Don't Come Knocking
dir. Wim Wenders
This meta-Western has a beautiful pedigree. Wim Wenders—he of the waning career—co-wrote and directed; Sam Shepard co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Howard; and Jessica Lange puts in a lovely turn as Howard's ex-girlfriend Doreen. But finally, nothing about the movie is as memorable as its setting in Butte, Montana. It's a fanciful dream of a place—although I can't remember if I've ever been, I highly doubt Butte's various buildings and signage haven't changed in decades, as the selective photography of Don't Come Knocking would seem to indicate—but the town gives good mountain, and great sky, and provides a pleasant distraction from the tiresome plot.
Howard Spencer (Shepard) is a movie star who's just about fed up with the movie business. After a couple of drinks, he flees his contractual obligations on horseback (later, investigators will announce, "There is every indication that Mr. Spencer is engaged in self-indulgent, immoral behavior"). He hides out at his mom's (a bleary Eva Marie Saint), where he learns that his grown-up wild oats may be living in nearby Butte. Enter the most annoying twentysomethings in movie history (skinny anger-spout Gabriel Mann and his apparently mentally delayed, hippie-dancing girlfriend, played by Fairuza Balk). Jessica Lange and Sarah Polley are good, but god, somebody stop those shrieking kids and their hideously upholstered couch. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Fernando Eimbcke
Fourteen-year-old best friends Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Cataño) are just getting down to their usual Sunday business of Xbox and snacks ("Tienes Cheez Whiz?"), when the power goes out in Flama's Mexico City high-rise apartment. Crap. Facing an entire day sans electronic distraction, the boys—joined by inscrutable neighbor Rita (Danny Perea) and ethologist-cum-pizza-man Ulises (Enrique Arreola)—resort to such lowly interpersonal activities as dancing, teasing, baking, kissing, and, of course, not a little secret-revealing.
Duck Season is a slight yet not insubstantial film. Big things—divorce, love, failure—are rendered small; this happens, then that happens, she pushes, he pulls, nobody reacts much. But it's gracefully done. Filmed prettily in black and white (the obvious-yet-invisible fact of Flama's red hair is a surprisingly arresting revelation), the film does well by its small cast, all of them funny and sincere, and its small plot, which consists entirely of just hanging out. The dialogue is simple and slightly off—in that pleasing way peculiar to translations—like when Ulises describes the physics of migration ("All the ducks move together with the strength of their shared flight"), or little Moko gives his sweetly chaste child's version of intimacy ("And we ate a plum").
Writer-director Fernando Eimbcke offers this insight into the allure of adolescence: "I found that youth is one of the most terrific and pretty ages... it is the age when our face gets full of acne and expectation, our wishes and fantasies grow as does the hair on our body, but most importantly, we become aware when something is missing." Lots of things are missing in Duck Season: action, theatrics, resolution, contrivance, pretension. What's left is a terrific teenager of a movie. LINDY WEST
dir. Christian Carion
This bumbling footnote of a war movie was nominated for an Oscar, which is a good indication it was the worst thing to come out of France last year. A co-production between France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, and Romania (why haven't the national cinema sticklers at the Academy made that grounds for disqualification?), Joyeux Noël is about three countries—prickly allies Scotland and France, plus quaint bad-guy Germany—whose citizens all celebrate Christmas. (There is one Jewish character, but he's German, so he's clearly around to provide irony, which as we all know is a sophisticated literary device.) Remember when our deepest and bitterest hatreds were reserved for enemies who believed Jesus was born under a star in Bethlehem and preached that the meek would inherit the earth? Those were the days.
Joyeux Noël tells the true story of trench soldiers in World War I who, on Christmas Eve 1914, ceased blowing one another's heads off for just long enough to do some holy-day bonding. Apparently, they sang familiar carols, popped their heads out of the pits, and clinked champagne flutes. Then they got back to the business of war—but not before being reprimanded and forcibly dispersed by concerned generals.
The movie about these events is a pile of sentimental trash. (Plus, the battlefield explosions are pathetic and the characters are massively underdeveloped.) But what really bothers me is the sense that this film tugs at viewers who are tired of Islamic terrorism and want nothing more than to go back to a world where power was concentrated on Christian continents, where even if their side lost, they'd be under no pressure to trade in their crosses and Yuletide wreaths for the exotic instruments of some heathen religion. This nostalgia is misplaced. World War I caused nine million military deaths, introduced the horrors of chemical warfare, and scarred an entire generation of men. Outbreaks of fraternization were not a joyous blip in this narrative: They were part and parcel of the general psychic disorientation in the face of modern warfare, whose other symptoms included shell shock and The Waste Land. Forget this romantic pap. Rent Paths of Glory instead. ANNIE WAGNER
The Spirit of the Beehive
dir. Victor Erice
This movie is "widely regarded as the greatest Spanish film of the 1970s," the press materials say. I'm no scholar of Spanish films of the '70s but I have no quibble with that description. The Spirit of the Beehive is mesmerizing. The setting is a Castilian village. The year is 1940. The only indication that Spain has just gone through a civil war is that everything seems sort of drab—everything except the imaginations of two young sisters, too young to distinguish between actual horrors and fictive horrors, who go to a screening of the movie Frankenstein that's traveling through town. It's the Boris Karloff one, laughable to any adult, but it has a distorting effect on the mind of the 8-year-old, Ana, which is actually the actress's real name, and whose performance, Andrew Sarris has written, is "perhaps the greatest child performance of all time."
What I can't get out of my head is the texture of the film, the slow, oblique way it unfolds, the sibilance of the girls' whispers, and the confidence in its shots: one of the sisters standing in the middle of a train track while the other holds her ear to the rail, Ana walking over a striated field of dirt clods toward a well, Ana's father lifting sections of bee-coated honeycomb into light, a thick mushroom growing from the earth, a dummy representing human physiology in a one-room school, a bleeding fugitive in a farmhouse, and cloudy, lit-up windows. What I love about this movie is that almost nothing happens, and yet I've thought about it every day since I saw it. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
dir. Kevin Willmott
This faux documentary purports to speculate about how the history of the United States would have changed had the South won the Civil War. Instead of charting a plausible alternate narrative, however, writer-director Kevin Willmott chooses actual events (from 1865 to the present) and gives them a shiny racist spin. Rather than being shot in a theater, for example, President Lincoln tries to escape to Canada in a top-hatted blackface disguise, to the humiliation of his former supporters. Though President Clinton isn't caught soiling the dress of an intern, another politician is accused of being mixed up in some nasty miscegenation. Eventually you find yourself idly guessing what the racist equivalent of McCarthyism will be, or, even more exhaustingly, the anti-black take on anti-Semitism, or Japanese internment. There are some fake commercials to break up the monotony (though C.S.A. is styled after a Ken Burns documentary, there's apparently no commercial-free public television in this parallel universe), but even these are so relentlessly about their racist content that they too are cartoon-flat.
In a turn at the end that partially explains its fundamental lack of imagination, the film attempts to argue against its initial thesis—claiming that whatever the military outcome of the Civil War, the South won the peace. (That venerable emblem of Pacific Northwest racism, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant, is trotted out as evidence.) What C.S.A. is missing, however, is any sense of the economic factors that propelled and secured the ideology of the abolitionists over the beliefs of the slave owners. There's no suggestion that the argument over the Southern "way of life" might have been a contest pitting agriculture against industry—a contest that, in the long term, the South was doomed to lose. And there's no implication that our nation's current transformation from a manufacturing to a service economy might be another kind of fork in the road, with equally deep, if less immediately visible, repercussions. ANNIE WAGNER