30 July 2008


Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

You’ve already heard—Wall-E is a part of Hollywood’s go-green conspiracy to brainwash our children into obeying Overlord Gore. It’s certainly environmentally conscious, including a scolding speech near the end about a planet in trouble and a do-nothing populace, but such a reading of Pixar’s latest is too easy. Set well into the millennium, the film opens in the majesty of outer space (“there’s a world outside of Yonkers,” croons the soundtrack) before switching to an aerial survey of Planet Earth in ruin—rusted-over and littered, with a skyline of trash-cube skyscrapers. So, Wall-E is anti-waste, sure, but it has an odd and tender affection for artifact, as well—the titular robot, a Sisyphean garbage compactor with only a cockroach for a friend, collects Zippos, bubble wrap, Rubik’s cubes and other assorted tchotchkes from among humanity’s detritus with the same reverence with which we hoard pre-historic earthenware. (This might help to explain the apparent contradiction many commentators have noted [see #3 here] between the film’s politics and its marketing, which includes more than its fair share of landfill-bound merchandising.) Above all, Wall-E is not a critique of the state of things but a condemnation of a mindset. It is not so much anti-waste as it is anti-wastefulness.

As such, the film includes a wicked send-up of American consumerism, from cellphone addiction and gluttony to sloth and corporate reliance. (“Outlet Mall—Coming Soon” reads an electro-flickering billboard on the moon.) The people of Earth have long ago moved to a super space station, at the behest of the film’s Wal Mart stand-in, where they ride on hover chairs, distracted by omnipresent, circumscribing screens. Stanton saves this satire for the latter half of the film, though; the bulk of Wall-E’s introductory section is dialogue-free, instead relying on non-stop visual gags animated with the graceful comic sophistication of a silent-screen comedian. It’s also just about the sweetest goddamn thing ever committed to celluloid, as Wall-E develops a romance with another robot sent to Earth. It’s achingly effective in its simplicity and unaffected emotion. (Neither can say much beyond the other’s name.) This is City Lights territory, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Despite its technofetish (or Macfetish anyway: Wall-E’s start up sound is Apple’s; his companion is Mac-Store white), Wall-E, at root, champions the natural. It encourages the audience to look away from the screens that consume them—iPhones, iPods, iMacs, etc. etc.—because they serve only to alienate us from each other and from our surroundings. The film begs us to delight in life’s most basic pleasures: dancing, swimming, falling in love. Wall-E is careful, though, not to vilify film; it does not ask us to look away from movie screens. Instead, it celebrates filmmaking, especially the Hollywood musical, as a means capable of encapsulating and celebrating all of life’s aforementioned simple joys. In Wall-E, American movies are a romantic ideal. It is in Hello, Dolly!, with which Wall-E has an obsession (it is the only movie he owns, having salvaged a VHS copy), that the robot learns of humanity’s most charming customs—tipping a hat, say, or, most of all, holding hands. It might be a little oversimplified, but that’s why it works: it’s been a long time since any (American) movie managed to make the plain enmeshing of two sets of fingers—robotic digits here, no less—a genuine, tear-inducing icon of romantic purity.

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Love and Honor

Directed by: Yôji Yamada
Written by: Yôji Yamada, Ichirô Yamamoto & Emiko Hiramatsu
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Set in feudal Japan, Love and Honor opens in the summertime. But as hara-kiri, crippling, infidelity, domestic abuse and divorce ensue, the film moves into fall; autumn intensifies in step with the characters’ troubles until, at the end, falling leaves flood the screen. Ostensibly, this is a samurai film but, with its changing-seasons- as-metaphor, as well as its teary close-ups, Yamada’s latest owes as much to Douglas Sirk as Akira Kurosawa.

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28 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Let’s cut through the hype quickly: The Dark Knight is not without its flaws. Despite a few ante-upping set pieces—such as a courtroom scene that ends with the DA slugging a hostile witness—the action scenes are often overblown and over-edited; a mid-film attempted kidnapping of an armored car passenger, with its copious car flips and other assorted traffic accidents, is nearly unintelligible. The film is also terribly manipulative, with not one, not two, but three “Sophie’s Choices,” while it suffers from a bourgeois moral sense—its reverence for the nobility of the hoi polloi, its shallow Print The Legend ethic.

But while it slips too often into lowest common denominatorism, The Dark Knight otherwise manages to be epic, on a formal level. Novelistic. There are Big Moral Decisions here—like whether to negotiate with terrorists—as well as thematic maturity. Batman, of course, is our hero, but only in the loosest sense of the word. The Bros. Nolan suggest that Batman, in his vigilantism, is not only anti-democratic but that he has made Gotham more dangerous; post-Caped Crusader, the city is rife with gun-toting copycats and thieves without honor (even among one another!)

Heath Ledger’s lip-licking, scar-sucking Joker, with a handful of phony origin stories (a la Funny Games’ adolescent sociopaths), is dependent on Batman for his existence; “You. Complete. Meeee,” he hisses in an already famous speech. The Dark Knight is a psychodrama of symbiotic madmen in dress-up, including even Aaron Eckhardt’s Harvey Dent, though he’s clothed only in the tailored-suit costume of attorneydom. Dent is often referred to in the film as Gotham’s “White Knight”—Batman’s opposite and his equal. (He eventually devolves into a coin-flipping Chigurgh—“you die a hero or live long enough to be the villain,” he says. Add the abundance of thematic declaration in the script to the list of flaws.) The Nolans define their characters by their relation to The Bat—they are his inverses, his flip sides.

The Batman is not a source of order here but the cause of the city’s intensifying madness. His sickness is theirs—and vice versa. “I don’t need help,” Batman says, in reference to the copycats. “That’s not my diagnosis,” The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, from the previous film, in a hangover cameo) quips. Batman’s psychosis is infectious, its out-of-handness best expressed in a single shot: the Joker, standing before a burning pyramid of cash. This is the ultimate expression of America’s deepest fear: a man—a face-painted monster—so loyal to ideology that he has no price. (Batman can’t be bought either, but that’s because he’s already mega-rich—an American ideal and another example of opposites.) As such, the Joker plays a conspicuously allegorical role as Terrorist, making Batman, Batmobiling down Gotham’s hell roads, paved in his good intentions, Bush 43—Our American Failure. (The Dark Knight is so plugged into the zeitgeist that one of its central villains is—Boo! Hiss!—a Chinese nationalist.)

Bush as proto-terrorist—and the yin to its yang—is heady stuff for a summer blockbuster. “I was meant to inspire good,” Batman laments, “not madness.” The Dark Knight is a War on Terror allegory—our heroes create our villains, madness begets madness and violence begets violence. With its ball-twisting and temperature-raising, it’s our first worthy piece of post-Children of Men filmmaking and, in and of the visceral moment, it’s astounding, a triumph of form—outside of its aforementioned missteps, anyway. (Half an hour overlong, at least, as it struggles to fill the time.)

But as far as content, on the other hand, it advocates indiscriminate, FISA-violating wiretapping (what at first seems a Bondish gadget fetish turns out to be far more sinister) as well as aggressive interrogation techniques. Tsk tsk. The Dark Knight doesn’t fare as well in afterthought’s days-later calm and rationality, the emotionless consideration that the frenzied film prevents in the theater. To mixed success, it plays for the heart, for the guts, in order to distract the head from the questionable politics it promotes—namely, fascism.

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24 July 2008

(Dave Chappelle's) Block Party

Directed by: Michel Gondry
Written by: Dave Chappelle
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Block Party opens on two fellas trying to repair a brokedown car; it then cuts to a colorfully uniformed marching band rehearsing down the street. With this contrast, between malfunctioning metalware and merry music, Gondry quickly sets up what the movie is about: the dichotomy between urban decay and the shared sense of celebration despite economic hardship. This is a documentary about a block party, after all.

And what a block party—better than the ones near where I live, anyway, as it boasts over half a dozen of hip-hop’s most popular acts. For its first half, Block Party primarily functions as an urban travelogue—visit the schools, the Salvation Army store, the rundown streets—with a comic tour-guide. Mr. Chapelle, the Comedy Central star (appearing here pre-nervous breakdown), decided to throw a party on the streets of Bed Stuy; so, first, he travels to his Ohio hometown, where he chats and jokes with pedestrians, barbers and shop clerks—and invites many of them, expenses paid, to NYC—and then it’s off to New York’s Second Borough for party planning and execution. Throughout, Gondry interlaces hip-hop performance footage from the eventual party.

But the film is also a celebration of black pride, in the form of rap music. (It’s predominantly a black party, rife with barbershop talk, although there’s a sense of Barackian postraciality to it: racial stereotypes are laughed off, white people—including the director—are invited and involved in the production, and Wyclef lectures a group of black college students: “don’t blame the white man for nothing.”) About half way in, however, Block Party ditches the travelogue to become a straightforward concert film (with privileged backstage access). Without a straight time structure, Block Party has no plot and no narrative tension. It’s merely a pleasant but slight portrait of some of life’s good things: community, artistic collaboration—things which Gondry would explore more fully and more personally a few years later in Be Kind Rewind. At the end, Chappelle gets up on stage and tells the crowd, “We shook up the world!” Not quite, but you kept it busy for an hour and change.

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17 July 2008


Written & Directed by: Jay and Mark Duplass
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

Initially, Baghead feels like a conventional mumblecore movie, steeped in the movement’s understated naturalism and twentysomething solipsism. Then the Bros. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) play a neat trick, taking a narrative turn into home invasion horror. Think Hannah Gets Pushed Down the Stairs. Or Hell-OL. But Baghead succeeds where other genre fusion films fail because its horror emerges organically from its drama; expertly entwined, they pick up each other’s slack.

Keep reading at The L Magazine.

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Lou Reed's Berlin

Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: C

Thirty-five years after Lou Reed’s album Berlin flopped, the erstwhile Velvet Undergrounder resurrected the failed rock opera as a stage show. Julian Schnabel filmed a performance for posterity, but the downtown provocateur-turned-Oscar nominee put conspicuously little effort into the undertaking. In contrast to, say, Shine a Light’s big-screen verve, Berlin is YouTube-ready: visually banal, spiritlessly assembled.

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10 July 2008

Essay: The Summer of Bush

Or, Air-Conditioned Daydreams of Bushless Tomorrows and Bushful Yesterdays

With their country mired in endless war, its international reputation demolished and its economy combusting while the Hoover-esque Bush fiddles, the American people have finally become fed up with the president they twice (debatably) elected to high office. The polling data screams nationwide disillusionment, and thus two distinct types of heroes, who address the country’s Bush blues, have emerged from Summer ‘08’s blockbusters: The Anti-Bush, a restorer of American pride, and The Idealized Bush, the vindicable bungler.

Keep reading at The L Magazine's blog.

Days and Clouds

Directed by: Silvio Soldini
Written by: Doriana Leondeff, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli, Silvio Soldini
Full credits from IMDb

Grace: C

It’s tough to feel as bad for Days and Clouds’ characters as they do for themselves. Michele (Antonio Albanese) and his wife Elsa (Margherita Buy) lead a lavish lifestyle: far-flung vacations, pricey presents and extravagant parties, with a maid to clean up. Their paintings have brushstrokes. But when Michele, a classic bulb-nosed, bald-on-top sad sack, loses his high-paying job, they have to make sacrifices: she quits her unpaid art restoration gig — get your handkerchiefs out — to become a secretary; he degrades himself as a handyman.

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07 July 2008

Mad Detective

Directed by: Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai
Written by: Wai Ka Fai & Au Kin Yee
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A

When the film opens, Lau Ching Wan, a police investigator, asks a colleague to zip him up in a suitcase and toss him down the stairs. Several flights later, Lau emerges from the bag and declares: “the killer is the ice-cream shop owner!” In the next scene, the police chief congratulates him for a case well solved; Lau responds by cutting off his ear and handing it over. Cue the credits: Mad Detective. To gets right to it—that titular adjective is no overstatement.

Superdetectives, from Sherlock Holmes and his perceptive rationalism to Special Agent Dale Cooper and his intuitive mysticism, have long fascinated audiences; Mad Detective (Sun Taam) taps into that appeal immediately. More Cooper than Holmes, Lau, the Kôji Yakusho to To’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, can see and hear people’s (sometimes copious) inner personalities; he can also, by retracing a killer’s, or victim’s, footsteps, tap into their past experiences or come into contact with their spirits. That explains the opening suitcase episode.

Lau’s gift leads to several stirring set pieces: burying himself alive, pretending to shoot convenience store clerks and security guards with his fingers, turning 90 degrees from a urinal to pee on the leg of a suspect. But, for all its absurdity and hilarity, Mad Detective never slips into goofiness or spoofiness; it never loses the overriding solemnity of a psychological procedural. Miraculously, the film keeps a straight face even while it’s smiling.

To, who shares the directing duties here with regular collaborator Wai Ka Fai, has had a propensity as of late for Western hemisphere pastiche, from the funereal atmosphere of the Coppola-esque Election dyad to the Sergio Leone style, neo-Western hyperviolence of Exiled. This film leans more towards the 21st Century Hollywood homages of Bong Joon-Ho who has, in this decade alone, already reinvented the standard for both the buddy cop picture and the monster movie by filtering tired Western modes through a fresh Eastern mind.

Mad Detective is a character study, a cinematic literalization of multiple personality disorder without the corny pretense of disposable dreck like Identity. A complex editing structure, which blends the objective and subjective, the past and present, helps the filmmakers keep their hero’s reliability ambiguous, giving them space to take off on the undependability of heroic archetypes and the toll mental illness takes on its victims (both the sufferer and his loved ones). But the film’s psychological and metaliterary complexities take a backseat to its madcap pleasures, derived mostly from watching Lau on his batshit visionquests. Mad Detective, at root, is a flawless genre film.

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I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Written & Directed by: Tsai Ming-Liang
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

The camera moves twice, by my count, in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan)—once because a bus stops in front of the lens, and a second time it slides laterally, a few inches, so gradually that it’s almost imperceptible. Tsai’s latest is a succession of static images, some only seconds long while others extend several minutes, like a series of page A1, above-the-fold photographs of Malay street life and hospital ritual in motion. It’s cinema with a purity of patience, centered on one walletless vagrant (Lee Kang-Sheng) who’s beaten and left to collapse on the sidewalk. He’s taken to a hospital where Die Zauberflöte usually pumps from the boombox. (Sleep Alone is one of the distinguished films, cf. Syndromes and a Century, financed as part of the New Crowned Hope Festival.)

Tsai teases out subliminal poesy from the film’s deceptive simplicity, using dialogue sparsely to fashion a portrait of contemporary urban loneliness—thus the film’s title, far more overt than the subtle film. He defines his characters through their surroundings—where they eat, sleep, wash their clothes—and, to a lesser extent, the simple things they do in those spaces. So, his camera doesn’t follow the actors; instead, from the prime vantage points Tsai has arranged in advance, it soaks up locations, none more striking than the hospital’s core: a flooded, gutted shell that, Scott Tobias wrote, “has the look of a haunted opera house.”

As I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, set in a crowded city of solitaire souls, progresses, a smoky haze of mysterious origin passes over the city; everyone begins to wear gasmasks, the streets turn a sickly dustbowl gold, and the formerly bleak atmosphere becomes almost post-apocalyptic. Thick and pervasive, the cloud makes kissing without choking nearly impossible. Ending on an image of the three central characters on a white mattress, sailing on an inky, blue-black sea, Tsai’s final analysis of the modern condition is ambiguous, as in the rest of the film: people are together, but alone; a hint of optimism struggles to be heard amid a clamor of pessimism.

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03 July 2008

The Fall

Directed by: Tarsem
Written by: Tarsem & Nico Soultanakis and Dan Gilroy
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

Tarsem—just Tarsem—turns fantasy on its head in The Fall. In these Dreamworks days, fairy tales, with their simple morals, usually function as childish diversions. But here, fantasy instead serves as a means of exposing children to the cruelty and violence of the real world. The Fall, more Carlo Collodi than Walt Disney, takes up that old struggle between narrative invention and uninvented reality; as such, it’s certainly not for children: its violence is unrelenting, from the frequent suicide jumpers to the chandelier fashioned from the mutilated bodies of slaughtered men.

The 9-year-old Catinca Untaru, all chubby cheeks, missing teeth and broken English, plays a patient at a Los Angeles hospital with a broken arm. (The title cards tell us the temporal setting is “Once Upon a Time”; it looks an awful lot like the 1930’s.) The little girl has not led a sheltered life: the film suggests that she is a child laborer from a poor family of exploited immigrants and that she broke her arm in a fall—one of the many from which the film takes its name—while picking oranges. But the hospital, with its largely friendly staff and patients, serves as a fantasyland, at least through the imaginative eyes of a child: knights (i.e. old-fashioned X-ray technicians in what looks like medieval armor) clunk through the halls and pirates (i.e. a visiting stuntman with a missing leg) inhabit the rooms. Movie stars stop by and big blocks of sweaty ice are truck-delivered daily.

But the imagined fantasy-of-the-everyday hides a meanness from which the small girl is largely protected—the dark-hearted man who hits his kids, the woman pleading with her dead son to wake up—until Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies’ piemaker with the Clooneyesque movie star charm and acting chops to boot) exposes it to her via storytelling. At first, his stories are benign and for us a treat, as they are set not against the cheap CGI wonders of a George Lucas greenscreen but among the most gorgeous sets ever built by God or man—mountains of corporate-logo orange from the former; gilded palaces and infinite, Escherian staircases from the latter. Soon, however, Pace’s stories turn gloomier.

A stuntman in the hospital after a backbreaking on-set accident, Pace has lost the use of his legs; his career; and his girl, who has taken up with the picture’s star. The tale he devises for Untaru parallels his circumstance: an evil “governor” has kidnapped a princess; a band of heroes must save her and kill him. Pace, however, invents this story only to win the little girl’s friendship, manipulating her to steal pills for him so that he may kill himself by overdose.

A self-financed production largely piggybacked onto the director’s advertising work, The Fall is not without its problems: the tone of the fantasy sections, from the costuming to the acting styles, often slips too far into the gaudy, while the story is shamelessly manipulative. But thanks to the sincerity of its principals, it retains an emotional credibility. When Untaru tells Pace, “I hope I never get better so I can stay here with you,” it is neither cloying nor insufferable. Just heartbreaking.

Particularly as Pace does not share her sentimental attachment to the hospital, or to life. When his initial suicide fails, what ought to be a happy moment—he lives!—is shattered instead by animalistic fury over the pain of surviving. “There’s no happy ending with me,” he tells Untaru and, as his death-starved rage rises, his story takes a series of cruel turns. “All things must die,” Pace says as he begins killing off characters. “I don’t like this story,” Untaru responds, tears welling in her eyes as she begs him to stop. “It’s not very satisfying, is it?” Pace asks between swigs from a flask.

Plenty of films are constructed around the conflict between the escapism of storytelling—read: cinema—and the bleakness of reality: the struggle to see if the spirit of the former can overtake the misery of the latter. But rarely is that struggle as protracted as it is in The Fall, which allows reality to triumph over fantasy in its mercilessly continuing violence. The film is ultimately sweet, but it earns its sweetness by fighting for it. Like most fairy tales, The Fall has a happy(ish) ending; but unlike many of its peers, it earns that happy ending by grinding the audience’s emotions. Of course, this being a movie, cinema wins in the end. In a final scene that tips its hat to Sullivan’s Travels’ conclusion, Tarsem joins the great rank of directors (Preston Sturges, Woody Allen) who have made us believe that cinema is a reason in and of itself to live.

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Diminished Capacity

Directed by: Terry Kinney
Written by: Sherwood Kiraly & Doug Bost

Grade: D+

Diminished Capacity opens in Chicago—you can tell it’s Chicago because Kinney, highlighting his problems as a director, cues a jaunty tune about the town and decorates the walls with Cubs paraphernalia. Capacity tells but doesn’t show, perfunctorily blending storytelling shortcuts with convenient contrivances. Alan Alda wants to sell a rare baseball card and, lucky him, there’s a convention that weekend. Matthew Broderick bumps into his ex (Virginia Madsen)—in a convenience store no less—and learns she’s recently divorced. Maybe they’ll get back together?

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