What Planet Are You From? [B]
(2000, Mike Nichols) Viewed March 4, 2000 at Lincoln Square.

There are two things I found funny in Planet which is otherwise a pleasant but forgettable diversion -- John Goodman, who has an absolutely inspired scene near the end when he finally confronts Garry Shandling's alien, and the pathetic little whine that Shandling's artificial penis emits when it stands down.

Wonder Boys [B+]
(2000, Curtis Hanson) Viewed March 4, 2000 at Lincoln Square.

A ramshackle delight, Wonder Boys, taking its cue from Michael Douglas' shaggy professor, is one of the few recent films from Hollywood that's relaxed about itself; never in its two hour runtime is there a feeling that the film is straining for emotional effect.

The Wind Will Carry Us [C]
(2000, Abbas Kiarostami) Viewed March 4, 2000 at the Walter Reade. For the first half hour, The Wind Will Carry Us is a vast improvement over Taste of Cherry. Starting with an amusingly banal argument among four men in a car wondering if they're going in the right direction to a (seemingly) throwaway bit where the lead character (an "engineer" staying at a remote Iranian village for unspecified reasons) absent-mindedly scratches himself with a recently-excavated leg bone, Kiarostami displays a droll sense of humor that was absent from Cherry. But as the film wears on and the event the engineer waits for stays in limbo, his frustration grows and his humor (and the film's) disappears. On one level, I admire Kiarostami's expertise; he expertly matches the film's tone to the engineer's moods. But it makes for a wearying film experience, and I have little patience with stories that work only as Symbolic Allegories.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [B-]
(2000, Jim Jarmusch) Viewed March 5, 2000 at the Loews E-Walk.

I only intermittently enjoyed this oddball mixture of hip-hop (nice score, BTW), samurai ethics, Mafia flicks, and spaghetti Western. I suspect it's because Jarmusch's attempt to mix mythopoetic storytelling straight out of Leone with his trademark deadpan absurdism is inherently flawed; Forrest Whitaker has such a sad gravity in the title role that downtown irony cheapens the film.

Drowning Mona [C-]
(2000, Nick Gomez). Viewed March 5, 2000 at the Loews E-Walk.

A sour, misanthropic mystery/comedy that has two big strikes against it: as a mystery, it's terrible and as comedy, it coasts on laugh-at-the-yokels attitude and a large dose of forced quirkiness.

The Idiots [A-]
(2000?, Lars von Trier). Viewed March 5, 2000 at the Walter Reade.

A brilliant mess, The Idiots would unquestionably be a masterpiece if it wasn't so haphazard structurally. When I heard of the project, I was highly skeptical; the idea of a group passing themselves of as mentally handicapped and embracing their inner idiot seemed singularly loathsome if von Trier was taking the idea seriously. Thankfully, he's not; if anything, he's brutally cynical, shredding borgeious hypocrisy about the retarded[1], the dilettante nature of most of the group's members, and most importantly, the group's leader harsh ideological basis. (As von Trier makes clear, he's personally uneasy around the retarded and is a rather hateful prick.) Each scene has a go-for-broke charge; the early comic sequences are great Kaufmanesque[2] performance pieces of audience provocation while the more serious are singularly discomforting, no more so than in the film's finale, where Karen, the quiet audience surrogate, confronts her family.

The major problem is that the individual scenes don't really add up to anything. The film's finale, as great as it is, isn't dependent on much of what has happened before (the key piece of information that sets Karen's behavior in context is delivered here). Von Trier half-heartedly tries to structure the film using a mock-interview/flashback structure (like in To Die For or the upcoming A Pornographic Affair[3]), but it doesn't work. And while it's not the film's fault, the black bars that constantly pop up to block sensitive American eyes from the sight of male genitalia are a major distraction; far more so than the much-reviled digital figures in Eyes Wide Shut.

To Die For [C]
(1995, Gus van Sant) Viewed March 6, 2000 on DVD.

An obvious one-note cartoon that, unlike Serial Mom, doesn't have the saving grace of being funny. About the only group of people who come across as being three-dimensional is the trio of low-IQ misfits Kidman ensnares; not surprising in a Gus Van Sant film.

Starman [C+]
(1984, John Carpenter) Viewed March 7, 2000 on DVD.

The only way you can tell this is a John Carpenter film is by looking at the credits; from the mishmash of Close Encounters and E.T. that constitutes the plot to the emotional pandering[4] it's obvious we're in a lame Spielberg knockoff. Jeff Bridges' superb physical performance is the only thing of note. And for once, I would love to see a film where the Stupid and Malignant Government Functionary realizes he's behaving like a SMGF from a cheesy SF flick and starts acting like a rational person.

Alien [A-]
(1979, Ridley Scott) Viewed March 9, 2000 on DVD.

Despite having spawned more godawful films in the last two decades than any film save Reservoir Dogs, Alien stills seems fresh and original. From its deliberate pace (which just increases the shock factor and pushes the creep factor to astronomical extremes) to a total lack of campiness, it's the textbook example on how to create a big-budget horror pic.

Bullets Over Broadway [A-]
(1994, Woody Allen) Viewed March 10, 2000 on DVD.

The best Woody Allen film of the Nineties (and one that seems sui generis, and not Allen aping his cinematic idols), and with Chazz Palminiteri's unexpected genius hoodlum, Allen has the finest performance in any of his films to date. Like Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, it examines the question of whether artists should be held to a different ethical standard than non-artists. Unlike those two, which seem to answer the question with a tentative "yes", the answer here is "no" (the right answer).

[1]Note to Mike: I agree with you that the yuppie woman's unease about having the retarded is perfectly justifiable. What isn't is her mouthing of liberal pieties while clearly believing the exact opposite.
[2]In its own roundabout way, The Idiots pays much better homage to Kaufman's legacy than the overly reverential Man on the Moon.
[3]Apparently (hastily) renamed An Affair of Love for its upcoming American release. If you've seen the film, the stupidity of the title should be self-apparent. Don't let it get in the way of seeing it, though, if you haven't.
[4]There's also a terrible synth score from Jack Nitszche that spreads the syrup thick and early.