Monday, March 30, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Scrapping the determinism that kept his first two features from moving beyond their neo-realist models, with Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani gives his characters at last some room to breathe. If in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, humans are imagined as little more than the product of their environment and all their efforts to better themselves are preordained to failure (as in La Terra Trema, but without that film’s expansive sense of tragedy), then in the current project, the filmmaker refrains from stacking his deck against his well-meaning characters, giving them considerable freedom of action, even when that freedom means choosing to commit suicide.

Relating, in low-key, elliptical fashion, the unlikely and tentative friendship between a Senegalese cab driver and an older white man who seems to be methodically plotting to bring his life to an end, Bahrani’s film gets by largely on personality, the element most conspicuously absent from his earlier works. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a conception of character that remains intentionally flat – witness the success of such an approach in Goodbye Solo’s clearest model, Taste of Cherry – especially when motivated, as it is in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, by an understanding of the ways in which tough situations reduce people to little more than the sum of their circumstances, in Bahrani’s previous films this approach tends to impart a certain redundancy to the material, a sense of treading familiar ground without the means to push any further.

But the trade-off in the earlier films is that while character is slighted, the environments come to vivid life. And while the North Carolina streets that form the setting of the current film don’t give off as potent a sense of place as the maze of auto body shops and junk heaps that form Queens’ Willets Point in Chop Shop, the difference is more than made up by the pairing of generous, garrulous Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) and his “preferred client”, quiet, surly William (Red West). As the two zip through the streets in the former’s cab or shack up together at a motel when Solo gets kicked out of the house by his wife, they reach a tenuous understanding, the cabbie looking out for the older man, penetrating his reserve to a small degree, while William reluctantly helps the other man with his studies and befriends his young step-daughter.

Bahrani doesn’t push things too far here and it’s clear that while circumstance might bring two very different people together, might allow them to reap small benefit from each other’s presence, a lasting relationship is pretty well an impossibility, especially given the opposite directions in which the two men are striving: Solo determined to better himself by landing a job as a flight attendant and William set on throwing himself off Blowing Rock cliff, in thrall to some unnamed sorrow. Actually, the nature of this sorrow is hinted at in a series of scenes that represent the film’s one real misstep – William’s frequent trips to the movie theater are revealed as a chance to talk to the ticket taker, who is most likely his grandson and his only familial connection – an attempt to specify the nature of the older man’s circumstances, where the filmmaker would have been better off following Kiarostami’s example and leaving some things left unsaid. But for the most part he does just that. Combining the sharp observations and skillful elisions of his earlier features with a newfound interest in character, the young director has crafted his first successful film, one that finds two wholly credible human beings struggling with, but not subdued by, a set of specifically dictated circumstances. The men may take opposing actions when faced with their separate trials, but, in Bahrani's latest effort, their choices are, at last, their own.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Releases: Shall We Kiss?, Alien Trespass and The Song of Sparrows

My latest round of reviews for Slant comprises a mixed bag of new releases: Emmanuel Mouret's dispensable, if not unpleasant, comedy of manners Shall We Kiss? (currently playing at New York's Angelika Film Center and BAM Rose Cinemas), as well as R.W. Goodwin's misguided '50s sci-fi pastiche Alien Trespass and Maji Majidi's mostly enjoyable The Song of Sparrows, both of which open this Friday.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sin Nombre

Unlike Babel, Traffic and any number of other recent films dealing with hot button topics of global import, Sin Nombre (issue: immigration - and gangs) doesn’t aim to assault the viewer with its alleged insights. In fact, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s feature debut doesn’t attempt to offer - and thus doesn’t offer - much in the way of insight at all. Presenting the linked stories of a Mexican gang-banger fleeing his former crew and a young Honduran woman trying to immigrate to the United States with her uncle and father, the film unfolds as something like pure narrative. But rather than communicate some sense of what it might mean to embark on a dangerous journey toward an unknown country – except to suggest that, y’know, it’s kinda rough - Fukunaga trusts in the power of continual forward momentum to carry the project, resorting to cheap manipulation for cheap effect and introducing rough bursts of gang violence when things start to drag.

So, yeah, it’s entertaining, but that entertainment is predicated on the old paradox: What’s exciting is presented only as a thing to be condemned. Or is only allowed to be exciting so long as it is condemned. As Fukunaga tells it, gang life falls into two modes: the thrilling and the pointedly unpleasant and, while there’s far more of the former on display, the writer/director draws on the latter whenever he needs to achieve a (generally dubious) dramatic potency. In the film’s first moment of crisis, a gang leader tries to rape the girlfriend of his young underling Casper (Edgar Flores), then accidentally kills her when she resists, setting in motion the bereft man’s flight and initiating the chase narrative that constitutes the film’s second half. Fukunaga certainly knows how to hit where it hurts, but he doesn't always play fair: The heightened emotions that he successfully channels result from his considerable skill at appealing to the viewer’s basic revulsions, not from any audience interest he’s created in his mostly neglible characters. The director pulls the same stunt twice more – at the film’s second point of crisis and at the climax – calling on timely intervention, contrived synchronicity and the threat - or promise - of violence to juice up the proceedings, but what these hysterical outbursts principally achieve is to point up the flimsiness of the surrounding material.

Give or take a few attempted rapes, though, and the gangster life looks rather like good breezy fun – at least for the viewer. For the rest, the film turns its attention to teenaged Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), our Honduran would-be immigrant whose narrative unfolds mostly atop a train as she and her family join a group of Central American émigrés crossing the Mexican countryside en route to the promised land. Fukunaga has even less to say about the plight of the immigrant than about the plight of the gangster, but these scenes at least seem authentically detailed (the tarp the group brings to ward off rain storms is a nice touch) and they give the director and his talented cinematographer Adriano Goldman plenty of time to take in the landscape – impossibly lush fields and pleasingly shabby slums, ranging from bright greens to dull grays – as the train zips by.

Signaling the confluence of the two narrative strands, on-the-lam Casper joins up with Sayra and her party, protecting the group from his old gang who (a little too conveniently) show up to shake down the hapless immigrants. And while the rest of the party still resents his presence (the only good marero is a dead marero), it’s not long before a little romance springs up between the young woman and the ex-gangster. To his credit, Fukunaga doesn’t make too much of this bit of puppy love, but the whole thing seems more a questionable device aimed at filling in the spaces of the less compelling of the filmmaker's two plotlines than any kind of productive development. So it comes as something of a relief when Casper’s gang returns to the scene and Fukunaga gives us a thrilling bit of shoot-out as they engage a rival clan. The fact that the film makes us long for our heroes’ situations to conform to generic expectations – gang warfare is after all more interesting than quiet train rides – may serve to cheapen the immigrants’ plight, but in the place of any greater insight on offer, it’s about all we've got to work with. As we wait for the inevitable moment of reckoning with the villains, there’s little left to do but reflect that what we’re dealing with here is not really a film that has anything to say about its ostensible subjects, but one that uses them as the basis for crafting a rather conventional – though occasionally rousing – genre piece: in Fukunaga’s film, immigration becomes at last the (im)proper stuff of the thriller.

Monday, March 23, 2009

New Directors/New Films 2009

This year, I reviewed three films from Lincoln Center/MOMA's annual showcase New Directors/New Films as part of Slant Magazine's coverage of the festival. Claudia Llosa's Golden Bear winner The Milk of Sorrow is the clear class of the lot, but James D. Stern and Adam del Deo's crowd-pleasing doc Every Little Step, about the casting process of a Broadway revival of A Chorus Line is very much worth seeing as well. Less impressive is Vladimir Kott's comedic drama The Fly. Below are links to the reviews arranged by date of screening:

March 26, 29

March 27, 29

April 1, 3

Monday, March 16, 2009


Hunger, Steve McQueen’s Caméra d’Or-winning film about Irish republican Bobby Sands’ hunger strike at Belfast’s Maze Prison, certainly packs a hefty punch, but given that the filmmaker’s catalog of gruesome physical detailing seems principally designed to stake a claim at significance through its sheer overwhelming unpleasantness, it feels more like a sucker punch than anything. And yet, how else to tell a story predicated on injustice and abuse, an examination of the body as political weapon, a narrative that can only be understood in terms of the physical? But such are the insoluble difficulties inherent in McQueen’s project and if the filmmaker’s conception seems too geared to the cheap effect for him to successfully navigate the delicate balance his subject matter demands, at least it can't be said that he soft-pedals his material, instead bringing off his gritty showstoppers with an impressively stomach-churning, if artistically dubious, intensity.

Set in 1981, the film begins as republican prisoners in the Maze’s infamous H-blocks stage their “blanket” and “no wash” protests; demonstrating against the government’s denial of their status as political detainees, they refuse to don prison garb, wearing only blankets and subsisting in a self-imposed state of filth. In the early section of the film, McQueen lingers over the specific details of the republicans' imprisonment, turning such gross out gags as the men storing contraband in their rectums and smearing shit over the cell walls into the stuff of gleeful fetish. As the tensions in the prison mount, he stages the guard’s mistreatment of the prisoners as rousing set-pieces. In an admittedly thrilling sequence, a feral Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) makes his first appearance - bearded, long-haired and nude - as a whole squadron of guards drag him down and give him a forced haircut and shave. Later, following a minor prison riot, the prisoners are made to run a gauntlet of truncheon-wielding guards before undergoing a full cavity search. In these sequences, the contradictory import of the director’s method is in full play: it may be necessary to underline these gruesome details to illustrate the ways in which the men are bodily debased (and it may also account for some pulse-pounding moments of cinema), but McQueen too often wields these brutalities as a bludgeon with which to assert his material’s importance, never more so than in a tasteless slo-mo shot which caps the post-riot crackdown, as his camera lingers on the guard’s sticks hammering away at Sands' prone body.

The philosophical grounding for that man’s final act of protest is spelled out in one of the film’s more compelling sequences, the famed 17-minute single-take scene in which Sands relates his plans to a disapproving priest (Liam Cunningham) in the prison visiting room. Fixing the two in medium shot as they sit across each other at a table, perpendicular to the camera, McQueen stages the scene as a rousing dialectical exchange in which the men dispute each other to a stalemate. If, in the prisoners’ previous encounters with the guards, the film's argument goes, their bodies had served as objects on which their enemies asserted their control, then by staging a hunger strike, the republicans can re-claim agency of their bodies, turning their only available weapon against their opponents. What the priest principally objects to in Sands’ proposal is his pre-determined intention to die through his fasting, but while he may disparagingly label the strike an act of suicide, for Sands it amounts to murder, pure and simple, and against such determined reasoning there’s little that can be said. Still before falling into a final silence, the priest does land one shot that sticks, characterizing the other’s proposed act as stemming from a martyr complex with the younger man enthrall to an outdated and impractical romanticism, a critique that Sands is unable to quite deny and which complicates the film’s conclusion.

The strike plays out over the final quarter of the film and, while it apparently involved the participation of all 75 prisoners, McQueen confines his focus exclusively to Sands as he wastes away on his deathbed. As before, what’s salient in the director’s visual selection is the evidence of physical degradation; if the upshot of Sands’ protest is not merely death, but a gruesome bodily deterioration, then McQueen makes this fact duly felt, calling repeated attention to Fassbender’s emaciated frame, fixing close-ups on the grotesque lesions that pepper his back and the blood that he shits into the toilet. And if that sounds gross, well, that’s exactly the point, but beyond the sheer visceral impact of the thing it's not quite clear what exactly it accomplishes. Still, artistically, these moments are preferable to the film’s conclusion in which McQueen unwisely moves into full-on impressionistic mode, staging out-of-focus visual p.o.v s and inaudible audio p.o.v.s from Sands’ perspective before cutting to childhood flashbacks and shots of crows flying to signal the dying man’s final consciousness. If these conceptually unimaginative touches register as a disappointment from a Turner-prize winning artist, then it just goes to show that the director is most interested in (and most successful at) conveying the intense unpleasantness of physical suffering. That this in itself represents a dubious grounding for a work of art should give some sense of the fundamental miscalculation of McQueen’s film, even if, in the final analysis, he could scarcely have proceeded otherwise.


My review of Roland Tec's We Pedal Uphill has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Releases: Tokyo Sonata and The Cake Eaters

The must-see film this weekend is doubtless Tokyo Sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's devastating domestic drama about an out-of-work father who lies to his family about his unemployment in order to maintain an increasingly untenable front as head-of-household. Writing about the film last year at the New York Film Festival, I called it "a thoroughgoing critique of the demands of patriarchy in contemporary Japan" as well as "an affecting family drama". And it certainly is both those things, though in focusing my review primarily on the former aspect, I likely shortchanged the film's striking formal qualities, particularly Kurosawa and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa's expertly constricting framings and graceful lighting. Also opening this weekend in New York is the considerably less accomplished film The Cake Eaters, Mary Stuart Masterson's directorial debut, which I reviewed for Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beach Red

As a piece of filmmaking, Cornel Wilde's Beach Red (1967) is as crude as anything, but, while this may be a question of circumstance rather than choice, really, what better way to approach a war picture? In the relentless first half, American soldiers take a Japanese-held beach and then advance inland, the men shoot and get shot and Wilde films it all with the same matter-of-fact brutality. In one scene, a grunt looks down at the glowing red stump of his arm after it's blasted off, then stumbles forward, his unbalanced frame filling the screen until he collapses. Peppering the lulls in the action with a whole catalogue of slapdash experimental techniques (in the literal sense of the word "experiment" - an untrained artist trying whatever techniques he can think of to tell his story) - soldier's interior monologues presented in voice-over, milky flashbacks to the home lives of each character (American and Japanese alike), still photographs, twice underlined symbolism, stock footage - Wilde's film's an odd mixture: incredibly potent, unsentimental battle scenes and less potent, incredibly sentimental interludes in fitful alternation. Eventually the action simmers down and we get some hokey bits of camaraderie - poorly acted and filled with ludicrous dialogue - as the characters progress from indistinguishable canon fodder to thinly sketched caricatures. But even these lumpish chunks of characterization prove necessary, if only as a foil to the savagery always lurking at a given scene's periphery. In a late bit of melo, these two modes (talking and shooting) trade off to deliriously rude effect, a dying Japanese soldier getting riddled with bullets just as he accepts a canteen from his US counterpart.

Wilde may well fit under that oft-abused rubric "primitive", but as Michael Atkinson points out in his essay on the filmmaker, the director's brand of pulp gets us about as close to the "fears, hatreds, and needs of being alive" as we're likely to get, without the buffer of a knowing irony. And what better testing ground for these unconscious forces than the merciless World War II jungles of the Philippines that form the inescapable terrain of Wilde's picture. While that often held adage about war films always making their subject matter exciting never quite made sense - war always looked pretty unpalatable to me, but if increasingly cinematic video games like the Call of Duty series remain bestsellers, then what do I know? - they should certainly never merit that descriptor with which J. Hoberman damned Schindler's List. Luckily there's nothing remotely "tasteful" about Wilde's sulphurous vision.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Summer Hours

In Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas negotiates with a clear-eyed, unfussy delicacy the tensions between nostalgia - the emotional residues that attach to the buildings and objects of a person’s past - and the demands of modern life, and while the filmmaker understands an acceptance of the latter as a necessity, he nonetheless suffuses his picture with the grace notes of unmistakable elegy. We may need to discard the physical baggage of our past in order to live in an increasingly global, rootless world, Assayas suggests, but that doesn’t mean that something valuable isn’t lost in the transaction.

In the film's first scene, three generations of a family reunite at a country house – the kids gambol around followed by Assayas’ camera in long tracking shots, their parents politely bicker, each concerned with his own professional life, and everyone understands that these summer meetings are coming to an end. No one is less equivocal on this point than the family matriarch, 75 year-old Hélène (Edith Scob), who gives her eldest son a lengthy tour of the house’s numerous objets d’art – amassed by the older woman’s painter uncle (and possible lover) – in preparation for selling them off upon her death. The son insists that they’ll keep the house, but the mother knows better: her kids don’t have time for these meetings anymore and, besides, they need the money.

As befitting a work that takes nostalgia as a central theme, the film spends more time reflecting back on events than in depicting them. After the opening sequence, Assayas elides an art opening and a funeral (Hélène’s) and turns to a conversation between the deceased’s three children as they bring us up to speed on past events and make plans for the future. The eldest son, Frédéric (Charles Berling), registers a plea for keeping the place, but his globally-oriented siblings Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) – a designer living in New York – and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) – a factory owner about to move to China - outvote him and much of the rest of the film is devoted to the process of selling off the artwork.

In a central scene, appraisers from the Musée d’Orsay come to the house and make a lengthy survey of the holdings. Assayas’ decision to devote a significant block of screen time to the cataloguing of these pieces both emphasizes the weight of what is being given up and documents with cold precision the process by which the personal is transformed into the public, as the appraisers view the items not as objects with a sentimental history but as fresh additions to a more impersonal collection. This odd transmutation that occurs when private collections become institutionalized finds its fit philosophic expression in a later scene when Frédéric and his wife visit Orsay and watch an indifferent school class walk by one of Hélène’s pieces. Bemoaning the fate of these objects that once meant so much, Frédéric understands that in the new setting, the residues of the piece have largely dissipated to be replaced by the cursory stares of bored schoolchildren more concerned with chatting on cell phones. But the scene ends with the film’s most stunning image as the camera tracks over a neatly arranged display of vases, the objects positively shimmering in their glass case, a different if equally potent aura returned by Assayas’ gaze to the displaced artworks.

Summer Hours concludes by turning its attention to the next generation, an approach that initially feels like a misstep when Assayas shoehorns in a seemingly incongruous sequence where Frédéric’s daughter is caught shoplifting and her father has to pick her up at the police station. But when in the picture’s last scene, the children throw a final party at the country house (no one above 16 appears to be present), and Assayas gives semi-celebratory expression to the sort of reckless behavior of youth that the shoplifting seemed to prefigure, the film continues its progression of generational inheritance and ends by asking what relationship contemporary teenagers, who often appear locked unerringly into the present, have to the objects of the past that proved so prominent in the emotional lives of their forebears. And the answer is that these objects do continue to play a role, a role that may be defined by a weakly articulated nostalgia that has no thought of realization, but which, for a generation often characterized by an ignorance of what came before, serves as a reminder that a regard for that past has not been totally obliterated from its consciousness. And on that note of bittersweet elegy – accepting the inevitable, while evincing a sadness for what’s left behind - Assayas brings his remarkable film to a close.

Monday, March 2, 2009


"There's nothing in recent memory quite like Merde," begins my review of the multi-director triptych Tokyo! at Slant Magazine, in which I devote much ink to Leos Carax's outrageous middle segment, which stars Denis Lavant as a subterranean monster who rises to the surface to terrorize the citizenry because, as he puts it, "I don't like people." The other entries, Michel Gondry's Interior Design and Bong Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo have their merits as well, it's just that they're completely overshadowed by Carax's exhilarating and defiantly tasteless offering.

Tokyo! opens this Friday at New York's Landmark Sunshine Theater.