Films Seen January 2012

(For films seen at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, go here.)

Pariah (2011, Dee Rees)

So tonight we're gonna party like it's 1995. If Weekend feels like at least a bit of a step forward for mainstream queer cinema, this well-meaning inspirational clunkfest represents two steps back; I knew it was hopeless almost immediately, when a minute-long sequence of the protagonist staring pensively out a bus window was accompanied by some horrible acoustic folk-blues number with the lyrical refrain "Got to keep doin' my thing / I got to keep doin' my thing." Do you now. Performances all seem solid enough (though the bratty younger sister's a bit much), but it's tough to create an indelible character when every scene has exactly one unmistakable, dogmatic function, leaving zero room for grace notes or sidelong observations. And here's precisely the sort of boorish, in-your-face bigotry that Weekend so deftly avoided; I'm sure there really are still assholes out there accosting slightly butch women with hateful remarks about how they're too ugly to attract a man, but they don't make the most effective dramatic antagonists. Why am I about to leave for Sundance again...?

Modern Romance (1981, Albert Brooks)

Switch the Quaaludes to soju and have Robert pursue a different-but-similar woman in the second half and this could be a Hong Sang-soo picture, though its depiction of masculine anxiety is much more overtly comedic. It also uncannily prefigures the Onion's classic story "Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested," except that Brooks understands how sheer relentlessness can in fact create a folie à deux that ensnares otherwise sensible women; the movie's greatest triumph is the sheer horror inspired by what would constitute a traditional, clichéd happy ending in a Hollywood romcom. (I do wish he'd omitted the closing title crawl, which is funny enough but detracts from the perverse power of that final "romantic" crane shot.) Significant (vis-à-vis Hong again) that Brooks makes his alter ego an editor rather than a writer or director -- not only are the post-production hijinks endlessly hilarious, they reflect Robert's ability to "cut" obvious but discomfiting truths from his mental narrative of the relationship, or to imagine that everything can somehow be "saved" by an inconsequential gesture (new footsteps, stuffed giraffe). That Robert recognizes professionally what he can't grasp in his personal life is just one small aspect of this film's unyieldingly painful honesty, and the real glory is that most of the time you're laughing too hard to even process that bleak worldview. Shame that Brooks doesn't really know what to do with the camera, but at least his primitivism errs on the side of long takes, stasis and "dead air," which is wholly appropriate. Utterly tragic, full stop, that the other Brooks, James L., has never acted since. I have never not lost it when he mouths "little weasels."

The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

Time to bite the bullet and admit -- as much to myself as to you fine people -- that I just don't love The Greatest Western. Easiest way to rationalize this heresy is to pick a fight with the ending, which has always felt baldly contrived; I've read heroic interpretations of Ethan's sudden decision to cradle Debbie in his arms, but never a sensible word regarding Debbie's equally sudden (and patently ludicrous) about-face when Martin comes for her. Truthfully, though, the film's disregard for the harrowing reality of an assimilated captive's ordeal is only one of many speedbumps. Martin and Laurie's frustrated romance, for example, while often entertaining for its own sake, doesn't really work as a counterpoint to Ethan's quest, even though Martin being part-Injun would seem to suggest numerous fruitful avenues. And a number of light-hearted interludes are just embarrassing, viz. Martin's inadvertent purchase of "Look" or anything involving the simpleminded Mose. There's more than enough greatness -- in Wayne's unforgiving performance; in Ford's canny use of interiors and exteriors (despite my grousing above, it is significant that Debbie acquiesces inside a tepee); in touches as magnificent as the death of Lucy's fiancé Brad, revealed solely by implication via Max Steiner's score -- to compensate for these lapses, but I can no longer bring myself to pretend that they don't exist, or that they don't hamstring the movie to a sizable degree. Even if that perfect final shot still makes me want to try.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996, Renny Harlin)

Kind of amazing to discover that this film's utterly disposable, who-even-cares? villain plot conforms precisely to the paranoid fantasies of the 9/11 Truth movement, even throwing in a quick reference to the '93 World Trade Center bombing (which is unrelated to the actual diabolical Muslim-fall-guy scheme). Ironic, too, since even Big Dumb Hollywood Action Movies are rarely so giddily unconcerned with real-world plausibility. Harlin's relish for fervid excess meshes beautifully with Shane Black's then-developing knack for the pungent one-liner; Samuel L. Jackson commenting on his own dialogue ("I would have been here sooner, but I was thinkin' up that ham on rye line") is just the verbal equivalent of Geena Davis taking out a squadron of hit men using a gun still lodged in somebody else's pocket. (Speaking of which, that's twice Black has used the gun-hidden-next-to-my-dick bit. Arguably once too many.) Enormous fun, but more so when the action is rising than when it starts falling -- partly because the premise suggests a piercing melodramatic dilemma in which this goofy film is almost wholly uninterested (Samantha's husband just vanishes until the coda, and her daughter is Generic Moppet #406), but mostly because Davis can dance the White Swan but isn't terribly convincing as the Black Swan. A short frosted-blonde haircut and heavy eyeliner only do so much. (Sad observation: She turned 40 the year this film came out, and has not played a leading role in a feature film since.) If for no other reason, I'll always treasure The Long Kiss Goodnight for revealing that I'm not the only one who always heard that line as "I'm not talkin' 'bout the linen." Faulty meter, England Dan and/or John Ford Coley.

Belle Epine (2010, Rebecca Zlotowski)

Léa Seydoux's lack of affect served her well as an icy assassin in Ghost Protocol, but I've had trouble with her in other contexts; anchoring a delicate character study seems well beyond her sullen, pouty means at present. Which is particularly problematic since Zlotowski is admirably determined to avoid emotional signposting, opening the film in medias res with the protagonist's acting out (actually with the consequences for same, so one step further removed) and only gradually revealing the fairly banal reasons for it. Another case of just-never-grabbed-me...and it's only 80 minutes long, so I watched fully half of it before throwing in the towel. Note to self, though: This director is heavily into casual female nudity.

Menace II Society (1993, The Hughes Brothers)

Never did understand the hoopla surrounding these guys -- Menace II Society premiered in Director's Fortnight, if you've forgotten, while Dead Presidents was in NYFF -- and I gotta say I feel like I've been entirely vindicated by posterity. Extensive use of retrospective voiceover here deliberately recalls GoodFellas, but Henry Hill didn't spend the entire movie being prodded to better himself; despite the absence of a didactic role model à la Laurence Fishburne (though Charles S. Dutton turns up briefly to serve a similar function), this is arguably even preachier than Boyz n the Hood, continually offering Caine escape routes from The Life even as it sets up the dominoes that'll take him out. In theory, I can get behind the tale of a sensitive young kid whose potentially bright future gets destroyed by the hopeless corner of the world into which he was born, but not when that's constantly being highlighted and underlined, to the exclusion of not just a gripping narrative but any real sociological interest or even just memorable texture. Everything's subordinate to the message/moral, with which no rational viewer could possibly disagree, so there's nothing to do except await the inevitable. (That Jada Pinkett Notyetsmith's innocent kid doesn't wind up getting killed in the crossfire afforded me one less opportunity to roll my eyes, it's true, but a good movie wouldn't appear to be setting that moment up in the first place.) Alternately bland and preposterous (they don't even think to wipe the Korean liquor store of fingerprints?), with only the occasional fluid tracking shot and some decent performances to recommend it. The Book of Eli seems roughly where they've always belonged.

Bambi (1942, David D. Hand)

I'm as surprised as you probably are (although the film's Wikipedia entry claims that contemporaneous reviews were mixed to negative). No question that it's beautiful, but it doubles down on all the most cloying, simpering aspects of the early Disney house style, from aw-shucks vocal characterizations to that heavenly-choir effect in every damn song. People always talk about being traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother, but nobody ever mentions (or seems to remember) that the film immediately fades to black and then fades up a year later on a bunch of birds twittering gaily about how swell springtime is (RT @robinredbreast oh yeh i'm horny as hell LOL); the loss is no sooner felt than completely forgotten. And that moment occurs about 40 minutes into a movie that's only 70 minutes long, preceded by nonstop bashful-wobbly adorableness and followed by a delusional primer on romance that no doubt warped an entire generation. Only the climactic fire suggests a film intended to elicit a more vital reaction than "Aww!" -- it's significant that "man" (as opposed to just "hunters") plays the unseen heavy, depicted as the spoiler of everything that's good...though of course even this pointed stance ignores the inherent cruelty of nature itself, as a deer is far more likely to be killed by a cougar or jaguar than by a bullet or a man-made inferno. You may feel that I'm being unduly critical of a movie made for children, but I'll be enormously surprised if I feel this way about Dumbo or Pinocchio, both of which find room for personality, humor, and complicated (if not complex) emotions en route to their preordained happy endings. Bambi is aptly named; it's the Barbie of talking-animal cartoons.

Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)

Startled to discover that this was adapted from a play, because it's much more documentary than narrative -- a swirling, colorful portrait of Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, onto which a skeletal reimagining of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth has been grafted. Seen from today's perspective, it skews pretty tourist-y, as if Camus' primary goal was simply to share this vibrant culture with an international audience. Look at 'em dance! And the two lead actors seem to have been chosen strictly for their hot-cha-cha quotient, which makes their literally undying love seem like something out of a Corman beach movie. Still, it's not as if being a tourist is all bad, and Black Orpheus does have energy to spare; there's a captivating unruliness on the fringes, some of which extends to the supporting cast (particularly Léa Garcia, as Eurydice's cousin Serafina, who seems to be auditioning for Bridesmaids 50 years early). Maybe if Cocteau's Orpheus didn't exist, I wouldn't feel so disappointed by the skimpiness of this film's "underworld" -- the only moment that's remotely arresting (but non-festive) is Orfeu's visit to the Missing Persons office, where the janitor insists that there's nothing to be found but endless paperwork. And even that mild dig at bureaucracy seems to come out of nowhere and then go right back where it came from. I'm no fan of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (as of my last look, which was a while ago), but that would surely have been a more deserving Palme d'Or winner. To say nothing of The Four Hundred Blows or (my oddball personal choice from that year's Competition lineup) Compulsion.

City of Life and Death (2009, Lu Chuan)

Worried at first that this would just be a grueling never-forget testament to the Rape of Nanking, with no real purpose other than to remind us that these atrocities happened. Thankfully, Lu isn't hell-bent on shoving our faces into the horror...but that's mostly because he's working so hard to valorize the Chinese. Final straw for me was when the sadistic Ida orders Rabe's secretary to be executed by firing squad, then turns his back on the scene in a way that implies he's secretly sorrowful after having witnessed the man's dignity and courage. But even the filmmaking itself frequently slips into sub-Spielberg mawkishness. Is it not moving enough that women volunteer to "comfort" Japanese soldiers so that others can eat? Must we have solemn strings and a montage of hands being raised skyward in slow motion as dust motes fall? Ostensibly, the choice of an inexperienced Japanese soldier as the closest thing to an identification figure complicates matters, but he's so unfailingly noble and sensitive -- never tempted to take part in the abuse, yearning to marry the (Japanese) hooker who deflowers him -- that he's essentially an honorary Chinaman. (I believe that is the preferred nomenclature, Walter. Shut the fuck up, Donnie, you're out of your element.) And I am the only one who finds the ending kind of grotesque? Not in terms of who dies (which is just the culmination of my complaint above), but regarding the instantaneous elation of the two survivors, who run giggling into the future. Even the last freaking Harry Potter movie managed more ambivalence than that.

Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo)

Previously addressed at Cannes, where I somewhat exaggerated, I see now, its potential commercial appeal -- Naranjo's expertly choreographed sequence-shot "action" setpieces do thrill, but in the rarefied manner of e.g. Jancsó's The Red and the White, not à la M. Mann or even De Palma. Sticking to my guns on the feminist reading, though, which reaches its apotheosis at the moment when Laura's shoved onto the pageant stage (minutes after surviving a bloody shootout) and is asked by the unctuous host which she desires more: wealth or fame? Some have complained that she lacks agency, but there's an important distinction between being powerless and being a victim; Naranjo repeatedly provides her with choices that aren't really choices at all, deftly skirting didacticism while laying bare the self-defeating trap society lays for young women. "Does this building have another exit?" she asks desperately early on, and we root for her to escape, which she the nearest boutique, trying on expensive dresses with the wad of cash Lino gave her. Likewise, Lino never technically rapes her, though he easily could -- instead, he sets her free on the beach, telling her she'll reach civilization in a couple hours' walk, but also insisting that she'll have to abandon her father and younger brother (whose college education, the pageant host breathlessly informs us, she hopes to fund with her winnings). Any wonder that she turns around and gets in the car to take it doggy-style? Even the final shot is very deliberately open-ended, not for ambiguity's sake but by way of suggesting that subsequent "choices," too, will be hers to make. Hard for me to see how anybody could think this infinitely sorrowful movie is about the drug war after seeing Laura stare at her crown in the mirror as she prepares to bed the General; its meaningless closing title card (and Naranjo and Sigman's corresponding remarks in interviews) must be some kind of sop to a funding source or government agency.

Pleasantville (1998, Gary Ross)

A leading contender for the title of Most Thematically Incoherent Movie Ever Made -- it's abundantly clear that Ross thought up the high concept first ("modern teens trapped in Leave It to Beaver") and then struggled to construct a meaningful allegory around it, in the hope that it might carry a little more weight than, say, The Brady Bunch Movie. Trouble is, he seems to think that '50s TV sitcoms were an accurate reflection of how people behaved back then, or at least that there's some version of real-world America, past or present, that the passionless, terminally square town of Pleasantville might plausibly represent. Tobey Maguire's David, disenchanted with his broken home and in thrall to an idealized golden age, ought to be the prototype for Midnight in Paris' Gil, yet never for a moment seems to relish his incarnation as Bud -- the story isn't about his personal transformation but about how he and his sister (Witherspoon gets one delicious moment, spying Paul Walker as the school dreamboat and asking, with a predatory twang, "Does he like me?") liberate everybody else from the shackles of...what, exactly? Ancient sitcom tropes? Are we seriously meant to conflate the anti-resonant idea of people with no concept of sex, art, failure or (for fuck's sake) rain with the civil rights movement (NO COLOREDS)? I just have zero idea what Ross thinks he's saying here, and I really don't think he does either, deep down, apart from some vague notion of "repression" vs. "freedom." This somehow squeaked into the Skandies top 20 that year (hence the second look); hopefully the voters responsible are the folks who've been weeded out since then.

Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)

Bailed on this at Toronto 2010, mostly because I was disappointed that the initial rush of gorgeous imagery accompanied by solemn voiceover was supplanted by conventional talking-head interviews. But I see now why that was necessary: Had Guzmán not encouraged the astronomers to indulge his specious equivalence, the movie would have risked coming across as implicitly hostile to science, which was clearly not his intention. At the risk of seeming callous, I gotta say I'm not terribly...well, no, I am sympathetic toward the relatives (mostly women) who've dedicated their lives to finding the remains of the disappeared, but that doesn't mean I don't think them misguided, or see a (quasi-literal) world of difference between their quest and that of the folks manning the Atacama telescopes. Gazing into the unimaginably distant past yields answers to fundamental questions about why we're here (and the likelihood that we're alone); excavating the recent past in this particular way is really just personal catharsis and ritual, as finding the bodies tells the forlorn nothing they didn't already know (except for essentially meaningless details like "he was shot twice in the head"). Seeking information about the origin of the universe and seeking closure about the death of a loved one are not the same process -- not even poetically or metaphorically speaking. They're antonymical. That the film gets an above-average rating, even though I reject its entire thesis, is a testament to how beautifully it's constructed in every way save for the philosophical.

Au revoir les enfants (1987, Louis Malle)

Respectable in every way, which is kind of the problem. Perhaps because of his lingering guilty conscience, Malle inadvertently makes his alter ego far more interesting than Bonnet/Kippelstein, who's presented as a simple martyr: hyper-intelligent, musically gifted, and utterly neurosis-free despite his circumstances. Apart from being secretly Jewish, he doesn't do a damn thing for the entire movie. (And if the real kid was dumb enough to light candles and don a yarmulke and talk Hebrew to Yahweh in the middle of the boys' dormitory at night, he was gonna get caught eventually regardless of where little Louis glanced.) There's little sense of these kids as individuals with lives that transcend the Occupation; everything builds inexorably toward the moment of inadvertent betrayal, which is nicely understated in itself but not really worthy of constructing an entire movie around -- at least not if you're gonna end on it. Probably didn't help that I happened to rewatch if.... not long beforehand, as that film strikes a better balance between the iconic and the prosaic (and has a riveting presence in Malcolm McDowell). Mostly, though, Au revoir just lacks...juice, for lack of a better word. Its most noteworthy characteristics are politeness and restraint, making it an ideal foreign-language Oscar nominee (though it somehow lost the actual prize that year to the even less vital Babette's Feast). My guess is that Malle was just too close to this material -- too determined to be truthful to serve the arguably more noble cause of dramatic truth. He made an impressive, tasteful monument of a movie.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg)

Maybe I'm getting too old for this shit. Then again, maybe Spielberg has forgotten how to modulate high-octane action so that it breathes a little. Or, most likely, he's chosen to adapt something that works fine on the page (like most Americans, I've never read any of the "albums," as they're apparently called for some reason) but inevitably, given dogged faithfulness to the source, comes across as threadbare onscreen, thereby necessitating a constant swirl of activity as camouflage. With all due respect to Hergé -- I'm perfectly willing to believe his work has value I'm not seeing here -- it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between Tintin and, say, Bazooka Joe; his habit of holding expository conversations with himself (TOTALLY INVENTED EXAMPLE BECAUSE I CAN'T REMEMBER THE ACTUAL DIALOGUE, BUT TRUST ME CLOSE ENOUGH: "The one-legged orthopedist said as he was dying that the key to a woman's heart can be found at the bottom of Lake Crankshaft. What could he have meant by that, Snowy?") was a little charming at first but got exasperating in a hurry. There's just nothing to this save for a juvenile-adventure plot that's no stronger (or weaker) than the ones I used to read in Hardy Boys novels* (probably the closest American-prose equivalent), so you have to really groove on constant frenetic movement for its own sake -- as if Raiders of the Lost Ark went from the opening throw-me-the-idol-I-throw-you-the-rope bit straight into the search for Marion among the baskets and then straight into the truck chase and then that was the entire movie. Exhausting. At least they're getting closer with the mo-cap -- I wasn't able to readily imagine every character as the scariest element of a doll-based horror film.

*I'm being kind; in many respects it is weaker. Like, Tintin spots the Unicorn model at some street fair, decides on impulse to buy it, and instantly not one but two other interested parties show up seeking it. Where were both of them just five minutes earlier, when either could have snatched it right up with no trouble? It's not as if it had just been recovered from the ocean floor or something. Might seem a petty complaint given that it's a kid's story, but even pre-adolescents can have their intelligence insulted.