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14 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Making the case for humanity in a time of powerful stupidity (and stupid power), 4 July 2008

On the list of films that will almost certainly be seen by the tiniest portion of those who should see it, Ken Jacobs' nearly seven-hour, kaleidoscopic magnum opus may be tops. An exhaustive, sprawling history of America -- mainly from the Industrial Revolution on -- in the form of found footage and recordings, as seen through the eyes of those on the margins (i.e. intellectuals, socialists, artists), it is perhaps the most compelling case imaginable that we, as a race, are simply doomed to forever suffer for our worst impulses. Or at least until we annihilate ourselves.

Sounds like fun, right? In many respects, it is. Jacobs takes archival footage that illustrates America's most appallingly racist and imperialist worldviews, as assigned to us via the popular culture -- a Nelson Rockefeller campaign film, an Al Jolson blackface musical, a patronizing educational film about "conscience", etc -- and inter-cuts them with footage he shot and abandoned in the late 1950s, a series of avant-garde living theater pieces, in which fellow filmmaker Jack Smith cavorts in ecstatic lunacy on the streets of New York, upsetting the torpor of 1950s life, delighting children, drawing the bewilderment of adults (and the consternation of cops).

Less fun is the portrait of Jacobs' other friend, the "born loser" Jerry Sims, whose formidable intelligence and cultural awareness cannot help his complete inability to function in modern society. He begs his (poor) friends for money. He smells bad. He is so overcome by the injustice of the world that he can barely dress himself. Jack's exuberance lifts the first half of the film while Jerry's despondency dominates the second, so that by the end we're forced to ask ourselves how we confront our monumentally f**ked up world: are we Jack (The Spirit Not of Life But of Living) or are we Jerry (Suffering)?

Jacobs seems attracted to Jack but to find Jerry's condition inevitable. The first is the truest state of who we are as human souls, the second is the only true possible effect of a world governed by capitalism. Throughout, Jacobs provides hundreds of on-screen texts, some of it his own writing and some that of others. As a leftist, Jacobs makes Michael Moore seem positively mainstream by comparison, but his arguments are more philosophical than Moore's, and even more persuasive. Many of the texts are presented on only one frame of the film, so that on a DVD you're forced to stop the player, back up and read. (In a film screening, of course, they would just go by in a blink). This approach demands interaction and engagement on the part of the viewer. As it is in society, if you want to get at these truths, you have to go get them. No one's going to make it easy for you, and the truth is that the power structure we have is actually going to make it as difficult as possible for any of us to know anything. Jacobs has left as his life's work an epic testimony that could, if enough people just took the time and made that effort, contribute to a more peaceful world, but I think he knows that probably won't happen.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A quietly evocative triptych of space and tempo., 14 January 2007

This was my first Hou Hsiao-hsien picture, and I feel like I've been missing out on quite a lot, seeing as he's been doing this for about a quarter century. Not that I'm experiencing the kind of panic and regret that I might if I'd only just discovered Godard or Jarmusch. Three Times is simply the kind of movie I gravitate to, and I'm hoping it points the way to a trove of similar pleasures, even if it isn't quite a masterpiece on its own.

As I'm sure others around here have written, Three Times is literally about three different times, as in eras: 1911, 1966, and 2005, and each of the forty-minute featurettes in this triptych is defined by a separate thematic quality: the 1960s, naturally, by love; the end of Dynastic rule by freedom; and contemporary China by youth. All of them, however, involve love on some level, or, at the very least, sex. Each chapter centers on a man and a woman (played by Chang Chen and Shu Qi in each case) caught up in some variation of romantic or erotic involvement that reflects the three themes.

What I love about Hou's approach is that each of these forty-minute pieces tells no more "story" than an average Hollywood film would chew up and spit out in its first four or five minutes. In "A Time for Love" (the 1960s chapter) little more "happens" than a young soldier returning from military leave to find that the girl he's been writing to has moved to another town, so he tracks her down and they spend a few hours together. The other stories cover similarly scant territory while Hou allows his camera and the nearly constant presence of popular music to evoke the tempo and space of his characters' lives. Hou and his writer Chu T'ien-wen find worlds of behavior to explore and time worth spending in scenes that most writers would consider the merely necessary business of establishing a premise and getting their characters into position.

If the movie doesn't exactly reach ecstatic heights, it isn't for lack of Hou's ability to fulfill his own purpose, but merely because his purpose contains almost no emotional arc, either for his characters or for his audience, and it isn't loaded up with the kind of ornate, spiritual metaphor that similarly deliberate films by, say, Bergman and Tarkovsky are. Hou doesn't seem interested (at least here) in either God or people, per se, but rather our cognitive relationship to the passage of time and the subtle but profound effect of small decisions on the course of our own histories.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Shameful to the extreme, 18 June 2006

I went to a party last night -- Seventies themed -- where the big event was a DVD showing of the embarrassing Robert Stigwood production of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (in honor of both the recent passing of Billy Preston, and Paul McCartney's notable 64th birthday today). I hadn't seen the movie since it came out, when I was about eleven and, at the time, I liked it. Even though I was a huge Beatles fan (I knew most of their songs by heart at that age) it had never occurred to me that this movie was anything but a fitting tribute.

Later, in retrospect, I could reflect on it and realize that it was probably a terrible movie. Certainly, at some point, I understood that the very idea of having these mostly dreadful artists performing the Beatles' best songs in some trumped up narrative was simply a kind of heresy. Yet, the fact remained that I had never had these feelings while actually watching the movie.

Until last night, when I learned one should never, ever trust their eleven year old self to properly judge anything.

Let me tell you that there is bad. There is awful. And then there is "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band," the movie. For jaw-in-your-lap appalling, this movie is right down there with the Eighties classic "The Apple," but the fact that Sgt. Pepper had resources -- money, well-known performers (I can't bring myself to say "stars"), and licensed access to the greatest catalog of popular songs ever -- makes the depths of its failings all that more profound.

First I'll tell what I saw, then I'll tell you what I thought.

I saw:

• The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton being directed in a style that (I think) was intended to emulate the body language of silent film comedy. (Other than George Burns' narration, the movie has no spoken dialogue. Presumably, this was to cover for the inability of any of the performers to act. The great blunder of course, is that silent comedy acting is still acting, and no one involved here can do it).

• Dentally-challenged Peter Frampton and appeal-challenged Sandy Farina gazing at each other, presented as the film's central romantic purpose. (P.S. Where the eff did Sandy Farina come from and where the eff did she go?)

• George Burns doddering around on stiff, ninety year old legs, croaking the lyrics to "Fixing a Hole."

• "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds" transformed into a production number mounted on a pair of billboards (with stages) over the Sunset Strip. A third-rate Pointer Sisters knockoff called Stargard played a group called the Diamonds (presumably their leader was Lucy) and performed on one billboard while the Bee Gees and Frampton gaped from the other with all the lust they could simulate. (Given that about 90 pounds of glitter were used in an attempt to obscure the distinctly unattractive qualities of each of the Stargard gals, the lads faked it the best they could). Every now and then during this number, we'd cut to an extreme close- up of the tears welling in Sandy Farina's eyes as she stared from the street below. Oh, yeah, she was feelin' it.

And those are just the start. And now, here's what I thought:

What was going through their heads? I mean, every one of them -- performers, producers, director, cinematographer, editor, grips -- what were they thinking? The only sensible response to any aspect of this debacle, at any stage of the production, would have been: "Holy mother of God. We are making something monumentally awful, and not only that, we're taking the music of the Beatles down with us. This movie is going to exist in some form forever. We will not be able to hide from history. One hundred years from now they'll still know that we did this, and my name will still be on it."

It's worth noting that in some cultures, to this day, people kill themselves when they know they have committed far less shameful acts than these people did.

Bubble (2005/I)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Despite non-actors, a fascinating movie, 11 May 2006

Saw this last night and I really liked it. It soaked in my brain overnight and this morning I really, really like it. If for nothing other than being one of the few American attempts at existential cinema in our times, it's worth calling attention to. There's just so much going on in it. It's essentially political, but it achieves its politics entirely through the personal. It's also a squashing of the traditional, multi-suspect murder mystery into what is probably the more common scenario: who did it is not only pretty obvious from the get-go, but it won't take a crack team of forensic scientists and brilliant interrogation techniques to prove it.

My only reservation upon first viewing was that the actors, not being, well... actors, robbed the movie of an emotional dimension that I felt it needed, especially given Soderbergh's highly stylized approach to the visuals (as usual, his cinematographer alter ego, "Peter Andrews," lights the scenes beautifully). I've been ambivalent on this question before. I know some who can't stand Gus Van Sant's occasional use of non-actors but it's never really bothered me in his case.

Central to this film, I thought, was that these are people whose lives provide them with almost nothing interesting to talk about, and as a result they've either lost the ability to communicate or they never had it. The drearily mundane dialogue reflects this, and it was mostly when the characters were speaking that I wished some subtle layer of emotional expression could come across to make up for what the characters simply don't know how to say, the kind of layering that only gifted actors can impart. So yeah, it was missing that.

But interestingly, in reflecting on Bubble nearly 12 hours later, I'm bothered less by all that. I'll say this: I don't think Soderbergh could have found more perfect faces for his story on any three professional actors. Questions of acting aside, his casting reflects the weary, depressed reality of a factory town -- without mocking that reality -- better than any Hollywood film I've seen (and I'm including the films of John Sayles in that estimation).

Lastly, Robert Pollard's bright, acoustic guitar score was an interesting choice. It was a distinct contrast to the mostly gloomy lives of the characters, but its utter simplicity was on the money.

19 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
Finally, a Movie of Comic Understatement, 14 November 2005

In the spirit of the indie heyday, when names like Alex Cox, Stephen Frears, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch were the currency of cinema's promise, comes Azazel Jacobs, hopefully the new bearer of the long-smoldering punk cinema torch. The GoodTimesKid is a wonderfully observant and comical character study made with nothing but pocket change and a love of movies. In fact, this is obviously not just a labor of love but of friendship: Jacobs stars in the film with his co-writer and former classmate, Gerardo Naranjo, as well as his producer and real-life girlfriend Sara Diaz.

I'll refrain from saying too much about the movie's plot, not because there really is much of a plot but what small revelations the script does have in store would be that much nicer to discover in the theater. (Let's hope it makes to theaters!) Suffice to say that Naranjo's character receives a summons indicating that he had enlisted in the Army (truth is, he hadn't) and that the time to report for duty has come. He goes down to the enlistment office to explain the mistake and he winds up following another recruit home. That would be Jacob's character, an angry and disheveled journalist, who seems to be joining the Army only because he's given up on every other aspect of his life, especially his girlfriend, played by Diaz.

Naranjo, in a near-silent performance that, I swear to God, is downright Chaplin-esquire, makes friends with Diaz, the irony being that he knows that her boyfriend is busing off to join the military in the morning, and she doesn't. Jacobs isn't the strongest actor in the world but he certainly looks the part and exonerates himself well. Diaz is nothing but a delight, a young Shelly Duvall in Converse hi-tops, and she owns outright the movie's funniest scene, in which she dances a jig in an effort to pull Naranjo out of his chronic stupor.

There are all kinds of things that real people in real life might say to each other, and ways that they would behave, which the characters in The GoodTimesKid never do, but this is one of those movies which doesn't need literalism to feel authentic. Much like in Godard's romantic comedies (Masculin, Féminin comes to mind) the feelings are real and the inspired silliness only elevates it further.

Dark Horse (2005)
22 out of 26 people found the following review useful:
The rare, crowd-pleasing art flick, 10 November 2005

I never did get around to seeing Dagur Kári's first film, Nói albínói, but now that I've seen his second, I'll make it a priority. Dark Horse (as it was called at AFI Fest in Los Angeles) is a very funny, stylish, and genuinely touching comedy in the vein of Jim Jarmusch's early films, albeit livelier and less adamantly cerebral.

Daniel (Jakob Cedergren) is a graffiti artist who probably embodies the term loser more fully than anyone you have ever met. He's broke, lazy, irresponsible and dorky. This is a comedy, though, and appropriately, Daniel is a lovable loser. Morfar (Nicolas Bro) is Daniel's only apparent friend, an overweight dude who works in a sleep clinic and maintains aspirations of becoming a soccer referee.

The story gets underway when these two guys visit a bakery and the beautiful woman behind the counter (Tilly Scott Pederson) spontaneously declares her love for Morfar, who is so taken aback by her expression that he runs away. Immediately after, Daniel discovers that this chick is tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, casting some doubt on her romantic declaration, and he aids her in getting home. So begins a loser's love triangle which by the end of the film has very gracefully become about something else: the possibility of elusive, fundamental personal change, both for the better and for the worse.

Every member of this cast, down to the most peripheral supporting role, is terrific. The two leading men, in particular, are understated and yet deeply human. Kári's sense of the visual and the aural (he clearly cares a lot about sound) is very hip but always elegant. He shoots quirky angles in high contrast back-and-white, but every shot is about something; even his flourishes have purpose.

Most importantly, the script by Kári and his co-writer, Rune Schjøtt, gracefully treads that very risky territory between the offbeat and the naturalistic. His characters move through their lives whimsically and even the narrative structure seems vaguely improvised, yet there is a graceful evolution to the unfolding of events that, by the end, gives the classic sense of inevitability that we associate with the best film writing.

(It speaks volumes, I think, that the English subtitles were sometimes impossible to read because of the stark white areas in the frame, and yet I never felt that I missed a beat).

I don't see a U.S. release date indicated on the IMDb, but I can't imagine that Dark Horse (or whatever they're going to call it) won't ultimately find a distributor. This is that rare breed of crowd-pleasing art flick that any half-astute specialty studio should be fighting over.

Tasteful and Dispassionate, 17 December 2003

"Cold Mountain" certainly lives up to its name. It is a monumental film with almost no hint of a beating heart. To call it cerebral, as The Hollywood Reporter did, is to put a kind spin on the utter lack of passion in the storytelling and the performances, and also suggests a heady element that maybe I just missed.

From the first frames of the picture, the level of professionalism from Anthony Minghella's frequently enlisted team of craftspeople -- John Seale, Dante Ferretti, Walter Murch, Gabriel Yared, and others - is undeniable. They certainly have their act down. (At one point in the movie, I kept myself entertained by counting the impending Oscar nominations, and that game went on for some time). The film is elegant, even pristine, and so very tasteful. Within minutes, though, it's also clear that it is to be a film in which every character speaks like an aspiring poet, regardless of their level of education or their wits. The story, which the film makers purport to be about man's eternal failure to respect natural law, gives itself a cramp trying to be literate. Yet in the final outcome, it has managed neither authenticity nor poetry nor philosophy, leaving me to wonder what all the florid dialogue was in service of.

The picture nearly chokes on its pedigree. Minghella stuffed the cast with Oscar-credentialed actors (both past winners like Nicole Kidman and nominees like Jude Law) and others, like Donald Sutherland, whose very presence seems intended to maintain an air of prestige. The lot of them seemed as bored as I did with the script's simplistic philosophizing (is Law's character really dodging bullets and trudging through swamps so he can find some hermit woman who'll enlighten him that he's just part of the circle of life?). As a result no one in the cast, with only a few exceptions in the bit parts, ever manages to transcend who we know them to be. Kidman is Kidman throughout. Law is Law. Sutherland is Sutherland. Zellweger is, to a lesser degree, Zellweger, but she's also the movie's only consistent comic relief so she's spared the worst of the effect.

Kidman and Law, for their parts, look like they're asleep for most of the picture. The passion, the ennui, and the despair they both supposedly suffer is talked about, inferred, and presumably understood on the part of the audience, but I'll be damned if you can find a trace of it on their faces. Kidman especially is never given her due as the actor of incredible spunk that we know her to be. I know she could have played Ada's overwhelming fear of death - her loved one's as well as her own. If she can carry off a prosthetic nose, surely she could have let her skin take a weathering from all the hunger and hard labor her character endures. Someone decided to not let it happen that way, rather that she should remain the radiant movie star throughout, and it was a catastrophic choice, undermining the depiction of rugged endurance that the movie so desperately needs.

Renee Zellweger hams it up like a pro, and if the rest of the cast had looked a touch more alert, she might not have seemed so completely over-the-top at times. Still, she gets to say stuff like, "You can get three feet up a bull's ass just listening to what sweethearts whisper to each other," and she hits the proverbial ball out of the park every time she does. It's a showboat of a role, but in the absence of anything else really happening, her levity was really quite welcome. And yeah, she's probably got the Oscar in the bag.

Natalie Portman, whom I was shocked to find I did not recognize, is featured in the movie's only genuinely touching sequence. Her advantage was to land the role that is the least heavy-handed in the writing, and she rises gracefully to every nuance the page offers her. As a widowed mother caring for her sick baby in a cold house, she subtly negotiates an arrangement with Law's war deserter that both satisfies her unfathomable loneliness and respects his spoken-for heart. After twice succumbing to the rigor mortis of the "Star Wars" pictures, her re-emergence as a natural, warm-hearted actress is the greatest gift that "Cold Mountain" offers.

Also, the veterans Kathy Baker, as Kidman's kindly neighbor, and the great Ray Winstone as a deserter in at least two senses, are also spot-on: never forced, always real, bringing welcome doses of gravitas to every scene they're in.

The greatest disappointment for me in "Cold Mountain" is that it's the first Minghella film to paint strictly by the numbers. Everything of his I've ever seen has taken the form of a well-known model and then upset it with something wholly unexpected, but this latest holds not a single surprise. "Truly Madly Deeply" took the same premise as "Ghost," and then played against every known rule by first suggesting that the ghost may be a creation of the widow's neuroses, and then delivering as its message that love is not eternal, but that death demands that the living get on with their lives. "The Talented Mr. Ripley," though messy and somewhat ungainly, was a mesmerizing balance of travelogue and psychological thriller.

"The English Patient" is most similar to "Cold Mountain" in its intent, an epic romance playing equally to the head and to the heart, but it was one that actually deserved the "cerebral" descriptor and also brought hard-earned tears to my eyes. "The English Patient" made me feel the cleaving knife of choosing love over country. It hurt to watch Fiennes endure his choice in that film. No such sense of pain gets through in "Cold Mountain."

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Strange and Wonderful, 16 December 2003

There were ten or twelve in our party, including my family, and at least four animators and their girlfriends. Finding seats for a group our size was a

challenge, even though we got there early, and even though they had moved

the screening into the largest theater at the AFI Fest. It was Sylvain Chomet's "The Triplets of Belleville," and everybody wants to see this flick.

As they damn well should. "The Triplets of Belleville" is a great, weird movie. It tells its strange, kidnapping story almost entirely without dialogue, and even though some of the words are presented in English, the humor is all French,

soaked through. Most in my party audibly giggled when a scene featured a

poster for "M. Hulot's Holiday" hanging in the background. The spirit of Jaques Tati is fully alive in "Triplets," although in darker, more surreal, occasionally more vulgar surroundings than Hulot ever hung in. The movie is not overly shy about nudity, or non-functioning toilets, or violent death, or even less Disney- esque elements, such as old people. Damn if this movie isn't populated by a

bunch of seniors, who are not only eccentric and cranky, with saggy flesh and age spots, but they're also the story's heroes! And if my kids, who laughed and laughed for the whole 80 minutes, are any indication, it would never occur to a child that an animated movie without a fresh-faced princess or a talking animal for a hero was missing something.

My only complaint with the picture is a brief, seafaring sequence in the middle in which the animators, for some terrible reason, decided to use digital animation for the water rather than the hand-drawn work that makes the rest of the movie so rich. The pixely sheen of the waves made the scene stick out like a

compound fracture, and it just didn't seem at all necessary.

Still, it is the animated film of this year, hands-down. Whether it wins the Oscar will depend on how beholden the animation committee feels to step in line with all the hoo-ha over the limp, overrated "Finding Nemo." The fact that they gave the award last year to the great "Spirited Away" indicates that they know the difference between quality and hype, so there is more than a little hope. Also, nominations for Best Song and Best Score would be not be out of line, although the score may be just a touch too quirky for the Music Branch. They like a lot of strings, those people.

8 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Dreadful, 16 December 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

My attenton was captured by this description in the AFI Fest literature: "Director Kim Ki-Duk mixes a rough personal drama with a tense socio-critical allegory. The controversy surrounding the consequences of dividing the Korean peninsula is highlighted by surreal elements that drive home the insanity of a highly charged political atmosphere." Now there's a movie I want to see!


What it turned out to be is an ultra-violent melodrama by a director whose emotional development seems to have arrested at fifteen years of age. His premise isn't necessarily simple, but his handling of it is simplistic at best. The action centers around the shooting of a young man who crosses into the barricaded territory between North and South Korea to get it on with his girlfriend. The girlfriend and the soldier who did the shooting both go insane in a pair of the most superficial performances you're ever likely to see. No one involved here seems to have the slightest insight into what mental illness actually looks like.

Similarly, Kim's attempt to castigate the violent impulses of the military mindset (the literature makes the point that he's a former soldier himself) is played out in a seemingly endless chain of poorly staged melees between soldiers and civilians, soldiers and soldiers, maybe even civilians and civilians, but I can't remember because the movie at some point just became a big mush of stomping feet and flying fists. And oh yeah, there's that abortion scene, where, wouldn't you know it... the army surgeon doesn't have any anesthetic! Someone get me out of here...

Too sappy to be realist, too lacking in any style to succeed as metaphor, the film makes not one satisfying gesture in its interminable 95 minutes. I hope this'll be the worst film I see at the festival, and I have to say, chances are good.

Ocularist (2003)
Style meets subject with sharp acuity, 16 December 2003

"Ocularist" is an odd little movie about an odd little profession. It's a roughly five- ten minute documentary set to an ambient techno score, about a man who makes prosthetic eyes for victims of accidents. It's highly stylized work using a stark color palette, blown-out backgrounds, repetitious cuts, and cuts to black to underscore not only the theme of vision, but also the doctor's balancing act between art and science. The details are fascinating -- we watch as a teenager has a mold taken of his eye socket, and as the ocularist builds, paints, and shapes the final product -- and the filmmaking is both energetic and observant. A perfect marriage of style and subject.

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