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Review: 3-Iron

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After years spent terrorizing the festival circuit with some of the most nauseating imagery ever captured onscreen — I have a friend who still refers to 2000’s The Isle, with a shudder, as “that fishhook movie” — Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk went serene on us last year, scoring his first U.S. hit with the quasi-Buddhist parable Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. New direction or mere aberration? Kim’s follow-up, Samaritan Girl (still unreleased here), constituted something of a relapse, but his latest effort, 3-Iron, finds the former provocateur struggling to reconcile his inner Gandhi with his inner Gotti. An intriguing, assured amalgam of the New Kim (Zen humanism, ostentatiously lovely compositions, formal repetition) and Kim Classic (gleeful sadism, mute characters, sick humor), the film serves as a potent, paradoxical reminder that artists often do their most arresting work when they’re least sure of themselves.
    As is often the case, the director’s conflicted mindset is reflected in his protagonist, a nameless and homeless young man (Jae Hee) who lives a bizarre, solitary existence — equal parts burglar, squatter and magical elf. Tooling around town on a motorcycle, he papers apartment doors with restaurant flyers, then returns a day or two later to see whether any remain undisturbed, a clear sign that the residents aren’t currently around. He breaks in, raids the refrigerator, snoops around — but he also does the laundry, waters the plants, fixes broken appliances. And if you’re an abusive prick who’s left his trophy wife (Lee Seung-yun) cowering in petrified silence, too catatonic even to stir when this benign intruder unexpectedly turns up in her home — man, forget it. Your golf clubs are about to be put to use by somebody highly unlikely to yell, “Fore!”
    A charming if perverse romance for most of its running time, 3-Iron confounds expectation with a left-field, third-act detour into goofy mysticism. The film’s ending errs on the side of schmaltz, perhaps, but it’s also so weirdly ambivalent — interpretable as either an endorsement or a rejection of solipsism, or perhaps both at once — and the film as a whole is so blatantly masterful, that the warm fuzzies feel earned. I for one am not ashamed by the lump that emerged in my throat when the aforementioned young woman, rattled by her misadventures, silently asks permission to take a nap on a stranger’s couch, and receives it. Such moments of simple grace — dare I say beatitude? — are rare nowadays, and treasurable. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: The Holy Girl
Some films — not necessarily the best ones — linger in the memory, expanding and transforming, nagging at you from afar. For months after the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl, a movie I’d more or less shrugged at immediately following its world premiere. Fleeting images recurred, unbidden, during moments of distraction. I found myself haunted by the film’s inconclusive conclusion, in which Martel discreetly, empathetically turns away from the impending disaster she’s spent the previous two hours orchestrating. Cannes takes place in May; by late August, I was prepared to proclaim The Holy Girl a masterpiece, solely on the basis of these mental repeat viewings.
    Part of what makes this remarkable film so elusive is the offhanded way that Martel treats narrative. Nothing is telegraphed, nothing underlined. There’s an “inciting incident,” just as Syd Field or Robert McKee would dictate, but it’s presented so dispassionately that you recognize its cataclysmic nature only in retrospect. It involves Amalia (María Alche), a teenaged girl who stops on the street to watch a demonstration of a theremin, and Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), standing directly begind Amalia, who takes advantage of the crowd to indulge in a bit of furtive frottage. The two will soon meet again: Amalia’s mother (Mercedes Morán) runs a dilapidated hotel and is currently hosting a medical conference, at which Dr. Jano will be one of the featured speakers. But while Dr. Jano fears exposure, Amalia, a Catholic in search of vocation, is determined to save his soul.
    None of this, I hasten to add, is immediately apparent. And an actual second viewing, alas, yielded no epiphany — merely a very good film, accumulating force through tiny, offhand details and culminating in the aforementioned non-ending, a structural tour de force at once liberating and unnerving. Martel comes up with one striking composition after another, coaxes beautifully inflected performances from her actors (though Alche mostly just needed to bring her sullenly voluptuous face to the set every day), and — best of all — never once succumbs to the mannered somnolence that made her debut, La Ciénaga, such an impressive chore to sit through. Fundamentally, though, The Holy Girl, in its conflation of faith and desire, shares the same basic concerns as any Prince album, and those two or three songs (read: scenes, moments, ideas) that transform an otherwise solid effort into an enduring classic are sorely missed. Unless . . . actually, wait, let me think about it some more. — Mike D’Angelo
Review: ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room
This brilliant documentary charts the roller-coaster climb and fall of the seemingly invincible energy company. In the first part of the film, Ken Skilling’s hairline ebbs and flows, Lou Pai cavorts with strippers in his office and Andy Fastow makes money appear out of thin air. All their rich-guy wackiness and narcissistic ramblings on promotional tapes would be pretty funny if we didn’t know what was coming at the chilling conclusion, when the dastardly accounting plot cooked up by a bunch of arrogant, greedy bastards is exposed by low-level employee Sharon Watkins, who dared to “ask why” (Enron’s motto).
   What lucky filmmakers, too, that Bethany McLean, the co-author of the book on which the film is based, is such a babe. McLean does her sporadic narration from what seems to be a penthouse apartment at night. Wearing a shiny pink shirt, dangly earrings and heels, she makes herself comfortable on the plush couch as she explains how asking Skilling a couple of standard business-reporter questions led him to fly a couple of executives over to explain the highly questionable finance system to her.
    We don’t go in for that moral superiority of women crap, but it’s clear in the film that Bethany and Sharon are in fact the smartest guys in this particular room. — Ada Calhoun
Date DVD #30: Primer
If you’re dating an I.T. guy, he’s probably seen every science-fiction film at Blockbuster: The Matrix and Blade Runner, of course — but probably even third-rate Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes too. What to do? Primer.
    In 2003, Shane Carruth’s tight science-fiction marvel Primer took home the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival — and it will impress tech geeks as much as it did cinéasts. The film tracks a crew of Texan entrepreneur-inventors, who hunker down in their garage, like bandmates, to invent the Next Big Thing. And they do — after scavenging wires from junkyards and scraping platinum from scavenged catalytic converters, they somehow put it all together into a ramshackle Rube Goldberg device that is, yes, a time machine.
    So the guys rent a storage space out by the highway and set up shop: traveling back into their own past, and, yes, a little too far down the rabbit hole. But unlike recent studio pics about time-travel (say, Timeline, which your I.T. guy probably saw — and hated), this film actually makes sense. It can be a bit tough to follow, but it’s so tightly written that there are surprisingly few holes — and several smart surprises. It’s the most sensible piece of sci-fi I’ve seen in some time — which really isn’t so sexy, is it? That is, unless you — or your lover — works the help desk. — Logan Hill

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