Friday, December 30, 2005

Crash (Haggis, 2004)

Take one thinly drawn character.
Add thinly drawn character of a different race.
Add one disingenuous contrivance.
Sprinkle liberally with sanctimonious melodrama.
Repeat ad nauseum.
Underscore with ethereal new age music.

Crash is the kind of film Satan would make to give racial tolerance a bad name. I've already wasted two hours on this drivel ... I'm not wasting another minute.


Palindromes (Solondz, 2004)

There’s dark comedy and then there’s Todd Solondz. While his last effort -- the tepid and unfocused Storytelling – suggested that perhaps Solondz had taken his unique brand of vicious social commentary just about as far as it could go, his most recent film matches the greatness of his earlier efforts in the way it plunges into the dark side of human experience. Solondz also demonstrates his growth as a filmmaker by employing a structural device that allows him to effectively underscore his pessimistic theme – that no matter how hard we try to escape, we must inevitably return to the core of ourselves. The decision to cast several different actresses in the role of Aviva is just one of many reasons that Palindromes likely will appeal to only a small percentage of movie goers. No doubt many will dismiss this as nothing more than a cheap gimmick. However, it is difficult to imagine how conventional casting could have communicated Solondz’ ideas as clearly.

We first see Aviva after the funeral of Dawn Wiener -- the female protagonist of Solondz’ debut film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Seeing much of Dawn in herself, Aviva fears a life in which she will go unloved and die alone. Her solution is to impregnate herself at the earliest possible opportunity. From there, I do not feel comfortable revealing more of the film’s plot. Suffice to say that Aviva’s journey includes several encounters that highlight the competing forces of life and death, faith and despair, compassion and cruelty before doubling back on itself in an utterly compelling conclusion. Because the true identity of Aviva is never fixed, Solondz ensures that his story will not be about simply an individual experience, but about an existential struggle that weighs on all of us. Solondz’s actors have the extremely difficult task of negotiating a script in which the same line might elicit disgust, sorrow or laughter. Ellen Barkin in particular handles the challenge with ease in a role that would earn her an Academy Award nomination in a parallel world in which the Academy watched and appreciated films of such unabashed gall.

What is the value in a film like Palindromes? It demonstrates the sometimes severe gap between the world of our dreams and world that we actually experience. It forces us to question how much of our choices are really are own. Beyond that, it is also compelling in the way it toys with dramatic convention, finding payoffs in the most unusual of places. Palindromes is my favorite kind of film: audacious, unpredictable and utterly thought-provoking.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Hole in My Heart (Moodysson, 2004)

To hear it from most of the critics that have thus far reviewed A Hole in My Heart, Lukas Moodysson has lost his mind. Many of them wonder what on earth the undeniably talented director is doing mucking about in the world of amateur pornography. The answer is simple. He is doing exactly what a true artist should do: following his conscience and using whatever tools necessary to convey his message. Many of the images Moodysson employs are graphic and extremely unpleasant, but the underlying pain that he conveys through his characters and their oft-times chaotic interactions is genuine. Predictably, assessments of the film for the most part quickly degenerate into a catalogue of the more extreme moments taken out of context, as if there were no more artistry involved in the film than stringing together a series of sensationalistic moments. In actuality, A Hole in My Heart is much like a modern day version of No Exit, in which we, as viewers, witness a grotesque hell suffered by four characters that cannot escape each other. When reviewer Jon Popick wonders why young Eric, the moral conscience of the film that watches his father’s sexual exploits in misery, “didn’t bolt for the door like his pants were on fire,” he reveals his failure to grasp Moodysson’s mode of operation. It would be just as well to ask why the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie don’t just finish their meal already. Eric’s entrapment is not physical; it's metaphorical. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

It would be easy to mistake Moodysson’s film for an assault on the amateur porn world. Indeed, it effectively depicts much of the frightening depravity that does exist in terms seldom, if ever, employed in films made by major directors. But, the film is much more than an expose of the way women are exploited and humanity is debased. Amateur pornography is not the film’s true subject matter; it merely serves as the milieu. The real topic that Moodysson is exploring with A Hole in My Heart is the same one that he has explored throughout the rest of his filmography: the individual searching for spiritual fulfillment in spite of the dysfunction and cruelty of contemporary society. Moodysson’s cast of four is remarkable in the way they are able to work free of inhibition and deliver honest performances that touch on the extremities of human experience. Moodysson playfully uses abrasive sound effects and abrupt shifts in chronology to keep the viewer in a constant state of intellectual attention. Although there are several images that would not be permitted on virtually any cable television station of which you can think, A Hole in My Heart is not like a Gaspar Noe film in which the viewer is emotionally battered into submission. Moodysson moves quickly and rarely allows one grotesquerie to remain for too long. We are immersed, not assaulted, and there is a deep existential sadness in these characters that have nothing to look forward to but the next sexual kink. If there is a weak point, it is in some of Eric’s speeches that register as high-school-goth whininess rather than legitimate philosophical yearning. Perhaps his naiveté is more realistic considering his unfortunate upbringing; but, it unfortunately means that the main source of resistance to the rest of the characters’ decadence occasionally comes across merely as half-hearted posturing.

Still, A Hole in My Heart confirms Moodysson’s position as one of the most exciting filmmakers alive and a risk taker with few rivals. I eagerly await to see where he dares to take us next.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (Lewis, 1988)

Now here is something different: a nature documentary that implicitly calls for the extermination rather than the preservation of the species it features as its subject matter. With a style very similar to the semi-comedic non-fiction work of Errol Morris, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History is the strange tale of a creature that was introduced into the Australian ecosystem in the 1930’s in an effort to control the grubs that were ruining farmers’ crops. Though the imported toads from Hawaii failed miserably in their primary mission, they went on to thrive in their new environment. And no wonder. Willing to mate anytime, anywhere and with just about anything, the cane toads are wonders when it comes to multiplication. We are told that just a handful of frogs are capable of producing hundreds of thousands of eggs in a single summer. The idea of an army of toads slowly taking over the continent of Australia may seem amusing until we consider the serious danger the creatures pose to the native lifeforms which frequently fall prey to the pests’ internal poison. Add to this the fact that various ne’er-do-wells are boiling down the toads and – I kid you not – ingesting the toads for their hallucinogenic qualities, then you can easily see what a public menace these little green bastards really are. Like the aforementioned Morris, director Mark Lewis has his interviewees speak directly to the camera, a tactic which emphasizes personal quirks and adds an extra surreal layer to a story that is already bizarre. An engaging and startling lesson in natural selection, Cane Toads is a film for those who’d thought they’d seen everything.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dear Wendy (Vinterberg, 2005)

Working from a script that Lars von Trier at least had the good sense not to direct himself, Thomas Vinterberg struggles over the entire course of Dear Wendy to arrive at something like a dramatic or thematic purpose. It’s clear that he and Trier -- who certainly should not get off scot-free -- are making an effort to say something about America’s culture of guns and the hypocrisy that exists when the world’s greatest nuclear threat bemoans the fact that other countries possess weapons of mass destruction. However, what that might be is lost in a grand muddle of coy insinuation that never stings because it never comes remotely close to settling on a distinct target. Yes, there are those in the world that give lip service to peace while simultaneously preparing for battle. This still does not change the fact that the central conceit of Dear Wendy, a pacifist gun-lovers club, never manages to come across as anything but goofy. Indeed, the film often calls to mind Trier’s Dogme effort, The Idiots, in which he was completely convinced that a group of people should come together to take a stand for something, but failed to successfully articulate to an audience just what that was. And like that film, even the actors seem unsure of themselves and what they are fighting for. It doesn’t help matters that all of this is filtered through Vinterberg who, based on the three films of his that I have now seen, still seems to be searching for a filmmaking style to call his own. After the brilliant film, The Celebration, Vinterberg has fired off two turkeys in a row (It’s All About Love being the other), though in each he has teased with flashes of greatness. There are some nice honest acting moments coaxed from the young cast and on-screen graphics used during the climactic gun battle hint at a film that could have been. With Dear Wendy, Vinterberg fails to establish the rules of his fictional universe, fails to provide his protagonist with a clearly defined journey and fails to settle upon a coherent political stance.

I’m sure I’m not the first reviewer to say so, but Dear Wendy is a hugely disappointing 'misfire'.


5x2 (Ozon, 2004)

If François Ozon’s 5x2 had been the first film to employ a reverse chronological style, then there might have been some definitive value to the project and the way it allows us travel through time and discover the defining moments in a marriage destined to end in an ugly divorce. However, Ozon arrives late to the game, following Betrayal, Irreversible and Memento. Even films like Pulp Fiction and its imitators -- while not employing a strictly ‘backwards’ chronology – have accustomed viewers to temporal playfulness. This is not to say that unfolding a drama from back to front is necessarily a bad idea. It just means that the device is quickly moving beyond gimmick status and becoming simply another accepted method of storytelling. Viewers need more than the simple irony of seeing characters unknowingly stepping toward unpleasant fates. Reverse chronology films still need strong themes that are well-suited to being explored within the chosen framework.

5x2 does have an underlying purpose; however, it is not a terribly compelling one. In a film that seems like a faint echo of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Ozon uses five episodes from a tumultuous relationship to explore the way humans alternately seek and resist fidelity. Although they are raising a young boy, Marion and Gilles are anything but a pillar of stability. They have a union that, from the very beginning, is darkened by the shadow of infidelity. Neither partner is blameless, though it is difficult to discern just how much each knows about the other. When Gilles’ gay brother and his boyfriend brag about their open relationship, Gilles seems proud to announce that he has ‘only’ been unfaithful to Marion on one occasion. Though Ozon gets brave performances from his lead actors, neither the episodic structure nor the reverse chronology serve him well. By the end of the film, we know far too little about Marion and Gilles to be able to truly get invested in their lives. Also, the emotional tension of the first scene is never matched, resulted in a film that peaks far too early. Whereas Gaspar Noe was able to wickedly twist the knife in the final idyllic scenes of Irreversible, Ozon’s film simply fizzles in a final scene that offers little insight. In the end, there are mysteries that remain, yet none so intriguing that we care to offer too much thought to see them resolved. Ultimately, Ozon skates by on style and a lot of help from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Marion, but this is not one of his better films.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

High School (Wiseman, 1968)

I didn’t mean to be an individual.

The words above come from a teenage girl at Philadelphia’s Northeastern High School that has been pulled aside for discipline after wearing a skirt above the kneecaps. They also serve as a critical illustration of the values that we find encouraged by the teachers and administrators over the course of Frederick Wiseman’s High School. There is inherent humor merely in the fact that Wiseman chose to follow up his expose of a Massachusetts mental institution in Titicut Follies with a documentary on the American education system. It is not long before we begin to see the frightening connections and similar themes as Wiseman uses his fly-on-the-wall style to record the authoritarian coercion that goes on (or went on in the 60’s at least) during the instruction of bright young minds. In addition to the young girl that is reprimanded for dressing ‘promiscuously’, we also see another girl nonchalantly referred to as overweight by a teacher in front of numerous other students, a history lecture in which the stereotype of the dominant Jewish mother is taught as fact and sex-ed lectures in which the young people are assured that scientific evidence demonstrates that premarital sex will undoubtedly lead them to unhappy lives.

It is in the powerful final scene of Wiseman’s film however that the overall message is revealed and the film takes on a deeper meaning. Resisting the temptation to reveal to you exactly what literally had me saying ‘Wow’ to myself, I will simply say that Wiseman makes a powerful assertion that the preparation these students make today for being obedient young men and women will be used later by their government when the time comes to wage war. Today’s model student will make tomorrow’s model soldier. The issues I had with Wiseman’s film were essentially the same ones I had with Titicut Follies. I find it impressive that he is able to capture his subjects without having them realizing that they are not coming across favorably, but it all can seem kind of passive-aggressive, as if Wiseman is lying in wait for somebody to say something stupid. This minor complaint may have more to do with my idea of how documentary films should be approached than it does with a fault in Wiseman’s approach. He clearly has made an artistic decision that is consistent and captured several horribly revelatory moments in the process. High School is a film that I wish was more readily available, because it still has relevance today, illustrating the unspoken place of public education in the overall scheme of how America operates.