Sunday, December 27, 2009

First Run Films Seen 2009

Here it is, the final tally: a list of all the films I saw this year that had their New York theatrical debut between January 1 and December 31, 2009 and played for at least a week (sorry Frontier of Dawn). Links to reviews follow where applicable.

24 City
35 Shots of Rum
(500) Days of Summer
The Blind Side
The Box
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Bright Star
Broken Embraces
The Brothers Bloom
The Girlfriend Experience
Julie and Julia
The Limits of Control
Lorna's Silence
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
The Lovely Bones
Made in U.S.A.
Me and Orson Welles
Medicine for Melancholy
Mock Up on Mu
Owl and the Sparrow
Paper Heart
A Perfect Getaway
Police, Adjective
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
Public Enemies
Quiet Chaos
Rembrandt's J'accuse
Shall We Kiss?
Sherlock Holmes
Somers Town
Summer Hours
The Sun
Taking Woodstock
Two Lovers
Up in the Air
Walt and El Grupo
We Pedal Uphill
The Wedding Song
Where is Where?
Where the Wild Things Are
The White Ribbon
The Windmill Movie
The Window
You, The Living
The Young Victoria

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"One of Those Navel Gazers": On Critical Objectivity

In response to a recent review I wrote of Police, Adjective for Slant Magazine, a film for which I had a good deal of admiration, but ultimately found to be unsuccessful, I received, via my editor, the following e-mail from a disapproving reader:

Schenker's review is one of those naval gazers where the reviewers own attitudes toward the subject and disagreement with the film makers point of view causes him to wander way off the review reservation. Please remind Schenker a review is not about his agreement or disagreement with the directors philosophy, but to simply communicate the philosophy as well as the quality of the film making and acting.

Setting aside the writer’s obvious grammatical and syntactical infelicities and his vague notion of what constitutes a filmmaker’s “philosophy”, the response raises an interesting set of questions. Now whether or not my objections to Corneliu Porumboiu’s film were based on issues I had with his personal worldview is one that any reader can judge for himself by clicking on the link at the top of the page. (Personally, I think I objected more to the filmmaker’s methods, finding the way in which he shoehorned in a linguistic discussion at the movie's climax – despite the obvious precedents – far too academic). But is it in fact possible, or even desirable, for a critic to take issue with a film’s attitude toward its subject matter? Or must he try to remain as detached as possible and praise good work even if he disagrees with its fundamental premises?

First of all, I think we have to say that it’s useless to assume a stance of critical objectivity, since reviewers (like everyone) can only view work through their own specific worldview, colored as it is by their unique biases. But even if such objectivity were possible, would it not be harmful for a critic to overlook the assumptions (political, social, cultural) put forth by a potentially damaging piece of work? To use only the most obvious example, debate has long centered on the movies of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker who fashioned such works of pro-Hitler propaganda as Triumph of the Will. Can we separate Riefenstahl’s technical achievement from its nefarious politics? Many would say yes, including, most famously, a young Susan Sontag who wrote, specifically referencing Riefenstahl’s films, “we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of ‘content’ are morally objectionable to us”. But Sontag came to re-think her approach, rejecting the separation of form and content that made her previous assertion possible and realizing that it’s useless to speak of “grace” and “sensuousness” in films that exist to assert fascistic control both aesthetically and through their subject matter. But it was perhaps the late, lamented Robin Wood, a tireless champion of films progressive in their treatment of social and sexual politics, who put it best:

The alleged beauty of Triumph of the Will is a fascist beauty, centered on dehumanization, mechanization, the drive to domination, militarism. If one does not succumb to the fascist lure, one can only find the film uniformly boring and repellent.

But surely everyone can agree that the Nazis were evil. What do we do about less extreme examples, films that either espouse a political view different from that of the reviewer (but one acceptable to mainstream discourse) or whose general way of looking at the world the critic finds difficult to accept? This is a particularly sticky issue, but one that can best be resolved by setting aside notions of strict objectivity. As a critic, I can only write about a film from my own unique perspective (as anyone who sees a film can only form an opinion on the work based on their own biases, whether they like to admit it or not) and if a movie espouses a conservative political position or a juvenile cynicism about the world, I am probably unlikely to accept it.

Fortunately, in my experience, a conservative worldview often leads to an aesthetically conservative piece of work which means that films partaking of such questionable stances are less likely to be of interest. But what about a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, a fiendishly clever director with a strong visual sense whose films trade in an adolescent understanding of life and rarely engage with any kind of world outside that of popular culture. Even when drawing on a period setting as Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds, he simply uses the historical background as a means of putting forth his vile revenge fantasy. Yes, he may cleverly assert the power of movies to bring about a form of wish fulfillment, but this alternate history posited by Tarantino is little more than a reverse (and perverse) re-write of the Second World War in which Jews perpetrate the filmmaker’s trademark cynically humorous violence and Hitler burns to a crisp in a French cinema. So given my obvious distaste for Inglourious Basterds’ basic assumptions, if I were to review the film (I have not done so), should the gist of my review be that Tarantino cleverly achieves his ends and that the camerawork and acting are great? Hardly. It’s not so easy to tear apart form and content. Tarantino’s stylish flair is placed in service of a point of view I find repellent. His own filmmaking prowess (form) serves strictly to illustrate his film’s essential content (the positive power of film to change the course of history, i.e. exact bloody retribution). So how could any review I write of the film not address its fundamental worldview and discuss its form in those same terms. It couldn’t, but then again, what do I know? I’m just a navel gazer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Year-End Polls and New Releases

Late December can only mean one thing in the world of film journalism: the annual proliferation of year-end lists and polls. The latest of these rankings to seek my participation are the Village Voice's annual survey (click here for my ballot) and The L Magazine's composite top 20 list (for which I contributed blurbs of numbers 16 and 18 and Independencia in the runner up section). Also for The L Magazine, I reviewed Terry Gilliam's latest The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, while Slant has re-posted my consideration of Police, Adjective, written during that film's run at the New York Film Festival.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mid-Award Season Roundup

Amidst the doldrums of the award season (biggest groaners: The Lovely Bones and Invictus), a few bright spots emerge - most notably Francis Ozon's flying-baby drama Ricky and A Town Called Panic, a madcap Belgian stop-motion whatsit.

A Single Man (Slant)
A Town Called Panic (Slant)
Ricky (The L Magazine)
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (Village Voice)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Slant Magazine: Best of 2009

Slant Magazine's year end feature has now been posted. This year, we've opted for a composite top 25, drawing on the favorite films of seven critics. It was gratifying to see all of my top 10 make the final list (and all but one would have made it even without my vote). Never mind the naysayers, this was an exceptionally strong year in films (to echo Nick Schager's opening salvo) and despite my dislike for two of the top vote getters (A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds), I think our selection really gives a sense of the diversity and richness of the last twelve months' offerings. I contributed blurbs for numbers 21, 15, 12 and 6. My complete list (along with honorable mentions) can be found on page 4.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lovely Bones

If nothing else, Peter Jackson’s absurdly overwrought The Lovely Bones makes fellow award-season hopeful A Single Man look restrained by comparison. No mean feat, since Tom Ford’s film wraps its narrative of the last day in the life of a gay professor living in early ‘60s Los Angeles in so much aesthetic puffery that its characters are nearly swallowed whole. But after the first half-hour or so, Ford eases up just enough on the symbolic imagery and impressionistic montages to allow a finely etched story to emerge. First time director Ford seems determined to prove he’s an artist. The irony is that he is, but only when he doesn’t feel the need to insist on it.

The same can’t be said about Peter Jackson, or at least the Peter Jackson of 2009. As if unable to scale down from the epic heights of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Jackson’s approach to the human elements that his adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel demands is to bathe them in so much horseshit sentiment and dubiously manipulative montage that the inattentive viewer may just miss the gaps in the story and the hollowness of the project. Certainly the audience at the New York premiere – who rated an in-house Jackson a thunderous round of applause – seemed taken in, but then I guess it’s hard to resist endless beatific close-ups of 15-year old Saorise Ronan’s face, especially when they serve (vulgarly, pulingly) to emphasize the tragedy of her character’s untimely murder.

Yes, for those who don’t know the story, high school freshmen Susie Salmon (Ronan) is slain in her Philadelphia suburb by an underimagined generic creep of a neighbor, then spends the rest of the film in a CGI-purgatory where she has some vague communication with the living and tries to set things right, first through a thirst for vengeance and then by an acceptance of circumstance. Much of the film’s problems stem from the difficulty of crafting a narrative that simultaneously takes place on two planes of existence. Even as most of the action unfolds in the world of the living, Jackson needs to keep cutting back to the afterlife since that’s where his main character resides. Unfortunately, he does a poor job of defining Susie’s relationship to her former world. She’s able to appear to relatives and influence them to some degree, but after filling her father with an initial desire for vengeance and then providing him with a change of heart, she seems to have little active effect on the living, so the filmmakers just leave her in her purgatory, marking time until events resolve themselves.

The constant shifting between two worlds means that Jackson has to rely heavily on parallel editing –and The Lovely Bones has more cross-cutting than a D.W. Griffith festival – but in two sequences he uses the technique to particularly dubious effect. During the murder sequence, as Susie’s killer lures her to his underground lair, Jackson cuts back to the girl’s family sitting nervously down to the dinner table waiting for her to return, the filmmaker milking every ounce of sentiment and wait-for-it horror from his lurid set-up. Then, in a later sequence, he cuts between Susie watching from her perch in the afterlife and the murderer pushing a safe with her remains to a dump site. Relying heavily on slow-motion shots, Jackson elongates time, turning the dumping into an epic ordeal which, coupled with the slather of strings on the soundtrack, serves to signify rather than illustrate the high drama supposedly being enacted.

But even as these two moments are clearly singled out for their central importance, the whole film is basically pitched at the same level of dramatic intensity. Every scene is marked by a swirl of strings, slo-mo camerawork or at the very least, pointlessly dizzyingly cutting. In fact, following the picture’s one misguided bit of comic relief – an out-of-nowhere sequence in which poor Susan Sarandon is forced to play the sassy, boozy older woman – roughly half-way through, there really are no lulls in the film, the whole thing achieving a uniform level of aesthetic oversaturation that continually converts the narrative’s excessive morbidity into easy sentiment. Jackson seems at home only when crafting his, admittedly impressive, CGI-afterworld and when staging one late suspense sequence in which Susie’s sister moronically enters the killer’s house to poke around only for the killer to return midway through. But when it comes to handling the more conventional aspects of his soapy narrative, such as dealing with his characters, he seems either uninterested in or unequal to the task, falling back on both his technical expertise and a tendency to shoot for the audience’s basest emotions through his unabashed taste for mush. You would think any viewer so disrespected by a director would be ready to wring his neck should he dare, as Jackson did at the premiere, to parade himself in front of the audience. But instead they toasted him as the Hollywood royalty he is and went on with their evening, another bit of disposable entertainment safely consumed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving Roundup

My latest batch of reviews covers a few (somewhat) high-profile misfires and some lower-profile gems. And some low-profile misfires as well. The highlight is probably Film Ist: A Girl and a Gun, the third part of Gustav Deutsch's series of found-footage films, which has a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives.

Me and Orson Welles (Slant)
The Last Station (Slant)
Loot (Slant)
Home (Village Voice)
Before Tomorrow (Village Voice)
Film Ist: A Girl and a Gun (The L Magazine)