The tube of boobs

It’s easy to say that the huge commercial success of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING spells the death of true independent film, but that spirit was marginalized years ago. (Does anyone expect Jim Jarmusch’s next film to gross $10 million, much less 100?)  No, its true significance lies in  showcasing the incest between film and TV (even if it originated  in theater.) Why shouldn’t it become a sitcom? It was never very far from becoming one. The one-note, cardboard characters (particularly Ian, the protagonist’s chemistry-free boyfriend) demand fleshing out (in a good show)  or will lead to endless repetition of the same traits (in a bad show)  over the course of a year. Since its only moments of true humor come via the heroine’s narration, which gets dumped early on, it may as well have a laugh track. As an ode to being smothered by your family, it’s pretty sickening: I suspect it just might be possible to remain close to them without living next door. Were it about a Jewish family,  it would probably be accused of anti-Semitism. Hell, the subplots about the Costanza family on SEINFELD were far more nuanced.  LATE MARRIAGE was its antidote: a painfully funny examination of an oppressive family that doesn’t offer any comfortable way out, either by bringing everyone together for a happy ending or pretending that  you can snap your fingers and escape patriarchy.

JACKASS: THE MOVIE was far funnier than MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. It’s also the most blatant collection of TV leftovers ever served up as a movie, even if the Jackass crew now has the freedom to go a bit further than they did on MTV.  Their sensibility isn’t all that far from   THE MAN SHOW, but their skits are homoerotic without those guys’ overt homophobia. (Did even their dumbest fans miss the queer subtext of the sea cucumber masturbation, testicle torture and anal bottle rocket launch?) If we’ve got to pay 10 bucks to see a TV show in the theater (complete with commercials), I’ll take the crude, masochistic  honesty (and accidentally-avant garde quality) of JACKASS over the  nicely photographed lies of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING any day.
My back pages
I can’t think of an original thing to say about FAR FROM HEAVEN, so I won’t even try. However, its pastiche/update of Douglas Sirk melodramas was matched by Laurent Cantet’s reinvention of the ‘70s  road movie. Chantal Akerman’s LES RENDEZVOUS D’ANNA, Monte Hellman’s TWO LANE BLACKTOP and Wim Wenders’ ALICE IN THE CITIES and KINGS OF THE ROAD focused on young people whose alienation came with a touch of lyricism, even glamour. Explicitly or implicitly, they were also haunted by the aftermath of the 60s’ political upheaval, Nazism and World War II. Times have changed, but I can imagine the protagonist of TIME OUT as a cousin to Rudiger Vogler’s character in ALICE IN THE CITIES. He’s a family man who can’t find a job he likes. In fact, he wants to do nothing but spending his time driving around aimlessly: his scams are merely an excuse to keep himself going. How can he find a rewarding  job  when  he only wants to keep driving? The film’s icy images are lyrical at times, but on the whole, it  shows how countercultural wanderlust has turned into burnt-out, post-political nihilism. (MORVERN CALLAR offers a more upbeat spin on the subject.) Cantet doesn’t have to navigate through Haynes' minefield of irony, but TIME OUT is no less haunted by the past and its films.

 Is it blasphemy to suggest that  the  pathos of the love story in SOLARIS 2.0 (3.0, counting Lem’s book?) is, if anything, even stronger here than in  Tarkovsky's SOLARIS? Or that Soderbergh’s film benefits from giving relatively short shrift to philosophical discussion? It may not play out the theme of whether the capacity for love and intelligence makes one human with much depth, but the constant juxtaposition of the live Rheya and the Solaris version gives it a real  force. As usual with Soderbergh films, the editing is exquisite, leaping around chronologically without ever being confusing.

However,  Tarkovsky’s version has one of the most sublime  endings ever filmed, suggesting that Chris' happiness and  reunion with his father could be products of God, the subconscious or ordinary lies we tell ourselves to go on living. By playing these scenes as "reality" and then pulling back to reveal that they take place on Solaris, Tarkovsky  creates a creepy final image (even if one reads these scenes as  wholly positive.) The ending of Soderbergh's version is too  cheerful, suggesting that there's nothing problematic about  Chris and Rheya's relationship and resurrection on Solaris. And the reference to forgiveness  forces the point that they're in heaven. (If not for that line, one could read the ending as an ironic portrait of solipsism.) As critic Mike D’Angelo has said, if Soderbergh didn't want to put a religious  spin on the ending, he could have used any similar phrase.
Artsploitation
 The past couple years have brought the welcome return of the B-movie, under the guise of “artsploitation.” Asia Argento’s SCARLET DIVA is a bad movie in many ways: ineptly written and acted, although decently directed. (Some of her DV tracking shots are quite evocative.) However, it’s a nonstop parade of delightful set pieces. My favorite was the anonymous, unexplained lesbian interlude at her apartment, although I also liked the Special K overdose/bad trip, and her meetings with a certain sexually aggressive studio head and a smack-addled director. (Hmm, who could he be based on?)  Additionally, it’s as personal as it is exploitative. Her private bitterness against men in the film and music industries is   every bit as upfront as the T&A. It’s a shame that Brian De Palma’s FEMME FATALE, the best and most eccentric, recent pop version of the artsploitation aesthetic bombed.

As for one-man New Wave Takashi Miike, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS was also a delight: genteel by his bloodthirsty standards and somewhat uneven, but lifted by the musical numbers (especially the father/mother karaoke duet) and  claymation volcano. It’s refreshing to see how quickly Miike’s become a cult figure. This year, CITY OF LOST SOULS, HAPPINESS & DEAD OR ALIVE: FINAL all got theatrical releases, and ICHI THE KILLER & VISITOR Q had one-off screenings (with more on the way). If only his compatriot Kiyoshi Kurosawa had the same luck reaching American distributors and audiences...

New York cares

In his own sincerely hard-rockin' way, Andrew W.K. says "I love New York City." Interpol are more ambivalent, complaining that "the subway, she is a  porno" before coming to the conclusion that "New York cares." Martin Scorsese has the political acumen to realize that the city was built on corruption, racism and greed.  As for Spike Lee, he tried applying a seismograph to the post-9/11 mood of the city but came up with a partial remake of CLOCKERS (featuring a 30-year-old Irish-American upscale heroin dealer at center stage) via THE LAST DETAIL. Half a mess, half a masterpiece, 25TH HOUR coasts on its two brilliant 10-minute set pieces. The first is a racist, homophobic and inclusively hateful Travis Bickle-style monologue delivered by Edward Norton into a mirror but addressed to the entire city; the second  a tinted fantasia of redemption in small-town family life. In between, there are a handful of excellent performances, a seductively contemplative mood and stylish camerawork (although Lee ought to retire the People Mover shot), mixed with stupid plot twists (the facial beatdown that will supposedly deter prison rape) and subplots that go nowhere. The open ending recapitulates the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dialectic of DO THE RIGHT THING in a far less charged context, but it still drew a chorus of hisses  at the screening I caught.

The moment in GANGS OF NEW YORK where Daniel Day-Lewis stabs a guy named Harvey in the hand to get him to shut up is pretty awesome.

What's wrong with you people?
When will M. Night Shyamlan admit that VIVE L’AMOUR, YI YI, THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI and MABOROSI rank just as high among his favorite films as THE EXORCIST and DEAD POETS SOCIETY?  As a screenplay, SIGNS is the kind of hackwork that justifies American cinema’s reluctance to touch on religion. Its direction is both tense and often exquisite. If Shyamalan can suppress his inner Levinson and stick to his inner Tsai, he might become one of our country’s best directors, but I suspect he's too busy thinking up clever new plot twists.

Apart from SIGNS, which deservedly became a major hit, this year’s best studio releases all tanked. Sad to say, I doubt mainstream audiences want to see Adam Sandler screw around with his image, Steven Soderbergh make something more adventurous than OCEAN’S 11 and ERIN BROCKOVICH (his heavily  flawed but intriguing DV experiment FULL FRONTAL was received with contempt in most quarters)  or a quasi-Skinemax thriller play games with time and identity. In the case of FEMME FATALE, do we need the French to tell us what we’re missing? Are the changes these films ring on pop cinema are closer to Big Star than the Beatles? Even minor pleasures like UNDERCOVER BROTHER and BLUE CRUSH bombed.  It’s too early to say how popular ADAPTATION, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and ABOUT SCHMIDT will be in wide release, but even if I’m not particularly fond of them, I hope they cross over to the multiplexes.  
Top 10 list:
1. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France)
3. FAR FROM HEAVEN (Todd Haynes)
4. TROUBLE EVERY DAY (Claire Denis, France)
5. ESTHER KAHN (Arnaud Desplechin, UK/France)
6. Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)
7. LATE MARRIAGE (Dover Kohashvili, Israel)
8. SOLARIS (Steven Soderbergh)
9. MORVERN CALLAR (Lynne Ramsay, UK)
10. SCARLET DIVA (Asia Argento, Italy)
 Runners-up:
AVALON (Mamoru Oshii, Japan/Poland), BE THE BOY (Suara Welitoff), CREMASTER 3 (Matthew Barney), DAGON (Stuart Gordon, Spain), FEMME FATALE (Brian De Palma), THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (Takashi Miike, Japan),  HAPPY END (Jung Ji-Woo, South Korea), I'M GOING HOME (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France),  INSOMNIA (Christopher Nolan), LAN YU (Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong), MINORITY REPORT (Steven Spielberg), MY SASSY GIRL (Kwok Jae-Young, South Korea),  NO SUCH THING (Hal Hartley), the final third of THE PIANIST (Roman Polanski, UK/France/Poland), PULSE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan), R-XMAS (Abel Ferrara), SIGNS (M. Night Shyamalan), TALK TO HER (Pedro Almodovar, Spain),  25TH HOUR (Spike Lee), WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France)
Best film books:
POSITIF 50 YEARS (anthology), SLEAZOID EXPRESS (Bill Landis), SLIMETIME (Steve Puchalski)
Best older films seen for the first time this year:

ADAM'S RIB (George Cukor), BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (Fritz Lang), THE BRIDGE (Bernhard Wicke), CURSE OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur), GUEULE D'AMOUR (Jean Gremillion), HARD LABOR ON THE RIVER DUORO (Manoel de Oliveira), HIGH AND LOW, HIDDEN FORTRESS &I LIVE IN FEAR (Akira Kurosawa),  HOSPITAL & WELFARE (Frederick Wiseman), THE LADIES MAN (Jerry Lewis), LITTLE MURDERS (Alan Arkin), THE MAN WHO HAD HIS HAIR CUT SHORT (Andre Delvaux),  PARK ROW (Sam Fuller), QUAI DES ORFEVRES (H.-G. Clouzot), RUGGLES OF RED GAP (Leo McCarey)