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman)
Having read a bit about the movie beforehand, I fully expected its clever self-reflexive touches and its fiction / documentary hybridity. What really surprised me was just how lovely the first half of the film is. The fact that Pulcini and Berman can shoot on location in contemporary Cleveland, and then throw up a perfectly plausible title card indicating we are in the 1970s, simply emphasizes that the Rust Belt truly is a period piece as is. (That’s how Syracuse certainly is, a land time forgot – the haircuts, the clothes, the drive-in motor banks, the Arthur Treacher’s locations they forgot to close, etc.) Yet one can locate poetry amidst the decay, both in Pekar’s work and in the industrial Midwest as a whole, and Splendor’s unobtrusive but penetrating camerawork and lighting schemes serve to bring the grungy sepia to life. The less impressionistic, more biopicky second half gets a little rote, especially in light of the offhand beauty of the first. Also, I remember the infamous Letterman appearance quite a bit differently, but I could be wrong.
“The Hardest Button to Button” [video for The White Stripes] (Michel Gondry) [v/s]
Far better than the Legos, this is the Logos. Structural film with a kick-drum. Meg reduced to the design motif she probably is. This was cool.
-Bolivia (Israel Adrián Caetano, Argentina)
The qualities of the grainy B&W photography come across even on video, and the characters, such as they are, compel a certain attention. Despite the fact that they exist inside a rather overdetermined plot, there is a natural ease with which they move about in the film. This is partly because Caetano for the most part refuses to psychologize them, so we’re forced to read them from their hesitant gestures, hard glares, and resigned shrugs. Many elements (both formal and narrative) signal Caetano’s youthful lack of finesse, but there are more than a few resonant, poetic nuggets inside the soft shell.
-Double Vision (Chen Kuo-fu, Taiwan)
There are some films which I like, despite a conscious recognition that on most discernible levels they are not very good. I’m not talking about cult films or “so-bad-they’re-good” stinkers, but films like this one, which in many ways is a straight-down-the-line mediocrity. Its best ideas seem to be cribbed from other sources, like “The X-Files” or Se7en or Cure or even, jesus, The Crimson Rivers. But I liked it. It is utterly modest in its ambitions, is almost always visually lovely (much better than Avid-happy horror crap like The Eye), and manages to pull some genuine twists out of its well-worn pocket. There is something downright off about the two lead performances, and I am too interested in their awkward delivery to write them off as bad acting. David Morse blusters about as the American fish out of water, but it’s a quiet, mournful, resigned sort of blustering. Tony Leung Ka Fai (the man Mike D’Angelo has called “The Other Tony Leung”) alternates between the hangdog cop thing and the haunted-by-regret cop thing, but neither makes itself especially felt. The film keeps getting ridiculous and then it sort of pulls itself back into near-legitimacy. I feel like I’m writing myself into a lower grade, but I’m sticking to my guns here. Why, I do not know.
Carnages (Delphine Gleize, France / Spain / Belgium / Switzerland)
Early in Carnages Gleize pulls of a startling graphic match which sets formal and ideational standards very high, and sadly she doesn’t come close to delivering on the promise. I hesitated before giving this film a 4 (my “lowercase con” zone), since I found myself affording the film a grudging respect. Its ostentatiously larky premise pretty much adopts the hoary Europudding arthouse saw – “we are all connected by invisible lines of fate, yadda yadda” – in order to mock it as a load of bull. And yet, with its clinical detachment, its underlined narrative mysteries, its lack of discernible humor, and its irritatingly showy formal moves (slow zooms, rack focus, and the like) which pretty much shout “first film” at the top of both lungs, I simply didn’t enjoy watching it. Despite the film’s obvious trappings of “quality,” I have to listen to the Little Man inside. [Points for Unintended Conceptual Rigor: the Village East 5 in NYC, where I saw this, was cold as a meat locker.]
The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, U.K.)
Sometimes, when I feel that a film is making points with which I am inclined to agree, but doing it badly, in a propagandistic, shamelessly manipulative manner, I find myself sympathizing with the villains against my will. Mullan’s film is so completely ensconced in contemporary values and moral outrage that it fails to convincingly demonstrate how a worldview such as that of the Magdalene Order could exist. We never get a sense of the interlocking propositions of this particular variety of Catholicism, and its sexist and determinist assumptions. We get cheap close-ups of the venal Mother Superior fondling wads of cash. We get bizarre S/M humiliation games played by the nuns at the expense of their charges. We get a childlike mental-deficient, whose suffering is proffered as a sop to any moviegoers who find the other girls’ psychologies too conflicted or ambivalent to serve as suitably abject victims. We essentially get a non-stop battery of ever-escalating violences and victimizations, bludgeoning the audience and cheapening the real-life story Mullan wants to tell. His outrage at the church largely blinds him to the gender issues at work in this narrative, and the fact that his melodramatic representation of the prisoners’ plight leaves nothing for the spectator but self-congratulatory tsk-tsking at those Bad Old Nuns. In the end, we have something rather pornographic, and I doubt that was the intent.