Then it Was Ben's Turn
A series of reviews penned primarily by Ben Livant with sporadic and intermittent commentary from yrs truly.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (USA, 2004, Danny Leiner)
Politically correct Cheech and Chong, except that Dumb and Dumber was already Cheech and Chong without the drugs and hey, weren't Cheech and Chong just Lewis and Martin with drugs?
Well, it had to happen. My kid hoisted me on my own snobbery petard. Brought home this title a few days back as a fun-for-the-whole-family birthday treat and the birthday boy turned on me with disdain. His younger brother even got in on dissing dad. Seems the two of them had already caught chunks of the movie while surfing the tube. Little twits. Of course, they enjoyed it plenty.
I liked it a fair bit myself. The two leads achieve a nice rapport. The film is fun for never taking anything seriously yet it manages to wave a pleasant multi-cultural flag. It remains a load of male-adolescent stupidity on the sexual orientation front, however, with the usual hetero hilarity about homos and babes. And as rewarding as it is to see those two ethnic minorities take over the mainstream big-screen, with respect to the bad guys in the movie, I couldn't help remembering that Louis CK bit about how the only group available for abuse today is "white trash."
Curious to know how politicized their Guantanamo sequel will be, but not so curious that I can't wait until it comes out in paperback, to hearken back to the days of literature, just to reclaim my snob status.
This is going back a few years, so I have to go on sense memory to some extent, but I remember being very pleasantly surprised by the intelligence of this film's stupidity if that makes any sense at all. Juvenile gross out humour and stupid animatronics grafted onto a progressive political conscience makes for a (mostly) hugely entertaining spectacle. The sly digs at the Great American Disease of racism are very astute as a whole. John Cho and Kal Penn have an easy chemistry and elevate their potential caricatures into very likeable stoners. Plus, the sight of Doogie Houser snorting coke off of a hooker's ass never gets tired. Danny Leiner (Dude, Where's My Car?) isn't exactly the master of subtlety, but when the situation calls for a hammer, why pick up a sponge?
Anyways, here is what I wrote about this one back in '04:
"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004, USA, Danny Liefer) AKA Dude, Where’s My Bong?
Okay, so you wanna know about this movie about a couple of stoners? First, I’d recommend that you take a look at the title. The film’s all about Harold. And Kumar. And their going to White Castle. And it is one helluva mess of a movie. Fortunately, it is one helluva funny one, too.
John Cho, who is terrific in Better Luck Tomorrow, but almost certainly better known for his participation in the American Pie films, is perfectly cast as the uptight, nerdy investment banker Harold, put upon and taken advantage of by his (Caucasian) colleagues. Kal Penn (Van Wilder) gives a breakout performance in the plum role of the brilliant, outgoing slacker Kumar, who will do just about anything to avoid attending medical school and following in his father’s and brother’s footsteps. Cho and Penn play off each other with the sort of comfortable ease and crackerjack comic timing that you would only expect to find in seasoned duos. When Harold and Kumar get ripped and hit the road in search of the Great American Burger, the chemistry of the leads, as well as the motif of travel, at first reminded me in a most curious way of the Hope/Crosby road pictures, but is more clearly in the bong-toting spirit of Cheech and Chong.
Now this is hardly a perfect film, but such is the nature of such episodic comedy fare, where I’m generally content if more than half of the skit-like scenes have a decent payoff. So while I could do w/o the toilet scene and the animatronic racoon and the CGI cheetah, still and all, when you slip past this inferior material, you'll find a movie that is funny far more often than it flops, and which—more importantly—comically challenges the Myth of the American Melting Pot. Harold and Kumar (and any other people of colour) are treated openly as second (or third) class citizens who should be thankful that they’re even allowed to breath good old American air. Midst all the mayhem and depravity, Harold and Kumar makes a pretty pointed commentary about the whole sense of Anglo/Caucasian entitlement that often forces those outside this inner circle, such as people of colour, to harbour bleak prospects when in pursuit of a bit of happiness or searching for their fair share of the American Dream. The humiliation and degradation suffered by Harold and Kumar in their long day’s journey into night is all part of the process of proving themselves greater than their adversaries, and provides the film with its payoff when they finally get to kick some dumb whitey ass. White Castle is Harold and Kumar’s grail, the lads will not settle for anything but the best burgers available. Their quest for the perfect burger is a symbol for nothing less than the immigrants desire to have equal access to the corridors of power in America. Leiner's film is a celebration of the rights of all people from all races, creeds and beliefs to have equal access to the best-damned burger Americans can fry up!
Yeah, I better fess up. I'm one of three critics in the known universe who really dug the way Dude, Where's My Car? gave up some serious lovin' for the whole stoner culture, and now here we have the same director (Danny Leiner) giving it up for more of life's marginalized heroes, Harold the Asian nerd and Kumar the underachieving East Indian. So, this is a clear caveat before I declare my adoration of Leiner’s ouevre, as I am beginning to get that tingly sensation of falling in love with a director's vision. Now, if I can only convince him to get rid of the whole fake animal schtick."
4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days (Romania, 2007, Christian Mungu)
1960s Kieslowski meets 1960s Germaine Greer in a very dark back alley with a coat hanger.
I am to a certain degree ambivalent about 4M3W2D. I think my judgement may be unstable. There are aspects of it that "don't work for me" but I am not sure if I am hiding behind critical analysis after being emotionally disturbed. I am even second-guessing myself as a male, because the features of the film that bother me seem to be readily grasped from a liberal feminist perspective.
I also suspect that I am being nit-picky. So let's register the overall complimentary review. If I can applaud a film like Sweet Sixteen for its toughness about the oppression of youth under capitalism, I sure as hell can applaud 4M3W2D for its toughness about the oppression of women in general and young ones in particular under communism. The illegality of abortion in Romania was an anomaly within the Soviet sphere. I remember Pope whatever-his-name-was-at-the-time condemning the Godless commies for allowing abortion and I can only surmise that the persistence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Romania was what made it the exception. The admixture of religious patriarchy and authoritarian state surveilance must have been a special kind of hell for women. The official declarations about the egalitarian nature of the society would only have been worthy of ironic condemnation by female intimates securely behind closed doors. 4M3W2D opens the door but with no irony whatsoever. The film goes straight for the special kind of hell. It's impressively harrowing, that's for sure.
It is also brilliant for protagonizing not the aborter but rather her friend. This focus allows for expanded (anti-)social possibilities with greater power both dramatically and thematically. Dramatically, the emotional helplessness and physical incapacitation of the aborter is without dynamism. By following the footsteps of her friend instead, literally and psychologically, we travel a much more complex and volatile trajectory. Thematically, the concentration on a "third party" brings forward the female solidarity required to survive the situation, complete with sacrifices unknown and never made by men. Just as women have been for each other midwives to bring life into this world, they have been the opposite to do the opposite. It is precisely the involvement of a man that theatens to undo the bond between the women and it is one of the most agonizing moments in the film when the helping friend ask the aborter why she failed to pursue a female abortionist that was available. Hence, the price of the abortion ends up being whatever they could scrap together and rape mediated as monetary exchange.
This brings me to my main problem with the film. Nothing about the male abortionist signaled that he was intrinsically interested in or would be commercially placated by sex. Not that it's implausible that such a person in such a position might be perpared to instantaneously transform his "patients" into "prostitutes." My problem has to do with the way it came down in the film. The character was consistent about having put a price on the job relative to the criminal risk involved. He is fundamentally cold and calculating. Even when he is humane, he remains no-nonsense, professional even, as when he offers to make himself available for a post-procedure follow-up visit. He's all about the rough medical science and the cash transaction. Period. So the introduction of what I have already referred to as the rape is problematic for me, to the point of me wondering if the thematic concern of the film is riding roughshod over its dramatic exposition.
Less serious but similar, the long scene wherein the aborted fetus must be deposited in a dumpster. This is shot almost like a horror movie. Tight focus on her, lots of shadows, potentially dangerious people lurking in them, and most of all, her panting to the point of near hyperventilation, so overcome by panic and dread is she. I grant the desperation and disgust, of course, and much more besides, given all that has happened. But the scene borders on sensationalistic. The film intends to generate a visceral response at that point in an almost cheap way. I especially feel this considering that the film generates a bloody intense visceral response a number of times prior to this in not a cheap way at all.
Last issue - and this is a reversal of my usual policy - the class and generational snobbery of her boyfriend's parents and guests. I appreciated the scene for the impossibility of her being there. Her attempt to "be there" for her boyfriend for awhile was doomed to failure. Her alienation from him and the celebratory atmosphere made perfect sense. To throw the larger sociological factors on top of this, though, I found almost ideologically heavy-handed. As if we haven't already perceived the tortuous quality of Romanian society. Like we need to be reminded about the hypocricy of the system when the entire film is about trying to survive by way of the black market.
On balance, however, I have to say that 4M3W2D is a powerful ordeal of a film. And since I recently took Day Night Day Night to task for being meaningless manipulation, it behooves me now to make explicit that 4M3W2D is a powerful ordeal with historical depth and politicized moral anguish. Hence, my comparison to Ken Loach.
This film is a real kick in the gut. Mungu's conscious choice to keep us at a slight emotional distance by employing the gritty techniques of cinema verite only serve to heighten the audience's disquiet as we can only watch this very unpleasant situation unfold from a position of remove. Then, when he takes the camera out of the hotel and has us follow the young woman to the bourgeois dinner/birthday party, it is torture of the most grotesque degree. Not only are we left wondering what has happened, but we are forced to witness the real banality of the clueless and feckless people populating the party. A real masterful piece of filmmaking, that, even if the effect was to place the audience in an unrelenting sense of horror and revulsion. And, unlike you, I found the whole swap of sex for abortion entirely plausible, both as a metaphor for the patriarchical system that has these women trapped and as a plausible solution in a society where there are, by necessity, many forms of commerce that do not involve money.
One of the best films of last year.
The Band's Visit (Israel, 2007, Eran Korilin)
Is there such a genre as the stranger stuck in a one-horse town? If there is, I suppose it is merely a sub-genre of the Western. Urban underdevopment as the signifier of out-post civilization is the essence of the setting, of course, but it seems to me that a pretty specific geographic placement is also required. A back-East, back-woods environment, for example, will not do. Nor will a West coast, bountiful topography. The terrain must smack of life-less desolation. Desert, badlands, at the very least uncultivated grasslands. Lots of sky and fuck all else. The tumbling tumble-weeds tumble because even they are smart enough not to settle down in such a God-forsaken location. The last key ingredient is limited transportational means. The dull situational fact is that the traveller did not intend to spend anytime hanging around the shit spot and is compelled to do so because there won't be another stage-coach until whenever. Even with the coming of the railroad and the automobile, the mail shack and "last chance Texaco" respectively perpetuated the one-horse town.
Yet, even as a case of the Western, the one-horse town sub-genre involves a reversal of the stranger's status in the more developed Western setting. With saloon doors swinging and a blacksmith banging out shoes for the many horses and so on, there is enough established property in place for certain locals, if not all of them, to feel threatened by the coming of the outsider. Be they rough and ready criminal types hostile to the lawman who arrives to clean up the town or be they God-fearin family folk frightened of bandits come to rape and pillage, strangers are held in suspicion, to understate the convention. The exact opposite holds in the one-horse town. The isolation there is so severe, xenophobia is impossible. In the context of profound lonliness, the stranger is a benign breath of fresh air if not a full-blown positive pilgrim who leaves a touch of grace as he passes through.
TBV is a comedy that delicately moves in and out of a breath of fresh air and a touch of grace. The Egyptians are the protagonists, especially the band director, but the film is an Israeli production set in an Israeli one-horse town. What is at stake is how the locals will receive the lost Arab musicans. That the musicians are merely musicians and truly lost is vital to them posing no threat whatsoever. On the contrary, they seek help. It is tempting to interpret TBV as a parable for Palestine, a liberal Israeli plea for the recognition of neighbors in need of a home. I do not believe that the film can support such a reading. The Egyptians are not transformed into neighbors. They are foreigners throughout. The specificity of Palestine aside, then, the most the film offers is a general Arab/Israeli raprochment. That it does this literally on Israeli territory, however, is politically progressive. What is more, the one-horseness of the town is not just a dramatic setting. It is an ideological neutral-zone. Hello - the Israeli settlers are not protected by a wall and the Arabs are not sent packing by bulldoziers. The comedy is conducted in a utopian circumstance that is pre/post proprietary claims. In this context, the film establishes a genuinely human connection on a number of levels including basic erotic attraction and the feel-good results are quite charming.
I really liked TBV alot. It's quite funny as well as sweet and touching. The performance by the actor playing the band director was outstandingly subtle. The actress playing their hostess chanelled Mae West by way of Sonja Braga with a Marlena Dietrich vocal quality thrown in for good measure. But it is ultimately the dry, droll script and editing that wins the day. TBV is not out to make you laugh. It is out to make you smile, knowing full well that once you do, you will let yourself laugh. And for me, the film-maker makes the most of the one-horseness of it all. Not just the visuals and the pacing, but as I have been addressing, the social universe as it resonates for the all-too real world today.
Day Night Day Night (2007, Belgium, Julia Loktev)
The Day of the Jackal meets The Rapture in a bathtub full of barbiturates.
And I take Hitchcock to task for being vacuously manipulative. And yet, I also flashed on The Vanishing, possibly my favorite horror movie ever. And this is the point, DNDN is best appreciated as a horror movie.
Forget about the post 9-11 button-pushing. This is the truly unfortunate part of the film. I would have much preferred it if the thing had not been set in NYC. Place it in Dallas or Paris or wherever. Just about as cheap, the staging of the publicity shot to be released after the bombing. Hey kids, look at the requisite semiotics for "revolutionary party cell" which stands for "militant fanaticism" which stands for "terrorist." Considering how ruthlessly decontextualized the rest of the scenario is, the extra texture provided by the setting and the terrorist signification is nothing but crass. I'm sure someone somewhere will want to sing that the girl in DNDN is a contemporary of Travis Bickle and such a song can be sung. But I refuse to carry that tune.
This leaves the remaining bulk of the picture and all of that ruthless decontexturalization. It's a tour de force, a remarkable technical achievement really. The unrenlenting tight shots on - not even her face sometimes, the back of her head - took a basic device for tension to the nth degree. The absolute absence of music and the miserly portioning out of any sounds at all enveloped this claustrophobic containment even further to ratchet up the anxiety another notch. Past the nth degree Ben? As I am attempting to convey, it's a tour de force, a remarkable achievement. Throw in the terrifyingly understated performance by the lead and the paltry amount of dialogue and you've got a film that I'm sure the post-modern crowd is holding up as a return to film-making as truly filmic as the original silent reels; an escape from the tyranny of language and a regeneration of "pure" cinema.
I will leave this to the pinheads. Out here in the fields where we work for our meals, decontextualization this ruthless is - wait for it - decadent. Formalistic abstraction not even for its own experimental sake but basically for shock value. Jesus, it comes as a relief when we finally figure out that her hosts are going to wire her up with a bomb. Prior to this, I was worried that she was going to star in a snuff flic. I'm not joking. I was genuinely alleviated emotionally when it became certain that she was not going to be sexually tortured to death.
This is why I propose to classify DNDN as a horror film. Because if I don't, I can't appreciate it at all. Which is to say that it would be for me not merely decadent but decadent shit. Taken as a horror vignette, the refusal of the film to provide any backstory is precisely the source of the horror. DNDN gives us no historical explanation at all; hell, it gives no substance to the girl's motivation, providing instead only a patina of mania for spiritual salvation. It is horror to not have an inkling as to how she came to her situation, why she has volunteered for the job. Hey, don't waste your dread on the bomb crew with the ski masks. The film-maker is the real terrorist.
I believe it is Edgar Degas who is credited with being the first painter to put on the canvas a "slice of life." His mechanical competitor could do the same with a "snap shot" but I like the term associated with Degas better. This is not some stupid preference for the paint box over the camera. This is the difference between organicism and humanity on the one hand and mechinism and dehumanization on the other. DNDN is not a slice of life or even a GOOD snap shot, which means the same thing. It is a unit or componant, not a chapter or an act. It orders information in a linear sequence. It does not tell a story. It nails a fly to a stick and rips off its wings. For no reason at all. Even if the film-maker's next film gives a bunny a bubblebath, if it's done for no reason at all, I will reach the same conclusion about it as I have reached about DNDN here.
A damned effective piece of filmmaking, this is, even if it hasn't really got any idea of what it is trying to say. Pointless, but fucking sharply-bladed. Reminiscent in a way of Hitchcock--the film is about provoking reactions and prodding the audience into a prolongued state of terror. We are never really encouraged to move beyond the affective and into understanding. But man oh man, are we ever invited to feel. Dread, horror, terror. There are very few moments in cinema last year that measure up to the moment when everything goes stone cold silent for the protagonist. It was like being sucked into the vacuum of her mind, and not being allowed to breathe. I found myself gasping by the time that moment had ended; so convinced I was that the moment of annhilation had come, I forgot to breathe.