Friday, January 30, 2009


Like Goodbye, Dragon Inn without the protective layer of nostalgia, Brillante Mendoza's Serbis crafts a self-contained world from a dilapidated movie house given more to gay cruising than cinema watching. But whereas the theater in Tsai Ming-liang's film still offers relatively straight fare (classic wuxia films) and the sexual encounters come free of cost, the programming at Serbis' theater has given over entirely to porn and, in the relentless everything-for-profit world of Mendoza's film, each blowjob necessitates an exchange of pesos.

To read the rest of the article, please continue to The House Next Door.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Of Time and the City

In an early scene in Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, the camera tracks slowly across the empty altar of the Liverpool Cathedral, one of the architectural centerpieces of the director's hometown, while Davies intones slowly, in a voice deep and tremulous, each word carefully articulated before a slight trailing off at the end of a phrase: "We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. Then spend a lifetime trying to regain it." As a formulation, it's fairly simple stuff - and much of the rest of Davies' narration, a dense and lyrical mix of poetry, remembrance and bawdy wordplay, is a considerably knottier proposition - but it gets neatly to the heart of the filmmaker's ambivalent feelings toward his native city - sentiments which play out in the film through often surprising juxtapositions - and serves as a clearly articulated statement of purpose for the director's memory project to follow.

But if Of Time and the City is a deeply personal film, its private meaning is filtered through something like the collective Liverpudlian memory. Excepting the brief opening and concluding sequences, the work draws almost exclusively on a thoroughly impressive collection of archival footage - spanning roughly the 1940s to the 1970s - which brings to vivid life the daily activities of the town's citizenry as well as the increasingly blighted landscapes that represent the backdrop of the director's upbringing. While I haven't seen Davies' celebrated semi-autobiographical fiction films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and some admirers of those works have found the imagery in City, contrastingly, too distant and anonymous, it's just that tension between the intense specificity of the narration and the communal resonance of the footage - much of which is shot with an artist's eye whose precision nearly rivals Davies' own - that keeps the picture from lapsing into an unwelcome self-absorption.

Narrating his early life, Davies outlines the church's baleful influence, his discovery of the movies, his budding homosexuality, his dislike of the Beatles. Quoting and revising Shelley, Eliot, Joyce and uncountable others, turning an inspired phrase (he describes Brighton rock candy as being "as sweet as sick") or indulging in crude formulations (listing the Popes who served during his childhood, he includes "Clitoris the Umpteenth"), the director's narration circles around itself, attempting to properly situate the filmmaker in relation to a lost past. When that past is confronted, what emerges is both an elegy for the vanished world of Davies' childhood and a disgusted look back at a city that offers few opportunities for a man of his sensibilities (or given the evidence of urban decay in the later footage, for pretty much anyone) and from which he long ago effected his exit.

But while Davies' narration stands at the heart of the project, it occasionally tends a bit too much toward the smug and, at times, threatens to overwhelm in its thickly layered show of erudition. So the filmmaker wisely intercuts a series of narration-free montage sequences, juxtaposing archival footage of the city with musical selections which provide a gently ironic commentary on the proceedings. While this audio/visual contrast can be amusing - as when he overlays Mahler onto footage of a rock band to show his preference for non-contemporary music - or, occasionally, overly glib, at its best it proves inspiring.

Setting off footage of the daily activity of the city (kids playing in the streets, women performing housework) and shots of uniform industrial housing blocks (which take on a certain nobility when viewed through rising crane shots) against a choral piece, Davies achieves his richest articulation of his initial formulation of ambivalence. As he invests the scenes of quotidian poverty that represent his ancestral birthright with a certain poetic grandeur - the details of work, play and architecture raised to sublimity by an angelic chorus - he gives fullest expression to both sides of the initial equation. While there's much to hate in such a drab, increasingly depleted environment, in reclaiming his personal past - as well as that of his collective generation - he finds plenty to love as well. And if Davies' body of work seems to confirm his assertion that "we spend a lifetime trying to regain" that lost world, then here the filmmaker gives us one more view of that process, investing public imagery with personal significance and achieving something like an apotheosis.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Nominations: The 81st Academy Awards

This probably goes without saying, but here it is: Although no one in their right mind expects the Oscars to be any real indication of what was best in the cinema during a given year, this year's nominations, announced this morning, are an especially depressing lot. While last year's Best Picture category included two titles (There Will Be Blood and eventual winner No Country For Old Men) that at least offered some sort of aesthetic uplift, even if neither were personal favorites of mine, the current crop represents as dull a selection as imaginable. While Milk, despite its hewing pretty closely to the standard biopic template, was certainly not without its merits and while both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire have their cinephile followings, even if I never warmed to the former and hated every minute of the latter, it's the final two selections in the category that are most dispiriting. No doubt voters were impressed by the smooth professionalism of Frost/Nixon and the insistent self-importance of The Reader, but does anyone really think these are among the best pictures of the year, even those who voted for them? While I haven't seen the latter film - although I suppose I will catch up with it now - everything I've read about it seems to indicate another self-consciously serious bit of Oscar-bait that egregiously draws on the Holocaust as background to provide the film with due gravity.

Since these last two spots claimed by Frost/Nixon and The Reader were the ones that were potentially up for grabs, there was some speculation (like that of my colleague Eric Henderson at Slant Magazine) that the Academy would nominate two popular favorites released during the summer. And while I'm glad to see The Dark Knight snubbed - although it did pick up nominations for actor Heath Ledger and in several technical categories - Wall-E would have been a fine change of pace choice, a work - despite its status as a "mere" animated film - far more aesthetically innovative and personally affecting than any of the nominated films. Even the Christopher Nolan picture, as much as I dislike it, would have been something other than the usual fare; it's always good to see a receptivity on the Academy's part towards genre entries. And while Slumdog Millionaire, the sentimental favorite among the nominees, may appear to be anything but your typical Oscar material, its sentimental story, broad historical scope and slam-bang visuals hardly distance the film very greatly from the usual interests of Academy voters.

The most conspicuous - and egregious - snub in the acting categories would, no doubt, be Sally Hawkins' inspired turn in Happy-Go-Lucky. While it would be too much to hope for Michelle Williams to have picked up a deserving nomination for her fine work in Wendy and Lucy, Hawkins did win a Golden Globe for her performance (although in the lesser regarded Musical/Comedy category). But while the Academy made room for Angelina Jolie's silly hysterics in Clint Eastwood's Changeling, they couldn't clear a space for Hawkins' far more vivid characterization in Mike Leigh's movie. I rarely find myself getting too excited about individual film performances, but acting is always key in Leigh's pictures and in Hawkins' Poppy we get a figure whose outsized enthusiasms are barely contained by the 'scope screen, but whose indelible positivism gives way to a certain pathos as it rubs up against the practical limitations of an insistenly quixotic attitude. Playing a creature who both does and doesn't fit in the world around her, Hawkins' performance is the key to one of the year's best films and, while voters tried to make it up to Happy-Go-Lucky by nominating Leigh in the original screenplay category, denying the film's star (along with supporting actor hopeful Eddie Marsan) her rightful spot signals voters' preference for business as usual. But those who prefer to seek for positives will not be entirely disappointed. The mostly respectable documentary nominations did find room for such worthies as Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World and Tia Lessin's and Carl Deal's justly celebrated Katrina doc Trouble the Water.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

California Dreamin'

When a car crash claimed the life of director Cristian Nemescu six months into the editing of California Dreamin' he left behind a 155-minute film that was technically unfinished, but that, to judge from the results (and the final product comes down to us more or less as he left it at his death) feels fully formed. In competition at Cannes' Un Certain Regard in 2007, the sentimental favorite took home the prize, with Nemescu joining countrymen Cristi Puiu who had received the same honor for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in 2005 and Cristian Mungiu whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d'Or alongside Dreamin'. Although the premature death of its director no doubt swayed votes in favor of Nemescu's film, the picture more than stands on its own merits. A dark satire of provincial opportunism and American imperialism that refuses to condemn its characters even as it shows them up in all their small-minded venality, Dreamin' proves to be a richly satisfying filmgoing experience. Catch it while you can.

California Dreamin' opens this Friday at New York's IFC Center. Click here for times. Click here to read my review at Slant Magazine.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Stuart Gordon’s Stuck takes its absurdist premise – a hit-and-run victim spends the weekend trapped in the windshield of a car after being hit by woman who doesn’t know what to do with him – to its exhaustive, bloody extreme. What begins as a bit of comic miserabilism turns into a suitably outrageous farce that, even as the complicating elements begin to render the situation increasingly ridiculous, remains more gruesome than funny. Which is as it should be, because while it’s one thing to find humor in the human condition, it’s quite another to rub our faces in the viscera of exposed wounds (both literal and figurative) and expect us to laugh. To be sure, Gordon doesn’t shy away from showing man at his most physically debased - in fact, he seems to take particular pleasure in it (2 moments in particular: one when a nurse cleans an incontinent patient, another when a dog licks the exposed bone in a man’s knee) - but he reserves his laughter for the perpetrators of human misery rather than the victims.

At least, that is, after the accident. The film’s opening promises a more uncomplicated – if still pitch black - comic approach in which Gordon is considerably less discriminating in his targets. From the initial credit sequence which offers up hyperreal images of nursing home patients playing cards and taking their medicine to the humiliating spectacle of newly homeless Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea) navigating the small-minded bureaucracy of an employment agency, the director establishes a tone of deadpan humor that rips bitter yuks from a world conceived as an endless series of indignities. But then our man goes through the windshield, indignities give way to approaching mortality and Gordon wisely shifts the marks of his caustic humor.

Given the boot from the park by the cops on his first night on the streets, Bardo wheels his shopping cart down the sidewalk, looking for shelter, when he’s blindsided by Brandi Boski (a corn-rowed Mena Suvari), high on ecstasy and chatting away on her cell phone as she hits him. Not sure what do with a man stuck in her windshield, she drives home, parks in the garage and has sex with her lover, while Bardo screams below. Although she nearly calls for help several times during the first day Bardo spends in her garage, Brandi, increasingly unhinged as the film progresses, decides to simply let him die, then enlists Rashid (Russell Hornsby), her small-time drug-dealer boyfriend, to finish off the unfortunate man himself.

But like a monster in the B-horror movie that Gordon’s film increasingly resembles, Bardo simply refuses to die. Brandi may attach no value to the life of another, but it’s everything to the man who lives it. And if Gordon subjects Bardo to the indignities of eviction, homelessness and, of course, days spent with his face through the glass, then the character is able to regain a certain dignity though the stubbornness with which he clings to life. When Rashid comes to empty a pistol into his face, Bardo summons great reserves of strength, shoves the gun away and, in a typically Gordonian bit of gruesomeness, stabs his attacker in the eye with a pen. No such dignity, however, attaches to the perpetrators who forfeited their claim to humanity when they decided to leave Bardo to his fate. Instead they become fit targets for the director’s icy barbs. When Brandi catches her cheating boyfriend in flagrante, she engages in a cat fight with his lover, the scene proceeding by comic escalation as she throws the nude woman out into the hallway. And Rashid, too, becomes an object of ridicule (and bodily dismemberment) when his macho claims about his willingness to kill are undercut by his hesitance and, ultimately, his inability to dispense of Bardo.

And, in the end, it’s Bardo who survives. So while Gordon may espouse a rather bleak view of humanity, he never undersells the value of human life: even if Bardo is condemned to a humiliating existence of unemployment and homelessness (not to mention the likelihood of permanent physical disability), his desire to continue that life elevates him far above the cynical worldview of his tormenters. And though Gordon may be no humanist (he’s too attracted to the miseries of mankind), his sympathetic handling of Bardo’s plight serves as a corrective to the calculated misanthropy that makes the works of many of his contemporaries such sour undertakings. The difference is that where filmmakers like the Coen Brothers seem to enjoy laughing at their victimized characters, Gordon prefers to deploy those same modes of laughter on the behalf of his own specimens of suffering humanity.


My review of Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Bigger Than Life

In Bigger Than Life bold patches of color leap out of neutral backgrounds; the hallucinatory orange of an evening dress or the red-flecked edges of a Bible are set off against the grays and browns of standard issue suburban domesticity. Earlier, thanks to generous daubing of De Luxe color, a drab taxi yard becomes a wonderland of yellow, a cabman emerging from his hack with canary-colored cap to match. And then there’s that most ominous of hues, the translucent purple of the pill container that Ed Avery pulls from his breast pocket, glowing like a malevolent intruder from another world.

Heightened sensations are the order of the day in Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film, from the mania turned megalomania that gives an exaggerated sense of self to the pill-popping Avery to the jacked-up level of intensity with which the director pitches the final stages of his melodrama. But such are the (ill)logical extremes of a frustrated patriarchal instinct: impotence seeks cover in imagined power, a false raising of consciousness that finds its visual analogue in unnatural bursts of color. Ray’s film operates by paradoxical reaction: the de-manned head-of-household seeks to transform himself into a superman, at least in his own mind.

Marked out by his British accent (he’s played by James Mason), his place in a female-dominated profession (he’s a schoolteacher) and a slightly effeminate bow-tie, Avery’s a half-successful patriarch at best. He makes ends meet for his wife and young son, but only by taking a second job on the sly. (So worried is he of his wife’s reaction to his secret gig that he’d rather have her think he’s having an affair than come clean.) He’s bored silly by the dinner party patter that represents his sole social diversion and longs to travel, but the posters of foreign cities that line the walls of his house seem more like spice to an imagined fantasy life than signifiers of any real possibility.

And then, like a mass of abstract anxieties suddenly made palpable, Avery falls deathly ill with a rare disease that can only be treated by a new wonder drug. Picking up his purple bottle from the pharmacy, he starts popping Cortisone, first according to the prescribed dosage, than whenever he feels like it. But as Samuel Fuller would later use a lunatic asylum not to critique America’s treatment of the mentally ill, but as a springboard for the exploration of a full range of societal sicknesses, so Ray is little interested in investigating the ravages of drug abuse per se, instead using the resultant effects to expose certain stresses at the center of the family structure.

If Avery’s principal concern is his perceived shortcomings as provider, then his initial burst of mania serves as a corrective effort. Ignoring his real financial situation, he whisks his wife off to an expensive department store, makes her try on a dizzying array of evening wear (the otherworldly swathes of oranges and reds with which the dresses dot the screen evoke a vivid dream world that contrasts sharply with the Averys’ drab home life) and then decides to buy his son a new bike. But this enforced merriment rings hollow: his desperately asserted display of buying power is undercut both by his wife’s worry about their ability to pay and his son’s concern at his father’s odd behavior.

From there things spin quickly out of control. Parent-teacher night at the school becomes the occasion for a diatribe against the wickedness of schoolchildren, the parents in a predictable dither as Avery shares his belief that their kids will grow up into a “race of moral midgets.” Avery declares his marriage de facto over, summarily informing his wife that she’s not his intellectual equal. And he turns his attention entirely over to his son, subjecting him to an unrelenting program of football and mathematics, obsessed with the idea of turning him into a man. The same rigor applies to both pursuits: a missed catch and a missed word problem alike causes the young boy to forfeit a meal.

In one shot, the camera tracks back behind the boy as he runs across the lawn to haul in a football pass from his father. As Avery whips a Favre-like zinger to the kid, it bounces off his hands and tumbles into the grass. Two further drops occasion a lecture on manhood. Later, the father, looming heavily in a low-angle shot - a visual exaggeration expressive of his outsize feelings of self - towers over his son as the latter puzzles out common denominators, the older man’s shadow stretched out ape-like on the wall behind. Drained of color, the dimly lit den presents only muted whites, olives and browns. The clock ticks past 9. Dinner is still on hold.

Basically, the pills’ structural function is to exaggerate existing conditions and bring to light hidden fears, specifically those inimical to the smooth functioning of a grey flannel society. Avery’s obsession with turning his son into a certain conception of a man – the kind who views success in competition as essential – is clearly indicative of his own insecurities. His desire for his son to perfect his rational mind through math exercises is both a perversion of his own pedagogical instinct and an expression of his fear of the alternative: the illogical chaos that hovers under the patterned surface of organized humanity. And despite his efforts (or because of them) that chaos soon takes over completely. Avery’s mania assumes divine size proportions. Apotheosizing himself, he declares “God was wrong” and, clutching one last item in the iconography of patriarchal authority, the family Bible, sets about sacrificing his son.

Yeah, it’s a powerful moment. And it usually gets laughs from the audience. But it’s not hard to see why viewers prefer to inject a buffer of irony between themselves and the film. Easier to dismiss the act as a bit of quaint melodrama than take in the full force of Ray’s blunt operation. As it unfolds, the scene’s a mass of signifiers that don’t quite cohere into any consistent reading. There’s the beleaguered authority figure wielding a traditional symbol of that authority (the Bible) trying to sacrifice the same son he spent the last half hour of screen time shaping into a man, while his wife cowers in the corner in a bright orange dress and Walter Matthau (playing a physique-obsessed gym teacher) arrives on the scene to restore order.

What is it, in the end, that Avery’s attempted act of filicide is trying to represent? A triumph over his fears about his role as provider? An abdication of his need to assert authority? An acknowledgment of doubt over the legitimacy of that authority? Any way you look at it, it’s a harrowing scene, culminating in a final shot (James Mason cringing against the door in an agony of self-doubt, brow pressed firmly into forearm) that suggests something of Norman Bates’ tormented cowering four years before the fact. After that, Ray can only backtrack, giving us some ambiguous hope that the situation can be salvaged and Avery returned comfortably to his previous social role. But as everything we’ve seen during the previous hour and a half suggests, the situation cannot be salvaged and Avery’s resumption of that role would solve nothing. Some situations are just too thoroughly rotten.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Most Disappointing Films of 2008

[One final list to close out the departed year.]

1. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

There's no question that Hou is one of the most important filmmakers of the last 25 years as well as being one of my personal favorites, but Balloon is the first film I've seen by him that's less than essential. The filmmaker's technical mastery has never been more evident - witness the astonishing dexterity with which he and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing maneuver around the central apartment during the film's final set-piece; as the principal characters scream at each other and a blind piano tuner toils away, the camera surveys the action in a single-fixed take, taking in the activity with a measured glance, while maintaining a sense of the setting as an utterly coherent space - but something else is lost. If each of Hou's previous features managed to capture some essential correspondence between the film's total environment and the figures that populate it - the alternating languors and sudden bursts of motion experienced by the petty gangsters drifting through Goodbye South, Goodbye, the insistent throb of the techno beat that defines the young couple's lives in Millennium Mambo - then Balloon fails to achieve the same knowing intimacy. With the settings lacking the fullness of lived-in spaces, there's a certain sketchiness to the whole thing, a sense of the film's world as ultimately static and lifeless. Which is not to say that Hou's given us an unpleasant two hours of film - far from it - but working with a Parisian setting, the framework of Albert Lamorisse's kiddie-flick classic and Juliette Binoche, and despite the general critical raves, I can't have been the only person who expected more.

2. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)

Breillat's highly regarded Cannes-hit lives and, unfortunately, dies on the lead performance of Asia Argento. As the spurned mistress of young dandy Ryno de Marigny, Argento pants, huffs and screams her way to glory, haunting her youthful lover even as he marries another woman and leaves for the country. I know there's a growing cult around Argento, but count me among the non-believers. Yes, she's fierce and feisty, but with her limited powers of expression, it all seems like so much self-conscious schtick. And of her three performances to hit screens this year (Boarding Gate and Mother of Tears being the others), her role in Breillat's film seems the most locked in to the Argento formula. She's "fearless" (i.e. not afraid to take charge in racy sex scenes), "intractable" (she scowls a lot), but she fails to convincingly convey the loneliness and desperation beneath her character's boiling exterior and her performance never moves beyond tiresome wild-child posturing. The thought of Breillat bringing her own fierce sensibility to the traditionally staid province of the "period piece" proved intriguing, but given her choice of lead actress, her project never really had a chance.

3. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)

The buzz from Cannes was that we had a masterpiece on our hands. And as a big admirer of Reygadas' Battle in Heaven, who was I to doubt it? But when I finally saw Silent Light during its weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I found a film that was as visually ravishing as anticipated, but that was very difficult to engage on any human level. An aesthetic marvel, given Reygadas' and cinematographer Alexis Zabe's reaching for (and frequent attaining of) visual transcendence - never more so than in an opening time-lapse shot that takes in the change from a night sky to a sun-streaked morning - as well as a sophisticated aural design, the film's treatment of its central character's spiritual crisis is rendered with far less understanding. A married man living in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, Johan falls in love with another woman, prompting feelings of guilt and sadness, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional conflicts nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on well past the breaking point.

4. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

I don't know what I was expecting from Nolan's lavishly praised summer blockbuster, but after all the superlatives showered on the film from sources both high and low, and some particularly outrageous claims made on its behalf, I was ready to believe that the film had reinvented cinema as we know it. After all, as Josh Tyler of Cinemablend infamously remarked, "it has already changed the way we think about movies forever." When I finally caught up with Knight after its December DVD release, it not only failed to change the way I think about film (though the movie's critical response did provide an instructive lesson in the dangers of enforced consensus), I didn't even find it to be passable as Summer entertainment. Granted, I'm not a particular fan of the superhero picture, but Knight struck me as particularly inept. As visually uninspired as any movie I've seen in 2008 (the film intentionally eschews the noir aesthetic of previous entries in the series, but doesn't replace it with anything worth looking at), featuring two unappealing central performances (Bale's far too wooden, Ledger's far too self-consciously manic), and overlaid with some half-hearted bids for contemporary relevance that don't represent so much an engagement with our morally compromised times as a superficial attempt to add some ethical heft to a dispensable entertainment, Nolan's film amounts to a particularly unpleasant 2 1/2 hours of cinemagoing. If, as Tyler contends, The Dark Knight is "the new mold from which all future movies will be poured," then we're in some very serious trouble indeed.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)

Again, I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from this Eric Roth-scripted picture, but after it became something of a cinephile rallying point, mostly due to Fincher's alleged visual felicities, my interest was at least mildly piqued. And to some degree the Zodiac director does manage to counterbalance the schmaltz factor inherent in the Forrest Gump scribe's screenplay. When Roth saddles the director with a too-cute recurring character, an old coot who shows up every so often to remind us he was struck by lightning seven times, Fincher takes this as an opportunity for visual invention, illustrating each of the seven instances in a series of early silents-style tableaux. But apart from a lovely, understated middle section in which Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton meet cute (but not too cute) at a Russian hotel, sneaking off for late-night chats in the lobby which quietly turn into lovemaking sessions, Button seems too invested in its own slathered-on sentiment - whether in the Gumpian platitudes that constitute Pitt's voiceover narration or the silly framing device which brings the story up to the present day (to encompass, yes, Hurricane Katrina) - for the film to resonate with all but the least jaded viewer. Someday, we'll properly interrogate our essential distrust of sentiment - as a device, it's no less inherently dishonest than the calculated cynicism that we've come to accept unthinkingly - but however much my tastes may have been shaped by a skeptical cultural climate, Button lays it on more than a little thick. Which might be forgivable if the character at the film's center were anything but a complete cipher, but as it is, the film's overly precious final act is enough to dissipate any aesthetic goodwill that Fincher may so far have generated.