AUTO FOCUS (Paul Schrader) **1/2
Remember the days when AUTO FOCUS star Greg Kinnear hosted the E! Channel program "Talk Soup." He's now come full circle, appearing in a  virtual remake of "Bob Crane: The E! True Hollywood Story." I can't fault his performance: without it, AUTO FOCUS would be a one-dimensional ride to hell. With him, it achieves a full two dimensions. Kinnear and Schrader's sole worthwhile idea is that Crane retains his essential innocence and unabashed belief that there's nothing wrong with his sexual pursuits or celebrity privilege, even as they hurt the people around them. Other than that, AUTO FOCUS is a familiar wallow in addiction - its main distinction being that Crane was addicted to nightly orgies and anonymous sex (with his pal John Carpenter, played by Willem Dafoe), rather than drugs or alcohol. (His still-unsolved murder stopped any chance of recovery dead in its tracks.) Perhaps there's an anti-DV subtext: as in BOOGIE NIGHTS, sex+video=a sure ticket downhill, much as marijuana supposedly leads to heroin. Whatever Schrader's intentions, the subject brings out the Calvinist in him.

Check out for a pay site offering a look at Crane's home porn, presented by his son. There's nothing quite like your pimping your relatives posthumously.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens December 18th. 
TALK TO HER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)  ***1/4

See the CINEMA SCOPE link on my index page. 

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in NYC November 22nd. 
RUSSIAN ARK (Alexander Sokurov, Russia) **1/2

Superficially far more accessible than Alexander Sokurov's usual work, RUSSIAN ARK ultimately strikes me as equally hermetic. In the past, I've tended to enjoy his work mostly as  eye candy, while tuning out the "content." RUSSIAN ARK is ambitious enough to make this effort pretty difficult, even if it's very hard to get a firm grasp on its view of art or Russian history. Compensating for the lack of narrative through an extensive dialogue between an unseen filmmaker (Sokurov) and a 19th-century French diplomat (who prefers to call himself a "European"), it's a single 90-minute take that weaves around St. Petersburg's Hermitage museum. Four years in the making (although Sokurov made other films and videos in the interim), RUSSIAN ARK forsakes the wispy airs of MOTHER AND SON or MOLOCH for opulent luxury. Even its use of High Definition video  is one of the most impressive examples of the medium's ability to come close tog 35mm film (despite the slight fuzziness and shallow depth of field.) Nevertheless, its leaps in time (all through the Tsarist era, with a few stops in the present day - the Communist era is largely skipped) never amount to much more than excuses for costume parties: I never quite understood what Sokurov thinks this history of Tsarism might mean to the 21st century. He's been accused of  nostalgia for that period, but his most overt theme is  insecurity about whether Russia is really a part of Europe. (Maybe its flipside is an implicit nationalism.) At this point in time, that seems pretty parochial; the question of whether Arabs and Muslims will ever be considered truly European is far more pressing. (Perhaps the diplomat's condescension represents the international film community that's generally kept Sokurov restricted to slots at film festivals and the occasional marginal theatrical release.) As a response to that insecurity, he bows down before the great European masters. The result's basically an elaborate costume party: lovely to look at but not all that rewarding to think about.

Distributed by Wellspring. Opens in New York December 9th.
TEN (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) **1/2

ABC AFRICA suggested it, and TEN confirms it: Abbas Kiarostami is still looking for a new style, one appropriate to his current  fondness for DV. Alas, he hasn't found it yet. In TEN, he's basically traded in all his visual skill - including his trademark long shots, which require a depth of field that video can't approximate - to concentrate on character development. The film is shot from two camera positions, both diagonal views from the dashboard.  It follows a young divorcee as she gives ten rides to various people, beginning and ending with her son. Apart from him, her passengers represent a cross-section of Iranian women (a worried relative, a giggly and defensive hooker, a devout elderly woman). Her discussions with them raise a host of feminist issues. To some degree, these conversations are quite interesting;  others feel as if they exist only to lend some color to the film.  TASTE OF CHERRY is the only Kiarostami film to which TEN feels connected, but it took the crucial step of alternating close-ups in a car with long shots of landscapes. The claustrophobia of TEN does not really feel intentional, and it does little with, off-car space. (The exteriors are usually too bright or dark for anything outside the car to be visible.) Kiarostami does show some real skill as a screenwriter - or as a director and editor of improvisation - here, and his newfound focus on women's lives is refreshing (if nothing new in the greater context of Iranian cinema) but I still feel like he's sacrificed much of his earlier films' more valuable qualities. Their reflexivity and focus on the director's  power is so subtle here as to be nonexistent.  (One shot near the end seems to be a particular means for admiration among the film's defenders, including British Jonathan Romney: I can only see that it didn't produce any epiphanies for me.) Visual minimalism doesn't have to equal artlessness.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. Opens spring 2003.    

THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal) **

Ironically, I saw THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE the day after my rave review of Oliveira’s I’M GOING HOME was published. To put it mildly, they’re quite different films. I’M GOING HOME depicts the small pleasures of urban life; THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE barely takes a step outside. With a  convoluted storyline about the interwoven destinies of a privileged man and his friend, the son of his family’s maid, it has Gothic atmosphere to spare. (Before seeing the credits, I guessed that it was based on a novel.) It also feels lifeless and staid, with Oliveira’s customary Brechtian detachment - and stiff direction of actors - hitting epic proportions. Like THE LETTER, it tests the relevance of an old-fashioned literary sensibility to the 21st century (seemingly set in a time warp that links the18th-century to the present); unlike THE LETTER, it has little sense of humor amidst its barrage of philosophical dialogue. Only when Oliveira finally leaves the house does  he show  the audacity to create a truly memorable - and darkly amusing - image. Elsewhere, he creeps close to self-parody.

No distributor.


Has Hollywood turned into a ghost town? Set in L.A.’s now-closed Ambassador Hotel, THE DECAY OF FICTION is an eccentric fantasia that fucks around with classical Hollywood narrative. Using a cast of actors in period costumes, O’Neill has them wander through the hotel as superimposed images,  sometimes shooting the hotel itself in time-lapse photography. It’s both elegiac and exhilarating, asserting the death of one form of cinema (or its reduction to a bank of noir quotes) and the birth of something new from its legacy. Even at 75 minutes, THE DECAY OF FICTION wears out its welcome by at least 10: all the ideas expressed in the first half become clear pretty quickly. At a shorter length, it would make a great double bill with Janie Geiser’s THE FOURTH WATCH, another ghost story about the haunting power of images. 

No distributor.
BLOODY SUNDAY (Paul Greengrass, UK/Ireland) ***

As agitprop has fallen out of fashion, someone forgot to tell Greengrass. An unabashedly partisan film about a 1972 protest in North Ireland that turned into a bloodbath (commemorated in U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” which plays over the closing credits), it opts for a simulated verite approach. There are only a handful of quiet moments : its abrasiveness - which begins very early on, during the planning of the peaceful civil rights march - rivals ROSETTA or any Lars von Trier film. (The sound design, which overlays voices, sound effects and the constant buzz of ringing phones, is particularly remarkable.) Offering no historical background, BLOODY SUNDAY wears its anger on its own sleeve, although some might see its documentary-like feel as a badge of fake objectivity. (Still, its politics are  blunt enough to be completely obvious.) None of this would matter much if not  supported by a  style that effectively  makes simulated chaos look and sound like the real thing. Formally, BLOODY SUNDAY is quite impressive; politically, I question the value of  leaving the audience feeling utterly bludgeoned.

Distributed by Paramount Classics. Opens October 4th in NYC.

SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China) ***1/4

Tian’s first film in 9 years, this remake of a 30s Fei Mu melodrama is a fairly generic but affecting example of the Restrained Asian Drama subgenre (quickly turning into a boom crop like the European Miserable Arthouse Sex field). It feels like Hou Hsiao-hsien lite, possibly because Hou cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing shot it. Nevertheless, I responded to its stately elegance, even if I wished Tian allowed emotion to come to the surface more often, rather than containing it in slow tracking shots. I suppose I’m still enough of a fan of this genre to find plenty of worth in SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN: your mileage may vary.

No distributor.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson) ***1/2

It’s a joy to see Anderson pulls off the tricky balancing act of making a meta-comedy and a moving portrait of alienation. (In some respects, this film feels like an American counterpart to Laurent Cantet’s TIME OUT.) A love story between Barry (Adam Sandler), a plunger distributor, and Lena (Emily Watson), an employee of one of his sisters, it presents Barry as a hopeless schlub with little sense of how the world works and an irrational tendency towards quick outbursts of anger and violence (usually directed towards objects.) Almost a one-man show for Sandler, he makes Barry’s loneliness come alive. (Unlike BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA, this is not an ensemble film. Even Watson gets relatively little screen time.) Anderson also  sums it up in simple but devastating images, like the opening long shot of Barry’s desk in the far corner of his office. A comedy of cruelty, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE still takes Barry’s dreams seriously: its sensibility is halfway between Todd Solondz’s nastiness and Wes Anderson’s warm humanism. Only in the final half hour does it acknowledge much hope for Barry and Lena, even as it self-consciously makes them follow the conventions of romantic comedies. While sticking to  his standard Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, Anderson draws more sparingly on cinematic influences this time. Rather than the sub-Scorsese tracking shot that opened BOOGIE NIGHTS, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE adopts the brash colors of a Frank Tashlin film, if not its satirical humor. Despite a sexist streak (expressed through a subplot about a phone sex operator and the depiction of Barry’s seven sisters as harpies), it marks a further step forward - especially towards an engagement with real pain, rather than Anderson’s video collection - from one of America’s best young directors.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. Opens October 11th in NYC. 
DIVINE INTERVENTION (Elia Suleiman, Palestine) ***1/2

Basically CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE 2, DIVINE INTERVENTION still extends Suleiman’s vision further into the realm of absurdist fantasy and interwoven memories. Like CHRONICLE, it follows a 2-part structure: the first in Nazareth, the second in Jerusalem. However, its threads are tied together by the screenplay written by E.S. (Suleiman’s on-screen alter ego) in Jerusalem. Although completely naturalistic, the Nazareth scenes turn out to be flashbacks. That section masterfully creates an atmosphere so tense that violence seems only an inevitable step away, with lack of camera movement creating a feeling of stasis. That violence erupts in small moments of petty aggression in Nazareth before culminating in - literally - explosive revenge fantasies in Jerusalem. (E.S. drops a peach pit out his car window and blows up an Israeli tank.) Suleiman’s character remains a meek, silent observer, but his Keaton-like demeanor has become  even more melancholy with age. A series of blackout sketches that veer between dry wit and over-the-top surrealism, it makes no pretense of solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but expresses plenty about everyday frustration caused by it. Fittingly, the final shot shows E.S. and his mother sitting in front of a pressure cooker.

Distributed by Avatar Films. Opens  January 2003 in NYC .

WAITING FOR HAPPINESS (Aberrahame Sissako, Mauritania) ***

You’re likely to find WAITING FOR HAPPINESS either pleasantly languid or soporific: I was terribly bored for the first half but eventually grew used to its rhythms. Like Sissako’s 2000 VU PAR entry LIFE ON EARTH, it captures the slow rhythms of life in a small African town. The storyline slowly builds through a series of repeated threads: a girl learning music, a boy who’s an apprentice electrician, the return of an immigrant who no longer speaks his native language. It rhymes with Jia Zhang Ke’s UNKNOWN PLEASURES and the first half of DIVINE INTERVENTION, but unlike them, it’s not really about ennui and alienation. Even if it ends on a minor chord, it always feel pretty placid.

Distributed by New Yorker Films
FRIDAY NIGHT (Claire Denis, France) ***1/2

As spare and elegant as a Marguerite Duras novel, FRIDAY NIGHT is the exact opposite of Denis’ tortured, relatively conservative view of sexuality in TROUBLE EVERY DAY. If that film was a nightmare, here’s the dream. As always, her poetic sensibility remains in place. Even a traffic jam becomes a form of foreplay. A woman stuck in that jam, who’s on the verge of moving in with her lover, meets a man and has a one-night stand with him. It’s not a particularly unusual plot, but Denis minimizes storyline in order to speak through images. She and cinematographer Agnés Godard fetishize almost everything her camera surveys. The sex scenes are erotic without being particularly explicit. Even if plot revolves around betrayal, this may be Denis’ most upbeat film to date, as well as the latest confirmation of her unique approach to filming the body.

Distributed by Wellspring. Opens spring 2003


The longest film on this program, THE BASIS OF MAKEUP PART II also turned out to be its weakest. Alternating between a collage scrapbook and black and white drawings, its images fly by - although it’s not animated - so quickly that nothing leaves much of an impression or contributes to a theme. Their hermetic quality makes sense, considering that Emigholz intends to use them as “the property or legacy” of a character in other films, but on their own (and at 48 minutes), they quickly wear out their welcome.

Superficially less lively and ambitious, the program’s other two films are more successful. They come as close to sculpture as cinema gets. Emigholz uses creatively titled camera angles and precise montage to lovingly depict architecture by Maillart and pre-Depression banks by Sullivan.  Despite their similarities, the two films do have their differences. The camerawork is more restrained in MAILLART’S BRIDGES, and its subjects more pristine, while the banks in SULLIVAN’S BANKS remain workplaces. The latter is a slice of Middle America from the raptured eye of a stranger from Mitteleuropa.

No distributor. Are you kidding?  .