All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)

One of the most striking facets of Jarmusch's latest is the way it employs an American naturalism so baldly banal as to almost disappear on-screen. As Bill Murray drives through northeastern backroads, two-lane highways, and housing developments, the film presents landscapes that, for those of us living in these particular boondocks, are almost impossible to actually see. Earlier Jarmusch, or like-minded regionalists like James Benning, would jolt us out of our complacent non-seeing with a strong aesthetic technique -- black and white cinematography, for example, or a forceful use of the stationary camera. But in Broken Flowers, Jarmusch gives us deceptively flat color photography, often shot from car windows or in rearview mirrors. (Only the final shot contains anything resembling bravura camerawork.) The effect is numbing, as it is to most of us living in this corner of the world. But as I watched I would remind myself to really examine this visual non-style, to engage with Broken Flowers as a piece of cinema. Jarmusch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes have in fact taken great care to construct lovely, unfussy compositions rife with appropriately autumnal colors. But in keeping with the overall strategies of the film, their visual style is utterly passive, liable to mosey past the inattentive viewer (myself, initially) the way these spaces themselves tend to do -- as absence, nothing. So perhaps this is the new accessibility I keep hearing about. Jarmusch's "commercial" turn represents a minimalism as absolute in its own way as Dan Flavin's. You can either see the everyday and register it as such -- that is, as not very much at all --, or you can follow Jarmusch's subtle lead, allowing time and attention to break those habits down, letting the everyday reframe itself. Look closer and the film reveals a sturdy but self-depricating beauty. (Shots like the pan from Winston's house to Don's, or the framing of the slow diagonal movement of Don's Taurus around the corner to Laura's house, linger in the memory.)


And if I'm spending considerably more time discussing Broken Flowers as a visual experience than as a set of stories and themes, this is not because I find the film lacking in those areas. But like a true minimalist, Jarmusch fashions Broken Flowers as a set of repetitions. Whether one undergoes these serial experiences as though they were identical, or whether one allows the differences between them to have an impact, to really change you, is one of the underlying themes of the film. To accomplish change, to undergo growth and movement, first we need to leave old narratives behind. Murray's Don Johnston, we are told, was a Don Juan. He's even watching a movie version of Don Juan, although -- I didn't realize this until a friend pointed it out -- it's a film about the end of Don Juan's life, past the prime of his powers. Don seems to watch the film in a stupor, as if wondering, "Is that really me?" (At first I thought Don was more committed to the Don Juan idea, but on reflection, and after some lively debate with others, I'm now more certain that this is an idealized image that Winston foists upon him. Similarly, Jeffrey Wright's Winston is stuck playing Sherlock Holmes, a fantasy that lets him vicariously escape a domestic life that, on the face of it, as actually rather pleasant.) Before Don leaves on the road trip Winston has planned for him, Winston once again talks up Don's reputation as a Don Juan and Don flatly demands, "will you stop saying that?" This identity, if it ever really existed for Don, is long gone. And what is left in its place? In some ways, we can still observe Don trying to hold onto this narrative trope of masculine mastery, as when he tells Dora and her husband at dinner that he has remained a "bachelor," an outdated idea from the 70s, one Dora's husband openly mocks. He is a man whose tropes for narrating his past have all worn out, evaporated. And with each successive encounter, Don becomes less and less able to manage his past. The audience soon realizes what Don already knows, that the Don Juan narrative is a red herring. Perhaps once it was a way to gloss over the fact that white male privilege -- the ability to fall into bed with beautiful women, to make a good living in computers without any real commitment to them, to zone out to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem and drive your flashy Mercedes -- has availed Don nothing. Like a less condescending, more incisive version of About Schmidt, Broken Flowers bears witness to the unraveling of a life of banal prerogative, a life so emptily comfortable as to mitigate self-examination of any kind. We watch as he becomes increasingly marginal, a minimal self. In time, even Don's capacity for basic niceties falls away, and what's left -- the revealed core of his identity, finally laid bare through this repetition and paring-away -- is virtually nothing, only the complete isolation that comes with discovering that in fact you weren't living inside a movie, you were never the star, there are no more pages in the script. And yet, time remains.


The 40 Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)

Not much to say about this one, I'm afraid. [Please. Hold your applause.] In addition to being consistently funny and Apatow's expert rendering of the interrelationships within its four-man clique, Virgin scores points by bravely beating a path away from the Comedy of Humiliation, in favor of recognizably human growing pains. Steve Carell's a genius and deserves massive fame, although I hope he manages to avoid Ferrell-level overexposure. Also, the score is lowered a little bit due to some fairly visible third-act rom-com contrivance (Keener's freak-out) and also on account of this film is just way too freakin' long, I mean jesus.


-Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (Stuart Samuels, Canada / U.S.)

No great shakes, nothing miraculous or formally daring. Just a tight, informative and entertaining examination of cult movie history, how the midnight circuit developed (largely due to one enterprising exhibitor, Ben Barenholtz), and why certain movies caught on at the Witching Hour. It's a streamlined, clip-illustrated version of Hoberman and Rosenbaum's book, and while both men appear throughout the film, it's Hoberman who provides the guiding analytical framework for the viewer. (Ebert pops up now and then too, but mostly to look like a fogey; he's The Man, and while that isn't entirely fair, he sort of brings it on himself.) Extra points for using a shrewd, focused format: the history of the midnight movie as conveyed through six paradigmatic examples, a sort of head-shop inversion of Nixon's Six Crises. The structure is not always perfectly employed, and may have been an editing-room decision rather than part of the master plan from the start. (For example, in the wrap-up, Hoberman name-checks only five, leaving out Night of the Living Dead.) But this is a minor quibble. I've read the book, I know this history, and I still learned some things from this film (above all else, that I need to rent The Harder They Come ASAP). [Midnight Movies is airing on the Encore channel in the U.S. during the month of August, and will debut on Canada's Movie Central channel following its premiere at this year's Toronto IFF.]




The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, France)

I haven't seen Fingers, the James Toback film that Audiard has remade or, as many more informed reviews have put it, riffed on, playing it again like a classical composition. Given the hoary genre tropes and hairpin transitions that comprise The Beat, and having some familiarity with Toback's unhinged style, I expect that the original Fingers plays like feral Mozart, the constraints of genre (the classical) barely containing their outlines under the pressure of chaotic execution. But then, I don't know for sure; I'm just guessing. What I do know is that Audiard manages to toggle back and forth between the two main themes -- reluctant-gangster and raw-musical-passion -- without ever really achieving counterpoint. Part of this has to do with Audiard's firm commercial instincts, which never let him get too close to Thomas (Romain Duris), his affably schizotypal protagonist. Although Audiard does wonderful things with the music, letting it evoke Thomas's swoony moods and bad-ass hyperactivity, he also can't resist filling the tensest scenes with a useless background score, or prodding Duris into fits that telegraph creative frustration in the most cartoonishly outsized terms. (There are moments when Thomas is pitched somewhere around Geoffrey Rush in Shine, and then spikes the lunacy even higher, recalling the composer character on Sesame Street, banging his head against those cruel, cruel keys.) Even the film's visual style, which is so promising in the opening fifteen minutes -- whooshing headlights and swirling neon, a nod to the Nighttime School of Urban Alienation, East Asian Campus --, soon becomes programmatic, with the camera literalizing Thomas's jitters and the like. These are the same things that irked me about Read My Lips, and while I do have to concede that this is a better film in every way, I guess I just don't think the way Audiard does. While it's admirable and correct to take Toback's outlandish premise and play it for straight pathos, the strategy ultimately highlights Audiard's deficiencies as a director. [POSTSCRIPT: I saw Fingers a few days after The Beat, and there's no comparison. Some notes on the Toback film can be found here.]


-Harry + Max (Christopher Munch)

It's sort of become a common meme in art historical circles that photography was partially responsible for the advent of modernist painting. With daguerreotypes producing exact likenesses of the observable world, painters were free to explore pure abstraction. This occurred to me while watching Harry + Max, since, like Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, Munch's latest film seems to pick up narrative and stylistic possibilities left over from early in Gus Van Sant's career. That is, now that Van Sant is busy being Béla Tarr, queer American indies like Araki and Munch can effectively become Van Sant. (Who'll be the new 'early" Araki? Yikes.) At any rate, this new approach allowed Araki to stop going for cheap shocks, but Munch, whose films have always been hamstrung by a starchy self-seriousness, is trying to unleash his inner horndog. He doesn't go far enough, and that's the problem. Harry + Max is a fascinating failure, not without redeeming values. But the film aches to let itself go, to rush off to a dark corner and jerk off. Munch is clearly working out a fantasy scenario -- a Nick Lachey look-alike and a Zach Hanson look-alike as incestuous brothers. But H+M (fitting abbreviation, actually) is so conflicted about its randiness that it won't shut up. Incessant faux-analytical prattling ultimately sinks the movie, which is a shame since the audacity of its premise, combined with Munch's unfailingly beautiful Western vistas, could really have been something if their awkward collision had been left alone. In the end, H+M even becomes a kind of Movie of the Week, with Harry's (Bryce Johnson) hard-on for Max (Cole Williams) chalked up to garden variety self-destructiveness. ("It's not incest!" Harry protests. "We're just helping each other work things out!") This typifies the implicitly apologetic tone of the whole film. Without a doubt, Van Sant would have known better. Perversions are for luxuriating in, not explaining away.


Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer)

[SPOILERS] Whoop that trick! (Git 'em!) Whoop that trick! (Git 'em!), I mean first things first, that shit is catchy. (However the other big number, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," is third-rate Curtis Mayfield.) This film has other notable strengths, particularly its actors. Terrence Howard runs the show here with steely intensity, managing to invest Brewer's clichés (especially that far-away, "I have a dream" look) with total believability. But H&F surrounds Howard with performers who more than keep pace with him; Taraji Henson and Paula Jai Parker (as the mama ho and the bitch ho, respectively) are particularly blistering, and I hope to see them in other roles after this. As a director, Brewer's greatest asset is his unerring eye for local detail. He paints a gritty, sweat- and funk-encrusted lower-class Memphis that is guaranteed to throw middle-class suburbia (where most people will end up seeing H&F) into antiseptic relief. In other words, the film has some true underground feel, like the home recordings that are its subject. So that's the good stuff. The bad? Well, in addition to the widely bemoaned fact that Brewer has never met an overcoming-the-odds narrative convention he didn't like, there's the irksome, disingenuous way that he insists on having it both ways. Djay (Howard) is generally the most sanitized, avuncular pimp imaginable (if he's a hustler, Julia Roberts is a ho), but at other times he keeps his hos in line the old fashioned way. The film seems to suggest that hos -- and women in general -- want to be dominated by a strong hand, and won't respect a man unless he is prepared to slap the bitchiness out of them. Brewer knows full well that white critics like yours truly are going to think twice before complaining about this sexism, since, this being a film about a pimp and his hos, to do so is to risk looking hopelessly naive. (Don't hate the player, and for that matter don't be hatin' the game, bitch. Etc.) But Brewer won't fully commit in this direction either, since he wants Djay to maintain audience approval. This hypocrisy is best exemplified by the film's third act, which demonstrates that Djay, either due to circumstance or his cultural hard-wiring, is incapable of making it with his skills and brains alone. When faced with the arrogance of Skinny Black (Ludacris). a local boy made good, Djay has no choice but to whoop that trick. (Git 'em!) His burst of violence is, naturally, what gets him the notoriety and street cred to break out as a rising star of hip-hop. It's hard to come away from this knee-jerk paean to thuggish black masculinity without feeling like Brewer is the fetishist white boy, defensively calling the rest of us out as haters and prudes. Nice trick.


-Raincoat (Rituparno Ghosh, India)

[MILD SPOILERS] Thanks to the film festival circuit (especially Toronto and Locarno), Ghosh enjoys a substantial reputation as one of the few Bengali art-cinema directors still capable of carrying on the tradition of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. (With Mani Kaul missing from the scene since 1999, only Buddhadev Dasgupta stands with Ghosh as an international standard-bearer.) Raincoat is the first Ghosh film I've seen, and I'm honestly not sure what to think of it. On the one hand, I can't say I enjoyed it. After a twenty-minute set-up involving poor Manoj (Ajay Devgan) traveling to Calcutta from his village in a last-ditch effort to raise some capital and make something of himself, the film confines itself to the decaying luxury apartment of Niru (Aishwarya Rai), the woman who spurned Manoj years earlier. The long central act of the film, which unfolds like a stage play, consists of the two former lovers engaging one another's fantastic lies with downcast sincerity. One senses very early on where Raincoat is going, and when the credits rolled and immediately announced that the film was "inspired by O. Henry," I was at least grateful that Ghosh had full awareness of this. But the double deception, and the unwillingness of either participant to break this mutually crippling pseudo-illusion, is exasperating rather than moving. The narrative, as well as Ghosh's claustrophobic staging of it, harks back to a model of Calvinist bourgeois art cinema (Bergman, some Ray) that often strikes me as needlessly masochistic and self-abnegating. In the context of Indian cinema, I suppose I can see the appeal of posing emotional inwardness as a counter-narrative to the boisterous artifice of Bollywood. But Ghosh's approach feels like a reaction-formation. (Imagine if the only alternative to, say, Lil' Jon's ostentatious crunk was the tight-assed rectitude of Tracy Chapman.) There is a middleground, after all. (See the sprawling political showmanship of Mani Ratnam, any chance you get.) Still, it's interesting in and of itself to see a Hindi film so mired in depression. Devgan does a good job as a downtrodden hangdog, vaguely channeling Ron Livingston in a post-relationship slump. Rai acquits herself reasonably well, but it's clear that Ghosh is prompting her to telegraph the barely suppressed mania of a life built on flimsy lies. She looks like she could explode at any minute, which only makes the second-act pressure cooker more overbearing than it wants to be. It's unclear how much of the sheer oddness of this picture is the result of Ghosh working in Hindi rather than his customary Bengali. But in any case, despite my misgivings about this film, I'm planning to keep an eye on Ghosh. India needs independent cinema, possibly even more than we do.




Happy Endings (Don Roos)

This is the sort of film that somehow inoculates itself against close analysis, not only because of its endless authorial inserts, but because it slathers the screen with so much information and yet manages to generate so little to really care about. No character is engaging or sympathetic, only some of them (Lisa Kudrow's Mamie, Tom Arnold's Frank) are recognizably human, and even then only intermittently. In other words, it's numbing -- there's just nothing and lots of it. And so, as I watched, I got certain critical inklings, about Roos' apparent contempt for his female characters, or his pseudo-taboo-busting exploitation of stereotypes, or his paradoxical way of adopting fake humanist warmth as a pose for disguising just how saturated with misanthropy his project really is. But none of these thoughts ever really felt like they were worth pursuing; doing so would be to lavish more intellection on Happy Endings than Roos himself did. And yet, he's obviously very pleased with himself, for no good reason. For instance, I am pretty sure that I wasn't supposed to immediately pick up on the way Javier's (Bobby Cannavale) Mexican accent resulted in him saying "Miriam" (Mamie's real name) and "medium" in the exact same way. (Get it? Mamie is pathetically unexceptional!) And as for those aforementioned authorial inserts? Senator, you're no Alfonso Cuarón.


Red Eye (Wes Craven)

[SPOILERS] Applecheeks and Gaydar walk into an airport bar . . . I must say I'm nonplussed by the high marks this one's getting from critics. It must be the factor of pure surprise that Craven's made something that doesn't completely suck from the get-go. Even though the first half is formally clunky, it mostly covers it over with pure velocity, speeding through its wan Hitchcockian paces. The film's strongest asset by far is Rachel McAdams, whose performance is a marvel of game conviction. She almost keeps this thing anchored in a recognizably real world. But then the third act kicks in, and Craven and the script have her committing a slew of implausible judgment errors, just to keep the lame-assed cat and mouse game going. But even more troubling that Red Eye's cheap sleight of logic is its creepy right-wing subtext. Lisa the innocent is preyed upon by the effeminate international man of mystery, who is jeopardizing not only her father (Brian Cox), but her country, in the person of the square-jawed, straight-shootin' Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. Craven not-so-subtly parallels Lisa's skybound breach of security with a rape and assault she underwent two years prior. She explains to Assailant 2.0 Jackson (Cillian Murphy) that after her first attack, she promised herself she'd never be a victim again. So, she fights back, saves Mr. Homeland Security, and then tries to save her dad (who in fact must save his daughter in the end, naturally). National security is being likened to the plight of a rape victim (her actual rape a sort of private 9/11 -- never again), only this time she strikes back in the name of the decent people of the U.S. of A., not to mention dear old dad. She's the Motherland, and American womanhood is ideationally collapsed with keeping our shores free of enemies foreign and domestic. Once this threat is managed through her twice-remarked-upon female emotional intelligence, Daddy can step in, and the Fatherland / patriarchy is restored. At the risk of the type of overstatement that Godwin's Law is meant to obviate, this is the sort of popular culture Goebbels gave the people of Nazi Germany. Enjoy.


-The Talent Given Us (Andrew Wagner)

Not very good, but like so much of the reality TV it so closely resembles, compulsively watchable. It would make for better television, and the look and feel is so episodic yet truncated (family members just disappear, family friends pop up, etc.) that I have to wonder whether Wagner reverse-engineered this film from a rejected pilot. At its best, Talent contains moments of humor that recall Curb Your Enthusiasm, but most of it is comprised of cheap laugh lines and smug condescension at the haute bourgeoisie. (Therapy culture is the most common target, and Wagner, in true reality-TV style, tries to have it both ways -- mocking it and embodying it all at once.) For what it is, it's remarkable that it's so well-constructed; in fact, its highly professional sheen belies any authenticity claims it implicitly tries to make for itself. So much of it is cruel that its occasional dollops of warmth are welcome, despite Wagner's tendency to skid into schmaltz. Sure to garner support from viewers and critics who inexplicably fail to find the films of Todd Solondz or Denys Arcand cheap and callow. To me, it's just a slightly better version of Rolling Family, and that's enough to make me want to get abducted behind a rest stop. One last note: hands down, the worst soundtrack of the entire freakin' year.


-Undertow (David Gordon Green)

It's Night of the Hunter plus Days of Heaven plus (if you can believe it) Frailty -- a Southern Gothic mishmash that goes exactly as expected, right down to the awkward moments of stillness and ostensibly spontaneous horseplay. The critical establishment has been waiting for an American Regionalist hero to rise, and for a while DGG seemed to fit the bill. George Washington was highly flawed but promising, and Green's aesthetic, for better or worse, hit its apotheosis with All the Real Girls. But here we see the style lavished on a rote backwoods thriller, and it becomes easier to see how little there really is to this guy. He elicits a strong performance from Jamie Bell, but coaches everyone else to mumble and drawl. There's nothing noteworthy about his rhythm or editing anymore, and I'm wondering if there ever was. I'm tempted to think that without cinematographer Tim Orr, Green wouldn't be anything to write home about. It looks like the fifteen minutes have elapsed.




The Colonial Misunderstanding (Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon / France / Germany) [v]

Merely competent only part of the time, and frustratingly inept for the remainder, The Colonial Misunderstanding serves to place a giant question mark over Teno's reputation as one of Africa's leading documentarians. (He was a featured filmmaker at this year's Flaherty Seminar, and a retrospective of his work has been making the museum rounds.) A graceless collection of medium-long-shots of churches and interminable talking heads (average shot length, four minutes, sometimes broken up with a map insert), TCM in its present form could possibly serve in high school social studies classrooms, as a low-level primer on the European colonization of Southern and Southwestern Africa and the role of Christianity therein. But Teno squanders any real opportunity to deliver an interrogation of this history; instead he recites well-known facts. And lest I sound ungenerous, falsely assuming that any educated person would be aware of what is in fact some kind of hidden history, allow me to recap the major assertions from Teno's first hour. A) Missionaries came to Cameroon and Namibia to convert so-called heathens to Christianity. B) The missionaries were blinkered by ethnocentrism, seeking to forcibly impose Western civilization onto the already thriving but differently-organized African societies. C) The Europeans believed they were racially superior to the Africans. [Let me give you a minute to pick your jaw up off the floor.] Europe's forcible colonization of Africa reflects such an egregious chapter in human history that it must be recounted many times over. This I gladly concede. But there is no reason for the flat, pedantic tone Teno elicits from his interview subjects, or the way his occasional authorial comments adopt a faux-naïf persona that is almost Nick Broomfieldesque. As an examination of colonial legacies and their post-colonial hangover, TCM fails. However, in the final ten minutes of this 75-minute video, Teno actually delivers some compelling, unexpected claims. He explains that the Germans' war on the Namibian Hereros in the early 1900s provided the testing ground for the use of concentration camps, a technology perfected on African soil which the colonizers (many of whom would become Nazis) then brought back home. And finally, Teno attacks the patronizing charity model which predominantly characterizes Western relations with Africa to this day, essentially calling it colonization by other means. Then, TCM ends, leaving these bracing assertions undefended and underelaborated. It seems clear that this is exactly what Teno's film should have been about. How could these final ideas fail to sustain 75 minutes of careful exploration? So the greatest failure of the film is the fact that its most pressing subject matter is relegated to the status of a parting shot, a throwaway.