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)





Burn After Reading (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S. / U.K. / France)*

Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Gym Manager This was an instance in which I actively scoured other reviews, just looking, looking for some clue as to how anyone would begin to talk about this movie. And I guess it's pretty predictable. Ooh, it's mean, ooh, it's misanthropic, oh dear, the characters are cartoonish, my my, but there's next to nothing at stake in this empty little contraption. WHO. CARES. This film is endlessly, uproariously funny, and never stops generating new dimensions of witty stupidity for its four, or is it five, maybe six tragicomic fools caught in the dual snare of mislaid non-espionage and pseudo-urbane canoodling. So what if it has no "heart"? It never struck me as being actively mean, in the way that Todd Solondz or Neil LaBute movies or certain Alexander Payne movies are, wherein character foibles are clearly intended to skewer actual living individuals of a certain class background, educational opportunity status, or gender. These people don't exist. And yet, somehow, miraculously -- perhaps because Joel and Ethan have just come off of No Country and have been flexing different muscles at the gym -- Burn After Reading is gloriously tamped down in the outsized-caricature department. This is the anti-Ladykillers, and maybe that goddamned unwatchable trainwreck was just what they needed to cleanse their systems of those Gilliamesque whiz-kid toxins. So yes, John Malkovich is a preening horse's ass as Osborne Cox. Yes, George Clooney is one big macho malapropism as Harry Pfarrer. Frances McDormand is a daffy, lusty middle-aged woman not resigned to her fundamental mediocrity. Et cetera, et cetera. Brad Pitt is ambiguously gay, Tilda Swinton's an ice queen. Somehow in all this typage, only Swinton overplays it. (She's the only trained Brechtian of the bunch, it's worth noting -- the Hollywood makeover is going to be tough.) Everybody else nails it by holding back, inching right up to the edge of self-aware irony but conveying just enough subtlety to make the outrageousness pop. Aside from the endless FUCK. FUCK. FUCK.s, this is how they used to do screwball. I say this as someone who honestly never thought I would ever like another Coen Brothers film again, much less love one. I'm just flabbergasted. All hail the new Lebowski. [SECOND VIEWING: Still hilarious, just not as rhythmically tight as I remembered. But that's of very small concern.]




-Baby Mama (Michael McCullers)

It's the Sensible Center that holds Baby Mama together. Writer-director McCullers, whose best-known previous work featured Mike Meyers in a purple jacket crying, "Yeah, baby!" with a shit-eating Cockney smirk, is clearly working to elevate his stature, and only moderately succeeds. Baby Mama is seldom laugh-out-loud funny and almost never subversive. The sharpest, most savage lines are almost certainly ad libbed by their respective actors. But McCullers does have a few neat tricks up his sleeve. Refusing to dwell on Kate (Tina Fey) in the workplace but simply allowing the phony-freethinking, firmly inside-the-box vibe to manifest itself, lapping gently against the banks of the film as it were, shows tremendous restraint and works very well. Steve Martin is the closest thing to a gag in the Round Earth Market scenes, and he is never not amusing as the hippy-millionaire CEO, in part because he is allowed to just be Steve Martin in a white ponytail, phoning it in to an almost Brechtian degree. He's slumming a bit, as are Fey and Amy Poehler; they are operating just a few notches below their capabilities but again, this actually works. They don't show up the material when it's thin, and put it across the plate when it's genuinely witty, which is often. But the utility players -- Dax Shepard and Romany Malco -- are Baby Mama's lifeblood. In fact, it's high time both of these guys were huge comedy stars. Someday, when the 00s are a distant memory, and historians are struggling to figure us out -- Why Bush 43? People actually bought Carrie Underwood records? Ordinary motorists drove paramilitary vehicles that got that super-shitty gas mileage? "Creation Science?" -- these guys will stand as a testament to a faint, burbling resistance to Dane Cook and the Douchebag Nation he represents.


-The Juche Idea (Jim Finn) [v/m]

Is it possible to think about Actually Existing Communism without looking at it like some 8-Track player you found in a Goodwill store? This has been the tacit project in a number of recent projects by Jim Finn, whose work manages to carve out a space for honest appraisal of hardline Communist ideology without outright ridicule. In most cases, the ideas are their own best argument, and this is kind of the case in The Juche Idea, an open-text meditation / faux-document examining the film theory of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il. Kim's film jones is well-documented, but his ideas, which Finn presents in expanded English-translated excerpts throughout the film, never quite achieve liftoff. They speak about the need to address the concrete social situation, the importance of scientific materialism in cinema, the vitality of correct ideas. In short, they are cant, pure boilerplate post-Maoist Leninism, with some Confucianism thrown in. And, as Finn shows through careful dialectical juxtapositions, Kim seems to have left his prescriptions (if you'll permit me some dialectical mumbo-jumbo of my own) "specifically vague." That is, it would be equally easy for a political committee or a self-criticism tribunal to demonstrate that a given artist has violated the Juche precepts as it would for Kim and company to show that some favored director had followed them to the letter.


Finn never goes for the easy comic lay-up of showing Kim's megalomania or outright buffoonery. Instead, The Juche Idea adopts a strange, rather remote and even icy tone, not unlike American academic / semiotic video art of the 1980s and 90s, stuff like Sherry Millner, Julie Zando, Laura Kipnis, but especially Martha Rosler. Interspersed with elaborations on Juche philosophy are scenes of an ostensible North Korean artists' retreat, where South Korean / Japanese artist Yoon (Lee Jung Yoon) is making a video work that attempts to update the Juche principles. She is interviewed by a Russian (Daniela Kostova) about her work, day to day life in the retreat, and why she came to the North. Eventually the Russian starts dressing Yoon down for incorrect application of the Juche, and it becomes evident that what we are watching is in some sense (supposed to be) North Korean propaganda for the retreat, and a critique of Western decadence. (A third element in Idea, comprised of Korean and English lessons, strive too hard for the oddball humor of Finn's earlier Interkosmos, and feel out of place in this chilly environment.) Finn's approach copies the awkward affectlessness of an industrial video from a still-developing, somewhat isolated post-Cold War country that is nevertheless throwing all its resources toward what we are seeing before us. That Finn largely withholds commentary on what we're seeing and hearing is to his credit, since it's nearly impossible for viewers in the contemporary West to shut out the capitalist triumphalism and grave-dancing which usually disqualifies us from the empathy required of sound cultural history. At the same time, this admirable conceptual rigor tends to strand The Juche Idea, making it more of an artifact than a fully satisfying viewing experience per se. Still, how wonderful if all films had such "flaws."




-Elegy (Isabel Coixet)

After studiously avoiding The Secret Life of Words and bailing on My Life Without Me at the midway point, I thought maybe I was in the clear. But it would seem that, at the present time, Isabel Coixet is a cinematic fact of life. So I took the plunge, and I don't plan on doing so again. Elegy takes a Philip Roth novel (although by reliable accounts a minor one) and manicures it ever so tastefully into a middlebrow tea garden for aged pseudo-urbanites hungry to congratulate themselves for a level of wit and sophistication they don't actually possess. I mean, strip away all the NPR radio booths and bookshelf-lined apartments and dates at the off-off-Broadway theatre and the lecture hall with "Roland Barthes" scrawled across the blackboard, and what have you got? A smug, formulaic midlife crisis film, in which for example [SPOILERS] the best friend ups and dies on cue, or the young girlfriend informs the commitment-ophobe that her family's graduation party is really, really important to her and it means so much that you're coming instead of avoiding my family yet again, so I'm calling the night before just to remind you how important it is, and how our relationship hinges on your doing this, so listen, Ghandi, don't you show me up. YES, Grosvenor. YES, Rountree. YES, YES, YES! Sorry, had a bit of Kingsley Konfusion there for a minute. In any case, Elegy is sub-James L. Brooks / Lawrence Kasdan claptrap and concludes in the soapiest, most chauvinistic manner possible, by implying that good women suffer to bring bad men around at last. The worst part of this exercise is that this film is a showcase for exemplary acting, made all the more astonishing by the leaden material being transubstantiated. (Philip Lopate's pan in Film Comment dissed all the performers except Clarkson, which I found bizarre.) Kingsley is more than a beady cad; he wears the weary cloak of a lifetime of self-sabotage, his cultural privilege an end run around a deep emotional conservativism he himself cannot acknowledge. Clarkson and Sarsgaard are top notch. But it's Penélope Cruz, still shining from her victory in Volver, who continues to underplay her hand to winning advantage. Her Consuela could have been a sly, randy-professor's joke, but she has the bearing of a young woman who has discovered exactly who she is under circumstances that she herself knows will never be ideal. She's settling, not Kepesh, and I don't know if Roth or Coixet or screenwriter Nicholas Meyer -- if anyone but Cruz and Kingsley, really -- ever got the memo. These poor consumate professionals, trying to "subvert" their way out of a wet paper bag. Also, god damn it, Coixet actually uses that Arvo Pärt piece. I'm not even kidding.


Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, U.S. / Spain)

This is a film of paradoxes, and as such I found it rather difficult to evaluate. Allen's tale of two American postcollegiate women finding themselves on a trek through Spain is saddled with an intrusive, overwritten male voiceover that narrates the action from what seems, in tone and attitude, like the omniscient point of view of an argyle sweater or a helvetica placard. But then again, VCB is in some sense about a certain American puritanism and hyperanalysis entering the European landscape, so the film might have cause to sound like someone standing at a lectern reading his master's thesis. As "the Spaniards," Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are vibrant yet precise, providing not just a shot in the arm to the staid, desiccated Woody Allen universe, but a multi-pint blood transfusion. And, as was the case with Allen's last "comeback," the London-set Match Point, the new geography seems to have done Allen a world of good. But at the same time, there's no denying that Bardem and Cruz seem stranded in some better movie happening elsewhere, and in particular when they embark on their romantic threesome with Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), they inadvertently display not only what a parody of herself Johansson has become -- "the thinking man's sexpot," yeah, whatever -- but make a mockery of Allen's desire to take Cristina seriously as anything more than a privileged little dilettante. Allen, like some randy old professor, holds up a picture of his ideal undergrad crush, but makes the mistake of placing it next to two fully formed adults. Meanwhile, we discover that there's cheap bait for the rest of us. Woody Allen makes an oddly sexy twenty-something brunette. As Vicky, Rebecca Hall does manage to rein in the coached tics and polysyllabic bricks, but her thankless job is really to provide The Other Female Meat, Cristina's counterbalance in the old man's yin/yang sandwich. Make no mistake, there is a certain larky appeal here, watching Allen's team laze around Gaudí buildings and wooded villas, in the same loose, chummy way that Soderbergh's Ocean's films can be enjoyed as home movies from the elegant vacations of genuinely affable millionaires. But in the end, Barcelona (the "third lady," for crying out loud) is a kind of stunt double for itself, representing spicy foods and flamenco guitar in the Woodman's milquetoast imagination. That Bardem and Cruz pretty much blast through that nonsense every time they appear onscreen is entirely to their credit. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a "fun" film in the way that having all your dumbest ideas flattered and confirmed is fun. It's a con. Afterward, you feel sundazed, spent, and you wonder where your wallet went.