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2006 Half-Time: A Sidelong Glance

2006 Half-Time: A Sidelong Glance

It’s mid-June, and much has been made of the dearth of worthwhile cinema thus far in 2006. Week after week has gone by in which we have heard fellow cinephiles (and those less inclined) cry of their disinterest in going to the movies, that there’s just nothing worth seeing. The truth of the matter is that there have been more than enough very fine films, and even a handful of masterpieces (the Dardennes, Hou, Puiu) to find “wider” distribution in early 2006 post 2005 festival runs — more than enough to make an already pretty impressive top ten. With Altman’s delightfully morbid “A Prairie Home Companion” marking the year’s definitive midpoint, we thought we’d try to raise everyone spirits by taking a preemptive look back….and give our favorite films one more grand shout-out. Reverse Shot writers may not be completely united on these titles (as we are in our distrust of seemingly everyone else’s favorite of 2006 thus far, “United 93,” with its action-movie trajectory and “24”-cribbed aesthetics of “honesty”), but we all agree that as of this writing, 2006 has been anything but a movie washout.

Capsules written by Jeannette Catsoulis, Leo Goldsmith, Michael Koresky, Adam Nayman, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, Brad Westcott, and Chris Wisniewski.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Ever since I first saw Cristi Puiu‘s deeply cathartic, wholly empathetic “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” at last fall’s New York Film Festival, I both wondered whether the film would find any sort of sizable release in the U.S. and if so, how that benevolent distribution company would market it. The answer came this spring, when “Lazarescu,” one irascible curmudgeon’s withering slow-mo freefall through the vertical spiral of the Romanian health-care system, was unveiled by Tartan Films (God bless ’em) in its theatrical trailer as a wacky, slapstick comedy of errors. (“Meet Mr. Lazarescu…he’s having one hell of a day….Oy!”). Yes, there’s a distinct layer of absurdity at work in Puiu’s vision of the unending spiral of humiliations Lazarescu encounters by way of self-involved nurses and doctors working the after-hours shifts, but there’s no denying that this is in essence a story of the stripping away of flesh, of dignity, of selfhood. The only inspiration one could take away from such morbidity is ultimately the solace of unconsciousness. One unremarkable man reduced to his corporeality — the social dwindles down to the solitary, and a film strewn with chatter ultimately leaves you, like its protagonist, alone with your thoughts. I guess sometimes all you can do in the face of all this is indeed laugh. – MK

Olivier Assayas is one of those filmmakers so in control of his craft that each new work makes cinema look easy. This has the unfortunate effect of encouraging others who shouldn’t make movies to try, but if every few years our theaters are graced with a film like “Clean,” then I suppose film culture can suffer poor imitations of great art. As is oft-noted about Assayas’s work, there is no filmmaker working in the world today who moves the camera with such effortless, eloquent velocity, but less attention is paid to his moments of near standstill — stark punctuation marks wherein lies the tension that births the pulsating, palpable yet just-quite-intangible energy that makes his films so exciting. This push-pull dynamic has perhaps found its highest expression yet in “Clean” — if Maggie Cheung‘s tearful, hyper-kinetic flight from Gare du Nord is thick with resonance, it’s only because Assayas cuts back to a weary Nick Nolte, left alone at a cafe to pay for a coffee he didn’t drink. This dynamic underpins a film whose power creeps slowly and hits when you least expect it. Nolte’s Albrecht “believe[s] in forgiveness” (has any other line of dialogue rung so true this year?), and it’s impossible to untangle this utterly devastating sentiment from the personal/public/fictional lives of everyone involved in this investigation of minor celebrity: his, Cheung’s, and Assayas’s. “Demonlover” may have been more massive in its implications, but “Clean” may very well be the richer of the pair. And with a collaborator like Eno along for the ride, Assayas has truly taken tiger mountain, by strategy and brute, uncompromising emotional honesty. – JR

Three Times
If Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s romantic triptych feels like a retread, it is: “Three Times” assembles all of the major settings of the last 20 years of Hou’s career into a single portmanteau of miscommunication and frustrated ardor. But repetition and return are themselves the underlying themes of the film, and Hou’s revisit of these eras forcefully places them in dialogue with one another, and with his earlier work. The first section, “A Time for Love,” with its languorous and pop-scored invocations of the mid-Sixties, has struck some as an imitation of Wong Kar-wai, but it in fact returns Hou to the earliest of his major works (“A Time to Live and a Time to Die” and “Dust in the Wind“) and to the director’s own misspent youth hanging around pool-halls. Matching social mores with the rigors of silent-film aesthetics, “A Time for Freedom” recalls the early-20th century Taiwan of “Flowers of Shanghai,” with its blinkered perspective and submerged historical-political content. And in the final (and, somehow, most critically maligned) episode, “A Time for Youth,” Hou offers another of his paternalistic, yet empathetic portraits of contemporary at-risk Taiwanese, loosed from the moorings of social constrictions into the abstract, neon wilderness of Taipei’s clubworld. As the central lovers in each episode, the inscrutable Shu Qi (erstwhile soft-core porn actress and star of “Millennium Mambo”) and Wong-regular Chang Chen gesture and grasp at one another across these three time periods — through love letters and snooker balls, newspaper editorials and intertitles, and SMS text messaging and visual art, respectively — never to fully bridge the contemporaneous gaps that divide them. – LG

Be forewarned that being given limited space to talk about the Dardenne brothers’ latest Palme d’Or winning masterpiece in this context is an outright invitation to wax declarative. I’m talking about real whoppers here, a la some of “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s most giddy pronouncements, like “Cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Though in contrast to the head-scratching responses that often met the “Cahiers”‘ group project of spotlighting the sublime within everyday Hollywood fare, it’ll surely come as less of a shock to find a critic fawning over some European art film in limited release. Yet if there are two things I might express about “L’Enfant” to those who may be unfamiliar with the film, the first is just how universally enjoyable it is. When characterizing the work of the Dardennes, the words “simplicity” and “genius” become nearly interchangeable, and so the story told in “L’ Enfant” is appropriately elementary: a young Belgian couple, Sonia (Deborah Francois) and Bruno (Jeremie Renier), barely subsisting on the latter’s petty thievery, experience a hair-raising foray into parenthood. It’s the telling, of course, which prompts me to defy nearly anyone to watch this film and not find him/herself absolutely riveted by — personally invested in, nearly — the fate of this precarious onscreen union. Secondly it’s essential to express the primacy of the experience of watching this film over any attempt to convey its strengths in words. Too often a crutch for the lazy critic, the “defies description” description here finds earned purchase. Sure I could — and probably should — try to relate the cruel beauty signified by two lovers sporting identical racing jackets, or how a high-speed scooter chase (!) delivers more pure tension than all of this summer’s mega-million action set-pieces combined. You might not believe me, and I wouldn’t fault you for it. Better to stick (as promised) to the declarations: “L’ Enfant” is nothing short of everything we could ask of cinema, which is to say life, as desperate, frail, and human as we care to find it. – BW

Something New
Not to traffic in stereotypes (then again, don’t we all?), but film criticism has always seemed to have a certain masculine bias to it. It was certainly true in the mid-Fifties, when the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther panned Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” as a “feminine fiction” but praised the “frontier heroics” of “The Searchers,” and though the Times has come a long way since then, film critics still betray a preference for action and intellect over the “softer” virtues of empathy and emotion. How else to explain last year’s muted response to Ben Younger’s lovely relationship drama “Prime” in the face of the lavish attention paid to a middling entertainment like “Batman Begins” or, this year, the radio silence that greeted the release of Sanaa Hamri‘s reinvention of “All That Heaven Allows,” “Something New“? You wouldn’t know it from its polite dismissal, but, in mining the rich tradition of Hollywood melodrama, Hamri’s delicate treatment of interracial romance offers one of the subtlest, most sophisticated looks at the intersection of class and race this side of “Far from Heaven.” Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a socially privileged, upper-middle-class black professional who falls for her white gardener, Brian (Simon Baker). The trick of the film, borrowed knowingly from Sirk, is to resist judgment while making both principle lovers guilty of their own prejudice and shortsightedness and giving each of them their inevitable turn in the position of the Other. This is the heart of melodrama, and it’s why melodrama makes for such potent social critique: the things that stand in the way of our happiness are often a part of who we are and the worlds we inhabit; we can ignore prejudice and defy social pressure, but race, class, and gender aren’t just background–they’re woven into every relationship and every emotional response, and we understand them, not through intellect, but through empathy. – CW

Battle in Heaven
Like it or not, Carlos Reygadas has certified himself as this generation’s master of cinematic grotesquerie, a brilliant, juvenile Hieronymus Bosch pursuing the mysteries of purity and pussy in a corrupt modern Mexico portrayed as a cul-de-sac of redemption. Known on the world cinema stage as a provoke-auteur fixated on absurd, explicit couplings – in his audacious debut, “Japon,” a middle-aged urban man and an elderly peasant woman, and now in “Battle in Heaven” a sweaty, overweight chauffeur and a gorgeous daddy’s-girl-turned-prostitute–and exoticized poverty, Reygadas seems to go out of his way to give critics plenty of ammunition with which to shoot him down. And yet “Battle in Heaven” is a film that succeeds on the foundation of its own flaws — in fact, its brilliance is due precisely because of them. Before calling it pornography or freakshow, consider how “Heaven” is suffused at each moment with a Christian fascination with and distrust of sex, a genuine concern for the politics of class and spiritual transcendence, and stylistic achievements — winding long takes touring the purgatorial urban spaces of Mexico City, a modulating sound design tweaking and amplifying the subjective experience of its kidnap bumbling protagonist — that turn these obsessions into sublime moving images. Thankfully, Reygadas is as indebted to technical perfection as the great pitchers of yore were conscious of pitch counts — with its non-professional actors and guerilla style on-location shooting, “Battle in Heaven” is above all a quest for both authenticity and artistry, a living, breathing work as human and beautiful as its suffering characters. – MJR

The Hills Have Eyes
Purists can whine and xenophobes can yelp, but French director Alexandre Aja‘s audacious remake of the Wes Craven‘s 1977 “The Hills Have Eyes” blows the original right out of the desert. Adding much better actors and his own sick instincts to Craven’s bare-bones story, Aja dropkicks us into the New Mexico dust with a shocking, pre-credits slaughter that’s mercifully brief. He then unleashes a furious montage of deformed infants and blooming mushroom clouds before introducing the Carter family, Gulf-streaming toward San Diego in blissful ignorance of the cannibalistic mutants lurking in the dunes. The film’s second hour is so relentless there’s no place to breathe: doors swing open on megalocephalic monsters and the desert is strewn with ghoulish shadows and misshapen semi-humans. A baby is kidnapped, a dog eviscerated, and a dead bird is squeezed and slurped like a can of Coke as Aja and his cinematographer, Maxime Alexandre, create ingeniously dread-filled, silent tableaux: a creeping wide shot of a sand basin filled with abandoned cars and a government test village designed for atomic experiments. Aja’s “High Tension” was slick and eerily controlled, but “The Hills Have Eyes” is pumped with adrenaline and crazily hot-blooded. The movie was recut to change its NC-17 rating to an ‘R’; it’s a compliment to Aja that you won’t even notice. – JC

Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story
Michael Winterbottom is not a popular man around these parts — these parts being Reverse Shot. The antipathy directed at this British director from certain colleagues is frankly baffling. Winterbottom may be hit-or-miss, but his hits (“24 Hour Party People,” “In This World“) are bulls-eyes, and his misses (“The Claim,” “9 Songs“) tend to be fascinating. (And that goes double for the ones, like the gauzy and quite possibly brilliant sci-fi cautionary tale “Code 46,” that puzzle supporters and detractors alike). That’s why it was nice to see the RS staff rally (albeit grudgingly) behind the British workaholic’s latest effort, a designedly wobbly psuedo-adaptation of Laurence Sterne‘s canonical pre-postmodern monster “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.” Like many of Winterbottom’s films, “Tristram Shandy” is, above all, a triumph of texture: its film-inside-a-film conceit is nothing new, but the backstage intrigue (bickering stars, fretful producers, obsequious journalists) has a properly rumpled quality. The same can be said of Winterbottom muse Steve Coogan, who plays himself and endures any number of prankish indignities (he’s dangled upside down in a prop uterus, taken to task about his real-life misbehavior, and charged with changing a shitty nappy). In the process, he invites something like empathy for the first time in his career. “Tristram Shandy” is purposefully slight but praiseworthy all the same. If it’s heaviness you crave, then Winterbottom’s upcoming docudrama, “The Road to Guantanamo” (by most accounts a success along the same lines as “In this World”) should fit the bill. – AN

Inside Man
I guess I should have known that a “heist movie” directed by Spike Lee would end up as a heist movie in name only. That the heist itself in “Inside Man” turns out to be something of a red herring is just one of the many surprises Lee’s got in his bag of tricks here: Clive Owen as a suspiciously docile criminal mastermind intent on excavating a bank vault in downtown Manhattan; Jodie Foster as a slay-you-with-a-smile “fixer” in killer suits negotiating with bank robbers and hobnobbing with cops; Denzel Washington not so much oozing charisma as oily sarcasm and self-doubt. There’s a threat of violence hovering over much of “Inside Man,” yet the trick of the film is when or if it will ever be realized. Instead of indulging in genre gambits, Spike Lee (happily) gives into his own indelible quirks and mini social exposes–in a sense, “Inside Man” is as weird as the reviled (though fascinatingly conceived) “She Hate Me,” it’s just that its various idiosyncratic strands are packed into an immediately indentifiable genre instead of a roaming, hectic political satire with no built-in audience. A multiculti stew that manages to pack in racial profiling, video-game violence, and Jewish freedom fighters (?!), “Inside Man” starts with the nerve-jangling promise of violence and ends with a sultry sigh promising sex. Schizo, yes, but do we really need another “cooly modulated,” self-contained crime caper? – MK

The Spirit of the Beehive
Given that Victor Erice was able to depict the minutiae of artist Antonio Lopez laboriously rendering his rather undistinguished backyard quince tree with all the intrigue and complexity of a geopolitical thriller in “Quince Tree of the Sun,” I shouldn’t have been nearly as stunned as I was by the complexity of his film about a haunting, 1973’s recently revived possible ghost story “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Glowing with the inner luminescence that touches so few films (Ermanno Olmi’s “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” comes to mind, as does Malick’s “The New World“), “Beehive” is a landmark — a film that could be used to teach aspiring filmmakers how to control both mood and narrative motion, two items that are often mutually exclusive in today’s cinema. Erice’s materials couldn’t be simpler: two young girls, their parents, their home in the Catalan countryside following Franco’s ascendance, and, of course, each of their secrets. But his spooky narrative is sparked by a local showing of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” in a dumpy, makeshift town hall with a portable projection system. As cliched it is to note strong performances by child actors, Ana Torrent and Teresa Gimpera are beyond superb; the film might have worked with other children, but it’s hard to imagine “Spirit” without these two, such is the combined force of their acting and the iconographic quality Erice lends them. For all its visual beauty, though, Erice’s masterpiece remains a movie about things unseen and unspoken: the perfect antidote in a summer of over-explained, overwrought entertainments. – JR

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