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)




Raja (Jacques Doillon, France / Morocco)

Critique of Separation -- If the viewer isn't paying rather close attention, Doillon's latest film could be mistaken for an uninflected naturalism, a post-colonial tragedy of position and misunderstanding (sort of a muted meeting of Ibsen and Dostoyevsky) that plays out like theatre before a neutral camera. As many other commentators on Raja have noted, the inexorable failure of the tentative relationship between Fred (Pascal Greggory), a middle-aged Frenchman living in Morocco, and Raja (Najat Benssallem), the 19-year-old Moroccan girl who works in his garden, is not due to ignorance but awareness. They are all too cognizant of the multiple barriers between them -- language, custom, the colonial legacy, a 25-year age difference, and a class divide that has written itself on their respective bodies, in how they comport themselves in the world and imagine their own individual possibilities. So much of this story is communicated through talk, but also reticence, posture, touch, abortive gesture -- in short, the stuff of the stage. On a conceptual level, then, Doillon gives us a picture in interpersonal terms of what, in the political sphere, Althusser called "overdetermination." When one obstacle between Raja and Fred (say, the cultural differences) seems momentarily surmountable, one or two of the other wedges between them flare up like a case of the gout, hurling them back into retreat. On the level of performance, the actors continually give us an insight into how physical want is stymied by society, how Fred, for example, can see himself momentarily reflected in Raja's eyes as someone desirable, only to have that vision erased by the larger world's inscription of him as nothing but a dirty old man, a vision he in part believes. But on the level of filmic construction, Doillon skillfully registers these separations and divides on our vision, with a deceptive transparency that coaxes us into thinking that we, "the enlightened," can successfully see through them.


He accomplishes this through two primary directorial techniques. First, he employs a hand-held, mobile framing in most of the exterior shots, bearing a surface similarity to Renoir. Like Renoir, Doillon achieves the effect of allowing offscreen space to continue to exist, serving to create an open, permeable world that extends in all directions. But whereas Renoir typically does this to afford his characters a higher degree of freedom, in Raja Doillon implicitly posits that larger world as a threat. For example, when Fred first engages Raja in the garden, working alongside her gaggle of Moroccan girlfriends, the camera keeps Fred and Raja together in the frame as it travels, while Raja's judgmental, mocking friends bob in and out of the periphery. One gets the sense of an urge to shake the yoke of social judgment, of a disapproving world that itself extends in all directions, but as such offers anything but freedom. The second, and perhaps most potent, of Doillon's dominant visual strategies is his disruption of conversational two-shots, passages of personal interaction that would otherwise be equally well-suited to the stage. In most every intimate scene between Raja and Fred, Doillon adopts a fractured version of the shot / reverse-shot, shooting not over the shoulder but at about a 30-degree angle to the speaker. The framing is nearly straight-on, and yet Doillon breaks the sequences up into individual shots that subtly align themselves with one or the other character's physical placement. We're seeing something in between the two usual tactics of cinematic grammar. Doillon implies that a two-shot would actually make more sense, but that division imposes itself on the scene. One could offer several different interpretations of where this interceding force comes from, whether it's directorial commentary, or a surrogate for our unconscious cultural coding of the relationship before us. There is really no specific reason for this wholly unnatural fragmentation of personal space, but its effect is absolute; people who should be joined by passion, curiosity, or even just basic human communication are kept apart, isolated in their own lonely sphere. We as viewers physically register this isolation, and feel it to be both artificial and ineluctable.


Jacques Doillon is still not very well known in the U.S., and I myself have only seen one other film by him, Ponette, which at the time made no particular impact on me. But one senses that his position in French cinema is more complex than we'd at first imagine. In his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze actually compares Doillon with Philippe Garrel. Garrel, scarcely better known in the States, at the very least possesses a reputation as a complicated maverick and a major experimental stylist, far removed from the surface affectations of naturalism. Whereas for Deleuze, Garrel recasts all human bodies into a ceremonial function, representing "man, woman, and child," Doillon displays "the postural poles between which the body oscillates" (198). In discussing earlier films by Doillon, such as Touched in the Head (1977) and The Crying Woman (1979), Deleuze describes Doillonian space as that of "the situation of the body caught between two sets, caught simultaneously in two exclusive sets" (202). That is, social comportment dictates that each exclusive social set has its own space, its own cliquish sphere of influence. The desire for a character to move from one to the other sphere, or, more problematic still, to move between two spheres, becomes in Doillon a physical and spatial difficulty, a virtual fragmentation of the body. To quote Deleuze at some length: "It is not that the character finds himself indecisive. It appears rather that the two sets are really distinct, but that the character, or rather the body in the character, has no way of choosing between the two. He is in an impossible posture. The character in Doillon is in the situation of not being able to make out the distinct: he is not psychologically indecisive, he would be even the opposite. But the predominance is useless to him, because he inhabits his body like a zone of indiscernibility" (203). That is, the body receives unwitting social inscription, finding that it is instinctually incapable of acting in accordance with the will, that "will" in the conventional sense is obviated. Deleuze's analysis from nearly twenty years ago seems sufficiently prescient with respect to Raja that in light of it, as well as the intellectual and aesthetic acuity of Raja itself, I can only conclude that Jacques Doillon is a subject for immediate further investigation.




-Doppelgänger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)

This one was actually cruising toward top-ten status, believe it or not, until the final twenty minutes, the whimsy being too forced by half. For most of it, I found myself nonplussed by this rather conventional effort by congenital weirdo Kurosawa. The theme of scientific inquiry inadvertently tapping into the irrational seemed fairly Cronenbergian, as did Kurosawa's handling of space, tone, and chilly interiors. Within this framework, his interjection of bizarre humor and disconcertingly awkward behavior recalled late Lynch. The score was redolent of Hermann's work for Hitchcock. And his fascinating use of split-screen (for the doppelganger confrontations) struck me as reminiscent of Brian de Palma's Hitchcockian pastiches. In short, Doppelgänger is all very well directed and choreographed, but oddly familiar. [The lightbulb blinks on.] Aha! This is Kurosawa's allegory for the anxiety of influence. How can someone just up and make a surrealist psychological thriller today, after 100+ years of film history? Kurosawa is, in essence, facing off against his own doubles, trying to reconcile filmmaking as art with the desire for fame and success. At times, the director seems to drive this point home and even come out on top. For example, the sequence where Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho, excellent) tries to kill his doppelganger is overpowered by the Vertigoesque score. But the scene is shot in a single fixed-frame medium-long shot. The music draws our attention to the master-shot stasis, because it cries out for a bravado montage sequence. In the end, Kurosawa "defeats" American cinema by sticking to his Asian guns. Sadly, as I said above, it all goes off the rails, its failure all the more pronounced because it seems so deliberate, as though Kurosawa is confident he's achieving something philosophical through his painstaking lunacy. But what actually happens is that he loses control of things, and his dunderheaded double takes over. Throughout the film, Kurosawa proffers flat, bald statements of his theme of existential renewal. Again, this seems significant in terms of reading Doppelgänger allegorically. This idea is his own stated favorite theme, one he engages far more obliquely in Cure, Pulse, and Bright Future. Here, it's as though he's going to lay it all out, the way it would be in some "serious" American picture like The Hours or A Beautiful Mind. But, when Kurosawa succumbs, Donald Kaufman-like, he retroactively turns the film into a loopy self-esteem lecture. The joke eats its own tail, overweening nihilism reigns, roll credits. A whimper of an ending for what's otherwise Kurosawa's strongest effort since Cure.


The Incredibles (Brad Bird)

[MILD SPOLIERS] Certainly the most grown-up of the Pixar films, though not necessarily the best. Unlike Toy Story it doesn't really work on two levels; rather it functions as an adult midlife crisis drama for the first half and then bursts out of its civvies into superhero garb, becoming an amalgam of Spy Kids and Superman II. The complex characterization of the first part, with the supers struggling to deal with the straight world, was a lot more fun to me, actually. The world-saving plot was fine but rote, with little for the viewer to do but marvel at the detailed computer-generated landscapes. That's something, but so much of the rest of the film was about getting you to forget it's a cartoon. Still, I shouldn't carp. There's a bunch of wonderful stuff in here (Bob Parr at the office, the shrinking adolescent Violet, the "16mm" opening sequence, everything with Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone, "no capes," blow-drying the books). But ultimately I was troubled by the mixed-message of the film. So yeah, the world is mediocre and we should embrace greatness rather than demanding conformity. I'm with you so far. Then, we have Syndrome (whose very name, obviously, connotes our culture's labeling of shortcomings as a handicap for society to accommodate), a smart kid with no "natural" powers. He wants to kill the supers, and so he's the villain. Okay. But his master plan is to sell his gadgets so "everyone can be super, and so, nobody will be," dum-dum-DUMMMM. Nothing is made of the fact that, in that scheme, presumably only the rich will be super, so I assume the problem is equality itself. Sure, total equality of abilities will never be achieved, without asking those with special gifts to suppress them. (Cf. Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Burgeron.") But if greater equality can be achieved by raising the standard for everyone, rather than lowering it for some, then I don't see the problem. Oh, yeah. That's because I'm a freakin' Marxist.




Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.)

A bit like "Winterbottom does Wong Kar-Wai doing 90s Wenders doing Blade Runner," and as such, hopelessly muddled and fundamentally harebrained. But it's certainly not without its pleasures. These are predominantly visual; the film shifts between a handheld, neon-saturated waking-dream look (the love story itself, "the inside") and an Alphavillesque future-city architectonics, rigid modernist buildings cutting figures against the sky in near-isolation (the unforgiving remainder, or as the film terms it, "the outside"). Winterbottom takes a theoretically admirable tack, not spending too much time on exposition and just thrusting us into his futuristic world. Sometimes this strategy hits its mark (especially with the World-English mutt language everyone speaks, initially puzzling a la A Clockwork Orange). But the overall result is a distanced non-engagement with William and Maria (Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, both quite solid). To call their roles schematic would be misleading, since that implies a dominant plan of attack. In fact, Winterbottom throws a handful of gloppy ideas at the screen (memory, human mutation and alteration, Orwellian megacapitalism, globalization, fate and destiny) and just lets them hang there. A promising first draft, to be sure, but then, to say that 92 minutes are not enough time to adequately explore these issues would be to dodge an unavoidable fact -- that Code 46 has worn out its welcome by the one-hour mark. Still, it's not to be dismissed, and perhaps one of these days, it, Until the End of the World, 2046, Songs From the Second Floor, et al., will all comprise some prescient Rosetta Stone of a hypertext, one that will blindside us all with the sense it suddenly makes.


-Dig! (Ondi Timoner)

First off, I would kindly direct the reader to Theo Panayides' review, which gets to the heart of the issues at stake in Dig! Good job, Theo, in particular noting that the title could very possibly cast the whole film as Courtney Taylor's "dig" at Anton Newcombe. I don't differ much with Theo's take, but there are a few things I noticed that are worth mentioning. Theo's right that we get very little of the Brian Jonestown Massacre's music as compared with the Dandys. But when you look at the end credits, there are a ton of BJM "songs" listed as having been played. In fact what's going on is that we only get little snippets of BJM, on the way to a shouting match or an onstage brawl. The structure of Timoner's editing, and her decision to forego any complete or near-complete BJM songs, reinforces the dominant idea she's constructing. It's a picture of Newcombe as a junkie fuck-up who can't bring anything to completion, even though in the time covered by the film, BJM has put out four albums, compared with the Dandys' two. Similarly, Timoner always manages to capture and record Newcombe's self-destructive or self-aggrandizing behavior, whereas Taylor's petulence is only reported after the fact by the man himself, in a set of smirking, self-depricating confessions (telling the Capitol exec that "when I sneeze, hits come out") or mentioned by someone like David LaChapelle, who is already constructed by the film as being an industry tool and, as such, beneath contempt. The film also appears to exaggerate Newcombe's "stalking" behavior, even as Taylor admits that Anton wants it to be a band-rivalry stunt. (It's like a film about Andy Kaufman that took the Intergender Wrestling at face value.) Taylor complains to the press about Newcombe's anti-Dandys songs, but just try listening to "Not If You Were the Last Junkie . . ." or "We Used to Be Friends" without Newcombe crossing your mind. So basically, Courtney Taylor gets a free ride. Not to say Newcombe is a pleasant man; never met the guy. But Timoner has constructed, a bit too neatly, a story that fits into one of our reigning cultural myths -- insane genius vs. disciplined vision, Van Gogh vs. Picasso, Cassavetes vs. Scorsese, Benjamin vs. Adorno, etc. I don't trust it, because Timoner's place in the goings-on is so carefully masked. This isn't just a formal quibble. For instance, on the BJM website, Newcombe claims that it was Timoner herself who was busted for possession in Georgia, a serious charge that the filmmaker should have to answer. And while I suppose I appreciate the filmmaker's tact with respect to the issue, one thing has to be said. From the get-go, the Dandys are going to be easier for the record industry to market than the BJM. Promotion by the label is all about image, and the Dandys not only have Taylor's cheekbones, but Zia McCabe's t-shirted, metronomically bouncing breasts. Meanwhile, Newcombe is a mutton-chopped cowboy who, even on a good day, looks more deranged than he probably is. Joel Gion helped in the image department, as a kind of cuddly version of rock and roll excess. But given the business as it is, how could the Dandys not be more successful? Can Newcombe's DIY ethic really be equated with self-sabotage? Whether or not Newcombe is angry or paranoid or strung out or clean, a lot of what he says about the industry makes sense. It's hard work keeping music evil. And if we don't support the effort, we get the culture we deserve. Also, despite my misgivings about Dig!, Timoner remains one of this year's two emerging documentarians I'd most like to share a hot tub with. [FOLLOW-UP: Vadim Rizov has informed me that Timoner has publicly disputed Newcombe's story, and I am mentioning this here so as to avoid any legal trouble, like anyone's reading anyway, I mean jesus.]


-To Be and To Have (Nicholas Philibert, France)

Overall fairly strong, but just a tad too ingratiating to get my full vote of confidence. I appreciated Philibert's restraint and little poetic touches (especially his turning-of-the-seasons landscape interludes, which could have been excruciating in the hands of a less talented director), but here and there he went just that much over the line (e.g. the George Winstonesque piano score, cloying and tinkly). The cuteness of the kids is clearly the selling point, but Philibert is enough of a humanist to undersell, focusing instead on Georges Lopez's patient instruction and the sheer day-to-day labor that learning entails. (The sequence with a farmboy's family gathered round the dinner table as a team to help their boy with his math homework is particularly affecting.) A bit more "directed," though in deliberately invisible ways, than likeminded efforts by Wiseman or Depardon, making its slight teeterings into preciousness harder to forgive, even though during an actual viewing they're a bit easier to overlook.




The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, U.S. / Germany / U.K. / Argentina)

Essentially a soft, mostly unfunny buddy comedy that takes a solemn, laboredly humanist turn in the final act. Even setting aside the political difficulties with the depiction of young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara (the promise of youth, idealism unsullied, etc.), the main problem is that Salles simply isn't a very good filmmaker. His pacing is awkward. His ability to successfully articulate humor and seriousness is virtually nil. His images are curiously bland and flat; even his overly-praised landscapes frequently lack pictorial power. His editor shows no skill for the task, chopping scenes into fragments for no discernable purpose. And Salles' use of music is unfailingly obvious, serving as a kind of Luaka Bop CD sampler buoying the proceedings for a presumed middle-class viewership. In terms of characterization, Guevara spends most of the film toggling back and forth between a handsome schemer and part-time cad, on the one hand, and a deeply concerned doctor-without-borders on the other. The shifts are sudden and motivated only by the film's need to make its point in boldface, about the Awakening of a Revolutionary. As far as trying to place The Motorcycle Diaries in a larger cultural framework, one can only ask, why now? What purpose is served by embodying Latin American radicalism (a force that is still very much alive) in the singular person of a dead 60s icon? This isn't to say that Che Guevara has nothing to teach us in the present day, but a radical aesthetic approach (such as the one Spike Lee adopted for Malcolm X) would be necessary to demonstrate how the past survives into the present. Salles, needless to say, is not the man for the job.


Sideways (Alexander Payne)

Make no mistake; there are passages of depressive poetry in Sideways that hang in the mind, jutting out from the mediocrity. Near the end of the picture, when Miles (Paul Giamatti) opens the '61 bottle he's been saving, it's a lonely, poignant moment. His awkward first date with Maya (Virginia Madsen), two wounded veterans of life and love tentatively peeking out from their shells, hovers like a fragile memory from two more fully constructed fictional lives. But the dominant m. o. of Sideways is broad, people-pleasin' loser-comedy so drunk on its own presumed cleverness that it fronts as the apex of sophistication. It seems that Payne has no idea what a panderer he is. He promises a road-movie for adults, a look at how a week going up the California coast can be transformative for Miles and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church, a second-rate Jeff Lebowski). But Payne shoots the landscape, the vineyards, and the coastal towns with the sickly yellowish glow of commercial photography. It resembles nothing so much as a rich-guys-in-khakis photo spread from a Special Section insert in Wine Spectator. Payne also insists on condensing time between outlandish non-comedy with clumsy montages, including a painful split-screen affair involving grapes and ostrich heads. The score is the worst sort of Mickey-Mousing, drilling into the viewer's head with its insistence on the haphazard charm of the shenanigans on display. And finally, its writerly excesses play to the cheap seats, telegraphing Payne's fear that some hypothetical viewer won't get his carefully-wrought metaphorical vision. (Hmm, I wonder if Miles, on some level, thinks of himself as a delicate pinot grape?) The less said about the absurd final act the better, but Payne essentially reverts to Election mode here, with his characters making choices that no actual human ever would. As a result, the conclusion, which I understood wanted to be affecting, hopeful, yet ambiguous, instead felt crude and obvious. After squandering the good will earned through its finest moments, Sideways appears to have been training us all along for this final shot, paring down possibilities so as to presumably imbue small victories with enormous impact. It didn't work. [ADDENDUM: I realize this is not a very good review. In retrospect, I think I was trying to zero in on what's wrong with this picture, and in so doing, was struggling to muster some impassioned response to it one way or the other. The result now reads to me like forced animus. Several days later, I'm mostly perplexed by the enthusiasm Sideways has provoked in so many sharp, astute viewers, because I am so resolutely indifferent to it. It left me affectless, numb. It's a shoulder-shrug on celluloid.]


-Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea / France)

Remember when Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to set out to make "an 87-minute comedy with Adam Sandler"? Well, of course you do. And however interesting the experiment may have seemed, the result was that PTA's sensibility was crammed into an ill-fitting container. In trying to send an off-kilter communiqué to a hypothetical Joe Sixpack, Anderson ended up with an awkward gewgaw. Woman is the Future of Man has some elements in common with Punch-Drunk Love (notably a controlled, distanced camera style and a fractured-fairy-tale soundtrack featuring the harmonium), but more than anything it's as though Hong spent a beer-soaked weekend holed up in an American hotel room watching the Sundance Channel, furiously jotting down notes about "the battle of the sexes" and "the naughty professor" and the perfect filmic appositeness of Eric Stoltz. This is Hong's twee, mannered Indiewood "relationship comedy." Here, the long takes tend to downplay the director's usual compositional chops and foreground / background relations. Instead, it's all about the characters, their loose tongues, their liquor and their fumbling gropes. But the clipped running time (87 minutes) and the stiff, deliberate performances undermine Hong's purpose. In The Power of Kangwon Province or Turning Gate, the time spent with characters and their escalating inebriation allowed the embarrassing interpersonal mishaps to come about organically. Here, people suddenly go from pleasant to aggressive, from banal to randy, in order to artificially generate another physical and / or communicative misfire. This, together with Hong's subtlety-free script (the scene with the waitress is a particular lowlight), results in Woman's coming across as a misjudged attempt to sell out. Will it succeed? So far it's a draw -- Cannes and the NYFF bit, Toronto took a pass, Wellspring hasn't acquired it yet -- but I suppose that in the cold light of day, I have to admit that Woman's flaws do in fact make it more accessible than Hong's previous efforts. Whatever. Let's just skip ahead to the remake starring Parker Posey and Oliver Platt.




-The Eye (Pang Brothers, Hong Kong / U.K. / Thailand / Singapore)

Even during a boring-ass weekend afternoon in Syracuse, when there's not a goddamned thing playing in theatres I want to see (Ray? The Grudge? Bridget Jones?), I still can't believe I watched this. And I can't believe I've now seen three films by the Pang Brothers, men with not one iota of natural filmmaking ability. And it's not one of those things alcoholics or co-dependents do, like, "This time, I know it will be different." I knew it would be crap, and it was. Shame on me.


-A Home At the End of the World (Michael Mayer)

The story of three not-quite-strangers picked to live in a house . . . um, no. Zach Braff is a troubled young man returning to his home town for his mother's funeral when he encounters . . . oh, shit, wait. A gay man inherits a train station and discovers a surly dwarf living there along with Kate Winslet with bright orange . . . you know what? I can't do this.




Boundin' (Bud Luckey) [s]

Five years ago I was eatin' dinner with my family and friends / then some asshole with a swastika broke the door and goosestepped in / he took me away with a hood on my head and stripped off all my clothes / took a truncheon to my kneecaps and then he pistol-whipped my nose / I came to in a 5x5 electrified wire cell / and though I was an atheist I thought I'd been sent to hell / but an imaginary woodland creature came to me from the haze / he said, "have no fear, my beaten friend, you can learn to love these ways!" / "or if not love 'em, tolerate 'em, learn to get through the day" / "and because I'm such a compassionate guy, I'll show you just the way" / "you just jump up and down like an idiot and smile and sing and shout" / "keep your spirits up, and if you're good, in five years you'll get out." / "Will I be free?" I asked the creature, half nutria, half snipe / "You'll be free when I say you're free, so you have no right to gripe" / "This is just how the world is now, so get used to it, my friend" / "We'll let you out and you can put your clothes on 'til we pick you up again." / I saw the light, I understood, I knew God had a plan / I'd be a whole lot happier if I listened to this "man" / So trust imaginary creatures when they defend the status quo / you're part of a larger order that's too big for you to know / so when the men come for your sister or your sweetheart or your dad / just jump up and down like an imbecile, and in five years you'll be glad / by that time you may even feel sad to leave the cage behind / the one-eyed jackalope is cursed in the kingdom of the blind.


[ADDENDUM: I have received some mail from readers who seem to think I have gone off the deep end of late, interpreting this innocent jumping-sheep cartoon in a bizarre neo-Marxist framework. Screw you guys. I stand by my review. I am not saying that Boundin' is willfully reactionary, but the subtext of the objections I've received has been that Boundin' is too stupid and innocuous to be reactionary. My contention is, it's precisely because it is so stupid, and fronts as innocuous -- an unwitting wolf, as it were, in sheep's clothing -- that it manages to be so thoroughly reactionary. Also, Tim Robbins' character in Code 46 wondered why the coyote could afford to buy all those Acme gadgets, but not just buy himself a roadrunner. Perfect question, really, one that could only be posed by a leftist of Robbins' standing. But it demonstrates that he, like many activists, is trapped in the purely rational thinking of traditional economics. In fact, within the Lacanian economy of desert-coyote desire, the roadrunner is always and forever the one item not for sale, the gold standard, the objet petit-a that underpins Wile E.'s very subjectivity. The roadrunner is, in the truest sense, the unattainable, the Acme. Also, touché, Creepy Greek.]