Reverse Shot's 11 Annoyances of 2004
Capsules written by Neal Block, Michael Koresky, Marianna Martin, Adam Nayman, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, Suzanne Scott, and Andrew Tracy
[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot's unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]
Trotting out a list of the year's worst seemed like a buzzkiller after looking lovingly back over our favorites of 2004. So instead, what follows is a list of "annoyances," those films that, for whatever reason, pushed a button, struck the wrong chord, and generally proved more irritating than illuminating. They're not necessarily the worst movies of the year -- those usually aren't even worth mentioning (think "Dodgeball"). Following our eleven are a handful of resolutions we'll be keeping in mind as we look forward to the films of 2005.
New Year's Resolution for Mike Nichols: He must film an epilogue for "Closer" revealing that the entire film took place on the planet Ogatu. And thus is one of the most head-scratchingly remote, implausible, and alienating films ever made about (ostensibly) human relationships revealed to be an incisive sociological study of the exotic Ogatans, impeccably groomed creatures from a distant world who speak in the stilted cadence of high school drama majors, lace their conversations with epithets to shock an unseen (and urbanely shockable) "audience" whom they believe are watching their domestic squabbles with rapt attention, and whose strip clubs are not only designed by professional art directors, but also employ DJs whose musical choices are thematically appropriate to any drama playing out within its confines. Eat your heart out, M. Night. - AN
"The Passion of the Christ"
Jesus invented the modern chair -- just one of the many things Mel Gibson taught me. I also learned that Judas was tormented by Jewish children morphing into demons, Satan was (and is) a bald androgyne, and that the Gospels are best represented at about 48 frames per second. But for all of Gibson's laughable directorial decisions (his fruit-fly attention span, his Bruckheimer-esque emotional subtlety), the lesson that ultimately emerged from the disturbing success of "The Passion" is that numbing violence is the new realism. Moved viewers could only contrast Gibson's fetishistic, graphic portrayals of male martyrdom to the stylized action pap Hollywood has been inuring audiences to for years. As a simulacra of art -- the detailed beatings, the faux-renaissance lighting, and, in a "brave" move, not being in English -- "The Passion"'s "realism" cunningly peddles its self-righteous, hateful twisting of Christian teachings. After passing off manipulative exploitation as art and rousing America's religious right to culture war, Gibson might offer Jews, as well as anyone -- Christian and non-Christian alike -- who cares about cinema, a slap in the face: a film about the Hanukkah story. As my father said when I told him of Gibson's plans, "Can't he leave us alone?" - MJR
When I traveled to Spain a few years ago, I visited Madrid, Sevilla, and the Costa del Sol. Despite regional dissimilarities in population, cuisine, and architecture, there was one major unifier that seems important to mention -- everyone spoke Spanish. Not so in Jaume Balagueró's "Darkness," a horror film set in a Spain in which everyone speaks English, the newspapers are printed in English, dead Spanish children whisper ominous threats in English, signs are in English, long-buried record albums unearthed from crawl-spaces and played on old gramophones spin out American music, and nary a Spanish word is uttered throughout. A shame, too, since the luxury of having to read subtitles would have distracted from Anna Paquin's overacting, from the way events unfold with neither foreshadowing nor follow-up, and especially from Giancarlo Giannini's embarrassing turn as a snake-wielding occultist (if the snake could speak, it would hiss, most assuredly, in English). And yet even if "Darkness" had been set in Kansas, and the characters spoke the appropriate language, and Giannini was traded in for Christopher Walken, it still wouldn't make the shamefully wretched screenplay any more watchable. Back into the darkness from which you emerged, Jaume Balagueró! - NB
It was forgotten as quickly as it was (mildly) celebrated, but brickbats must be saved for Bernardo Bertolucci's reductionist vision of movies, history, politics, and sex in "The Dreamers." Addressing themes charged with passion and controversy, Bertolucci brings it all down to a Euro-luxe tour through cinematic and erotic touchstones shorn of context, perfect for faux-sophisticates slumming it to the theaters on a Friday night and lazy critics for whom a mention of Godard, a glimpse of Mao's Little Red Book, a couple of limp dicks (literal and figurative), and a pair of truly impressive milky-white breasts constitutes a vivid and challenging recreation of May '68. Bertolucci's insults to art -- particularly in a sequence where his vapid lead and bearer of the aforementioned impressive pair (Eva Green) attempts suicide accompanied by clips from the shattering ending of Bresson's "Mouchette" -- have nothing on his insults to reality. The likes of May '68, in all its promise, disappointment, and foreboding, may never come again, but to reduce it to the backdrop of this anodyne sex triangle is to deny a half-century of thrillingly messy history. Keep the dream, Berty -- the waking life's a whole lot more interesting. - AT
Don't believe A.O. Scott's recent New York Times broadside: Alexander Payne's "Sideways" isn't really the most overrated film of the year. Sure, it's walking off with all the critics' awards, but in terms of completely unquestioning rapturous reception, this year's clear winner was Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation." Where "Sideways" takes grossly hackneyed buddy-movie material and elevates it at almost every turn, "Tarnation" takes a "real life" with the weight of epic tragedy, reframes it through some moderately complex video trickery and ends up squarely in its own navel at every turn. If Caouette intended "Tarnation" to be some sort of commentary on mental health, the media, performance, or the intersection of the three, his film only completes this work by default -- Chris Marker he ain't. Some might find this complete lack of self-awareness fascinating, but naiveté and irresponsibility don't earn points anywhere else in the world, so why should we laud this, especially given the movie that could have been? To call Caouette's formal tactics "groundbreaking," "original," etc. is to ignore 30 years of video artists more successfully plying similar avenues in obscure galleries and biennials across the globe. I suppose a $200 movie making its way to festivals and theatres is a great development for independent cinema, but that doesn't mean we should break out the free pass especially when the film leading the charge stands completely oblivious in the nexus of a host of contemporary cinematic debates. Upon exiting, my companion immediately proclaimed "Tarnation" "the worst film ever." Though I won't go nearly that far, if this represents the future of cinema, I'll stay home and watch Oprah. - JR
If there could ever be such a thing as unbridled portent, Jonathan Glazer's silly experiment in metaphysical dead-ends luxuriates in it. Apparently, all of us pathetically hermetic, socially inept cinephiles surely love a good ambiguous airless art-fuck as much as a good roll in the hay, so why bother taking this ludicrous, half-conceived forehead-slapper beyond the single-sentence pitch? Woman believes her dead husband is reincarnated in the flesh of a 10-year-old boy. Yes, and...? Must we viewers really be made to feel insufficient for not projecting our own notions of "faith," "love," and "spirituality" onto a script so completely bereft of context, subtext, intertext, or, hell, even text of any kind? Even more stultifying is all the mindless Kubrick corpse-exhuming going on here: Nicole Kidman's "Eyes Wide Shut"-pilfering cadences are barely a blip on the radar compared to the 2001-esque opening shot following a jogger through Central Park (courtesy of DP Harris Savides, a.k.a Gus Van Sant's brain), the sight of the always unwelcome Danny Huston bouncing a rubber ball off the walls of his isolated apartment à la Jack Torrance, and lordy lord, the beyond-"Barry Lyndon" rough-and-tumble domestic squabble in the austere parlor during a violin concerto. Next to all this, the old "in-out, in-out" that perhaps took place between Kidman and her prepubescent paramour seems but a drop in the dried-up well. - MK
No one can accuse "Open Water" writer/director/cinematographer/editor/craft service provider Chris Kentis of not being a hard worker. One would have to be, to somehow manage to suck all the tension out of a situation tailor-made to invoke horror. Desensitized yuppies stranded at sea, the fear of the unknown that resides in us all, a coy commentary on our growing discomfort with anything we construe as "primitive" -- it would seem a conceit impervious to cinematic failure. And yet, Kentis (cowering behind Dogme influence as some sort of thin excuse for shoddy storytelling and filmmaking skills) somehow succeeds only in being wholly unsuccessful on every count. Ricocheting between misplaced humor and poorly acted melodrama, all punctuated (that's too kind a word -- "sledgehammered" would be more appropriate) by perhaps the most grating and tonally schizophrenic film score in recent memory, one can't help but wish the sharks would just get vivisecting already. Haunting? Absolutely, for all the wrong reasons. - SS
The 1966 original with Michael Caine remains a provocative document of its London era, Charles Shyer's remake with Jude Law is a clumsy anachronism stranded in NYC with no return ticket. Law works hard and maintains likeability in spite of the awful dialogue, but the movie is a grotesque pastiche of mod London pasted onto contemporary New York as seen through the lens of fashonistas, all cooing over the style without understanding an ounce of the substance. Indeed, Shyer seems to have watched the original with the sound off, slavishly recreating visuals and entire shots that no longer have resonance in this newly maudlin context. The original Alfie wasn't actively looking for redemption, but Alfie for the 21st century won't shut up about it, and the whiny tone grates. It's a movie about about midlife crisis seemingly scripted by teenagers. - MM
An easy target, but "King Arthur" stands out as the recipient of my most honest movie laughter of the year. About 20 minutes in, a fellow Reverse Shot editor turned to me and whispered: "I have no idea what's happening." I paused for a second, realized that no shot in the film to that point seemed to bear any relationship to the one preceding or following it, and that I also had no idea what was happening, then laughed my way through the next several minutes. I'd almost like to call Antoine Fuqua's fragmentation of space, time, and history avant-garde just to be contrary, but that might encourage someone to actually see it. - JR
Further proof that today's hyped "indie" hits are yesterday's middling studio weepies. What was once middle-of-the-road bathos now passes for "classy." Billboards proclaim, "Finally, a movie for adults!" Witness also Marc Forster's ossified "Finding Neverland," Zach Braff's super-fun psychotherapy rib-tickler "Garden State," and Tod Williams' erratic and muddled John Irving thing "The Door in the Floor," which all apparently mistake "adult" for "brain-dead" and "apathetic." And when big stars like Robert Redford stoop to appear in lower-budgeted fare, the perceived gap between studio and independent becomes even hazier. This excruciatingly dull, carelessly plotted fossil of a film, concerning the kidnapping of a wealthy business executive and, of course, the falseness of the American dream, may not be the worst offender of its type, but it's certainly the most pointless. Also responsible for financing the similarly watered-down, absurdly machine-tooled and de-politicized Che Guevara-goes-a-picnicking romp "The Motorcycle Diaries," Redford needs to create more of a wedge between art and finance for the dream of Sundance to ever flourish again, certainly considering last year's hopeful one-two punch of "Primer" and "Maria Full of Grace." Let's cross our fingers for 2005. - MK
"The Manchurian Candidate"
Maybe not the most repulsive film of the year (hello, "Man on Fire"!) but likely the most superfluous. Not only was Jonathan Demme's misguided remake devoid of any contemporary political relevance (which tends to happen when you set your film in the "real" world but conspicuously avoid any partisan signifiers), its construction as a thriller was so tortured as to border on the positively avant-garde. Discussing its shortcomings with regard to its source material would be both cruel and obvious: it's more than bad enough on its own terms, from Denzel Washington's "John Q"-redux performance to the most clumsily staged kayak-related killing in cinema history. ≠ AN
6 New Years Resolutions from Reverse Shot
Random theater-hop more often:
I paid for "Closer" and regretted it even before the previews. Snuck into "Spanglish" afterwards and left 1 for 2 on the afternoon. A ticket for Toback's overlooked curio "When Will I Be Loved?" carried me through the politically suspect "Hero" and the soporific "Silver City." Only 1 for 3 that day. "The Village," "The Bourne Supremacy," and "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" back-to-back-a solid 2 for 3. From this small selection of a year's worth of viewing, I spent around $30 and saw four good movies and four bad for serious savings and a better average than most probably get following the advice of their daily papers. - JR
If My Friends Won't Go, I'll Drag Them Kicking and Screaming:
Yes, it's mildly distressing when intelligent, politically engaged studio fare goes widely underappreciated ("The Village," "Harold and Kumar," "She Hate Me"). But it's downright traumatic when the true trailblazers and international masterpieces, mercifully picked up by idealistic distribution companies, play for one week at Cinema Village, and perhaps, with fingers crossed, get shown one more time at BAM or Anthology Film Archives eight months down the road. Unforgivable that the following serious works of art became blink-and-miss-'em rarities: "Son Frère," "Last Life in the Universe," "Goodbye Dragon Inn," "Father and Son," "Time of the Wolf." Of course, I have no one to blame but myself: next time, I'll rent out the whole movie house. - MK
Encourage Wes Anderson to Get Out More:
After leaving "The Royal Tenenbaums" quite moved, I said to myself: "Pretty good, but I'm not going to let him get away with that again." Then "The Life Aquatic" pulled out all the same tricks and still won me over, but it needed an animated fish and Icelandic space-rock to get the job done. This time I really mean it. Wes, it's obvious from the films that you all are having a big old blast, but you've got to shake things up a bit. Dump the regulars, try a little genre slumming -- maybe noir? Now that would be something. Maybe not necessarily a good something, but at least something else. - JR
Learn to Stop Worrying and Criticize Pixar:
Show any dissent about the most sacred cow of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking and risk being run out of town on a rail. Impeccably crafted? Check. Stunning digital backdrops? Check. Clever. Witty. Wholesome. Wonderful for kids and adults. Yes, yes, yes, I know already. Sadly, "The Incredibles"' PG rating merely reflected a newfound intensity in its pummeling action sequences rather than any sort of truly subversive ingredients. I'm sorry, but a modern-day parable about the lack of superheroes in our increasingly violent, desperate world that still manages to retreat into hip retro early Sixties kitschy cool? Even for a kid's film, it's just too reticent to rock the boat. And there's something about that pristine sheen that's becoming slightly off-putting: people are quick to call it art, but since when was art the product of assembly-line standards, no matter how high the quality? - MK
Try to Forget that No One Really Goes to the Movies Expecting Politics:
With all the buzz around the slew of political docs that didn't quite push Kerry over the edge, everyone forgot that mythmaking and storytelling come more loaded with the stuff of solid real word decision-making than any documentary. How else to explain the accolades showered on Zhang Yimou's "Hero" or the lack of attention paid to the disturbing undercurrents of Brad Bird's "The Incredibles"? Maybe I'm just quibbling, but when "Hero" undercuts 80 minutes of visual poetry and lush romanticism by expounding the virtues of safety through tyranny and critics applaud and write things like, "it's actually a mythic illustration of charisma and treachery's central role in leadership" shouldn't we pause for a second? (I'll vote for honesty, transparency, and humility in my leadership, thank you.) Or what of the "everyone is special so no one is" rhetoric that peeks through the cracks of "The Incredibles"' airtight fantasyland? Sounds to me less like a message of learning one's strengths than a late night C-Span diatribe from the early Nineties directed at PC-liberalism. Everyone, right or left, knew what came with their ticket to "Fahrenheit 9/11." That's why it's ever more important for critics to shine a light on those politics that get absorbed with minimal questioning every time a film is screened anywhere. - JR
Start Preparing for Christmas '05... NOW!
I may be Jewish, but living in Hollywood's America, I better jump on the Christ-loving bandwagon pronto, buy my ornaments on sale, put my pine tree on layaway before it's even a sapling, and barricade myself off behind ten tons of holly wreaths and mistletoe. I saw what happened to those poor Kranks -- and they're not even of "that" persuasion! But Robert Zemeckis' frightfest "The Polar Express," starring a cast of plasticine, expressionless zombie kids with the voices of deep-throated adults carted off on a berserk train ride to the North Pole to meet some guy named Klaus and to re-educate them in the ways of Christmas cheer, has really terrified me into submission. I believe, I believe! And if I go to midnight mass this year, Mel Gibson, do you promise that Terminator Christ won't knock on my door with a Hail Mary and a cat-o-nine tails? I swear I'll stop watching Adam Sandler's truly singular Hanukkah gem "Eight Crazy Nights" in an endless loop every December 25th....I swear! - MK