a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Junk in Weekly, 28 April 04

Namely, a review of the fairly bitchin' Georgian-set doc Power Trip (scroll down a ways) and, as per usual, my battering ram of repertory offerings -- which, now that I've seen it again, isn't a "battering ram," per se. Had I done my research beforehand, I would've realized that the screening of A Hard Day's Night nicely coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Beatles arriving in Philly. Sheesh -- 40?! Anyway.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Chelsea Girls (1966, Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey)

Obviously, any complaint you could lodge against this, Andy Warhol's most famous/popular installation-piece-ish film, is fruitless, tanatmount to saying a Beckett play goes nowhere or (to channel some of Warhol's buds) that an early Velvet Underground album would sound better with some production value. That said, you don't want to fall blindly for it, and nor do you want to lazily write it off. As ever with Warhol, it's less a typical film than an experience, even if it's often -- as was a quoteable in Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution -- just an experience in pure duration; the larger the crowd the better, in other words.

Consisting of a dozen thirty-three-minute-long reels projected two at a time, side by side (read: 3 1/2 hours), it's little else but a gimmicky way to spruce up the typical Warholian shenanigans: the images are still People Just Being (or, rather, "Superstars" just acting up), with them forced to come up with things to say or do until, literally, the reel runs out. But, yes, there's more to it, and writing it off as a time capsule can't help but feel like a lazy description. Moving, ever so gradually, from B&W to color (with some over-laps -- you haven't seen anything till you've seen gritty B&W projected right next to radiant color), the fun is in the numerous juxtaposition: Nico's lazy afternoon -- snipping at her bangs, playing with a kid -- placed next to Onidine being a loud-mouthed dickhead; people carping on eachother next to others lounging on or near a bed; and, at what may be the film's sadistic zenith, two Mary Wuoronovs.

As promised by taunting introducer Andrew Repasky McElhinney ("If you absolutely need to run off to the bathroom -- though you're a coward and pathetic if you do -- then do it during the Mary Wuoronov segement..."), the final hour is near-ethereal, not just because it's been so hectic (and sometimes irritating) up to that point and this section is gorgeous, but because it contains the most shy of the Superstars revealing himself, both literally and figuratively, and then the strangely affecting mix of (again) Ondine being a dick (in B&W) and Nico (in color) sitting nervously while the Velvets (presumably) play in the background. It's less a time capsule then a film about tonal response. I still prefer the trance of Empire -- which, truth be told, I only saw three hours of, but during which suffered through a near-religious experience -- over the cacaphony of this one, but I'm not the least bit sorry I made trawled through it. Didn't even go to the bathroom...

Thursday, April 22, 2004

It Ain't Over Till It's Over: The Philadelphia Film Festival

No, it's actually over. Last night found a slew of "Festival Favorites" playing alongside the Closing Night Ceremony, during which awards were handed out and Saved!, which opens theatrically sometime terribly soon, screened. I made it out to none of this. Instead, I went to see just what occurs during one of these After Parties. The answer: not much. Free drinks were limited to three redeemable tickets, while even my modest hope for minor celebrity spotting was limited to one guy who was either the producer or director of the aforementioned Saved! (The place where it was held, by the by, is decadently cavernous. Denim, located in one of the swankier parts of Philly, seems to extend so far back that it seems longer than an actual city block -- as though we had entered some portal where the logic of time and space no longer hold any meaning. Also, they water-down their gin and tonics.)

Either I'm an incompetent web traveller or the web programmers are the incompetent ones, but the site has no official word on what won what award, and I was too drunk last night to remember what a friend told me. I seem to recall that Catherine Breillat's dreaded Anatomy of Hell won a couple, as did the doc Proteus. I sure hope the latter didn't score the Best Documentary award, as, while it's fine, it's a trifle compared to such titles as Bright Leaves, The Five Obstructions, even (presumably) John Landis' Slasher. (At least Super Size Me didn't tower over them.)

However, one needs only to go to the audience ballot list to see what won the Audience Award, which turned out to be Baadasssss! [Warning: Tired and/or Tiresome Rant] I can't say if the same thing occurs at other fests -- and I can't personally vouch for the Mario Van Peebles thingie -- but audiences around these parts seem to be almost criminally un-adventurous. Almost all of the interesting/formally-tricky/beautiful pics can be found somewhere near the bottom of the list (The Saddest Music in the World is a notch above titles like Distant, A Good Lawyer's Wife, and Time of the Wolf). Meanwhile, the top is teeming with mediocrities, or worse. Buddy, which occupies position #4, is entirely worthy of walking-out-of, so tedious in its lack of anything original or roughly defined as interesting that I can't believe audiences at large didn't start posing existential questions to themselves. (Metallica, on the other hand, was near-fixed: a fine film, that, but I imagine there were about ten of us who weren't die-hard metal-heads.) As Homer once said, democracy doesn't work.

Then again, there's something resembling a pyrhic victory in Anatomy of Hell scoring two trophies. It's just that I hope the low test-scores on Come and Go, Tulse Luper, and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine doesn't mean next year the fascinating stuff is decreased, or rooted-out.

Lastly, here's an absurd list of titles I wanted to make it out to but, for whatever reason, didn't. Asterixes denote the pic definitely has a distributor:

Martin's Passion
The Legend of Evil Lake
Control Room*
Last Scene
She's One of Us
Wooden Camera
Memories of Murder
The Corporation*
The Toolbox Murders
Super Size Me*
Amos Vogel: Film as a Subversive Art
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine*
Stormy Weather
Free Radicals
I'm Not Scared*
King of the Ants
The First Letter
Who Killed Bambi?
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself*
Last Life in the Universe
A Slipping Down Life
The Tesseract
Everday People
Breakfast With Hunter
Spare Parts
Cold Light
Come and Go

I'd like to say missing this many films won't happen again, but...

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Festival de Cannes!

If the Philadelphia Film Festival takes place in April and Cannes opens up in May, does that mean we (the PFF) are last in the International Fest line? Each year, the fests seem to have their slate cleaned, introducing a whole new crop of titles that will either land a stateside distribution, or traverse the rocky terrain that is being shipped from fest to fest. (Or, they do both -- unnerving to think it's been a year since Time of the Wolf, to name one, premiered in France and that I saw it at the PFF yesterday.)

Anyway, the Cannes line-up was announced today, much to the wonder of those who were quick to dub last year's a barrage of non-stop mediocrity and piss-poor judgment. The jury's the first tip-off: Quentin? As the judge? Backed up by member Tsui Hark? Emmanuelle Beart and Tilda Swinton may serve to round that out -- if only a bit -- but one thing's for sure: genre movies are in this year.

The biggest carp is an obvious one: how come Pedro Almodovar's latest is out of competition? Do they perhaps already know that it's no continuation, after Talk To Her, into Almodovar's maturity/calming-the-fuck-down? And should it be interpreted as an insult that this Opening Night Film has been paired with the Closing Night Film of De-Lovely, Irwin Winkler's sure-to-be-dire Cole Porter mesh? The same injustice was served to Kiarostami (Five -- although he nicely, if slightly arrogantly, stated that he would no longer compete at festivals after winning oh so many) and Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique), while Ousmane Sembene (Moolade) got thrown into the "Un Certain Regard" section (as did Kiarostami, with the surely-meta- Five on Ten).

Thus endeth my bitching. There's still the expected crop of Anges Jouai (Comme Une Image), Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) and one of the few returning doc-heads, Michael Moore (whose rather unfortunatley titled Farhenheit 9/11 gives him an unfair one-up on such luminaries as Ross McElwee and Chris Marker -- I'd say stop him, but...). Oh, and there's also Shrek 2 (in competition -- natch?), The Ladykillers (um?), and some new, hopefully fun stuff from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows) and Emir Kustirica (Zivot Je Cudo).

Dawn of the Dead and Bad Santa are also popping up in "Un Certain Regard." They came out, they did their thing, they're not gonna get anything -- why?

Of course, and this should by all means be unanimous, the things I'm most ballistically excited about are returns from two of my favorite auteurs. Clean, Olivier Assayas' reunion with Maggie Cheung, made the competition cut, and one hopes he does to the girl-rock-band movie what he's already done to filmmaking (Irma Vep), teenage amour fou (Cold Water), and, um, everything (Demonlover).

And then there's 2046, Wong Kar-Wai's very belated follow-up to In the Mood For Love -- still aching all these years for not trumping Dancer in the Dark. If reports and juicy morsels of gossip are to be trusted -- he keeps changing the plot; he's been shooting for four years; Gong Li showed up on set only to find the shoot over -- this thing's gonna be another Ashes of Time: Wong gone far too ambitious and not able to pull it together. Not that I, like most Wong Geeks, don't like it -- it's pretty and sporadically genius -- but this will be a sad return on four years of waiting. (With Ashes, at least he took a vacation and churned out Chungking Express -- should he have done that again?) All of this stated, I feel like getting myself a credit card, flying to France, and parking myself in front of this next month. Would it be worth it? Probably not -- and decidedly yes.

Additionally, is it not totally awesome that model and Femme Fatale starlet Rie Rasmussen has apparently directed a short entitled Thinning the Herd? And that she too will be competing?

My Name is in a Free Paper Today!

Shameless plugs in this week's Philadelphia Weekly include a review of James' Journey to Jerusalem (third one down), a little article on a rare screening of Andy Warhol's bi-imaged Chelsea Girls (fourth one down, I believe), and, of course, the usual grab-bag of older and non-commerically-viable films playing in the area. Five days after the fact, I still can't believe I almost fell for Marc Rocco's Where the Day Takes You.

Back on the Trolley: The Philadelphia Film Festival

Hmm. Maybe if I start talking about movies again, I’ll stop ranting about myself.

A Talking Picture (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Italy)
Apart from intentionally setting less patient viewers up with an easy joke (see! some long-take masters do have a sense of humor!) 94-year old Portuguese de Oliveira achieves something awfully tricky: he’s made a bristlingly cynical film that feels lovely -- frankly relaxing. Surely, his age (and thus wisdom) has everything to do with it; it’s the kind of movie that demands a second viewing, if only so you can spot the teesny-weensy details that prove that the ending is no mere leftfield segue into Juggernaut.

The European Union, and all the polyglottisms that come with it, is his subject, divided into halves: the first has Portuguese history professor Leonor Silveira lugging her shockingly willing young daughter around various monuments in port towns during stops on their cruise; the second is almost entirely dedicated to John Malkovich’s commander chatting idly with aging divas Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, and Irene Papas over dinner.

A travelogue in two ways, the film almost requires that you sit back and descend into a nice lull, even as you take in an assload of information. But there are seeds. Talk of Dubya-esque invasions by Marseille’s King Sebastian and the strife between Europe and Islam nations abound, but -- and this is de Oliveira’s masterstroke -- it’s not merely there to set up the ending. What he proposes is that with progress comes the same old thing. History lives alongside the present day for de Oliveira -- it’s no mistake that, while all the aforementioned starlets understand eachother’s language as they casually swap monologues, no one understands Silveira’s Portuguese. Even as we make progresses, we (or, rather, Europe) still has strides to go, and it’s foolish to think that all the ills we eventually go away.

Sounds ludicrously dense, no? But not so -- de Oliveira keeps it all in check, allowing for a film that can be interpreted in many ways while still remaining as close to a mainstream film as he’s ever made. Pretty funny, too, what with some very amusing formal repetitions (the same shot of people waving goodbye to the ship; the “boat travels” shot; the bit about a dog with a short leash). Wait, did I say mainstream? “It was so fucking stupid,” was the most audible claim heard on the way out by a fellow attendee. Oh well. B

Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany)
In which Austria’s most ostentatious provocateur -- a director for whom every shot is clearly premeditated, if not anally setup -- realizes he doesn’t have as much control when the focus is on an ensemble. Actually, that’s not true -- Code Unknown also had no central protagonist (despite Juliette Binoche on the cover) and that was maybe the best I’ve seen from him so far. But this one got away from him at some point, even if the results are still rather bone-chilling.

A hopelessly vague apocalyptic situation with a smattering of clues that never fully explain what’s going on (expect fan sites), Time of the Wolf predictably works best when the focus is small, i.e., in the first half-hour. After her husband is shot by a desperate family who’ve taken up in their summer house, Isabelle Huppert -- playing fragile, for once -- struggles to find shelter and food for her and her two kids, one of whom is a terribly selfish mope suffering from chronic nosebleeds and a penchant for running off at inopportune times.

Typical Haneke moments abound in the first act -- the untidy moral conundrum of the first scene sets the movie off in fine fashion, though it in no way prepares us for a sequence where the film turns completely black, except for a hay-fire looming somewhere in the background. (It’s almost duplicated later on, when a long shot of a funeral is suddenly infiltrated by blurry lights in the top right-hand of the frame; “what the fuck is that?,” you could hear everyone in the theater think).

Alas, once our protags make it to the commune, these moments start to drop in frequency. This is surely intentional: Haneke wants to capture what would really happen in the case of some (again, vague) apocalypse, with all the tedious stretches left in. But he also stumbles more usually than he ever has, relying far too much on straight-up bickering and not enough of the kind of scenes you see before. In essence, it feels like it needs one more draft, a couple more situations and audience manipulation tactics to distinguish it as undoubtedly Haneke. This is the first film of his to feel like another person could’ve made it. Still cringe-inducing and effectively hopeless, though. B

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Again, Nothing: The Philadelphia Film Festival

An addendum to yesterday's postulization: you know what else is wrong with me? Exercise! At one point, Jon -- pal and gym buddy combined -- and I were off to the gym at least twice a week, maybe even thrice, running around the track to the tune of a mile-and-a-half. (And one fabled day, which will surely go down as one of history's greatest illogical occurrances, we did two miles.) Though I couldn't have possibly seen it coming, not going to the gym for three or four weeks and replacing that with sitting on my ass exercising only my eye-lids and pen-writing skills turned out to be an awful idea. As I sat in my apartment all day, fearing the toxic heat-rays of the sun, and having not slept much at all -- thanks no doubt to inhaling two boxes of Menthol cigarettes in as many days (don't ask) -- Jon's suggestion that we go re-appeared in my mind, and I can safely say I'm now ready to run to fest movies once again, mind rejuvinated and ass ready to be used for sittin'.

To make a too-bloggish-for-words story short: I saw nothing Monday. Rather, I did what I very rarely do, which is sit down and read an entire book cover-to-cover. Granted, it was the Ashton Kutcher-invoking Dude, Where's My Country? -- which, like every Michael Moore, renders me piping mad if also makes me think I should instead be reading Noam Chomsky or someone a little less prone to over-use the bolding of words and slogans -- but a phenomenon it remains.

As I winsomely reflect on the Film Fest that could have been (for me), I of course can't help but be sidetracked into another matter. That matter is this: why did I think I could go do five-film days at all? As archive-searching will prove, I saw quite a heck of a lot of films playing in the festival, but a mere half of them were done in my preferred fashion: big screen, celluloid, maybe lots of people. (Or just Sam Adams.) In fact, I caught most of them in my living room, nestled far-too-comfortably on my couch. Granted, I have a rather unusual, nigh-terrifying attention span when it comes to movies -- all that can distract me is the need for water, my cats, and my notebook. (Also the phone.) But I so rarely get to see them how people who (idealistically) read the drivel that I write see them. Seeing older films on actual film is a rarity for me. Someone once told me that they felt horrible for me because I saw most of them on rented tapes or, worse, screener dubs. I believe I argued with them, putting forth the aforementioned spiel about my daunting attention span (for movies -- little else applies to this) as evidence. In truth, there's a part of me that wished I had a steady income, didn't write blurbs about older movies every week, and, instead, was another cinephile who saw them. (Actually, I would be a reviewer of new movies and go see older films at night.) On the other hand, I love writing about older movies, probably moreso than the newer batch, and would feel remiss if my musings on them -- however random and sometimes impenetrable -- wound up solely on, say, a blog rather than in print.

Finally back to the fest: I can only say I sorta blew it. In fact, it almost worked out. I now cringe at the idea of me seeing five films a day by myself, running from place to place only to sit down with strangers around me, coming home at the end to pass out from some largely inert form of exhaustion. In fact, had I followed my original, highly obsessional (and geeky) plan, I would have barely seen people I care about and whom care about me for two full weeks. And what would I have proven? That, by seeing loads of films just because they're there and free, I would have...seen loads of films just because they're there and free. I've already seen something like 170 movies in the year alone, and my daily planner informs me we're but 110 days into 2004. That, indeed, is ominous.

But I don't care. You'd have to tie me up to keep me away from this evening's lot. Expect brief ramblings on A Talking Picture, Time of the Wolf and maybe, just maybe, Who Killed Bambi?.

This soul-searching nonsense will end sooner than you'd think.

Monday, April 19, 2004

I'm a Wimp: The Philadelphia Film Festival

How could I have known that my problem with getting out to festival films wasn't due to illness but to flat-out exhaustion? Put simply: I'm temporarily sick of movies. I derive nothing but annoyance from them lately. (Though I'm sure my dour reactions to things like A Hanging Offense and Young Adam were valid, if not also the causes.) This happens every now and then; the last time was after a two-week bout with Fassbinder, growing quicklly from having seen merely two of his exactly 3,000 pics to becoming something of an expert. This malady will be over soon. In fact, it will be over tomorrow.

Three more days are left in the fest. Suffice it to say, no annoyance levels will keep me from, say, A Talking Picture or Time of the Wolf. In the meantime, here's my meager -- hideously meager -- list of blurbs for what I saw from Thursday, April 15 to Sunday, April 18. Feel free to tell me I'm wasting another Film Fest:

A Hanging Offense (Guillaime Nicloux, France) Dreary, droopy, drippy and many other adjectives beginning with "dr," Nicloix's stab at crafting a French existentialist policier actually has more in common with No Rest For the Brave. Nicloux too is just dicking around here, employing gobs of fantasy vs. reality and genre conventions vs. abstract solipsism, not to mention general reason for existing vs. just a waste of time. As our suicidal detective, Josaine Bolasko (French Twist) trumps Eastwood and Kitano for the title of Least Expressive Thespian, though Nicloux fills in for her slightly, indulging in dimestore sybolism overload. Still, could've been mildly interesting -- in a silly kind way, of course -- had it also not been so monotonous. C-

Young Adam (David Mackenzie, UK) See above; fill in "Scottish" for "French," "Ewan McGregor" for "Josaine Bolasko," "not doing much of anything" for "dicking around," and any references to detective work with something about Scottish twists on James M. Cain. (Okay, so that's a lot of switching.) David Byrne's dreamy score suggests Mackenzie wishes to make a mood piece, though all he gets is redundancy, with countless sidetracks into a kind of Scottish working class variation on Red Shoe Diaries. (Anyone know if there's a single female on-screen who doesn't shag our anti-hero?) Some appreciative details about barge-life compensate; that Ewan puffs on rolled cigarettes makes me feel cool. Did he have to use them, however, as a substitute for emoting in any small way? And why is this movie entitled "Young Adam" when no one's named Adam and there are no references to anything Adam-esque. Empty and endless. You see why I'm sick of movies, no doubt. C-

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Philadelphia Film Festival: Wednesday, April 14

Kept brief this time:

Nine Souls (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan) My ass never hurt more in my opinion. Lazy attempt at a Takeshi Kitano knock-off (albeit minus the gore), with a cadre of prison escapees trapped by a filmmaker with a prowess for deadpan wackiness but without the power to lace them with decent jokes. (Sample: guys eat at a restaurant; are 20 yen short; a minute later, one of them runs back with 20 yen; now they can pay in full; yawn.) Those who bolt a touch after the sheep-fucking scene miss both plenty more of the same, as well as the most sadistically protracted ending this side of ... nothing; it takes the cake. Also: four-leaf clover symbolism. Additionally: a key symbolically "opens" a city. Who dubbed this the best of the festival again? C

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, USA) Berlinger and Sinofsky unleash their stuff upon the aging metal titans. Terrifyingly Spinal Tap-ish but also absorbing in that Berlinger/Sinfosky way, though their respect for the band keeps them from exploring the most interesting part: that of once-edgy artists dilluting their talent through the use of therapy (here, a $40,000/mo. “performance enhancer”). According to fans, St. Anger is a travesty, and the lyrics -- some of them penned by Phil Towle, it looks like -- attest to that. Throughout it all, B&S sit on the fence, too worried to make a move. Still, I was never remotely bored. B

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Philadelphia Film Festival: Day Six

Tuesday, 13 April 2004

Ideal Schedule Stormy Weather, 12:15pm; Free Radicals, 2:30pm; No Rest For the Brave, 5pm; Moon Child, 7:15pm; Haute Tension, 10pm.

The Day's Atmosphere Rainy and gross, then humid and gross. The city is draped in a thick fog that makes it all the more ideal to stay indoors, whether by subway or by sitting for hours in a movie theater. The whole day is like this, though I spend most of it in my apartment, skipping the first two (alas) in favor of getting work done -- I'm yet again a casualty of over-sleeping, a result of a sickness that refuses to leave my body.

Quote of the Day "Yeah, France!," said by an anonymous Danger After Dark regular when curator leather-jacketed Travis Crawford described the NC-17-ish "fountains of gore" awaiting us with Haute Tension.

Titles of the Day Struggling to decide between seeing Jehane Noujaim's Control Room and No Rest For the Brave (Alain Guiraudie, France) only hours before the screening, I obviously plumped for the latter. It was distribution reasons -- Room has one -- but I'm thinking I'll be one of the few to see Brave at all, which may grow into my favorite kind of cult film: the cult film that's too impenetrable for most. Like Schizopolis, it's basically a director with a lot of odd ideas dicking around at feature length, no matter what the cost to audience's patience. A young guy decides that he's never going to sleep again, for fear that if he does he will die. Presumably the Canadian A Problem With Fear represents what could have become of this had Guiraudie been a hack, but Guiraudie keeps taking this premise in the least predictable directions possible -- and that's no understatement. Just a couple bits: we follow to tangential characters around for fifteen minutes before, out of nowhere, our previously AWOL protagonist casually guns them down (they'll return in the last two reels, natch); a typical master's long static take of a character's ennui ends with his subject proclaiming, "I can't believe how bored I am!"; a band takes over a cafe playing a honky-tonk version of "Pretty Vacant"; lotsa tomfoolery about what results from our protag actually falling asleep; etc., etc., etc. Guiraudie keeps it largely genial, though, asking us not to untangle it (though some inevitably will -- look for fan sites in the future) but to choog along with it. Many left, predictably. I, however, can't wait to see what he does when he ties his (very excellent) ideas onto something a little less sketch-booky. B-

Basically filling up time before Haute Tension, Moon Child (Takahisi Zeze) is par for course for ultra-violent futuristic Japanese gangland melodramas that inexplicably feature vampires. Largely fun for the first half before its countless leaps in time render it a soggy tale of friendship busted apart. "Please don't show the group photo again," I nearly screamed, hardly realizing Zeze would trot it out three more times. C+

Lastly, I'm glad I waited till the next day to write up Haute Tension (Alexandre Aja, France). That way, I let myself calm down, realizing that while it literally possesses the stupidest ending of all time, it was a pretty sturdy old school splatter flick for its first hour. Appropriate that I Stand Alone Phillipe Nahon plays the blue-collar boogeyman in this one, chopping up an entire family while not realizing that their houseguest is on his tail. Gore levels are indeed very high, with much good use of power tools, though Aja employs too many "boo!" tactics for my taste. For awhile it looked like a horror-maven had finally trusted the material, playing out a simple and bluntly effective scenario without bells and whistles. Two words: plot twist. Naturally, Aja has been recruited to re-do Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. MD'A nails what's so aggravating about this one, though the crowd ate it up. C.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Philadelphia Film Festival: Days 1 - 5

There's a perfectly good reason why I haven't done much with this year's fest so far: work, illness, and Easter. My trusty press badge has done little but collect dust in a drawer. That should change later on today, but for the last five days I've been recharging my juices, preparing my body and mind for an onslaught to make up for lost time. (Not that I haven't seen a lot already -- saw 20 of 'em for my paper before the thing even began.)

Here, then, is a day-by-day account of what has gone on.

Thursday, 8 April

Opening night and it's Shade. I've already seen this eight-generation Mamet knockoff (with extra cribbing from The Hustler and The Sting) and feel no desire to subject myself to it again. I stay home and watch another fest film, the obnoxious Please Teach Me English, and The Legend of Suryothai for work.

Friday, 9 April

The plan is to wake up early, write like a fiend, then make it out to an 7:30pm screening of Bright Leaves followed at 10:30pm with the Danger After Dark entry Haute Tension. This does not happen. Thanks to bad egg-making, my stomach lining gets torn to shreds and, coincidentally or not, I wind up running square into writer's block. I don't even make it into the office later on in the afternoon to post Rep, so rabid I am about finishing up the writing and watching, also for work, the doc Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller and the Blacklist: None Without Sin. While everybody else is taking in movies late in the evening, I sit on Jon's couch, deliriously watching Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes I've already seen while imbibing countless bottles of lager. I am a wimp.

Saturday, 10 April

I suddenly spring into action. Bust out what's left of work well before noon, post the shit, and make a hurried decision to saunter home for Easter brunch one day early, so as not to have to wake up at an ungodly hour and catch a train. I still make it out to two films.

Even making it out belatedly, the fest seems to have not pieced itself together yet. Ritz Theater employees are attempting to co-exist with fest volunteers, both of whom are seen frantically telling typically bitchy patrons that, yes, they have to stand outside in fuck off lines for screenings that inevitably start and run late. They point at those of us brandishing badges, who get to wait inside in the air conditioning, and who promise to keep quiet so as not to let our sounds invade the packed theaters. My badge will not let another person in this year so I am horribly lonely standing there, trying not to look at people nearby me. Reasoning: they're crazy-looking. I do spot International House projectionist Robert Cargni and wind up talking to him. Little do I remember that fest-geeks are usually supposed to be on the run, and I start feeling guilty about getting him on the subject of style vs. substance and Lars von Trier when he should be hopping on a presumably tardy SEPTA train to West Philly. He at least tells me She's One of Us, waxed poetic upon in the current Film Comment, is kinda crap. I take note.

A Good Lawyer's Wife (Im Sang-soo, South Korea) Wow: people enjoying sex while acknowledging the downside of it. Not since The Unbearable Lightness of Being has there been an art film boasting so much sex and nudity that wasn't trying to sell you on how evil it all is. Typically South Korean, Im's film mixes up tones -- comedy, drama, thriller -- without feeling jumbled, though the plot is: it's one of those films where the editor has seemingly taken out most of the vital information, forcing you to piece it together if at all. Many of my colleagues were underwhelmed; I was absorbed.

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, USA) McElwee-an through-and-through, and a cleansing experience after seeing how many documentarians rip him off without really nailing his style. It's roughly 60% self-absorption, 40% objective journalism as McElwee embarks on discovering the history of the tobacco trade, which starts with a duel between Duke and his great-grandfather. Predictably, all the seams are showing, from random footage to a dog-related blooper to a bizarro stretch with film theorist Vlada Petrovic. Charleen: still rules. McElwee's voice: still weird.

Inadvertent Theme of the Day: Solipsism, but with a need to connect with others.

Sunday, 11 April

Back home for most of this Easter Sunday, though I race home to catch two films, not realizing I will see only one of them. Sickness back in the form of consistently runny nose and frequent light-headedness. Long walk to the Ritz East kinda lovely, with the sunset meshing nicely with the overcast sky. Film fest, however, hasn't gotten its shit together since I left: second film of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre crossed out, replaced by No Rest For the Brave. Assume it's been cancelled or, hopefully, postponed, and I call Steve to tell him not to bother coming. Upon leaving Distant, I realize they've inexplicably switched theaters without noting that to others. I kick myself repeatedly.

Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) To do the despicable: Ceylan's style is random parts Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Tsai, and Jarmusch, with a little Tarr thrown in there for good measure. Needless to say, a hypnotic experience, with long takes punctured by choreographed foreground-background tomfoolery, the timing making for loads of sensual moments, as well as very well-earned yuks. More appropriately, Ceylan's style could be summed up in one moment: well-off character puts on Andrei Rublev, presumably because the film's very Tarkoviskyesque. Little do we know that his housemate will grow drowsy watching it and, when he heads off to bed, our protag breaks out the porn. A beautiful film, filled with subtle and sometimes-cringe-inducing little moments. Wish it added up to more than it does, but you can't have everything. A movie to live in.

Quote of the Day "Alright, I'll pay for your tickets to Valentin," announced the second after Distant's three-minute-long shot ends.

Monday, 12 April

"Non-Drowsy" screams the box for my Sudafed, which becomes puzzling around 6:30pm when I wake up from an accidental three-hour nap. Frankly, it's gross outside -- pouring rain, freezing cold, and windy to boot. I haven't eaten much and don't feel like running from She's One of Us to a doc on Amos Vogel without so much as consuming a hot dog. In lieu of this, I show The Saddest Music in the World to Jon and Jer, in the hopes of finding out if I'm crazy for liking it -- or crazy for not liking it enough. "Sheer lunacy," becomes Jer's mantra throughout its 95 minutes. I make a promise to myself to get on the ball tomorrow.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Philadelphia Film Festival - 8-21 April 2004

Hardly a contender with Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, NY, Austin's South by Southwest, et al. my metropolis' fest is at least getting closer to mimicking them: in our 13th year, it doesn't boast many big-timers (opening night: Shade?), but it has nabbed a giggle-inducing list of newbies from reliable auteurs -- along with Demme and Haneke, there's McElwee, Breillat, von Trier, Greenaway, Maddin, Babenco, Techine, Berlinger and Sinofsky, even a Herzog I hadn't previously heard of. As for oldies, it's pretty paltry this year: Asian-American silent-to-'50s star Anna May Wong gets advertised with 1929's Piccadilly while Tobe Hooper shows off his newest (The Toolbox Murders) along with the newest-struck print of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That, plus the inexplicable-if-welcome presence of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is it. (Last year had a retrospective on obscure Spanish director Alex de la Iglesias and an impressive collection of Shaw Brothers pics, to send the point home.) Nevertheless, and for the second year in a row, I have a press badge and no second job; I'll do what I can.


[Basically I had to do blurbs for my paper, which meant that my need to write about Greenaway, Maddin and the like had my seeing them on my television rather than the big screen. The screeners were, largely, kinda nice for the record.]

The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, USA) Charming subject, fascinating (and oh so topical!) issue, messy filmmaking. Demme, who cobbled together gobs of interviews conducted over about ten years, can barely arrange them into a pastiche, let alone a coherent storyline. Then again, this - and Storefront Hitchcock - are his strongest works since the ‘80s. Which is all kinds of depressing, really. B-

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, France) Probably total bullshit, but I wound up getting into Breillat’s determinedly nasty look at the nastier parts of the female body - which is saying something due to the faux-profundity of the first exchange (“Why did you just try to kill yourself?” “Because I’m a woman.”) Pretty unique way of looking at sex, if all a bit too humorless. Again, probably total bullshit. Ignore me, in fact. B-

Proteus (David Lebrun, USA) Nifty gimmick - drawings of the various forms of the single-celled undersea radiolarian by 19th century biologist Earnst Haeckel thrown at you in rapid-fire order, as if seeing them in a state of hyperactive flux - meets almost-standard PBS-style doc about Haeckel and his era's attempts at oceanography. Doesn’t quite drown you in the world like it wishes it could - by way of showing nothing but drawings - but an intriguer none the less. B

The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Daava & Luigi Falorni, Germany/Mongolia) Nestled in the middle of the desert, a family’s camel gives birth to another camel. This camel isn’t taken too kindly by the other camel. Meanwhile, kids want to buy a TV. Blatant attempt at Flahertyness yields few returns and, yo, just why is everyone listed as an actor? Predictably this thing was loved by some. C

The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada) Is this in fact Maddin’s bid for mainstream acceptance? Or have his advertisers just painted it that way? ‘Cause there’s no way this serially goofy confection is gonna be loved by anyone other than cultists, and then maybe even not by them. Pretty much the same lunatic tinkering from recent-period Maddin (i.e., Heart of the World till right now), only less inspired and hampered by some odd naturalistic acting from Rossellini, McKinney, and de Medeiros. Then again, glass legs filled with beer + Africa vs. Canada + almost anything that emerges from Ross McMillian’s mouth = just fine by me. “My skin is too exciteable for wool, I fear.” B

The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (Peter Greenaway, UK) Gee, Peter, should I give up my day job and dedicate my life to deciphering this self-indulgent monstrosity? Part One in the Tulse Multimedia Epic - following the 60 websites but preceding two more films, a TV show, DVDs, CD-Roms, books, and, I dunno, strategically placed hieroglyphics strewn about the globe’s cities - comes with as welcoming an introduction as “Good luck, those of you who aren’t directly connected to my brain!,” so festooned it is with frames within frames, seemingly pointless Brechtian tomfoolery, references to past Greenaway, citations, multiple pop-up narrators, lists and a general sense that this is some insular, way too autobiographical film for what fans he has left. Intriguing, though, but without wholly earning interest. Interesting to see what becomes of Tulse 2, let alone the rest of it. Those who've never seen, say, The Belly of an Architect need not apply. C+

Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, UK) Britishers declaring everything “intensely boring,” “horrid,” “chaffing” or “the beatliest” for 100 minutes. Not quite the matching of minds that you’d expect from Stephen Fry adapting Evelyn Waugh, what with as many celebrity cames as five combined Woody Allens. Flies by, has an insane quip-per-minute ratio, fumbles when this cartoon expects you to suddenly care. B

The Best Thief in the World (Jacob Kornbluth, USA) “It’s manipulative, sappy shit,” declares harried mom Mary-Louise Parker to her titular, dilinquent son. “You don’t even know you’re manipulating people.” Self-depricating self-critique on the part of director Jacob Kornbluth? Or is his film not merely fake, but deluded to boot? Fixin’ on the former, as this contrived melodrama with transparent “authenticity” (handheld camera, kiddies deploying four-letter words, et al.) only grates on my senses. Damn you, Parker, for giving a terrific perf: should fans wish to see one of your better screen turns, they have to sit through mounds of shit. C-

The Cordon (Goran Markovic, Serbia) Only somewhat disappointing, given the POV used in handling this subject matter (anti-Milosevic protests in 1997 Serbia, focused entirely on the cops used as human shields). Semi-disappointedly goes for an illumination on its anti-heroes penchant for violence than the political ramifications, though it at least handles that: everyone’s gotta earn money, they say. Excellent cutting between news footage and the re-staged ones. B-

Asshak, Tales From the Sahara (Ulrike Koch, Algeria/Switzerland/Germany/The Netherlands) Okay, so it’s “Scenes From the Sahara,” more likely. Warmed up to this one over the vaguely similar Story of the Weeping Camel, basically because it isn’t content to simply observe and because the stories, when we get them, relieve the ethnocentric tedium. B

Shade (Damien Nieman, USA) One of the heftier examples of first-timer Damian Nieman’s skill with the bad-ass dialogue: “Who’s that?,” inquires Character A. “None of your fucking business, that’s who,” replies Character B. Basically Confidence only somehow worse: poker is the game but it’s still the melange of screenwriter’s crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and crosses that look like double-triple-crosses but wind up as triple-gainer-backflip crosses. Lifeless filmmaking; names working with nothing; Sly, as Minnessotta Fats, still finds time to mope. D+

Wheel of Time (Werner Herzog, Germany) Send Werner to document Buddhist monks (with tete-a-tete with the D.L.) and you get what you expect. B

The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth & Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France) While Dogville is one of the few films to truly polarize everybody, this one seems to have be unanimous: kickass idea, only mildly disappointing come the end. Obstructions #3 and #5 the real let-downs, but otherwise it’s an exhilerating illumination on the creative freedom = slavery belief. B+

Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper, USA) In which Hickenlooper can’t decide if Rodney Bingenheimer’s a great man for being the first to promote many terrific bands, a pathetic man for being a life-long celebrity hanger-on with a non-threatening personality, or a funny man because he has a werid voice. Felt half-queasy; also felt this would be more trenchant as a Behind the Music episode. Kim Fowley is scary. B-

Cowboys & Angels (David Gleeson, UK) So much a Queer as Folk rip-off that it could conceiveably enjoy a telvisual life as, say, Bent as People. Harmless fluff, that is as long as it’s not dealing with the Francis Veber-esque dealings with drug traffickers. C

Buddy (Morten Tydlum, Norway) Is it a good sign when you criticize a movie for dealing with interchangeable romance problems instead of its wan satire of reality TV show culture? W/O

The Swan (1956, Charles Vidor, USA) Grace Kelly looks seriously mopey as a woman forced to marry Alec Guiness’ prince, only to find solace in the flirtation with Louis Jourdan’s tutor. Any response from Prince Rainier? The supporting cast all but hi-jacks this Charles Vidor dramedy, with Guiness and Estelle Winwood coming up with the best material. B

Seven Days, Seven Nights (Joel Cano, Cuba/France/Italy) Rather a cacaphonous mess: an underground film, shot right under Castro’s nose, about the nether-regions of Havana, including back-alley abittoirs, cockfighting dens, etc. Has its points, certainly, though the enthusiastic anger comes with some shrill acting. B-

Piccadilly (1929, E.A. Dupont, UK) Anna May Wong is a charismatic one and the rest of this British silent ain’t bad either: a not-bad melodrama with a take on racism decades before its time and some elegant filmmaking from Dupont. Charles Laughton, in his first screen appearance, pigs out and then some. B+

The Kite (Randa Chahal Sabbig, Lebanon/France) Romeo and Juliet on a barb-wire-festooned border. A little too content to choog along on national identity signifiers, but works best when it’s portraying the ins and outs of its locale; the best bit would have to be dispersed relatives communicating via megaphone. Filmmaking is a bizarre mix between Iranian and West Hemispherean. B-

Please Teach Me English (Kim Sung-si, South Korea) Shrill, flashy South Korean comedy saved by some trenchant observations (if you don’t speak English, you won’t be able to read corporate logos) and a general sense of getting used to it -- had I not had to review it, I probably would’ve turned it off after five minutes. Grade, under different circumstances, would be dramatically lower. C

Distant Lights (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany) Life sucks on the Polish side of the Uber River, and Germany, on the other side, presumably doesn’t. Schmid has technical and structural chops, holding many balls in the air and keeping it moving. But whenever something could conceivably go wrong, it does. Need to do overtime taxi work to pay for your daughter’s pricey communion dress? You will become too tired and crash into a car, forfeitting your day’s profits. That refugee you stuffed in your car and drove across the border for no pay? He will pilfer your camera equipment. That tube of toothpaste in your bathroom? It will be out of its stuff and all the near-by stores will be closed. Again, well put-together. C

[Note: I've been remiss in updating this; you'll notice, if you look to the date of the fest, that I'm doing this pre- stuff on Day Four, for instance. I'll throw up what I've seen projected very soon indeed. Also, I haven't been out to much stuff, mostly due to work, Easter, and a cold I can't quite shake off. I'll be a better fest-attendee soon. I.e., tomorrow.]

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Who's Sick of Me Using the Phrase "Shameless Plugs"? For Issue of 4/7...

And there's a veritable assload of 'em. Apart from my usual column, you can also find my review of The Alamo, a thing on a local screening of rock-themed TV episodes from the '60s, and no less than seven (7) capsules for films playing in the Philadelphia Film Festival, including everything from The Saddest Music in the World to The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part The First to the abysmally weak poker/con pic Shade. As the fest is set to kickstart tomorrow night (with Shade, regrettably), I'll be throwing teensy blurbs up here on the many I've seen so far tomorrow. Day-to-day coverage will start on Friday once the thing truly gets underway. I have a press pass; look out.

Also, and just quickly (as I need to go write it up proper in the next minute or two), George Romero's obscure '73 effort The Crazies might just be his masterpiece -- too nutty to be a near-perfect being like Night of the Living Dead but so corrosive that his status as a satirist should never be in question. It appears that Romero invented Cronenberg, whose Shivers this very much resembles (and, terrific film that it is, comes nowhere near the misanthropic brilliance of the Romero). My mini-article, one hopes, will be more eloquent than that.*

*Would frickin' have to be, methinks.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Hellboy (2004, Guillermo del Toro)

The Theory of Awesomeness™ was not invented by me, but it is in need of advertising. As though it needed one, its explanation goes like this: a movie needn't be perfect, as perfection can often be a mite boring and/or limiting. However, if a movie boasts enough awesome* moments, its flaws can be rendered, at least to an extent, irrelevant.

This clearly applies to Hellboy, which features no one's idea of a strong narrative but which, during its oddly breezy 132 minutes, boasts no shortage of mind-bogglingly awesome moments. Not the least of these would be the villainous henchman, who is frankly what Darth Maul should've been and who also one-ups Boba Fett -- he's mysteriously taciturn and astonishingly interesting. Suffering from a psychological malady dubbed by big-haired professor John Hurt as "surgical addiction," the man -- working alongside the ridiculously ominous triumverate of the Nazis, Rasputin and Satan -- has long ceased to be a typical man, having long ago a) removed his eyelids, b) sawed off his lips, and c) discovered a workable way to replace blood with sand. If this weren't enough to render him totally goddam awesome, then he also dresses in black, wears a mask (at one point wearing a helmet as well -- wonderful de-helmetting moment), is a dead-on sharpshooter, can do fancy dance-moves while slicing people with the two blades that pop out from his forearms, and, when found with nothing to do, likes to relax while listening to German pop music from the '40s.

For this bit, and far more, Hellboy makes up for its occasional narrative incoherence -- hell, it may even work because of them. Audience-identification figure and all, it feels like we're being thrown into a world, not simply a storyline -- in fact, it's less a comic-book action movie than a character study, albeit one where the characters do little else but fight and brandish guns packed with over-sized bullets. Guillermo del Toro, who helped out on the script, rarely bothers with introductions or longwinded explanations, as we'd never get anywhere were it to explain everything to us. (Truly one of the reasons why X-Men never took off.) Instead, it gives us just enough information to get us by, then hurls us right into the fray -- a technique that works since del Toro is no more technician but a craftsman: he makes everything flow together. Bonus points for making aforementioned audience-identification figure a pretty damn good shot and rather violent and professional, even with that haircut. Still more bonus points for suggesting that Hellboy is so confident, maybe even arrogant, that he never worries about taking on the ultimate in the form of evil -- all he wants is the girl (who receives one of the most bone-chilling flashbacks in movie history). If Blade II -- the franchise into which del Toro blissfully pumped color and humor -- suggested something stronger from him around the corner, then this is it. I'm thinking this one suggests more from him, too. Good job, bud.

*That is not referring to the correct use of the word "awesome," which of course means immense, but rather the vernacularian one that could applied to, say, the quality of a hot dog. Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Izzard.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino)

Quickly: the whole thing's clearly awesome. Those who moaned about it being empty will get their comeuppance several times over, while those of us who didn't mind will realize that, again, the whole thing's clearly awesome. Gorehounds will surely bitch about how talky and un-action-packed it is. To which I say: boo goddam hoo. More later.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Theory of the Twelfth

Today on his blog, muse malade opened up this can of worms: "the summit of any auteur's art is achieved on his or her twelfth film." muse [a.k.a. Ryan] tested this concept on first Orson Welles (reaping The Immortal Story), then Jean Renoir (La nuit de carrefour). MD'A then made a note to himself that he should take in a re-assessment of Mike Figgis' Cold Creek Manor. I, meanwhile, have decided I need to catch Girl in the News by Carol Reed, Michael Powell's Something Always Happens, Summer With Monika by Bergman, and Sandra of a Thousand Delights, Luchino Visconti's follow-up to The Leopard. (And fellow native Fellini? He peaked around the second act of Fellini Roma and up to the first of Amarcord, as long as you're counting his Toby Dammit short in Spirits of the Dead as a third.) Add Bob Clark's Rhinestone to that list as well, while I'll also have to do perform some probing re-assessment on Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, Spielberg's Always and Frantic, Roman Polanski's "return to form." The best part of this auteuristic breakthrough? We can expect Peter Jackson's supreme masterpiece in the form of whatever he makes right after King Kong.

Five-and-One-Quarter Hours of Martyr Movies

You heard me. Lars von Trier's three-hour Dogville, one hour break for piddling sustenance (you don’t know what chicken is, do you, Salad Works?), and then John Lee Hancock's two-hour-and-change rendition of The Alamo. Yippy.

[Spoilers await you. Tread carefully; skim if necessary.]

Predictably, I have very little to say about the latter. The first half occasionally threatens to turn into something interesting, not unlike a Richard Lester revisionist history where great deeds occasionally come out of dumb accidents and incompetence. (Read: everyone’s a drunk. Except for the guy who sleeps with whores and ditched his wife and kids.) What a tease. The second half is your expected cavalcade of falling bodies, delusional patriotic speeches and good old American boasting -- all of it fetishizing the act of dying for a country that kinda sorta fucked up and left you to be slaughtered en masse. Here’s to propaganda!

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t fair to take it in after the von Trier, about which there’s loads to say (though it is, in a different way, also a tease). In case you hadn’t heard, Dogville’s the most controversial, most perfectly dividing movie in a month -- and whaddaya know? It’s also a messiah movie. (If of sorts.) The difference (apart from the fact that I liked it) is that von Trier’s hero(ine) -- a mysterious babe escaping from gagnsters who comes to a mountain hamlet, engenders herself to its denizens, then finds herself being the paradigm of forgiveness as she’s increasingly imprisoned, humiliated, raped, etc. by them -- gets her revenge...and we’re not supposed to be cheering for her when this occurs. Misanthropic, cynical and generally paranoid as von Trier is, he’s also not that evil -- or at least it is my belief that no artist fully supports genocide. Call me naive, call me optimistic, but I refuse to believe that a writer always supports the deeds his protagonist enacts. Sometimes, surely, but not here.

Because it takes place in America -- and has less than optimistic things to say about our population’s treatment of immigrants -- it was inevitable that it would receive much tut-tutting from critics about its ostentatious anti-Americanism. Von Trier’s apparent thesis is that Nicole Kidman’s Grace -- an outsider who hopes to gain the trust of the townfolk who have put her up -- is a stand-in for illegal immigrants, and that capitalists will always be quick to exploit those over whom they have superiority. A bit bleak, maybe, but it’s tough to argue against this with a straight face, even though very few of us are complicit in this act. (Which is probably what gets the goat of many of its detractors, who have been -- how shall we put this? -- on the defensive.) Naturally, these critics, combing for an easy way to get people on their side, have wielded the inevitable “von Trier’s never stepped foot in our county” argument -- a piece of rebuttal so cheap and pointless that it of course has been working gangbusters. Obviously, though -- in fact, completely transparently -- von Trier is working with the idea of America. His America is viewed entirely on a soundstage, with houses and objects represented by chalk outlines on the stage, Thornton Wilder-style. And then, do you really need to have stepped foot in the states to make a point about a place, a thing? His thesis is pin-pointed -- he’s attacking one small if important problem with the states, if not also expressing the reason why he hasn’t come here. (And, after this and Dancer in the Dark, what a welcome he’d receive.) We are, when you get down to it, the most self-reflexive, self-critical country on the globe. But when others do what we do, we get uppity. (And if they’re European, they’re a cliche.)

The good news is, if you look in the right places, you can find this petty argument eclipsed. The bad news is the way that has come about. Two of my favorite critics -- Slate’s David Edelstein and Salon’s Charles Taylor -- have been the most vocal, or at least the most vocally eloquent, in their derision, which has in both cases moved from “anti-American” to “anti-human.” Edelstein compares it to the work of Jean Renoir and Robert Altman, both of whom were misanthropes but also humanists -- they were fascinated by finding the vileness as well as the redeeming facets in every one of their characters. (Rules of the Game is basically the last word on the subject.)

But Edelstein’s evisceration of von Trier’s tactics is a rave compared to Taylor. But of course. In his usual ranting, spewing way, Taylor picks the film apart for three whole pages, adding W.C. Fields to the comparisons and wildly alligning himself with the defensive. To wit:

“An American critic who slams "Dogville" opens him- or herself up to the usual charges of Americans being unwilling to face the ugly truths about their country (no matter how facile or smug or uninformed those "truths" are). But any critic who rejects the film is open to being told they can't accept dark, pessimistic art, that they'd prefer nice movies. That's a very macho vision of the arts, in which the "hissing naysayers" (as one critic called those of us who reject the film -- and let me own up: When I saw it at the New York Film Festival last fall, I hissed) should just go back to our nice humanist movies and leave the heavy lifting to the tough-minded.”

Most of which is true, except for this: why draw a line in the sand? Isn’t it possible to be a misanthropic humanist and still be able to take in art that coldly and with great exactitude points out ills in our society? If a piece of art does posit a worst-case scenario -- which Dogville inarguably does -- isn’t it worth something if what it says does in fact hold water?

The two are clearly not aligning themselves with, say, the powers-that-be, who will undoubtedly grow red in the face should they ever see it. (Unlike Battle of Algiers, screened for the Pentagon last summer, it doesn’t offer any nifty tips to battle terrorists.) But they’re attacks do nothing but offer a reduction of what von Trier has done here. More than a political pundit and still more than a provacateur, von Trier is an excellent dramatist -- he clearly loves himself some Euripides, Sophocles and all the other Greek tragidists of yore. On a purely primal level, Dogville builds slowly and methodically. Much of what is so entertaining about Dogville -- and it is in fact an entertaining film -- is how he focuses minutely on the way this society works: the woman with the job of ringing the bell; the fact that every man has the hots for Chloe Sevigny’s sole-attractive-young-woman-in-town; the reluctance they have for Paul Bettany’s poorly-assembled town meetings. With a couple all-too-convenient exceptions, von Trier does a fine job of showing how their boredom, routine and myopia leads to the horrific deeds they bring about.

Most people seem to be ignoring the subtle touches. When Grace is being first shown around the town by Bettany, he, like John Hurt’s narrator, reveals the vile nature of each person. Grace’s response is that he’s been, of course, cynical. She will come to renege on that statement by the end, but she, unlike, Bettany has a good reason. Like Blue Velvet and Clouzot’s Le courbeau before it -- as well as Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution -- it likes to find the underbelly of good deeds, the way that chivalry and selflessness is almost always of the double-edged sword variety. Who can argue with that? Do you have to be a cynic to see this?

Of course, and again, Altman and Renoir managed to do this kind of thing better, and I wouldn’t trade Dogville for most of their takes on similar themes. But rather than get defensive -- and, as Edelstein did, evoke Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men -- it would be more admirable, not to mention more accurate, to say that it is, when you get down to it, a humanist film. It’s hard to believe that some of the stronger people in the movie, like Ben Gazzara’s blind man or even Paul Bettany’s idealist, deserve that they get. Bettany in fact is little more than a prioner of his own wit, having done little but try to rationalize everything without taking in account Grace’s primal suffering. The finale is not what von Trier thinks should ethically or morally happen; in fact it demands that we ask if this is what they deserve, and if Grace hasn’t stooped to their level -- way below it, in fact. (Is there anything worse than misplaced passion?) The tip-off is here: when Grace asks the goons to kill two of Patricia Clarkson’s kids and only off the rest if she can’t compose herself. “It’s only fair.” Uh-huh. Fuck this woman in my opinion. Forgiveness and restraint are overrated. That seems to be the very original thesis of Dogville.

Oh Yeah: Shameless Plug, Issue of 3/31

Yesterday's Philly Weekly consists of only the usual thing by yours truly. If you pick up an actual copy, you'll notice the format has been semi-radically changed. 'Frinstance, we are now "PW," with the full-length name featured underneath. I dunno. Rep, as printed, looks more like the Rep in Time Out NY/London, which I approve. Next issue finds me tearing apart The Alamo, rhapsodizing on rock 'n' roll episodes of '60s TV, ruminating on several films in the upcoming PFF, and, as a result of the latter, a tiny column of older films playing in the area. Not that I've started writing any of them yet...

Expect a thingamajigger on Dogville shortly.