SILENT LIGHT — Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 10 (upgraded from 9)
I got really down over the death of Tartan Films and thus the distribution limbo imposed on at least two masterpieces — SILENT LIGHT and YOU, THE LIVING — but there’s cause for rejoicing this week. New York’s Museum of Modern Art began Wednesday a one-week run for SILENT LIGHT. Besides giving me an incentive to care about finishing this essay, much of which has been sitting in my draft folder since FilmFestDC back in May, the MoMA run also makes it eligible for a certain film poll and far more importantly gives filmgoers in at least one US city a chance to see this great film in the only way it should be — in a theater. The New York Times (thanks Manohla Dargis; almost all is forgiven over JUNO) wrote a rapturous review and, according to an exhibitor I know, interest among other distributors in perking up. But if you live in or near New York, you owe it to yourself to see this film; you will not see a better one this year. And perhaps New Yorkers also owe it to the rest of the country to show a distributor that a potential audience does exist for SILENT LIGHT.
Now, no sane person (though Jonathan Rosenbaum has yet to be heard from) is under any illusion that SILENT LIGHT could be another DARK KNIGHT or even a potential LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. And I realize all the critical heavy breathing that follows may not make SILENT LIGHT seem like the most entertaining movie ever. And in a certain sense of “entertaining,” the film obviously isn’t entertaining. It’s definitely slow and meditative, but I do think it does suck you in, partly because the plot is so simple and unadorned (and thus readily accessible), with characters defined as archetypes without being limited to them, but also partly because it’s so drop-dead gorgeous to look at. Director Carlos Reygadas never seems to force anything on us, but somehow everything is there on the surface anyway, so the praise from snooty critics shouldn’t turn people off. SILENT LIGHT is as mesmerizing and hypnotic as a film gets — and I speak as someone myself who isn’t automatically a fan of this sort of “transcendental” film (I’m convinced “Bresson” is French for “boring”). And I was turned on to the film by a Cannes report from Mike D’Angelo, who has similar inclinations, calling himself “the sort of Neanderthal film buff who generally prefers traditional narratives to beatific tone poems.”
Just consider the title for a moment, and its two words — “silent” and “light.” The title tells you it’s a quiet, religious film (rhymes with S—– N—-). Then consider the universal fact of all films — that they unspool and thus only exist in time, a point emphasized in this case by the most obvious fact about the existential experience of watching the film — that SILENT LIGHT is slow. But lastly, SILENT LIGHT’s surface plot is an unapologetically old-fashioned morality tale about an adulterous affair, set in a small religious community of Mennonites in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua. It basically tells the story of SUNRISE — of a man who strays from his marriage and is brought back by a rainstorm-threat to his wife’s health. (WARNING: There be explicit plot spoilers after the jump, in the context of thematic discussion.)
BURN AFTER READING — Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2008, 8
I wish it could mean more for me to say that I liked BURN AFTER READING more than I ever have liked a Coen brothers comedy (list below is updated to reflect), setting aside one or two tonal missteps mostly involving reaction shots from Clooney producing flashbacks from the detestable O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. Though in a very different tonal vein, BURN tells the same story as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN — the chaos unleashed when ordinary people engage in criminal scheming in a bid for social mobility. In fact, going back to RAISING ARIZONA for the basic plot and to BLOOD SIMPLE for the irony of a crime that’s all one big misunderstanding, BURN is as “typical” as a Coens movie gets.
Richard Schickel once made the point about Preston Sturges’s political comedies (THE GREAT McGINTY and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO) that they are so funny because Sturges — an American raised abroad and thus both an insider and an outsider at the same time — could see the American politician for what he timelessly is (a venal windbag) without a shred of conviction that he could be redeemed by being more liberal or more conservative. Ask yourself, what party did Everett Noble (the mayor in CONQUERING HERO) belong to? I don’t think I’d compare the Coen brothers to Sturges (they’re more the children of Billy Wilder), but they’ve certainly never given any sense in any of their previous films that there’s a partisan or ideological bone in either of their bodies.
The Coens could not be more explicit that they view politics sub specie aeternitatis in BURN AFTER READING, which both begins and ends with a God’s-eye POV, descending from above the earth into the CIA at the start, and then ascending back from the CIA at the end. It’s a conceit worthy of Kubrick — the whole tone of DR. STRANGELOVE and the final title card of BARRY LYNDON (another movie about social climbing). And just as that POV enabled STRANGELOVE to turn the death of 3 billion people into a cosmic joke, this is a very obviously “movie” movie (more on that later) where death is more serious to the characters but a joke for the viewers.
(Title explains this post, I think … I was asked a question about film direction by my friend Mark.)
I wrote about some of what I consider makes a great director in this post here in the specific context of what I describing what I mean by calling Michael Haneke the world’s greatest pure director — an opinion I hold quite devoutly.
For those who don’t want to hit the link — what makes a director great in my view is his style (after all, as the cliche goes — there are only seven stories anyway). Or to be more exact, a great director uses his formal control over the medium in precise and specific ways. He resists cliche by creatively using all or as many as possible of the tools at his disposal. For example, I praised Steve McQueen’s direction of a scene of someone eating breakfast because I’ve never seen anyone eat breakfast this way. The director’s task is to get you to respond in the ways the film wants or needs you to. Or in Hitchcock’s phrase — direction is “playing the audience like a piano.”
(The embedding isn’t gonna work, so, you’ll have to go here for the example.)
If you go to the comparison early on in this Siskel & Ebert special of the two versions of THE LADY VANISHES, I think Ebert is overstating the importance of black-and-white specifically, though he’s right that in the Cybill Shepard remake, the scene does look more like a travelogue. But that’s why the color scene is badly directed although much more realistic and “beautiful” in a picture-postcard sense. This is the moment (I should speak only of Hitchcock’s version) where the film turns from a comedy into a thriller, when a character falls asleep and wakes up to notice the English lady has vanished. You want something at that moment slightly surreal, something transitional, something forceful. Shepard is more glamorous than Margaret Lockwood and the color-film’s old woman is a far more naturalistically believable actor than the black-and-white one, and that’s why they’re both inferior. You want an everyman (or everywoman in this case) in the first instance and someone more coldly villainous in the second. THE LADY VANISHES is the kind of nightmare that it is because Hitch’s cutting and framing, and the choice of performers, make it that.
I figured after I wrote that this reply to a commenter was also detailed enough for a post … basically what do I think of the Variety review of HUNGER, which was the best fillum I saw at Toronto, and its specific complaint of trite symbolism.
[HUNGER] stumbles in film’s last furlough with trite symbolism. Pic’s slow pace and uncompromising physicality may choke off some auds, but “Hunger” should pull in arthouse auds in moderate numbers domestically and travel offshore. …
[Director Steve] McQueen really overeggs the pudding  in the final reel, where (and this is no spoiler for anyone glancingly versed in Sands’ story) the protagonist wastes away, the camera focusing intimately on his bedsores and emaciated frame. Tawdry, cliched images include Sands’ vision of himself as a child sitting in the room, topped by a near final image of a flock of birds — free at last! — that seemingly symbolizes his soul’s last flight. It’s a disappointing last gasp for a film that otherwise demonstrates confidence, guts and the abundant promise of its helmer.
I think it’s pretty wack to accuse HUNGER of trite symbolism, though I agree with some of the other reservations that a trade publication may have — that its “slow pace and uncompromising physicality” (two of its greatest virtues IMHO) means it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. In fact, this seems a case of a critic getting a film without getting it, since those two features are exactly why the third act doesn’t commit trite symbolism (something I’m usually on guard against).
Any time the Coen Brothers come up among cinephiles or even moderately-conversant moviegoers, there seems to come over everyone a need to rank their films in order of preference.
More than any other film-makers, the Coen Brothers really offer a Rohrshach test for one’s own personality, because (and I’m indebted to Scott Tobias for this point) they nearly always make movies that are “perfect” with respect to their conceptions. And so one is primarily reacting to the film’s conception as an individual and not its execution as a critic. So … and keeping in mind I’ve seen all their movies except the latest BURN AFTER READING, here’s my list. And so, here’s my list updated to reflect BURN AFTER READING, which stunned me with how good it was.
- No Country for Old Men
- Blood Simple
- Burn After Reading
- Miller’s Crossing
- The Man Who Wasn’t There
- The Big Lebowski
- The Ladykillers
- Intolerable Cruelty
- Barton Fink
- The Hudsucker Proxy
- Raising Arizona
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The big gaps here are between 3 and 4, which has a big dropoff from “masterpiece” to “pretty good,” and then between 5 and 6, 6 and 7, which separates “pretty good” and “wildly uneven,” and 8 and 9, 9 and 10, which drops off from “uneven” to “don’t like even a little.”
Looking over this list, I’m pretty confident I will not care for BURN AFTER READING because I love the Coens’ crime movies and dislike (the point of detesting in some cases) their comedies, which I mostly consider to be too-clever-for-their-own-good snarkfests and too hit-and-miss (in LEBOWSKI: John Goodman and the funeral scene, great; Julianne Moore and JAY-zoos, no). Though I absolutely WILL see BURN, because I know that no matter how much I hated their last one (though I thought their last one was last year’s best film), the next one could always be a corker.
First of all … I have finished below the Day 8 capsules with CLOUD 9 and I will do the Day 9 and 10 capsules over the next few days, though frankly there’s no “holy crap, dude” films in that mix (only two as high as 7 and none higher … though now that I think, CHOCOLATE actually IS a “holy crap, dude” film, albeit in a more literal sense than the sense of a great film).
So here’s the best films I saw over the fest, the 9s and 8s, ranked in order of preference.
- HUNGER (Steve McQueen, Britain) — 9
- REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, Austria) — 9
- THE SILENCE OF LORNA (the Dardenne brothers, Belgium) — 9
- DETROIT METAL CITY (Toshio Lee, Japan) — 9
- HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain) — 8
- GOODBYE SOLO (Ramin Bahrani, USA) — 8
- STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) — 8
- A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France) — 8
- LAST STOP 174 (Bruno Barreto, Brazil) — 8
- SOUL POWER (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA) — 8
So I saw 10 “definite keeper” films this year, though some of the 7s are also quite excellent and better than the 8s in some ways but had flaws too great to overlook — THE BROTHERS BLOOM, ASHES OF TIME, e.g.. That 10 was down from last year’s 13, but still quite impressive compared to the low expectations that the year’s earlier festivals had produced. (Though it was made quite clear to me by Noel, Mike and others that I may be alone in thinking DETROIT METAL CITY is a great movie.)
What’s also encouraging is that four of the top six films are by directors new to my popped-out eyeballs. The top two are clearly by great directors, in command of the medium and it’s only McQueen’s first film (it’s also Lee’s first film, though I wouldn’t credit him so much). Bahrani and Spielmann also have some body of work behind them — at least Bahrani’s two previous films have been spoken well of, and Spielmann has a substantial credit list at the IMDb, though I don’t know how much of it is significant (Herr Huber?).
A WOMAN IN BERLIN (Max Farberbock, Germany, 2008) — 7
It doesn’t take a genius or a German-speaker to realize this film, which follows one woman and her neighbors for about a week during the fall of Berlin to the Soviets at the tail end of WW2, has had one word dropped from its German title. And the “Anonymous” strikes me as important (though we learn the story about this story at the end of the film, via title cards), because one of the things A WOMAN IN BERLIN is about is how shame can even follow actions done in-extremis. Nina Hoss plays the titular heroine and her performance here and in JERICHOW make her the TIFF Acting MVP. The performances in similar in their understated interiority with more than a touch of sullenness (this still actually embodies her performance quite well). Waz calls her performance in JERICHOW “wooden” (though in a complimentary way) and he’s not wrong: both roles are fundamentally about women keeping their heads down as they negotiate their status as sex commodities, which Hoss, certainly here, doesn’t play as “sexy.” It’s been a fact of war since THE ILIAD that victorious soldiers often seize or rape the defeated party’s women as a spoil of war and that women will try to avoid this via accommodations that we’d not hesitate to call whoring or concubinage in other circumstances, and is sometimes explicitly called that here. In fact, A WOMAN IN BERLIN is actually the first film in history to make me consider for a second (only a second) the radical-feminist position that all sex under patriarchy is rape as anything other than the rantings of the certifiable. But it’s more complicated than that — this film also shows that even actions taken in-extremis and under a structure of sin still objectively shape our souls. After all keep in mind, and A WOMAN IN BERLIN makes a couple of nods toward it including a dance scene, that the odious regime of East Germany will be built on the ashes that we see being created. “We have to be practical, Herr Hoch. Things will get better.” There is one scene — and all I’ll say is that it involves an apple pie — where the women of the building talk about Russian and German men in ways that I, at least, could hardly believe. The female Russian soldier that we see frankly has not a shred of sex solidarity. A WOMAN IN BERLIN is not a great film because it’s a bit too predictable and pat (though I was surprised and throat-frogged by the one suicide), though this actually may help its aim to be a LIVES OF OTHERS-type breakout German hit. (The audience I saw it with certainly liked it a lot.) It’s not as good as LIVES, but it could be a US hit; it’s certainly better than most of the more-accessible foreign films I saw and it’s more accessible than the most of the better foreign films I saw.
GIGANTIC (Matt Asselton, USA, 2008) — 2
When GIGANTIC was over, Missy Schwartz sitting next to me whispered words to me to the effect of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and I whispered back to her “makes the Coen Brothers look look De Sica.” As Pauline Kael once wrote about I-forget-what, GIGANTIC’s Bizarroworld contrivances feel more like “the captions a bright teen might write under a photograph” than a script. Caption contests can be funny or sustain a three-or-four-frame comic strip, but they really can’t sustain a feature-length movie. GIGANTIC is the sort of Indiewood comedy that ultimately quirks itself to death: the protagonist is a 28-year-old single man who has wanted to adopt a Chinese baby since he was 8 (this is as close to a central throughline as GIGANTIC has); a scientist dips his sandwiches in a mayonnaise jar and drinks blue athlete-concoction out of a chemistry-class beaker; a homeless man tries to kill the protagonist three or four times without the slightest explanation; a mattress salesman, **while trying to sell to clients** uses the n-word and the m-f word in his sales pitch; a business meeting takes place at a massage parlor where the three men are lined up in a row being obviously masturbated; a family ritual involves busting pinatas painted like political dictators. There is exactly one laugh in the movie: One character says “What’s a Countach,” the other responds “it’s a Lamborghini … (pauses to think) … it’s a car.” (I have now saved you the price of admission.) Anyone who criticized Sally Hawkins’s performance in HAPPY GO-LUCKY as too *much* is invited to look at Zooey Deschanel’s collection of quirks as the girlfriend here, to repent and to come to me for absolution. Anyone who complained of Paul Dano’s performance in THERE WILL BE BLOOD as bland and diffident is invited to look at Dano here, to repent and to come to me for absolution. I am available at 3 pm Saturdays, an hour before each Mass and by appointment.
How is a movie like this possible? There is an exchange late in the movie between Dano’s mother and Deschanel (we’re talking about a girl who casually mentions being a prostitute the first time she meets Dano). The mother assumes the sage worldly tone of girl talk on the balcony looking out on the street at sunset, which clearly indicates Author’s Message, and says that “nothing’s normal.” There was a scene in REVANCHE where the identical point is made — well, it was in German and my notes on the subtitle actually say “this is perfectly normal.” (And however the constructions look, “everything is normal” is “nothing is normal” are actually the same thought.) But the REVANCHE line was said by a prostitute as she was snorting coke, which led me to think that perhaps it was ironic, and the film played out in the way I described below. A movie as aggressively ridiculous as GIGANTIC is only possible because the very notion of normality is now suspect — it marginalizes difference and reinforces the status quo by privileging its contingent normativities, you understand. Maybe I should go see BURN AFTER READING this week and get back to something realistic and normal.
CLOUD 9 (Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2008) — 7
Let’s deal right away with the central “selling” fact of this movie about an adulterous liaison (see the festival guidebook, e.g.) — that it has some fairly explicit sex scenes involving characters in their 60s or 70s. Wags have already riffed off a current Canadian film and dubbed this one OLD PEOPLE FUCKING, though the couple of scenes, and they happen quite early, are not even close to hard-core, and barely soft-core IMHO. The thing is that while not deliberately disgusting a la Greenaway, the scenes are not a turn-on and so very obviously not intended to be that it was difficult for me to be offended by them. There are “good” reasons pornographers prefer young performers, but beyond that, CLOUD 9 is simply not directed as an erotic turn-on — Dresen uses a close-up heavy, Dogme-influenced style with long takes and natural light that is too matter-of-fact for the manipulations of porn. The film’s interest also extends far beyond the sex scenes — indeed, the most cynical part of me thinks that maybe the scriptwriter thought he had done his duty and could now make something interesting (OK, the sex is outta the way … let me get to the story, now). The adulterous liaison is discovered (a story like this really had no other place to go), but how it is discovered is not. Wife Ilse simply tells her boring but unsuspecting husband Werner without “having” to, simply for honesty’s sake about her and lover Karl. The scenes that follow are brilliant — worthy of Bergman’s marital quarrels in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Old hurts having nothing to do with the adultery at hand (“I raised your kids,” e.g.) are dredged up, and they sting worse and maybe in part because they’re true. Ursula Werner sobs for apparently minutes on end and hits the right emotional notes through her tears in a manner worthy of Ullmann. When Ilse tells their daughter about the liaison and her plans to move in with Karl (whose acts like a little puppy), we get this perfect exchange: “What was I supposed to do, lie to him? / Exactly.” There is a reason the confessional is private. Indeed, late during the film I remember thinking to myself, “Ilse and Karl are played emotionally exactly as if they were in her 10s or 20s,” which in some ways could be the point: authenticity is the shackles of youth, to paraphrase REM. But I though why make this story, well-done though it is, about old people — and then the last plot point answered my question. Among young lovers, it would have been unbelievable; not among 70-year-olds.
STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008) — 8
Seeing this film one day after A CHRISTMAS TALE, I realized that I couldn’t recall seeing two films so similar to each other in such a time frame while having no obvious immediate connection, either in terms of auteurial or other-talent influence or in terms of topical subject matter. Adult children visit the grandparents, with the kids in tow for an annual memorial for the death of a sibling. And the resentments and disappointments presided over by the memory of a dead child get played out. In other words, the reverse premise of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, and Kore-eda does frequently use Ozu-like “pillow shots” of things like factories as breathing spots between events and at the start of the 2nd day, like another director might use a fade to black. But Kore-eda frames actions in multiple planes within the image (kids playing bust the watermelon in the foreground oblivious to what’s going on at the dinner table in the background) more than I recall Ozu doing. And at an earlier screening, Kore-eda reportedly said in a Q-and-A that his family resembled more a Naruse film than an Ozu.
But compared to the Desplechin, Kore-eda works from the better script, I think, or certainly the less-contrived one. The family in STILL WALKING puts on a better show of finding one another tolerable, keeping up appearances and social avoidances — like turning the channel when the TV mentions a dead child. All of which is frankly far more believable than the open hatreds in the Desplechin family (e.g., why would Mathieu Amalric even show up, if this is how he feels about them or they him). One example: the line “so, how did you feel when your dad died” is said by one child to another. Children, who haven’t learned the social graces and filters, can talk that way believably; adults really can’t (and Desplechin’s film is full of lines at that level of either cluelessness or unbelievable cruelty). There are occasions in STILL WALKING when adults do say that kind of thing, for example a scene in which a (notably cranky) character talks about the difficulties of arranging marriages in a set of circumstances that just happens to also be the circumstances of another couple in the room. Kore-eda’s camera and actors act more disturbed, as though propriety has been breached. And the moments of open cruelty take place outside the victim’s ear — for example, the grandmother’s explanation (“maybe the gods will punish me; so be it”) for why she invites the man whose life her dead son saved to the memorial each year. Or they take place for only the victim’s ear — like the record of “Yokohama.” In other words, bitchiness is present in STILL WALKING but not the norm or is contained in believable ways. Still, Kore-eda’s direction isn’t nearly as lively as Desplechin’s. And combined with the lack of a through-line and the one-too-many resolutions at the end, this keeps WALKING below the category of Kore-eda’s best (NOBODY KNOWS and AFTER LIFE)
ADAM’S RESURRECTION (Paul Schrader, USA, 2008) — 3
EDEN LOG (Franck Vestiel, France, 2008) — 5
WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU (Brian Goodman, USA, 2008) — 6
CHOCOLATE (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2008) — 7
(Because Day 7′s six capsules included the two longest and most involved by far, I decided to break the day into two parts for blog readability’s sake.)
HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2008) — 8
Very early on, central character “Poppy” gets the ultimate symbol of cinematic misery imposed on her — her bicycle is stolen. But her only visible reaction is to make Italian lemonade, saying she “didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it.” And the title sequence — both in its choice of music and its frame-shifting strategies — put me in mind of one of those Doris Day romantic comedies from the early-60s. So, Sally Hawkins as the titular HG-L High-On-Life heroine Poppy is a bit of a “dafty” or a “doo-lally-sally” who speaks without thinking (a type I was quite familiar with among working-class Britons). Mike says his reaction was repulsion at her relentless chipperness followed by an exercise in Leigh chastising his audience for being so repulsed. I had the almost perfectly 180-degree reaction — that we don’t find her offputting so much as unrealistic and un-grown-up (more on all that shortly), and that the film is about pushing her to the point where she finally has to … I will speak vaguely … use force, impose herself and act like an adult.
The central relationship in the film turns out to be between Poppy and her driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan, and I think one’s reaction to HAPPY GO-LUCKY turns on how one reacts to this character. Four or five lengthy scenes in this episodic movie involving Poppy and him in the car. Scott is a boor in many respects, and by the end he’s completely gone off the rails, partially as a result of starting to fall in love with Poppy, who represents everything he detests. But mixed in with some of the bizarre rants (my favorite involved tinfoil-hat talk about the height of the Washington Monument), he says some uncomfortably true things about Poppy — the only character in HAPPY GO-LUCKY to do so, in fact: “all I ask is that you behave like an adult,” he rants at her after one of her do-lally jokes while driving. And by the end of HAPPY GO-LUCKY, Poppy has had to use force and threat against him, had to act in the “toughlove” way the therapeutic society rejects as patriarchal violence. I think Leigh has made a movie about the damage from the collapse of patriarchy (though as I acknowledged to Mike in a personal discussion, if he did so, he did so almost certainly inadvertantly). There is a discussion involving Poppy and her girlfriends in which they note there are no good men around, or if they are they’re hiding or “haven’t got the balls” to appear. And indeed, there is not an attractively effectual male in this movie — Marsan’s anger representing pre-therapy masculinity in a post-therapy world; Poppy’s brother-in-law, a childlike father-to-be who seeks or subverts his wife’s permission to play video games; Popp’s pupil who bullies the other kids because he’s abused at home by his mother’s live-in boyfriend; that (offscreen) boyfriend, who is not the child’s father, natch; the (offscreen) lover of the flamenco dancer. The only possibly attractive male character is Poppy’s late-acquired boyfriend Tim. The problem dramatically is that Samuel Roukin’s performance and/or Leigh’s conception of the character, while not bad per se, is utterly bland and uninteresting in the presence of dynamos like Scott and Poppy. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a (kind of) romantic triangle, but with one iddy-biddy teeny-tiny leg (imagine a HIS GIRL FRIDAY in which Ralph Bellamy gets Roz Russell — only more so). On the other hand, if Tim is intended to represent a “happy ending” in this respect, then Leigh also badly miscalculated the ideas he was playing with. To put it simply and crudely, if traditional masculinity has collapsed, then a social worker who fornicates on the first date is only more of the same.
But there are flaws in this generally great film (I haven’t even mentioned the funniest scene — involving Poppy’s taking flamenco lessons from a dance instructor who really gets INTO the dance’s emotions), and they are Leigh returning to his some of the tics that drag down even his best films. After making the best-acted film of his career in VERA DRAKE, the one-scene really-overcooked wtf? performance makes its return — a rambling homeless man in this case, joining the guy who never opened his eyes in CAREER GIRLS at head of the Hall of Shame. And the anti-climactic coda that half-heartedly reconciles the last scene with the status quo antebellum (think LIFE IS SWEET, ALL OR NOTHING or SECRETS AND LIES) also makes a comeback. And while I think Marsan’s performance is brilliant, I well understand that some sane people (see Mike above but also Michael Sicinski) see the performance as way over-the-top. Which it is in a way, but does not account for how carefully it builds from one week’s lesson to the next, as his own motivation shifts. We’re seeing the all-heterosexual version of Gay Panic on display here, and subtlety is not what’s called for.
A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008) — 8
The actual title for this film could just as easily and accurately be translated “A Christmas Story,” but anybody who expects anything resembling Ralphie’s boyhood memories will be disappointed. This is the family gathering from hell. A passive-aggressive (but not too passive) matriarch with an anti-Semitic streak¹ to boot is dying of some form of cancer that requires a transplant, and the only compatible donor in the family is the semi-estranged son, until one of her grandchildren turns out to be compatible, too. That grandchild is of course the son of another sibling, a woman who despises her mom-compatible-in-this-way-only brother, and this is both a literal bone of contention and a metaphor for all the bones strewn about this graveyard of a family (and one of the most important characters in this family dynamic is in a literal graveyard.) There are other family members gathering for the Christmas reunion, all of whom resent the other family members (or hate one or two in particular), and lots of brittle bitchiness ensues. A CHRISTMAS TALE is enormously entertaining along those lines, like ALL ABOUT EVE or something by Baumbach or Stillman. But what keeps A CHRISTMAS TALE from greatness, though it is my favorite Desplechin so far and is superb in every aspect of execution, is that this is a family that fundamentally is happy in its unhappiness. It doesn’t really feel like much is at stake, as all the characters are content to go through their motions, having found their bitchiness groove. The punches don’t land or are soft, in other words. Leigh makes many more mistakes in HGL than Desplechin does, but despite the same 8-grade, I found his film more vital and intellectually arresting. And one late plot point is literally straight out of ST. ELMO’S FIRE and the reaction of [Ally Sheedy] is, though different here, scarcely more believable.
But this review is already sounding too negative, so let me backtrack to “superb in every aspect of execution.” Desplechin gives the film an elegiac feel with faded pictures and such old-time devices as iris shots, and with choices of details like a harpsichord on the score during a key make-out scene. He uses extra-cinematic devices like (1) family members reading letters to one another to the camera, as if they’re pleading for others (i.e., us) to side with them in family quarrels; (2) having the kids stage a Zorro play, during which every cut to the other family members in the audience draws blood; and most memorably (3) revealing the family backstory via a puppet show. And Desplechin may be inviting us to take a jaundiced view of the very “family reunion haunted by ghosts from the past” genre and narrative, through a character reading aloud from the preface of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” to the effect that seeking after oneself can get in the way of genuine knowledge (though Nietzsche was speaking of “we knowers,” which it’s not clear that anyone in A CHRISTMAS TALE or its audience would be).
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain/India, 2008) — 4
I dropped a couple of films (neither of which I was terribly interested in) for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE based on strong buzz from Telluride — and what a crushing disappointment, made more crushing in recent days by this film’s winning the Audience Favorite Award (since Toronto is not a juried fest, this is its biggest prize). The central character is poor Bombay slum kid Jamal, who manages to reach the final question on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” leading to suspicion he cheated. The movie cuts between his life story and that TV episode, which each biography chapter explaining how he came into possession of a certain bit of knowledge that enabled him to answer a Millionaire question. Of course, once you’re aware of this gimmick, the film becomes as predictable as a litany and about as entertaining. In fact … it’s worse. Lots of films begin with their conclusions, but (often) in order to lead us along a journey that is the real point of the picture. In the best such cases (my first viewing of SUNSET BOULEVARD), we even forget we’re watching flashbacks to a conclusion we already know. But the structure in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE spoils even that possibility, because every sequence along the way has to lead us back to the end, intermittently throughout. There are absurdities aplenty in the appearances and reapparances of The Girl and in the film’s never actually explaining HOW he got on the show in the first place (particularly if he is as uneducated as portrayed). Even as a picaresque, Jamal’s life story is absurdly … well … representative, as if Jamal is supposedly a cross-section signifier embodying everything important about India. His experience covers Bollywood, anti-Muslim pogroms, working at a call center, the Taj Mahal (though Agra is more than 700 miles from Bombay). And the final scenes had me spitting contempt at the screen — not because it ends happily (nobody could expect otherwise) but because, (1) I knew what the question would be right from the beginning of the film when it first comes up (and it is not believable that *this* question would be the final question on Millionaire; it’s at pre-32,000 level, even for India); (2) the plot twist that allows Jamal to answer the next-to-last question is completely, no-way-no-how-Im-buying-it unbelievable, and (3) even if it were to be the case, “Regis” would know better than to act as he does onscreen. It’s pure writerly contrivance from beginning to end. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE begins with the four-choice question something like “how did he get this far on MILLIONAIRE — he cheated, he was lucky, he was a genius, or it was written.” The answer the film gives us at the end is D, which is certainly true, but not quite in the sense that I think the film meant.
¹ Linguistic aside question #1: For anybody who speaks French — was “my little Jew” ever the ordinary French term for the elbow phenomenon we call a “funny bone” in English?
LES PLAGES D’AGNES (Agnes Varda, France, 2008) — 6
The genre of autobiographical reminiscence, particularly a film in which the autobiographer appears frequently onscreen, can often collapse into preciousness or self-indulgence. This one mostly doesn’t, partly because Varda herself has such an engaging, attractive personality, but also because the theme here is of obsolescence, including one’s own (Varda’s charm prevents the latter from collapsing into whinging like Terence Davies does in OF TIME AND THE CITY). Not only is the beach the very image of something that erodes, but Varda gets a neat structuring metaphor by ending segments by facing the camera and walking away, backwards. She also constantly frames photos within the photo of itself (see the original MEMENTO video box for a sense of what I mean). Both devices specifically situate the film as a backwards trip in time about memory. Varda visits shooting scenes from her films (shameful confession: I’ve only seen CLEO FROM 5 TO 7) and key places in her life and memories, and she recreates some of both. The re-creations make clear that LES PLAGES D’AGNES is a semi-absurdist cinematic riff on the theme of “you can’t go home again”: (1) her childhood home is now in the hands of an investor in model train sets; (2) she has children re-enact scenes their parents did in her first film LA POINTE COURTE; (3) the re-created scenes often have transparently fake “sets” and “props” (the Citroen 2CV that Varda is shown “driving” is hilarious); (4) she re-creates a beach in the middle of the street. The funniest moments in the film belong to Chris Marker (to say more would spoil the utter originality of the appearance by the famously reclusive director).
Varda also portrays herself as the woman who wasn’t there, joshing that her family was out in the country the day Paris was liberated and that she was in Los Angeles in May 1968. She also plays up her old-fashionedness, bordering on obsolence in several ways. She buys a Liege plate for the Dardenne brothers at a junk sale, shares clips from a film about “Mr. Cinema” as someone dying and ignored, and portrays herself at the end, without self-pity, as literally living in the world of cinema, i.e., in a house whose walls consists of strips of film hung like a door curtain.
But Varda’s living in the world of cinema puts some 900-pound elephants in the room that she completely skips over and which prevent me from embracing PLAGES fully. Varda mentions, and does so entirely en passant, how she went off to China in the 1950s to photograph Mao’s peasant revolution, and then went to Cuba in the early 60s to do the same for Castro’s sugar-cane harvest. If she has ever had a second thought about either odious regime, she hid it completely. In a genre other than autobiographical reminiscence, silence about one’s past sins is usually appropriate. Not in this film. And not in a film that specifies how “shameful” was the deportation of France’s Jews by the Vichy regime. Since Varda doesn’t even attempt an apologia for doing her trips, cluelessness on her part that there might be legitimate issues to address is the only rational explanation. Particularly since Varda also takes pains to make clear how radical are her own pro-abortion views¹ — she not only signed a famous “I had an abortion” manifesto in 1971, but she contemporaneously denounces anyone “who would judge” any such woman.
REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, Austria, 2008) — 9
WARNING: Many spoilers — I tried, and wrote a bit vaguely in places. But there was no way to discuss this film and its themes without largely telling what happens and perhaps spoiling some of the effect.
The first shot of REVANCHE is of calm water, suddenly disturbed by what looks like a stone being thrown into it, creating ripples. This is the final decisive act in the film, we learn later. REVANCHE is like a mirror remake of a certain modern classic, only the trajectory happens to a criminal rather than to a cop and don’t click here to learn what modern classic I’m thinking of if you don’t want REVANCHE spoiled, or at least diminished. One of the greatest pleasures of REVANCHE for me, knowing very little about it, was that for the first 30-40 minutes or so, it seemed to be a crime movie set in the world of Vienna prostitution. There’s a graphic early sex scene that I feel obliged to warn about for reasons that soon will be obvious given the terms on which I’m recommending this film. But then after the central crime the film had been heading toward, it went in a completely different direction and came out as one of the most spiritually profound movies (the German tagline means “whose fault is it if life doesn’t go your way”) and among the best directed and acted I’ve seen in recent years. To compare the world’s best-known Austrian director, REVANCHE has Haneke’s trenchant moralism without his determinism.
Johannes Kirsch plays Alex, a petty criminal whose boss runs the whore house where his secret Russian girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) also works. They both want out of the life and so he plans a bank robbery. I’m gonna talk vaguely, but I have to give away some details, so consider yourself warned. The robbery is botched and Alex takes refuge on the family farm with his father, a traditional old man who says his son, who already has served time, had ruined himself by going off to the big city. While hiding, Alex learns of a local cop Robert (Andreas Lust), with whom he has done business, lives in the next farm over with his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), whom Alex wants for a complicated set of motives. Those are the basic plot elements and you can start reading again.
REVANCHE bears some resemblance to FARGO: wood chopping plays a role and a wild sex scene ends with a cut to something banal and routine. But most importantly, both plots play out in a way that leaves the MacGuffin completely out of the picture. Nobody alive at the end of FARGO knows where the ransom is or even that there is money to be found; only one character alive at the end of REVANCHE knows the whole story of the principal love-triangle relationship. And that character becomes maybe the unlikeliest Christ-figure you’ll ever see in a movie, if for no better reason that the character is never especially set up as One, isn’t sinless at all, and because the burden of carrying the sins of all becomes not a burden instead something as beautiful as life itself (a couple of days ago was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross).
Nor is that analogy “Victor reading his ideas into the film” as I’m quite prepared to admit about what I said on HAPPY GO-LUCKY in the post above may well be. More than any other movie I can think of, REVANCHE is filled with signifiers of religion, but as a part of ordinary lived experience rather than as the subject matter per se, present everywhere but visible nowhere. Alex’s father has a Sacred Heart portrait and a memorial prayer card for his dead wife on the wall; crucifixes and crosses are part of the ordinary adornment, even in a bank; characters pray at appropriate moments (the devout often, the not-so when in crisis); and the last shot of the film has trees sagging with fruit (a biblical metaphor par excellance, particularly considering what we just learned). The religious imagery is also used dramatically in obviously deliberate ways. For one example, Alex’s elderly father says he is confident he will soon (meaning, in Heaven) meet his wife, who is the subject of the memorial prayer card on the wall, and then Spielmann cuts to a photo of someone Alex has lost. But without the religious context of the other photo, all he can think about is revenge.² For another example, in one scene, the camera follows a character riding a motorcycle along a twisty road through an Austrian forest, and then when the road reaches a sharp right-turn-only point, coincidentally(?) at a crucifix, the motorcycle goes on but the camera stays to contemplate. At that site, the central plot point happens. The way the plot is eventually resolved removes all doubt about the fundamentally religious orientation of REVANCHE — the resolution is not a shootout, but rather two appeals to conscience, one made wittingly and one unwittingly: the unwitting one eventually being the more powerful because it urged the listener to stand outside himself and not just listen to his feelings, however real they may be as feelings. The unwitting one also, by indirection, demonstrates that even revenge itself requires a moral context, a moral justification to be coherent. I.e., there’s a reason, however bad, to kill the man who murdered a family member; there’s no reason to kill somebody over an accident that was one’s own fault in the first place.
Spielmann’s direction isn’t as flashy or obviously “direction” as Haneke’s but it’s perfect in its own way, as a simple knack for making the right choices. When a woman asks her policeman husband about events at work that we’ve already seen, the cop has his back and head toward us, while the wife is turned toward us, at maybe a quarter-profile. The conversation goes on for about maybe a minute , but without a cut because there’s no dramatic need to see the cop’s face (it also emphasizes his grief-shame) since the drama in this scene at this point in the movie is on her face. Mike also has already talked about Alex’s wood-chopping scenes, which take place while a buzzsaw is running. The aggression in the ax wielding, combined with the noise of the whirring (though let’s just say the buzzsaw is not used like the wood chipper in FARGO is), is as if Alex is making a substance of menacing sexual anger (he even smokes a cigarette after one series of swings). And … spoiler warning … that menace comes into being in a scene played out in shadow with the lights off. A scene of sex as angry revenge, and there’s exquisite irony, on multiple levels,³ in what happens from that encounter.
MARTYRS (Pascal Laugier, France, 2008) — 0
Yeah Alex, I probably shoooda known better. And Wazowski, you’re about two points too generous. This is a vile, ugly movie that stains the soul of anyone who sees it and especially those who apparently enjoyed it. Seeing it with the Midnight Madness audience that was whooping it up when it did was profoundly and deeply dispiriting. I think MARTYRS, or rather the approving reaction it won, officially ends my interest in Midnight Madness, at least with respect to horror films (comedies and martial-arts films are still A-OK). MARTYRS is a movie that very early on shows a character massacring a family of four with a shotgun and when the last “kill” was made (against a victim for whom it was impossible for the killer to have any grievance), the audience applauded wildly at this pornographic climax that they were getting off to themselves. Then later, when it turns out that one of the victims wasn’t really dead, the killer goes on a rampage with a hammer and crushes the skull. And I don’t mean “breaks”; I mean “crushes,” complete with breaks, squishes, further blows, more breaks, more squishes. It’s over, the woman on top is panting, and the Ryerson audience starts cheering again, getting off on its own brutalism. Of course the massacre that occupies much of the first half of the film takes place on a rainy day, to give the fanboys boner-inducing views of the two central characters, both women, running in their wet T-shirts. Then, when the killer in the first part (an abuse victim) is killed, her friend (who helped cover things up) becomes the central character and MARTYRS becomes even more distasteful, subjecting her to a series of tortures that end with her being surgically flayed. Not content with pornographic violence as victim-reversal empowerment, MARTYRS turns to pornographic violence as an empty ritual, at the end tarted up as a scientific study of religious ecstasy. She’s tied up a metal machine that forces her into a crucifix pose and at the climactic flaying, the camera goes inside her eye for the light show from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or for Heaven or for something. “Since there is no god, we can only study the effects of martyrdom through deliberately meaningless pain” is the point, I guess. When the “heroine” whispers her insights on what she saw to the scientist in charge of the experiment, the scientist kills herself rather than repeat it. The final title card defines a martyr (correctly) as a witness. Yes, but a witness to what? Imagine St. Paul responding to the road to Damascus by killing himself for a sense of how blasphemous the ending would be if it were possible to take this piece-of-shit film at all seriously. One more thing: The scientist’s apologia early in her involvement says that since there is now so much suffering, people can no longer be moved by it, which had me rolling my eyes as a description of today, particularly in the wealthy-West context of this movie. In fact, the opposite might make a more-provocative and at least not absurd-on-its-face claim: that “torture porn” is so prevalent because Americans and Europeans live such insulated suffering-free lives and consider that our right.
¹ While the fact there are separate issues surrounding the legal status of the act, issues that might make “pro-choice” at least not incoherent on its face as a political stance, when one says that nobody should even judge an act, he is objectively saying that the act is a good thing. Hence “pro-abortion” is the accurate term.
² Linguistic aside question #2: For anybody who speaks German — what is the ordinary German word for “revenge.” Several times in the film I heard “Rache,” which I knew from Sherlock Holmes “A Study in Scarlet.” But I never heard “Revanche,” though some-but-not-all online German dictionaries (and my hard copy) all list it as meaning “revenge.” Is it obsolete, a foreign-to-German affectation or something else?
³ Linguistic aside question #3: For anybody who speaks German, does the phrase “shooting blanks” have both the meanings it does in English — the literal “unloaded gun” and the metaphoric “male infertility or impotence.”
CHE (Steven Soderbergh, USA/Spain, 2008) — 3
JERICHOW (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2008) — 7
CONTROL-ALT-DELETE (Cameron Labine, Canada, 2008) — 1
ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 2008) — 6
EASY VIRTUE (Stephan Elliott, Britain, 2008) — 6
THREE BLIND MICE (Matthew Newton, Australia, 2008) — 6
This is the sort of competent genre movie that you might catch flipping the channels, watch it through and be reasonably well entertained. THREE BLIND MICE is about the last night of liberty for three Australian Navy sailors before their ship heads for Iraq. The hemmed-in-by-Aristotelian-unities events that follow are more or less exactly what you expect if you’ve ever seen ON THE TOWN (the premises’ similarity being noted) or THE LAST DETAIL. But THREE BLIND MICE avoids the mannered quirkiness that torpedoes many Australian comedies (to outsiders anyway), and it is well cast though to fairly conventional types — the wiseacre leader (played by director Newton), the straight arrow, the dubious outsider. The set pieces are handled effectively (they’re lengthier and with less cross-cutting between than you’d expect), with a poker game for money holding some real tension and a meal with the prospective parents-in-law turning into the date from hell. There’s also a couple of War subtexts that pleasantly don’t turn out quite the way they often do (and gee … it turns out that military abuse happens not at the behest of the Bush administration and their grand Salvation Through Leviathan plans). But still … I shouldn’t oversell this refreshing spritzer of a movie, because it is very schematic and predictable, and never really pushes toward something great. Neither ON THE TOWN without music nor THE LAST DETAIL without Jack Nicholson could be called awesome.
KISSES (Lance Daly, Ireland, 2008) — 0
A piece of crap that I hated with a passion I haven’t felt since A HOLE IN MY HEART here in 2004. KISSES is one of the most immoral films I’ve ever seen — an apologia for young children running away from home. Basically a boy and a girl who look to be about 10 are unhappy with their next-door families and so run away on Christmas Eve to have fun in Dublin spending some stolen money — like ELVIRA MADIGAN with an Irish working-class setting and a happy ending. Did I say happy ending? Sorry I spoiled the movie (naw). But no … this movie is filled with benevolent barge-keepers, hookers with a heart of gold, street musicians whom the kids can help (like in “Beavis Can You Spare A Dime”), a Bob Dylan impersonator who imparts the wisdom that “we’re all running away from something” (see … it’s normal to do this kind of thing), hot dog vendors who give free sandwiches to persistent kids. Everything is played for a jolly lark, as if there are no dangers to 10-year-olds wandering the streets at a major capital city at night. Or rather, when danger does rear its ugly head, the two kids are able to defeat it through their own pluck. Oh … and the kiss in the “we’re alive, let’s kiss” scene is full-passion French-kissing, not the awkward pecks that might be believable. The film goes from a grim black-and-white to a washed-out color to full color in the course of the journey to Dublin, and then back when the kids are finally brought back to families that pointedly have not changed. Sure, the families are non-stop yelling from hell — the boy’s father punches his mom with a closed fist, understandably since she had just done the same; and the girl’s family is the sort where “you shchoopit cunt” is a term of endearment. But that’s part of the movie’s same stacked deck. I realize more than ever that KIT KITTREDGE made a genius move in sanitizing the Depression. It’s not a moral problem when an 8-year-old girl does her own crime investigation and the criminals are buffoonish, if the movie has basically been a fantasy from the beginning. But if KIT had played the Depression in full GRAPES OF WRATH miserabilism, it would have done what KISSES does with the brutalist portrayal of the family and the would-be kidnappers. There is even a scene that proves how black are the souls of the people involved with KISSES. The kids bought wheely shoes once at a Dublin mall and pointedly use them throughout. But later there is a reverie scene on an ice rink. Before it begins, the film shows the kids taking off their wheelies. After all, we can’t portray kids doing anything dangerous now, can we? Somebody might sue.
TOKYO SONATA (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008) — 5
Late in this movie, a title card announces “three hours earlier.” If you walk out of TOKYO SONATA at that point, you’ll think you walked out on a terrific movie. Not such FATAL ATTRACTION can I think of a realistic film that was so observant and so well-done for so long, but which so suddenly turned on a dime into risible crap. Now, there’s no bunny-boiling or “not dead yet” type moments here; TOKYO SONATA maintains the naturalistic, observational style. But nothing that actually happens after that title card was one-millionth-of-a-billionth believable. It’s really a shame because TOKYO SONATA starts with the premise of one of my 10 all-time favorites (TIME OUT) — salaried-manager Sasaki is fired from his job because of outsourcing and tries to keep it from his family. Kurosawa also has interesting ideas that went places Cantet didn’t — like Sasaki finding a second downsized man who had his own ideas of how to handle things, some of them semi-comic, and he actually does take a legitimate if much-lowlier new job, rather than smuggling as Cantet’s hero did. And the rest of the family plays a bigger role and are hiding secrets of their own. He also has an interesting theme about loss of face and how authority once pissed away can never be restored (at least as itself). It’s as precise and formal as an Ozu family drama film — given certain adjustments for changes in Japanese society since the 1940s — until it bursts into much-more explosive territory with a violent family-fight scene. It’s all so good for so long that when you find out “three hours earlier,” it’s an utter shame how laughable events become. One example: a conventional Japanese housewife throws herself at a home invader who threatens her at knifepoint.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM (Rian Johnson, USA, 2008) — 7
Like TOKYO SONATA, this is a great film for much of its running time but loses it at the end. It doesn’t become actively risible (hence the higher grade) … just loses its steam and tries to get serious. But for the first hour or so, THE BROTHERS BLOOM is one of the funniest contraptions you’ll ever see — a story of two brothers who have spent their lives doing cons. I mean it when I call this film a “contraption,” and one very specifically tied to movie-making. For one thing, the film is not remotely realistic — to name one very simple thing, it’s very hard to tell when the movie is taking place. The details of the cars and the technology needed for some of the stunts clearly imply present-day. But in their dress, in their mannerisms and sensibility, and in some of the details of the physical plant in the self-mythologizing montage of their boyhood (Skandies plug for Best Scene), the Blooms more resemble the “heroes” from Lubitsch’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE or some 40s caper pic. They’ve deliberately lived as hyper-conscious performers and see life as a con. But what separates this film from greatness is that, unlike in THE PRESTIGE from a couple of years ago, it doesn’t embrace its status as pomo discourse all the way down and find an ending. Instead, we get a more standard “wanna leave the life / OK, but one last con” conflict between the two brothers (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, respectively). And the last 20 minutes consist of more “is this a con or is this not a con” wankery that we’ve seen in a hundred con-men movies. THE PRESTIGE was about performers who valued performance so much that it was the end of their lives (“end” in both senses of that word). If I sound harsh, it’s only because the first hour or so was such an entertaining lark filled with great lines tossed off like the best of Lubitsch, my favorite being: “I would not like to simplistically vilify a whole country. But Mexico is a horrible place” (what’s funny is not only how callously it’s delivered, but the contrast between the labyrinthine first sentence caveat, and the bluntness of the second sentence punch line). THE BROTHERS BLOOM was so funny and “fun” (not exactly the same) that I didn’t want it to end in that tone, or to find a way to search for profundity while keeping that tone. But another awards plug — remember Rinko Kikuchi for what may be the greatest more-or-less mute comic performance in talking-picture history. She’s basically playing Gromit — the sidekick doing all the crazy sight gags, eye rolls and reaction shots at the edge of the frame.
HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2008) — 8
A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008) — 8
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain, 2008) — 4
LES PLAGES D’AGNES (Agnes Varda, France, 2008) — 6
REVANCHE (Gotz Spielmann, Austria, 2008) — 9
MARTYRS (Pascal Laugier, France, 2008) — 0
A WOMAN IN BERLIN (Max Farberbock, Germany, 2008) — 7
GIGANTIC (Matt Asselton, USA, 2008) — 2
CLOUD 9 (Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2008) — 7
STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008) — 8
I’m gonna save the two Terence Davies movies to write about after the fest because they dredge up a series of issues about Catholicism and sexuality that I don’t want to write about on a quick deadline, in short capsule form or with several drunken-Welshman-inspired Strongbows in me.
ASHES OF TIME (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994) — 7 (formerly 8)
Ultimately, it’s a lot of gorgeous pictures, but really not a movie. This “redux” cut of Wong’s one attempt at the wuxia genre, which I saw with The Man Himself doing the intro 20 feet from me, straightens out the chronology and provides back story with seasonal title cards and “rest of the story” codas, but without really managing to make the film more emotionally involving. The all-new score doesn’t help either — the old electronic score avoided the problem of supplying emotion that isn’t in the image or drama. This one, Yo-Yo Ma solos and all, is trying WAY too hard and in quite blunt ways. Still … this will always remain one of the most visually gorgeous movies ever made. And the plots remains what it is through all the fog — the same brother-sister feud, the same eggs, the same spinning birdcages, the same peach blossom story, the same memory-erasing wine, the same confusion over which Tony Leung it is, and the same realization that memory is both painful and what makes man man. The grainy stock and the combination of beige-orange sand and azure sky, plus the visual strategy of hiding faces create a film that isn’t realistic at all, but looks more like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as shot by a French Impressionist rather than a British Realist. And this haziness and dreamy quality is perfect for a memory film, as if the images are burned in orange-glow light. There is little green or red in the film, which makes the few times either appears so startling. The fighting scenes you either got the first time or never will get — all quick edits, smeared-light on the images, but relatively realistic sound. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and CHUNGKING EXPRESS are still Wong’s best films though, because of their tight focus, which “compensates” for Wong’s elliptical style. Whereas, ASHES is more sprawling (see below for Victor’s Rule). Unlike APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which I thought was an addition to an already great film, I see ASHES OF TIME REDUX is an inferior cut of a film that was “only” a flawed masterpiece to begin with. But everyone still HAS to see it.
GOODBYE SOLO (Ramin Bahrani, USA) — 8
If you’ve ever ridden in a taxicab in a major (North) American city, you’ve met Solo. He may be from West Africa (as Solo is in this movie), or from the Caribbean, the Middle East or South Asia. In fact, on my way to another movie, I took a ride with a Toronto cabbie who was a Sikh and when he discerned I was in town for the film festival, told me he already had seen SINGH IS KINNGH. I told him of my being within spitting distance of Amitabh Bachchan serenading an Indian matriarch at BLACK and sang to the cabbie Dharmendra’s opening bars of “Yeh Dosti” from SHOLAY (prompting a huge laugh from him that this white boy knew that song). All of which is just a way of saying that Bahrani, whose first two films MAN PUSH CART and CHOP SHOP I didn’t see, creates real characters in a way that no other American indie director does. GOODBYE SOLO was the sort of movie Sundance Film Festival pushed into the American consciousness before “Sundance” became a brand name in its own right, and a shorthand term for preciousness, quirkiness and perkiness. It’s offhand, naturalistic, perfectly acted and written, and utterly authentic even while the story is a bit fanciful, though never fantastical. Basically North Carolina cabbie Solo (do Senegalese dominate the Winston Salem cab industry? I have no idea, but I *trusted* this movie in a way I didn’t the YOUSSOU NDOUR film) picks up a depressed old white man William who makes an appointment with him for a couple of weeks hence to take him to a peak in the Appalachians that has the wind blow up from the valley (meaning if you toss something down, the wind blows it back to you). What follows is quite predictable, though like with the best cab rides, the journey is as important as the destination. In that interim period they become sort-of friends and they find out about each other’s life beyond the relationship that defined their meeting. Solo, in other words, is the ultimate Helper Guy and William keeps trying to toss him away, but the wind keeps blowing him back. To make the Ultimate Wack Comparison, GOODBYE SOLO is what AMELIE would have been if it had been directed in the American indie realist vein — and it has all the tough subtexts that Jeunet’s films is often not credited with. Solo’s and Amelie’s helpfulness both cover up vast emptinesses in their own lives and often irritate the people they’re intended to help.
THREE BLIND MICE Matthew Newton, Australia, 2008) — 6
KISSES (Lance Daly, Ireland, 2008) — 0
OF TIME AND THE CITY (Terence Davies, Britain, 2008) — 4
TOKYO SONATA Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008) — 5
THE BROTHERS BLOOM (Rian Johnson, USA, 2008) — 7
UNSPOKEN (Fien Troch, Belgium, 2008) — 7
The clue is in the title — this is a film about things not said and about a marriage where the unspeakable has happened, and may be in the middle of happening again. I took a long time to warm up to UNSPOKEN and only mentally stayed with it because Emmanuelle Devos and Bruno Todeschini, who play the central characters, have screen presence to squander. And Troch has a bracing style — enormous closeups but very little focal depth, meaning large parts of the screen remain out of focus, until the focus puller picks up something relevant or important. It truly concentrates the film on the souls of the two protagonists — hence the overriding importance of the right actors. I’m being deliberately vague about what the film’s about because like the Dardennes, it doesn’t announce its subject matter and there’s no exposition per se — you just pick up cues and clues, and eventually figure out who’s related to whom and how, and what the movie’s about. I don’t know how this film would play if you know too much: I hesitated above even to mention that it involves a marriage, because even something that basic takes a while to figure out. The precise moment the movie “clicked for me” was an exchange on the most banal of questions to ask a married couple and the camera pans back and forth in slow motion while a pop standard plays in regular time. The scene of Devos caressing the routine stuff of her husband’s desk without seeming to puts one in mind for a second of Garbo, but less ethereal. She’s perfect in a scene in which a friend notices tear streaks on her face, but she says everything is fine, and does so convincingly enough to the other character while not convincingly to us (there’s only one scene in which she’s truthful, a late scene involving a Christian missionary). But unlike the Dardennes, UNSPOKEN never acquires either great urgency or moral fraughtness and some of the details (the leaking water in the ceiling) are too on-the-nose. The greatest films about this subject — LAST TANGO IN PARIS, UNDER THE SAND and TRULY MADLY DEEPLY — were all about articulate people. That’s both UNSPOKEN’s strength and limitation — it’s about two people who aren’t the kind for … well, drama.
YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE (Chai Vaserelyi, USA, 2008) — 6
Depeche Mode’s “People are People” would probably be my favorite pop song of all time if I didn’t understand a word of English and so could not realize how appallingly bad the lyrics are. In the opening scene of this movie, the titular singer Ndour sings a song, the subtitling of which produced the same reaction in me. I wished I could have enjoyed Ndour’s great voice, his undeniable charisma and (later) the incredible onstage dancing without enduring the song’s banal “Up With People, Africa Tour” lyrics. Ndour is obviously a good man, an enemy of enmity and one prays for more Muslims like this. But the movie has told a story about him I simply don’t trust — partially because of my ignorance of West African music but also partially because the film tells a story that I’ve heard a hundred times before in a Western pop context and I know not to trust it.
The dominant narrative in this documentary concerns the release of an album called “Egypt” which caused charges of blasphemy and some more-specific charges that he desecrated a Muslim shrine in Senegal by shooting videos of sexy dancing women there. But other than the video (which of course we never see, hence my distrust) we never really get a specific sense of why the fuss. It’s explained quite clearly in the film that the reaction is coming from within Senegal, where the dominant form of Islam is Sufism, i.e., not Wahhabi iconoclasm. We never see a religious spokesman criticizing Ndour’s music, just himself and own flacks putting words in others’ mouths. This is vital because there are legitimate issues within religions involving sacred-space appropriateness and other “time, place and manner” issues that are not matters of absolute morality. To take a Christian example, there is nothing wrong with “Danny Boy” at a wake, but it is not Funeral Mass music; “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” are both religious songs, but not appropriate for Catholic liturgy. This film seems blind to these distinctions, assuming they exist in Islam (and they HAVE to, unless Muslims are simply inherently stupid, for precisely a reason the film points out — imams chant prayers every Friday). We don’t get any sense from this movie of the distinction, to use a Christian example, between Aretha Franklin’s Gospel album and Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” and which side Ndour’s album falls. I don’t trust a film on that point that includes a scene where the manager tosses out buzzwords indistinguishable from Western academic cant — “he’s bringing people together with a positive message about his religious culture.” It is neither relativism nor a denial of religious duty to note that things that are permissible in themselves can be made inappropriate or even blasphemous by context.
And there are other ideas that don’t quite mesh — Ndou says he wants to “counter the distorted image of Islam” (plus his using the evasion term “events of 9/11″) while at the same time canceling a plan to make an album that supposedly would do that because of the terrorist attacks themselves. Which would seem like the ideal time for such an album, if it be a worthy project at all. Further, the poor sales in Senegal of “Egypt” are attributed to censorship or religious opposition, without realizing that virtually every American pop singer who tries a different genre sees his sales suffer. I realize this review sounds more negative than I intend. If you take this movie as merely an extended episode of VH-1 Behind the Music — Youssou Ndour for Dummies — it’s a superior example of the genre.
THE SILENCE OF LORNA (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2008) — 9
This is NOT a mere fanboy grade, or a reaction to getting my TIFF guidebook signed before the film by the two men, the best filmmakers in the world right now. A simple fact about these gentlemen’s mastery of detail, of creating worlds so thoroughly lived in that they have created the greatest body of naturalist film art since the Italians of the late 40s, without the films ever coming across as needing to announce that fact. The first words on my viewing notes are actor Jeremie “Renier looks thin.” I had avoided as much knowledge of the details of this movie as I could and so didn’t know that longtime Dardennes actor Renier was playing a junkie. But I spotted it right away. And this fact about Renier’s character — and in later scenes a recovering Renier looks less gaunt and arm-veiny — is a key plot point that is never made the subject of a scene per se. Oh … scenes deal with this fact and center around others’ reactions. But since the characters live in this world, they have no need for a scene “establishing” that Renier is a junkie or even the need for the word “heroin” to appear in the movie. There is a later scene where the central character Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), playing junkie Renier’s wife in an immigration scam allowing her to gain Belgian citizenship, responds to his pleas for water, by pouring some in a bowl and putting it before him. Put that way, it sounds simple and obvious, or simple-minded and too obvious. But (1) it reminds us how ferile Renier’s performance has been to this point; and (2) treating her husband like a dog in this way is consistent with how Lorna treats him otherwise in a less literal ways. Like LA PROMESSE, THE SON and THE CHILD, this latest Dardennes film is best viewed rasa, though I think Mike is wrong in saying that LORNA’S SILENCE is plottier than at least THE CHILD, and it’s not quite as stylistically rigorous as THE CHILD or THE SON, though their style in unmistakeable. For example, a scene near the end involves the Dardennes first use of scored music, it’s just a few notes at a key moment, but its very unusualness underlines (I will be vague) that LORNA’S SILENCE is probably their most pessimistic and the moments leaves the rigorous naturalism that defines their work.
GOMORRAH (Matteo Garonne, Italy, 2008) — 5
Like deep-dish pizza and chop suey (invented by the respective immigrant communities), gangster films are the province of Italian-Americans more than Italians, as GOMORRAH again proves. A slight upgrade from my initial impression as it has stewed in my mind in recent days. I actually have little to add to what Mike says is the problem with this movie — that it ambles and rambles into five interconnecting webs of intrigue in a Naples slum without the necessary establishing work of the kind that episodic TV has plenty of time to do. I had trouble tracking who meant what to who or caring that I didn’t know, as indicated by a scene about 2/3 of the way in, where a character from Gang X says “we’re gonna have to take out Gang Y’s people.” I didn’t realize at that point that there were two distinct groups of gangs — imagine watching WEST SIDE STORY not even realizing that there are Sharks and Jets for a sense of how watching GOMORRAH felt. I also didn’t get either that there was either a point or a problem with the Chinese gown contract until the movie is almost over, and we never do learn about the opening tanning-salon scene. (Victor’s Rule of Cinema 2896, on which this post repeatedly hits: Narrative eccentricity works better with narrowly-focused stories.) The acting is also wildly uneven — the two teen wannabes are risibly, prosciutto-theater bad, especially when they yell or scream; the elder character actors are sensationally good (the textile contractor Pasquale convinces merely with his face and hair). Nevertheless, and this validates the “episodic TV” criticism even more, I actually upgraded the film slightly in the last couple of days because, looking over my notes, I was enjoying GOMORRAH more as it went on and some of the later scenes are actually quite effective — I had a frog in my throat as, I will be vague, Pasquale is wheeled off and is promised a raise. And, slightly earlier, the mere image-spectacle of children driving dumpster trucks (and apparently actually doing so) was riveting and harrowing, while happily putting to shame a certain Brazilian movie. I actually left the theater, to a pulse-pounding closing theme, actually hoping that somewhere Garrone has an 8-hour cut of this material, for making a season out of on HBO.
ASHES OF TIME (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994) — 7 (formerly 8)
TERENCE DAVIES TRILOGY (Terence Davies, Britain, 1984) — 5
GOODBYE SOLO (Ramin Bahrani, USA) — 8
UNSPOKEN (Fien Troch, Belgium, 2008) — 7
YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE (Chai Vaserelyi, USA, 2008) — 6
THE SILENCE OF LORNA (the Dardenne brothers, Belgium, 2008) — 9
GOMORRAH (Matteo Garonne, Italy, 2008) — 4
ZIFT (Javor Gardev, Bulgaria, 2008) — 5
Roommate Robert Parks talked me down a bit from my initial skepticism about this black-and-white film, which has weaknesses as plain as a Balkan shit joke. It’s obviously overdone stylewise, it obviously takes the kitchen sink approach. But I don’t think a film this … accomplished, in its way, can be as easily dismissed as Michael Sicinski does. There’s more to ZIFT than post-Commie misogynist Guy-Ritchie posturing. For one thing, I’ve had friends from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia tell me that broadness, extensive vulgarity and obsession with sex (sample: “instead of using your ass to think with, why not play a patriotic song with it”) is a feature of all Balkan humor — pre-, during- and post-Communism — as opposed to the drier Polish-Czech style of Commie-era humor. Also, Gardev is parodying two different things — film noir and Soviet kitsch — that are both hyperstylized, over the top and covers for brutishness. Soviet kitsch in particular was notorious for not leaving anything to the imagination or un-pounded-in. So surely bluntness is to be expected and even demanded. There’s ideas and ideals here — a kind of brutish pessimism that is in fact also the worldview of film noir — sometimes badly and always baldly done though they may be. For an example of what the film does right, look at the scene where the protagonist prostrates himself before the rebuilt Sofia, right after a confessional encounter in a church (it has the power of Winston Smith learning to love Big Brother). For an example of what the film does wrong, look at the intercutting of a sex scene between two humans and footage of preying-mantis sex, with a voiceover helpfully explaining the linkage. For an example of what the film apparently does wrong but which I can’t dismiss, consider the GILDA song ripoff scene, which features an actress in an identical black dress but who is neither singing nor acting in the sexual way Rita Hayworth was. But who is also singing a different-themed song — “put the blame on the moon” — to a much slower tempo and a different arrangement. Whatever else might be said of that scene, it is not a failed attempt to achieve what Charles Vidor and Rita Hayworth did.
LAST STOP 174 (Bruno Barreto, Brazil, 2008) — 8
I was prepared to dislike this movie as an unnecessary desecration in a world where the great BUS 174 already exists. I wouldn’t have seen it at all had a high-buzz title been playing at this hour. But to paraphrase Chris Berman — This. Is. Why. We. Watch. The. Films. LAST STOP 174 grabbed me and won at least my confidence right away with two crime scenes — one of a baby being stolen by a drug dealer from his junkie mother, the other being a boy finding his mother’s dead body in a restaurant robbery. Both scenes are taut, brutal and without a shred of sentiment. Though I still think BUS 174 is the better film, Barreto and (more importantly, I think) writer Braulio Mantovani find a way to give interest to a fictionalization of hijacker Sandro’s back story: via the Dickensian move of creating two characters named Sandro in the Rio slums and having their fates intersect. Mantovani also wrote CITY OF GOD and the upcoming ELITE SQUAD, making him apparently Brazilian Cinema MVP. And what those three films have in common (and BUS 174 too) and what was absent from LINHA DE PASSE and so many other social-realist slum-set movies, is that Mantovani-written films do not sentimentalize their criminal protagonists: one exhibit being the scene late in LINHA DE PASSE where the criminal brother hijacks a rich Brazilian’s SUV but neither takes the vehicle nor his goods, instead chasing him away (the wuss!!!) after making him answer “do you see me” (and then walking away himself). It’s crime as social protest, which is bovine scatology. Mantovani’s criminals (and policemen) are the product of a brutal world where morality is a vice, but they are also brutal in their own right and by their own choice. “Most criminals are deprived” and “most deprived people are not criminals” are both true statements, but only the first is guaranteed to be remembered in the typical liberal-leaning “poor criminal” movie. Sandro is both a victim and a victimizer — and mostly of people who are just as much victims as himself. My favorite scene in LAST STOP 174 has Sandro rob a minister (BTW: it’s intriguing that in both this fest’s Brazilian movies, religion plays a significant role, and in both cases, it’s evangelical Protestantism, not Catholicism). What this scene understands deep down, and dramatizes, is something that foreign-policy doves will never get — not merely that force works, but that force is a matter of will, not means. One who is not feared can never plausibly threaten. In all these ways, Mantovani, in LAST STOP 174 and elsewhere, gives us “both/and” rather than an uplift of liberal saccharin.
FLAME AND CITRON (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, 2008) — 4
Now to completely contradict myself — I think this film is a thinned-down rehash of BLACK BOOK, but one that manages to drag out and overstay its welcome. It goes on about 20 minutes too long, stringing out the set pieces and confrontations — was one thing about the last scene involving Citron believable?, was how they managed to escape a Danish police roundup believable? But the specifics surrounding Carice Van Houten’s performance and “insider” role at Gestapo HQ are set aside, FLAME AND CITRON centering instead on its eponymous central characters, both assassins for the Danish Resistance. But other than that, the elements are the same: compromised Resistance figures, not-so-bad Germans, botched or incompetent Resistance actions. It’s often effective, mind you. But the physical contrast between the two assassins comes across as too cutesy, like Mutt and Jeff, when it’s actually realized on the screen. One general point worth making about films today. During the post-film Q-and-A, Madsen said he doesn’t like “heroes unsprinkled” with flaws, and that he wanted to show heroes not acting heroically. Prescinding from the specific example of the WW2 resistance used here and in BLACK BOOK … is there anything more commonplace, easier, less brave and more cliche in this day and age than that sort of “sprinkling” of heroism, demythologizing the past, showing hero’s flaws, etc. It long since ceased to impress me, per se. “There’s no just or unjust any more, only war” is one line too many.
HUNGER (Steve McQueen, Britain, 2008) — 9
More than any other film here — good, bad or indifferent — I am curious how well this film will do on US screens. It’s a Northern Ireland “Troubles” movie, about the 1981 hunger strike by IRA terrorist Bobby Sands, and that genre usually manages to pull them in. But HUNGER is also a stylistically eccentric movie, albeit a brilliant one. For one example, it starts with a prison guard for about 2-3 minutes, who brings us to one IRA prisoner whom HUNGER follows for about 3-5 minutes, who joins another IRA man for the movie to follow the two of them for the next 15 minutes or so. Then we get a scene involving a bunch of the terrorists, which, apparently incidentally, produces our first glimpse of Sands, perhaps 25-30 minutes into the movie. For another, the first act (and this film segments itself into three acts as clearly as anything not involving a curtain ever has) has very little dialogue, but then the second act is like a free-standing one-act play between two characters who sit at a table and talk, for what feels like 20-30 minutes. And then we get the third act, which is the hunger strike that is the film’s selling point (finally). It’s a constant pleasure, though it’s not a conventional one, to follow a movie that you can’t figure out and aren’t ten steps ahead of, even when you already know the basic story as I do. Visually, the film is simply astonishing and confident in ways few first-time directors are. A quick example from the very beginning: we see a man eat his breakfast, not from the usual POV but via a closeup of crumbs falling on his lap napkin, with the sound of toast crunching on the soundtrack. OK, that avoids cliche, but more importantly, by using such a low view early, it sets up and makes it not an affectation the “rat’s eye POV” for a scene a minute later where it’s absolutely essential psychologically. The sequence and juxtaposition, more than the angles per se, show McQueen has “seen” and “heard” his movie before he made it (his expressive use of sound is simply sensational throughout).
Other reasons I like HUNGER so much: (1) similar to my praise for LAST STOP 174, are that it neither pushes the easy-but-false Troubles-history buttons that never fail to aggravate me nor does it sentimentalize the IRA (the few scenes outside Maze prison should disabuse all the Irish pub bravado of North Americans); (2) the feces-smeared prison walls are made into works of abstract expressionism, which is both inherently visually arresting but also dramatically believable (what else can guys with nothing else to occupy them do once they’ve decided to desecrate the walls that way); (3) while it isn’t an apologia for rubber-hose tactics, HUNGER makes it quite clear how difficult they are to avoid, most particularly in a scene of barbering, when dealing with determinedly obstreperous prisoners (and thus how stupidly demagogic it is to show a picture and point); (4) the second act consists of a lengthy semi-debate between Sands and a priest-friend (we’ve already learned that these “Catholic” terrorists are hardly religious) that shows the priest giving as good as he gets while realizing at the end that some things are not in his hands. But at the same time, the scene shows McQueen (here’s that concept again) having the directorial confidence to turn this film over to his two actors, if that’s what is required, and not try to tart it up for the sake of showing off. And like the directorial choices above, it reinforces our confidence in him, that when he’s being showy, he’s not doing it to show off.
THREE MONKEYS (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2008) — 6
Ceylan’s films dance on the edge of my tolerance for narrative ellipsis and emotional lassitude. His formal mastery is evident from the very first shot of THREE MONKEYS, of a car driving in the dark that eventually becomes the equivalent of an iris shot without actually being an iris shot. The sound design is again incredible — both naturalistic and expressive (example: a knock at the door late in the film). Ceylan doesn’t simply blanche out the color and give us a succession of sepia-grayscaled images, as if actually filming in a thunderstorm, but he counterpoints it at key moments — splashes of red like the curtains at a key mother-son confrontation, and having the foreground be in the washed-out style while in the background is a window with a conventional picture-postcard color scheme. This film has GOT to be seen in the theater. In a review of CLIMATES now in the cyber-ether, I called Ceylan the Turkish Antonioni. (And as Antonioni did, though less radically than in L’AVVENTURA, Ceylan begins THREE MONKEYS with a character whose sole function is to lead us to another character.) But as with Antonioni at times, at the end you realize that all this style just hides the thinness of the story, the badness of the acting, and the fact that all the There there is another Come-Dressed As (Again) The Sick Soul of Europe movie. The actors are so glum and Ceylan lavishes so much on the enormous facial closeups of their dour solemnity that you just lose interest in this story — a love triangle with some filial anger and a political subtext that experts on Turkish politics will no doubt get more out of than I. And far too much of the events in THREE MONKEYS happens offscreen — most annoyingly a death, and a jail deal neither the end (did it come off — who knows?). Seemingly every significant event is seen only in its effects or only hinted at. It’s all re-action shots without any action. I’m giving this film a guarded recommendation because a great director so obviously made a great work for us to look at. But equally obviously a weak writer didn’t give us much to watch.
LINHA DE PASSE (Walter Salles, Brazil, 2008) — 3
Take ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, transplant from Italy to Brazil, replace boxing with soccer, give us pointedly ambiguous endings (more on that in a minute), toss in symbolic details like clogged drains, and voila — Landmark-ready masterpiece. And I don’t even like the original ROCCO. Both films involved a matriarch and several children taken different paths in The Slums of the Big City. The things is (and this was true even of the 1961 Visconti film) Warner Brothers made this movie a half-dozen times in the 30s — with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ralph Bellamy, and maybe another brother. But they did so with a lot more verve and energy than these symbolic ciphers. In LINHA DE PASSE, the brothers are defined by a single trait — criminal, religious guy, sports star, kid w/an absent-father complex. At the end, we’re intercutting between the endings of the five stories and my only thought is “DW Griffith was so awesome.” They’re all ostentatiously unresolved (labor pains have started in the pregnant matriarch, but she’s not even on her way to hospital). As for two of these endings — how can one take seriously any moral ambitions of a film that ends with a boy of about eight driving a bus around Sao Paolo and a robber chasing his carjack victim off having said “do you see me” and then walks away from the loot himself. The schematicism of LINHA DE PASSE would even be tolerable if it had a tighter narrative (CITY OF GOD looks better every year now, doesn’t it). Instead details and moments are tossed around like pinwheels and are scattered thus at the end — mom puts a picture of the father under a boy’s pillow, but does he see it?; mom leaves the kid at a neighbor’s to prevent him from riding on buses and skipping school, but our next view he is on a bus and we never see the neighbor again; the issue of the soccer player’s age and a fake ID keep him off one team, on the next team it’s never even brought up; the soccer player can only get on one team by offering a bribe, he promises to meet it, and then … Movie over.
35 RHUMS (Claire Denis, France, 2008) — 2
To heck with a black man winning a major-party presidential nomination. The real advance for civil rights this year is 35 RHUMS, where blacks prove they can be as dreary and boring in a Claire Denis movie as white people can. This has something to do with a mostly-black circle of friends centered around a father-daughter pair living together (he’s a train driver, though we first see him wasting a day trainspotting — about the last meaningless hobby I would think a train driver would have). Ceylan above at least makes it clear what we’re supposed to feel, though his success in making us do so is variable. But Denis is too uninflected (but not deadpan — that would risk being funny) to hold my interest. One measure of unspecificity: I never figured out or remember being told if these people were from West Africa, Equatorial Africa or the West Indies. Another: We get a dead body that I thought was a friend’s until I thought it wasn’t. J. Robert said I’m just not the target audience for the latest Denis exercise in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Only instead of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot happened, it’s more Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s the point. It’s generally clear what happens, but I never could figure out what I was supposed to get out of it other than counting the rum shots, like in DROWNING BY NUMBERS, only Denis gives us (or me anyway) less emotional involvement than Greenaway did. I was sparked a little whenever the Tindersticks music accompanied the train barrelling through the tracks, viewed from the front of the first car. And the same during the Commodores song that accompanies an improvised party that plays like a short version of FRIDAY NIGHT — a pickup while stranded by traffic woes in Paris. In these moments, 35 RHUMS gets some gracefully seductive moments of the kind BEAU TRAVAIL consisted purely of. But then we’re in Germany for an explicable diversion having less to do with the paper-thin story, I suspect, than with Denis getting financing from the Hamburg regional government. The title comes, by the way, from a legend that at the beginning isn’t explained. At the end, when the lead character is asked about (the still unexplained) it, “did you invent it,” he says “maybe.” That’s it. How ooo-la-la French. How hollow.
THE BURNING PLAIN (Guillermo Arriaga, USA, 2008) — 6
Looking over my viewing notes, it’s clear my initial 7-grade was too generous, I still may be pretty much alone in liking this film at all (Mike walked out and Jeremy hated it), but dagnab it, it was such a relief to see a movie on this day with lots of events, where people behave like normal people and it isn’t so obviously sketched out. Or rather … BURNING PLAIN is sketched out (this is by the screenwriter of AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS and BABEL, after all) but the sketch isn’t what you think it is. Arriaga uses his reputation well, taking advantage of the fact we’re primed to expect stuff to come together at (say) one road junction and to search for parallels (which the film does offer). BURNING PLAIN really does work as a straightforward narrative — taut and tense. To speak vaguely — this latest Gotcha Twist fooled me completely while making everything “make sense” in retrospective. But it neither adds up to much nor seems like something that will gain richness on second viewing because what Arriaga did tends to collapse the two main stories into one pat point about a redemptive second chance. As for the performances, Claire Danes is brilliant, in the best-written role; Charlize Theron isn’t, in the most actressy role (resorting to haggardizing herself physically at key moments); and the fact Kim Basinger is credible in a non-sexpot role at all is remarkable.
DETROIT METAL CITY (Toshio Lee, Japan, 2008) — 9
Yeah … I was surprised too. But I busted my gut laughing harder at this movie than I think I ever have for a movie in a language other than English (i.e., one where stylish verbal humor is pretty much out the window). One word of warning, though: one must have a very high-tolerance for the sort of hyperactive acting and humor seen on those Japanese game-show highlight clips … which is an acquired taste. The comparisons with SPINAL TAP are easy, though DETROIT METAL CITY isn’t a mockumentary per se despite its being filled with pop-culture parody and absurd music lyrics (this is where you’d love to speak Japanese. You probably can’t translate “the bigger the cushion / the sweeter the pushin” into Japanese very well either).
Detroit Metal City is the name of Japan’s top death-metal band, but behind the makeup, lead singer Sir Krauser (sample dialog: “this is good practice for when you’re slashing men’s throats”) is a simpering dweeb who wants to make syrupy happy poppy love songs, called “trendy music” in this movie. Imagine Jerry Lewis’s NUTTY PROFESSOR character turning into Marilyn Manson for the general gist (indeed it occurred to me while watching DMC that Julius Kelp’s turning into Buddy Love is what made his childlike-simpleton not so annoying and thus the movie Lewis’s best Martin-less effort). Like SPINAL TAP, there’s lots of musical parody, and not just of death metal. DETROIT METAL CITY also has fun with the Japanese appropriation fetish, with fanboyism (implicitly) in all its forms, with other music genres like DJ-rap, bubble-gum “Tiger Beat” pop and grrrrl groups (the funniest non-DMC music is a feminist dis of DMC by such a group). Indeed, the ideal audience for this movie is someone generally knowledgeable about metal music but not a fan of it (e.g., me). Also like SPINAL TAP, this film has a great role for the manager, who stubs her cigarettes out on her mouth and who fruitily chews over every line, like the bad guys on Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl or the 60s Batman TV show. Some of the other comic highlights: the explanation for a moptop haircut, “the devil is sending the worst punishment ever” and what makes you lucky at a death-metal concert.
One of the film’s surprising strengths is that it never runs out of comic ideas, even when it’s tying up plot strings. For example, the end of the second act is precisely defined and the film seems to have nowhere to go but to have Sir Krauser return to the Japanese small-town he came to Tokyo from. Once it arrives in the countryside, Lee finds a way to get new laughs with a new set of plot points that begin with … seeing an unlikely character wearing a DMC shirt (before we get the inevitable showdown with the Gene-Simmons-played American death-metal champion). But there’s also a maybe unintentional but actually quite profound undercurrent about Satanism, like Satan’s rebellion itself, being the sort of absurd pose about which CS Lewis (quoting Luther and St. Thomas More) said should be laughed at rather than obsessed over (and traditional religion, of a Japanese variety, plays a small role in the third act). If DETROIT METAL CITY can find American distribution, and it seems like an eminently “sellable” movie, there’s no reason it shouldn’t take a place alongside SPINAL TAP in the cult-comedy pantheon.
THREE MONKEYS (
LINHA DE PASSE ( , Brazil, 2008) — 3
35 RHUMS ( , France, 2008) — 2
THE BURNING PLAIN ( , USA, 2008) — 7
DETROIT METAL CITY (Toshio Lee, Japan, 2008) — 9
SOUL POWER (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA, 2008) — 8
Like WOODSTOCK without Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. Which is to say that SOUL POWER is a terrific performance film, has excellent footage of some of the greatest musical performers ever (James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more) and does a very good job of putting its concert in a historical context. SOUL POWER is basically a film of a 1974 Zaire concert, which brought together black American, African and Caribbean artists for a festival intended to coincide with the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman title fight. There’s lot of black power, “back to Africa” talk that now seems so quaint (there are some light moments of comeuppance when the black Americans realize they’re first and last Americans). But the film makes neither apologies nor apologias for the talk of the time — simply presenting it (including lengthy excerpts from Ali saying some quite ugly things about whites). In fact, because this film is basically put together from footage for a project that was abandoned back in the mid-70s, it really has more the feeling of a time capsule, a document from the past found anew, than actually a new film.
We’d be talking a masterpiece if the editing were either more expressive (unlike in WOODSTOCK, the audience members in the Kinshasa stadium never really become more than standard reaction footage) or even just not so damn sloppy. There’s too many shots where we see visible cameras onstage, which would be bad enough except that several times the film cuts to the POV of the very camera we’ve just seen. Still, without those onstage cameras, we couldn’t have gotten the footage that we do. So ignore my formal cavilling — I had at least a smile on my face from beginning to end. The Thursday night audience burst into applause at the end of BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”; Withers dominates an arena with his voice and guitar singing a mournful ballad and the minimalist approach works beautifully (I’m reminded of Joan Baez singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in WOODSTOCK); Makeba, in a hairdo Patti LaBelle would have found excessive, plays good trooper backstage to make the show go on but sings “The Click Song” while denouncing that very title. We see every bead of sweat in this steamy concert, while the Spinners go through their tightly-choreographed dances. And people who think popular music isn’t intricate are invited to watch a drum number that shows what is possible with a single man and a single instrument. Also, a Best Scene Skandies plug: The Spinners v. Ali.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Ari Folman, Israel, 2008) — 3
Actual excerpt from my viewing notes: “I am so fucking tired of high-minded humanist anti-war films.” Even if WALTZING WITH BASHIR weren’t the latest Moral Equivalence exercise in Making Ourselves The Most Pure People in the Arabs’ Grave, I still wouldn’t care for it. A memory film about an Israeli soldier reconstructing his actions in the 1982 Lebanon War, the film tips its hand so early that the final revelation is more a relief than a surprise. Even if you didn’t know that WALTZING WITH BASHIR is somehow about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the film tells you right away by showing the protagonist approached by a sea of Arab women in mourning clothes. As a result, BASHIR has nothing to do but slog its way to the only place it has to go. If you’re gonna make a story that consists of nothing but the gradual revelation of events that have already taken place offscreen/offstage, you’d better be Tennessee Williams and have written SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, and not have tipped us off already to what the final revelation is. Also making a cartoon was a mistake, and not just for the reasons Mike points out. But also because we have Helpful Onscreen Psychiatrist tell the protagonist (based on Folman himself) that one form of traumatic denial is to stand outside the events, to see them as if watching a movie, to aestheticize them. But since 99.9999999 percent of this film’s audience was not outside Sabra and Shatila, and maybe 99 percent haven’t personally seen some comparable event, all we can ever do with a movie is watch it, i.e., aestheticize it from a distance. Like the wrestler who pins himself, the film denies the possibility of its own significance. Yes, WALTZING WITH BASHIR is a “deeply personal” film … but it undercuts its own ability to connect with anyone else.
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France, 2008) — 6
Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica once said anyone can play one character — himself — better than anyone else possibly could. I doubt De Sica could have ever made a film like JCVD, but it does prove his aphorism, having one of the weakest actors ever to become a major star turn in his best performance by playing himself. I know “best Jean-Claude Van Damme performance” sounds like “best Scottish cuisine” or somesuch, but this is actually an entertaining movie and Van Damme is good in it. JCVD starts out with a enjoyably funny action scene from a Van Damme shoot, done in a single 5-minute take in which every stunt and move and kick is done both well enough and badly enough (the mistakes, like the guy who “falls” onto the fire, are on the money for the sort of cheesy straight-to-video pictures Van Damme now makes). JCVD is not really a meta-movie though — we never return to that shoot, and the movies mostly re-enter through dealings with agents and L.A. courts (this movie, BTW, has the only empty courtroom in the history of L.A. celebrity child-custody cases). Instead, Van Damme gets gets involved in a Post Office holdup (I won’t say how) and everyone reacts to him as the action star (“I thought he looked bigger on the screen”). The best moment, I think, involved kicking a cigarette out of someone’s mouth. And JCVD is cleverly structured, showing some scenes out of order but clearly and with a point; it ends well, i.e., not like a Van Damme movie; Van Damme shows he has a sense of humor (the lack of which severaly limited him, particularly compared with that other muscle-bound Continental action-star with funny accent) and the film has a couple of good supporting performances (Skandies plug: the cab driver). But the film doesn’t really hang together though — the scenes more “happen” than “build.” And there’s one unforgivable scene in which Van Damme is lifted on a crane out of the set and breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience about his life, tries to cry onscreen and assures us that “this is real.” Um … no, it isn’t — JCVD foregrounds its own “movieness” in every possible way and a sudden tug at the heartstrings (and Van Damme’s limitations as an actor return for this scene only — he’s trying to “act”). In a way, JCVD is also inadvertantly truthful … Van Damme was never much more than a poor man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you never avoid the thought ”what could this movie have been if Arnold had made it.”
I’m now up in Canada, and in fear of being hauled before one of the Human Rights Commissions for all of my various thought crimes. Hopefully, nobody at Canuck Big Brother Central is reading this, because this is where I will be for the next two weeks. Warning to my film-geek buds: I’m ducking out at the first sight of the Thought Police.
* 630pm SOUL POWER (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA)
* 900pm (Ari Folman, Israel)
mid JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France)
915am THREE MONKEYS ( , Turkey)
* 245pm LINHA DE PASSE ( , Brazil)
630pm 35 RHUMS ( , France)
830pm THE BURNING PLAIN ( , USA)
mid DETROIT METAL CITY (Toshio Lee, Japan)
915am ZIFT (Javor Gardev, Bulgaria)
* 230pm LAST STOP 174 (Bruno Barreto, Brazil)
600pm FLAME AND CITRON (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark)
930pm HUNGER (Steve McQueen, Britain)
115pm UNSPOKEN (Fien Troch, Belgium)
300pm YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE (Chai Vaserelyi, USA)
600pm THE SILENCE OF LORNA (the Dardenne brothers, Belgium)
900pm GOMORRAH (Matteo Garonne, Italy)
900am THE OTHER MAN (Richard Eyre, Britain)
300pm ASHES OF TIME (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
615pm TRILOGY (Terence Davies, Britain)
915pm GOODBYE SOLO ( , USA)
945am THREE BLIND MICE (Matthew Newton, Australia)
1215pm KISSES (Lance Daly, Ireland)
400pm OF TIME AND THE CITY (Terence Davies, Britain)
530pm TOKYO SONATA (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
900pm THE BROTHERS BLOOM (Rian Johnson, USA)
900am HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain)
noon A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
315pm SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain)
* 715pm LES PLAGES D’AGNES (Agnes Varda, France)
930pm SKIN (Anthony Fabian, Britain/South Africa)
mid MARTYRS (Pascal Laugier, France)
945am HOOKED (Adrian Sitaru, Romania)
* noon A WOMAN IN BERLIN (Max Farberbock, Germany)
315pm GIGANTIC (Matt Asselton, USA)
645pm CLOUD 9 (Andreas Dresen, Germany)
1015pm STILL WALKING (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
900am CHE (Steven Soderbergh, USA/Spain)
245pm PRIDE AND GLORY (Gavin O’Connor, USA)
600pm CONTROL-ALT-DELETE (Cameron Labine, Canada)
800pm ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE ( , Japan)
1030pm EASY VIRTUE (Stephan Elliott, Britain)
900am THE WRESTLER (Darren Aronovsky, USA)
115pm ADAM’S RESURRECTION (Paul Schrader, USA)
345pm EDEN LOG (Franck Vestiel, France)
545pm WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU (Brian Goodman, USA)
mid CHOCOLATE (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand)
* Second choice film for that time slot.
There’s a lot of unknown quantities in this festival — 24 films, a majority of the 47, are director first-viewings for me. Another seven are by directors whose work I have seen but rarely or never liked (Salles, Barreto, Farberbock, Kurosawa, Denis, Desplechin, Kitano — though several of those cases are samples of 1 or 2). That’s almost the same as the number of directors (8) who have ever scored a Top 10 film for me (Ceylan, Leigh, the Dardennes, Boyle, Pinkaew, Wong, Kore-eda, and Soderbergh). By comparison the same figure of “ever having made a previous Top 10″ for the 2007 fest was more than twice that, 17 — Ozon, Maddin, Rohmer, Bergman, Loach, Baumbach, Van Sant, Miike, Herzog, Ford, Greenaway, the Coens, Andersson, Olmi, Lee, Jordan, Argento. And that was “going into the fest,” thus not counting high-buzz titles like the Cannes-winning 4 MONTHS, SILENT LIGHT and ATONEMENT (3 of my 4 faves, as it turned out). As a result, this festival his mopre of a “unsure/discovery” feel than an “confirming the expected awesomeness” feeling that 2007 had.
Although there’s a lot of second choices in there, I’m not crushed by any of them. Of the missing first choices, only UNCERTAINTY (McGehee/Siegel) and the old film 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD (Francois Girard, which I’ve never seen) disappoint me that much. And those two films were replaced by just about the two strongest-on-paper/-on-buzz second choices I had — LINHA DE PASSE (an Actress prizewinner at Cannes) and the latest Agnes Varda (LES PLAGES D’AGNES). I’m more disappointed by the excellent buzz surrounding HURT LOCKER, Kathryn Bigelow’s contribution to the Iraq War Genre, about which I’ve heard good word (or rather, bad word of the right sort from certain people), but which I just can’t fit in without ripping everything up and starting from scratch.
Also, I won’t be seeing a lot of the highest-profile films to the casual moviegoer — the Hollywood fall-prestige titles in the Gala Program (like the Coens’ BURN AFTER READING, Demme’s RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, THE DUCHESS, and NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH). This was deliberate — they had no screenings (or just one in the last-named case) that passholders like myself could get into. I could (try to) buy a ticket for cash, but my reaction is “I’m already paying hundreds of dollars for the pass, so if you’re not gonna give me a chance to see this film, you must not want me to see it. There is NO way I’m paying you extra, you money-grubbing sunsuvvbi….
(Victor calms down)
Also, there is no way I will watch RELIGULOUS for compensation that does not involve four digits before the decimal point.