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)




Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs) [v]

Re-Framing Creatures -- Back in its original, permanently-incomplete incarnation, SSTD was, according to P. Adams Sitney, an example of Jacobs' "aesthetic of failure." That is, Jacobs work was an endless anti-masterpiece, a film adrift in the cosmos and found on a garbage dump, always coming apart and temporarily coming together again. Incompleteness was an integral part of the experience of SSTD, much in the same way (but for arguably different reasons) that one of its stars, Jack Smith, refused to complete his post-Flaming Creatures projects into coherent, singular "works." The portions of original late-50s-early-60s footage in the current, definitive version of SSTD, those that seem to have most in common with Sitney's descriptions of the earliest versions, share much with the style and feel of Jacobs' other collaborations with Smith and Jerry Sims, Blonde Cobra and Little Stabs at Happiness (although the former includes contributions from Bob Fleishner who, as far as I can tell, is absent from SSTD). One of the things that makes these films so astonishing, that lifts them out of the wash of formlessness that claimed so much other art from the Beat period, is Jacobs' tendency to create perfect, meticulous compositions or visual situations, which Smith, Sims, and company would then procede to deconstruct / fuck up. This is a tendency inherent in the struggle between still and moving images, already at work in the Lumières' films. And unlike Jacobs, who moved through other aesthetic regimes with this underlying problem constantly evolving, Andy Warhol made it the dominant mode of his entire filmic output. (This is neither better nor worse, mind you. Some artists plumb the depths of a single problematic, while others set ever newer challenges for themselves, their personality and temperament being the sole constant.)


What we see in the new SSTD, and what provides a sort of framing device for Jacobs' tomfoolery, is the assemblage of numerous damning filmic documents from the Eisenhower era, almsot all presented not in excerpt but in all their confoundingly simpleminded glory. Smith and Sims at times pop in and out like advertisements for a different, freer kind of life, while we see, for example: a CBS science program about an experiment to isolate "mother love" by observing orphaned chimps' behavior around soft fabric vs. wire "mothers." Or Osa and Martin Johnson's ethnographic film, wherein under the guise of anthropology they tool around Africa in sedan chairs, bringing 'much-needed civilization" to the "natives," i.e., reconstructing 1950s American mores under thatched huts, with helpful Negro servants attending to their every need. (It's like watching an episode of "The Flintstones" to learn about the paleolithic era.) Or Nixon's infamous "Checkers" speech, as the unkempt politician blathers on, wife Pat at his side as a silent prop. When one considers that one of Jacobs' great topics of recent years has been an inquiry into stupidity (the topic of a three-course mega-seminar prior to his retirement from Binghamton University), the dialectic between his work with Smith and Sims and the surrounding "popular" culture of the period becomes clear. We're witnessing a struggle of sorts, between two irreconcilable modes of "stupidity." The playful, innocent exploration of Jacobs, Smith, and Sims is a positive "stupidity," one scarcely deserving of the name. It entails a childlike wonder at the urban landscape, the strange ways of 1950s New Yorkers, and the capacities of the performers' own bodies. This is blissful ignorance of the machinations of the larger world, an attempt to create a separate world (one that Sitney has famously compared to Baudelairian romanticism). Against this, we see cynical stupidity, the work of those the late Herbert Brün referred to as "self-appointed morons." These are people who should know better, who've had all the opportunities that society customarily offeres its elites, but are content to represent and defend stupidity to the rest of the world. We see their efforts ad nauseum. Unlike Michael Moore (Dennis Harvey's review of SSTD provides an instructive comparison with Fahrenheit 9/11), Jacobs pulls no punches and spares us no tedium. As an artist committed to working with temporality as a specific property of filmic meaning, Jacobs knows that by asking his audience to endure these media and cultural banalities in real time, he achieves a different level of response. We don't simply chuckle at the patent stupidity of another historical moment and move on, like in those horrible VH1 mock-nostalgia specials or their recent cinematic offspring (Starsky and Hutch; The Stepford Wives). We are exhausted by the idiocy; our bodies and minds crave something else, a different way of life. Our own world is channelled into our brains in a concentrated dose -- even over nearly seven hours, SSTD is remarkably compact when you consider the wealth of material suitable for inclusion! -- in order not to argue for, but to instill, the utopian urge.


Jacobs makes clear that it's not just bad science and dumb politics that comprises this American dystopia. Art and entertainment have a role to play. In one of the finest passages of the film, during its fifth hour, Jacobs gives us a lengthy dialectic on race relations as seen by early Hollywood and its periphery. In an extended clip from Lloyd Bacon's Wonder Bar, we see Al Jolson in blackface, performing an egregious routine in a racist faux-black fantasia setting that resembles an artistic marriage between Griffith and Fritz Lang. Jolson sings of going up to heaven on a mule, and the heaven we see is jaw-dropping -- giant dancing watermelon wedges, pork chop trees, dice "dat always comes up sebbin," and on and on. At one point we see Jolson in blackface peering up from behind a Yiddish newspaper. Theo Panayides has argued that this is a sly self-effacing joke, an echt-Jewish performer acknowledging the silliness of "playing Negro." This reading doesn't seem implausible to me, and Theo has had the benefit of seeing the clip within the context of the entire Bacon film. However, this moment with the newspaper seems to provide the fulcrum for Jacobs' critique -- that Jews, of all people, would engage in racist stereotyping as light entertainment. As a radical Jewish artist, Jacobs seems to insist that we cannot just put such uncomfortable images safely away. And, as if to demonstrate at length how stereotypes and images build on each other and take on lives of their own, SSTD follows the Wonder Bar clip with a segment of Oscar Micheaux's God's Stepchildren, in which an educated black man holds forth on the problems of his race. Like a proto-Chris Rock, Micheaux's character claims that most Negroes are lazy and tend to avoid long-term planning. Here, Jacobs shows us an artist he admires (he's claimed that Micheaux's Ten Minutes to Live could be inserted into SSTD in its entirety) ostensibly engaging in "straight talk," but evincing an internalization of the stereotypes of his race. Jacobs completes this passage with an audiotape of Khalid Mohammad speaking to an audience on behalf of Colin Ferguson, calling him a "modern day Nat Turner" and claiming that "God told Colin to ride the train that day." All told, it's a dismal picture, one with enough blame to go around and still have some left over for seconds. But playing against it all, always, is the memory and the possibility of an inclusive, experimental counter-culture, one that could only have emerged in response to the stultifying American 1950s.


Is it time for just such a counter-culture to emerge again? The 2003 version of SSTD is not just an assemblage of older materials, but an essay-film of sorts, wherein Jacobs is explicity re-reading the moment of the film's inception from the social and political situation of the present-day United States. He begins with a trailer that shows Smith and company playing on a heap of rubble, overlaid with texts about 9/11, the airlift of the bin Ladens out of the U.S., and the phony "war on terror." Throughout SSTD '03, Jacobs inserts written commentary, offhand asides, and in numerous cases entire treatises that can only be glimpsed in flash-frame. (Only on home video or DVD would they be legible; Jacobs, ever the medium-specific artist, uses the transfer to video as an opportunity to add new material that is unassimilable in a theatrical viewing context.) The final portion of the film, a segment Jacobs calls "Limbo," is a space for additional footage that cannot be accommodated anywhere else. (The capaciousness of SSTD, as the last paragraph should indicate, does disguise a deep underlying order.) But it's also dominated by Jacobs' commentary and new contemporary footage. (A sequence from a recent anti-war protest, with a goofy street performer in whom Jacobs spots "the spirit of Jack Smith," is especially touching.) While the politics is still front and center, "Limbo" foregrounds the distance between the 50s footage and the present, and provides a space for Jacobs to acknowledge personal loss (Smith's death, and the rift between Jacobs and Sims) without giving an inch on the political front. It seems to be the perfect conclusion to this piece. Pain and mourning do not necessarily have to resolve themselves into nostalgia, hopelessness, or quietism. In fact, they show us all that's left to be done, and they provide the wisdom that undergirds our hard-won innocence.


Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium)

This review is the story of a disagreement about what's funny. It is a disagreement between your friend, the Academic Hack, and an imaginary web critic and professional film writer, who we'll call Johnny L'Orange. You see, Johnny loves tight little narrative structures, interlocking plotlines, plant-and-payoff scenarios. And he likes screwball comedies. As a writer himself, he approves of flawlessly woven tapestries of verbal wit. Johnny likes Bringing Up Baby, whereas the Hack finds it an admirable but ultimately exhausting object, too pleased with itself, too "perfect." Johnny likes Billy Wilder, Coen brothers films, and David Mamet films. The Hack does too, sometimes. But the Hack can scarcely think of an alleged comedy less funny than State and Main, a popular L'Orange favorite. ("Shhh, Theodora Duse," Johnny will entone reverently.) The Hack champions Airplane!, The Jerk, Freddy Got Fingered, as well as highbrow comedies that, according to Johnny, are not comedies at all. Films like The Uncertainty Principle or Une Vraie Jeune Fille, L'Orange contends, were not meant to be funny. Laughing at them, appreciating them for their obvious wit, is a perverse misreading, or better yet, proof that the films in question are no good, failing to accomplish their allegedly high-minded aims. The Hack also tends to enjoy non sequiturs, randomness, anarchy. In the case of the new Chantal Akerman film, we have a situation pitched somewhere between all of these different points of disagreement about The Funny. Akerman's film adopts the outer vestments of a screwball comedy (remember, a genre the Hack has no real fondness for, and that Johnny L'Orange loves dearly), only to confound viewer expectations about how a screwball comedy is supposed to proceed. Instead of constructing elaborate narrative excuses for quirky behavior, Tomorrow We Move throws the viewer into the deep end, with bizarre, improbable interactions between barely knowable characters. For example, she employs the repetitive, rapid-fire dialogue heard in so many screwball comedies, but it is deployed nonsensically. It doesn't so much build as emerge, turned on like water from a spigot. The phrases the actors pass back and forth remain flat, mechanical, and abstract. In doing this, Akerman is revealing the mechanisms that traditional screwball comedy normally disguises through tight scripting. (The secret is, these "tight" scripts do not build actual characters, you see, but position individuals inside a comedic mechanism. Akerman just assumes the mechanism is in place, and foregoes the narrative excuses.) When an artist adopts the procedures of a genre in order to interrogate the rhetorical underpinnings of this genre, it is traditionally called a "deconstruction." So it seems logical to conclude that Akerman, a wily experimental artist, is deconstructing screwball comedy by calling on its techniques and audience expectations, but not following through in the traditional way. And as we all know, having an expectation and then having it denied, or being led to one conclusion and ending up somewhere else, is inherently funny. Right? Oh, really? You don't think so? Well, remember, this review is the story of a disagreement about what's funny. I highly recommend Tomorrow We Move. It is a hilarious, touching, and formally rigorous work of art by a modern master. It features an uproarious second act, and strong, precise performances by some of France's best actors, including Sylvie Testud, Lucas Belvaux, Aurore Clement, and Natascha Regnier. This film is funny, but not in the way you think it will be funny. But of course, you are welcome to disagree.




Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)

Writing about this film poses particular challenges. I could describe it as "barely there," but that would be misleading. It isn't shambolic like Napoleon Dynamite, not even remotely. If anything, Before Sunset's dominant aesthetic feature is a loose amalgam -- can't call it a "tension," really -- between a strict time structure (80-sum-odd real-time minutes) and the airy, dispersive gabfest contained therein. Within this framework, Linklater's film subtly reverses itself, becoming less leaden as it progresses, without necessarily becoming "realistic." We begin with a rigid framing device, with Ethan Hawke's Jesse at a Paris bookstore discussing the novel he's written based on his Viennese encounter with Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years ago. Jesse prattles on about folded temporality, the nature of memory, the blurry line between fiction and autobiography . . . in short, we begin in that shaky, irritating zone of blathering hippy "philosophy" that sank Waking Life like a stone, and that pretentiousness, for me, marred Before Sunrise to a significant degree. (There's nothing worse than a Rohmeresque gabfest among characters who the film asks us to believe are smarter and more insightful than they actually are. It's like listening to undergrads grapple with the "big questions," like, "What if what I call 'green' is the thing that you call 'blue'?") Luckily, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have grown significantly in nine years. Hawke is still too smug for my taste, with the mein of a privileged slacker trying to behave as though he's way less comfortable in his skin than he actually is. Delpy's Celine projects new maturity into her neurosis, and her development into an activist feeds into this nicely. Instead of trying to find her place in the world, she's now rattling against the confines of larger structures in the world, ones that she can now see for what they are. So Sunset begins tentatively (and frustratingly) as more of the same, nine years on -- young people yakking about The World We Live In and Life In General. But wisely, the performers shift this dialogue into a question of avoidance and interpersonal projection. How can they hope to convey, in an hour and a half or in a lifetime, who they are, who they think they were, and who they would need to be in order to resume this truncated Great Love? To Linklater's credit, the film never really leaves behind this problem of the "performance of the self." Right up to the end, nearly every personal breakthrough or direct connection is mitigated by a sarcastic aside, a half-retraction. And yet, these two self-involved souls eventually reveal more and more of themselves, their disappoinments and dissatisfactions. The trick is, this still isn't enough to break through Jesse and Celine's protective shells. So, when I describe Before Sunset as "barely there," it's partly a compliment. So much of the emotional meat of this film comes in small physical details, such as Jesse tugging at his wedding ring, indecisive as to whether to try to take it off and hide it. (Does she already know?) The dialogue forms one single track of meaning, playing off against shifts in posture, or facial expressions hovering between openness and smirking. All the same, the film is barely there in the way that a non-specialist would struggle to describe the flavor of a meal or the specific aroma of a perfume. It's fleeting and altogether formal, a pattern mimicking "who people are" rather than embodying anyone we actually know. Abstraction and psychology are awkward bedfellows, and Linklater, wisely keeps us on the outside, uncertain as to whether consummation is possible or even desirable.


The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, Canada)

Yes my friends, it is the anti-Fahrenheit. While I would have to be willfully blinkered to think we're getting the whole picture here, one of this film's strengths (aside from clear argumentation and meticulous research) is the fact that corporate insiders (former CEOs, child-marketing experts, "undercover" advertising specialists, commodities traders) line up to tell their side of the story. Some doozies are contained therein; the "nagging study" was a jaw-dropper. But more than what they say, their blithe indifference to the filmmakers' project tells the story, and shows why a film that takes on the corporate-capitalist structure is in some ways destined to succeed where Moore's political doc fails. What we witness in The Corporation is the reigning ideology, that "the market" is free of ideology, that like the rivers and the mountains and the sky, it just is. How could anyone have a problem with companies doing whatever it takes to make you buy their product? That's just "how things work," right? So, when we see a particularly sinister Monsanto training video about artificial hormones for dairy cows, what we're also seeing is the psychology of the profit motive, an utterly un-self-conscious and unapologetic (or, as the film claims, "psychopathic") avarice. Even right-wing politicians know there's "another side," so they typically mind their P's and Q's. But the market, it's believed, has no natural enemies, save a few anti-WTO yahoos with purple hair. And who cares what they think? Achbar and Abbott inevitably streamline some material to make their point go down more smoothly, but considering all the ground they cover, they have made a thorough, comprehensive film that seldom sacrifices depth of analysis. (The inclusion of Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein, and a surprisingly thoughtful Michael Moore certainly helps.) The Corporation even has its own Lila Lipscombe figure in Roy Anderson, a repentant CEO who decides he only wants to make industrial carpet if he can do so without destroying the environment, a noble if quixotic goal. On a formal level, the kitschy Power-Point presentation style was both slyly humorous and an effective way to put their argument across. (The consistency of the soundtrack was also a plus. No ominous music popping up to tell you who the bad guys were; it was all ominousness, all the time, creating an overall mood rather than jerking the viewer around.) Also, the flat, computer-like female narrator (one Mikela J. Mikael) was really sexy. I think my door may be ajar.


-Die Mommie Die! (Mark Rucker)

You know what? This is as good as Far From Heaven, in its own way. Yes, it's campy, but not in a way that relies solely on anachronism. Charles Busch's production is firmly committed to the Sirkian aesthetic, rarely breaks character for direct-to-audience winking, and although it's silly and frivolous, in its own way it seems as sincere an appreciation of 1950s melodrama as Haynes' film, or Jack Smith's Montez-inspired projects. And while Busch does appear to be the auteur of record here, Rucker is a talent to watch. Minor touches, like the lighting on Angela's eyes at the dinner table, are pitch-perfect. The Sundance Series might still be going if they'd lined up four films as strong as this. (See Dopamine below. Or rather, don't.)


Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess)

Utterly random, gleefully discombobulated, and episodic at best, ND is barely a film. It's a goofy character study with virtually no subtext and barely any text. But what it does have is absolute commitment to its bent characters, its spare visual style, and a gritty ersatz-leather elegance that looks scraped off the back wall of a Levitz showroom. Jon Heder is not an uber-nerd so much as an Idaho alien, his line deliveries underscoring the pithy meaninglessness of every scrap of dialogue. Why a llama? What's up with He-Man? Why do I keep worrying that I may be watching racist caricatures, only to conclude that the "characters" are insufficiently human to properly defame anyone? Most importantly, who the hell was this film made for? In an age of complete focus-group mediocrity, ND represents something cracked, singular, and at times even touching (thanks in large part to Efran Ramirez's melancholy performance as Pedro). When this turns up on cable, you won't be able to look away. Memo to Fox and Paramount: Jesus Christ, guys, take it easy on the cap-coding. I saw red dots, like, six times. Nobody wants to steal this, trust me.


Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, France)

So, that was Cahiers' Best Film of 2003. Can't say I argue, exactly. Brisseau's direction is cunning and disruptive, moving us from high-grade T&A through droll yet constrictive office-comedy, and ending up, well, god knows where. Like K. Kurosawa's Bright Future, I barely know what to make of it at all, but I will say this -- I was never not intrigued. The sexy parts were indeed very sexy (Sabrina Seyvecou's Sandrine looks a bit like Mischa Barton, except she's nearly always naked; Coralie Revel's opening sequence manages to be both robotic and outrageously over the top, and this is the tone her performance maintains throughout the film), but they were also incredibly silly. The mid-section is talky and pseudo-philosophical in a restrained way, a muted Romance or even Baise-moi as filtered through Rivette. (As the "innocent" dupe, Roger Mirmont is a standout.) And then, as our protagonistas discover a force beyond mere manipulation, a lothario who is virtually the Prince of Darkness himself, the film just goes haywire, resembling the orgy sequence from Eyes Wide Shut, this time fully cognizent of its ridiculousness and yet played totally straight. If all the Nietzschean chatter is just nonsense (I'm pretty sure it is), why isn't this dismissible as pure Penthouse poseury? (It's not, after all -- but why?) If Breillat and Kubrick met in a bar at 2 a.m., would they fuck or fight? Would a second viewing clarify any of this one way or the other? I'll get a private booth and let you know.




Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, U.S. / Colombia)

Anchored by an incredibly self-possessed central performance (by Catalina Sandino Moreno), the film itself occasionally lives up to her prickly naturalism. But I went into Maria expecting to see the best film Ken Loach never made, and Marston's direction and writing are actually more of a piece with Loach's muddled recent work. Like Loach, Marston tends to rely on an immediate but uninflected visual style and straightforward narrative organization to breathe "realism" into some rather typical conceits. For instance, why should Maria's family demand that she sacrifice her own life and dreams for the good of the family unit? The film doesn't interrogate this, partly because it expects its liberal, multi-culti viewers to tacitly understand, "yeah, Latina matriarchs are like that." And so, reliance on a dominant cultural stereotype (whether or not it may often be true) allows Marston to forego individualized characterization. The film has a lot of this sort of shorthand, put over as successfully as it is through its observational camerawork. It also has the added bonus of strengthening our identification with Maria, who is so fully fleshed out -- willful, cautious, petulant, empathetic -- that she stands apart from the rest of the film, almost as if Marston had dressed the rest of the cast in beige and decked her out in canary yellow. The film also needed to focus much more attention on the physical effort of her labor, its corporeal toll. (Why was the swallowing sequence so truncated?) Greater emphasis on Maria's body could have thwarted cultural generalization in favor of radical specificity. The film accomplishes this more often than not, but its many shortcuts mark the difference between the ambivalent success it is and the minor masterpiece it could have been.


Red Lights (Cédric Kahn, France)

Impressively spare, but perhaps a bit too sparing overall. The first two-thirds strongly resembles the Coen brothers' serious genre efforts (Blood Simple, Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There) in its style and approach. Jean-Pierre Darrousin, who delivers a strong but overly mannered performance, radiates self-destructive, inward masculinity, and like so many Coen anti-heroes, he's characterized by his inscrutable, almost Camusian commitment to bad decisions. This is the case in both the actions we the audience alone are privy to (his on-the-road bender), and his interactions with his wife (Carole Bouquet, in a solid supporting turn) and the stranger who changes his life. Darrousin's character is a classic "little man" who aspires to live by a hard-boiled code of manliness, and it's in his explication of this outlook that the film's chilly calculation reveals itself. We move from the geometrically constrictive city to the minimal boundaries of the two-lane blacktop; we enter the two-talkers-in-a-confined-space pressure cooker of neo-noir; and all of this somehow seems "perfect" without ever feeling organic. The visual style of the film floats alongside the stream of dialogue, without any necessary formal connection. (Even the unexpected forays into subjective memory feel forced and underlined; compare the Christmas reverie to the driveway-salesman flashback in TMWWT.) Only in the final act -- from the phone call sequence on -- do we enter a space so airless and asthmatic, so devoid of clear information (although this is partly achieved by contrivance), that we fully share the protagonist's day-after tremulousness.


Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi)

Hey, Spidey! Having trouble stopping that runaway commuter train? Try Aunt May's end-of-second-act speech on the value of heroism! It stopped the whole movie in its tracks! For viewers steeped in the comic-book Spidey world, I can see why this sequel might seem equal to or even better than its predecessor. Seeing the major events of the third act coming, I suppose, would add considerable gravity to those rather rote events that precede them. The CGI has improved by leaps and bounds, and Alfred Molina plays Doc Ock like a tormented human being, a refreshing shift from Defoe's goggle-eyed Green Goblin. All the same, the story's insistence on surrounding Peter Parker with 2-D archetypes and placeholders is tiresome. (How can we be expected to care about what happens to Kirsten Dunst's flat, mewling MJ, for example, when she might just as well have been called Love Interest?) Personal disclosure: I'm biased against Greek mythology, French and Russian existentialist novels, and any other genre that binds characters into inevitable, unalterable patterns of action. (I think I've identified the root of this aversion in the childhood trauma of watching everyone on "Sesame Street" treat Big Bird like a lunatic for believing in the patently-real Snuffle-upagus, all because preposterous narrative machinations kept him out of sight.) So, with that in mind, I appreciated S-M2's tension-and-release structure. No more hiding, at least for now. And as with many traditional heroic tales, from The Iliad to Potemkin, this film achieves its emotional height when its mobilizes a collective subject (the NYC commuters on the aforementioned runaway train). But I couldn't help but wonder how much more satisfying these breakthroughs would have been had they been orchestrated among full-bodied, recognizable humans. Sorry, wallcrawlers, the mythos is wearing thin. One other thing: why were all the actors presented as comic-book drawings in the opening credits except Dunst? Did she look insufficiently apple-cheeked in pen and ink?


-The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy)

A nice little character study, lovingly fleshed out by the three sharp leads as well as Raven Goodwin and Michelle Williams. A refreshingly terse conclusion. But come on, what's the big deal?




Facing Windows (Ferzan Ozpetek, Italy)

MILD SPOILERS. Ozpetek's last film, His Secret Life / Ignorant Fairies, was a pleasant surprise, demonstrating the wit, openheartedness and queer-humanism of Almodóvar. At that point I'd picked him as a director to watch, and the fact that the Donatello Award-winning Facing Windows represented his turn toward expansive, cross-generational filmmaking pretty much made this a must-see. It's disappointing to see how little Ozpetek does with the larger canvas. In the end, it's hard to get behind a film, however well-crafted, that deploys a Holocaust survivor as a narrative device to show our comely, neurotic little protagonist what's really important in her life. As overblown soap-operas go, Windows is decently written (the line about fifteen years of marriage and its toll on the sex life is a gem), and does glide smoothly between past and present within single shots. But it's all a bit too smooth, really. Why should a man's traumatic memories be so seamlessly integrated into a pat, frivolous romantic plot? It's unfair to compare this to Resnais, I suppose, but on a certain level, Ozpetek is clearly trying to play the same cards, demonstrating the pressures that history can exert upon the present. Put this up against Marienbad or Hiroshima Mon Amour and its disposability is fairly undeniable. A few details aside (the final shot of the lead actress's eyes, a table full of pastries, the antiseptic whiteness of a chicken processing plant), it's all but faded from memory.


Je Vous Présent Mon Fiancé (Dutch Falconi) [v/s]

A cute, well-shot little calling-card from a Sacramento local. The escalating-mishap-and-disclosure structure is predictable, but Falconi's able to wring some laughs from it nonetheless. Also, many horrid feature films have stretched even less material out to the 90-minute mark, so brevity is the soul of tolerability here.


-Paycheck (John Woo)

Wow, what an appropriate title. Diverting, in an empty, propulsive way, but it was an odd sensation watching this film and longing for the humanistic depth of Minority Report. On a certain level, I appreciate the fact that a film about predetermination feels so cold, soulless and mechanical. In this regard, Ben Affleck, revealed here as a sort of near-human Max Headroom, is the perfect protagonist. Depth takes a holiday, since a warm-blooded mammal (Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon, even -- gulp -- Will Smith) would disrupt the steely crunching of gear upon gear. All conceptual-rigor points aside, Paycheck is still a chore to sit through, a mercury eyewash that you can almost feel draining your blood as it grinds on. Finally, the Auteurism Question: a silly CGI dove aside, the John Woo work this has most in common with, appropriately enough, is his BMW commercial. Next up: Affleck vs. Clive Owen in Rock'em Sock'em Robots: Battle for Planet Hooptie.


-Underworld (Len Wiseman)

MILD SPOILERS. Not nearly as bad as I'd heard. Incoherent, yes -- the first hour is practically an accidental avant-garde film (although that really gives it more credit than it deserves). Beckinsale does indeed look smokin' in her leather goth-girl outfit. And the spirit of the story (Vampire : Werewolf :: Capulet : Montague) is rather sweet, if simpleminded. A pro-miscegenation monster movie is a good thing, yes? Somewhere, James Whale is smiling.




Alila (Amos Gitai, Israel)

After an impressive opening credits sequence harking back to Orson Welles, Alila proceded to mire itself in a host of bad directorial decisions, as has been the case in nearly all the Gitai features I've seen to date. (His first fiction film, Esther, is the only one I've really liked.) Relying on the now-cliched structural trick of moving the audience between interlocking stories joined by a particular locale (an apartment block in Tel Aviv), Gitai gives us entirely too much time with characters who reveal little humanity. Their every interaction is ploddingly orchestrated to deliver some morsel of narrative information. In some cases, such as the army-desertion plot, Gitai is using his actors to stake out schematic political positions. In the adultery plot, he gives us some supple young skin but little else. Who are these characters, and why should we care about them? Ordinarily we would expect the time spent in their presence to answer that question, through an accretion of individuating details, or at least a sense of their place in an organic pattern of depicted life. But Gitai never moves beyond surface affectations. This is just as true on the formal level as it is with respect to plot and characterization. (Compare Alila's long-take-then-blackout structure to that of Haneke's Code Unknown. Haneke nearly cuts his actors off in mid-breath, giving the viewer a disorienting glimpse of the Parisian social order that always relies on its relationship to all that follows and precedes it. Gitai, however, parses information out in patronizing little dollops, as if he were already anticipating commercial breaks.) And just when you think it can't get much worse, in pops Ronit Elkabetz, so incisive a performer in Late Marriage, here inexplicably coached to imitate Fran Drescher from "The Nanny." In the past, I've found Gitai features such as Kedma and Yom Yom intriguingly bad, the work of a wayward master trying and failing to convey some bizarre form of anti-dramatic or declamatory narrative. But I'm done. As a cinephile, I take no joy in writing off a major figure in world cinema. But despite Gitai's obvious importance (he remains the preeminent Israeli auteur on the world scene), I just can't keep banging my head against this particular wall.


Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay)

Negative reivews of Anchorman will reflexively call it an "SNL film," not because it's based on an actual skit -- although Will Ferrell's Burgundy character is essentially just his Robert Goulet impression, topped with that 70s coif -- but because that's shorthand for a one-joke enterprise, washing up on the shores of Premise Beach, wearing out its welcome by the end of reel one. But it would be fairer and far more accurate to call this a "Carol Burnett Show film." In reality, there is no such animal (even "Mama's Family" spared us big-screen treatment), but like Burnett, Anchorman's best moments involve bizarre, awkward riffing and mutual crack-ups that depart from the script and its overbearing set-ups. When Ferrell and Christina Applegate are muttering insults to each other, it's clear they're barely holding it together, and this infuses the film with a fresh, alive quality notable for its absence everywhere else. Encase a film in this much Botany 500 polyester, and it's no surprise when it doesn't breathe.


-Assassination Tango (Robert Duvall)

Unspeakably boring. I respect its intent, and its clear origin in Duvall's personal obsessions. Given that many people decry the avant-garde cinema I love as "self-indulgent," I try to refrain from dismissing films in that way. (I'm a big booster of self-indulgence!) But this is, sadly, a vanity project with little to recommend it aside from a breezy, loose-limbed atmosphere (nice way of saying "half-assed").


-Dopamine (Mark Decena)

Hey. Remember a long time ago before the Sundance Film Series, when there was the late, great Shooting Gallery Series? Oh yes, those were the days. But lest we forget, Larry and Eammon had some serious clinkers in there, too. Sure, they gave us Croupier and Eureka and Human Resources and The Day I Became a Woman and, um, some other stuff. Oh yeah, they showed The Heart of the World before that mediocre Last Resort movie in three markets. But the majority of the series was comprised of duds like Such a Long Journey, One, Titanic Town, Non-Stop, the stunningly awful Too Much Sleep, cute-but-unmemorable Adrenaline Drive, and some universally loathed Jamie Thraves film whose title I can't even remember. So I'm just trying to provide a little context here. Dopamine definitely falls into the One / Judy Berlin category of Amer-Indies that should have gone straight to the Sundance Channel. But the idea of the series is still a pretty good one. A lot of folks dug In This World (I wasn't one of them), and I think everything Winterbottom does should get a release. (Like Patrice Leconte, you never know when he'll be compelling.) And Die Mommie Die! looked interesting, at least. So even though the massive indifference to this series will no doubt insure that it never happens again, let's not be too hasty in our condemnations, okay? And let me state once again, this film is really not very good at all, and should generally be avoided. Thanks buds.


-Secret Window (David Koepp)

. . . wherein the scribe of Spider-Man 1 is rewarded for his efforts with another crack at the director's chair. You don't exactly have to be Fagin to see this Twist coming. The final shot (a close-up of Depp biting into a giant ear of corn) is a lovely and apposite summation.




-The Butterfly Effect (Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber)

MAJOR SPOILERS. It's hard to completely dismiss a film that tacitly argues that the only sure-fire way to improve the world is to prevent the birth of Ashton Kutcher. But here goes. At first I was aghast that it took two people to write and direct this thing, but after a moment's consideration, it makes perfect sense. The overriding tone of dudeishness is taken to unprecedented depths, and one can just imagine these two dubiously gifted souls egging each other on to new levels of depravity. ("Ah man, I'm gonna set the dog on fire in a sack!" "Oh yeah, dude? Well I'm gonna make the Kutch try to give some skinheads a blowjob!" "No fuckin' way!" [high-five]) Now I realize that I risk sounding like a prude for condemning this stuff, and that conventional wisdom would dictate that I should applaud the gonzo audacity of even making a film this unremittingly ugly. This would be the Shocking Anti-Humanism is Bad-Ass Defense. But sorry boys, you've got to earn that one with formal chops (Vincent Gallo), a visionary cosmology (Gaspar Noé), a mastery of the breakneck tonal shift (Takashi Miike) or some combination thereof. Instead, we basically have an unreflective fratboy plaint -- "Woe to the po-mo male, he who wants to fix things but can only fuck them up worse." Quit your whining, you pricks.


Lunch (Mark Herzig) [v/s]

This guy apparently put up a bunch of the money for the Sacramento French Film Festival, where this was shown before the screening of Red Lights. That was nice. But a weird-looking human found-object (a dead ringer for the hefty fellow in Andersson's Songs From the Second Floor, except with a pronounced wall-eye) is not sufficient basis for a film. Sorry bud.




A Day Without a Mexican (Sergio Arau, U.S. / Mexico / Spain) (0:22)

Believe it or not, possibly worse than you've heard. A silly one-note idea ("Thank you very much, Mexican robotos, for doin' the jobs nobody wants to."), executed on a student-filmmaker level. (Faucet slowly drips into a glass in the sink, drip, drip, drip, eventually overflowing!) Jen announced, "I'm out" at the shot of an abandoned leafblower spinning on an L.A. sidewalk, and we split. Thanks Jen.


The Hunting of the President (Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry) (0:25)

Predictable in its badness (horrid video-to-film transfer; put together like the most blindly partisan episode of A&E "Investigative Reports" in history), but surprising in its unmitigated gaul (class-baiting by casting Clinton's Arkansas enemies as a bunch of redneck hicks; chalking his scandals up to the pitfalls of charisma and sex appeal -- "the gift and the curse" as Jay-Z puts it; going so far as to imply that Monica was his sole actual indiscretion). I think I prefer the loopy "right-wing conspiracy" theory to "straight up, the Prez is a pimp, so let a playa play."