25 July 2007

Breach

Directed by: Billy Ray
Written by: Adam Mazer & William Rotko, and Billy Ray

Grade: C+

Breach may be a cut above its boilerplate contemporaries or fellow genre entries, but it's still an instantly forgettable film, save for the vague impression left lingering by co-lead Chris Cooper's crafted performance. (I mean this literally: I was so disinterested while watching the film, at least whenever Cooper was off-camera, that by the conclusion of the end credits I had little memory of the images to which I'd just exposed, at least not beyond what I'd written down in my notes.) It plays out like a masculinized version of chick-flick The Devil Wears Prada, in which a spunky young "intern" (here a clerk) takes up a new position with a mean and grumpy boss. Both films are bothersome bunk, thoroughly unmemorable, though they do admittedly share commanding performances from their resident elders; the substantial difference between them is that while the biggest thing on the line in Devil... was who gets to keep the cute outfits from Paris, in Breach the characters are playing for the national security, the very future, of the United States. (In America, of course, girls like fashion magazines and boys like spy novels!)

John Ashcroft, in file footage, warns at the film's outset that, "our free society is an international target in a dangerous world." I'd decry this as disingenuous scaremongering were Breach not based on a true story; Chris Cooper plays actual superspy Robert Hanssen, known as the perpetrator of the largest security breach (ding!) in United States history; he served the Russians/Soviets for twenty-two years, until his arrest in pre-9/11 2001, and the extent of the damage he caused is still not entirely known. (It's classified.) At the very least, three undercover field agents were assassinated, another fifty were outed, while tons, literally I'm sure, of confidential files, papers and plans were compromised. Wisely, the film never provides an easy answer for the why, although curiously it never provides a hard answer either; Cooper's Hanssen is a complex and fascinating but no less mysterious figure than he was at the film's start, despite some teasing as to a motive near the end. Was it the money? The pride? The necessity of proving there were holes in our security system? A vague combination of them all? Or none of the above? "The 'why' doesn't mean a thing," Cooper mutters enigmatically while in handcuffs.

Anytime Cooper is on the screen, he commands your attention and the film quickly becomes a lot stronger; it's difficult to tell whether that's solely a matter of his performance, or whether he was so good that he inspired director Billy Ray to do better, and the actors around him to try harder. In any event, he's the film's sole saving grace, though in fairness Billy Ray does have a handful of fine moments, such as when he establishes the passage of time not with declaratory titles but by the replacement of Clinton and Reno's pictures on the walls of the FBI Headquarters' with Bush's and Ashcroft's; otherwise, though, his direction is flat, stilted, by-the-books and, at best, satisfactory. If he had a crackerjack script and cast he might be able to get away with it, but unfortunately the cast, excepting Cooper of course, is irredeemably dull, from Ryan Phillippe as the "confident bordering on cocky" go-getter assigned to track Cooper (for a better version of this, try Ryan Gosling in Fracture), to Laura Linney as his boss and Caroline Dhavernas (yawn) as his wife. (Particularly irksome are the scenes dealing with Phillippe's marital woes; while not necessarily excessive, they're simply superfluous and pointless.) What's more, the rote score is intrusively ostentatious and the dialogue often eye-rolling; consider this line: "It's Kenneth Starr all over again, except I'm the one running around looking for the blue dress!" Or this crackling exchange: "Do you have a FISA warrant?" "Of course!" (Talk about your intelligence failure—zing!)

The only interesting aspect of Breach, aside from Cooper's stellar performance of soured understatement, is its mildly subversive subtext; in the film's first few reels, Hanssen is, on his face, an upstanding family man informed by his devout Catholicism, a man who's admirably devoted twenty-five years of his life to unheroic government service. Phillippe is impressed by this veneer, concluding that Hanssen's a good guy, and he actually starts to like him, paralleling (half of) America's relationship to George Bush, Jr. around November 2000. But soon Hanssen is revealed to be a sexual deviant and a traitor of unprecedented proportions, a destructive, hypocritical force intent mutilating our country from within...again, just like George Bush, Jr. and his Republican cohorts. Breach slyly suggests that the most ostensibly straight-shootin' and patriotic Americans are actually the most dangerous and deadly force working against the country. See, McCarthyism.

Also running underneath Breach is a critique of ineffective bureaucracy within the intelligence community, a familiar rebuke in the bitter post-9/11 climate; more uncommon, tough, is how the filmmakers posit religion as not much more than a tool of manipulation. Phillippe wonders early on, in reference to Cooper, "what if he's smarter than me?" (If?) But Phillippe is able, ultimately, to bring Cooper down, not by outsmarting him intellectually but by exploiting his spirituality, which despite his contradictions seems genuine; Phillippe bullshits Cooper, as regards his Catholicism, repeatedly getting out of trouble by pretending to pray or pretending to be worried about his Doubting Wifey. Hanssen, the sexual deviant and staunch Catholic (not very irreconcilable), takes the bait every time, suggesting, perhaps, that an overzealous religiosity will be the downfall of our country, as it was Hanssen's. (Well, in the film anyway.) Serendipitously, on all accounts Hanssen's the perfect allegorical representation for George W. Bush's America and an obvious attraction for a contemporary filmmaker as interested in modern mendacity as is Ray, whose previous film, Shattered Glass, dealt with the Stephen Glass scandal.

But despite this intriguing underlying discourse, Breach's execution is American moviemaking not at its worst, but at its most frustratingly mediocre. Perhaps I'm being a bit hard on it, because of course it could've been far, far worse (put Halle Berry in Phillippe's role), but at this point I'm fed up with lackluster movies, particularly star vehicles that waste a talented performer and a masterful performance by placing them within otherwise insipid films. It's frustrating to realize that I spent two hours drenched in mediocrity—that isn't even fun—when I could've spent it catching up with the enshrined masterpieces awaiting me in my Netflix queue. Such is the punishment, I suppose, for looking for diamonds in heaps of coal. Perhaps Breach deserves to be seen by cinephiliac completists for Chris Cooper's wonderful, award-nomination-worthy performance, which is so good that I feel a tad sorry for speaking ill of the film, but overall Breach is just a waste of time, most of all Cooper's.

23 July 2007

Rescue Dawn

Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog

Grade: B+

There's something so uncharacteristically...American about the surface of Werner Herzog's latest film, Rescue Dawn; when the bad guys show up near the end of its first act, for example, "bad guy music" plays on the soundtrack, a cheap bit of shorthand for a director who, hitherto, has been known as a cinematic iconoclast. Well, let's face it I guess, Rescue Dawn is a genre picture—and as such, it's a rousing yarn—the latest entry in the hit or miss POW genre and, with the dependable Herzog at the helm, it holds its own. Sporting the familiar—naturally, as Herzog already made this movie once before—Herzogian premise of an arrogant madman against the natural elements and indigenous savages, Rescue Dawn is cynically realistic on the edges while retaining the genre's romantic core; what saves the film from devolving into spurious heroics is that Herzog's romanticism is saved for the protagonist, Deiter Dengler (Christian Bale) qua individual and not in his capacity as American soldier. In that regard, Rescue Dawn, to an extent, is only deceptively American.

As the opening titles tell us, it's 1965 and Laos is being furtively blown to smithereens, as surreptitiously as decimation by conflagration can be, anyway, while Americans at home believe the war in South Asia is no big whoop-de-doo. (OK, if you say so.) Dengler, a German expat, is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and not two missiles off into his first bombing mission when his plane is downed by Laotian/Vietcong militants on the ground. He manages to evade capture for a night, but eventually he's surrounded by soldiers—some outfitted in harried uniforms, others in American t-shirts and blue jeans—and taken prisoner. He's paraded around aimlessly and alternately tortured—a giant wasp on a string is swung over his face while he's pinned to the ground—and simply maltreated—they make him shit his pants, which really irks him, more than anything else. He hardly even seems to notice the aforementioned wasp.

While Dengler's a wandering prisoner in the jungle, there's a brief scene that begins with a shot of swimming fish, followed by a bit of cryptic poetry recited by Dengler; coupled with the fade out, fade in episodic structure that defines the bulk of the film, Rescue Dawn feels like Malick but, with all the jungle torture n' chase, it's by way of Gibson. Deiter is finally brought to a prison camp, a small, shanty outpost in the middle of the wild where a few Asians, traitorously having worked for American radio, and two Americans are being held captive, and have been held for anywhere from eighteen to thirty months. They're as hirsute, mangy and rawboned as men can get, fed on a diet of white rice browned by their filthy fingers. Deiter, not one to sit around going crazy or feeling sorry for himself, quickly starts plotting an escape, and slightly raising morale by picking the locks of the handcuffs that uncomfortably confine them at night.

Bale's Deiter is an unflappable optimist, and in a cynical world he seems to have a few screws loose: his grin never fades, not while being paraded through the Laotian villages as a tied-up prisoner or even while a prison guard holds a semi-automatic to his forehead. But his optimism is at least founded in a sense of realism—he's more Scowcroft than Bush, Jr.—unlike that of his fellow prisoner, Eugene "from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies), who's been so broken-down (and appallingly emaciated) by his imprisonment that his optimism is disingenuous and motivated purely by fear. Played by Davies in a jittery and wildly stylized performance, looking as though he wandered, in character, off the set of Helter Skelter, he pathetically voices his certainty that the war will soon be over and they will soon be released, even as the despondent madness in his eyes betrays that he knows his own death to be far more likely.

While Herzog does indulge himself and the audience in the pleasures of the genre's tropes, he's careful to avoid many of the POW drama's hollow clichés. Dengler may talk of his "girl back home", as any American prisoner in a Hollywood film is obligated to do, but he's not under any romantic pretenses that she'll be waiting for him when he returns; he understands, matter-of-factly, that she might very well not be. (Deiter's motivation to live comes across as simply undiluted, animalistic survival instinct.) The guards aren't well-off or motivated by nationalist pride like a vile Nazi from Stalag 17; they're portrayed as prisoners, too, starving to death and dreaming of going home just like their prisoners, displacing their growing frustration as increasingly severe cruelty. Deiter plans the escape for the Fourth of July—hazzah!—but in the end they have to reschedule. The escape itself features no rousing unification of a band of brothers; it's far from a heroically cooperative escape, as in the mostly statically dull The Great Escape, as the group is reduced to just a band of mentally shattered, self-interested individuals—it is, after all, based on a true story and therefore prominently features the despicable features of human nature—who only succeed because the guards are half-starved and poorly trained.

Except, of course, Dengler, who's selfless enough to ensure that everybody gets out, even the guy who never speaks. (I anticipated that he'd ultimately have his big scene(s), throwing a water fountain through a window or something, but Herzog, once again flaunting convention, seems to forget that the guy's even there.) The last third of the film is set in the jungle, as Dengler and Duane (Steve Zahn, shedding the Crispin Glover imitation that has defined most of his career and delivering the film's most revelatory performance) try to make it to American-friendly Thailand, or at least attract the attention of the occasional choppers passing overhead, helicopters that ultimately take on the symbolic heft of metaphorical manifestations of God—silent to his yelps for help (Dengler is seen praying more than once), even maliciously intent to harm him as at one point they, mistaking him for Vietcong, start shooting at him, much as God, throughout the entire film, has seemed committed to killing Deiter.

But for all of his authentic spark, Herzog certainly isn't above indulging in the genre's banalities; floating in a river, Dengler and Duane nearly go over a waterfall (whooooooooa!), and there's even a later scene featuring "LEEEEECHES!", although it's followed by a pretty graphic leech-removal scene, of the sort you don't often see. Bale, no longer able to impress audiences by simply losing tremendous amounts of weight, goes the distance in Rescue Dawn, not only by letting leeches dig into his skeletal physique, but by battling a snake and then feasting on its raw flesh, as well as gleefully ingesting a bowl of live maggots.

Deiter's effective individualism can't help but smell of ugly patriotism and a celebration of mythical Americanism, but Herzog is careful not to allow his film to devolve into the jingoistic, as it's a time when making heroic war movies is nothing short of irresponsible. (Not to denigrate the troops here but, in films, individuals function as symbols.) Deiter loves America not because they're a fair and just nation of democratic ideals, but because, as he says, "America gave me wings." Dengler was born in Germany, where he bore witness to a vicious American bombing raid during WWII that madly inspired an overwhelming need to become a pilot. "Little Deiter," Denger says of himself while relaying his backstory, in a humorous nod to Herzog's previous documentary version of the same story, "he needed to fly." ("You're a funny guy, Deiter," says Duane, "a guy tries to kill you and you want his job.") There's something hubristic about Deiter, something that makes you think he could, say, muster the audacity to believe that he could live amongst grizzly bears, if he wanted to.

Ultimately rescued, Deiter gets his standing ovation from his fellow soldiers, but Herzog, as much as he can, avoids any explicit flag-waving. In fact, somewhat comically, Dengler spends the end of the film trying to escape from the CIA, who wants him debriefed extensively, as though they're as reprehensibly monstrous as the Vietcong, only in black suits. (Herzog is able to sneak in some criticism of American missteps; in addition to the CIA knocks, for instance, there's overheard talk, in the Laotian prison camp, that the villagers' crops won't grow, a presumable result of the vicious Agent Orange.)

At the end, Dengler's asked how he made it through. Was it his faith in God or country? What did he believe in? "I believe I need a steak," he answers, rejecting both, before spouting some garbled nonsensical words of advice that simply make him seem like one of those rambling foreigners that Americans like to laugh at. Indeed, Herzog seems to want to make you forget that Dengler is an American at all; even Bale's German accent, which comes and goes, gets increasingly more pronounced as the film continues. Herzog is attracted to Dengler because he's a fascinating character, not because he's an American hero, and he carefully makes that distinction clear. I mean, Dengler's not exactly easy to identify with, and thus isn't inspiring in a copycat sort of way; his resolve isn't deterred for a moment through the film—something just ain't quite right with this guy. He's impressive, really something all right...something to admire and enjoy with voyeuristic fascination from the safe and comfortable distance of the theater.

19 July 2007

The (Half) Year in Movies: 2007 So Far...

Why wait until the end of the year to start assembling lists?

I like to consider myself something of a cheerleader for contemporary American cinema; let's face it, the last few years have seen some fantastic films come out of the States. So far this year, though, the American output has been of paltry quality--with notable exceptions, of course. And the year is only half over and traditionally a lot of the best films are reserved for the final two seasons; exciting stuff is still to come (new Cohen Bros., Baumbach, Anderson, Burton, just to name a few of the reliable directors; hopefully Paranoid Park will find a distributor soon!), but 2007 has still been a good year for film thanks to the select American contributions and the work of the international community. Asian cinema, if no other, is certainly in a Golden Age.

(Be advised I haven't seen everything this year; notable missed-films include Once, Grindhouse, and In Between Days, just to name a few. By the end of the year I'm sure this list will look very different, but for now...)

1. Ratatouille


A gorgeous examination of the nature of the artistic process, with an endearingly optimistic moral that we all have a talent and a purpose to pursue, Ratatouille is told with the same kind of flair that the movies back in the Golden Age of Hollywood had; its director, Brad Bird, tells a story as marvelously as Howard Hawks. There isn’t a single misstep, just pure pathos, hilarity and narrative propulsion. Most of all, it's got charm. Pixar is not only back after the dismal Cars, they’ve made the best thing anyone’s seen all year.
Full review

2. Mafioso


Released in Italy in 1962, Alberto Lattuada’s masterpiece never saw the light of day in this country until Rialto revived it early this year. A DVD is surely in the works, so get your queues ready; Mafioso is a funny little culture clash comedy set in a boondock Sicily, where a Milano family man has taken the wife and kids for a family reunion. But half way through the film takes on a much darker and more serious tone, transforming into an examination of the violence behind small-town living. Condemning, in the end, the past in all its violence and cruelty, Mafioso is nothing short of a proud celebration of modernity. And how often do you see that?
Full review

3. Syndromes and a Century


Coming out of Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film is as gorgeous, spellbinding and mysterious as anything he’s ever made, if not more so. What’s it about? Hard to say, but Weerasethakul is up there with Hou Hsaio-Hsien as a modern director who is changing the way people watch and understand films. Nothing short of changing the very grammar of cinema is good enough for him!
Full Review

4. Day Night Day Night


More compelling than it has any right to be, Day Night Day Night is the story of a sweet young American girl who’s decided to blow up a Times Square streetcorner. Why? Who knows! Director Julia Lotkev keeps the film steeped in mystery; no motives are offered, only suspense, built-up with tight close-ups and a hand-held camera. It’s a fascinating experiment in the nature of cinematic identification, and star Luisa Williams gives a performance that approaches the levels of Falconetti. Ultimately, and arguably irresponsibly, Lotkev uses the terrorist as a metaphor for the artist, and the results are genuinely moving when they ought to be repulsive.
Full Review

5. 12:08 East of Bucharest


A small and seemingly slight film out of Romania, 12:08… couldn’t be more perfect for what it sets out to accomplish. Less, as critics have suggested, an exploration of the nature of memory and truth of the Rashomon variety–though that’s there, too–12:08... essentially asks why we ought to celebrate our national history when the reality of the present is so dismal and bleak. A fitting companion film for the Fourth of July holiday that just passed!
Full Review

Honorable Mention/Runners-Up (in order):
o Paprika (Full review)
o Time (Full review)
o Zodiac (Full review)
o Triad Election (Full review)
o 28 Weeks Later (Full review)

Time (Shi Gan)

Written & Directed by: Kim Ki-duk

Grade: B+

Kim Ki-duk's latest, Time (Shi gan in Korean), earns the banality of its title, moreso, I'm sure, than any of the many other films that have simply called themselves Time, by brazenly defying any conventional understanding of the concept while making it the film's primary focus; it mockingly treats time as space, coiling its narrative into perpetual repetition. To put it bluntly, it's totally fucking nuts, and none of the reviews I read beforehand warned me—nor really could they have—of just what to expect. It sports what seems a surefire, crackerjack premise, but it adamantly refuses to conform to any denouemental expectations, setting up a simply symbolic story and then going off on a very different tangent midway. You'd think, with all the plastic surgery rampant in the film, that it'd work out, somehow, to be a simple commentary on contemporary superficiality and the international, but especially Korean, cosmetic surgery epidemic. But it doesn't.

At least not entirely, as it's after much bigger fish, such as the very nature of modern relationships. (Good luck!) Seh-hee (Je-Yeon Park), established in an early display of psychosis as rude, jealous, insecure and neurotic, is madly in love with her boyfriend of two years, Ji-Woo (Jung-woo Ha). But the thrill is gone, and one night in bed, following a fight, he can't get it up; she, pitiably and morbidly, apologizes for "always having the same boring face," adding accusatorily, "you're tired of seeing my same body everyday." As a remedy to this bout of temporary impotence, she coaxes him into fantasizing about a generously-bosomed young thing they saw earlier in a cafe, after which he's able to not only get it up but get it on. But it's not very reassuring for Seh-hee, who's offended, even though it's like asking him not to think of a pink elephant (albeit a very sexy pink elephant); the very next day, she clears out her apartment, disconnects her phone and disappears, afterwards going to a plastic surgeon to get a brand new face, thinking it'll spice up the relationship and solve all their problems! (Kim arguably missteps by opening the film with graphic surgical footage, and replaying it soon into the film, apparently unaware that 40% of theater income is from popcorn sales.) Surely facial reconstruction will rouse them from their sexual doldrums?

But maybe she should have thought to let Ji-Woo know; during her six month recovery, he's utterly miserable since the woman he loved just up and evaporated. But the show must go on, and he has a series of awkward first-dates and romantic encounters with other girls; the coitus, however, is consistently interrupted with malicious intent. Before he can undress a prostitute, a rock comes through the window, irreversibly disrupting the sexual congress; later, an old friend that's good to go returns from a mysterious encounter in the ladies room more frigid than a penguin's teat. When another girl just never calls, and another cruelly walks away without a word—in a beautiful sequence—we can only imagine, fearfully, as to why. With creepy, shaky, stalking first-person shots right out of Black Christmas, Kim looks to be setting us up for some sort of K-horror flick but, at the same time, the interspersed dramatic sequences are accompanied by a soft, treacley soundtrack and histrionic performances that cause them to reach soap-operatic heights. Is that intentional? Am I meant to be scoffing?

For a while, it's tough to tell, another arguable misstep. For much of its first half, Time is tough to get a tonal grasp on. The six months pass and Seh-hee sneaks back into Ji-Woo's life, unbeknownst to he, as the cute and strange See-hee (Hyeon-a Seong), the name difference presumably akin to something like Kristen and Kirsten. (Matt Zoller Seitz, in his bizarrely Sondheim-obsessed review in the Times, says he thinks it's like the difference between Sara and Sarah, but there's a slight difference in pronunciation implied that that doesn't capture.) She woos him, for the first time and all over again, masterfully behaving as though they've never met, but their relationship is haunted by his still lingering feelings for Seh-Hee; brilliantly, on Kim's part, she has now managed to make herself not only the object of Ji-Woo's affections, but simultaneously the object of her own jealousy.

The first half is detrimentally overlong, playful and teasing to an unsuspecting audience that craves consistency, winding up as outright laughable at times—particularly in a moment of tearful direct address—in its cornpone sentiment, with an emotional core as hollow as Seh-Hee's head. But while you're tempted to laugh at him, Kim hints that he's in on the joke, too; during an emotional encounter at a cafe, the loud and effusive Ji-Woo is berated by a neighboring patron: "you think this is a theatrical stage?"

While it's an embarrassing moment for Ji-Woo, particularly as he's severely bloodied afterwards, women, specifically Korean women, are the ones who don't come out very well throughout Time's first half; those that aren't prostitutes are either totally bonkers and/or wretchedly self-deprecating; "I'm rather worn," Ji-Woo's old friend and a potential lover says, referencing the time she spent with her ex-boyfriend, "but you can have me now," implying that it's perfectly understandable if he'd rather not. Up until the middle, Kim's point appears to be that men aren't as meatheaded as women suspect and women—remember that Seh-hee had her face changed!—are far more batshit than men could ever imagine.

The second half, however, features a surprising turn (I'll spoil it for the sake of analysis, and as it's only a mid-film twist—Ji-Woo, finding out the truth regarding what Seh-Hee has done, retributively gets a new face of his own) that devastatingly knocks the allegory off its presumed track. The sexual role reversal no longer makes any particular sex exclusively responsible for the wild turn of events; the aggressor becomes the aggrieved, the aggrieved becomes the aggressor, the "game" becomes reciprocally cruel, and each side becomes mutually culpable. Time begins to mirror itself, every scene in the second half having an indirect parallel from the first. What may have once been playful now seems vicious, as See-Hee becomes, for the first time, sympathetic and not merely frighteningly insane, until the repetition extends into eternity, like a mirror looking into a mirror, or, in the terms of the film, like the recurring image of a hand scultpure with a ladder that, thanks to an optical illusion, seems to stretch into infinity.

Kim, incidentally an apparent foot-fetishist of Tarantino proportions, packs in enough brilliant and memorable imagery, like the sculpture garden featuring the aforementioned sculpture, amongst others, or a woman wearing a photograph as a mask (terrifying!), to alone make the film a worthy contribution to the medium; but to boot he's also particularly adept at staging his scenes: a game of keep away struck up between two strangers on a ferry, or a scene at a foot pool with paper boats of variegated colors representing different call girls, are simply glorious. At first it all seems to fit together rather awkwardly, but ultimately it's brought together and Time's lasting impression is left not by its visuals alone but by its fascinating statements on love, modern romanticism and identity.

The familiarity of Seh-Hee and Ji-Woo's ordinary, static romance is expressionistically rendered in the string of successive cosmetic surgeries, calling out love's oppressiveness of routine and the impossibility of freedom from its entrapment, at least once ensnared. (And, really, who isn't?) Aside from the central theme, the futility of attempting to escape the grasp of Time—as apparently futile as attempts to avoid one's Fate (see: Oedipus)—love itself becomes a doomed ingemination of cruelty begetting cruelty, with Time both prison and warden. The search for that one true love whom we feel we already know, even though we don't know what they look like, is literally translated into an absurd quest that cannot, and will not, end happily. See-hee is left unable to recognize her love, forever condemned to wait, wonder, and measure men's hands. But then, if your true love could be anyone in the crowd, couldn't anyone in the crowd be your true love, thus negating the very concept of true love?

Such a concept seems unthinkable to our protagonists, but then what, exactly, is Time about? Is Kim saying that though time may alter our appearance, it cannot change who we are? Or is he saying that who we are is inherently connected to the way we appear? Familiarity, or at least recognizability, seems to be intertwined with love in Kim's universe; who we are is intrinsically tied to who we can be seen to be. That is, who we are and who we appear to be is a false dichotomy, as both are too interconnected to be neatly separated; we are usually told that you can't judge a book by its cover, but Kim suggests that a book's cover is as much a part of the book as the words inside. Kim underscores this point, using mirrors as a consistent leitmotif, but most memorably in the plastic surgery clinic's doors, each a different half of a face that, when closed, produce an asymmetrical visage that, despite its nonidentical parts, is still one whole face. You can push the doors open and break the image apart, but they always return again to their unified starting position.

"She must love you very much," a female cafe patron surprisingly tells Ji-Woo of Seh-Hee, after being chewed out by her in a mad display of jealousy; it's a sentiment later echoed by the dastardly plastic surgeon himself, probably the wisest character in the film but the catalyst in this most vicious of vicious cycles. "I was scared of time," See-Hee explains of her behavior, "time that makes everything change." Love comes with the best intentions and the most pernicious results. Alas, lovers change, whether superficially or psycho-emotionally, and grow apart, which Time makes harrowingly clear. In fact, all of the couples occupying the film's margins are unhappy and unsuccessful; Time is not by any stretch a romantic film, and yet it left me swooning...for its form. It may be a bit overreaching and intellectually confounding; maybe in the end it doesn't all come together, but it's a thrilling challenge to see if it might.

17 July 2007

Manhattan (1979)

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman

Grade: A


"This is really a great city, I don't care what anyone says," Woody Allen mutters earnestly over Manhattan's well-known money-shot of the 59th St. Bridge and, thanks in large part to Gordon Willis' magnificent photography, he really makes you believe it. Manhattan, kicking down the cobblestones on the heels of Allen's much derided Interiors, is a return to the comedic form of the beloved (and Academy Award sweeping) Annie Hall, though with a matured voice; despite its poignancy, Annie Hall is, for the most part, tonally silly, while Manhattan plays more like Interiors with jokes. It's about modern romance, New York City and the way the two intersect; as Allen says in the introduction, of his love for New York, the film's "romanticized all out of proportion". But at the same time it's incredibly emotionally sincere, and it's the careful balance between the two that is Manhattan's most winning virtue. "He was too romantic about Manhattan," Allen says critically of himself, in third person narration once again during the introduction, following it with, simply, "he adored New York City." Manhattan is simultaneously celebratory and critical of the Big Apple, its intellectual class, men & women, the 1970's and even Woody Allen himself. It's both adoring and scathing.

After the gorgeous opening sequence, a stunningly photographed travelogue paired with Allen's voice struggling to work out the first chapter of a novel, the first line of the film is spoken by Michael Murphy, playing Allen's best friend: "I think the essence of art is to provide a kind of working-through situation, so that you can get in touch with feelings you didn't know you had". And that's just what Manhattan sets out to do, forcing the neurotic lovers of the 1970's to confront their own neuroses, and despite that it's been hailed as the defining film of its decade it still works and it still stings--lovers of the twenty-first century are not exempt from its trenchancy. Manhattan is one big romantic entanglement between rich, white New Yorkers, but it's both specific and generalized. Every relationship in the film is fucked up--Allen's dating a high school girl (Mariel Hemingway, in a perfectly mousy performance), he's divorced twice and on bad terms with his ex (Meryl Streep), a born-again lesbian; meanwhile, Murphy's married with a girl on the side (Diane Keaton), who's divorced herself and soon to be romantically involved with Allen.

Going beyond a mere love triangle into the complexities of a love pentagram, with a lesbian on the side, Manhattan's romantic perfidy plays out in art galleries, bookstores, museums, the Russian Tea Room, Elaine's, Lincoln Center, apartments overflowing with books and, finally, on the streets themselves; there are many extended, virtuosic tracking shots as the peripatetic characters peregrinate through the proudly pedestrian city. It's the most thoughtful valentine New York ever got, set to a lush score of George Gershwin orchestrations performed by the New York Philharmonic and photographed by Willis with startling artistry. (Slick appearances are an important aspect of the film; the carcinophobic Allen smokes throughout the film--without inhaling--because he knows that it makes him look cool, just as he hides the legitimate dangers of '70s New York behind a sumptuous veneer. While Martin Scorsese had exposed the grit of the New York streets three years earlier in Taxi Driver, Allen sweeps it all under the celluloid rug.) But Allen is nothing if not a comedian, so his not-too-serious portrayal of New York and its inhabitants--his fantastical approach, as J. Hoberman recently argued--is the perfect fit for Manhattan, which is end-to-end hilarious; it wouldn't be nearly so easy to laugh if Travis Bickle were lurking in the background. Allen's one-liners zing flawlessly, and there are even several scored sequences of physical comedy that recall his early-career farces, such as Bananas. (Allen does bear more than a passing resemblance to Buster Keaton, albeit with thick-rim glasses.) But lightheartedness is the characters' undoing; Allen, Murphy and Keaton want to treat their romantic relationships as insignificant loads of laughs, but are caught by surprise when they always, inevitably, turn serious. Relationships, inherently, are no laughing matter.

Manhattan could easily have slipped into mere static verbalism, a la the Marx Brothers, but as it stands it's cinematically more than just its crackling script. It's rare for comedic films, though typical of Allen's, to have such dedicatedly meticulous photography, but every anamorphic Panavision shot in Manhattan is framed in such a way that's always surprising and revealing. (It was the first movie released on video in a letterbox format, as Allen insisted the original ratio be preserved.) For instance, characters are often marginalized to the corner of the screen, while New York's architecture towers over them, reducing them to insignificant spots of a larger world.

Walking through the streets, Allen and Keaton notice a beautiful old building being slowly demolished, and he remarks that, "this city's really changing," a brief and easily overlooked moment that's essential to the film, as it underscores Allen's point of the culture in (literal) decay. There are real and serious problems in the world, and I don't mean landmark preservation, but the New York neurotics are able to avoid dealing with them, even thinking about them, by obsessing over their own (invented) neuroses; Manhattan exposes solipsistic intellectuals and their tendency to over-intellectualize to the point of inventing problems for themselves that distract them from facing the serious matters of the world, blinding themselves to and in denial of their essential insignificance.

In another scene, Allen gets a call from Keaton. "I was just sitting around looking through the magazine section," he tells her, adding, "uh, no, no, I didn't read the piece on China's faceless masses, I was checking out the lingerie ads." A struggle between the physical and the cerebral underlies Manhattan; "nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind," Allen claims but Keaton doesn't buy it, and she makes him go see a film by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, after which he makes a sour face, letting us know he'd rather have watched W.C. Fields on the late show. In an early scene, Allen reports that neo-Nazis are going to march in New Jersey, and proposes to some guests at a gallery opening that they go down there with bricks and baseball bats, to which one replies that there's a devastating satirical piece in the Times about it. "Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing," Allen replies, "but bricks get right to the point."

Allen's particularly hard on high-browed Manhattanites, from whom he largely tries to separate himself, although he knows them too well to be convincingly wholly disconnected (the issue of Woody Allen the person vs. Woody Allen the character), and the film is still, consciously, heavily autocritical. Allen may constantly speak haughtily of himself ("I don't need you to tell me that," he says when Keaton tells him he has a good sense of humor), but ultimately it's the seventeen year old Hemingway who comes out as the most mature, putting the adults to shame; when Allen is livid over Keaton's tour-de-force teardown of his artistic heroes, she's the one who notes that she just seemed nervous. She also gives a speech on the outmodedness of monogamy, and calls Allen out for thinking six months apart is the end of the world. In contrast, in an earlier scene Allen disparagingly tells Keaton, of her new relationship, "I give the whole thing four weeks."

"Well I can't plan that long in advance!" she replies, exasperated.

Despite its critical commentary and romantic cynicism, Manhattan is, overall, an optimistic film. At least, it doesn't advocate society-wide suicide. Allen acknowledges that there are things that make life worth living, like Willie Mays, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Cezanne, Flaubert, good Chinese food, and pretty girls. (Allen's often accused of being a misogynistic creep, for, in this film, giving himself a high-school senior as a girlfriend, or for his bitterness towards his now-lesbian ex-wife, but he's really a philogynist. Not only is Hemingway the most mature character in the film, the lesbian couple is the only healthy and successful couple portrayed, the only one that seems like it might actually last for a long time.) But outside of great art, great crabs, and great gals, he acknowledges that life's a mess. "What are future generations going to say about us?" Allen says with worry, over his era's lack of personal integrity and abundance of neuroses. Well, unfortunately, that we look a lot like you.

13 July 2007

Le Doulos (1962)

Written & Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville

Grade: B

The iconic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos (roughly translated as, say, The Police Informant or The Stoolie), but he looks like he's being restrained, playing a gangster rather straightly. He has his impassioned moments, sure, at one point coming off like Richard Widmark without the bug-eyed madness (but with the cruelty in tact), but coming off such free-wheeling Godard vehicles as Breathless and A Woman is a Woman, in which he delivered the playful performances that cemented his reputation for generations, watching Belmondo here is akin to seeing a bird in a cage—pretty enough to look at, but you'd rather see it soar.

That's not necessarily a drawback for the film, just a disappointment; Belmondo is nevertheless something to see even while reigned in by the traditionalistic Melville. Le Doulos is a straight-up gangster flick, like it or not, that's more classical Hollywood than French New Wave; it's more John Huston than it is Jean Godard. (Something of an Americophile, Melville assumed his nom de camera in honor of our, arguably, most eminent novelist.) Like Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, it's stylistically cool and sumptuously shot in black-and-white. Set in and around a dilapidated Paris—it opens with a long tracking shot by, one assumes, is the banks of the Seine but looks more like the edge of a sewer—Le Doulos focuses around an ugly-mug named Faugel (Serge Reggiani, admirably dour), who spent the bulk of the last six years in prison. He's got scores to settle and capers to manage, but when one heist goes wrong and his partner in crime is cut-down, he suspects his old pal Silien (Belmondo) is not the chum he pretends to be, but in fact un indicateur du police!

Who's exactly scamming whom is kept a tight secret until the end; appearances are deceiving in Melville's world: Faugel speaks in a friendly tone, as friendly as his perpetual frown can muster, to a buddy before shooting him in the gut; Belmondo flatters a girl's brown eyes before he beats her and ties her to a radiator by, among other ropes, a belt around the neck. As vile as they sound, Melville is constantly realigning the sympathies throughout the film, ultimately fashioning a rather cynical portrait of the world in which the cops are conniving creeps, dames are nothing but backstabbers and having a friend always results in death.

The problem with Le Doulos is that riding along with its plot, and it's a plotty film, is an up-and-down process, having all the vacillating emotionality of a snowy day spent sledding—the thrill of the rapid descent, and the trudgery of the uphill return. For every brilliant sequence, such as the final reel (amazing!) or a mid-film encounter at a jazz club (fantastic!), there are fidget-inducing scenes of dialogue that are so talky they approach the interminable. There is, for example and in particular, a scene in the middle, an interrogation at the police station, that takes all the credibility the film has earned to that point and sucks it dry. It's a dastardly case of the second act murdering the first. While the Film Forum says, of the sequence, that it was "one of the two shots Melville was most proud of in his entire oeuvre," for all the dazzlingly fluid camerawork I was simply left bored by the content; as much information that the audience already knows is revealed as is information that we don't.

Apostatically, however, I felt similarly about last year's critical cause celebre, Army of Shadows, appreciating it as a share of masterful sequences set together, like bricks, by inferior mortar. Still, when Le Doulos is strong it's strong; when Belmondo checks his hat and gets ticket number thirteen, there's little else Melville needs to say. Unfortunately, however, he keeps on talking.

11 July 2007

Sir! No Sir!

Written & Directed by: David Zeiger

Grade: B-

"Obedience to the law is freedom," reads an ironic sign above a stockade yard in an archival photograph shown in Sir! No Sir!, and the image elicited a chuckle from the small group of anti-war activists with whom I had gathered to watch the film, a documentary that purports to relay the story, largely untold to my knowledge, about the GI anti-war movement during Vietnam. Well, for better or worse, it does just that, delivering well on its promise though it's a little awkwardly assembled and a little rambling. Most likely, Sir! No Sir! would be more effective printed on a page rather than burned onto celluloid, but if it'd been a book I'd never have gotten around to reading it. (You ought to see my nightstand!) It's a story worth hearing and Sir! No Sir! is a quick and easy way to hear it.

Focusing primarily on a handful of (now) veterans, Sir! No Sir! spends its early scenes requisitely examining their initial eagerness to join the military, and then their subsequent, rapid disillusionment, resulting from the horrors they witnessed and the atrocities in which they were personally involved. It traces the anti-war movement within the American military from its inchoate stages of unorganized resistance, as individual soldiers simply refused to fight on personal grounds and/or went AWOL (according to the film, over the entire course of the Vietnam War, there were 500,000 incidents of desertion), leading to court martials and imprisonment, to the mammoth, army-destroying, full-blown movement it had become by the early seventies. The filmmakers portray the Vietnam-era as a time when forced conscription nearly led to the very disintegration of the US Army, as the soldiers sought to bring down the military from the inside. While drug use became increasingly rampant, officers were being assassinated by their own men, and gatherers of intelligence were refusing to gather intelligence; members of the Air Force increasingly refused to fight, ultimately rendering the Air Force itself unusable in the war.

Meanwhile, in solidarity, the young people—there are no elderly activists in the film—returning from Vietnam began their own stateside, domestic anti-war movement, in cooperation with their fellow citizens, and thus fomenting an unlikely coalition of whites, blacks, hippies, civilians and military—essentially, ordinary Americans defined not by their race or creed but by their commitment to humanism. Underground presses sprang up, businesses that encouraged or supported the war were picketed and boycotted, and leaflets were dropped on military bases, mimicking the propaganda techniques used by the United States in relation to the Vietcong.

The film, whose tone borders on the self-righteous but is more accurately legitimately prideful, is told in sections, each reel devoted to a different smaller story of the larger picture; for instance, there's one portion devoted to the support for the GIs from Hollywood, complete with the standard appearance of Hanoi Jane waxing nostalgic, and another dedicated to the separate, self-conscious black movement within the greater military movement. It's essentially your basic documentary format—talking heads talk, a narrator fills in the spaces, and old footage pops up on the screen from time to time to provide ocular diversions. Rebellious soldiers, though, are a compelling documentary subject, and each that appears on the screen is articulate, sincere and serious; they're not only likable, but thoroughly respectable, offered a legitimacy lacking from your boilerplate activist by the places they've been and the things they've seen and done.

Sir! No Sir! is unique amongst its documentary contemporaries as its story is actually one that's hard to hear anywhere else; it has its genuinely moving moments, as when one vet talks about the first time he individualized his enemy, or the same one recalling having to take care of the crippled soldiers, returned home, that would beg him to kill them because they couldn't do it themselves. But there are a fair share of uninteresting moments as well, so forgettable that I can't even remember them now, and on a whole it's very hit-or-miss; the relentless strings of anecdotal and personal information, while vaguely tied into the larger context of the anti-war movement and the historical era, is informative but rarely brought together comprehensively.

The underlying message is that war ends when soldiers stop fighting it, that the army can't function when its own soldiers undermine it. Essentially, war is over if they want it. The strongest part of Sir! No Sir! is when it addresses the fact that this now secret history of GI resistance that it's telling was quickly whitewashed and rewritten, with fictional stories of proud, returning soldiers being spat on by headbanded hippies at the San Francisco Airport (a fictional place). Jane Fonda is shown performing for thousands of cheering troops; but I thought she gave comfort to our enemies?

Indeed, as recusant soldiers are the enemy! While the talk today is that those who don't support the war undermine the troops, the hidden truth is in fact that as the troops themselves didn't want to be there then, surely many if not most don't want to be there now. At bottom, the basic message to take away is: don't believe everything you hear about troop morale on the nightly news. And do what you can to stop the war. In fact, find an Iraq Veteran to help!

09 July 2007

Old Joy

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond

Grade: A

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," Abraham Lincoln quotably declared in the summer of 1858, and the softly rolling Old Joy, set nearly a century and a half later, explores the nature of the current divide in its America, potentially threatening to be as serious as the one Honest Abe was addressing all those years ago; that is, a culture war shaping up to be a Civil War. At its center are two friends, played by Daniel London and Will Oldham (hipster icon and bonnie prince), who function as allegorical representations of the two strains of American spirit; they have a shared history, exhibited by their casual reference to old friends and old record shops, but at present find their relationship to be awkward and strained, though they don't often acknowledge it. While George Bush promised, both laughably and sadly, in hindsight, in his pre-presidency campaigning to be a "uniter and not a divider", Old Joy takes place inside an America that is deeply disjoined; in the aural rearground Air America hums out of London's car radio, as the hosts and callers-in discuss and debate the divisiveness omnipresent in contemporary politics, from racism to party affiliations to economic disparity, and not even they have the decency to treat each other with civility, though they profess to be fighting for the same faction in the war at home.

The American populace is polarized, and the macrocosm of that opposition is boiled-down into two avatars, one, Oldham, representing the free and peripatetic spirit of the West, a Greeleyite, and the other, London, a settled family man with a baby on the way; in the process, the two come to vaguely encompass not only the red-state/blue-state divide but something ineffable that runs much deeper. While shooting an airgun in the middle of the film, London sums it up elegantly: "aiming with two hands is responsible shooting; one hand is renegade shooting," he says, referring to himself and Oldham respectively. It's the modern American family man vs. the mythical American spirit, once interconnected and now deeply alienated. Reichardt symbolizes their disparity late in the film by cutting to a shot of a bird and then to one of a slug.

London is introduced at home, but separated from his wife physically; she is blending smoothies to the tunes of Country-Western, while he is trying to silently meditate in their backyard. Their relationship is contentious and sad to watch, just one more American duo treating each other with hostility, as they argue in whiny phrases common to the bourgeoisie with a passive-aggressiveness approaching full-blown estrangement. He ditches her—several months pregnant—in order to spend a night in the woods with his old friend, Oldham, just recently drifted into their Oregonian town. The two men's short, inepic trip into the forest in search of a hot spring is pitched as a small attempt for reconciliation between the two erstwhile, grown-apart friends but on a grander scale is a reconciliatory effort on behalf of the two disunified strains of contemporary America, a search for rekindling the lost friendship, love and kindness—society's foundation—missing not only from London and Oldham's relationship to one another but from the relationship of the culture to itself. "I miss you real bad," Oldham, with a few beers and a few bowls in him, confesses by the campfire, "there's something between us and I want it to go away."

Clocking in at just over seventy minutes, Old Joy is nothing if not underbearing, and while my reading of the film may seem to imply a hammy execution, it's actually quite easy to miss; Jack Mathews, the ever oblivious populist, wrote in The New York Daily News that the film "features some of the year's most beautiful scenery and two of its most wooden characters." But Old Joy, based on a short story of the same name by Jonathan Raymond, is only deceptively slight, and it's meticulously crafted, incredibly intricate as well as economic; though some sequences of Oregon scenery set to Yo La Tengo's prettily melodious guitar tunes are superfluous and border on the corny—and some cut away shots of birds seem pretentiously portentous (when Godard needed to pad a film to feature length, he'd just have characters read the newspaper aloud)—there is not a single line of wasted dialogue, each building on the central metaphor and establishing the characters' characters and their seemingly fundamental variegation.

While camping at night, London remarks that it's good to get out of the city, but Oldham counters this assertion, remarking that, "there's trees in the city and garbage in the forest," concluding that there's now little difference between them. While at first this feels like a strikingly depressing fact (garbage in the forest!?!), the point is meant to be optimistic, implying that Americans may see one another as irreconcilably differentiated, but in fact at this point they are essentially the same. Early on Oldham speaks of an evening spent on the beaches of Big Sur in which there was such a party he was overwhelmed by how joyful it was, which functions as a contrast to the joylessness of London's domestic life in town. But neither side here is posited as superior, and one's reading of the film depends a lot on the personal baggage you bring to it; Oldham might seem hopelessly naive, but simultaneously London can appear to be unsympathetically cynical. Reichardt, for her part, stays out of it, portraying each as a lacking a certain something that the other possesses, and Old Joy is best enjoyed when the viewer sees himself in both and in neither.

At the hot springs Oldham relates a dream he had in which a fifty year old Indian woman—with a "dot on her forehead"—offered him a piece of aphoristic wisdom: "sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." The malaise London and Oldham feel in their lives, and that America's feeling in its cultural roots, is a cause of its drifting apart to the point of antagonism. But the important point is that they only feel sorrow now because once upon a time they felt joy together, and that old feeling is not irrecapturable. At the hot springs Oldham offers London a back-rub, which many people have read as homoerotic, that he tries to reject; though he ultimately succumbs, the trip back from the hot springs is one of silence as the trees turn back into familiar totems such as gas stations. The attempt to reach out to him has failed, and when Oldham and London part ways at the end they don't seem any closer to coming together than they did at the beginning; in fact, it now seems very unlikely while earlier there was at least a modicum of hope. London flips back on Air America in all its misery, while Oldham hits the streets. In Old Joy's final moments, Oldham offers a beggar what's presumably the last of his cash, and it's a beautifully subdued moment of cinematic optimism; London may or may not change his life as a result of this trip, but Oldham at least is still making a small effort to connect to another person, and America is still not entirely lost even if it doesn't want a back-rub.

06 July 2007

Retribution

Written & Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Grade: B

Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of the most talented working directors in international cinema, is undeniably a master formalist, and skilled enough that, though a primarily a helmer of horror movies, he's usually able to easily move across genres, even within a single film; Doppelganger, for example, begins as a straight horror movie and ends up a farce with a successful ease that Eli Roth could only dream of matching. (Not to mention it takes a detour in its middle as a road movie.) His central flaw, however, is his convoluted narrative-style; while it can be a virtue in absorbingly enigmatic films like Charisma, other times it merely renders his stories, and his films, incomprehensibly uninteresting.

His latest, Retribution, produced by now nearly legendary J-horror producer Takashige Ichise (of the Ringu and Ju-On series) falls somewhere in between the obscurity of Pulse and the perspicuity of Seance; it's best described as the host of the screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, where I caught it, explained it for the audience: half standard J-Horror, complete with a female ghost sporting long and straight black hair, and half far-out Kurosawa, a generic hybrid if Kurosawa could be considered his very own genre. Unfortunately, it's infected with the lesser aspects of both; from Kurosawa, it's incredibly difficult to follow, and as J-horror it's merely boilerplate. But as a testament to Kurosawa's commanding directorial acumen—he's no run-of-the-mill director, even when he's a little bit off—Retribution, remarkably, ultimately succeeds in at least as many ways as it fails, and though it won't be the focal feature of any Kurosawa retrospectives anytime soon, it's rife with clever symbolism and a biting subtext about the nature and causes of contemporary culture's decay.

Set in Tokyo, which Kurosawa envisions as a crumbling city ravaged by an epidemic of recurring earthquakes—a cheap cinematic metaphor that Kurosawa just barely gets away with—much of the action takes place at landfills; literally, Retribution takes place on solid trash, in buildings built on top of garbage, indicating a society built upon untenable foundations. "This area's the pits," the captain of a river barge, a modern-day Phlegyas, remarks, "stuck between building up and tearing down." In this milieu, a series of killings, believed at least at first to be serial, occur, the victims drowned in a spot of salt water found on dry land. (Cf. a puddle, or a bathtub filled by jugs full of sea water.) Detective Noboru (the fantastic Kôji Yakusho, Kurosawa's frequent cinematic alter-ego who provides one half of the finest Japanese director-actor team since another and unrelated Kurosawa found his Mifune) investigates the killings as they occur, and the film plays out as a procedural, part supernatural and part psychological thriller; the twist is that, though he has no memory of it, Noboru uncovers a string of clues that lead him to suspect that he may be the murderer; or, at least one of the murderers.

For Retribution is not actually about a serial killer, not a corporeal one anyways. It opens with a murder, silently viewed from a distance as a woman in a blazingly red dress is forced face down in a puddle at a construction site; the betrenchcoated assassin may or may not be Noboru, though from our distance it passably looks enough like him. Kurosawa keeps the scene creepily silent; there are no screams from the victim nor shouts or grunts from the killer, just a quietly performed deed that Kurosawa cuts away from as soon as he's done with it. The screams are yet to come, however, as the murdered red-dressed woman appears to Noboru as an apparation, occasionally releasing an unexpected body-splitting and theater-shaking shriek. (The Japanese title is Sakebi, which literally transliterates to Scream, a title that of course that has already been memorably claimed in the American market.)

Aside from Yakusho's performance—he is hilariously introduced in the midst of an earthquake, awoken on his couch and instinctually reaching, desperately, to keep his bottle of Jack Daniels safe—Retribution's notable for some powerful imagery, such as a puddle with what appear to be pixelated ripples, but more importantly it contains two remarkably executed scenes that evince the directorial talent present. The first, an interrogation of a doctor suspected of murder, is a master class in subtlety, implication, convention-defiance and cinematic reserve, as the scene plays out in front of a static camera that refuses to cut, the doctor cowering by a table, insisting he can see his dead son—and another person he doesn't recognize—even though the audience, diegetic and theatrical, cannot. In another, Kurosawa lingers on Norubo, awake in the middle of the night following a nightmare, as he smokes in his kitchen; the lights go off, and a mirror—a frequently recurring leitmotif, playing up the "build up, tear down" dualism that occupies the film's characters and setting—dominates the frame, provoking the audience into expecting something to turn up and yet frustrating us by revealing nothing as the suspense unstoppably builds. (As an example of his mercilessly marvelous teasing, when something finally does appear in the mirror, Kurosawa moves the camera away as though he could hardly care.)

The script, on the other hand, is light on masterful touches; with the appearance of perfunctoriness, Kurosawa quickly introduces characters only to have them immediately kill off someone in their life—the aforementioned doctor drowns his troublemaking son, a secretary drowns her insensitive lover and so on—and it becomes clear that they're all having visions of the woman in the red dress, named "F18"—the eighteenth unidentified female corpse found by police in Tokyo that year. Trying to piece together all of the muddled story's specifics, particularly after only one viewing (though I'm comfortable that I've got the gist of it), is a formidable task, especially since Kurosawa throws in some unnecessary red herrings (as if this wasn't difficult enough!), such as a snarky suggestion that the killings may be connected to an old legend about an evil sanitarium.

But the essentials of the story's core can be largely culled from the images alone; for example, Kurosawa's Tokyo, essentially Retribution's main character, is a mostly unspoken story in and of itself; it's not only a city that, on the outside, is on the verge of destruction but also one that, on the inside, is inhabited by people who're haunted by ghosts, and not just those who have the misfortune to see "F18"; for example, in the course of his investigation, Noboru meets a paramedic haunted by the ghost of a dead woman he encountered when responding to a report of an accident. The ghosts serve as manifestations, whether physical or only imaginary, of a society's shared guilt, and Kurosawa's Japan is one comprised of citizens crippled by compunction.

"A few more earthquakes," Noboru tells his oft-visiting lady-friend Harue (Manami Konishi), "and we'll all just slide back into the sea...maybe that's what everybody wants." Regardless, that seems to be what they'll get, as the drowning-murders continue even as prime suspects are apprehended and in police custody. Retribution's greatest defiance of horror convention is that despite the identical MOs of the murders, there is no serial killer afoot, as the police suspect (though the audience knows that isn't the case); Kurosawa's cultural commentary, vaguely similar to that found in Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, hints that the sorry state of our global society is not the result of one bad individual, one rampaging murderer of the Michael Meyers variety, but as a result of all of our combined actions; nearly everyone in the film is a killer, implying that we are all collectively culpable, not only for the things we do but for the things we don't do that nevertheless manage to have a pernicious effect on others, even though we might not be conscious of it. "F18", in her postmortem appearances, might be real or she might not be; ultimately, it doesn't much matter. She may be a revenge-seeking ghost and proof-positive of an afterlife or she may simply be a psychological symbol of collective guilt that drives the characters to behave madly. "I died," she plaintively insists, "so everyone else should die, too." It's revenge that drives her, meanness, bitterness and a "misery loves company" attitude more pervasive in our world than it ought to be. Retribution, coming in the era of the Iraq War, serves to show the devastating result of an unquenchable need for vengeance, and how when one sees violence and turns a blind eye, they become complicit and culpable.

05 July 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Directed by: Henriette Mantel & Steve Skrovan

Grade: B+

Calling Ralph Nader "unreasonable", as the title of the equitable documentary An Unreasonable Man does by implication (to say nothing of the opening quote from George Bernard Shaw) is itself an unreasonable proposition, as Mr. Nader, evidenced by the speeches and interviews seen in the film, seems to be the last reasonable man in America—at least the only one who gets on television from time to time. And yet he has expended a career's worth of accrued political capital in "liberal" circles by running for president on a third-party ticket, becoming an object of disparagement amongst Democrats for seducing away their rightful votes, as the arrogant argument goes. Of course, if the Democratic Party is really looking for someone to hang the hat of blame on for their own political failures, including the two recent and pathetically lost presidential elections, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror!

Which is ultimately what An Unreasonable Man proposes that they do. But though the film offers a favorably tendentious view of Mr. Nader, it doesn't shy from allowing those with opposing points of view to have their say and thus is about as fair and balanced as a biodoc can get. (Take a note, U.S. vs. John Lennon!) The introductory sequence is comprised of a series of uncountered clips featuring a plethora of embittered Democrats, like Jimmy Carville and Jimmy Carter, taking cheap potshots and expressing hearty hostility.
But all that vitriol is in reference to Mr. Nader's presidential bid, while the bulk of the film concerns Nader's decades-long career as a consumer crusader, and it's tough without asking the Ghost of the Ol' Gipper to find somebody who could say a bad word about him as he was then.

Nader began his career as a proponent for general automotive safety, a radical concept in the early sixties when America still uncritically fetishized its automobiles (or as Nader hilariously refers to them, "psychosexual dreamboats"); he, along with other activists, revealed car accidents to be the result of flawed design. That is, he exposed car accidents as a systemic problem, and not isolated incidents involving "mad motorists", and as a result brought us protective measures such as the crash-test and the seatbelt, whose advent, the film reveals, is estimated to have since saved nearly 200,000 lives. Who but General Motors, who had him followed and harassed his family, could honestly utter a bad word about Ralph Nader?

An Unreasonable Man plays out as a polyvocal oral history, as various colleagues and contemporaries narrate the arc of Nader's public life. (The film acknowledges that Nader the lonely workhorse has no private life to speak of—never married, no lovers, etc.) He went on from car safety patron to consumer advocate extraordinaire, and with a crack team of committed confederates, who come to be known affectionately as "Nader's Raiders", went on to do research, write reports, and promote legislation that brought us warning labels on medicines, airbags and most of the safety measures (including government regulation like The Clean Air Act) that we take for granted in modern American life; Nader and his corps of supporters were unique as "Sixties Radicals" because they acted within the system and, rather than call for revolution, effectively called for the United States to simply fulfill the promise of its own mythos. Save for some minor matters of squabbling, it'd be damned near impossible for anyone who might not align themselves with the Heritage Foundation to see early Nader as anything other than an American hero of civic democracy. "He's the best American I know," the loveable Bill Murray is captured on camera as saying, and in his heyday Nader had one of the most glowing reputations in the country, right behind Walter Cronkite.

In the process, however, he became the bane of corporate America. Following the Carter years, as the Democrats became an increasingly corporatized political party—marvelously established by found news footage of Democrats meeting with corporate lobbyists for the first time, in an effort to get on equal footing with their Republican counterparts—Nader and the issues important to him were increasingly shut out; as the two parties got more bought-up and essentially pushed Nader farther and farther out of their circles, he eventually popped-out on the outside of the fortified American political system, resulting in a challenge for reentry, a challenge for the presidency in '96 and 2004 but most seriously in the mythic 2000 election.

And it's for that campaign that he's maligned, that his liberalist legacy is tarnished, by those scapegoating sore-losers who ridiculously blame him for Bush's victory. Of course the real blame ought to be put on the nearly three million Americans who voted for him, if that's your route—but that's practically akin to not supporting the troops—or on Al Gore for running a lackluster campaign and being a member of a despicably cowardly party. (To say nothing of Rehnquist, Diebold, etc.) An Unreasonable Man is full of real, stinging criticisms of the Democratic Party that are hard to rebuke aside from the familiar Democratic line to misbehaving liberals: "shut up and do what you're told." But as the film establishes, Nader voters ain't misbehavin', just saving their love for a candidate who actually shares their sociopolitical beliefs.

The "lesser of two evils" philosophy, as Nader explains, merely allows the two parties to get more evil every four years. The two party system is simply bad for democracy, and even arch-conservative Pat Buchanan, for whom the Republican Party got too centrist, admits on camera, "our democracy's a fraud." Nader is not so prone to exaggeration as to claim that there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but he does aptly characterize them as "one corporate party with two heads" and identify that the differences are relatively minor, at least from his valid viewpoint. "They killed him for saying there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties," Phil Donahue explains, "and then the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right." Don't let's forget that the Iraq War was a bipartisan initiative. The argument that Nader cost Gore the election is intellectually disingenuous bullshit, and Nader himself explains it best when he says, "I...believe Al Gore cost me the election." It's that glib attitude that really gets the detractors aflame, though, but the film's two most prominent critics—Tood Gitlin of the Columbia School of Journalism (Ivy League/Ivory Tower) and obnoxious columnist Eric Alterman of the hit-or-miss magazine The Nation—come off as nothing less than douchebags, inflating their personal dislike of Nader to gargantuan proportions, nearly characterizing him as being just as bad as Bush.

"Gore's gotta earn his votes," someone remarks in the film and there's no honest rebuttal to that save to blindly dismiss it, as Alterman does; nearly three million of-age Americans thought that Gore and Bush (there's little evidence other than "popular wisdom" that Nader voters were merely Gore voters behaving irresponsibly, and some that actually indicates that he inspired people to vote who would otherwise have not) did not represent them and they actively voted against them, in suit, and for a better America; Nader did not trick them or drug them, but allowed them to make educated adult decisions. That kind of thinking scares the shit out of line-toeing party faithful. Kerry couldn't beat Bush either; was that Nader's fault, too? (He only received Pat Buchanan levels of votes in that one.) Or merely evidence that the Democrats are full of shit?

Mantell and Skrovan edit the debate about the 2000 election section of the film as a rapid back-and-forth argumentative conversation between the sides, like the comments section of a blog but with animated faces. There are, however, valid criticisms of Nader, outside of the infamous election, that the film acknowledges, though mostly tacitly; there's an implication, perhaps a bit aggrandizing, that increased corporate involvement in the political sphere is a backlash against Nader, a direct result of he and his team's regulatory efforts, at once making Nader heroic and quasi-culpable for the unfortunate and pernicious state we find America in today. Although you could hardly blame Nader for that unintended effect; perhaps more blameworthy, however, is the fact that his admittedly controversial politicking led to real world detriment for his various non-profit organizations, which had a hell of a hard time, despite their attempts at establishing distance from him, raising money following his publicized presidential bids. It could possibly be argued that he did more damage to the cause by crippling Public Citizen's fundraising capabilities than he did good by running for president.

But Nader isn't concerned with such debates—at least not on camera, as the film reveals—because he is an idealist, perhaps even naive. "He's a terrible actor because he's authentic," remarks Mark Green, public advocate and clear Nader disciple (though who's also another Democrat who can't win an election.) Nader sincerely believes in the "American myth", inasmuch as he believes it's no myth at all but could be a reality. There's something undeniably attractive and encouraging about that kind of hope and optimistic sincerity, and An Unreasonable Man makes a convincing argument for Ralph Nader's rectitude, a deservingly glowing portrait with warts-and-all that is about as good as video talking head documentaries get. Nader's a self-declared "full-time citizen" and, like it or not, the world he's trying to create is exactly what democracy looks like.

03 July 2007

Ratatouille

Written & Directed by: Brad Bird

Grade: A

Ratatouille has a few things about it that would seem to damn any chance at popular success in America; for one, in the particularly contentious age of the national embarrassment known as "freedom fries", when Americans are pouring their bottles of vintage Bordeaux down the toilet, it celebrates Francophilia unabashedly in the forms of fine wine, haute cuisine, and the superficial sumptuousness of the City of Lights, which, to risk going out on a limb here, has never looked better on film. Even one of my friends, a hardened despiser of all things Gallic, told me after seeing the film, "Now I want to go to Paris!"

It's also called "Ratatouille", which, aside from its unpronounceability for your average American (sigh), is uninviting; as a character notes in the film, "it sounds like rat and patootie—that doesn't sound delicious!" Finally, it's about rats, for Pete's sake, and the frequent wide-shots of a streaming colony's worth is sure to goose pimple the skin of any human being—particularly one who rents in New York. But those seeming drawbacks are not drawbacks at all, and Ratatouille succeeds because the Pixar team, lead by director Brad Bird, does everything right. It's the stuff that American movies are made of, the sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that made the French fall in love with our movies to begin with—so who cares about all the Frenchness and ratness when both are contained within such a charmingly told and masterfully executed tale?

Anyway, the leads, for the most part, speak American-inflected English, while the peripheral French characters—including a Ren Hoek-looking chef of Napoleonic proportions—also speak English, although with passable French accents of the "wut eez dees" variety. Remy (voiced finely by Patton Oswalt) is a rat living with his family in a rattus rattus community in the French countryside; while his folk are all content to eat garbage, under Remy's father's guiding philosophy that "food is fuel" and nothing more, Remy and his heightened sense of olfaction lead him to a deep appreciation for taste and flavors, in all their combinations. His talent, however, merely relegates him to the dull role of poison checker; but, when separated from the pack, he winds up in Paris and serendipitously at the restaurant of his hero, the recently deceased [human] chef Auguste Gusteau (one of the most delectable character names of recent memory), who appears to Remy throughout the film in figment-of-your-imagination ghost form. Inspired by his motto that "Anyone Can Cook"—also the name of his bestselling cookbook—Remy takes the chance of flavor-fixing a soup boiling in the restaurant's kitchen that was mangled by recently hired plongeur Linguini (stand-out voice work by Lou Romano).

When the soup is a hit, Linguini gets the credit and he and Remy become a team. "You know how to cook," he sums up rather nicely, "and I know how to look like a human." Linguini has a bit in common with Remy as, with his Italian name and boyish bumblyness, he sticks out in France almost as much as a rodent among men. Since cooking in itself is a form of artistry, it makes a nice allegory for art in general, and Ratatouille is at root the story of a boy with an artistic sensibility that figuratively separates him from his family, and ultimately is responsible for his literal separation. (Going back for Gusteau's cookbook during a collective escape—a stirring sequence—is what makes Remy miss the makeshift boat to safety, leaving him orphaned in the mean old world like many a Disney protagonist before him.) In the end though, of course, it will be his salvation; Remy must fulfill his need to create, not just to take like his garbage-thief brethren, and prove to himself and his father that he has worth outside of detecting the scent of poison.

Ratatouille's animated Parisscapes, centered around an outrageously, exaggeratedly large Eiffel Tower, are eye-widening, including a gorgeously foggy scene on the banks of the Seine that outdoes An American in Paris' "Our Love is Here to Stay" sequence for sheer pulchritude. (Excepting, of course, that that's one of the Gershwin Bros'. finest compositions.) Pixar's animation gets noticeably better with each successive film, and the background views of the French capital build on and outdo the American vistas of Pixar's previous film, Cars. The animation sports a remarkable fluidity, whether used in the thrilling action set-pieces—which don't, as in most animated films (including even The Incredibles!), merely feel like levels in the requisite video game—or in the movements of Linguini's appendages, as he is controlled by a hair-tugging Remy concealed in his toque. (The marionette imagery makes the metaphor of chef as animator particularly potent.)

And Bird is nothing short of one of the most talented storytellers working today; the narrative flows forward effortlessly, never getting bogged-down, as it did in the interminable Cars, nor feeling contrived despite its anticipated and obvious outcome. Bird has the courage not to shy away from darker moments, such as when Remy and his father visit the shopwindow of an exterminator that's covered in the dangling corpses of unlucky rats, but for the most part it flies with genuine hilarity, an honestly laugh-out-loud comedy that, unlike most of its contemporary genre counterparts (see: Knocked Up) never gets mired down in its own plot. There are, particularly, a number of good French jokes, such as a brief peek at two lovers who are one minute trying to shoot each other and the next passionately osculating; they seem intended for the adults, and like any good kids movie there are a generous share of such laughs, as when Linguini tries to confess, to his love interest, his secret about Remy, stuttering about his "little chef" which she clearly reads as a euphemism for his penis. She furtively and anticipatorily clutches her bottle of pepper spray accordingly.

That Remy, for being a rat, and Linguini are looked-down upon and assumed unable to cook is a subtle tackling of classism, a socialist undercurrent that runs through the film and is perhaps its Frenchiest aspect of all. The unFrenchiest thing about Ratatouille, however, is its unabashed hostility towards criticism, in the form of a lanky and morbidly Burtonesque (or Goreyesque) food critic by the name of Ego, devilishly voiced by Peter O'Toole. Though Pixar had about a decade-long string of critically and publicly beloved masterpieces, they eventually put out the unfortunate debacle known as Cars; as I've written elsewhere, it was inevitable that Pixar would eventually produce a flop. But apparently feeling betrayed, or at least embittered, in some sense, Ratatouille is palpably contemptuous, concluding with a long speech, nothing short of a goading pot shot, about the futility and arrogance of writing criticism at all.

But a good critic is thick-skinned, and able to take it as well as he gives it, so no hard feelings. (However, should you make one false step in the future, Pixar, don't count on any "benefit of the doubt" apologias from me!) Anyway, the ultimate point seems to be that a marvelous piece of populism, in this case a deliciously prepared "dish for peasants", can turn the heart of any sour and jaded critic—expressed in a wonderful sequence when the cruel critic flashes back to his cheerier childhood of mamasboyery—and Ratatouille is itself a prime example of this particular brand of excellent art. Even the grumpiest Spiderman 3 detractors out there won't be able to help but muster a lasting smile during Ratatouille's one hundred minutes.

02 July 2007

A Mighty Heart

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: John Orloff

Grade: B-

Michael Winterbottom's jittery procedural A Mighty Heart suffers from being a star vehicle dedicated to baby collector Angelina Jolie, though not as a result of her performance, which is admittedly fine; she disappears, unlike, say, Cary Grant into Night and Day's Cole Porter, quite nicely into the role of Mariane Pearl, dolled up as a frizzle-haired panracial princess, and save for a few too up-close shots of those unmistakable lusty lips the celebrity persona of "Angelina Jolie" might entirely disappear from the viewer's mind. But as the film is a gift from Jolie to herself, oh and to and from Mariane Pearl, A Mighty Heart makes the fatal mistake of believing that Ms. Pearl's story—the script is based on her co-authored memoir of the same name—is a viable basis for a film, and it draggingly makes it the central focus of what on the periphery is an otherwise fascinating and devastating tale of international kidnapping.

Ms. Pearl, a French national and broadcast journalist, was in Karachi, a "vast, sprawling, chaotic city where there are so many people no one knows how to count them", with her husband Daniel (Dan Futterman), an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, in 2002, the year after the planes hit the towers (and something hit the Pentagon). The story ought to be painfully familiar to anyone who happened to come across a newspaper or television five years ago: en route to an interview, Daniel was abducted and nine days later he was killed, throat slit, head sawed off and body cut into ten pieces; and, to add insult to savagery, most of it was captured on a gruesome terrorist video tape.

Most of A Mighty Heart is set during the space of time that he was gone but presumed still alive, as Mariane and Pakistanti police desperately investigated his possible whereabouts. It's thirty-odd miserable days; in the Pakistani press, rumors spread that Danny was Mossad, CIA and working for Indian intelligence services, nothing short of a remarkably impressive but damning C.V.; meanwhile, one Pakistani official insists the kidnapping to be an Indian conspiracy, meant to make Pakistan look bad. In such a paranoid and disingenuous climate, where an urgent investigation is hampered by a centuries-old conflict, how can there be any hope of its success? But Mariane manages never to collapse into pessimism; the biggest concern in her camp is that the kidnappers or the media will discover that Daniel, though non-practicing, is of Jewish birth, which the film asserts is a veritable death sentence in that part of the world.

I've always been skeptical of the claim that Pearl's Jewish-American-ness was the motive behind his killing—as I am of claims that John Hinckley was trying to impress Jodie Foster—but, to Winterbottom and his screenwriter John Orloff's credit, A Mighty Hear does sneak in a bit of the larger context, and a hint of what ought to placate the 9/11 Truthers, even if it's probably too confusing for most audience members to catch. (Most of the film is a bit convoluted in the name of realism, as names are tossed about indiscriminately while faxes come in, news articles get sent and emails arrive, all bearing more information than the audience—and diegetic investigators—can process.) Namely, the film addresses ISI chief Mahmoud Ahmed's connection to leading Pearl-decapitation suspect Omar Saeed Sheikh, who in 2001, one can dig up with a little basic research, had passed money from Ahmed on to hijacker ringleader Mohammed Atta. (Some researchers claim this, the ISI's connections to Islamic Jihadist groups, is what Pearl was researching when he was captured, and that his murder was an ISI job and not "Al Qaeda".)

Winterbottom shoots the film with a shaky handheld camera, complemented by a staccato editing style that jump cuts between very brief scenes comprised of quick successions of individual shots; the film moves along like a bicycle on a rocky and unpaved Pakistani road. At times, along with an indicative and syrupy score, it goes a bit too far, making the execution feel like a succession of tired montages with the undeniable stink of Hollywood, but ultimately it fittingly reflects the fractured uncertainty of the inquiry into Daniel's whereabouts. The editing also often takes on a subjective role, quickly flashing back to Mariane's memories of Danny and thereby also establishing the fragmentary condition of her psyche.

As a director, Winterbottom is often at his best when his central subject is an unreliable narrator, such as in his masterful Steve Coogan dilogy (24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy), but lately his films have focused on "true" stories whose leading characters are taken at simple face value, such as in this film or the problematic though absorbing Road to Guantanamo. (Guantanamo's narrators seem unreliable, but curiously Winterbottom never acknowledges that fact.) But A Mighty Heart's closest parallel in the Winterbottom oeuvre would be his 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo; both films are about journalists covering a war, although in Sarajevo they are in a more distinct war zone, and both feature scenes of roundtable, journalistic shit-shooting.

But the comparisons to Winterbottom's earlier work are for naught; while Winterbottom's personal stamp is observably present, ultimately A Mighty Heart belongs to Jolie, as well as, one assumes, to her co-producing beau Brad Pitt. (Evidenced at least by the inclusion of the aforementioned uncharacteristically intrusive musical score.) That's unfortunate because Winterbottom's a stronger filmmaker than either of them, and the film is at its strongest when it moves away from Mariane, holed up in her makeshift command center, and goes out into the streets to observe the Pakistani police legwork led by "Captain" (Irrfan Khan in a committed performance), who's unafraid to slap uncooperative bureaucrats or hang suspects, naked, from the ceiling by their wrists. "We'll fight kidnappings with kidnappings," he declares with dubious morality after arresting a few of Omar Sheikh's cousins/co-conspirators. Despite the audience's teleological knowledge, Winterbottom, with gritty verisimilitude, imbues an urgency into the scene of torture, as well as into a firefight between police and "terrorists" and into raid after raid, each of which is intense and yet, of course, in vain.

But the film falters irredeemably when it focuses on Mariane, which it unfortunately does quite often, particularly in the first act. By all accounts she is, and was at the time, a fortitudinous woman of unflappable composure; that's great, but it isn't very dramatic or cinematically interesting. Mariane flops on a TV interview because she doesn't adopt the familiar American persona of the weepy wife, leading a producer to quip, "you wouldn't know her husband's been kidnapped." That may be unfair, for television, but the same problem applies to A Mighty Heart, which suffers in a similar way to the vastly inferior World Trade Center—when characters are shown sitting around, powerless, impotent and simply waiting for news to come in, it can only be detrimental to any sense of narrative flow, no matter how skittery Winterbottom's camera is or even how talented the performers are, including a plethora of marvelous character actors that flesh out A Mighty Heart's mighty margins. "Everyone else can collapse," an official from the American consulate tells Mariane, "but not you." This dramatically unwise advice is obeyed until a Jolie-indulgent scene near the end at which point it is unwisely abandoned, an egregious error on the filmmakers' parts; it's not poorly filmed, per se, or poorly performed, but it smacks too uncomfortably and tastelessly of exploitation, manipulation and unnecessary Oscar-baiting.

A Mighty Heart's greatest virtue, perhaps, is its endearingly idealistic celebration of journalism as an inherently, when done right, virtuous profession—a welcome respite from the present steady stream of news-bashing—even though the final reel of the film itself is a swipe at a crude and indecent modern press corps that's focused on scoring dewey Barbara Walters-style interview exclusives rather than on performing serious journalism of the brand practiced by the late Mr. Pearl. A Mighty Heart implies that whether or not the terrorists successfully terrorize us depends on whether or not we allow ourselves to feel terrified; so I suppose focusing on a courageous woman, and moving away from sinister tales of desert decapitations, is a step in the right direction. But that doesn't mean it makes for interesting filmmaking.